Into the Playhouse

Playhouse, mubus7 /

Playhouse, mubus7 /

My sister has one of those plastic playhouses in her backyard for her two boys. When she hosted a garage sale a few years ago, children accompanying their shopping parents would see the playhouse and join in.

I remember looking over at one point and seeing five children playing together. Different ages, different sexes, different races. All strangers. All playing together.

When they looked at each other, they saw a playmate.

In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela noted that children have an innate openness that tends to get closed off as they spend more time in the world.

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Breaking Down the Invisible Walls

OVER THE PAST 2,000 years, Christians have found myriad ways to divide the body of Christ. We are now more divided than ever, with more than 40,000 Christian denominations worldwide. Perhaps, in this context, we are asking the wrong questions. Do we really understand God’s desire for the church to be one? Do we as individuals have a yearning for the unification of the body of Christ? Why do we create the divisions we create? Why do we maintain the divisions that already exist? How can we break through these barriers to heal a broken church?

Christena Cleveland sets out to answer all of these questions and more in her latest book, Disunity in Christ. Cleveland is a young, energetic, and brilliant teacher, speaker, and researcher in the fields of social psychology and faith and reconciliation. For those concerned with reconciliation in the church, which should be all of us, hers is a voice to take seriously.

In Disunity, Cleveland quickly breaks the ice by poking fun at herself and by pointing to her own personal prejudices and biases that have led to her categorically labeling fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as either a “right Christian” or “wrong Christian.” The reader is immediately able to connect with her and realize the ways in which we have created division in our own lives, whether because of race, gender, orientation, education, location, socio-economic status, theology, or political affiliation. It also becomes apparent why we prefer our homogenous groups.

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No Longer the 'Best Kept Secret'

SINCE HIS ELECTION as the 265th successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis has provided a refresher course on Catholic social teaching to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. “Catholic social teaching is no longer a secret,” says Jean Hill, director of peace and justice for the diocese of Salt Lake City. “Everything Pope Francis is saying comes from social doctrine and is about social justice.”

Through his various homilies, speeches, and meetings, Francis is “reading the signs of the times” and making practical application to the issues of the day. Some of his most powerful statements to date were made in his first pastoral document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” including this declaration: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church that is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Pope Francis is calling the faithful to be more merciful, compassionate, joyful, and centered upon the needs of the poor and vulnerable. He wants a church that sees the human person before the law and one that does not “obsess” about a narrow set of issues, but affirms both human life and human dignity. He invites

Catholics to pray, reflect, and embrace the beauty and breadth of Catholic social teaching—a rich tradition that is predicated on the dignity of the human person.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) defines Catholic social teaching as “a central and essential element of our faith. Its roots are in the Hebrew prophets who announced God’s special love for the poor and called God’s people to a covenant of love and justice.” This teaching is also founded on the life and words of Jesus. It posits that “every human being is created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family.”

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Sacrament as Subversion

The power of the sacraments is in the faith of the individual and the grace of God. Magdalena Kucova/

Anyone who thinks much on theology will tell you that you go through patterns of thought. For a long time, I was intrigued — and still am in many ways — by the notion of Jesus as a “third way” prophet, offering something different than both church and secular culture most of the time. As I learned of different interpretations of the crucifixion, I became obsessed with nonviolent activism, and the idea of responding to force or bloodshed with something else entirely.

Now, my latest mental track is sacrament. I am interested in what makes something a sacrament, yes, but also in the power connected to sacraments and what human beings do with that power.

I am part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a denomination that has Alexander Campbell as part of its roots. Campell was notorious for supposedly causing a stir in his local church around the sacrament of communion. At that time, the Church handed out tokens to those it deemed worthy to participate in communion. No token? No communion. So this one particular day, Campbell entered the church with his token in hand, but when they offered the elements to him, he refused, tossing the token on the ground and walking out. He went on to help start the Disciples based, in large part, on the concept of the open communion table.

To the Dying Church: Pass the Thread?

Needles and thread, NikDonetsk /

Needles and thread, NikDonetsk /

It’s interesting how we tend to think of birth and death as opposites, two bookends with life in the middle. But we also know from experience that birth and death really are two different words for the same thing. They involve change, a moving from one phase of life to another.

Birth and death and rebirth are parts of the very fabric of life.

This moment, countless cells inside our bodies are dying and being replaced by new ones just like them. New ideas are being hatched in our heads, replacing old ones. Stars throughout the universe are using up their final fuel and imploding, sowing seeds for rebirth throughout the universe.

All around us and within us, there’s a constant birth and death and newness.

It’s what life is about.

The same is true of our human institutions. Whether they’ll acknowledge it or not, they’re constantly going through the birth-and-death-and-rebirth cycle. It’s certainly that way with our religions and our churches.

To the Dying Church: Get Offline and Get Outside

City streets illustration, Mykhaylo Palinchak /

City streets illustration, Mykhaylo Palinchak /

To a Dying Church,

Guess what? It’s not that bad.

You just have to get it together a bit.

Seriously, like yesterday. I mean, we have time. But, seriously, we’re all waiting for you to get it together.

You have the means. You have the ability. You have the know-how.

Actually, you don’t have to do that much. You just have to realize that Jesus has done it all and there is a current of immense possibility right under your feet.

Tap into it. Remember it. Root down.

This happens every so often. We are cyclical people. Every once in a while we forget.

But this time you’ve really done a doozy on your own health by chasing after insane supplements and growth hormones. And you’ve also picked some really lame fights. In the race to grow you’ve forgotten your way a bit and now you’re bloated and punch-drunk in the streets swinging at anyone that’ll ask a sensible question.

Stop it. You’re better than this.

To the Dying Church: Do What You Came Here to Do

Stained glass window & crucifix, benztsai /

Stained glass window & crucifix, benztsai /

To the dying church,

I think I missed the moment. It was a pretty big moment, too. At least here in the United States, you were a force to be reckoned with until a few years ago. You helped form the fabric of our society. Pastors were well-respected people of authority. They built great big sanctuaries, and people wore respectable clothing on Sunday mornings. To be fair, you didn’t — and don’t now — always live up to the hype. Sometimes you hide your head in the ground when it’s time to stand up against racism and homophobia. You’re still not so sure about the equality of women. You sometimes sell out to political agendas.

But regardless of the good and the bad, the moment is now over, and you’re dying. Or that’s what they tell me. All that power and influence is fading away. It sounds like some churches are having trouble even keeping the lights on. I know I should mourn for you, but allow me a moment of self-pity here too. What, you thought it was all about you?

You see, I’ve been getting ready for a few years now. A bunch of us have. Some of us have grown up with you, and some of us have just met you recently, but we’re all lining up to serve you. Somehow we all have this nagging sense that we’re supposed to be with you in these days, so some of us went to seminary and some went to college to learn youth ministry. We went to conferences and gave up our evenings and weekends to church basements with committees and youth groups. We read books and studied Scripture and prayed and imagined the kingdom of God breaking into the world through you. They call us emerging leaders, and we had a lot of hopes for you.

To the Dying Church: Sharing our Wounds

Andrea Danti & Skylines/

Andrea Danti & Skylines/

To the dying church,

Sometimes you have to get worse before you get better. You are dying because you’ve been applying band aids for a far deeper problem. You are consistently doling out superficial remedies for surface wounds when the source of pain lays untreated. 

Church, you have confused biblical hope for optimism. When hurting people walk through your doors, you play the positive thinking guru and dispense quick fixes with inspirational quotes. You provide cheap grace and empty promises that are driving people out your doors.

You have mistaken confidence with certitude. When people come with authentic questions, you forsake healthy dialogue in exchange for a veneer of harmony. You post your doctrinal statements at your gates and demand unsure people to come in or stay out. The resulting homogenous bubbles you’ve created are sure to burst. 

Beauty in Battered Places

Denise Giardina

“THE CHURCH radicalized me,” celebrated author and ordained Episcopal deacon Denise Giardina once said, describing how she sees herself as both social activist and servant minister. “The phrase in the prayer book is ‘Interpret the world to the church and the church to the world.’ It’s a totally different way to advocate, with a spiritual point of view.”

This philosophy has shown up in her bestselling novels, published over her long career, such as Storming Heaven (1987) and The Unquiet Earth (1992), which chronicle the history and social impacts of coal mining in Giardina’s native Appalachia; Saints and Villains (1999), which tells the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance against Hitler and the Nazis; and, most recently, Emily’s Ghost (2010), a reimagining of Emily Brontë’s story and how her life was changed by her encounter with an ardent member of the clergy.

Shortly before her recent retirement from teaching creative writing at a West Virginia college, Giardina talked with Jason Howard, author of A Few Honest Words and coauthor of Something’s Rising, about her literary career, social justice activism, and her time in the late 1970s in Washington, D.C., as a member of Sojourners community (the intentional Christian community that founded Sojourners magazine and other ministries).

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'Daddy, why are those people sleeping in the park?'

MY 5-YEAR-OLD daughter, Zoe, is in preschool. This means, as most parents of school-age children know, that there is a birthday party to attend approximately every other weekend of the year.

On the way to one of these myriad celebrations, we stopped by the church in downtown Portland, Ore., where my wife, Amy, is the senior pastor. She had a daylong meeting, and we needed to switch cars, as hers was the one with the gift in it.

As we came down the front steps of the church and onto the South Park Blocks, a local city park, we saw at least half a dozen emergency vehicles parked in a haphazard formation along the street and on the sidewalk in front of a small public restroom. Several officers were standing together, making calls on their radios and discussing the situation at hand. At their feet was what appeared to be a lifeless body, lying on the pavement underneath a blue tarp.

“Daddy,” Zoe said, “what are those police mans doing in the park?”

“I’m not sure, honey,” I said, “but it looks like somebody needed their help.”

“Is somebody in trouble?”

“Something like that,” I sighed. “Make sure you don’t drag that gift bag on the ground. We don’t want to mess up your friend’s present before we get to the party.”

My first thought was, God, please don’t let it be Michael. Michael is a man about my age who lives outside and wrestles daily with an addiction to alcohol, among several other things. We have helped him get sober, only to see him relapse. We helped him get into supportive housing, only to watch him get into a fight and get thrown back out onto the street.

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