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The Society of Campus Ministers
|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.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, I confess to you, my neglected blog that I have gotten into more internet fights than is usual for me. I don’t know that this is intentional; at least on my part, I find that I have markedly less tolerance for people continuing to excuse actions I find inexcusable. […]
As one intrepid parishioner reminded me, I have been remiss in updating the blog this summer. The summer has been busy, with camp, a pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine, and Missionpalooza, on top of the usual round of work things. I will, at some point, go back and do a #sermondump and maybe even write something about […]
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.
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 the Question! How Managers and Facilitators Ask the Best Question at the Best Time
- What’s Your Question? Inspiring Possibilities through the Power of Questions
- The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever
- Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change
That’s my list. What’s yours? What would you add?
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 …
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 …
I spent four days last week at the national gathering of Episcopal young adult and campus ministers. God touched my heart throughout the time, particularly through the truthfulness of the worship and the leadership of the presiding bishop. This is my rambling attempt to give voice to the balm I encountered in Austin.
National gatherings of Episcopal young adult and campus ministers are wonderful and complicated. Wonderful, because of the presence of so many amazing people whom God has also called to this peculiar work. Happily, I enjoy rich local relationships among my clergy sisters and brothers and, ecumenically, among my lay and ordained campus ministry colleagues. Most of the time, however, I must choose between being physically present to professional gatherings of Episcopalians or campus ministers. One or the other, with precious little overlap. In Austin, however, I shared fellowship with 80+ Episcopal young adult and campus ministers for four days. The uniqueness and dearness of the opportunity is never lost on me.
“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.” You know something is important in the Bible when the writer says it twice! “They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.” You know how the saying goes, ‘The key to the fruit is in the root!’ “It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious…” Are you hearing what I’m saying, church? “In the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” Jer 17, ff.
The sermon continued in equal parts challenge and encouragement, all of it against the backdrop of psalm 126, which we had sung together after the Old Testament reading. “Although we are weeping, Lord may we keep sowing.” Well, the people around me sang it. I sat and wept.
As Bishop Curry named the drought and the difficulty of the work, he opened space to name in ways we aren’t often afforded (or that we don’t often take) that weeping and sowing so many times share the same space. Recently, at lunch with a board member, when asked how I was doing, I said, “Really good. There is so much that excites me. I can’t wait for the summer and the projects we have lined up. Also, I am really exhausted. But it’s not that I’m excited for somethings on some days and exhausted about other things on other days. I’m excited and exhausted about the same things on the same days.” But this refrain from psalm 126 came closer to the heart of it:
“Although we are weeping, Lord help us keep sowing,” and my heart was opened to name in one space the simultaneous presence of great joy in the gospel and multiple layers of political, ecclesial, and personal grief. Kind of like the women as they left the empty tomb with “fear and great joy,” but with space for tears and wounds.
It has been an especially difficult year politically. Despite the broadly left-learning nature of the Episcopal church, the year has been difficult – as Kathy Cramer’s work demonstrates – for members of both parties, as well as those of us who believe that, though it is probably possible to vote without succumbing to idolatry, doing so requires thoughtful practices, the help of God, and the help of the church. There is so much we would have be different than it is. So much that is broken and, some days, feels like it might break us.
Although we are weeping.
Mainline Christianity may have more than 23 Easters left, but a half-century of decline has been physically, spiritually, and emotionally exhausting. What’s worse, by failing to name the 1950s for the anomaly is was in terms of church growth, many church leaders have presented the decline through lenses of guilt, failure, and shame. Try harder. Act smarter. All of it an eerie parody of the “have more faith to be healed” theologies that mainliners have publicly despised for years. Even now, it takes special effort to make clear that the new proposed ways of being church are not with the goal of making things like they were. Lazy clichés like this one have not helped.
Seminaries have only recently begun to formally acknowledge in their coursework that the future of ordained ministry is not full-time, a welcome admission that begins to back away from false narratives of guilt and shame. (Bishop Curry’s acknowledgement of this reality at the conference was the clearest such acknowledgement I had ever heard from a leader of any mainline denomination.) The church is changing. Bishop Curry simultaneously claimed the exciting possibilities of the church’s transformation while naming the church’s responsibility to help guard young clergy from personal financial failure. More and more, it is becoming clear to 21st century Christians who had despaired of the church’s future that the future is bright. God’s church will not cease to be. Anxiety for the church’s future is primarily a product of our financial idolatry.
Tangentially, to the extent that the financial flourishing of the 1950s was a byproduct of America’s post-war identity as a nation of war, Christians cannot completely lament the transition, apart from its sheer difficulty.
The transition, while hopeful, is continually mired in the (sometimes dishonest) grey areas between mission work and managed decline. Further, it is not clear how the church’s diocesan polity survives even those aspects of the transformation that give me great hope (for an example of what gives me great hope, see David Fitch’s Faithful Presence).
Although we are weeping.
On a deeply personal note, I’ve already written about our miscarriage, nine months ago next week, and how the grief was/is unlike any my wife and I have ever carried. I did not control it and certainly could not hide it, and so I openly shared our pain with staff and members of the St. Francis House community. The community of faith loved us and walked with us.
Although we are weeping, Lord help us keep sowing.
Every proclaimer of the Gospel meets in her life a moment of hesitation, a pause, brought about by the prospect of simultaneously weeping and sowing. I remember the first time, some months after my ordination, that I had to preach on a Sunday morning following a difficult conversation (read, fight) with Rebekah, on Saturday, that we hadn’t resolved. I was upset at my shortcomings and not at all put together. “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” I said, and I preached anyway.
Thank God that God’s strength is made known in and in spite of our weakness, that the Good News of Jesus is that we need not hide before God. In the face of all kinds of grief, still we are sowing. Living our need of God, we discover words of proclamation. God helping, we do. And from time to time we are stopped short, we marvel, that the seed sown in our sorrow has grown up and blossomed. That our grief did not stop the beauty of God’s Word. We keep walking, limping, blessing, and blessed.
A dear mentor one time observed to me that, in Revelation, God promises to wipe away every tear, not that there won’t be tears to wipe. Painfully, beautifully, weeping and sowing belong together, for in our honest tears, there is the hand of God, gentle on our faces.
A day after returning from the Taizé Pilgrimage of Trust in St. Louis, I received an email from the Wisconsin Council of Churches asking me, with other religious leaders, to write relevant state senators to oppose a bill, currently in committee, that would remove the legal requirement for a permit in order to carry a concealed firearm. I find it particularly challenging to make space to articulate distinctively Christian positions on legislative proposals like this one succinctly. Isn’t it enough, some would say, to simply register your voice as for or against? Of course the answer is “No, that is not enough. In and by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we have come to believe that more is possible. Come and see.” Additionally, abandoning the public articulation of how faith informs these issues, like gun violence, only serves to underwrite the prevailing public assumption that faith is at the heart of problems like violence, an assumption that serves the interests of the State so well that the State would be foolish to question the assumption’s veracity without prompting. This is my attempt to write my senator on the relevant bill and provide such a prompting through the lens of the Christian resources that shaped our time with the brothers of Taizé.
Dear Senator Risser,
Grace and peace!
My name is the Rev. Jonathan Melton. I am an Episcopal priest and the chaplain director of a campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, St. Francis House, a ministry with a long and active history of civic engagement. As your constituent and a person of faith, I want you to know how grateful I am for your service to the common life of this country and its people. I thank God for you, and I look for God in you.(1)
I want you to know you and your work are daily in my prayers, especially at a time in which tensions across differences make dialogue and decisions that transcend the binary and reactive difficult. In such a time, claiming thoughtfulness and nuance that the soundbite cannot convey requires uncommon courage. I believe each of us is loved by a God who can call us into and sustain us in uncommon ways of being in this world, as reflections of God’s love and for the good of one another.
To that end, I am writing today to let you know that I oppose SB 169, the permitless concealed carry bill. Will you join me, and so many others, in opposing this bill?
My colleagues have sent me talking points that they encourage me to include here. I’ll include them at the end, in case they are right that statistics like this one – “since 2011, over 18,000 concealed carry permits were denied or invalidated because the applicant could not pass a background check or had violated state or federal laws” – are new to you. But I suspect these statistics are not new to you.
I trust my colleagues who have been at this work longer than I have to know which statistics will command your attention, but I think we all – they, you, and me – long to set our sights higher. After all, what is a concealed weapon except an accessory of fear and mistrust against another person? As a person of faith, confident in the power of liturgical rituals to shape persons, people, and communities, I grieve the daily formation our communities undergo as bearers of concealed mistrust and fear. Every cleaning of such a gun, locking of such a gun, remembering to carry such a gun reinforces a posture of mistrust for one another. Yes, we should oppose this bill, but we should also engage every local and political opportunity to call out our habituated hates and suspicions and invite us into spaces of developing trust.
Obviously, such a call is beyond the scope of this bill, and yet you cannot credibly call for such opportunities later after having supported this bill. What I am asking is that you consider your opposition to this bill as a first step in claiming trust as an essential part of the common good.
I realize that naming a particular and positive vision of the common good requires uncommon courage. We’re not just talking freedom from but freedom for – positive freedom(2) – and we are talking about the hard and patient work of building trust in our communities. And so I pray for you to the God of uncommon courage, who is worthy of our trust, and I offer my support as one committed to walk and work with you and our neighbors as you risk speaking a vision of communities of trust.
In the joy of the risen Jesus,
This bill would endanger the public by removing the common-sense protections that the Wisconsin Legislature put into place when it decided to allow people to carry concealed weapons. We should not remove reasonable requirements for background checks, training, and licensing for persons to carry concealed, loaded firearms in public places.
Surveys show that most people, including gun owners, believe that a person should need to pass a background check and have training in order to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
Without permitting requirements, dangerous, irresponsible, and untrained people would be allowed to carry hidden, loaded weapons in public.
Since 2011, over 18,000 concealed carry permits were denied or invalidated because the applicant could not pass a background check or had violated state or federal laws.
Educators and safety experts agree that allowing civilians to carry weapons in schools is not a good security practice.
Please oppose SB 169 as a dangerous bill that would weaken the public safety protections that are already in place in Wisconsin’s conceal carry permitting law.