“Wisdom Sits in Places” – The Reverend Dr. Benjamin M. Stewart

Linda Thomas at CTS eventTalking about death in its practical, unavoidable form is never easy, but arguably, the act of facing the reality of death is one of the things that truly unites all creation. The Rev. Dr. Ben Stewart – Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship, Director of Advanced Studies at LSTC – gives us enlightening snippets of his most recent research on burial practices, and invites the reader to contemplate the ways that death is not so much the end of life, but rather simple confirmation of our connectedness to all that is. Read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”

Oak Flat, AZ – ancestral Apache land.

I’ve been intrigued by a Western Apache saying: wisdom sits in places.

It could provoke questions relevant to this forum. Is it helpful to picture wisdom as a single “place,” a common truth we seek? Or is wisdom infinitely situated and diverse? Can we know things profoundly together without sacrificing our equally profound diversity?

Many of us have come to know wisdom both as common ground and as a wildly diverse set of perspectives. Recently, I’ve come to appreciate this dual nature of wisdom through an encounter with mortality.

But first, consider wisdom itself.

I love academic campuses for the way the architecture itself seems to yearn toward wisdom. This yearning takes shape in the labyrinth of book stacks in the library, in the desks turned to thresh out wisdom in the classroom, and in the labor of papers being written — wisdom in gestation. Seeking words of wisdom is our daily work. So we build spaces to help us write words of wisdom, to exchange them, and even to stack them floor to ceiling.

But then the Western Apache say, wisdom sits in places. The saying refers to practices by which wisdom is understood to rest partly in the wider landscape, requiring pilgrimages to specific places where particular bodies of wisdom cohere. In this approach to wisdom, verbal wisdom-stories are told in juxtaposition to distinct physical places on the landscape. According to this way of knowing, spaces for wisdom aren’t carved out just anywhere to be filled with words. They are sought out on the wider landscape as partners in the conversation. (These practices are beautifully described by local voices in Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache.)


This Western Apache approach has been on my mind as I participated in a recent conference on the spirituality of natural burial.

I’ve been thinking about how the grave itself is a place of wisdom, and how it reflects both unity and diversity of wisdom. Here are three ways I’ve been reflecting on such wisdom at the grave.

Human mortality on a diverse interspecies landscape

Rather than limiting questions about mortality to the human horizon, the wisdom tradition of scripture broadens human attention to include the diversity of all mortal creatures (9 million species? 1 trillion species?). For example, after a panoramic celebration of biological diversity — from storks to wild donkeys to humans to sea monsters — Psalm 104 describes death and life rippling through every species:

All creatures look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth. (Ps 104.27-30)

This scriptural wisdom tradition situates human life and death within the widest horizons of biological diversity. When a funeral in the natural burial movement today carries a human body to a flourishing, biologically diverse setting for burial, it embodies (resurrects?) this scriptural wisdom tradition.* At the natural grave, the scriptural word of wisdom becomes flesh — mortal flesh — and returns to earth in its splendid diversity.

The Dust Bowl – Rural Kansas, 1933.

Fundamental common mortality

Of course, the wisdom tradition also emphasizes the other side of this equation: all of us diverse species (millions of us? billions? a trillion?) share… a common mortality.

All flesh is like grass. (1 Pet 1.24)

The fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath… all go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. (Eccl 3.19-20)

This wisdom portrays our mortality as common ground across the species. It is a foundation for solidarity between us. And there is ethical wisdom here for human society, too. This tradition invokes our common creaturely mortality to critique those who would try to rise above others through power or riches:

For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. (James 1.11)

Dorothee Soelle writes of the ethical implications of equality in death:

“I often ask myself whether death is not the very inventor of equality and whether human beings are permitted any equality at all without the consciousness of death’s power. As [death] is repressed in the world of the rich, so too the consciousness of human equality disappears. We all know, and are reminded daily, that there are simply ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ Perhaps the religion of the winners must exclude and repress death as far as possible from their consciousness. Can equality in the negative sense be so neatly distinguished from equality in the positive, revolutionary sense of human rights for all?” (Dorothee Soelle, The Mystery of Death)

All flesh is like grass, our wisdom texts say. It may be that this ancient grave-wisdom proposes a revolutionary equality for our ecological and economic relationships today.

Diverse paths to return to the earth

The many paths by which we return our beloved dead to the earth also display the diverse wisdom of human religions and cultures. Flocks of scavenger birds participate in the rites of Tibetan sky burial, nourishing the birds and carrying the remains of the deceased away in what is understood as a final act of self-emptying and altruism on the part of the deceased.

Jewish burial often accents the earth to earth tradition. Thus, many Jewish traditions ensure that the beloved dead rest in the grave on the earth rather than on a concrete vault, and bury in a shroud. If a coffin is used, it is normally made of wood, with holes sometimes drilled in the bottom to welcome the return to earth.

Philando Castile’s funeral (Joshua Loft, NY Times)

At the natural burial conference, Dr. Linda Thomas called attention to the dignity bestowed to the dead in African American traditions. Especially in the context of the daily struggle to preserve dignity, freedom, and life itself against a culture of white supremacy, the rituals of death assert the beauty and value of black lives and black bodies. Dr. Thomas shared an image from the funeral of Philando Castile, whose life was cut down dismissively and unnaturally by police violence. The beauty and dignity of the funeral expresses the wisdom of communal and divine valuation of Mr. Castile’s life, and embodies an implicit protest against the degradations of structurally racist dominant cultures.

From early in our history, many Christians have carved graves to face the sunrise, a sign of hope for a greater dawn of justice. Across the world, stones that stand above graves have kept vigil for the sunrise every morning for centuries, testifying to the hope expressed in the canticle classically sung both at morning prayer and at funerals: in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1.78-79)

Carried to the sky, returning to the earth, processed with stately dignity that the state denies, still seeking the dawn of a new day: these and many other practices at the grave embody the spectacularly diverse forms of wisdom by which we live and die.

Remembering wisdom at the grave

Wisdom sits in places.

For preview click here…

With the help of a recent conference, I’ve found wisdom at the place of the grave. It’s wisdom that is common ground, speaking to our unity. All of us go down to the dust, the tradition sings. And the wisdom of the grave is also pluriform, wisdom of many perspectives, honoring the blessed diversity of cultures, creaturely life, and individuals.

This raises questions about the vanishing place of the body and the earth in North American funeral rites. Increasingly, memorial services are conducted without a body and do not return any body to the earth. Ash Wednesday charges us to remember the wisdom of our mortality, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Ironically, this is what the modern “memorial” service forgets. If wisdom sits in places, and the place of the grave speaks the wisdom both of our shared identity and our spectacular diversity, then we have special reason to attend one another’s funerals, to accompany each other with dignity and honor in our diverse bodies and cultures, all the way home to the earth.

* The natural burial movement — sometimes known as the green burial or green funeral movement — has three main distinctions. Bodies are cared for without chemically toxic embalming. Vessels that hold the bodies are natural and biodegradable. And bodies or cremated remains are returned to the earth in ways that care for the integrity of the land or even preserve the land as wildlife habitat. You can learn more through the Green Burial Council, or through books by Suzanne Kelly, Hannah Rumble and Douglas Davies, and Mark Harris. I write about it briefly in this little book on worship and ecology and offer a practical and theological overview in this article.

stewartBenjamin Stewart, PhD, is the Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship and Director of Advanced Studies at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where he has taught since 2009.
A frequent conference speaker and a Lutheran pastor, Ben previously served as pastor to a small, Appalachian community in Ohio, and as village pastor to Holden Village retreat center in the Glacier Peak Wilderness of Washington. In addition to articles in a number of journals including Worship, Liturgy, and The Christian Century, Ben is author of A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology (2011). He is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy and serves as convener of its Ecology and Liturgy Seminar. He is currently writing an ecotheology of natural burial practices. Ben and his wife Beth live in Western Springs, near Bemis Woods and the Salt Creek, and are parents of two sons, Justin, in high school, and Forrest, in college.

Jesus Sits With Us in Our Grief – River Needham, Clergy Candidate for the Metropolitan Community Churches

ThomasLindaLast fall, our first trans author, River Needham, presented “We Talk. We Listen.” with a marvelous tutorial on the foundational concepts and terms of trans identity. A little more than a year later, River now gives us a tripartite reflection – on the 2016 election, on Trans Day of Remembrance, and Jesus’ reliable embrace in our lives and our pain. As a seminarian and an academic, River lives and breathes and studies intersectionality and their current reflection is a tour de force of complex identity, compassion, and intellectual probity. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”

This past Sunday, we commemorated a special day in the church year: Next week, we start the year over again and can celebrate the anticipated coming of Christ with Advent again. We remembered the end of the church year; We celebrated the coming realm of God and the characteristics of God’s realm that Jesus taught us. We also commemorated Transgender Day of Remembrance.

The past few weeks have looked like and reminded me of the times of Jesus. Just about two weeks ago, our country went through an election, for president.  People on all sides of our national discourse had placed their hopes and their dreams in their ideal candidate.

When Jesus was born, the empire had just called a census. When the time came for the religious rituals of being born, a man at the temple prophesied over Jesus and said: “God has raised up a mighty savior for us, and that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.”[1]

How similar it feels: Politicians had the hopes and dreams that people had for Jesus placed upon them. They would be a savior from the status quo or the ramp of progress into the future.

Today, we read the result of Jesus’ unannounced run for political office in the Judean province of the Empire of Rome.  “When they reached the place called The Skull, they crucified him.” Jesus resisted the political system, by preaching God’s realm is coming soon – and the people called out “Crucify Him,” the government honored their wishes, and today we remember that Jesus was crucified – and more than being crucified, Jesus showed us the realm of God brought to earth.

In the US election, there was hope for a Green new deal, a libertarian return to individual sovereignty. Others were hoping to find a way to make our country great or to celebrate the greatness we already have in the USA.  Once we got the vote counts, we realized that something was missing, and I dare say that no one was particularly happy – no matter where you stood coming into the election.   The supporters, voters, and citizens, were each terrified, heartbroken, and reeling, by the election results, the realization that the election cycle deeply divided our country, and that none of our political saviors could save our hopes and our dreams for our country and our future.

Transgender day of Remembrance also falls on the 20th of November, this year.  Some of us gathered to read and to hear the names of two hundred, forty transgender people, each one beloved by God, who were killed by clients, lovers, parents, cousins and strangers in the name of honor, fear, and emotions that are incomprehensible.

We gathered to remember the 55 beloveds of God, who in their violent deaths lost their name.

We remembered those killed by their own hands, because of this cruel world not yet ready for their gifts. Society sacrificed each of these transgender people to our god-like ideals of conformity and obedience.

Jesus shows us a different way.

A better way.

The realm of God.

In Luke’s crucifixion narrative, Jesus shows us that while being crucified, it is possible to reach out and show grace to those who act in ignorance.  Jesus shows us that people can change.

Jesus comes to us in our fear and grief and sits with us.

While Jesus was on the cross, the hopes and the dreams of so many people, that Judea would soon be free from Roman rule, died.  While Jesus was on the cross, the hope of so many people, that Jesus would make himself the sovereign of an earthly realm, died.

As we read the names of transgender people, a few stood out to me and helped a few of my dreams (Well, more likely fantasies) die.

T. T. Saffore

One of these dreams that had to die was that Chicago was universally a safe place for people who, like me, defy the normative narratives of society.  On the 11th of September of this year, T. T. Saffore was killed just a few short miles from here.  She died after her attacker stabbed her over 100 times.

Kayden Clarke

Another one of these dreams was that the demographic information for those killed doesn’t match up with mine all that well, and maybe I would be safe.  Then, this year 24-year-old Kayden Clarke was shot and killed by police responding to his call for help, because he was suicidal.

As we gathered for Transgender Day of Remembrance, God came and sat with us in our grief.  As we read the names, lit candles, and shed tears, God was here, reminding us of their presence, grace, and love.

Later in Luke’s crucifixion narrative, we see Jesus interacting with criminals – who acknowledge that their crucifixions were legitimate while resisting the legitimacy of Jesus’ death sentence.  When they beg for mercy, Jesus reminds the man on the cross next to him, that the coming realm of God would include him.  Jesus, as he was in deep pain, responded to the cries of the fearful and hurting.

Jesus was a boundary breaker

Jesus was living in the realm of God, where we are all siblings together,

the realm of God where we are our kindred’s keeper,

the realm of God where we come together and sit with each other in our grief.

In our national and local political environment, our pain began to grow so apparent about two weeks ago, and that grief has only increased over that time. I believe that Jesus’ grieves too, over a country divided against itself. He grieves over those beloved children of God who feel the need to dehumanize and to kill other of God’s beloved.

She grieves over those treated differently because of the color of their skin, the gender of their heart, the people they love.

Here we see that just as Jesus came to earth and was born during a tumultuous political time, we can rest in the assurance that Jesus has been with every one of us as we have mourned the election results. Jesus was with us as we remembered Kayden, T.T., and the other 293 of our transgender siblings whom we remember this year.

trans image.png
Mary Buttons’ Station of the Cross – Station 12: Jesus Dies on the Cross.

In the Icon on the screen, which uses dated language, the artist takes the violent, death of Rita Hester in Allston, Massachusetts on November 28, 1998, and compares it to the crucifixion of Jesus. The vigils and memorials following her death gave birth to what we call today Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Today, while Jesus sits with us in a cosmic, spiritual way, the realm of Christ reminds us that we can embody the values of Jesus by sitting with each other in our grief. We can gather around the things that cause our hurt, find and enact our solutions, and become a community that gathers together, grieves together, and then gets it done and fixed, together.
[1] Luke 1:69,71.

14695461_1768760416727583_664514677993063806_n.jpgRiver Needham  is a clergy candidate with the Metropolitan Community Churches, and studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. River focuses their time and studies on fostering trans/gender liberation and emotional wellness within local congregations. River uses pronouns like they/them/theirs/themselves.

Election 2016: A Tale of Two Photos -Rev. Joseph L. Morrow, Campus Engagement Manager for Interfaith Youth Core

ThomasLinda sittingOur next post on the subject of last week’s election comes from Rev. Joseph L. Morrow – Engagement Manager for Interfaith Youth Core. Focused on the very real pain many US citizens are feeling after the election of Donald J. Trump, Pastor Morrow’s post is a reminder that fear need never shake our faith, nor get in the way of being able to see the other, no matter how much the ‘other’ may be problematic to us. Read, comment, and share, friends. Let’s keep the conversation going!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”

The flourishing of a diverse democracy is incredibly important to me both personally and vocationally. As a Presbyterian pastor I work for Interfaith Youth Core, a civic organization working with US colleges and universities to make religious diversity a source of social strength, rather than division. I also belong to a family and have friends who represent a broad cross section of American life. So in the midst of this contentious and fear ridden election cycle, I was struck by two photos that succinctly capture my thoughts both before and after the results came in.

First photo, Korean American Resource and Cultural Center 11/8/2016

The first photo is one I took early evening on Election Day, before the votes rolled in. I was at an election watch party with my wife and young child held at the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center (KRCC) where Korean American seniors who had volunteered to make calls to get out the vote throughout the day were gathered with staff and youth volunteers. As youth from diverse cultural backgrounds played in the office basement with my daughter Ella, several of us of diverse cultures, languages, religions, and ages, huddled around the TV, munching on lukewarm pizza and Korean food. An impromptu concert began and we suddenly found ourselves serenaded by one volunteer’s stirring rendition of the national anthem played on harmonica. I snapped a photo to capture the endearing moment.

It’s a scene so reminiscent of others I’ve experienced in sundry times and places throughout my life, from my neighborhood, to my school, to my college campus. This is the America I love. A place where people of from all walks of life are comfortable and encouraged to share their gifts with one another. A place where sweet music can be made that warms the heart and encourages the soul. This is the America so many of my forebears toiled and sacrificed to make possible. Despite the waves of despair and frustration, I will continue to fight and struggle for its survival. Wherever I see our government or citizenry safeguarding this image of America I will lend my support and wherever I see them denigrate it I will lend my opposition.

Second Photo: At work the next day, 11/9/2016.

The second image comes from my workplace the day after the election. Because we are an interfaith organization comprised of staff from diverse religious and non-religious traditions, our office has an interfaith room in which we are free to gather for prayer, reflection or meditation. On that day, many of us in the organization who in some way identify with the Christian tradition gathered to pray and read scripture. While we were gathered inside, one of our colleagues, Prerna Abbi, who identifies as a Secular Hindu, noticed the pile of shoes outside the room. Removing our shoes  before entering that reflective space is an almost instinctual custom we observe in the office out of respect to our Muslim and Hindu colleagues who require it in order to purify the space. But in that moment, our collection of shoes meant so much more. For Prerna those shoes were a sign of hope and solidarity. And looking at her photo I can understand why.

Each pair of those shoes represents someone who made the time and space to hold a vulnerable nation in their heart. In that room, we expressed our grief and hope, we prayed for strength to those living in fear, wisdom for those with newfound power, and courage for those who must humane ways resist. Whoever you may be in this land of ours, I hope it is heartening to know a few dedicated people gathered on that day to pray for your individual and our collective well-being in a time of deep fear and uncertainty.

Huddled in our worship, liturgy and prayer, it is not often that as Christians we get to glimpse the effect of our faith from the outside. Many times we are not aware of our spiritual imprint, but for me the sight of the shoes of the prayerful was a reminder that our presence and our commitment matters. And it prompts an important questions for US Christians in the season ahead:

In this uncertain and fearful hour, what imprint will our prayers make on the lives of others? To what purpose will we direct the liturgy of our everyday existence?

Photo Credit, Andrew W. Rennie.

Most people I know are grieving the election results, some I know are satisfied or more optimistic.

Either way, what gives me hope and life in this moment are thinking about the promise that is captured in these two striking images, which represent so much of what I hold fast to about my country and my Christian faith. Those promises stand before the horizon as destinations toward which I will step forward with pilgrim shoes.

If I may riff on a line from the prophet Isaiah (52:7):

‘Beautiful are the shoes that bring good news! Who proclaim peace, who bring glad tidings.’

bio.jpg Joseph L. Morrow works for the national non-profit Interfaith Youth Core and is a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Chicago for the PC(USA). Joe received his M.Div from North Park Theological Seminary, studied at McCormick Theological Seminary and received his B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University. He is a native of Chicago where he lives with his wife Sung Yeon and their daughter Ella.

The Road to 270 Was Through the ELCA – Vicar Lenny Duncan, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church; Conshohoken, PA

Picture 002To fulfill its duty as a way-station for theological discussion of current events, all this week “We Talk. We Listen” will be playing host to multiple perspectives of the recent election of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency of the United States. Our first is from a student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelpia, Vicar Lenny Duncan – and he doesn’t pull punches. For presenting itself as a denomination that is welcome to all, many of the ELCA’s churches are thick in states that ultimately catapulted Trump to the presidency, harking to his campaigns use of misogyny, racism, Islamaphonbia, and ableism. As a black man who is formerly incarcerated, he writes unflinchingly of what this new political reality means to him, and many marginalized communities that now worry for their survival after last week’s tidal shift. Read, post, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


Secretary Hillary Clinton making her concession speech on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 – after losing the Electoral College vote to Donald Trump 228 – 290.

I know many of you are still reeling from the results of Tuesdays election. Many of you reading this are still trying to deal with the seismic shift that you believed happened. You are trying to find a new north for your moral compass. A way forward.

I am not. I stand before you unafraid, unsurprised and unbowed. Not because I’m made of better stuff than you. But because I know white America. I have traveled all over this country as a homeless teen. I have hung with “friends” for months or years only to hear them say “nigger.” Then explain how they didn’t mean me, because I’m different.

I have been hungry. I’m talking real hunger, when you haven’t eaten for at least 3 days. You start out full of emotion, anger and desperation. But by day 3 your emotions deaden. They become flat. You start to shuffle through the day and your body starts to eat itself.

Spiritual hunger is no different, and the body of Christ reacts the same way.


I have seen empire clearly since I was a child. Since the police dropped a firebomb in my neighborhood in West Philly to stamp out the M.O.V.E organization. As the flames rose and I asked my Dad what the smoke was from he looked me in the eye and said “That’s what happens when you call the police for help.”

I have worn leg and wrist shackles with the long chain dangling in between. Unable to take a step longer than 6 inches without it pulling on my ankles. Blood filling my county issued shoes. Sat in a room with 40 other people. Anger confusion and rage floating around like an unwelcome shadow. Sat and listened to a harried public defender get my name wrong three times as he explains the deal I must take. Or I could to stay in jail for a year while the courts figure it out. What’s another felony weighed against being stuck on the modern-day plantation?

I’m not surprised because as a Black man I have lived in Donald Trump’s America since I was a child. I have been preparing for Tuesday since I taught myself to read.

A mantra I often use in regards to my work with the #decolonizelutheranism movement is that “the problem is not sociological, it is theological.” I stand by that now.

Here is your wake-up call.

The area’s that won this demagogue the day were overwhelmingly ELCA Lutheran strongholds. The path to 270 and beyond marched right through the heart of the Augsburg Confessions and wore the red cover of an ELW as it marched up to the voting booth. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the crumbled “blue firewall.”

Many states that propelled Donald J. Trump to the presidency – North and South Dakota, North and South Carolina, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia – have significant numbers of congregations in the ELCA.

Many failed to see it coming. Why? Because they thought they were having a political discourse, when they were actually facing systemic evil and its consequences. A theological battle was raging across our pews and we depended on polite society to win the day. They underestimated the power of white supremacy and evil. White supremacy doesn’t need its unwitting participants to be consciously racist.  In fact it relies on you not believing you are. The pundits refuse to call it what it is. The conversation has already shifted.

“We need a reset”

“We need to give him a chance”

“Unity should be our main focus”

This call rings hollow to me because it is always what the oppressor always says to the oppressed. It tells you that the boot on your neck is actually a deep massage. That your dying children are actually your own fault. That the continued state of poverty and emptiness you find yourself is your fault. It relies on the deeply embedded mythology of the American dream.

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps”

People talk about gas lighting, but Black peoples have been getting gas-lighted in America since the first whip beat us close to death, and we were told it was our behavior that caused it.  

They will tell us in the next coming weeks it was a DNC collapse that caused this. They will point out that neo liberalism is a failed experiment. They will talk about the lack of dialogue between urban society and middle America. Someone will write a New York Times bestseller about this like Nero playing violin as Rome burns.

But the problem isn’t political. It isn’t sociological.

It is theological.

The path to 270 was through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We failed. The magic number was 107,000. That was how many votes decided the Trump Presidency.

We only had to point out to 107,000 people that the Gospel is good news to the oppressed, never to the oppressor. That the Gospel is liberation here and now. But we as leaders of this church refused to because we were concerned about portico benefits. The next council meeting. Someone said my sermon was too political. To treat Jesus as someone who was incarnate in time and space, and then to believe he was unaware of the political ramifications of his ministry is heresy. Period.  

Resurrection has political ramifications because the structures we have as government are imbued with deep evil that runs down to its DNA.

This happened because many of us quiver with fear at the prospect of declaring from the pulpit that Jesus was a brown man, in a colonized land, railroaded in court, and killed by state sanctioned execution. Because we are heretical. We have taken Jesus from time and space and reduced him to an intellectual exercise that has far less impact than the hymns we choose every week.

We are all guilty.

We have entered a 2nd Reconstruction.

A a post-election protest rally in downtown Chicago, one of many such protests around the country.

Black codes will become Muslim codes. Or LGBTQ codes. The prison industrial complex is going to have an orgy of pain and merciless hunting in the coming weeks and days. Law and Order the new twin gods that we will sacrifice our children too. The economy the new golden calf that we will make love too. My life is on the line, but you never mentioned that. You sat in pastoral care meetings and let your parishioners talk about health care. Meanwhile on Tuesday I became an endangered species.

The hope. Where is the hope for us than?

The church has always flourished when it was counter cultural. When it was in resistance to the empire.

The hope is that you are seeing America clearly for the first time in a long time. The hope is that same brown man who was executed stood up three days later and shifted the entire universe.

The hope is you were anointed, called to a time such as this. Republics have fallen. Kings pass away.

Empires crumble. The church has stood throughout it all. The first step is we need to challenge what it means to be a Christian and a Christian leader. The next is we organize, we resist. Lastly we need each other so desperately right now. People gather in community because when we gather in the name of God something deep down inside each and every one of us gets fixed. Set right and renewed.

I leave you with this as we contemplate what we each will be doing in response to all this last week.


“All people need power, whether black or white. We regard it sheer hypocrisy or as blind and dangerous illusion the view that opposes love to power. Love must be the controlling element in power, not power itself. So long as white church men continue to moralize and misinterpret Christian love, so long will justice continue to be subverted in this land.” 

National Committee of Negro Churchmen, “Black Power Statement” July 31st, 1966


14718881_10206240696451273_7297790714910039448_n.jpgLenny the vicar at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Conshoshoken, PA and Candidate for Ordination to the office of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA. He is also the Evangelist for the #decolonizelutheranism movement, as well as a frequent voice on the intersection of the Church and the cries of the oppressed. He pays special attention to the #blacklivesmovement in his work, but lifts up the frequent intersection with other marginalized peoples.  He believes that the reason the ELCA has remained so white, is a theological problem, not sociological one. He is currently an M.Div Coop student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and holds a Bachelors of Biblical Studies from Lancaster Bible College, with an emphasis in New Testament Theology and Ministry.


Which Way Forward? Confession. Reverend Dr. Linda E. Thomas


Whatever the outcome of today’s historic election, the crucial question to consider is how we move forward as people of faith. After all, we call ourselves Christians after our early ancestors—who by choosing to follow Jesus, the risen Christ— suffered persecution along the way. We who are the descendants of those called to live by the example of Jesus who was resurrected as the Risen Christ through whom we are baptized and to whom we are called to confess.
I’ve heard two sermons in the past 36 hours and viewed a Facebook video that has greatly influenced my perspective about how we move forward. On Sunday, Reverend Dr. Otis Moss III  Preaching from Nehemiah 9 – where Israel recognized a call to confess because there was likewise a need to confess to God – Dr. Moss’ call for our nation to confess sounded much like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said this from his pulpit this past Sunday:

“There is a need for our nation standing on the precipice of an election to confess.”

Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III – Rabbi Anna Levin Rosen

Then at Monday’s Interfaith Service of Remembrance and Commitment in Observance of Kristallnacht at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Rabbi Anna Levin Rosen reflected on the story of Noah found in Genesis. Noting that since the ark only had one window, Noah could not see the devastation of the earth. Similarly, for us today, the promise of the Jewish faith, particularly on the Observance of Kristallnacht, is to consider what Noah needs to see and give witness to especially after the return of the dove with a little sprig of grass—showing that the ark could now proceed with a landing. She asked a question that might follow our own confession—What do we need to see? To what do we need to bear witness?

Likewise, a video clip is circulating around Facebook with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalia Lama, with great joy, bearing witness to the idea that “people are fundamentally good.” Is this wondrous statement of nearly two years of challenging discourse a joyful one to have two spiritual leaders share with the world? It seemed to me that they were talking directly to the American people. After all, is said and done, no matter the outcome of today’s election, the Creator fashioned humanity who, through flawed, is none-the-less made in the image of God.

Whatever the outcome of today’s election, Christians are called to remember our baptism and to confess. Following our confession perhaps we will discern what we need to see, what we need to bear witness to. Perhaps our individual and collective confession can help us more effectively lean into tomorrow and henceforth. As Martin Luther King, Jr. asked “Which Way Forward?” I believe we are called to rebuild civility in our public discourse. Since we are imperfect earthen vessels, let today be a day of confession, even as it is Election Day in the United States. Let’s position ourselves to know that like our ancestors, we ultimately are only accountable to the Triune God, no matter the outcome.


In that spirit, let us consider these excerpts from Dr. Moss’ sermon:

Nehemiah 9 that lifts up four elements of confession.

First, confession must be communal. It is a collective act where we are interconnected in recognizing our culpability.

Second, confession must also be truthful. It is where we speak the truth of where injury has been caused.

Third, confession must be spiritual. We recognize the imago dei. All humans are made in God’s image and as such we are all interconnected as creations of the Divine and people have the imprint of the Divine upon themselves.

Fourth, confession should be continual. It should happen daily. We do not confess weekly, but rather daily knowing that when we wake up from last night’s slumber we must confess and pray unto God, “Forgive us for our dreams last night.”

Having these four-part understanding of confession on this Election Day, let this nation collectively confess on behalf of the following:

Our country must confess the creation of the Trail of Tears; for running a pipeline through and poisoning the water on the sacred land of the Stand Rock Sioux and, once again, breaking a treaty with a sovereign nation.

Our country must confess and take responsibility for the genocide, rape, lynching, and deaths of over sixty million people of African descent. We must confess for writing into the founding documents of the United States of America the lie that people of African descent are only three/fifths of a human being and treating them as inhuman.

Our Church  must confess that upon Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 324, the nature, doctrine and theology of the church changed its focus on Jesus toward the focus and support of political edicts perspective of the emperor.

As a Church we must confess to holding misogynistic views. We have made claims that women are not fit to preach, teach, serve or be called by God to do God’s work. We must confess for creating unsafe spaces for women and making it possible for men to claim that the way women dress, look, or wear make-up provide provocation for assault.

As a Church we must confess to hurting  the LGBTQAI community. We confess that we have refused to accept their humanity and gifts. We want them to tithe and share their gifts in service, but we simultaneously condemn them to hell.

We must confess loving to preach Jesus but, we not preaching what Jesus preached. This is the reason many millennials are running from the church. They love Jesus but cannot stand the church.

We must confess as a city to tolerating Chicago’s checkered past of race and racism and the intentional creation of economic apartheid. We confess that these acts are not accidental, but rather intentional.

We must confess that the political system of our city is broken and we have not demonstrated the political will to stop the violence. We must confess that we can spend money, time, resources, and strategy organizing a Cub’s parade, but we cannot spend the same amount of time nor energy to figure out how to save our children in the City of Chicago.

Finally, we confess stumbling as children of God. We have fallen and tripped up as parents, spouses, and children.  We confess that we hold grudges and have not forgiven. We must confess that although called by God to confess, we do not always do so and that we must learn how to forgive ourselves because God has already forgiven us. Amen!

ThomasLinda sittingThe Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas has engaged students, academics and communities as a scholar for almost twenty years. She studies, researches, writes, speaks and teaches about the intersection and mutual influence of culture and religion. Her work is rooted intransitively in a Womanist perspective. An ordained Methodist pastor for 35 years with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The American University in Washington D.C. and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Thomas’s work has taken her to South Africa, Peru, Cuba and Russia. She has been recognized as an Association of Theological Schools Faculty Fellow as well as a Pew Charitable Trust Scholar.

Chaos and Living Waters – Liz Christensen Kocher; Candidate for Ordination, ELCA

Picture 002The Holy Spirit is moving mightily among us these days – not-so-subtly exposing the systemic evil that plagues this country in everything from our criminal justice system to our electoral politics. It is no wonder than, the dignity of our nations indigenous people’s would eventually come to the fore as well.  In response, M.Div. senior Liz Christensen Kocher has written a brief reflection on her time visiting the Standing Rock Sioux last week, effectively modeling the passionate, compassionate, and fearless leadership which church-leaders must provide in times such as these. Read, comment, and share, friends!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep. A wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1.1-2)

Then the Spirit showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22. 1-2)


The banner of the delegation of ELCA seminarians.

In his essay, “Out of Chaos,” Native theologian Vine Deloria Jr. narrates the ways that indigenous peoples have been living in exile since their first contact with colonialism. This exile exists when peoples with intimate, divine ties to land and place are systematically removed from those lands and stripped of that spiritual identity. What we are witnessing at Standing Rock is a return from exile, the beginnings of the realization of Deloria’s hope that…

“out of the chaos of their shattered lives…Indians would begin to probe deeper into their own past and view their remembered history as a primordial covenant.”[1]

Out of chaos comes this kairos moment at Standing Rock: this season of time when God’s liberating actions are breaking through the injustices of the world and breathing life and hope into God’s people in this time and space.

So when Episcopal priest and long-time advocate for the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, Father John Floberg, relayed a call from Standing Rock Sioux elders to summon clergy of all denominations and faiths to join together for a public witness, myself and 10 other members of LSTC followed. And during this kairos moment we engaged in peaceful, prayerful, non-violent, and lawful witness to the compassion that the water protectors and Standing Rock Sioux were actively demonstrating in protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Huddled together on bleachers in a community gym in the town of Cannon Ball, ND, our journey in this witness together began. We clarified that our purpose there was not to ‘save’ the people at Standing Rock or to fight their battles, but to be advocates and allies, to be a voice affirming the protests and the actions. We dwelt in the chaos, complication, and uncertainty of the situation. We lamented the places where brokenness was still deep, places as yet unhealed. We embraced anger. We prayed for the law enforcement, knowing that the Creator binds us all together as one body.

Gathering during the morning of Thursday, November 3, 2016.

And then on the chilly morning of Thursday, November 2, 2016, 524 clergy – representing more than 24 faith traditions – stood in front of the Standing Rock Sioux elders, while hundreds from the camp looked on.

We began by publically repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, a church-created document that negated the humanity of indigenous peoples and allowed for colonial expansion on this very land. Fr. Floberg proclaimed that we could not authentically advocate for the Standing Rock Sioux and all native peoples without first repenting the evil of the doctrine. “They are protecting a pipeline that was put in place because of a church doctrine. And we are here to say that we were wrong.”

With songs of “Amen,” with blessings of a sage smudging, and with the testimonies of Elders and protectors, we began. And when it was our turn to move forward in the march, we heard others saying to us, “I love you. We love you.” Through tears, an indigenous woman at the camp proclaimed these words to both the clergy gathered and the water protectors, elders, and campers at Sacred Stone camp, alike. We gathered at the borderland bridge with clergy from indigenous nations in the Pacific Islands, Central America, and North America; Muslim, Jewish, Buddist, Universalist testimony to the holiness of creation; Native peoples sharing their lands’ religious and spiritual history. The thread that drew us together was the sacredness of the water. Mni Wiconi. Water is life.

Giving testimony at the borderland bridge.

Throughout the time of testimony we clergy were invited, a few at a time, to approach the border of the bridge and pray. With helicopters above my head, militarized police in front of me, surveillance and sniper vehicles ever-present in the distance, we emerged from the crowd of protectors and silently approached that border. I offered words of gratitude to the water protectors, shook their hands, and then lifted my own hand in blessing to the border, and the law enforcement beyond the border. My silent prayer was one of reconciliation, hope, and safety, that the fullness of God’s creation might be restored.

When I returned to our clergy witness, we were gathering, single-file, clergy and non-clergy alike, into an enormous circle. We prayed, and then offered a sign of peace to one another. Every one of us, to every other one of us. And just like that, our time together was over, and after sharing a sack lunch near the bridge, watching the flow of our own little river of life, we explored a bit more of the camp, then embarked on the long journey home.

This kairos moment is about the Dakota Access pipeline, and it’s also about more than the pipeline. It’s about how God created the waters of our land to be the veins of the body of creation, a life force that none can live without. It’s about water protectors coming together to protect that life force, protectors representing over 200 tribal nations, coming together for the first time in at least a century. It’s about standing up to a system that allows desecration of indigenous peoples and lands for the benefit of those in power. It’s about naming the wrongs of 524 years of broken land treaties, abuse, cultural and physical genocide, exiling of a people, and actively righting those wrongs. It’s about breaking free from the reservation system, named by some protectors as “POW camps,” which keeps indigenous peoples in a cycle of staggering unemployment, poverty, and suicide. It’s about the full humanity of every indigenous person in all creation. It’s chaos. It’s amazing. My voice and presence is simply one of thousands that can witness to the creative force that, like Revelation’s tree of life, is for the healing of the nations.

As public leaders, we are called to show up in those places of chaos and uncertainty, beauty and hope. Places like Standing Rock, Ferguson, Baltimore, Michigan Avenue and the street of South Side Chicago, ICE detention centers, advocacy centers and shelters in our small, rural towns. It doesn’t take a far look to see where people are hurting.

LSTC’s delegation to Standing Rock.

Not everyone can make the trip to North Dakota. Not everyone feels called to make the trip to North Dakota. The size and shape of advocacy is a diverse and varied as the make-up of the human family. And yet it is precisely with that beautiful chaos that God uses us to bring about God’s kin-dom.

[1] Deloria Jr., Vine, “Out of Chaos,” in For This Land: Writings on Religions in America. New York: Routledge Publishing, 1999. 248.


For ways to support the Sacred Stone camp and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe:



More information on our clergy gathering:



14996419_1438045336207378_1682265140_nLiz Christensen Kocher is a candidate for ordained ministry in the ELCA and in her final year at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She is from Omaha, Nebraska, and sees her call to ministry as one that builds bridges, embraces the beautiful diversity of all God’s creation, and has a hope and faith in the future of our church. Liz finds life and energy in making music and hiking with her husband, Phil.

I’m an Evangelical, but It’s Complicated… – Troy Medlin, LSTC Middler

Linda Thomas at CTS eventTheological education engages students in the a process that involves head, heart, and gut. This method is often considered to be solely linked to the “life of the mind,” and also includes deep diving to assess the largest part of our iceberg. Thus, the method of inquiry/review, assessment/analysis, change/reform, and reconstruction/transformation usually involves the heart and the gut. Since becoming a student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago last year, M.Div. middler Troy Medlin has leaned into having a personal revolution of a sort; certainly a re-ordering-not just as someone seeking to acquire a more critical eye of his faith, but  as someone who is specifically wrestling with what it means to be evangelical – especially in light of recent conservative politics in the United States. Take a peek friends, and read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”

They say confession is good for the soul. So… let me start with a confession.

I am an evangelical.

Seriously, I am an evangelical Christian. For better or for worse, these are my people.


This is how I grew up. It is how I first learned to articulate my faith, it is where I first fell in love with Jesus, it’s where I was first caught up in this radical message that there was a God who loved me. It is where I found peace and comfort throughout my childhood, it is in the evangelical church where I first felt my call to ministry and where I preached my first sermons. It is where I was formed and shaped as a Jesus follower. I even went to undergrad at a well-known evangelical Bible college. And, still it is the Christian sub-culture I feel most comfortable in. I am an evangelical.

I must admit though, sometimes my relationship with evangelicalism is, shall I say:  it’s complicated.

In some ways, I should have abandoned the evangelical label a long time ago. After all I am a proud Democrat, I have been active and outspoken on some fairly progressive politics. I believe Black Lives Matter. I believe climate change is a grave threat to our world. I made phone calls and went door to door for Bernie Sanders. I am a seminarian at a progressive mainline Lutheran seminary and I am a gay man, just to name some of the ways I move through the world. Yet, despite this feeling deep in my bones to claim my identity as an evangelical, it is also in some ways more complicated than ever; as life happens to get when we are in the throes of a presidential election. It is complicated because when I hear people like Donald Trump, Jerry Falwell Jr, and Franklin Graham use the word “evangelical” I just can’t stop thinking, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means…”

See article here.

At this point it is important to ask, “what exactly makes someone or something evangelical in the first place?”

Well, it’s complicated.

It may be helpful to do a quick survey of how evangelicalism has become so polarizing in popular culture. How we have gone from being this jubilant people of good news to, well, anything but. Especially in the United States the term “evangelical” has slowly been co-opted by people who see an opportunity for political power and cultural influence around issues like abortion and so-called “religious liberty.” So, now in popular culture “evangelical” has become synonymous with conservative politics. As a friend of mine brilliantly quipped, “We have gone from people of good news to people of Fox news.”

Like I said, It’s complicated.

It has not always been this way, though: even in the United States. In the 1960’s and 1970’s evangelicalism was a middle way in between mainline protestant liberalism and fundamentalism. This was clearly seen in people like Billy Graham and places like Fuller Seminary. They embodied this middle way that stayed out of politics and was focused on the good news of God’s love made manifest in Jesus Christ. These were the evangelicals. People worried more about proclaiming John 3:16 for sinners in need of redemption then campaigning for candidates who used the term evangelical to gain wealth and prestige.

But, it gets (even more) complicated.

Jerry Falwell outside a political rally in Trenton, New Jersey in 1980 (William E. Sauro/New York Times).

This all began to change with the cultural, political, and theological winds of the 1970’s and 1980’s with the rise of people like Jerry Falwell and the forming of the religious right and the election of Ronald Reagan. All of the sudden, with a taste of political power and cultural influence, evangelicalism and fundamentalism slowly morphed into the same thing. This newfound place in the public square mixed with passion for doctrinal purity as seen most notably in the “conservative resurgence” in the largest protestant denomination in the United States (the Southern Baptist Convention) was somewhat of a perfect storm. This helped lead the total co-opting of evangelicalism from a moderate, third way, Jesus-centered movement to one of the largest conservative voting blocs who helped to elect candidates from Ronald Reagan all the way to George W. Bush.

In popular consciousness evangelicalism is an angry demographic to campaign for not a joyful community of people spreading good news. It is in this awkward place that I am filled with hope. I see this particular historical moment as a grand opportunity to reclaim and liberate Evangelicalism and once again be known as people of unbridled good news. With the nomination of Donald Trump it is as if the cloaking of evangelicalism in the guise of political opportunity is being seen for what it is. For a growing number of people it has become clear that evangelicalism has become obsessed not with the good news, but with gaining political power at the very expense of our true vocation as baptized proclaimers of the gospel. At this particular moment, I cannot help but be filled with hope because we are at a tipping point of sorts. Evangelicals from the Southern Baptist Convention to Wheaton, the ELCA, an even Liberty University are feeling the call of the Spirit to once again be defined not by a narrow political agenda but the counter-intuitive announcement of the crucified and risen Christ who calls all of us to be a part of the reconciliation of all things.

Since endorsing Donald J. Trump, President of Liberty University – Jerry Falwell, Jr. – has come under heavy criticism by students for supporting a candidate whose “flagrant dishonesty, consistent misogyny and boastful unrepentance” make him unfit to be supported by Christians.

Especially now. I think we should all claim to be people of good news, I think we should boldly reclaim it, and reclaim it with pride. After all, that is what the earliest Jesus followers did. I think we should stand in the public square and proclaim, “We are evangelicals because we believe that the message of Jesus has the power to change the world, and it’s changed us and we cannot help but share it.”

People of God, we were made for this, we were called for this particular historical moment, and the world needs us to stand up and proclaim good news for everyone. The world needs us to be evangelicals. This is my complicated relationship with evangelicalism.

For better or for worse, I’m an evangelical. I want to be one.

I want to be a person of good news, and I think we all should be.

troyTroy Medlin has a bachelors degree from Moody Bible Institute and is an ecumenical seminarian at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He is a progressive evangelical who is passionate about helping people ask new questions and creating space for transformation. He believes that encounters with people who are different have the power to change us and set us free. Troy currently lives in Hyde Park and enjoys politics, liturgy, and 80’s classic rock.