The Spirit of Our Questions. Oh, and We Might Be Nicodemus… – Rev. Rachelle Brown

In the US these days, the words “church” and “decline” are frequently conjoined. There are many reasons for this – economic, cultural, political, etc… – yet discussion of these factors rarely leads to any significant change. This is what makes Rev. Rachelle Brown’s commentary on the matter so unique and reorienting – because she doesn’t suggest yet another “fix” for the problem, as have so many others, but rather acquiesces to the difficult idea that indeed Christ is calling the church to die in order to be born again. Fascinated by this? Scared? Worried? So were we – yet her thoughts may give you unexpected comfort. Read, comment, and share!

Francisco Herrera – Interim Blog Editor, PhD Student at LSTC


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photo credit

Year after year, reports arrive showing a decline in U.S. Christianity. Not long ago, a news report offered these three points, “Americans are becoming less religious,” “Confidence in organized religion is down, and Americans are less and less inclined to seek guidance from clergy” (“Church and Clergy Have Fallen Out of Favor, New Polls Show”, NPR Morning Edition, July 17, 2019).

The content of the message is clear and consistent…

Christianity in the U.S. is on a steep decline.

Before the keyboards blaze under our fingers into another book trying to explain why church attendance is down, here is my first question “Was Jesus really concerned about the future of the temple, priests, and religious leaders? Which leads to the second question…

“What if the point of Jesus’ teaching is the spiritual life?”

It may be true that Jesus was teaching us to live a Spiritual life and we have built a religion. I am not the first person in the history of Christianity to pause and reflect in this way, nor am I asking you to consider shutting down churches. Rather, I am asking you to consider what it might mean to be a Christian in an age of religious organizations.

After leaving church all together out of hurt and frustration, about 15 years ago, I decided to be a follower of Jesus again. My decision led me back to church, then seminary, and ministry. There have been many times in which being a Christian and in a church is very uncomfortable.

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In this era, we have many uncomfortable questions. The beauty and wisdom of the Gospels is how Jesus answered and asked questions. There is one passage in particular, John 3:1-10, the conversation between Jesus and the powerful religious leader Nicodemus that offers us a few clues about the reason churches are failing. Too often, we breeze past this moment in scripture, believing we are Jesus standing in the alley for a nighttime meeting. The headlines are telling us something very different:

We just might be Nicodemus.

Many modern Christians exude confidence, assurance to be “right” or sharing the “truth” as either conservative or liberal. Nicodemus is a powerful religious leader, or the keeper of the faith. Pardon my interpretation, but it may even be true that in modern times, when a big world event happens, Nicodemus might be on the news as a commentator for the “religious” point of view.

In the meeting with Jesus, at night, off the main pathway, Nicodemus calls Jesus “rabbi.” Kind of like a modern Christian religious leader saying, “Now Pastor, WE know you are doing some amazing ministry, it seems like God is with you and blessing you.” However, Jesus picks up on the royal “we” and wants no part of that. Jesus gets to the point – if you want to really experience God – be born from above. Jesus was talking about birth and spirit.

Nicodemus was trying to understand the teaching of Jesus, but his only view was from the “we” as the religious leaders.

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Nicodemus Visiting Jesus – Henry Ossawa Tanner

Nicodemus did not like where the conversation was going because this teaching of Jesus defied the laws of nature as Nicodemus understood it: Birth happens once, you know that, there is no do-over. Out of frustration, then, Jesus finally asks his own question: “Tell me, how can you be a teacher of the faith and do not understand these things?” Jesus then went on to explain to Nicodemus: I am trying to describe what is happening here and now, the very human and real experiences. You can’t even believe me. How can you even begin to understand the spiritual truths?

Pause for a moment and consider the chilling reality that many Christians today just might be Nicodemus. This is a tough message. But just like Nicodemus trying to understand the spiritual teaching in the middle of the night, if you are looking for a religious answer to the questions of today – you will be disappointed, because the best answers of any tradition are just a shadow of the brighter truth.

Jesus in this conversation with Nicodemus, and throughout the gospels, describes the life we long for, the spiritual life.

As one who is ordained by a Christian church, with the robes, stoles, and lived in the position of a religious leader, I experience the dilemma. I have asked myself if I can be both spiritual and part of a religious organization?

John 3 is saying a few key things to churches and religious leaders,

  1. I know you are upset and it is hard to understand why so many are not interested in our ways anymore.
  2. If we continue on this path, we will die.
  3. We are called to follow Jesus and live a Spiritual life.
  4. Face it, the wind of the Spirit blows, and you cannot control it.
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Brenda Boss

When the wind of the Spirit blows, we don’t know where it comes from, or where it goes, but it is ok, that is the spiritual life. Even the early church struggled with how to gather with those who follow tradition and others outside of the tradition. Religious people had to change. Remember Peter needed a vision to lay down religious and cultural traditions (Acts 10).

In the Spirit of our questions, here is another: If we are to be pursuing the spiritual life, why do we even have churches, or any of these pieces from tradition? The fact that we gather in a church, is not a bad thing. Jesus didn’t ask anyone to leave their faith. Jesus said, don’t limit the work of the Spirit – be born again.

Our work is to get honest, look beyond what we see, and strip away the coverings of tradition that keep us from following the blowing wind of the Spirit!

Spirituality is when we make the space for people to show up and ask tough, gut wrenching questions, for which do not have prepared answers. It is our work to push beyond religion into the spirituality of living in these bodies and our very human experiences. Into these spaces, the Spirit arrives, rushing in from places unknown, giving life rather than the life-limiting answers often provided by religious organizations.

The Gospel message woven in life, death, and resurrection of Jesus teaches us that when we are vulnerable, stripped away of all covering, broken, and without life, only then can we experience resurrection and new life.

If we are going to be the spiritual people, created by God, seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus then we need to focus on being Christians first. Because when we are Christians living a spiritual life, any thing that flows from it, in word, deed, song, prayer, worship, or ritual becomes a light, creating a place for people to gather, ask the hard and confusing questions, receive love, be filled with hope, and experience new life.

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Being Christians first, rooted in the teachings of Jesus, is a spiritual starting place. If the church is dying as the reports over the decades and empty buildings attest, then we must pay attention to Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, clear our confusion, and begin a long overdue spiritual journey.


RachelleMetropolitan Community Churches (MCC) ordained clergy and chaplain with Heart of Hospice – Acadiana, Rev. Brown’s ministry includes local church and denominational leadership. Rev. Brown holds a Master of Divinity from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO; Master of Communications from Missouri State University, and is a current PhD Candidate at Chicago Theological Seminary. As a theologian and educator, she explores intersections of ethics, human sciences, and American religion.

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Satis Est in Exile: Queer Latinx Reflections Over the Augsburg Confession – Sergio Edson Rodriguez

Our final reflection on Pride Month and Lutheran theology, we have a fascinating piece by Sergio Edson Rodriguez – a latinx, synodically authorized minister in south Texas, and seminarian at Wartburg Theological Seminary. But as a gay Tejano living along la frontera (the borderlands between the United States and Mexico) Minister Rodriguez’s need for grace was very different than that of Luther’s. His exploration of this difference, mixed with his personal story, is the subject of this week’s post, and it is a marvelous one. So please, read, comment, and share!

Francisco Herrera – PhD student and Interim Blog Editor


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“La Bamba” – Victoria de Almeida

 

This might sound quite odd to most of you but if I had not discovered the liberating message words of Satis Est in the Confesio, I would be stuck in the closet, living an unhappy life of machismo and self-loathing.

As the son of two Mexican immigrants on this side of La Frontera  in the Rio Grande Valley, I grew up in an environment of ridged societal norms and work ethic based off of hay que sufrir. I was to be an hombre, a macho, a hardworking man who gave up everything for his wife and kids. I was to honor la familia and take care of mis padres all the while conquering the hearts (y honor) of many senoritas. And so when I was in the fifth grade, I started to notice my own eyes following the movements of many of my male classmates and my heart yearned to be together with my male best friend. What did this mean for me knowing what my abuelos, tios and papa week after week taught me about what it meant to be a hombre? What would happen to my relationship with my papa if he knew I started to have these odd feelings? I saw how my papa struggled to provide for our family in his construction jobs, how he rehearsed his answers to border patrol agents, how he showered my sister and I with such tender affection that I could not fear losing his love. So, I didn’t tell him.

Yet how could I stop being myself, a small, timid, passive child who at the drop of a hat would bawl his eyes out? Since I was used to being the butt of many jokes, being called Maricón for starts, I decided at a fairly young age to bury myself in the thin veneer of sports, clubs, music and video games as I attempted to make sense of who I was and what I was feeling.

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Translation: “They called me ‘fag’ in high school.” Video here.

I grew to loathe the deep inclinations of my heart as puberty increased my dissatisfaction with my nascent sexuality. It was at this time that I stopped attending la Misa at Our Lady of Sorrows in McAllen, TX because I could not see how any institution could tell me how to think or how not to be true to myself. And with this severing of my affiliation, the ax fell upon other identity markers of my youth as I struggled to make sense of my own beliefs and feelings: Español, followed by my own hatred of La Raza.

I was a Maricón and I didn’t feel that neither my father or the church understood what it meant when I longed to be loved by another man like me. So when it came time to go to college, I took the decision to go far away from mi familia y la raza at Baylor University. Finally, I would be among folks who would think to some degree like me; rational, liberal and etc… Of course I did not realize at the time that I was going to a conservative school with conservative classmates and required religion courses.

Again like in my childhood, I became the butt of many jokes but this time these really stung me; go back where you came from, wetback. These years of college made me yearn for the familiar rhythm of life where I could live and breathe the same air as my antepasados did as they toiled the contours of the North Mexican soil. So, I decided then to recover what I was able to as I studied in Waco; my Roman Catholic faith. So I returned back to the bosom of La Virgen de Guadalupe even though I knew that if I were to pursue the calling I had in my heart, that I would be celibate. But at that time, I rationalized the entire process. I would be like El Padrecito, like Cantinflas

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Promo poster for the film”El Padrecito.” or in English “The Good Priest.”

Luchando – fighting and struggling – for the marginalized of society. I would be a blessing to my papa y mama because I would be closer to God on their behalf.

But more so, I would finally win the battle over my self-loathing over my sexuality and ethnicity because the gracious merits of Christ would enable me to win my victory over these powers of wickedness.

La Virgen would enable me to win the crown of victory through my ministry. I would no longer be a queer disappointment but to be loved with all the crosses heaped upon me.

And so I began the sleepless nights, the scruples in, within and under Confession and Contrition, the utterances of a laundry list of litanies with the particular caveat of helping me not commit a mortal sin. But no matter what, I always found myself impeded from taking la hostia because deep down inside I felt a pull drawing me deeper and deeper into the pit of resentment, resentment because I knew that I hated being a maricón. With a deep sorrow weighing me down, I would leave la misa at St. Peter’s Student Center in Waco, TX with deep regret for not having tasted the sweet meal of salvation. This cycle came to a halt during a my senior year in college.

One Tuesday afternoon as I arrived to my apartment after class, I broke down. I broke down because enough was enough of this charade. I was tired of hating myself for being attracted to men and then almost breaking out in a cold sweat because I might have or not committed a mortal sin.

I just wanted grace. I just wanted love. I wanted Dioscito to look at me with tender eyes and hold me, hold me with a love that unconditionally accepts me just as I am.

Suddenly an odd thought came to mind; perhaps Dr. Luther was correct.

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See for years, I had a zeal for the Roman Catholic faith that I attempted to do whatever it took to convert people back to Holy Mother church. So during the semester I broke down, I finished Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand for my History of Protestantism class. Here was a man who like me was seen in such a horrendous light and who also yearned for God as I did. Here was a man who loved his wife and children so tenderly that I found myself back in the arms of my own papa with every passing description of Luther’s love for his son, Hans. His message of justification by grace through faith warmed my heart; God in Jesus Christ unconditionally held me, a Queer Latino in his loving familia. Immediately, I phoned my only Lutheran friend with the desire to learn more about the Lutheran faith. The Book of Concord was the road he pointed me to; the road to Wittenburg. Quickly, I ran to the library and seized upon the Tappert edition and turned to the Augsburg Confession; the first Lutheran Symbol…

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The Luther Rose

I devoured each article with such a hunger that could only be explained as my own personal Pentecost moment. There it was my vida, my faith, my hope that I would never again lose my cultura y my sexuality. La Misa was celebrated. La Virgen retained. La Hostia to be tasted with faith. La familia and ministry pursued together as sacred. But above all, God viewed me with the eyes of mercy and new life, me a Queer Latino hijo de imigrantes from la Frontera. Through God’s son, I felt my self-loathing melt away and give way to a life in the company of people like me.

Ya llegue. Satis Est. – I had made it. It (I) was enough

Even now as a Queer Latinx Luterano vicario (Latinix Lutheran vicar), I lean into my own encounter with the living God that Melanchthon and Luther proclaimed whenever I encounter other Queer Latinx folk who yearn for a place and a word that wrapped them in unconditional mercy.

As I look towards La Frontera and see the beautiful faces of la Raza struggling to come over to this country, I can not help but see in their lives, my own life. Their hopes as my hope. Their own struggles as my own. God’s grace for them as God’s grace for me.

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sergeSergio Rodriguez is a word and sacrament candidate in the Southwestern Texas Synod and is a M.Div student at Wartburg Theological Seminary. Currently, he is a Synodically Authorized Minister at St. Paul’s Square Ministries (St. Paul Lutheran-Karnes City; St. Paul Lutheran-Nordheim).

Queer Resistance, Holy Vocation – Joshua Warfield

As Pride Month continues, We Talk. We Listen. is most happy to present an extraordinarily thorough exploration of the queer resistance inherent in Lutheran theology. Joshua K. “Pace” Warfield, PhD student and scholar/theologian at the Graduate Theological Union reminds us just how queer a thing it is to resist – both either by what we do and what we are. Read, comment, and share!

Francisco Herrera – PhD student and Interim Editor


 

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Marsh P. Johnson in the wake of the Stonewall Riots

Resistance is a queer thing.

Fifty years ago, on a humid night, police raided the Stonewall Inn for the second time in a week. Staff, drag queens, crossdressers, and transwomen were the frequent targets of these raids, often times arrested. This time, a spark of something (revolution? just being sick and tired of having no safe place? the Holy Spirit?) must have crackled in the air as, at least according to legend, a black trans woman named Marsha P. Johnson threw a bottle at the police, setting off a two day riot where the queer community resisted.

The Stonewall Riots lasted from June 28th through June 30th 1969, and are frequently cited as the beginning of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

Four hundred ninety-eight years ago, a monk stood before his emperor, representatives of the church, his own prince, peers, enemies, and friends. He stood on trial, forced to defend forty-one errors in his teachings. While his prince was able to secure him safe passage to the imperial diet, his life, safety, and career were very much at risk. This man, of course, was Martin Luther. While scholars debate whether or not he actually said “Here I stand,” his response at the Diet of Worms was nonetheless an act of resistance: “If, then, I am not convinced by proof from Holy Scripture, or by cogent reasons, if I am not satisfied by the very text I have cited, and if my judgment is not in this way brought into subjection to God’s word, I neither can nor will retract anything; for it cannot be either safe or honest for a Christian to speak against [their] conscience.”[1]

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Resistance is a Lutheran thing.

Perhaps because of these anniversaries, this milestone in queer history and the approaching 500th anniversary of the Diet of Worms, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of resistance. Perhaps it’s the current political climate, where since taking office, the current administration “has waged a nonstop onslaught against the rights of LGBTQ people,”with the Trans Equality website tracking nearly forty actions taken against the LGBTQ community, not to mention communities of color, immigrants and refugees, Muslims, and other marginalized communities.[2]

Our lives, as queer people, are lives of resistance.

From the moment we are born, we are gendered in blue or pink colors. We are spoon-fed a culture of heteronormativity telling us that an ideal life is a married, heterosexual life and anything else is deviant or immoral. We teeth on gendered expectations of everything from what toys we can play with to what color clothes we can wear to what kind of haircuts we have. Growing up in the church, we are often baptized into expectations around family, marriage, and gender, with the infamous clobber passages waiting to remind us of our deep, embedded sinfulness if we dare express our queerness.

Our queer resistance comes in one of two ways: either we resist by being ourselves or we resist being ourselves. In other words, in the first option, just being true to ourselves is an act of resistance; the second option, by hiding our truths deep within us, we resist being who we are, whether we do so out of fear or safety or any other reason.

When I was fourteen, soon after I finally admitted to myself that I might be queer, I remember going into my mother’s study and pulling a Bible off of her shelf. My mother is an ordained Lutheran pastor, so finding a Bible was easy. I pulled it out and looked up the word “homosexuality” in the index which took me to the passage “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”[3] Of course I found out later that the English Standard Version of this passage is not a very good rendering of the Greek, but, at fourteen, at the beginning of the road to self-acceptance, this Bible passage told me that I was not going to go to heaven, I would not be inheriting the life abundant promised to Christians in John 10.10.

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It appeared that those promises were only for those who were straight and cisgender.

What followed was an insurmountable desire to not be queer, for the divine to change me, transform me, because in that moment it seemed impossible for me to be able to be “gay” and “Christian.” In order to be perceived as straight and match my assigned gender, I “butched up” my gender performance—sweat pants and ratty jeans with graphic tee shirts became my wardrobe of choice. I asked a friend to point out whenever I sounded or my mannerisms were too gay or effeminate so I could police my behavior. However, the more straight-acting I became (or perceived myself to become), the more distant I felt from God. I felt like a rubber band that kept stretching and stretching and sooner or later I felt like I would snap.

I spent far too long resisting myself, trying to silence that voice deep within me telling me, calling me, to be who I am and love myself. Yes, every time we queer folk love ourselves as we are it is an act of resistance. To do otherwise “cannot be either safe or honest,” to borrow Luther’s language.

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And that voice deep within me, calling me to resist the world around me and be true to myself, I have no doubt that it is the voice of the Holy Spirit. It is the same queer, rainbow Spirit that calls all of us queer folk to a holy vocation of resisting a world that tells us who we are is not enough, who we are is unlovable or dirty or perverted or flawed or broken.

It is the same rainbow fire that danced over the heads of the disciples at Pentecost, that same rainbow fire pulses through our veins, the same pulsating voice of resistance that led Luther to his “here I stand” moment, the same fire that ignited the resistance at Stonewall fifty years ago, or Compton’s Cafeteria, or the riots following Harvey Milk’s assassination. It is the same glittery sparkle that ignites in a young queer person at their first pride event, where they finally feel seen as who they are. It is the same comforting Spirit who listen to our sighs and cries too deep for words when another one of our black, trans sisters is murdered.

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It is the same Spirit of Marcella Althaus-Reid’s lemon vendors on the streets of Constitucion or San Telmo, the same Spirit that led her to write these sacred words: “the Queer God [calls] us toward a life of Queer holiness, [and] has been coming out for a long time…. [T]he Queer God—fluid and unstable as ourselves, but also laughing and taking pleasure while pursuing a divine destiny of the kind of transgressive justice which disorders the law—comes in glory and in resurrection.”[4]

Yes, resistance is our holy calling. Resistance is a queer thing.


pic2Joshua K. “Pace” Warfield (they/them/their) is a PhD student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California and received their MA in systematic theology from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (now United Lutheran Seminary). They are studying systematic theology, with research interests in Martin Luther and the Reformation, queer theology, and deconstruction. Pace presently lives in the Baltimore-DC metropolitan area with their husband, Matt, and two dogs.

 

[1] Martin Brecht, transl. James L. Shaff, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation 1493-1521, (Minneapolis, MI: Fortress Press, 1985), 460.

[2] https://transequality.org/the-discrimination-administration

[3] Emphasis added. English Standard Version. Even the NRSV translates this passage as “male prostitutes” and “sodomites.”

[4] Marcella Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, (London: Routledge, 2003), 171.

What Could We Have Done…? – Rev. Jhon Freddy Correa

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Pastor Betty Rendon (ELCA) – in ICE custody since May 8, 2019.

Since the news of Pastor Betty Rendón’s arrest and detention by ICE agents last week, corners from all over the church – not just to the ELCA – have rallied to her cause. Sojourner’s Magazine wrote a feature, Prof. Leah Schade at Patheos has written pieces both the details of the arrest and ways to support Pastor Betty  and as well as a theological reflection on godly disobedience to secular law, Rev. Emily Heitzman has weighed in at RevBlogGalPals, Religion News Service, and the Chicago Sun Times just published a piece on Pastor Betty’s daughter – Paula Hincapie-Rendón – and the details of her illegal arrest at the hands of ICE. 

But today, we’re going to hear from Rev. Jhon Freddy Correa – from Colombia like Pastor Betty – who was the previous Latinx pastor at Emaus Lutheran Church before Pastor Betty.  Brief and powerful – he reflects on not only Pastor Betty’s plight, but reminds us of lack of community that makes this possible. Read, comment, share, and help us #FreePastorBetty.

Francisco Herrera, PhD student and Interim Editor


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Emaus Lutheran Church – Racine, WI.

It could have been me, my family or yours.
A few words of accompaniment!
for Betty Elena Rendón Madrid

Normally I keep my Facebook profile on private so as to safeguard memories. But today I must change it from “private” to “public” in order to express my feelings, prayers and appreciation to the Latinx community, from Emaus Lutheran Church, Racine, Wisconsin, the ELCA and the USA.

What I have come to learn from Pastor Betty’s arrest and imprisonment, along with that of her family…

…that our commitment to one another must be constant, not only in moments of immense need.

I ask myself what the bishops and pastors now assembled on her behalf were able to do before the vigil last Thursday.

What Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton could have done before her tweet.

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What could have been done by the community before mobilizing a crowd for a vigil where Pastor Betty was detained, which could have been coordinated by other community orgs before they even had Betty’s name as a slogan.

What could Betty have done and if the family had known what to expect before they were apprehended?

What could I have done before I wrote these questions and reflection?

And now, the most important question is…

What I am willing to do not only today, but tomorrow and the next day?

The Promise of the Gospel is that God is faithful, that God continues to invite us to fight for a community anchored in unconditional love, community fully committed to who we are. When we read “Don’t be afraid” in the Gospels, it is both a daily reminder that Jesus is with us in every day, as much as in our day-to-live as well as every time we open a Bible.

“I’m with you! I have defeated the world!”

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So, I wonder:

What will it take to live every day as a “beloved community”?

…to change ourselves from “private” to “public” with our faith?

…from letters, photos, and slogans to actions?

…to create spaces so that others can live life fully and not end up in a prison, hospitals, deported, or disillusioned from an serving institutions?

__________

#FREEPASTORBETTTY – LINKS…

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ONLINE DONATIONS: As expenses for Pastor Betty and her family mount, make a donation through – Emaus Lutheran Church, Racine. Simply click here, look for the line that says “Good Samaritan,” type “Pastor Betty” in the subject line, then click “continue.”

CHECK DONATIONS: write checks out to “Immanuel Lutheran Church” with “Rendón Family Fund” in memo line (or send cash) and mail to: Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1500 W. Elmdale Ave, Chicago, IL 60660

Sign the petition at Faithful America demanding the release of Betty Rendón and her family.

Mail cards of support to Pastor Rendón’s via…

Emaus Lutheran Church – 1925 Summit Ave, Racine, WI 53404

Phone(262) 634-5515

jhon freddJhon Freddy Correa is a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) student in the area of World Christianity and Mission at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. As a (Re) Developement pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and has been serving at Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lehigh Acres FL since 2016, where he moved after serving at Emaus Lutheran Church in Racine, WI. Rev. Correa enjoys time at the beach, music, reading, and spending time with family. 

Living Bi-vocationally – Rev. Tiffany C. Chaney

As the church in the United States has undergone significant changes in its finances, so too have the ways that pastors pay their bills. The Rev. Tiffany Chaney – of Gathered by Grace in Montgomery, Alabama – speaks candidly of what it means to juggle the needs of ordained ministry with work for the Montgomery hospital cooperative, Baptist Health. She doesn’t mince words – it isn’t easy. But in this piece she both speaks honestly of the blessings and the challenges she faces, as well as presents sound advice for anyone thinking to follow a similar path in word and sacrament ministry. Read, comment, and share!

Francisco Herrera, PhD student and Interim Editor


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Pastor Chaney – center, in purple – with “Dinner and Dialogue” participants.

“You sure do make it look easy!”

About six months after beginning a call as mission developer of Gathered by Grace in Montgomery, AL, where I also serve simultaneously as business development director for a local health system, Baptist Health, I received this comment from someone about their perception of my experience in my new bi-vocational call. Their perception had been formed from following me on social media. I immediately realized I had done the thing – the thing people do on social media – tell all the good parts of the story without acknowledging the challenges.

There are social media posts showing me teaching Bible study in a restaurant with engaged young adults and posts sharing my excitement to teach nurse residents about cultural sensitivity. But, I do not recall posting the day I tried to adjust my weekly schedule to be off work at the health system on Good Friday but had to go in any way to walk through a contract that needed to be submitted by the close of business, which I tried to complete before the noon community Good Friday service but couldn’t get it done in time,so I changed into my clergy shirt in my office, left to go preach at the Good Friday service, and came back to finish the contract.  

It has been two years since hearing this comment about making bi-vocational ministry look easy; and, it still sticks with me because as financial pressures increase for congregations, the matter of pastors being bi-vocational enters conversations more frequently. As one who shares periodically in the public space about my experiences being bi-vocational, I feel a certain sense of responsibility to do a better job of sharing my balanced reality. It would be irresponsible of me to only “make it look easy” because it is not.

It’s hard every day.

But, for me, it is also rewarding every day (well, maybe not every day, but certainly most days.)

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Montgomery, Alabama

I am blessed to serve in a unique situation. After being open to calls in a variety of places across the country, the Spirit led me back to Montgomery, AL for my second call, where I lived before seminary. I came back to Montgomery to explore opportunities for ministry, particularly engaging young adults, as I sensed a need to create space where the voices of young adults are centered as they discern their faith and are welcomed without judgment. Also, I felt called to exploring the possibilities for developing more diverse ELCA ministry in the state – I am currently one of two ELCA pastors of color serving congregations in Alabama. These needs and realities led to the development of Gathered by Grace.

When I left Montgomery seven years prior to go to seminary, I continued to work remotely with Baptist Health in a consulting capacity. This relationship was still in tack when the opportunity emerged for me to return to Montgomery to explore developing a new mission. As a result, I was able to return to serve in the same role I left to go to seminary, this time in a part-time capacity, as System Director of Business Development for the three-hospital health system.

Immediately, I was aware of the complementary nature of both my calls, both centered on exploring and starting new opportunities to serve the people of Montgomery. My health care career involves market research, long and short term business planning and strategic planning, working with first line staff to enhance patient experience; and, writing and presenting the case for new health services in our state regulatory process. These skills are helpful to Gathered by Grace because I have a strong awareness of the community we serve, the ability to cast vision and work with Gathered by Grace’s Connection Team to live it out, and grant-writing ability that has resulted in successful grants to fund mission.

Both roles put me in spaces in the community that help to benefit the other.

Also complementary is the opportunity for my non-pastoral job to be in a health system with a mission rooted in faith. The leadership of the organization I serve respects and values the dual nature of my work, which has been essential as I strive to achieve balance.

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As the conversation around finding creative ways to fund ministry continues and bi-vocational ministry rises to the forefront as an option, there are values to serving bi-vocationally that I have found to be essential.

Determine focus. When I began serving in this call, I knew I would not be able to participate in as many different ways in the wider church as I had when I was a full-time pastor. I also knew it would be difficult to say no to potentially exciting ways to serve the church, so I found it best to decide ahead of time how I planned to focus my time outside of my mission development to make decision-making easier when faced with new opportunities. I chose two areas of focus I feel called to – strengthening vitality of congregations and helping to make the ELCA a place welcoming to people who find themselves on the margins of church. I have worked to stay within those foci as I determine how to use my time and allocate limited vacation days. It’s not easy but it is necessary in this call.

Be a good steward of time for both calls. I am called by God to serve in both my mission development work and my health care work and I take seriously the need to be a good steward of time for both calls. Because there are times when it is necessary to be fluid in scheduling, I choose to maintain an accounting of how I spend my time each day. No one sees this calculation but me; yet, I maintain it, because I want to ensure I am, over time, maintaining the balance I have committed to both calls.

Give myself grace. l often feel like I should be somewhere I am not. There have been times when I had to leave work at the hospital to attend clergy meetings scheduled in the middle of the day or missed the meetings because leaving wasn’t an option. Last year I missed the Mission Developer Retreat in my synod because it was scheduled for the same time as the state hearing for a health care project I had been working on for six months. While I have always had a good sense of awareness that I can’t be in two places at one time and can’t be everything to everybody, this has been even more pronounced in this call. I have learned to give myself grace.

Resist pastor fragility. This may be an unpopular opinion; but, I think during the busy seasons of Holy Week and Christmas, pastors sometimes lean in to the fragility of our busyness. This feels particularly apparent to me in this call where I am not only regularly immersed in work with pastors but also regularly immersed in work with people in a non-church setting. I serve people who work multiple jobs and side gigs, who are involved in a host of community initiatives, who are in grad school and work full time, who are raising families. They are busy and still dedicate time to serve in ministry. There are times of the year that are more hectic for me as a pastor; but, the same is true for the month-end of an accountant, the end of the semester for a teacher, trial time for a lawyer, holiday time for a retail associate, and every day for a single parent working multiple jobs to make ends meet. And, people with all these experiences still regularly show up and offer their gifts for ministry in churches in a variety of ways. Sometimes I show up tired for Gathered by Grace’s Tuesday night Dinner and Dialogue after working all day but so do the people I serve. And, God shows up, renewing and restoring us all.

Practice radical self care. With rare exceptions, I take a full day off each week. I go on vacations. I show up at AquaZumba class as often as possible. I spend planned and unplanned time with friends and family. I read regularly. I am active in the community. I watch TV movies with unrealistic love stories (spoiler alert: the 1980s child star in the movie will always find love in the end.) Yet, my language of “practice” is intentional. Self-care requires constant intentionality for me. There are plenty of ways I still need to work on better self care; but, I continue to practice it unapologetically.

As the need continues to emerge for creative ways to afford ministry in an environment of increased financial pressure, I am grateful for this bi-vocational ministry experience. It has helped me better engage conversations about what it takes for bi-vocational calls to be nourishing and life-giving for both pastor and congregation.

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I find it important to emphasize that bi-vocational ministry experiences are not monolithic. There are unique aspects of my experience that are not the same for my colleagues who also serve in bi-vocational calls. For instance, because I develop new ministry, I have had the opportunity to shape the culture of the ministry I serve. Gathered by Grace has always had a pastor with two jobs, so there has always been the awareness and expectation among participants that there are three days each week when my availability is limited during the day. This is a different experience from an established congregational setting used to having a full-time pastor in the past and now shifting to a new cultural reality as they transition to a part-time, bi-vocational pastor. These kinds of realities are needed in order for a healthy bi-vocational relationship to be established. It won’t work to have full-time expectations from a part-time pastor.

Flowing between the two ways I am called to serve can be stressful at times because time is a limited resource. But, having this experience of being bi-vocational is a gift from God that has been an essential part of my ongoing formation as pastor and leader.

It is not easy; but, it is rewarding!


Headshot - Rev. Tiffany ChaneyTiffany is Pastor Developer for Gathered by Grace, an ELCA mission, and System Director of Business Development for Baptist Health, a three-hospital health system, in Montgomery, Alabama. A life-long Lutheran, Tiffany strives to engage in ministry that reaches to the margins and welcomes all. She has been invited to preach, teach, and write about topics including racial justice, evangelism, and strategic planning. Tiffany is encouraged by Romans 8:38-39, truly believing nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Road to Recovery – Jen Jesse, “Recovery Worship” Founder

For the month of May, We Talk. We Listen. is presenting a special series on mission development, also known as “church-planting.” However the idea of simply planting churches doesn’t exactly fit with any of our authors – case in point, meet our first author – Jen Jesse, who describes herself as a church disruptor  – and share some of her thoughts about how the life of faith is a form of recovery, recovery from a world (and churches) that try to make people forget that they are loved by God – and that when it comes to creating community waiting for permission and sanction isn’t an option. Sometimes you just have to do it.

Read, comment, and share!

Francisco Herrera, Interim Blog Editor


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“All are welcome,” right?

There was a time when I was settled at a church here in Utah – active in various ministries and activities, including leading contemporary worship – and this idea came to me for a modern, inclusive, ecumenical worship service. Yeah, that’d be cool, I thought. Maybe with dinner. Sunday evenings, for people who can’t/don’t attend Sunday mornings. These thoughts trickled in over several months, as thoughts do.

Then one day, while I was working on something completely unrelated, this word appeared in my mind: Recovery.

I’d always hated when churches “name” a service – it usually just comes off as trying too hard to be relevant, and there’s almost never an explanation for the name, just a random word like “The Edge” or “Summit” or “The Point” or anything else that sounds fancy.

But “Recovery” was like the first spark of a lighter that catches a flame. It held firm.

So many of us are recovering from harm and abuse thrust upon us by society and by the church. So many of us are recovering from beliefs and traditions, man-made as a method of control, rather than living God’s liberation and love for all.

So many of us are recovering from our own sin, our own part in the kyriarchy, our own learned behaviors and attitudes that we inherited; trying to overcome these misconceptions so that we can practice love instead of exclusion.

Many of us also feel the need to recover, as in reclaim, what has been given to us by God and what man has threatened and attempted to steal away. Our rights, our freedoms, our liberation, our grace, our call.

And, as a friend in AA pointed out, recovery is also about coming together as a community, open and vulnerable.

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Is faith itself not exactly this – recovery?

My spouse and I have tried to attend various churches, but something had changed inside – whether something great had broken or whether something broken was healing is debatable, but I suspect it’s a looping cycle of both. As the song goes, “I once was blind, but now I see.” I couldn’t help noticing things that were exclusionary and limiting. And I couldn’t stand idly by.

Microaggressions and overt harm abound in churches as they do in society at large, and a single person cannot even perceive them all. The walls of the church do not block out the kyriarchy, the false lords of whiteness, male-ness, cis-ness, hetero-ness, rich-ness, Europeanness, English-speaking-ness, grad-school-educated-ness, able-bodied-ness, allistic-ness, elite-ness… Kyrie eleison.

One Tuesday morning in January 2018, I wrote the following intro/explanation into a Word document:

A new worship service with some liturgical structure and traditions at its foundation, but stripped of man-made exclusivity and kyriarchical influences as much as possible, leaving God-given grace and mercy given for all souls.

A space and time for progressive Christian worship where every individual is affirmed as inherently valuable to God, and our call to love God and love one another is kept a focal point.

A worship service for deprogramming; for unfundamentalists; for those pushed aside by historical man-made structures; for women; for people of color; for the LGBTQIA community; for people with disabilities; for immigrants; for indigenous peoples / first peoples; for families of one and families of many; for children and youth, the elderly, the young-ish, and the middle-aged; for the oppressed, the recovering oppressor, and those who are both; for the love of all humankind.

Our recovery.

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Whenever I briefly mentioned the idea, people perked up and asked for more details. They were all interested. Some even signed themselves up to help every week, not having attended yet but so drawn to the mission and vision. People said they needed it.

So in early 2019, after countless calls and emails and meetings and visits, I grew tired of waiting for existing churches and clergy to be on board. I grew tired of waiting – yet again – for “The Church (™)” to accept this community that was begging for space. God makes room. Where institutions do not, where individuals do not, where oppression reigns, God disrupts the status quo and makes room.

Some forces are too strong and inevitable for mere mortals to control. Can you keep a baby in the womb when the time has come for birth? Can you hold back floodwaters when the dam breaks? Can you withhold God-given grace and mercy and acceptance?

I acknowledged myself out loud as “dechurched” and set my mind: “f— it, I’m just gonna do it.”

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Me and the band.

It was time to light the match. This is literally a salvation issue.

There is simply no other way to explain it. When the church excludes people, regardless of the church’s intention, those people receive the message that they are excluded from God’s grace and mercy. This is a lie, but having been in that situation myself, I can testify that it feels like probably the deepest, most permanent wound.

We had to do an Easter service. Celebrating the resurrection, Easter is hope, new life, and promise. We’d sing praises from a random rooftop or parking lot if we had to, but people needed this.

I wasn’t sure how many people to expect – 10? 200? (With dinner planned, there were lots of loaves & fishes jokes.) I admit, I was worried – what if nobody attended? What if it was just the band and the readers and the preacher, and we were just presenting a service for ourselves? “It’s okay – it’d still be worth it,” said one of the guitarists.

So the day came. April 21, 2019. Easter Sunday. We had all sorts of people! From ages 4 to 70-something. LGBTQIA+ people and straight people. People of color and white people. People who speak Spanish and English and ASL. People who’d attended other Easter services earlier that day, and people who hadn’t been in years (or maybe at all). People who are part of a Christian denomination, people who are simply “Christian,” people who are Pagan, people who don’t really know what label to use. Autistic people and allistic people. People with disabilities, visible and hidden. Radical leftists and conservatives. Cat people and dog people and reptile people. All of them God’s people. We ate dinner together, and when we had all finished, we moved into the sanctuary together for the Gospel, a brief sermon, and prayers, interspersed with a variety of music.

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Our first worship, Easter Sunday 2019.

And now the coals are smoldering.

We are trying to practice what Jesus preached. Open commensality, where everyone has a place at the table. Where space is held. Where room is made. Where we love God and love our neighbor (and everyone is our neighbor). We won’t be perfect, but we are going to continually try to be better. To love better.

The next immediate plans for Recovery are to participate in some local Pride services happening in May-June; do some fundraising (ahem); and line up resources so that we can finally start with weekly services!

Continually, constantly, I am trying to break out of the restraints of “tradition” and kyriarchy, to let God’s radical love make room. I am dechurched, but never de-faithed.

Holy Spirit, set our hearts ablaze.


Jen Jesse - photo (1)Jen Jesse is a church disrupter based in the Salt Lake City area. Her ministry is Recovery Worship, an ecumenical, radically inclusive worship space-time. Jen also runs Salty Consulting, focusing on small-to-medium businesses, churches and other houses of worship, and non-profits. Originally from the DC area, where she graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and George Mason University, she and her husband Josh moved to Utah in 2015. They have two little rescue pups, Jordy and Jackson (#SoManyJs).

 

Mary and the “After”-life… – Rev. Melissa Gonzalez

Mary grieving the death of Jesus – the pieta – is has been a common subject in art for well over 1000 years. However, rarely do we wonder about what happened to Mary post resurrection (there is little to no information about this in Scripture) nor how her pain might have still affected even after her son had risen again. Posing some of these questions in most eloquent form for us, the first week of Easter, is Rev. Melissa Gonzalez – Pastor-Developer of Tapestry, a multicultural ministry outside of Minneapolis.

Francisco Herrera, Interim Editor


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Three years ago I was asked to preach as one of seven pastors at a Tre Ore Good Friday service in Minneapolis. During three hours we each preached about one of the Seven Last Words, as Jesus’ last words on the cross are known. I chose “Mother, behold your son. Behold your mother.”

I recounted that day how I imagined Mary pondering Jesus’ birth, and how she felt as she watched her beloved oldest son grow up. I imagined it must be how we watch children grow up, ours and others. How they can be precocious like Jesus when his parents were upset he stayed behind at the temple without telling them. How Jesus scolded his mother for sticking her nose in when there was no good wine. And how she would have loved him just as he was.

Then when his ministry began to have an impact, she would have been proud, but then as Jesus became more renowned and popular. and he became the subject of intense fear and hatred, how she must have begun fearing for him. Even in her worst moments, though, she could have never imagined the cruelty of Jesus’ betrayal by a friend, the gross injustices in court, or the physical and spiritual pain that Jesus suffered that Mary would have felt to the very core of her being.

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I preached about how Mary would have laid at the foot of the cross and felt so alone. And how Jesus saw his mother’s pain and suffering and made sure she was not alone, that her beloved community was there to care for her. And in that, I caught a glimpse of the importance of beloved community.

But as far as I can remember, I left the story there at that time, as in my mind I’m sure I was already reaching forward to the resurrection. I left Mary’s story there at the foot of the cross, probably with some vague understanding that since Jesus was raised from the dead, there Mary’s story ended.

But you see, I was missing something that I didn’t even realize was missing until this week, this holy week, this week just after what would have been my beloved older son Chris’s 24th birthday. This week that is approaching the two year Sadiversary of my own beloved son’s death. I had looked in that sermon at Mary’s BEFORE-life. I hadn’t even considered Mary’s AFTER-life.

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“Monument to a Grieving Mother” – one of a series of such sculptures in countries of the former USSR commemorating grieving mothers who had lost children during World War II. This one is in the Smolensk region of Russia.

My older son Chris was lost in the Mississippi River on April 25, 2017. His body was recovered May 4, 2017. (I’ve written extensively about my son’s death on my personal blog here). This was the dividing line between my own before and after. And in this after, I have been so immersed in my own grief that I have only briefly begun to think about Mary. Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary, bereaved mother.

Soon after Chris’s death, I was preaching about John 3. In my “after” I rarely write sermons, so while I prepare for them, I never know what will come out of my mouth. That day, I recited John 3:16 from memory:” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” and I gasped.Through my tears it became clearer to me what the love of God the Father was for his son and what He had lost. I still didn’t think about Mary.

Until this week. The last time we were together as a family was on Easter, April 16, 2017. Last year Easter Sunday fell on Chris’s birthday, April 1st. This year Easter falls in the in-between, the days of mourning coupled with the day that brings with it the promise of the Resurrection.

So this week I began to ponder Mary in her “after”-life. I imagine her cradled in John’s arms, not wanting to get out of bed to face another day. I imagine Mary walking dazedly through her mornings when time became relevant and irrelevant at the same time, where Jesus’ death would have felt to her like yesterday and forever-ago no matter how much time had passed. I wonder what the changes would have been within her that would have made her unrecognizable to herself and to those around her. I wonder if she could still pray to the Father to whom Jesus had cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) or if she relied upon her beloved community to pray for her, just as I had to do for so long.

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“Monument to a Grieving Mother” – Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

I wonder if her friends told her she should “get over it” and “move on” and “heal” and “be happy because her son was in a better place” and “everything happens for a reason” and “God had a plan.” And sure, God has plans, but not for death. God’s plans are for light and life and love and hope and peace. And “Mary, if you were really faithful and believed God’s promises, then you wouldn’t cry anymore. You would be happy because Jesus is with his Father in heaven.”

Would Mary ponder all of these things in her heart and hold her tongue?

And I wonder how Mary responded when people inevitably told her how strong and courageous she was. I wonder if she responded as I do. “No. The death of my oldest son has brought me to my knees. I lie prostrate at the foot of the cross.” I wonder if she felt in the deep marrows of her bones that the love of God and the support and prayers of her beloved community were the only things holding her together, the only things that allowed her to stand, the only things that allowed her to speak in loving memory of her son, the only things that brought her any kind of peace.

The last time we hear Mary mentioned by name in the Bible is sometime around the Ascension of Jesus into heaven and the Pentecost. We read that Mary was with the disciples and Jesus’ brothers constantly devoting herself to prayer. I wonder if she was there when her beloved son ascended into heaven. I like to think she was. I like to think God granted her that tender mercy.

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The Pentecost – El Greco

And I like to think she was at the Pentecost. I like to think that the Holy Spirit rested on Mary as a tongue of fire so that this mother who certainly still grieved the death of her beloved son would be comforted with the Spirit and moved to share the good news of her son, of his birth and life and cruel death, but most importantly, the resurrection. Because it is in Jesus Christ’s resurrection that all who grieve death will find the promises of new life. New life that is only in Christ.

Blessed be the memory of Mary, this grieving mom who was given hope and who, I am sure, spoke her son’s name any time she could so that she might remember him. and we might remember him. May we, too, even in our grief, speak Jesus’ name so that all who grieve in this ravaged world might know that death does not have the last word.


On April 25, 2017, 22-year-old Chris Stanley was lost in the Mississippi River. He was planning to bike from Minneapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. In 2019, Melissa (Melnick) Gonzalez, 52-year-old mom, pastor, and non-biker took this 1500 mile journey by bike with the support of friends, family, and strangers. Melissa blogged, preached, and video-logged while training and completing the journey. She now speaks and preaches about: grief. cycling, and most importantly, about love, hope, light, and life.

Read more: Tapestry Web Page and Facebook: Fueled by Love: In Memory of Chris Stanley.