Abundant Life, Compassion, Creation, Discipleship, Economy, Faith, Gifts, Mission, New People, New Places, Schools, Social Action, Social Justice, Solidarity, Transforming the World, Wellness, Whole Community

Talk Is Cheap

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” 
― Frederick BuechnerWishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

There are a lot of opinions out there. There are a lot of different ways to use our reason and our intellect to convince ourselves that we are OK, or that we are doing the right thing. There are myriad ways to read Scripture and interpret faith so that our own prejudices, biases, inclinations, and desires can be found comfortable, faithful and otherwise pleasing to our own sensibilities; to the sensibilities of our family, friends and neighbors, and can still conform to the tenets of our “doctrine” and  our “discipline.”

I can’t help but wonder, though, how our world might look if we each spent as much energy actually doing something about those things we argue about as we spend consulting our favorite gurus and posting our favorite memes to facebook.

For instance, in Iowa, there is a shortage of residential treatment facilities. There is evidence of human trafficking in both labor and sexual slavery. School food programs are all struggling, while students whose families are under physical, economic, and psychological distress continue to fall behind in the skills necessary to navigate an increasingly complicated world of credit lending and temporary employment. Youth mentorship programs do not have enough mentors to supply their need. People suffering from ongoing mental illness cannot receive the treatment they require. Air, land and water quality are degraded and deteriorating. Women in Iowa earn only 77% of what men make. Our churches, schools and neighborhoods are built more along the lines of separate and unequal, than along lines of an intentionally cross-cultural integration. Laborers work 16 and 20 hour days, while part-time employees without benefits are fired for refusing to work overtime.

And yet . . . there is a United Methodist Church in practically every community in Iowa. I find it impossible to believe that we, as a church, do not have the resources at our fingertips to actually provide a powerful and faithful response to the evil, injustice and oppression whose forms we meet on a daily basis. What if we decided to measure our faithfulness in lives transformed?  What if we looked to measure our righteousness such that every community in which we live is notably more compassionate than communities in which we do not live? What if we loved our neighbors so deeply and so radically we had no room left in our hearts for judgment?

There is a song by Casting Crowns with these lyrics,

But if we are the body
Why aren’t his arms reaching?
Why aren’t his hands healing?
Why aren’t his words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t his feet going?
Why is his love not showing them there is a way?”

Maybe we would get some things wrong. Maybe we would break some church rules and raise some eyebrows. Maybe our neighbors would look at us strangely and whisper about us behind our backs. But maybe, just maybe, our world would start to look a little bit more like the place God promises us it can be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abundant Life, Compassion, Creation, Psalms, Remembrance, Solidarity, Wellness, Whole Community

Taking Time for Sorrow

16thstreetbaptistchurchThis week I need to stop for Sorrow. These last few days, post-resurrection days, have been heavy days for many in my circles, and I do not think they are taking the time to fully grieve. I do not think they have decided it is OK to stop for Sorrow. They are going to “soldier on.” They are engaged in the important work of the church. There are challenges which need adaptation, and there are people (other people) who need them more than they need time for themselves. There are deadlines, due dates, and time cards which need fulfilling.

They are strong people, people who are tough enough to bear their own burdens in silence, with a grin, and an uptilted chin. Maybe for them keeping busy and being needed is more comforting than sitting by the doorposts in dust and ashes.

But the wise know we all have to make time for Sorrow. Otherwise it will  bleed grey into the colors of our lives. It will hang on our backpacks and slow our steps. It will steal heat and warmth from us, causing us to live nurturing the slow burn of disappointment and rage.

So, this week, the problems of the world can roll along their way without my regard. Instead, I am sitting still with Sorrow, with my friend whose husband went to the hospital this week. I am singing songs with Sorrow, for my friend whose dream died rather than being born. I am learning lament from Sorrow, for my colleague who had a death in her family. I am tossing pebbles into the pool with Sorrow, for the ones whose hard work has only led to discouragement and frustrating dead ends. Sorrow and I are painting with sand for those who have spent the last two weeks recovering from crippling and life-threatening ills.

I offer this post to them, my friends, and to you if you need it, along with this small gift:

A Parable On Modern Life from Anthony De Mello’s The Song of the Bird

The animals met in assembly and began
to complain that humans were always
taking things away from them.

“They take my milk,” said the cow.
“They take my eggs,” said the hen.
“They take my flesh for bacon,” said the hog.
“They hunt me for my oil,” said the whale.

Finally the snail spoke. “I have something
they would certainly take away from me
if they could. Something they want
more than anything else.
I have TIME.”

You have all the time in the world, if you would give it to yourself. What’s stopping you?

Abundant Life, Compassion, Correctional Facility, Domestic Violence, Incarceration, Mission, New People, New Places, Prison, Social Action, Social Justice, Solidarity, The Great Commission, Transforming the World, Whole Community, Women

Setting Captives Free

"Bronson Blessington: Testimony from my prison cell" by publik15
“Bronson Blessington: Testimony from my prison cell” by publik15

Doug Walker works for the General Board of Church and Society establishing Healing Communities, a framework for ministry to persons returning from or at risk of incarceration, their families, and the larger community.  He works 15 hours a week on behalf of the wider church trying to bridge the gap between local church life and the lives of its families who are bearing the weight of incarceration.

Lee Schott, pastor of Women at the Well United Methodist Church inside the Mitchelville Women’s Prison, wonders how the Iowa Annual Conference can continue to connect with women once they leave the prison and return to life outside its walls.

Dave Hobbs and the Iowa United Methodist Camps have been developing a specialized camp ministry for the children of people who are or have been incarcerated in Iowa. It is called Camp Hope, and Dave and the camp directors are looking to expand this ministry.

At one level, it seems like we shouldn’t need institutional support or significant technical education to be in vital ministry with people entangled with the criminal justice system (and it is an entanglement; guards, administrators, and others on the law-abiding side of the system are as deeply in need of specialized ministry as those they are employed to keep).  Yet, clearly we in the local church are not entangled enough.

As great as Doug, Lee and Dave’s programs and ministry areas are, they cannot be the sole presence of the United Methodist Church when it comes to our call to be in ministry with those Jesus has given us.  Despite the fact that practically every Iowa town has at least one United Methodist Church, not every town has a flourishing jail visitation ministry. Not every person who needs a ride to visit their loved one in jail can get one. Not every person leaving incarceration has a congregation waiting to receive them. Not every prison guard has a group with which to share the depths of human depravity she has witnessed. This is a place where the deep needs of people are not being met.

You can see that in the violence we inflict on our children, our spouses, our parents and ourselves. It is visible in the thriving methamphetamine industry and the number of bars a community can support. Distrust and disconnectedness, increased weapons permits, pernicious bullying, and the spread of harmful propaganda designed to alienate us from our neighbors are all signs that we are not shining enough light on the darkness which invades peoples’ lives.

And it seems to me that we are not doing this work because it is dangerous. We can’t be assured of the other person’s innocence. There is the possibility that the relationship can become toxic as the other’s addictions and ways of making decisions invade our carefully controlled apartments. We might have to set boundaries or let go of our own aesthetic tastes to make room for the new people in our lives. Frankly, there are people out there who would not hesitate to do us serious harm. Last, I sense that we are afraid our own lights-our faith, our witness, our Christ, our own souls -are not actually strong enough to make headway against the dark.

I asked Doug Walker how a person crosses the threshold. How do we go out the door of our church sanctuaries? How do we go in the visitor’s entrance of the prison, the hospital, or the social services building? He laughed and said it is a lot easier when you know someone there.

I asked Lee Schott why we don’t know the women who leave Mitchelville after serving their sentence. She didn’t know, but thought it had something to do with an idea that once someone has gone behind bars, they become this thing we call “a criminal” rather than a person we can know by name. She becomes effectively invisible to us because we in the church might distrust or judge her if we learned her past. She either enters into relationship with us hiding her past or chooses easier relationships with people who already know her name.

So what is going on with us that we are not teaching, preaching, and reaching into the lives of people such that we can show them that other name they have: the name they take on in Christ? Why are we so ashamed of shame? What makes us so afraid to shake hands with people we have never met? Is there something real we stand to lose by opening ourselves to rejection?

I believe that changing the world is as simple as going out and shaking hands with it.  And if you are looking for Biblical language to help you gather the courage to do so, I suggest spending a bit of time with Paul. He seems to have a good vocabulary for that kind of thing.

Oh, and you can always contact Doug , Lee or Dave as well, because I know they would love to hear from you. They would love to share their experience, expertise and doubts about how the church can best be about this work of setting captives free.

Doug Walker: dwalker@umc-gbcs.org

Rev. Lee Schott: revlas333@gmail.com

Rev. Dave Hobbs: david.hobbs@iaumc.org

 

 

 

Abundant Life, Baptism, Discipleship, Faith, Social Justice, Transforming the World

Lord Don’t Move the Mountain.

Doris Akers wrote a song titled Lord Don’t Move the Mountain, sung most famously by Mahalia Jackson, in which the singer asks God not to remove stumbling blocks, “for when our tribulations get too light we tend to stray from thee.”

Sometimes, as we look out over the world, there are so many really big problems, it can get overwhelming. Every newscast and self-proclaimed prophet tells us the end is near and that there is no hope. So many of  our political and social experiences leave us stymied and disappointed in our lofty goals, that it  can seem easier to simply roll over, pull the covers up over our heads and go to sleep until the storm passes over.

In this Easter season, however, we are reminded that there is no defeat-no death-that God has not overcome. If we are in practice, we remember that faith-not strength, infallibility, perfection nor even goodness-is the power by which we climb those mountains or face those crucifixions.

In our baptism we accept the freedom and power to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” so that we can become closer to Christ. And that should give us courage to poke our heads out from under the covers. The whole weight of the world is not on our shoulders alone. The evils, injustices, and oppression that can seem so overwhelming are not ours to face all by ourselves. In fact, they may actually be the obstacle courses and climbing walls on which to build the soul muscles we need to stay in love with God.

 

Abundant Life, Conversations, Domestic Violence, Economy, Mission, New People, New Places, Sexual Assault, Social Justice, The Great Commission, Transforming the World, Wellness, Women

Of Shelter Services and Social Responsibility

Important_government_shutdown_notice_for_the_Stature_of_LibertyI recently had coffee with the Executive Director of domestic violence and sexual assault services for a multi-county area in Iowa. At one point, I asked her how the changes to shelter services were going. For those who don’t know, domestic violence and sexual assault services in Iowa are undergoing a massive modernization effort. You can read more about these changes here: Modernizing Iowa’s System of Services for Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Her face literally brightened, and she sat a little straighter in her seat. Without downplaying the difficulties and the struggles she and her staff have faced, she was able to name a large number of real and unexpected benefits that have come about since her service branch shut down its shelter.

She described new life and a resurgence of energy in the staff. She talked about the increase in real value aid her branch has been able to offer because of the financial resources which have been freed up. Suddenly, new vistas of opportunity to make a difference and to have significant impact in her service area seem to be opening up.

While we were talking, a few of the things she said kind of lit up in my mind. The kind of institutional change she was describing is the kind of institutional change the United Methodist Church is trying to take on itself-a modernization of systems and services to better enable a mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Here are some of the similarities:

1) Reluctance to embrace change: shelters are the services people know about, and they are “the way” to meet the needs of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Closing shelters will leave people in danger and take away an important service that is needed.

-While the overall modernization plan does not include closing ALL shelters, it does include shutting some of them down.  In order for the entire system to change, some branches will have to actually stop offering the services they have traditionally been designed to supply.

2) Concerns about sustainability of funding: state and federal funding cuts were inevitable, so change was necessary.

-The system was going to change and would do so either of its own will or via downsizing in staff and reduction of services because of budget cuts.  Rather than slowly closing down bits and pieces of the program while increasing the burden of operation on fewer and fewer staff members, a decision was made to reorient around the core mission: providing sustainable services to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

3) Having to let go.

-The Executive Director had to get into a place where she could see the possibility that doing things a different way might meet more needs than doing things the traditional way. She became convinced that a both/and approach to services was not feasible and she chose to actively participate in reorganization efforts rather than holding on to the system and services she helped to create. To move forward she had to let go.

There were two other things she described which I think are key to her system’s adaptability.

1) Being given permission to fail.

-In order to try out new methods and approaches to mobile advocacy, legal services and rapid rehousing, there had to be a lot of grace from those in leadership. Change does not guarantee that the system will improve. There is no map of new territory. Sometimes you are going to get stuck in a ditch. Knowing that someone else with a truck and a winch is ready and willing to come pull you out makes the journey into the future possible.

2) To meet needs, the institution has to go out of its way to be present where and when those needs arise.

-For years, the crisis intervention services in this multi-county area have offered social, educational, and healing opportunities at local jails, schools, rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, and with local law enforcement. They operated out of the assumption that people would not always come to them. Even before the critical need to change, they were halfway outside their buildings anyway.

As a church and as a conference, we are feeling pressures to change. Talking with the Executive Director helped me see we are not the only institution that is feeling the weight. Listening to her stories of renewal, liberation and surprising joy from what had to be an extremely painful surrender, I felt even more surely that rather than a point of death, the church is going through a rite of passage into new life.

As we navigate that canal, I hope our system has the adaptability that hers seems to have, because like Iowa’s domestic abuse and sexual assault services, I believe our communities need us. I believe they need people of faith, witnesses to hope, purveyors of peace, speakers of good will, and large numbers of people who believe their own good is inextricably bound to the good of other beings.

Abundant Life, Compassion, Discipleship, Mission, New People, New Places, Poverty, Schools, Social Action, Social Justice, Solidarity, The Great Commission, Transforming the World

What Do Social Justice Ministries Look Like?

QuestionsA group of you have been thinking and praying together about faith and ministry. As you look around the church, you and your friends have come to the conclusion that there is not a robust social justice ministry. You are starting to feel like that is a place your church needs to grow. You have become convinced that in order to experience a vibrant and vital faith life, you are going to have to reach more deeply into the significant needs of your community. What’s more, you have read the research and you realize that you are going to have to take a different approach to these ministries if you stand a change of actually connecting with the people you intend to reach. In short, you have decided that you want to start doing social justice ministry, but you have no idea what that looks like.

Here are a few examples of ministries:

Fort Washington Collegiate Church (CRC) calls their social justice ministries You Matter. It has identified health, equality and service as three issues around which to organize. It hosts a weekly fitness class, promotes and sponsors healthy living workshops and cooking classes. The church also has a performance advocacy group and commits members to volunteerism with groups such as Habitat for Humanity. To read more about how they have engaged with these issues, visit their website: http://www.fortwashingtonchurch.org/our-ministries/social-justice-you-matter.

In Iowa, Matthew 25 is a ministry hub born out of a vision of whole life ministry that left the church building. It describes itself as

 “an independent, local nonprofit organization in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It exists to strengthen core neighborhoods on the west side of Cedar Rapids, and to provide opportunities for people to act on their values through service.

Matthew 25′s vision is to help create thriving, connected communities where all people are valued and talents are multiplied. It is a highly innovative and collaborative organization that partners with others to work in three program areas: Neighborhood Building, Youth Empowerment, and Cultivate Hope.”

From building renovation to an urban farm education center, Matthew 25 ministries are embedded in the local culture of Cedar Rapids. To see how they have organized around these program areas, visit their website: http://www.hub25.org/ You can also arrange to visit Mathew 25 directly by contacting them: 201 Third Avenue SW Cedar Rapids, IA 52404; 319-362-2214; info@hub25.org

First Unitarian Church of Cleveland has both a corporate and individual approach to social justice ministry. They work with local schools and Family Promise of Greater Cleveland to respond to the needs of families-from housing and education to intergenerational relationship building. Their menu of programs can be seen at http://www.firstunitariancleveland.org/pages/service-justice-social-justice-ministries.htm

Social justice ministries are issue and cause ministries. We can sometimes get caught up in our political and religious viewpoints and forget that at the heart of mission is intimate relationship with people. Vital ministries are born out of a passion for justice, a heart of compassion for those the world uses most cruelly, and a deep, relationship with Christ. They are ministries of solidarity with, not ministries of pity for. As you start to build your bridge into your community via social justice, lean into your heart places.

Love is the energy which will fuel a passionate ministry. Good works without faith are dead, to make a turn on James. Don’t simply choose a cause or an issue and hope that work on that will bear fruit. Cultivate relationships with people such that their burdens become your own. I guarantee you that in doing so, issues and causes galore shall arise to meet your longing to be a disciple, to make disciples, and to transform the world.

Abundant Life, Compassion, Conversations, Creation, Domestic Violence, Economy, Gifts, New People, New Places, Poverty, Remembrance, Sexual Assault, Social Action, Social Justice, Solidarity, Transforming the World, Wellness, Women

When Faith Leaves the Museum

 

Samuel House
Samuel House

Ai Weiwei, perhaps best known for his exhibit Sunflower Seeds, is a conceptual artist who creates “social or performance-based interventions.” He is one of a number of artists who have decided to take art out of the museum and into society. For Ai Weiwei, these interventions are a way of “merging his life and art in order to advocate both the freedoms and responsibilities of individuals.”

‘From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society’, he has said. ‘Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.’   (Tate Museum)

The Women Are Heroes project is another example of an artist using the real world social order as a canvas on which to paint challenging ideas. The artist, JR, did this particular project “[i]n order to pay tribute to those who play an essential role in society but who are the primary victims of war, crime, rape and political or religious fanaticism . . .”*

When art leaves the museum like this, it is transformed into social witness. It becomes something publicly available.  It eludes censorship, yet is  exposed to raw and sometimes violent criticism. It somehow moves back and forth across the line of legal and illegal, sanctioned and under sanction.  It is vulnerable and open to whatever interpretations, ideas and reactions it causes.

For these two particular artists, these interventions are also intentionally meant to give voice to the voiceless-to bring the lives of unimportant and disregarded people into public view. Their works expose inconvenient truths and somehow point to the cracks in our well-reasoned ideas about how the world is supposed to work and how it actually works.

I think that vital faith is faith which has chosen to leave the museum. It is faith which endeavors to give voice to the voiceless-to bring the lives of unimportant and disregarded people into public view. It exposes inconvenient truths and somehow points to the cracks in our well-reasoned ideas about how the world is supposed to work and how it actually works.

Vital faith, like the artwork of Ai Weiwei, JR, or Iowa’s own Rev. Ted Lyddon Hatten, shows the light of God shining through those cracks, and brings the world’s attention to it.

This work-this faith in the world work-this social intervention-is social justice.  It is faith made publicly available. It is faith which eludes censorship, yet allows itself to be exposed to raw and sometimes violent criticism. It somehow moves back and forth across the line of legal and illegal, sanctioned and under sanction.  It is vulnerable and open to whatever interpretations, ideas and reactions it causes.

Social justice is a public faith witness which has the the power to break hearts and inspire people to moral elevation and awe. It paints compassion, grace and the irrational and extravagant love of Jesus on the canvas of the world.