Sunday, August 20, 2017

"Come Closer to Me" (Discerning Faithful Presence after Charlottesville)

Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. 
Sermon preached at St. Dunstan's, Madison, on these readings for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15 in Year A. 

It feels like this morning’s psalm is haunting us today, and I don’t like the feeling of that. “How good and pleasant it is when brethren or kindred live together in unity.” I used to love that psalm. Who knows, maybe I will come to love it again. While I appreciate the comparison that follows that celebration of unity, what with its shoutout to fine beards and beard oils dripping down off of them (sounds kinda awesome), the celebration of unity named by the psalmist feels hollow this week. It may be good and pleasant when we do live in unity, but it doesn’t feel like we do very much of that right now. Not that Charlottesville represented a new thing, but Charlottesville is yet another in an exhaustingly long line - and now not even the latest - but belonging to a long line of honest and painful things that name the violence we do to the unity that God would give us. And the “we” who do violence refers to humanity, but “we” also refers to white people in America. For those of us miles from Charlottesville and the South, here in Dane County, it may be helpful to remember that you don’t need guns to do violence. I don’t say that as a way of shaming folks for things over which we may feel little control, but to begin to make our repentance specific. I take it as foundational to the Christian faith and counter-cultural to the world that there is life and hope in our repentance. And we need life and hope because unity worth oiling beards for feels a very long way away.

Speaking of unity. I saw a t-shirt the other day that said - it had this big heart in the middle and across the heart it said - I tolerate you. Now society has sometimes named toleration as a kind of virtue we want to promote, but limits to the virtue of toleration become obvious the moment someone tells you they tolerate you. Nobody wants to be tolerated. Toleration is for mosquitos. That should be a t-shirt! Still, one thing the deplorable white supremacy on display in Virginia reminded us is that, if toleration can be seen as a desirable goal, it is only because the human desire to end the lives of those we despise is something real.

But then there’s Jesus, calling us to something deeper than the noble restraint we show when we do not kill one another. Inviting us to a table with those we have wronged and with those who have wronged us. Pouring forgiveness in the cup. Washing our feet. Inviting us to the same. How do we get there from here?

Remembering Jesus’ words at that first last supper, Catholic priest James Martin tweeted out last week that, "Jesus asks us to love one another, to place others’ needs before our own, even to die for one another. 'Supremacy' is absurd to Jesus,” he said. Jesus invites us to gather at the table, where submitting to the reign of the crucified king also means making room for each other. That’s what unity is.

If a psalm extolling the goodness of unity is painful to read today, it at least comes with stories to encourage us for the difficult, good work of loving and making room for each other.

In Genesis, Joseph is talking to his brothers. And, actually, he’s been talking to his brothers for several chapters now, but they don’t know it's him. In everything that’s come before, they’ve known him only as the guy Pharaoh put in charge of food distribution during the famine that plagues Egypt and the surrounding region. Like everyone else, they’re just here for the food. The last thing they’re thinking as they negotiate the price is that the shrewd manager staring them down is the very same kid brother with the rainbow coat they had mercilessly left for dead in a ditch and then traded into slavery years before.

Psalm 105 remembers the story this way:

Then God called down a famine on the country,
    God broke every last blade of wheat.
But God sent a man on ahead:
    Joseph, sold as a slave.
They put cruel chains on his ankles,
    an iron collar around his neck,
Until God’s word came to the Pharaoh,
    and God confirmed his promise.
God sent the king to release him.
    The Pharaoh set Joseph free;
He appointed him master of his palace,
    put him in charge of all his business
To personally instruct his princes
    and train his advisors in wisdom.

It cannot be easy to receive wisdom from one whom you had counted as a know-nothing slave. It cannot come easily to be mastered by someone you once sold to a master. But here they are. Joseph dramatically reveals himself to be the brother they had tried to kill. Whose brotherhood they had denied. On whom their lives now depend. Predictably, they are dismayed. Dismayed, because, it was his prediction of this moment, years before, that had caused them to hate him in the first place. They’d dismissed him as “the dreamer.” Now the apparent truth of the dream they’d dismissed is their nightmare. Unthinkably, God has used their hate to create the very situation that had filled them with resentment and, now, fear. Here, in his presence, they are undone. Now, the one they have hated is not only the one with the food they need, but also the one with power and cause to destroy them. Joseph’s brothers have created an either/or world in which either Joseph or his brothers must emerge victorious over the other, and for a while they thought that was them, the victorious, but now it is clear that, barring an unlikely strategic gaffe, victory belongs to Joseph. They brace for their expulsion from the future of the one they have wronged.

But then Joseph says the only words that could have made things even worse. “Get it over with,” they may have hoped. Be to me what I have been to you. They had no reason to expect otherwise. But then, these excruciating words: “Come closer to me.” There is another way. An unexpected future, a waiting embrace that will cost them every drop of the either/or logic they have made of their world. Come closer to me, Joseph says. And, remarkably, they do.

In Romans, Paul picks up this age-old struggle: does embracing the other on that side, in this case the Gentiles, undo the integrity of God’s promise to this side? Not at all! says Paul. No. God’s future, illumined by Joseph, refuses the logic by which our struggles with each other finally result in anything other than opportunities for God’s mercy to win us all back to God.

But a warning. In participating in the unity and mercy of God, we may find ourselves invited to a role in the story that is not the role we once had or the role we had wanted. Like Joseph’s brothers, the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel finds herself begging life from a man who, being Jewish, she was raised to despise. It can be difficult to receive wisdom or life from one whom you had counted as a know-nothing slave. But as with Joseph and his brothers, her daughter’s healing comes when the women overcomes the instinct to claim a future without the other side. “Come closer to me,” she insists, and it’s all the more remarkable for Jesus’ gruff treatment of her. But as I’ve wrestled with Jesus’ difficult words to the Canaanite woman of great faith, I find myself uncertain whether I am offended for her or if my offense is simply a disguise for my desire to have a better place for myself in the story. What do you think? What would you do? Would you take Jesus’ offer to find your place in the story of God as a dog at the table? Remarkably, she does. Because she knows in her bones that place and position fail to accomplish what God might do in the space of surrender to the one she calls her king. Whatever her place, she longs for that table. Forsaking all else, she finds the mercy of God.

Our scriptures today are full of people who give me hope for the unity the psalmist names because, against all odds, they speak and accept the challenge to “come closer to me,” to step toward the other, even the despicable other, trusting that God will meet them both in the space of total vulnerability. 

What might it look like to come closer today? Theologian David Fitch thinks it might look like this. He writes, “Racism is a subjectivity formed within a social world. It is a social construct that teaches us (as white people) to think, feel and experience others of color in a way that is not conscious. To think we can change this racism by merely confronting it with words or protest misses the insidiousness of racism. No, we must go the next step and engage the racist with presence (not anger or violence). This may start with face to face nonviolent protest. But it must not end there. This is why addressing racial injustice ultimately requires the church filled by the Spirit to be viscerally present in the world.” Filled by the Spirit, we must be viscerally present. “Come closer to me,” Joseph says to his brothers. 

Finally, of course this will not be the last time in the pages of holy scripture that we’ll see a man left for dead unexpectedly standing before eleven of those whom he called his brothers. Jesus will appear before them on the other side of the walls of the hate and fear and pain they had locked themselves behind, and the disciples, very much like Joseph’s brothers, will see him and be dismayed and undone. They had left their Lord for dead, and so they will know what this moment should bring. They will brace for their expulsion from the future of the one they have wronged. But he will not destroy them. His breath on them will be forgiveness and peace. Their hearts will know his love as they haven't known it before. And we will marvel as we remember. We will find courage to come closer across every line of our hatred, righteous judgments, and fears, remembering that God in Christ has first come closer to us.



Amen.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Things I Didn't Learn in Seminary (But am Glad to be Learning Now!)

The whole "things they didn't teach in seminary" trope often comes up when clergy lament the difficulty of fixing a particularly cranky toilet or navigating a certain aspect of church finances. (I don't think it's bad for clergy to know these things, but there are probably cheaper places to learn them.) Of course, the comment is commonly tongue-in-cheek and can refer to particulars of a local context that either could not have predicted or, even if they had been predicted, would have only been relevant to one or two in the class. Even so, I think the question has lasting merit and is worth engaging from time to time: "What would have constituted adequate preparation for this?"

The list that follows is my realtime answer today. Probably different from my answer tomorrow, definitely different from yesterday's. The list doesn't replace or take for granted the things I did learn - Scripture, theology, CPE - and I should add that just because I didn't learn it at div school doesn't mean someone wasn't teaching it (or that that someone wasn't one of my professors, which is just to say I'm sure I missed significant pieces of the knowledge dropped on me along the way). In any case, this is my list and, if nothing else, you'll find links to six interesting books! Without further ado...

Community Organizing around the Presence of God

To be fair, I probably did learn a fair bit about this. But it was good friends made after seminary, with backgrounds in community organizing, who showed me that whatever I had learned was only a start. Community organizers showed me that the church's default question, "How many people showed up to X, Y, or Z?" didn't have to be a measure, and implicit endorsement, of the attractional model of being church ("If you build it, they will come"). For years, such a model led well-meaning Christians  to take turn-outs as a kind of referendum of a gathering's resonance, relevance, and/or content. So a poorly organized Bible study effort leaves church members bemoaning the "fact" that people in a given community "just don't take Scripture seriously." At the same time, Willow Creek famously acknowledges (a while back) that large numbers have, for years, obscured the reality that the church isn't realizing its goal of transformational discipleship.

Instead of taking turnout as a referendum on relevance, effectiveness, or something else, community organizers have taught me how to build toward a gathering from the baseline of relationships, and in ways that allow us to shape the thing we're building toward together. And that you can do this in measurable ways. Turn out is still important, and it's actually relatively predictable when you are organizing communities, because you're talking with, learning from, and listening to the people with whom you'll gather.

Additionally, it was in reading David Fitch's Faithful Presence that I discovered a marriage of sacramental practice and (the best of) evangelical sensibilities that grew my imagination for Christian community organizing that is intelligible to itself beyond a vague sense of being usefully disposed toward others. Fitch writes
This is the challenge of being a Christian today. We have forgotten how to live together in Christ's kingdom and invite the world along. Our collective imagination has lost the new possibilities for the world in the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus Christ. Instead, with the comforts of Christendom, we set up churches as organizations for maintaining Christians. When people...think of church, they think of large buildings where people gather to hear well-dressed men (mostly men) talk for an hour, usually from behind a pulpit. As a result, many of our sons and daughters cannot stomach the thought of becoming a pastor in these churches. 
Nonetheless, this is the task the church faces: political organizing for the kingdom. To be clear, this has nothing to do with national politics. It is the work of gathering people into God's presence, living together under the one reign of God in Christ. This way of life doesn't stay within the walls of a church building but bursts out into the world through all the circles of our lives. The task of church leadership today is to gather people into Christ's presence in all the circles of our lives. This is what faithful presence looks like. This is church. (emphasis mine)
As a seminary class, I imagine a blend of community organizing principles, sacramental theology, and Fitch, a CMA evangelical who goes around quoting cultural critic and philosopher Slavoj Žižek and Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann in equal measure. 2017 is an amazing time to be alive.

Accountability Conversations

Call this the Matthew 18 class. Or don't and just skip to reading this book: Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior. I'm not wild about the sub-title, but it works so long as "resolving" doesn't get read as "fixing the bad behavior of others." The book is not about that. The book is about conversing "about violated expectations in a way that eventually solves the problem and improves on the relationship." It sounds simple, but the authors observe that many times "we don't say a word because we don't know how to handle the conversation, or we fear that we don't know how. We're not bad people. We're just frightened." I won't rehash the whole book here, but I will say it's not about picking our battles and winning them. It's about meeting one another in the space of shared values, clarifying intentions in ways that allow the other to feel safe, and standing up for what one believes is important while being open to learning something new and being open to change. It's about being focused and flexible. In the words of the author, "How about you? Are you ready not to rumble?"

Leading through Questions

Jesus did a lot of it. I'm not as good at it as I'd like to be. It's definitely harder than having all the answers. And it's not the same as only saying, "How do you feel about it?" or "I've got nothing to add for you." Good questions are rare and incredibly substantial gifts for formation, discernment, and both personal and corporate development. Further, where answers tend to fill space, good questions open space, which is a special priority for me in light of Fitch's book (above).

Full disclosure: I haven't read (yet) any of the books that follow, but I asked a good friend what he'd recommend as resources for developing the ability to ask worthy questions, and this is the list he came up with.


That's my list. What's yours? What would you add?

Monday, July 17, 2017

Why I Sold Back My Smartphone (& Why I Blame David Fitch)

Last week, I walked into my local Verizon store and said I'd like to upgrade my phone. "Sure," he said. "What do you have?" An iPhone 5s. "Great. And what do you want?" A basic phone, I explained. The cheapest you have. The sales guy gladly steered me toward the basic phones, but then something like this went down, when he tried to sell me a $150 basic phone:



To his credit, the sales guy subsequently backed off and happily sold me a $50 flip phone. "It's got no wifi," he shrugged.

Exactly.

Before I go on, a couple of notes:

1) I am not brave or courageous for selling back my iPhone. What I was was addicted to a piece of technology that suggested itself as the way to make every aspect of my life easier and more efficient, even if I didn't know yet how it could do that. Because, you know, "there's (always) an app for that." Did you know there is even an app for monitoring your iPhone use, ostensibly so that you can pare said use back to reasonable levels? Yeah, that went about as well as you'd expect. Unsurprisingly, it turns out the mere presence of a smartphone in a room is enough to inspire distraction. Many times, at lunch with a friend, if said friend got up to use the restroom, the phone instantly came out. Because it never really left. I was not in control.

2) I am not prescribing my action for others, and I don't judge smartphone users. Plenty of people I know manage to use their phones without using them to fill in the cracks of spare time between everything else. I was not one of them. One day last week I woke up and imagined myself continuing to fill in the beautiful cracks of between-things spare time with a must-be-productive-in-every-moment sense of iPhone urgency, combined with the device's lackluster record of coming through on the productivity promise, lived out over the next fifty years, and I had something like a panic attack. I had a clear sense of wanting another life for myself.

3) I am very, very aware of the insane amount of privilege involved in the decision. First, I had an iPhone to sell. Then, I developed (thank God) the audacity to resent a device many people could never afford. And I could sell it. And I could purchase some of the capabilities I'd be losing without an iPhone, like a guitar tuner, to compensate for what I'd be missing. And yet, as I have come to understand privilege, the goal is not to deny or "take off" privilege (as if one could!), but to leverage what privilege one has for others. Surely, leveraging privilege for others requires being present to others, and I believe I am better able to make that space without the phone. That said, I take seriously critiques of how I used my privilege in this discernment.

Relatedly, part of the discernment around the trade-in involved an app by app inventory for how I could change my phone habits without thoughtlessly shifting the burden of my decision to others. For example, surrendering my bank management app might have made me feel lighter at Rebekah's expense, if I had seen selling the phone as disconnecting from all of the responsibilities I had previously invested in the phone. One of those responsibilities is to stay connected to the news of the world around me and to stay active. I fully intend to keep a social media presence. Just not at the expense of a physical presence to my physical neighbors.

4) My new phone stinks. I regret nothing, and it stinks. I won't glamorize T9 texting. It took me five minutes the other day to confirm a lunch date with a colleague: "Okay. See you then!" Auto-replies are my friend. But I made the switch so that I would talk more and text less. To that end, it works and it's great.

My new phone's name is Fitch. I named it after David Fitch, whose recent book Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission has come like balm to my soul at a needed time. To grossly generalize, the book introduces a) the disciplines of sacramental practice to evangelicals, on the one hand, and b) a robust theology of submission to the lordship of Jesus in sacramental/liturgical traditions like mine, on the other. Even if that characterization is not exactly right, the space of intersection Fitch explores between historically evangelical and liturgical emphases is rich and full of life.

I named the phone Fitch because I want to remember, on those days when not having Google Maps makes me late to a meeting, why I made this decision. To be faithfully present to God's presence.

In a world crunched by antagonisms and ideologies (for which my iPhone was sometimes a homing device!), Christians - says Fitch - are called to open space, to make space, to be present to God's presence in our midst, with one another and others, and to proclaim that "Jesus is Lord and at work renewing all things - making a new creation (2 Cor 5:17)."

Friends, we are called to make space. To live with. To proclaim. To be present.

Surely, selling back a smartphone doesn't make a person present. But it's a start. Admittedly, it's a start I hope gets better. I'm improving, but I confess I spent my first couple of days without a smartphone instinctively reaching for its ghost. Still, it is a start, and one I hope will both a) ask more of me over time and b) prepare me to be up for the ask. I want to make space, to live with, to proclaim, to be present. All with God's help.

I was sitting in a book group with David Fitch and Rebekah at last week's Gathering of the Ekklesia Project. We were just about to start. Suddenly, Fitch's smartphone went off. Startled, he turned it off and threw it down, with some visible (theatrical) disgust. "So much for presence," he said.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Becoming Capable of Life-Giving Failures

Five years ago, right before St. Francis House sent a few of game people to our very first student organization fair, a long-time campus missioner friend gave me a call. I asked him if he had any advice for engaging the event. "Yes," he said. "Be sure to communicate to your folks that advertising doesn't work. I'm not saying it won't, but it doesn't. And I'm not saying you shouldn't. I am saying, ask your crew whether they think it's worth doing, even if nobody becomes a member of your community as a result of the effort. If they say, 'yes,' ask them why."

I did as my friend suggested, and I was relieved when the students did not appear to be as discouraged as I was at the unsurprising news that church advertising seldom yields fruit directly. I asked them if we should go ahead with our presence at the student organization fair anyway. "Yes," they said. "Okay, great. Why?" Silence. Then one said, "It will make us think about and give voice to  what this community means to us." YES. "I'm in," I said.

Because of this prior conversation, when the unexpected opportunity came up for one of our students to fill a 30 second spot on university radio during the fair, the student jumped at the chance. Only, he didn't answer the question he was given, exactly. Instead, he started with "St. Francis House saved my life..." and told his story. Standing nearby, watching this student, listening to his voice roll through speakers and echo into the halls of the Kohl Center and across campus, I welled up with tears.

Because we had asked the questions, "Is this worth doing, even if no one shows up as a result?" and "Why?" the student was willing to tell his story in an unexpected moment on an unexpected platform  and bless a lot of people. After asking the questions, we made space, in community, for the students to discern and answer them.

In the larger church's ongoing conversations about numbers, attendance, and the rest, it is sometimes helpful to ask ourselves, "If no one shows up as a result, is this worth doing anyway? Why?" And I also think the logic holds if we run it in the other direction, "If a ton of people show up as a result of this thing, is it worth doing anyway? Why?"

Numbers are not bad, but they aren't self-justifying, either. Numbers are helpful partners to lift up what we are about, but they can only do so when, in a given project or moment, we know what we are about. Do we give ourselves permission to be patient and take the time it takes to ask why the thing matters and then create space for the answers?

Two helpful leadership questions I picked up from Pope John Paul II are, "What light do the scriptures shed on this issue/opportunity/challenge?" and "Who can we ask for help?" When we are in touch with the reason that fills our hearts we become capable of even failures that sustain us. Equally, we detect the emptiness of successes that do not satisfy. We notice the difference between relying on grace and controlling the outcome. Most of all, I suspect we become in those moments people whose lives are put in touch in new ways with the story of God, of which God is patiently making us a part.