The Common Good

Sojourners

Anxiety and Christian Leadership

When I began a Masters of Divinity program at Wesley Theological Seminary, I was convinced that my generalized anxiety would be a wrinkle I’d iron out as I became more competent in preaching and pastoral care. What I failed to recognize was that my aptitude for ministry in itself was not the issue. I already felt called to hospital chaplaincy and had had experience working with the sick and dying as a nursing assistant. However, despite all the practical knowledge I’ve continued to gain at Wesley, anxiety has remained a debilitating problem.

When my anxiety was at its worst this past spring, I often asked myself, what business do I have pursuing ordained ministry? How can I serve others if I can’t take care of myself? Last week, regarding the suicide of Robin Williams, I heard frequently: “How can someone so funny do that?” The best answer I’ve found is that even when we are in great pain and anguish, feeling isolated from others, we don’t stop doing what we do best. Even in times of depression, and drug and alcohol abuse, Williams never ceased to do what he did best — make people laugh when they most needed to. Likewise, despite my anxiety, no matter how I attempt to close out the world, I still feel called to the ministry of chaplaincy, to bring healing to others through my presence.

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What 'The Leftovers' Can Teach Us About Hope and the Christian Faith

Editor's Note: Spoilers ahead! You've been warned.

Over the past eight episodes of The Leftovers, HBO’s latest drama based on Tom Perrotta’s play of the same name, viewers have been treated to a case study in grief and faith in the midst of a life-changing event. Unlike the Left Behind series, which incorporated Christian triumphalism with terrible theology, The Leftovers examines the deeper human and spiritual issues of what would happen were two percent of the population to suddenly disappear. It is powerful and beautiful and really hard to watch (especially Episode Five). It asks the question: does life go on when your world is changed forever?

The show offers a variety of responses to the Sudden Departure of October 14: Kevin Garvey, the police chief who seems to be losing his mind after his wife leaves him for a cult and after his father needs to be committed; Nora Durst, who’s lost her entire family, so she keeps everything exactly as it was when the Sudden Departure occurred; Rev. Matt Jamison, Nora’s brother whose faith has been shaken because he was not taken; the town dogs who have become feral; and finally, the creepiest citizens of Mapleton, the Guilty Remnant, or the GR as they’re “affectionately” known.

This past week’s episode gave us a greater understanding of the GR. Although the nihilistic views of the Guilty Remnant are quite different from those of Christianity, I was struck by their powerful and strategic mission of witness. The cult was formed out of the recognition that everything changed on October 14 and that to pretend otherwise was foolish. The group, in their white clothes, their silence, their stripped-down existence, bears witness to the fact that they are living reminders of what happened. They are fundamentalists about their cause and willing to die for it — even if that death comes from their own hands.

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Three Barriers Hijacking Christians' Ability to Love Our 'Enemies'

In recent years, my family has navigated some rough patches: death, cancer treatments, open heart surgeries, chronic disease, etc. Now, I’m certain this isn’t everyone’s experience, but mine has been that in these times of trauma or tragedy, family comes together to stand with one another as we wrestle through life’s crap. We aren’t picking fights, we are crying on each other’s shoulders.

In recent months, our human family has been enduring an especially rough patch.

War.

Racism.

Suicide.

Deadly viruses.

Plane crashes.

Whether in remote villages or urban centers, few have been untouched (in some way) by the realities unfolding.

As I observe our corporate response to tragedy as a human family, and evaluate my own response in the midst of it, I have noticed something disturbing unfold. Rather than rally together as a family navigating a season of trauma, we have used this moment to divide, stir hatred and misunderstanding, point fingers, and more than anything, view those on the opposite side of an issue as less than human.

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An Invitation to Disruption: A Call to White Churches

It was July 19, 2013, and we were leaving New York City for a spiritual retreat, six days after a Florida jury found George Zimmerman “not guilty” in the death of Trayvon Martin. The sadness, anger, and weariness was well worn on the liturgies, prayers, and preaching of many of the churches in our Harlem neighborhood.

We found ourselves joining local church leaders and a few pastors in a conversation about justice that would eventually make its way toward a broad range of matters: the gay rights of questioning teens, clean water for children in Africa, and many of the frequent places conversations go with folks who are concerned with “loving our neighbor.” And so we sat, we listened, and were genuinely moved to openly share about the challenges and opportunities that have come with cultivating safe spaces for GBLT folks in our church community. TOGETHER we also inspired one another as we offered our collective experiences with integrating the arts in fundraising for international relief efforts.

And as Jose and I sat, listened, and shared TOGETHER, we found ourselves with heavy hearts waiting …“Would the conversation broach the tragedy of Trayvon Martin?” It didn’t.

And as we sat TOGETHER in sacred solidarity with compassionate, justice-minded pastors, who happened to be white, somehow we found ourselves feeling quite alone. So we mustered the courage to ask, “How have your churches responded to the Trayvon Martin verdict?” My question was met with silence. The silence that met us did not betray aloof or timid spirits, but rather uncertainty about whether their one voice could really make a difference, or that somehow they did not have the right to “speak on behalf” of brown and black realities. 

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When Christians Lack Imagination, They Lack Love

Christians often talk about actively changing the world, but too often, we just sit still and passively watch the struggles of others without participating, leading, or caring. We don’t love.

Why? Because many Christians have an inability to use their imaginations.

People who can’t imagine are susceptible to bigotry, racism, hatred, and violence toward others. Why? Because they can’t imagine any other scenario, perspective, or opinion other than their own. They have an inability to see themselves in someone else’s shoes. They can’t see beyond their own narrow reality.

When you can’t imagine, you can’t empathize, understand, or relate with the actions, struggles, pain, suffering, persecution, and trials of others — you become apathetic, unmoved, stoic, and inactive.

Whether our differences are gender-related, age-related, race-related, culturally related, politically related, economically related, socially related, theologically related, value-related, or related to any countless number of factors, overcoming them requires imagination.

When you can’t imagine, you can’t celebrate, appreciate, admire, and joyfully love others. You disconnect yourself from humanity.

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Gratitude as Resistance: An Ancient Idea for our Collective Anxiety

You know that time when the apostle Paul says “don’t worry about anything” I sometimes wonder if he could get away with that today.

For example: Did you know that Congress recently had an approval rating of 9 percent? To put that in perspective, 11 percent of citizens want the Unites States to be a Communist country . It’s a lower rate than people who would approve of polygamy! While this is sort of hilarious, it’s also pretty depressing.

Thank God (literally) there isn’t a poll on the approval rating of the church, but as a ministry leader in Seattle, trust me when I say that what makes the headlines is not what anyone would call good news. Throw into the mix the global unraveling we are witnessing in the Middle East, Iraq, and our own treatment of immigrants, and it’s sort of difficult to keep our collective chins up.

So yes, it might feel tough to log onto Facebook, or read the New York Times these days and feel like there is no reason to be anxious. Good thing for us the verse doesn’t end as a pejorative blanket statement. You know, the kind that so often feels like a cheap mandate to simply ignore reality? Instead, it names that that there lots for reasons for why we are surrounded by anxiety. But, in the eloquent paraphrase of the Philippians passage by Eugene Peterson, we are invited to:

“let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down.”

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Don't Ignore It: 5 Ways Christians and Churches Must Engage Michael Brown’s Death

I have so much emotions and thoughts in my mind, heart, and body – in light of the oh-so-much that is going on all around the world – including the utterly tragic, brutal, and unnecessary “death” of Michael Brown.

But I thought it would be helpful to share a few thoughts how churches, Christians, and leaders can be engaging the events of the past 11 days in their respective churches – now and in the future. I’m not suggesting that pastors have to completely alter their sermons or Bible studies, but to altogether ignore the injustice of Michael Brown’s death would be altogether foolish.

To be blunt and I say this respectfully,

The integrity of the church is at stake because when it’s all said and done, it’s not a race issue for me — it’s a Gospel issue. It’s a Kingdom issue. We shouldn’t even let isolated issues in themselves hijack the purpose of the church. The Gospel of Christ is so extraordinary that it begins to inform (and we pray, transform) all aspects of our lives. So, in other words, we talk about race and racism because we believe in the Gospel.

So, here are five suggestions for Christians, leaders, and churches.

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Dispatch From Ferguson

Editor's Note: Rev. Alvin Herring is on the ground in Ferguson, Mo. Following is his account of the events of Aug. 17. 

Last night democracy was trampled not as the media would suggest by the angry footfalls of sullen youth determined to disturb the peace and wreak havoc in their own community, but by the heavy march of a police force that seemed determined to create tension and antagonize young people — young people who are carrying the trauma of nights of unrest and lifetimes of dehumanizing racism.

We witnessed with our own eyes beautiful young people peacefully marching in step to cries of “hands up, don’t shoot.” We saw the very young holding older siblings’ hands and the old being pushed in wheelchairs by teenagers who had pain in their eyes but strong voices lifting up their laments to a nation that must find the will to hear them. And though they were clearly agitated, they were courageously hewing to the commitment to act peacefully in the face of an overwhelming police response that seemed determined to escalate an already tense situation.

Law enforcement was outfitted with the machinery of war. The officers wore military fatigues and carried automatic weapons. They were helmeted, with their faces obscured, and in the darkness they looked more like machines than human beings. They perched atop huge military vehicles with glaring lights and screeching sirens. It was otherworldly — and all of this to face down a group of wounded children, wounded tonight and many nights before this night.

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Sweaty Spirituality: Fighting Obesity with Paul (Romans 12:1-8)

Do you want to know a secret about working out? Here it is: we don’t grow our muscles in the gym. When we lift weights we perform controlled damage to our bodies; we literally tear our muscle fibers, forcing our bodies to adapt. We improve outside of the gym by consuming healthy foods. To “battle the bulge” requires a commitment to strenuous exercise and healthy eating. All who have enjoyed (or endured) a strenuous workout or have disciplined their dietary practices understand that results are impossible without bodily sacrifice — no pain, no gain.

Furthermore, if it is true that we are what we eat, then Christ-followers ought to take a long, hard look at the kinds of things we are putting into our bodies. Paul’s words to the Christ-followers in Rome offer us some food for thought (pardon the pun; couldn’t help myself).

Paul beseeches us to present our bodies as living sacrifices, that is, to submit our lived reality to the standards that God deems acceptable. Such a way of being in the world is deemed reasonable — spiritual even, as the NRSV translators put it. This is our tangible act of service to God.

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Tweets v. Tweaks: Financing Seminary Education (Part III)

Editor's Note: This is the final piece in a three-part series on Financing Seminary Education. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here

“The higher education industry is facing a multi-pronged and existential threat composed of successive waves of disruptive innovation” (Butler, “Tottering Ivory Towers,” American Interest (Sept/Oct). It seems higher education, including seminary education, is going the way of the music and media industries! Our 2,000-year-old business model of “sage on stage” could be truly doomed. The appearance of “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) over the past few years has thrown many higher education institutions for a loop, and more innovations are on the way.

In response to these new innovations higher-ed institutions, including seminaries, have tweaked their business models with a few technological modifications such as PowerPoint, email, electronic research, and online courses. But, will it be enough? Butler says “no” and so do the trends. The reality is graduates of today’s higher-ed institutions are not evidencing the competencies expected and/or hoped for by their future employers. Consequently, accreditation standards, at an all-time high in complexity, are now beginning to be challenged. Simultaneously, tuitions are costly, the economy is tough, and the job market is even tougher. The end result is that students are graduating with large amounts of student loan debt and potential students are opting out of the education market.

We began the 21st century with denominations and churches that no longer fit the needs of a shifting society, a Congress that votes against the poor and the middle class, and seminaries that face multi-pronged threats to their existence. It’s time for an overhaul!

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