Pastoral Reflection on the Youth Gathering (RiseUpELCA)

 

You can tell by our expressions that this was the first day on the bus. See how alive and well-rested we all look? Ah, those were the days!

So, this post is supposed to be a reflection on our time at the ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit, July 15 – 19. I’m gonna come straight out and say that it’s probably going to take me several posts to reflect on this trip. The shortest reaction I can give you is this: It was awesome!

There were 8 of us who went on the trip from our congregation. I’m guessing that if you asked all 8 of us what made the experience great, you’d get 8 answers. (By the way, let me encourage you to do that – ask all 8 of us! We are going to put together some sort of summary of the trip in the very near future. Traditionally this has been a youth-led worship service. That may still be in the cards; however, it may be something else. Since we got back, none of us have been in the same place at the same time to really plan what this is going to look like.)

Since I can’t claim anybody else’s experiences, I’ll give you some of the reasons I loved our time together. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. We were in DETROIT! This is my hometown. My relationship with Detroit is … complicated. I haven’t lived in the Metro area since April of 2001.

Here we are in the Firestone Farmhouse, my primary post. The girls are learning from one of the Presenters about daily life on a Victorian farm. We went down into the cellar and found some of the complicated “underpinnings” that women wore beneath their dresses.

This was our first night at the Gathering. We were sitting in the “nose-bleeds,” which wasn’t great for enjoying the program, but it did give us a good view of ALL.THE.PEOPLE! About 20 minutes after this shot, the place was jam-packed. #introvertsnightmare 🙂

But it was great to get back there. It was a huge blessing to have had outstanding weather most of the time. It was a super cool experience for me to take the ladies to my old stomping grounds (Greenfield Village), where I cut my teeth in the museum biz, where I have made some of my most lasting friendships and memories. Asha got licked by a calf while we were there. 🙂

2. The people of Detroit were totally excited to have us there. I have to say that on Day 1 of the Gathering, as 30,000 of us in our colorful Tee-shirts were trying to make our way from Cobo Arena to Ford Field (about a mile away), struggling to find food along the way, people were befuddled by us. “Who are all these kids with their multicolored garb, their high fives, their ‘insufferable cheerful[ness]?!” (A now famous expression made popular by this article was, “It looks like a Skittles factory exploded!”) But after that first day, the “regular folks,” including the police, Tigers fans on the way to a game, dudes driving by in their cars, people who work downtown – almost all of them were super enthusiastic about our being there. There were more high fives than one can reasonably imagine. People driving by or pedalling past on their bikes would shout, “Thank you!” A few of them, by the very end, had caught on and would holler, “Rise Up!”

3. We got to do some much-needed service in a town that suffers from some pretty abysmal self-esteem. Every group who came to the Gathering was signed up for a day of Service. These were staggered over the 3 days, so that each day, about 10,000 people were deployed in Detroit to work on painting buildings, clearing lots (that was us), board up vacant/abandoned homes, etc. We went to an area where people had just been dumping trash in vacant lots in this neighborhood adjacent to a retirement home. We cleared brush, garbage, cinder blocks, dentures (don’t ask), you name it. This made it safe for a brush hog to come in and mow without getting its blades all chewed up. There are long-term plans for these neighborhoods, but in the meantime, the city just wants them looking a bit more presentable and less … menacing.

The specific area we worked on belongs to a project run by Focus:HOPE. It’s a project called “Keep it 100!” I encourage you to follow the link, but the basic rundown is that they are working on revitalizing and beautifying a 100-block area in an incredibly blighted part of the city, trying to make it livable again.

4. This one is about the girls, and I don’t want to betray any confidences, but I will say this: I learned that at the very least one of our girls is a courageous leader. I think they all are, but one in particular stands out. They say it takes courage to stand up to your enemies, but it takes a special kind of courage to stand up to your friends. I saw one of the young ladies do just that – she made a decision that wasn’t very popular, but it was right, and she stood by it. That makes me very, very proud. (Who’s cutting onions in here?) I also saw a moment of transformation where one of the young women, whom I would describe as fairly shy (at least in my experience) seat herself on the bus so that she could meet new people. I have once instance of this that comes to mind, but now that I think of it, it happened over and over. The girls were eager to meet new people and share experiences. It was just really moving to witness. (Onions again?!)

5-10. There are a bajillion reasons this trip was great. We heard Detroit spoken word artist Natasha “T” Miller deliver a beautiful poem about her city; We saw the Temptations, for crying out loud! We ate a lot of interesting food. (Can you say, “Opa!”?) We went out for pizza with my mom and some of her friends! I got to try the new Faygo Rock & Rye Slurpee at 7 11. I mean, it was really cool, all around. The worship was good and gave us some ideas (watch out! “Gospel/Blues liturgy,” people!). It’s just too much. I’m still processing it all, and imagine I will be for a long time coming.

I want to thank the congregation for helping us to fundraise this trip. I want to thank Sarah Smith for being just a great, easy-going person. I want to thank the girls for making the Gathering memorable in a wonderful way. I want to thank the parents for trusting us with their offspring. I want to thank the people who planned and pulled off the Gathering under some very difficult conditions. I want to thank the city of Detroit for hosting us. And I want to thank God for this opportunity, not to bring Jesus to Detroit, because Jesus has been there all along and remains there today, but for the opportunity to see his image in the people of that town AND for the opportunity to be his hands and feet FOR the people of that town.

OK, I’ll shut up. For now. But there’s more to come, I’m sure. Especially as we think of ways to RiseUpTogether here in Tulsa.

 

Binaries, Polarities and the Unhealth of Congregations

On July 12, we had a visit from Cynthia Gustavson. I had spoken to her at our Synod’s annual Assembly back in May or June or whenever that was (I have since slept, and many experiences have managed to blend together, wiping out important and unimportant distinctions … but I digress), and I asked her if she would come and speak to us about healing.

This wasn’t an out-of-the-blue invitation: If you’ve been part of this congregation for the last 2-ish years, you’ll know that we’ve spend a good deal of time reflecting about our past. We worked with Holy Cow, Inc. and Kairos & Associates to do a Congregational Assessment Tool – sort of a Myers-Briggs snapshot of our congregation’s personality. We also completed (as a requirement of our Redevelopment grant) a Comprehensive Ministry Review, in which a number of faithful folks from our Synod came together to speak to the congregation and our partners in the larger community about Who We Are. In all of those conversations, one thing that consistently popped up among our “consultants,” was that there was a lot of unhealed pain and “lingering toxicity” from various traumas in the congregation’s past. All of these folks recommended that we bring in someone to talk with us about “congregational healing.” This was the background to that invitation to Cynthia.

She and I spoke on the phone. I relayed to her that several folks commented to me about how they would just like to move on and not have to deal with fallout from The Conflict any more. This comment may be why Cynthia approached our time together that Sunday the way she did. I admit to being baffled at first, since it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I wasn’t disappointed, per se – just a bit confused.

Well, she approached our meeting by talking less about healing than about thriving. She opened up, saying that many congregations (and other individual and corporate bodies alike) tend to think in polarities, in binaries. An object is either A or it is B. An event is either good or it is bad. This is true in fields like computer electronics where a machine is either on or it is off, but in human relationships, in emotional areas, in most of life, polarized thinking isn’t terribly helpful.

Before I talk any further about Cynthia’s presentation, I wanted to interject something kind of personal as a way of illustration.

Many of you know that I have been diagnosed with PTSD and with dysthimic disorder following PTSD. The short version of this story is that, as a kid, I dealt with a LOT of death. I mean, a LOT. My father, my sister, my grandmother, my aunt and cousin. Suicide, drug overdose, cancer, more suicide. All of this by the time I was 10. I’ve suffered a lot of loss since then, as well. More suicides, more overdoses, AIDS deaths, more cancer. It goes on. But it’s those early losses that shaped me profoundly. The trauma from those things can’t account for ALL of my personality quirks, but it probably does account for the way I “sensate” reality and how I attribute value to things and experiences. I am an “introverted feeler,” meaning that I process experiences internally, either incorporating/accepting things into myself or rejecting them. It’s either/or. It’s binary feeling. I like it or I dislike it. The Beatles rule. One Direction sucks. There is no in-between.

Trauma and binary or polarized thinking don’t always go hand-in-hand, but they’re definitely not strangers, either. Binary thinking is a quick way to categorize things, and it works really well in survival situations. This food is safe. That food is unsafe. This idea is helpful. That idea is useless. That group of people may kill me so they are bad. This group of people may help me so they are good. See what I mean?

While that works well for survival mode, it’s not always the best way to operate OUTSIDE of survival modes. When a person (or a corporate body) suffers trauma, they fall into survival mode. On or off, good or bad, safe or dangerous – not even really thinking that there may be multiple shades of grey in between.

Now, I didn’t debrief all of this with Cynthia, so I may well be talking out of my hat. But I suspect that she was trying to suggest that this may be where our congregation is situated emotionally – that we’re in this survival mode, which isn’t as conducive to THRIVING as we might want it to be.

She presented to us 8 Key Polarities to help us think about THRIVING rather than just surviving.

Instead of thinking of these as either/or propositions, we can think of them as both/ands.
We need:
1. Tradition AND Innovation
2. Spiritual health AND Institutional health
3. Management AND Leadership
4. Strong clergy leadership AND Strong lay leadership
5. Inreach AND Outreach
6. Nurture AND Transformation (alternatively, Pastoral AND Prophetic)
7. Making disciples as a process that is both Easy AND Challenging
8. Call (Vocation) AND Duty

Most people at the meeting that day seemed to think that some of these areas we are already working on pretty well, especially Tradition and Innovation. I think we can challenge ourselves a great deal more in this area, but overall I agree that we have a solid liturgical tradition that we feel free to play with a little bit (musically; in terms of where we place various liturgical elements such as the passing of the peace, etc.)

The places where people felt (or at least most boldly spoke up about) need the most attention are numbers 2, 4, 5, and 8.

We seem to think a lot more about our spiritual health (doing healing services, caring for one another, having fellowship events, doing small group ministries amongst ourselves) than we do thinking/talking about Institutional Health (Budgets, property issues, etc.). It might be interesting to talk about WHY that is…

One person believed we place too much emphasis on strong clergy leadership and not enough on strong lay leadership. (I was not that person, though I don’t disagree! :)) There are probably good reasons for this stemming from past traumas, but remember that we want to move out of “surviving” mode and into “thriving” mode!

One person commented that we focus far more on Inreach than we do on Outreach. As traumatized people, again, this makes sense. But we need to move out of a primary healing mode into an outward focus, remembering that Jesus commissioned the Church to work for the sake of the world, not for ourselves.

One person believed that we need to balance our thinking in terms of Call (Vocation) (“I feel called to do music ministry … and maybe not much else.”) and Duty (“Somebody needs to sit on the CORE Council; Somebody needs to mow the grass; Somebody needs to count the money; Maybe duty to the church’s mission binds me to to that important task, even though it’s not what I love to do.”)

______________________________

Even though I admit to having been a little confused at the time about WHY Cynthia chose to talk about these binaries, as I reflect back on our time together, I think this makes a lot of sense. We DO tend to see ourselves as survivors. That’s not a bad thing. It needs to be celebrated. But we ALSO need to focus on a THRIVING mission!

As Cynthia said (and I had to laugh, because I used this very analogy when I was interviewing here), the breathing cycle includes BOTH the inhale AND the exhale. You simply can’t have one without the other. Are we a congregation that has been “waiting to exhale?”

“All are Welcome” Lectio Divina reading

A few months ago, before Laura B.’s time serving on the congregational CORE Council came to an end, she shared with the group a devotional. I’ll probably get the background story all wrong, so I won’t mention it here, except to say that Laura was using a type of devotional reading called “lectio divina” – “divine reading.”

I’ll spare you all the details about what lectio divina includes or what it’s meant to be. For the curious among you, I direct you to this Wikipedia entry. Our devotion was kind of a modified version of this – a shorthand version, if you will. We took a look at the text of the hymn and discussed words, phrases, key ideas that jumped out at us.

To refresh your memory, here are the lyrics:

1. Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

2. Let us build a house where prophets speak, and words are strong and true,
where all God’s children dare to seek to dream God’s reign anew.
Here the cross shall stand as witness and as symbol of God’s grace;
here as one we claim the faith of Jesus:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

3. Let us build a house where love is found in water, wine and wheat;
a banquet hall on holy ground where peace and justice meet.
Here the love of God, through Jesus, is revealed in time and space;
as we share in Christ the feast that frees us:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

4. Let us build a house where hand will reach beyond the wood and stone
to heal and strengthen, serve and teach, and live the Word they’ve known.
Here the outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face;
let us bring and end to fear and danger:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

5. Let us build a house where all are named, their songs and visions heard
and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word.
Built of tears and cries and laughter, prayers of faith and songs of grace,
let this house proclaim from roof to rafter:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place!

(Text and Music: Marty Haugen in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Hymn #641)

In our CORE Council meeting, we made it through all 5 verses, but in our Town Hall meeting, we spent more time deliberating – so much so that we wound up taking TWO Town Halls, just to make it through verse 2!  It was a wonderfully fruitful exercise.

Here are some of your reflections on those devotional times:

On that first meeting (5/17), we had a small number of homeless folks worshipping with us, and one of them – a delightfully deep and thoughtful Christian man – stayed for the Town Hall afterward. He shared with us that he profoundly felt the “All” in “All are Welcome” in this place. He felt seen and appreciated, and he commended the congregation on allowing him space to voice his opinion.

This spoke to someone else’s reflection on the line about ending divisions. The conversation went ’round to making sure that when we say “all,” we must really mean “all,” not just “some.” If divisions are ended, they are ended.

Someone else said that it also needs to be more than just that all are welcome, but that all are equal. The table of the Lord is the one place in the world where we all come with empty hands – so nobody has a leg up on anyone else. We are truly in the same boat.

To that end, someone else commented on the line “all can safely live.” We talked about physical safety as something we need to consider, but we also talked about how this congregation is a safe place emotionally/psychologically. One member commented that his family lives on property in a neighboring town that is owned by and borders a church of a different denominational background, yet he comes to THIS congregation because he knows that he won’t be judged for having doubts and questions.

On the second meeting (6/14) we could pretty strongly hear music wafting up from our Building Use partners who worship in our basement Fellowship Hall in the time immediately following our worship service. This group is a non-denominational congregation consisting primarily of folks from the LGBQT community – some of whom struggle (for good reason!) with the traditional church, but who feel safe and welcome worshipping in the building we share. We reflected on this and the blessing that those folks bring us as we contemplated the idea that “All are welcome in this place” as we ALL “claim the faith of Jesus.”

In light of that, one member expressed appreciation that our Church (and our congregation) practices Open Communion.

Someone mentioned the line about words being strong and true. This line made them think of our new Town Hall structure, which they mentioned is a work in progress, but a positive step in increasing a communication that has been lacking among congregants. People are feeling a greater sense of involvement.

I had preached a sermon that day on how putting on Christ was like that movie They Live – in which the main characters put on a new set of glasses that allowed them to see the world in a new way, through a new and clearer perspective. The line from the hymn about being “here as one” in spite of our differences gives us new perspective – how we can love one another through those differences, and how those times when we don’t appear to be “as one,” it’s OK.

Someone else commented on “daring to dream God’s reign anew” in light of having survived a great deal as a congregation over time – and not only surviving, but growing in Christ! All of this is amazing, and it leads us to keep the door open, so that we’re not just hanging on to this transformation story for ourselves, but are inviting others – sometimes folks who are very different from us – to share the story.

______________________________

So, these were two of our “First 15” faith formation moments. I think we may have gone 5 minutes over 15 each time, and even so, we still only made it through two verses! This says a lot of things, I think – it says, for example, that the music we choose in worship is an important source of theological formation, especially when we take the time to really reflect on the lyrics, and when we take time to put them into the context of our own Life Together. It says that our congregation enjoys this kind of theological work. It says that our congregation, while far from being perfect, is a place of Safety for all kinds of people (even if we tend to look very similar on the outside), is a place where we strive to welcome people – and not only welcome them, but also realize that we are equal and connected in ways that we can’t even explain, and it is a place where the love of God, through Jesus, is revealed in time and space. Do we have work to do to become MORE welcoming, MORE inviting, MORE inclusive? Absolutely! But we also need to realize that God has blessed us abundantly, and guides us deeper and deeper into relationship with him through Jesus: relationship with God, with one another, with those around us.

Long time, no see!

Hi. It’s me. Remember?

Yeah, so I haven’t been terribly active on this page in the last few weeks. Not to make excuses, but (you know that means an excuse is coming, right?), things have been very busy, first with the run-up to the Youth Gathering, then there was the Youth Gathering itself, and finally there has been a lot of catching up following the Youth Gathering. If you guys feel neglected, you should talk to my office, which looks like a bomb went off in there.

Anyway, I’m back now – though I’m heading out on vacation next week. Before I go, I wanted to give you a glimpse at a plan of things I’d like to talk about on here over the next day or two prior to abandoning you once again.

So, things I need to cover include:
1.) Some follow-up from our “First 15” discussions based on a lectio divina reading of the ELW hymn “All are Welcome;”

2.) Some follow-up on our Town Hall session with Cynthia Gustavson;

3.) Youth Gathering reflections.

I’m going to do these over three posts, for ease of navigation, should you want to come back to the posts later.

So, there we are. Now I’m off to write the first post!

Town Hall: Hurt People Hurt People; Healed People Heal People

This coming Sunday, we will meet in Town Hall to discuss Congregational Healing. Cynthia Gustavson, whom many of you will remember from the days she held a Clinic Office here in our building, will be joining us to lead this session.

I know that some folks have objected to this meeting. I’ve heard you say, “I think we need to stop talking about The Conflict and move on.” I can appreciate that. This congregation has been through a lot of pain and trauma, and it makes sense that you would want to say, “enough!” On the other hand, even though I’d agree that things have gotten better in the last little while, the pain that the congregation AS A WHOLE still undergoes is evident in a number of ways. People are STILL reticent to step into leadership positions. People STILL tend to focus on personalities from the past – personalities of people who aren’t even here anymore. It’s clear that, while some individuals may feel that they have moved past the trauma, the congregation has not.

I’m reminded of a wise saying: Hurt People hurt people; Loved People love people. And I’d add to that: Healed People heal people.

Last Sunday we had the reading from Mark’s Gospel – the story of Jesus returning to his hometown of Nazareth, only to find that his townspeople rejected him. As a result, he was unable to do any great works of power there. He had to shake the dust of Nazareth off his sandals and move on; and he sent the disciples out ahead to go and do likewise.

What resonates with this story especially well for me in light of this idea of Healed People healing people is the way the narrative moves.

Jesus comes into his hometown and teaches in the synagogue. The people hear his teaching and they are “astounded.” They’re also amazed at his deeds of power and healing. But they’re torn: On the one hand, here’s Jesus, the hometown-boy-who-hit-the-bigtime. On the other hand, here’s “this man” with his novel teachings and fancy miracles. The people ask, “Where did he get this?” It’s not a question bred from curiosity. It’s more sinister than that. It’s more like, “Who does he think he is? He used to be one of us; now he’s something Other.”

The text says that the crowd was scandalized by Jesus, and they sought to expel him. It’s even more heightened in Luke’s Gospel, where the crowd tries to shove Jesus off a cliff after his first hometown sermon. While Mark doesn’t go there, his Gospel still contains the Passion story in which people attempt to drive God in Jesus out of the world by hanging him on a cross.

It’s a profound story of human Truth – a painful truth about us as a species. We have a strong tendency to “Other” people – to turn people into an “Other.” This is especially true in times of great stress or anxiety. Jesus heightened the anxiety of his hometown fellows with his teaching about the nearness of the Kingdom of God. His teaching was novel. It challenged peoples’ notions of what was true, and as a result, he went in this story from hometown kid of whom the people are proud to “this man” with “these teachings.” Jesus’ teachings scandalized the people and they turned on him.

Jesus, we know from this side of history, was innocent of wrongdoing. His teachings about the Kingdom of God were correct, and so his expulsion by the crowd was unjust. But sometimes we humans expel people who are less innocent than Jesus. Sometimes they even seem to “deserve it.” Maybe they hurt us. Maybe we hurt them and the expulsion was mutual. Maybe it escalated. The point is: Hurt People hurt people.

Our congregation is a Hurt Congregation. You all have suffered pain and loss. We have a tendency to refer to a recent time of pain and loss as “The Crisis.” The fact is, we’re still in a crisis of loss. We’re no longer the large, program-based congregation we once were. Our neighborhood looks different than it did in the past, and so the way we exist as church isn’t nearly as “relevant” (though I hate to use that buzzword) to our neighbors as maybe we once were. We have financial struggles that we either didn’t have several years ago or that we didn’t know about several years ago. We have a lot of other things going on that we might justifiably perceive as loss, that we might experience as painful, that might cause us anxiety. When we are hurt or threatened, we tend to pay the hurt or the threat forward. We tend to cast about for someone to blame. This is not healthy, and it does nothing to forward the Kingdom of God.

In our Gospel story, Jesus was outright rejected by his hometown. He didn’t cast blame. Though he was unable to do great works of power because of the crowd’s rejection, he dusted the town’s sand off his feet and moved on. Those were also the instructions he gave to his disciples when he sent them on to the neighboring villages in his stead: “Go, heal people. Cast out demons. If you’re welcomed, stay there and work. If you’re rejected, recognize it. Name it and move on. You’ve got stuff to do.”

We, too, have hurt. We, too, may feel rejected. We need to name it rather than hide from it. We need to face it, so that we may cast out the “demon” of pain and rejection … in order that we may move on, cuz we have stuff to do. There’s no time for us to blame so-and-so for killing Program X, or to blame Tom, Dick, and Harry for not doing Program Y or to blame Suzie Q for not bringing in a new members. You may feel the pain of the loss of those programs or the lack of members, but paying your pain forward helps no one. Hurt People hurt people. Loved People love people. Healed People heal people. Let us be healed.

Please come to the Town Hall meeting this Sunday following worship. Let’s name our pain. Let’s be healed of it. Let’s shake the dust of our disappointments from our sandals and move on. There’s a lot of Kingdom stuff we have to do.