missional ministry

Truth, facts, and the La Paz Cathedral: vacation thoughts on postmodernity

I visited a Jesuit mission church on Wednesday, in the city of La Paz. The missions along the West Coast of Mexico and the United States have a very complex history of bringing faith that people value deeply today but also bringing coercion and violence and conquest. Nonetheless, the guide focused mostly on telling us about the Jesuits’ role in educating the people and how they were a threat to the king and eventually expelled because their loyalty was to the Pope (and God) even if that conflicted with their loyalty to the king. “And they were educating us, and that was also a threat to the king, because if we are educated, we are dangerous,” he added.

I visited another church in Petatlan three years ago. It was near the former fishing village of Zihuatanejo on the west coast of Mexico, and the tour guide who took me there told me it was the church of the state’s most revered saint.

Out of curiosity, I asked, “Is this a saint verified by the Vatican?”

“The people of this state verified her,” he responded, not quite defensively.

When we went in and went to the very front of the church, people were going up the steps on their knees to the foot of the cross and praying. “Do you hear that?” asked the guide. “They’re speaking in one of the indigenous dialects. Some of them come from many miles away and enter the church on their knees in reverence.”

And while I’m not from a tradition that believes in saints serving as intermediaries between us and God, it didn’t matter too much to me that day. What I witnessed was deep spiritual conviction.

 

I was in conversation a couple of weeks ago with an atheist friend, one for whom atheism is a somewhat passionately held belief (and one for whom the fact that I am both religious and clearly very smart is a real irritant). I was trying to explain that to me, spirituality wasn’t about verifiable facts, and I made the mistake of talking about postmodernity. This is a mistake because I value good scholarship, and I’m a really sloppy scholar when it comes to talking about what the postmodern era is, borrowing largely from other sloppy emergent church leaders. I said the last 500 years had been driven in particular by a search for truth, by which we meant knowledge based on verifiable fact—the modern era of science with its huge strides in astronomy and physics and understanding the human body as well as leaps in terms of technology and manufacturing.

The postmodern era, in contrast, continues to value the pursuit of factual knowledge but doesn’t think that things have to be verifiable to be true. (I recognize what an unnuanced and grossly exaggerated distinction this is.) When my friend didn’t find this at all helpful, I used this story to illustrate spirituality in the post-modern era, a story I heard Diana Butler Bass tell at a conference 8 years ago.

Church historian Phyllis Tickle (what an awesome name, right?) was invited to give a lecture at an Episcopal church one day. It was in the midst of a huge controversy in the church about a recent book by John Shelby Spong, who had written that the virgin birth of Christ was a myth. Almost every question she got from the audience was trying to suss out where she stood on the issue, and the church clearly had two strong factions. She did her best to avoid answering the questions directly, and she also noticed a cluster of teenagers at the back squirming and looking bored—presumably required to be there by their youth group leader.

As soon as she was done, Dr. Tickle made her way through the crowd, still avoiding the questions being hurled at her about where she stood on the virgin birth, and found the teenagers at the back before they could slip out. “I’m curious about how you feel about this whole controversy,” she said to them. “Tell me what you think about the virgin birth.”

They looked at her for a moment. “It’s such a beautiful story, it must be true,” said one of the youth eventually, “whether it happened or not.”

 

Another friend of mine pointed out that the paradigm I was bringing was a very Christian one; I would say more western than Christian—-Islam and Judaism in the west have functioned out of this same paradigm (and, like Christianity, struggled with and rebelled against it; none of the monotheistic traditions is completely of one mind). Certainly Hinduism has always been able to hold in balance fact and myth without discounting one or the other, and this creeps into our culture around non-religious issues as well.

I remember telling a friend about a visit to India where I learned some of the family stories I had never heard before. My cousins told me about my great-grandmother, whose son was poisoned as a young child because someone else wanted to claim their land and killed the only (male) heir in the family. “She cried herself blind from grief,” said my cousin who has a masters degree in chemistry.

I told this story to my friend to say I was grateful for these family stories that told me a lot about how we understand the world; it is a quintessentially Bengali story, romantic and sad and saturated with familial love that transcends the grave. “That’s a stupid story,” my very American friend responded. “She had glaucoma.”

 

My atheist friend and my American friend are not at all compelled by the truth that can be found in stories that are not necessarily factual. But I’m grateful to be moving into an era where we develop more fluid ways of engaging what is valuable and worthwhile. I’m grateful to be moving into an era where the power to determine what is true does not lie exclusively with people in traditional roles of power (such as the saint claimed by a western state in Mexico whether the Vatican believes him to be a saint or not).

There are a lot of difficulties that arise from postmodernity. The biggest fear of most religious conservatives is moral relativism—how do we create any consistent values for society if every single person gets to determine their own truth? In fact, I think much of the religious violence and vicious ugliness we see today across the globe (and on Fox News) is connected to this deep-seated fear.

At the same time, I’m excited to be living in an era where the power of stories can help shape who we are at least as much as the power of science. Because ultimately, most of those stories are us figuring out who we are and what we value.

The tattoo on my arm says (in Bengali), “Satyagraha,” or “the power of truth.” It was the slogan Mahtama Gandhi used as a way of being that would unseat British power. It was not about facts. It was not about a specific religious doctrine. It involved civil disobedience and Indian self-sufficiency and nonviolence all intertwined. The truth of Indian collective self-worth and spiritual power would eventually force the British to do what is right and leave. Truth as Gandhi understood it was a much bigger concept than facts, and it included things that were entirely nonverifiable and nonetheless essential in the liberation struggle.

Although I don’t define postmodernity well, and although I recognize that we face some real complexities in forming community in the postmodern era, I’m grateful to be able to claim the truth of the unverifiable because it’s so beautiful it must be true, whether it happened or not. And I’m grateful that beauty can be of value alongside the great value of science.

Maybe the Jesuits, for all their sometimes brutal participation in the conquest of the Americas, were onto something when they provided education to the indigenous people. Spain was right. Indigenous people with access to scientific knowledge and access to deep spiritual truth really are a threat to empire. And their time, perhaps, has come.

Ekklesia: Are you just somebody that I used to know?

Is Christian Privilege killing the church?

At what some of my colleagues saw as the breaking point of Occupy Oakland, January 28, 2012, one of my friends said, “Ah, Occupy Oakland, now you’re just somebody that I used to know.” For a lot of folks committed to seeing a justice-filled peace in Oakland, Occupy was a roller coaster of deep love, deep pride and deep disappointment. On January 28, we witnessed some of the most awful police actions of a months-long movement riddled with awful police actions, but it was also a reminder, as another friend of mine pointed out, that OO suffered due to a lack of intentional non-violent commitment and also intentional non-violent strategy.

(I later spoke on a panel with Erica Chenoweth, whose book “Why Civil Resistence Works” showed quantifiably how nonviolence is strategically more effective in creating lasting change at the national level when used consistently within a movement. If you don’t want to read a very dense book, she sums it up in 12 minutes in her now famous Ted Talk. A number of OO folks that day wrestled with the elitism that often shows up in accusations against people who participate in property damage or violence and also the fact that OO’s “diversity of tactics” strategy reduced safety particularly for people of color who were less likely to engage in the movement, among other complex issues.)

Long story short, the Gotye song captured a feeling about Occupy Oakland among some of us movement types: we loved you, we gave ourselves to you, you broke our heart; now you’re just somebody that we used to know. (Two years later, I believe the Occupy movement had a lot to do with creating space in the public discourse for addressing wealth inequality in America, the fast food and WalMart workers’ movements, and the gap between poor working people and the ultra-rich. However, I still regret that Occupy Oakland didn’t become the unifying strategic nonviolent movement that our city needed and deserved.)

 

All of this is a long prelude to my reflections on the church today. Occupy Oakland was a flash in the pan compared to my relationship with the church. I have loved Jesus like he was my best friend since I was three. When I was in fourth grade, my mother and the church’s Christian ed director said that when I grew up, I would either be a nun or a Jesus freak. Church folks have loved me and nurtured me and cultivated me for leadership. When I moved to a new school, my church youth group loved and supported me when I would have otherwise felt incredibly awkward and alone.

The church did such a good job of this love and nurture that I eventually followed my calling to become an ordained pastor. So why do I sometimes feel like the church is just somebody that I used to know? (more…)

Sibling rivalry–hiccups in my ordination process and being a pain-in-the-butt sister

The great thing about hanging out with people who think just like you is that you don’t have to think about the people who don’t think just like you.

The problem with hanging out with people who think just like you is that you forget that other people don’t think just like you.

The intersection of the great and the problem hit me straight between the eyes during my ordination process. (more…)

The liberal church and the front lines–where are we?

Duck Dynasty, the Nation of Islam and the failure of liberal Christianity

A good evangelical friend of mine predicted that I would fail at growing First Christian Church of Oakland not long after I started pastoring there.

I told her about what kind people were there, and about their racial diversity and their openness to all people and their belief in a God of great compassion. “Well, good luck to you,” my friend said not unkindly. “I’m not sure how you’re going to grow a church like that.”

Now, I had just described about the only faith community I could be with, so somewhat defensively I asked what she meant.

“I genuinely feel sorry for you,” she explained patiently. “Our task as evangelicals is really clear. We go out and invite people into church because we love God’s children and we believe that they will face hell forever if we don’t help them get saved. That’s a lot for us to be responsible for if we don’t do our job. You all don’t believe that. So what incentive do you have to bring people into the church?

I have an answer for that now. I might have had an answer for it then, too. But I’ve been thinking about her point a lot since then.

(more…)

A pastor, a reluctant prophet, and someone who doesn’t want to be a trope walk down the street. (On letting go of pastoral identity for the health of the community and how the community may not love you for it)

I was walking down the street a week ago, when I passed a woman on the sidewalk. In retrospect, I’m impressed the ground did not crack beneath me; people a mile away who were having a perfectly pleasant day in that moment thought, “Woah! Why do I feel so totally bummed all of a sudden?” She didn’t make eye contact, and we had already passed before I remembered how I knew her, but the energy she radiated conveyed (a) anger with the universe for my existence in general and (b) low-grade fury that the fates had forced us to share this patch of concrete in particular.

I certainly had more than a few interactions with her over the years, although I wouldn’t say we were close. The reaction came because I wasn’t who I was supposed to be. She was the partner of a former congregant. And I hadn’t pastored right. And I suspect that injustice will never go away for her. (more…)

Donate to the Outside-the-Box Emergency/Solidarity Fund TODAY!

Ministry comes at a cost to the minister, and it’s a cost s/he takes on gladly, because it’s worth it to get to be a part of the daily miracles that happen in a powerful spiritual community. This is a story of a cost that a minister, and a community, should not have had to bear.

One of my favorite spiritual communities is The Table in Berkeley. The Table gathers in small groups in the community for knitting and drumming and social issues groups. It has touched hundreds of lives already in its five years because it meets people at wherever they are in their spiritual journey and helps them connect more deeply to a God who loves ALL people as they connect deeply to a community.

One of my favorite things about the Table is that it is so innovative in the way it builds spiritual community–it really is outside-the-box in the best sense of the phrase. While so many of us struggle to be both faithful and relevant, the Table has found a way to be both, and that gives me hope! At a time when a lot of people are not sure the church wants them or that they will really encounter a God of love there, the Table provides a welcoming and empowering space. It is also one of the most diverse groups of people you could hope to meet, racially, in orientation, in age and earnings and even diversity of employment!

Thanks to a generous donation from a church that closed, the Table has recently been able to purchase a house in Berkeley. While they still host gatherings throughout Berkeley, they can now also count on a permanent space for small group meetings. It also serves as the home (parsonage) for Tami Groves, the Table’s spiritual organizer (an ordained Disciples minister) and her soon-to-be-adopted eleven-year-old daughter. (If you know me, you have heard many stories about the adventures the daughter and I get up to whenever I get to borrow her from her hard-working mom.)

As much as I would like everyone to know about the inspiring model of ministry at the Table and the amazing things they do, you know from the title that this is not just an informative blog post, however. So here’s why I’m writing to you. (more…)