Monthly Archives: May 2012

Is this really God’s Story?

How are we telling God’s story?  So often my first instinct is to make the message palatable, connecting it to the needs of the person in front of me.  Do you need a better life purpose?  God has the answer.  What about a way to deal with evil?  That, too, God handily addresses.  Just believe God is with you in suffering and move on.  Maybe what I share is not a full-fledged health and wealth gospel, but I do really want people to like God’s message.  As if my re-creating the story will help God.  You know, God, your story is a bit bloody, challenging, and unbelievable at parts, so let me help.

I definitely don’t want to go to the opposite extreme and share only the hell fire and damnation stories.  But I have been moving too far away from the real story.  In the book, Telling God’s Story, John W. Wright explores how two larger narratives in our lives (personal salvation and national election) have eclipsed those that are in the Bible.  American Christians have often focused on how my/our lives are going to be okay – how I am saved and how I am part of God’s specially chosen people.  Once we see ourselves as owners of that final, happy ending of eternal salvation, we can continue in our lives without much discomfort – even through struggle.  A diagnosis of cancer is a test to my own faith, a flood shows how the community coming together and affirms that we are God’s special people.

As I thought about this more deeply, I started to see how this understanding of God’s story is quite shallow compared to what God shows us through his interaction with people throughout history.  In the American version, the story becomes a trite comedy merging together the narratives of the secular and sacred to such a degree that it can be difficult to tell the two apart.  Is there really any difference?  The focus – as in the literary definition of comedy – is on everything turning out for us in the end.  Being comfortable.  Resting in salvation.  Is this the narrative we find in the Bible?  Isn’t it rather a tragedy – something that wakes us out of complacency – in which we are never the heros.

Like pilgrimages, the biblical narrative is unsettling.  We want to travel toward a nicely tied up story that will change our lives with minimal effort.  Yet, if we really dig into this story, we find something else.  Pilgrimages work when they shake up our lives, when the liminal moments cause us to question the story we are moving towards and our place in it.  Perhaps these times make us confront our failings head on, turn from past ways, to be honest and move into a new story.  That should be the Bible – God’s word reading us instead of the other way around.  If we are honest, we see that life is a series of tragedies, a realization that all we do will fail.  The Gospel isn’t about a happily ever after, but a working out of God’s Word today.  In the midst of our groanings are the birth pains of the redemption God is working out.  It is humbling to not be in control of the story, but there is One who is.  The more we know of that One, the more we will allow Him to be the hero of our story, no matter how painful that is.

What story are you following?

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Truth Telling

I like truth, but in a safe, quiet way.  To turn it over in my mind, talk about it with friends who agree, and to pat myself on the back for believing the right things.  This type of truth isn’t difficult.  I tend to steer clear of speaking truths when I know there will be dissension.  And with students I don’t think I’ve ever really called them out to look at the truth in their lives – to examine how they spend their time, to challenge their thinking.  As with so many other people, I want to be liked.

As I look at life as pilgrimage I can easily fall into the trap of just allowing people to go off and learn on their own.  It’s their journey.  They will eventually reach their destination.  However, as pilgrims journeyed to sacred sites in the Middle Ages, knights along the way shared warnings about thieves ahead, priests and monks invited travelers to come off the road and rest, and fellow pilgrims sharpened each other’s views of God’s Word.  As faith ancestors of the elect exiles to whom Peter wrote his first letter and of Christian pilgrims over the centuries, we really should do no less with others on – and soon to be on – this journey of following Jesus.

Often I’m leery of the truth telling because I may be wrong.  Who am I to tell anyone about their lives?  Do I really believe God’s Word fully?  Do I really love Christ enough?  Do I sit at the cross?  At the cross.  This may be the best place from which to tell the truth –  in a posture of knowing my place as fully dependent on Christ for forgiveness and life.  The ultimate story Christians are journeying toward is wrapped up in God’s perfect mercy and justice that came together at the cross.  It’s not a safe place.  But the truth here gives amazing life.

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Be Wary of Structures

“By all means, when planting a campus ministry chapter, don’t develop structures too quickly.”

I heard these words at a workshop on building campus ministry groups.  I thought about the worship service, meals, and Bible studies I’ve already put in motion and had an urge to tell him that structures are comfortable.  They give me something to do, a way for others to know that progress is occurring.  Seeing a full schedule of events gives a sense of accomplishment.  Yet, if I’m honest, an uncertainty behind this schedule gnaws at me, affirming truth in the statement.  Do students really want to attend these activities?  Are events helping students engage with God’s story?

In my rush to build a campus ministry through structures, I have left out developing student leaders or even simply encouraging individuals in their unique faith walks.  It seemed like such hard work and just wasn’t happening.  Since I knew how to plan events, that was the direction I headed.  I was eager to ‘write’ the narrative of this work – a campus ministry with a full complement of activities.  As I shared this story, churches and individuals supporting me would see that things were happening.

However, even though there have been some moments of ‘glory’ – students filling two tables for a dinner, a group serving a Christmas meal in the inner city – for the most part I find myself unsure of how this ministry is going.  Yes, I have a schedule I can hand out to people, but there isn’t a growing student support of this work.  It’s not sustainable in the current form of staff-centered planning, minimal advertising, and waiting for a few bites from students.  I thought putting events on the calendar would fill the void of not having a core group of missional students involved.  Where would I even find missional Lutherans?  And grad students, they’re too busy.  And international students, they are in a new country.  Only I could step in and get it done.

But the it that I was prioritizing, structures, has been taking too much time from the it that I should be  encouraging – students growing their relationships with Jesus, more intentionally living within their faith, and actively reaching out to the campus.  I’ve been erecting the walls before the foundation was secure.  All is not lost, though.   Even though students may not be excited about taking part in activities, they may be curious about being part of a movement, this journey with Jesus.  Instead of forcing a structure to make this happen, I will start walking with students more and listening to what they would build and how God is working in them.

As in any good pilgrimage, within the unstructured time there will be great opportunities for transformation.  So it’s time to get a little messy, a little less organized, and not have a fully planned schedule.

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Opportunities of a Broken Computer

I’ve been yearning for a break in my weekly schedule.  Waiting for something to allow for a journey towards another story, if even for a few hours.  In the middle of an academic quarter I can’t just up and go to a pilgrimage site.  At least it wouldn’t be advisable.  But I keep wishing for something to slow me down.  However, when that opportunity arrives, I balk – especially when it takes the form of a three to seven day repair of my laptop’s logic board.

At first I was calm and considered how this would give me some of that longed for break.  Maybe I could spend a few hours at an art museum, exploring a library, or looking at new forms of ministry.  Then I started thinking about a few tasks that still needed to be finished – today.  It took me several hours to figure out an hour’s worth of work as I moved between two old computers, an iphone, and files somewhere in the cloud.  Now I have to figure out how to work for the rest of the week. 

Not only have I lost the tool that helps me with work, my writing pad is gone for a few days.  What do I do without the computer that contains all the files on which I want to work?  I have access to other computers, but without ready access to the projects I’ve started I feel lost.  Everything is backed up, but inaccessible.  So, I’m on hold.  Do I try to recreate the work on another computer for now, or do I take a break?  During this time I feel restless and guilty.  I should be working, getting something done.  Keystrokes equal productivity, right? 

If I am honest, I often hide behind a computer screen.  I put off going to the library or heading to campus because I must first accomplish the work that I’ve tied to the computer – writing outlines, compiling agendas, sending emails, or researching projects.  These and similar tasks provide a measure of accomplishment and they are something in which I am in control.  Once I leave the keyboard I don’t know what will happen. 

There are many excuses to not head towards that story beyond my daily routine – yet deeply held within my soul.  It’s not practical, it’s too far away, I will let down others, there are too many unknowns.  And when this change is forced, through events like a broken computer, there’s a yearning to get back to normal as quickly as possible.  Within a routine I know how to measure success.  Out on that new road, I’m not sure.  I don’t know what I will encounter. 

For now that road is time without my computer.  I’ll be on campus and at home for days without this electronic security blanket.  It feels as if I’ve lost something.  But in this discomfort I’m forced to look around with new eyes.  Observe these days.  Take field notes.  Be open to a new story.  This isn’t the break I was wanting, though it may be the break I need.

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Trapping Jesus

In the Gospels religious leaders often confront Jesus, attempting to prove that he adheres to the wrong beliefs.  Should we pay taxes or not?  Will a woman have seven husbands at the resurrection?  Who is my neighbor?  If the question is worded just right, then the questioner, and everyone else standing around, will finally know whether Jesus is with us, or against us.  However, Jesus does not fall prey to these traps.  His answers turn the tables and often reveal the motivation behind the questions.  He refuses to be narrowly defined.

As I read these parts of the gospels I cheer – Go get’em, Jesus!  Isn’t it great we’re on the same side?  Yet, recently I started to wonder about the questions I ask.  If not of Jesus, at least of other Christians.  I want people to see things they way I do.  I want them, and Jesus, to affirm my doctrine.  I want to trap them into being either for or against what I believe.  What roles can women take at church?  Who really is a Christian?  How do you interpret the Creation story in Genesis?  Once I determine how they respond to these questions, I can spend time defending my side and taking comfort in knowing I’m right.  Yet, after such conversations I feel empty.  I am the one trapped. 

Not that these questions and thoughtful responses aren’t important at some level.  However, the amount of time I perceive Christians, including myself, dealing with such issues is disproportionate to time spent doing what we are called to do.  There may be some murky parts of the Bible that we will never agree on this side of heaven.  Even so, the real mission is hitting us in the face – worshiping God, loving our neighbor, making disciples.  Waiting for and ironing out the right answers in doctrinal conundrums does not save us from having to go out into the mess of showing mercy today. 

So I realize I need to stop trapping the gospel in the limits of my failed human understanding.  However, that doesn’t mean I need to stop asking questions.  I just need to be ready to hear some critical answers in response.  Jesus’ responses to the pharisees and others, though providing answers, often opened up more questions.  Maybe some of the opaqueness in the Bible is there for a reason and is not for us always to figure out.  Instead we can live in the ambiguity, trusting in the One who is the answer, while we step out in the story of forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation.

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A Story Thief – Cancer

So, while I’m setting up my life to write and move out of ruts, another storyline has entered, one that will take up time and place.  It must.

My mother is in a six-month chemo treatment for cancer.  The prognosis is good at this point.  Still the menace that is cancer looms over us.  We wonder what side effects this treatment will produce.  How will schedules need to be adjusted this time?  What food will be palatable?

Cancer redefines the road ahead.  Scheduled activities are put on hold until we see what happens.  Regular volunteer efforts are on hiatus.  A tension hovers over the house.  A workshop on story that I was looking forward to attending is now a heavy task as I figure out how to go and still be present.  I’ll likely return home a day early.

In all this, how do I not succumb to this thief of life?  Cancer does not have to redirect all our energy to its treatment.  In fact, such a change means that it wins.  The challenge before me is to live an abundant life even with this cancer in the family.  It is difficult to focus on the important and best each day instead of just getting through.  However, maybe the root of my problem is the definition of an abundant life.  It’s not about living in a world without difficulties, a world designed just for me.  No, it is living fully in the real mess of life that now contains many more activities out of my control.

Part of me wants to fight these intrusions on my time.  Yet, I am beginning to see that instead of glaring at them with frustration, I can see them in a new light.  Spending time to research, shop for, and prepare food that is appetizing and has plenty of protein, fiber and calories provides a space for my sister, nieces, and me to work together.  Going to doctor appointments makes me slow down my own schedule and prioritize activities – even giving myself permission to take breaks, enjoy a walk, work in a garden, or eat a lunch out.

In John 10:10 Jesus reminds us that the thief comes to kill and steal and destroy; however, he has come that people might have life.  Instead of conceding to defeat, I’m now looking at the next months as a time to more fully define an abundant life.  If I’m not going to journey towards a story across the ocean, I can travel more deeply into the one here at home.

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Meeting the Ugly Reality of Writing in Graduate School – and Beyond

Many graduate students step into the world of research because of a sincere interest in a topic and the belief that their work will forge new paths in their respective fields.   Though such a drive may prompt people to start the pursuit of a doctoral degree, it can often subvert the creation of that final piece of doctoral work – the dissertation.

When the ideal in our heads doesn’t readily make it to the sheet or screen it becomes easy to wait – wait until we’ve read one more article, talked to one more expert, put together one more outline.  But we eventually face the inevitable and must write something – and it never looks as good on paper as it does in our imagination.  So, we wait longer.  If we find the right process, everything will go smoothly.  Maybe it just needs a few more days, weeks, or months to age and then it will come out all right.  Like a perfect bottle of wine.

In her article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rachel Herrmann (My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Dissertation) brings us back to reality and the mess that research is.  She emphasizes that it’s much easier to edit a terrible dissertation than it is to edit a nonexistent perfect one.  Obvious, yes.  However, in the midst of wanting to develop that ideal dissertation it’s easy to forget and difficult to accept this common sense statement.  Meeting this reality brings students to a humbling awareness about academic work. Our best efforts many times begin with an ugly draft.  Yet, in the process of writing, and discussing with others, this ugliness is transformed.

In this journey we come to see that writing is not merely a means to share our well-defined ideas with others; the process of writing actually provides insight into the research itself.  Our initial efforts might include a series of outlines – maybe some in colored pencil or with a images drawn throughout – to help pull the pieces together.  They may include a bunch of free writes that explore ideas and questions we want to test.  Maybe some writings are responses to readings – not in a formal essay, but in the words of a casual conversation.  These meanderings eventually come together to take shape in  cohesive paragraphs, sections, and even chapters.

Maybe some people can accomplish such work in a more linear fashion (and several comments to the referenced article indicate this – just write, create an outline, etc.), but many students I encounter take the more round about way.  However, these writings are more than a means to get started.  Just like serendipitous side-trips on vacations, they can take us to places we would have never gone if we would have stayed on the original path – or followed the first outline.

My own experience of putting together a dissertation wasn’t very pretty most of the time. Spurts of writing here and there eventually came together – and then apart.  The disdain for sitting at a desk grew so severe at times that I had to leave, and almost trick myself into writing by doing so in parks, libraries, and museums.  At times I laid out the drafts on the floor, trying to determine a reasonable narrative to help explain the research on the pages and still in my head.  Then, as I was drafting yet a new version, insights emerged or questions arose.  Eventually it came together – and the side-trips often became the heart of the final product.

Now this formally ugly dissertation is starting a new journey into a book.  Again I’m fighting the desire to have a finished piece of writing immediately.  So, I’m doing a lot of waiting.  But Herrmann’s article encourages my post-dissertation self that it’s time to take these writings and start drafting a terrible, no good, horrible very bad book.  It’s time to go.

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Following Francis

View over Assisi

When we reached Assisi and our pension, Casa Papa Giovanni, I walked to my room and opened the shutters.  Beyond the edge of town, the sun shone over fields of sunflowers in the valley.  The bells of St. Mary of the Angels tolled as swallows danced in patterns above the roof tops.  My shoulders relaxed, my breathing slowed, and I briefly forgot about losing luggage and defining literary pilgrimage.  I sensed that the landscape beyond the window frame held deep connections to the spirit of Francis’ story.  An hour later, everyone gathered in a small room where we each received a written pilgrimage guide and then shared the Eucharist. Afterwards we ate a home-cooked Italian meal.  A community was forming.

I can still remember that moment when I opened the shutters and saw Assisi below me over a decade ago – in late June 2003.  The following week was a marvel of pilgrimage – of time to reflect, opportunities to talk, challenges to take, and stories to hear.  I went to observe this practice of pilgrimage and became a pilgrim myself – following St. Francis of whom I had previously known only a little.  Spurred on by the words of our guides and fellow pilgrims, I moved into a rhythm of pilgrimage allowing the stories, place, and my own experiences to stir up my previous ideas of such a journey – and even the life of Christian faith.

God called Francis to rebuild the church – not merely the single building of San Damiano where he heard this call and whose stone walls were literally crumbling – but Christ’s Church, His body.  This human representative of Jesus Christ on earth was falling apart as an institution and a group of faithful believers.  In response to his call, Francis dedicated himself to living as Jesus – not pontificating on what the Bible means, but living Jesus’ teachings as radical as they may appear.  Among many things, he left his dream of becoming a victorious knight, turned away from his father who did not support his new life, started a new religious order, served the poor and outcast (including lepers), and preached a gospel that included experiencing God in real and dramatic ways.

Ian Morgan Cron in the novel Chasing Francis takes readers on a pilgrimage to Assisi as he follows the journey of a successful evangelical pastor who can no longer abide the structure and politics of the church he founded.  The exterior programs and preaching does not mesh with the interior rumblings of his soul and what he is discovering in scripture. Several months in Assisi visiting sites of Francis and engaging with Franciscans re-centers his view of the church.  Through the stories and places associated with Francis he learns the freedom of living a radical gospel through this man who lived an impoverished life, questioned the worlds’ values, and ecstatically praised God.

What does this new church look like?  A church of life – creating art, caring for the poor, living Jesus’ teachings, sharing community, stewarding the environment, and seeking out true meaning.  Such a church is not centered on programs, but on Christ and his people.  At the end of the novel Cron paints an idealistic picture as the protagonist starts a new church with 40 people packed into his condo.

When I put down this novel, I started to remember my time in Assisi and the new eyes I had developed.  I had an eagerness to re-engage with a living faith – incarnating Christ, experiencing God, accepting my poverty, and even holding the leper.  My heart still skips a beat when I recall that time that opened up my understanding of God, of Christ, and of the church.  But, how can I bring that decade-old experience into my life today?

Whether its remembering my pilgrimage to Assisi or treading this novel of another’s pilgrimage there, I am drawn to new ways of seeing the church.  Yet, not long after these leadings, I’m often drawn right back into the safety of the institution.  Maybe it’s time to open another window, this time not to view the buildings of Assisi below, but the hope of a new church right in front of me.  This is a gathering of people in mission – maybe to the campus, to the city – that goes out and lives the mission beyond the crumbling walls of the church.  Not re-creating culture within a Christian safety net, but bringing this living faith into the world.  What a beautiful view!  Now to step into it.

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Attending to Church

I’m getting tired of hearing pastors complain that people put soccer practices, family gatherings, and vacations above church.  Yes, it’s easy to fall into this complaint.  I also do so as I look around the sanctuary on a given Sunday and count up who is missing.  My mind automatically starts to think about ways to get them back.  But then I stop. I realize that I too have fallen into the practice of equating church with what happens on Sunday mornings.  With so many people opting for other activities, I wonder if people are not only being influenced by the larger culture, but also sensing that the church does not know or care about the world outside its doors.

At many churches there is an overwhelming sense that one must be present on Sundays and other events to be an active member and grow as a Christian: keeping the Sabbath means going to church.  Now, it’s not a bad thing to be in Bible studies or worship God corporately, don’t get me wrong.  The Bible encourages us to draw together and praise God, “not neglecting to meet together” (Hebrews 10:25) and Sunday morning activities are one way to do so.  Yet, in the church model that focuses on Sunday morning attendance, only once people enter our doors and become involved in our programs do we have the opportunity for influence.  We can rest on attendance numbers for proof that people are growing closer to Christ.  But are they really?  Are programs really the best way to shape people as Christ followers?  Because so much effort has been exerted in developing services and other programs that will attract people, we’ve forgotten something much more important, but more difficult: relationships.

What if we look at church more as the body of Christ – which it is – and not merely as a body that comes together primarily to keep an institution going?  Yes, some members of the body will serve the church as Sunday School teachers, administrators, and trustees.  But what if being a mother, a janitor, a barista, or a teacher were also regularly promoted as ways of attending church?  In this way, we are attending to church when we are attendant to Christ’s mission in our lives.  This may be during a weekly worship service, but it also can take place where ever we are at a given moment.  As we talk to the cashier at the corner grocer, take a pie to our next door neighbor, attend our child’s soccer game, or skip choir practice in order to attend a friend’s concert.

With this perspective, I don’t feel the need to coerce or convince people to be present at a weekly service.  We can walk together throughout the week learning how God is at work in our lives and how we are in mission in our places throughout the world.  Then, as we become more fully enmeshed in His story, we are drawn to gather with others in more formal worship, allowing God to fill us so that we can return to the world as church throughout the week.  It’s a living, breathing church in mission everywhere, not merely within four walls one hour a week.

How are you attending to church this week?

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