Relationships

On Scripture: It's Not About You

Teacher mentoring students, iofoto / Shutterstock.com
Teacher mentoring students, iofoto / Shutterstock.com

 A life transition — like any effort to follow Jesus — is stressful: packing and unpacking, bidding farewells, refocusing from one set of commitments to a new future. It might be summarized in the early North African church leader’s interpretation of this Sunday’s Gospel reading from Luke 14:27: “Take up your stress and your tortures.” (Tertullian)

This September, my family’s transition from the hazy days of summer’s more casual pace back into the back-to-school rat race is tougher than usual. It not only involves our own children finding their way back onto their college campuses, but I am going too, to teach at Valparaiso University where I’ve been appointed to an endowed professorship which supports the study of Christian values in public and professional life.

Of necessity, most roads back-to-school are paved with lines of procedures, rules, and formalized rituals. The foundation of learning, however, is far less formalized or predictable — it’s more relational, like a disciple and master, protégé and mentor, choral director and chorister. Whether in musical arts, as in in Vy Higgensen’s Gospel for Teens program, or in biblical hermeneutics, the best learning happens in healthy relationships.

Hot Dogs for Peace

WHEN I WAS growing up in the western suburbs of Chicago, I felt so far outside of the inner circle of cool kids that I didn’t even know where the circle was. So you can imagine my delight when I got an invitation to David’s birthday party. David was in the outer part of the inner circle, which meant I was heading in the right direction.

A couple days before the party, my mom took a closer look at the invitation and noticed that it said David’s parents would be making hot dogs for lunch. As she wasn’t sure whether the hot dogs were pork or beef, and as we were Muslims who don’t eat pork, she informed me that she’d be giving me all-beef franks to take from home with a note to David’s mom asking her to fry them up in a separate pan.

Of course, this horrified me, the kind of horror that only a kid caught up in the jungle of grade school coolness competition can feel. I remember standing in the living room, staring at my mom, and thinking to myself: “First, you named me Eboo.”

The day of the party rolled around and, dutiful Indian-Muslim child that I was, I accepted the little plastic baggie with two beef hot dogs that my mom handed me, allowed her to put me in nice slacks and a collared shirt, and went off to the party. When lunchtime came, I snuck into the kitchen to make my request of David’s parents. Imagine my surprise when I noticed another kid in the kitchen. He wore a collared shirt and nice slacks and also held a plastic baggie with two hot dogs.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“My name is Chaim,” he said. “My mom sent me with my own hot dogs.”

I was like, “You and me, we are going to be friends.”

Chaim was the first Jew I ever met.

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What If 'Sex Week' Came to First Baptist Church?

Sex education illustration, Rob Byron / Shutterstock.com
Sex education illustration, Rob Byron / Shutterstock.com

On April 5-12, the University of Tennessee hosted “Sex Week,” organized by the student organization Sexual Empowerment and Awareness in Tennessee. The week’s activities, ranging from discussions on virginity to workshops on oral sex and a search for a golden condom, sparked the concern of easily provoked and immensely quotable State Rep. Stacey Campfield (he of “Don’t Say Gay” bill fame).

With apologies to Campfield’s ever-vigilant protection of Christian sensibilities, the real problem here is not that mandatory student fees are being used to promote sexual education and awareness. The problem is that our tithes aren’t.

Imagine with me, if you will, what would happen if “Sex Week” came to First Baptist Church . . .

If local congregations joined together to dedicate a week to the promotion and exploration of Christian ethics expressed through sexuality, gender, and embodiment, what might the offerings look like? Perhaps these would be a good start.

We Don't Need Your Cookies

Platter of cookies, robcocquyt / Shutterstock.com
Platter of cookies, robcocquyt / Shutterstock.com

Back in 2005, I attended a “church growth” seminar in Dallas, Texas. The keynote speaker was Rev. Mike Slaughter of Ginghamsburg United Methodist in Ohio, one of the larger and faster growing UM churches in the country. He shared an experience that sticks with me.

That church had a “Cookie Patrol” that takes cookies to first time visitors. So, every Sunday afternoon, a group of people would meet down at the church to bake fresh cookies to be delivered to potential members.

One day, a member of the church came to Rev. Slaughter and told him, “I just love to bake, and I want to help with the Cookie Patrol. I’ve got a great kitchen at home, so let me tell you what I’ll do. I’ll make several dozen cookies each Sunday and bring them to the church. I just don’t have time to spend at church on Sunday afternoons.”

Pastor Mike responded, “You don’t understand. We don’t need your cookies. We need you.”

Be Ready to Be Changed

Flower growing out of crack in asphalt, Elena Elisseeva / Shutterstock.com
Flower growing out of crack in asphalt, Elena Elisseeva / Shutterstock.com

We have a group at our church that does a weekly sandwich ministry together. Though we already had a group that makes sandwiches each week for a local shelter, another team realized some folks don’t go to shelters, and that they might be missing out on a real opportunity to connect with different folks in our community if they didn’t go out to where the people are.

So now, every week, they walk the streets of downtown Portland and hand out upwards of 100 sandwiches. As they’ve met folks who live outside, they’ve identified other needs some have, such as socks, new underwear, rain gear, flashlights, and batteries. Each week, they come back with a list of needs, and each week our congregation helps fill those needs.

To me, this kind of ministry is exemplary of what missional church is about. We don’t simply wait behind the walls for people to come ask for something; we go out, meet people face-to-face and get to know them. Yes, we offer them a meal, but we also share stories, learn a bit of their history, and they come to know that there actually are flesh-and-blood people behind all those steeples and stone facades.

A Gospel for the Common Good

OUR LIFE TOGETHER can be better. Ours is a shallow and selfish age, and we are in need of conversion—from looking out just for ourselves to also looking out for one another. It's time to hear and heed a call to a different way of life, to reclaim a very old idea called the common good. Jesus issued that call and announced the kingdom of God—a new order of living in sharp contrast to all the political and religious kingdoms of the world. That better way of life was meant to benefit not only his followers but everybody else too. And that is the point of it.

Christianity is not a religion that gives some people a ticket to heaven and makes them judgmental of all others. Rather, it's a call to a relationship that changes all our other relationships. Jesus told us a new relationship with God also brings us into a new relationship with our neighbor, especially with the most vulnerable of this world, and even with our enemies. But we don't always hear that from the churches. This call to love our neighbor is the foundation for reestablishing and reclaiming the common good, which has fallen into cultural and political—and even religious—neglect.

Judaism, of course, agrees that our relationship with God is supposed to change all our other relationships, and Jesus' recitation of the law's great commandments to love God and your neighbor flows right out of the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus (see Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). Islam also connects the love of Allah with love and responsibility to our neighbors. In fact, virtually all the world's major religions say that you cannot separate your love for God from your love for your neighbor, your brothers and sisters. Even the nonreligious will affirm the idea of "the Golden Rule": "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31).

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From the Archives: March-April 1999

IN A CROWDED auditorium [in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch] that served as a shelter for 900 people, the scarce supply of drinking water was kept in a bucket and labeled with a sign that said "Do not use your own cup." Five bored, mischievous children, however, could think of nothing better than to try to stick their cups in the water. Then one relief worker gave them a special assignment. "This water is very important," she said. "I need you to be the guardians of the water so that no one dips in their own glass." And they, feeling respected and needed, became the fierce, undaunted protectors of the water supply.

Similarly, countless Hondurans are saying, "If not us, then who?"—righting their relationship with themselves, assuming the task of rebuilding their homes and communities, recognizing that progress occurs when they participate. Women, who have never even valued their never-ending activity as work, are speaking up when the pay sheets are evaluated. "I planted a garden. I rebuilt the wall of my house. I earned my corn and beans."

What other relationships are being righted? First, Hondurans of all stripes in communities marked by division and distrust are working together in local emergency committees: men and women, evangelicals and Catholics, Liberals and Nationalists—debating ideas, prioritizing projects, participating in work crews. Mutual support and mutual respect are the expression of Jubilee.

Jennifer Casolo was coordinator of the Women's Pastoral Center in San Isidro Labrador Parish in Tocoa Colon, Honduras, when this article appeared.

Image: Water bucket, Dawn Hudson / Shutterstock.com

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Church Power!

In any genuine community ... self-interest and public interest are not at odds, but are two names for the same thing. —Andrew Delbanco

COMMUNITY ORGANIZING has been around for a long time—certainly long before 2008, when it became a household word during Barack Obama's rise to the presidency. Not that it is understood nowadays any more than before.

I thought I knew what community organizing was when I served as the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ and was introduced to a newly formed faith-based organizing project called Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC) in San Bernardino, California. But I soon learned that community organizing had a different starting point, as well as a different methodology, than I thought.

As a pastor, I had always been concerned about challenging injustice. However, I came to understand that community organizing is less about taking on yet another good cause and more about the important work of building human community.

As such, community organizing is a perfect fit for religious congregations and clergy. It addresses social justice concerns in the larger community, putting democracy to work by giving voice to ordinary families. But more important, community organizing can strengthen the life of the congregation. And it can bring power to the vocation of the religious leader.

There are four building blocks to community organizing—values, relationships, power analysis, and self-interest.

Values. As I was being introduced to ICUC, I was also taking a continuing education course taught by Ched Myers on discipleship in the gospel of Mark. When he learned what our church was getting into, he threw out a challenge with an implied warning. You have no business getting into community organizing, he proposed, unless you ground everything you do in Bible study.

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Battles for Self

Philip Seymour Hoffman, center, in The Master.

THE MASTER, Paul Thomas Anderson’s stomach-punching, fingernails-down-a-chalkboard psychological thriller loosely based on the founding of Scientology, might be more deeply understood as a tale of two egos. We witness a titanic battle for self-control by a man who knows nothing of it (Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell), while another struggles to distinguish imagination from delusion, his simmering rage emanating perhaps from the terror that the truth he has found may not be enough (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s L. Ron Hubbard surrogate, Lancaster Dodd). Neither of them knows how to love; both are desperate to be loved. They find in each other a conversation partner, a patient, an unrequited lover. They are two of the most human characters the movies have brought us in a long time; their power trips are terrifying, because they may remind us of our own.

There are many key moments: The first meeting between the war veteran and new religious leader, the dictator bonding with his subject over mutual substance abuse; the master holding court in New York society, first offering tender words of potential healing to a grand dame, then exploding at a guest who dares question the source of his “knowledge”; the protégé being experimented with, commanded to walk up and down between a wall and a window until he is both capable of imagining unbridled freedom and driven nearly mad in the process; a science-fictionesque digging for buried treasure on Arizona flatlands that could pass for Mars.

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What We Know About Muslims

AS I WRITE this, the top story on The New York Times website reads “Anti-American Protests Over Film Expand to More than a Dozen Countries.” The slideshow includes images of angry young men with their fists in the air and masks over their faces protesting on dusty streets filled with riot police and open fires. As if Americans’ view of Muslims was not dark enough.

The film in question is the 14-minute YouTube clip called Innocence of Muslims that portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a buffoonish clown and even a child molester. It was created and promoted by individuals with a long history of anti-Muslim activities, who were perfectly aware that it would provoke a small segment of Muslims around the world to violence. And it is now that violent response that is defining the Muslim world to many people—just as in the case of the attacks of 9/11 and the riots provoked by the Danish cartoons in 2005. As @TheBigPharoah said on Twitter: “The sad thing is that those who attack embassies are like hundreds, barely a thousand. Millions are tarnished by what they do though.”

It is impossible to overstate how frustrating it is to be constantly represented by violent thugs and to be asked to explain their actions. Here is the question one African-American seminary student I recently met asked me over email: “Why do so many Muslims ... become so enraged when someone from the West deliberately breaks an Islamic rule they take as offensive?”

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