Five Reasons to Look Forward to Ministry in 2017

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photo by David Marcu via Unsplash

Tired of counting the reasons the sky is falling?  Me, too.  The traditional metrics for mainline ministry (church membership, finances, number of organists) may be on the decline and the angst about how the nation’s Great Divide will impact the church continues.  But let me give voice to the hope that is within me during the moments I dare to dream God’s future:

1) We are getting over our generational building fever.  There are some places where investing in major new buildings makes sense and I appreciate the energy that comes with beautiful sanctuaries and new ministry space.  But more and more churches are living out the truth that we often proclaim – the church is not the building.  So I look forward to using the legacy space we have in new ways and doing more ministry in the community in places like homes, restaurants, campus lounges, and coffee shops.

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United Methodist Bishop Sharma Lewis with Seminarian Virginia Greer

2) Cooperative parish models are offering new life to small churches.  Particularly in rural areas, the joining together of congregations to carry out ministry cooperatively makes sense.  Combining missions committees, youth groups, and even church councils means greater resources for ministry, a critical mass of people, and less burden on small church leaders who often juggle multiple roles.  Churches in cooperative ministry also have more capacity to focus on mission rather than just keeping the doors open.

3) The segregation of our churches along racial lines has never looked more ridiculous.  Half a century after Martin Luther King, Jr. made the observation that Sunday at 11 AM was the most segregated hour in America, mainline churches are still trying to live into a new reality.  The good news is that our clergy and lay leadership on the denominational level is more diverse than it ever has been and cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments of clergy to churches are now becoming routine.  This is one of the features of our United Methodist appointment system that I most value.  Of course, there’s still a long way to go.

4) Young clergy are transforming the way we do church.  Young clergy have always been seen as slightly irreverent by their older peers, but I admire the way that God continues to use the creativity and gifts of young people in the church.  The young people in ministry that I know are bringing a deep thoughtfulness to their engagement of this changing culture that we live in and from their online experiments with podcasts and social media to their non-traditional gatherings like street liturgy and pub theology, they are challenging us all to take both our tradition and the realities of the contemporary world more seriously.

IMG_54565)  Small, communal experiments are modeling new ways of connecting the church to the world.  The Missional Wisdom movement, Fresh Expressions, and the New Monasticism are all examples of Christians seeking to live in accountable community with one another as they serve the world.  Most of them commit to a rule of life that brings them to a level of sharing and spiritual formation that many people hunger for.  They also tend to take seriously ministry with the poor.

Church is different these days.  No doubt about it.  And if our expectation of success is a model circa 1955, then we’re destined for disappointment.  But if we expect that God can do a new thing and is transforming the world and wants us to be part of it, well, then we’ve got a lot to look forward to in 2017.

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A glorious, shabby democracy – my interview with photographer Michael Mergen concludes (3 of 3)

Having talked with photographer Michael Mergen in previous segments about his Civil War landscapes and the parallel Civil Rights series, today we talk about the glorious shabbiness of American democracy.  This is something he explored in two works we talk about here – one a series in which he photographs buildings across the country that share one commonality – the address 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The other is a survey polling places where Americans vote.

 

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1600 N Pennsylvania Ave, Oklahoma City – photos by Michael Mergen, used with permission

One of the things I noticed in that series is the way that, as in a lot of your work, the object of your study doesn’t live up to the place that those events hold in our memory.  So, you talk about Lee’s Retreat being a Walgreen’s parking lot right now.  Or this great, historic Civil Rights Movement march, which is now in our history 50 years back, and yet the town is still suffering a whole lot of the same economic problems.    And then, something like the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue series— the idea of taking an address that has such a fixed point in our social consciousness, and looking at it in all the ways that it’s expressed throughout the country.  So, what led you to that particular project?

That was the first project where I feel like I was, as a photographer or as an artist, really looking at a national landscape.  It’s an arbitrary address, but it’s one address that is synonymous with the home of the president, the political center of power of the United States.  So, it has all of this history of politics, power, and military and has so much wrapped up in it.  It was one of those ideas where it’s like,  “I wonder if there’s more.  Are there other 1600 Pennsylvania Avenues?”  I found out that there were maybe two dozen or so–I think there was 27 or 28 at the time–it just became a conceptual framework that had political and historical connotations to it.  But a conceptual framework that allowed me to travel the United States and look at the built landscape of the country through this one address.  And then, just kind of look at some of the visual disparities, some of the visual similarities across the country.  And I think, in some ways, it had a little bit of humor to it.  Kind of has a bit of poignancy to it.  It serves, hopefully, as a kind of interesting conceptualization, or conceptual view, or conceptual framework of looking at a real American landscape.

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Early Voting #10, Las Vegas, NV, 2010 by Michael Mergen

And yeah, the expectations vs. reality is something that I’m certainly interested in; up through looking at the Lee’s Retreat landscapes—what we think something is and what it actually is, right?  That’s definitely a layer to that voting work [in the exhibition]—thinking about voting as an important and solemn civic act or civic duty.  But then, is that solemnity undermined when you’re voting in a liquor display?  When you’re being enticed to buy Jose Cuervo, does that somehow negate the civic weight of casting a vote?

The flipside is walking into someone’s living room and walking past framed portraits of their loved ones in uniform, in the military–is that a strange kind of conflict or collision of public and private, like the public act of voting in a private-owned space?  Or is it this kind of quintessential, grassroots Americana, where we as neighbors and citizens on a given day get together in someone’s house and choose our leader, choose our elected representative.

When I think about the different entry points of the work, you could look at some of that voting work and see a critical position.  I think you could see a celebrating of American democracy that is fluid and nimble enough to exist in all these different kinds of spaces.  Or is it less than honorific to vote in a diner?  I don’t know.  I remember being in a pizza shop in Philly where I started the project.  I remember someone started joking, because he said, “Do these votes even count?”  How does your vote in a pizza place in 9th and Reed Street or wherever maybe, how does that vote make its way back to the White House somehow?

What does that connection look like?  That path is murkier than if you’re going to a school, or firehouse, or a library.

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Early Voting #16, Reno, NV, 2010 by Michael Mergen

And yet, there’s something so egalitarian about that, you know?  It fits right into the notion of what we think we are as Americans.  It’s gonna happen in this ordinary place.

Sure.  I remember showing [the series] to a history professor when I was in grad school.  I remember he walked in and chuckled, and he was sort of beaming.  His name was Tom.  I was like, “Tom, what is it?”  He’s like, “Well, I’ve lived my entire life in Rhode Island…I’ve only ever voted in Rhode Island, but I know if I go to California, I’ll get it.”  And to me, that’s a testament to American democracy.  I’d never seen the work from that perspective.  I was like, “Huh.  I guess you’re right.”

I’ve been to countless polling places over 10 or a dozen or so states.  So, it is kind of all the same, the set-up is sort of the same.  There’s a table.  Usually, some sweet old ladies volunteer, coffee, some machines.  Even though it isn’t radically different visually, there is a shared system that I guess does allow for, in a 21st century culture where people move across states all the time, you’ve probably lived in four/five/six houses through the course of your adult life, there is a kind of a nimbleness to the project to suggest that “Move to Texas, looks like this; move to Maine, looks like that.  You’ll figure it out.  It’s not that different.”

Yeah, but at the same time, it’s also kind of a throwback notion, you know?  It feels like one of the few places where those kind of democratic, communal experiences still happen.

Oh, absolutely.  I tend to seek out academic books and use research to bolster my own understanding of the work.  So, Michael Schudson wrote this great book called The Good Citizen and in it he talks about voting as not merely an act of choosing one candidate over the other, but it’s this moment of collected gathering—that time where, living in the United States, when you seem like a citizen.  And it’ll only be for 10 minutes once a year, or twice a year, but there’s that moment you’re reminded [that] you didn’t just get up, take your kids to school, and go to work.  You take a slight detour to remind yourself of being a citizen.  But it’s only when you only leave the United States that you describe yourself as an American. The second you get in the airplane, you give your passport, and you’re like, “I’m American.”  Well, when you get back home, you’re like, “I’m a Virginian or I’m from Minnesota or I’m from Farmville.”  Everything is very specific.

But on Election Day, we have a different kind of quality to it.  There’s that collectiveness that happens where you identify something else than your own little pod, your own little circle for that time.

Michael Mergen’s work can be found at his site: www.mimages.com

Interchangeable heads and crayons in Selma – my interview with photographer Michael Mergen continues (part 2 of 3)

I’m so glad I obeyed my impulse at the stoplight in downtown Farmville, Virginia.  I was driving through and stopped at a red light next to the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts where a local photographer’s work was on display.  I pulled into a parking spot and discovered Michael Mergen.

In the first part of my interview with Michael Mergen we explored a unique series in which he juxtaposed the text of historical markers with the contemporary landscapes associated with them.  In this section of the interview we discuss the pairing of that Civil War series with a Civil Rights series and the lenses we bring to the world.

I begin here by referencing two other series he did related to things we give to veterans and places named for military personnel who died in the operation known as the Global War on Terror…

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SPC Brian Scott “Scotty” Ulbrich Memorial Bridge, West Virginia, 2012 – photo by Michael Mergen

What lens do you bring to [your subjects] that gives you a sense of what you’re seeing?  In your series of veterans pictures – what we give to veterans and what we name for veterans – I would look at them and say, “Wow, that is really shabby, and tacky, and ordinary.”  And then I’m thinking, “Well, but you know, there’s a real democracy in that.  They’re taking things that we use everyday.”

Right.  My background was as a photojournalist and I come from a tradition of being neutral and trying to remain unbiased.  As an artist, you have obviously more license to take a point of view and take a position.  But I’ve always strived for at least a level of neutrality in my work, or a level of trying to present something ‘as is’ or as I found it, and framing it for viewers to then make their own conclusions.

There’s an intentional ambiguity in what I’m saying in my pictures that I’m conscious of.  Again, trying to not make it about me or my opinion necessarily, but to highlight something that’s happening.  Then, hopefully there’s a conversation out of that or even some disagreement can come out of that.  Especially with the [Civil War] soldier monument one.  I think that’s the one that you can approach from a “Wow, it’s just troubling that there are this many monuments that still exist out of sympathy with the political rationale for the war, and what happened after the war with Jim Crow laws and those kind of things.”  But then, I think if you support that, if you look at that wall of photographs, you’d think, “Wow, isn’t that great, that in 2017, there’s still this quantity of monuments dedicated to this war and this movement that happened.”  So, I think I’m okay with the different entry points that the work might provide.

In that Civil War piece, you chose an interesting part of those monuments to focus on: the face of all the soldiers.  I’ve walked past those Confederate monuments my entire life and now I focus on the words that are written on them and I wonder why there’s not a similar set of monuments for the forgotten folks from that period and the monuments to the ending of slavery.  But you chose the part of the statue that you hardly ever get close to—the face of the statue.  I thought that was an interesting choice to use that.  What did you learn by doing that?

Well, of course, you focus on the words, because you’re the writer.

Yeah, that’s right.

1_mergenview01I look at the face because I’m a photographer.  I learned that there’s a whole lot of them that had the same head on them. That I had no idea going into it.  It wasn’t until I had photographed maybe 20 or 30 of them, and had them hanging up in the studio, and I was like, “Wow, these are the same heads.”  A lot of these were ordered and assembled from a catalogue.  So, the company would be like, “Okay, pick your head, pick your body.  Do you want cannon balls or a cannon?”  And they were sort of assembled that way.  And that’s the way the a lot of them were made.  There’s a handful that were commissioned by a sculptor or by an artist, but they didn’t dominate.  So, a lot of them were the same head.

Then, also, they’re all white men, which is not surprise, but it’s also a little bit visually arresting.  And I remember showing it to somebody at a photo conference, and they said, “These are archetypes for Colonel Sanders or a Johnny Rebel caricature in a way.”  Is that figure the representation of the ideal Southern man?  I thought about those headshots, doing portraits of these statues, and that was the knee-jerk thought that I had.

So, it’s also that using photography in a way to get you a little bit closer to something you couldn’t get to.  A lot of these things are 30/40/50 feet up.  You’re not really looking at them in that kind of detail.  So, it was interesting just from a technical standpoint, and to use a certain lens and camera and position to get you this intimate look at just these faces.

You don’t know if there was an ur-model, do you?

There’s a book by a guy named Timothy Sedore.  He wrote a book called An Illustrated Guide to Virginia’s Civil War Monuments.  It’s really richly detailed of every monument down to every tablet, every plinth, every obelisk.  I used that halfway through to better locate some of these.  In there, it’ll give an historical description of the monuments, and you can track down who made it and the cost, and those types of things.  But the one that I always come back to, there’s one in Portsmouth, Virginia that is four-sided.

I know it, yeah.

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Portsmouth Confederate Monument

It’s right downtown there and in the description it was claimed that each figure was modeled after a veteran from Portsmouth, but you look at it—put them side by side—and you’re like, “There’s just no way.”  There’s just no way that that was actually modeled after a veteran.  I mean, maybe that was the case, maybe that was the hope, but it’s the same head as in half a dozen other moments.

So, there was a handful that were unique, like one in Lynchburg, for example.  Lynchburg, maybe at the time, had more money to commission a sculptor or artisan, but I think in some of these more rural areas, they were happy probably to put something up, and if it looked like the one two counties away, well, no big deal, because a hundred years ago, chances are you don’t really go to that county.

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photo by Michael Mergen

Going back to the crayon-inscribed photos in the exhibition [at the Longwood Center for Visual Arts], you had the Civil War series right across from the Civil Rights series, which was a really interesting juxtaposition, but what struck me is, having been to Selma and seen that landscape, how similar it is to the place where you are now.  So what did you see as a connection there or a contrast?

Part of the connection was historical, in that the end of the Civil War, 1865, and the galvanizing moments of Civil Rights–it’s almost a hundred years later to the day.  That was a strange coincidence, but they’re like two bookends, these two high water marks of American history—like a hundred years, within a week of each other.

So, that was part of it.  It was just seeing how these two things worked together.  In some ways, the end of the Civil War marked the inevitable beginning of the Civil Rights movement.  I think a lot of the political decisions, the way the political landscape was shaped post-Reconstruction, led to a situation where there had to be the Civil Rights Movement.

But it’s also a nearby, Southern, historical journey from point A to point B, that had been marked with signs.  So, it was logistically a way to continue the same process…The 50 year anniversary of Selma was coming up and Barack Obama was down there, and the movie came out.  And I was like, “Oh, this could be another way of continuing this process, continuing this exploration of these marked historical landscapes.”

Michael Mergen’s series Confederate Heroes, Confederate Dead was featured in the Oxford American magazine.

Michael Mergen’s work can be found at his personal site: www.mimages.com.

When Robert E. Lee was in the Walgreen’s Parking Lot – An interview with Photographer Michael Mergen (part 1 of 3)

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Michael Mergen at work – photos used with permission

Michael Mergen is a photographer of memory and landscape.  His photos capture ordinary, even shabby parts of America and invest them with the meanings we place on them.  So a series on the things businesses give as freebies to veterans (burgers, ice cream) and another on the things we name for war heroes (interstate highway bridges, stretches of commercial streets) becomes a silent commentary on our values.

At a recent exhibition at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, I was particularly taken with a series that imposes the image of highway historical signs over the contemporary landscapes of Virginia Civil War battlefields.  So I gave Michael a call and the Farmville, Virginia-based photographer and professor at Longwood University gave me some time to talk about his work.

Can you tell me just a little bit about how you see your work?  How would you describe what you do?  

I’m a photographer who looks at ideas of America, or our idea of citizenship, or ideas of American history, American politics – looking at how those things are manifest in the landscape, to how landscape can reveal history, how landscape or space can reveal, or show, or point to some of these fragments of American culture, American civics, American citizenship.  These recent works are more drawn to the landscape, but in some of the other work, looking at certain tiers, actual physical spaces that somehow speak to American civics and the American citizen.

So, the landscape you’re working in right now, [Southside Virginia], obviously influenced some of your projects, like the Civil War series.  Is there one region that was kind of formative for you? 

14_13m26-obverseI grew up just outside of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania and that’s still home.  That’s where my family is…So, that landscape was home.  I’d always been a student of American history and enjoyed that history, but never really was taken by the Civil War and never thought of that as more than just a part of the long, complicated American history.

Then, I moved to Virginia and it took quite a few years of being here to let some of that influence creep into the work.

This is obviously this pivotal event in American history.  About half of it was actually fought here; and then, living in Farmville is like you’re living on Lee’s Retreat [in 1865 from Richmond].  So, I’ve seen some of the historical signs just doing other projects.  I’ve see the signs driving around rural Oklahoma.  Even in California and other places.

It was one of those things I kind of saw out of the corner of  my eye–I was probably doing 60 miles an hour down some back road, and thought that the physical marking of a landscape was denoting some kind of historical significance to it.  But then, so often what is being described there is absent from the landscape.  Occasionally there’s a house, [but] usually it’s more of an oblique, invisible reference. So, with the signs, it’s one of those deep, backburner kind of ideas. With the Civil War sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary, I was thinking about the war.  I don’t have a connection to it, per se, but living in Virginia gave me, in some ways, permission point to it.

So, doing the signs, the rubbings, was fitted to my interest in landscape and the interest in history.

And you literally went out to those markers, and used a crayon to do a rubbing of the markers, and used that.

14_22f60detailYeah, so, I would photograph where the sign was and put myself within a reasonable distance.  I didn’t have too many set rules.  I started photographing where the sign was–sometimes, literally right next to the sign.  Sometimes, it might be 100 feet down the road a little bit, or off the shoulder of the highway.

Then, I’d make a print back here at school that happened to be roughly the same size as that sign, and then take the print back to the sign and clamp it on using spring clamps.  I’d do a crayon rubbing. I ended up using these jumbo, black crayons from Crayola.  I’d go into Wal-mart and buy these 8 packs.    My daughter would be like, “Dad, where are all the black crayons?”  She was left with 7 jumbo ones but all the black ones were used up.

I’d do this rubbing over the print because I was interested in this collision of history and contemporary landscape, to get at the idea that these signs are speaking or pointing to something that is gone.  We’re saying a hundred years ago this army passed through here, or, half a mile from here, a big battle happened, but there’s no trace of it.  There’s nothing.  So, I’m interested in the visual disparity of that.

In some of the ones where the landscape feels more contemporary, the ones that are closer to Petersburg, where you’re photographing the parking lot of a Walgreens, if you have an advertisement for Walgreens sale on potato chips, if you have that text colliding, literally, with a description of Lee giving the order to retreat.  Those contemporary collisions are interesting to me.  Or the one with gas stations and the price of gas, and the ads for vaping and the e-cigarettes.  You get very contemporary images and text colliding with text about Sheridan’s men or this troop brigade or that troop brigade.  That was interesting to me.

Also, the ones where it was really rural, and where I’m looking at the landscape thinking, “Gosh, this probably looks the same as it did 150 years ago.”  So, having both of those exist together in the series was interesting to me to talk about the way landscape has rapid change or how in some ways it has remained unchanged.

It’s such a great, visual way to place memory in the picture.  To have those words kind of hanging over it is a powerful image.

It comes out of a tradition in photography where people are interested in pointing the camera at a place that has some kind of historical or social/political significance.  But then, the challenge is always—how do you let the viewer in on the idea without relying exclusively on the text?  So you look at 20 photographs and say, “Okay, those are interesting photographs.”  And then, the text says, “Oh, X, Y, and Z happened there.”  Sometimes that can drive you back to the text to look at it, but that’s also been done.  So, this was a way of still engaging in that commentary but doing it in a more direct way, where the piece could be able to stand on its own and be a bit more self-evident.

Michael Mergen’s work can be found at http://www.mimages.com.

“Pessimism, Hopelessness & Doom” – Traveling the Virginia Extremes with August Wallmeyer

 

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August Wallmeyer paints a distressing picture of rural Virginia in the 21st century.  His little book, The Extremes of Virginia, which highlights the realities and common challenges of three regions of the Commonwealth—Southwest, Southside, and the Eastern Shore—gets your attention quickly.  You start to see why he calls the regions “the Extremes,” and it isn’t just because they form a crescent on the periphery of the state.  A few examples:

“People in the Extremes areas earn about two-thirds of what Virginians statewide do. People here are older and much poorer. The average poverty rate among the Extremes is 67 percent higher than Virginia’s. In Virginia in 2014, it was 11.8 percent. In the Extremes, 19.7 percent.”

“Suicide rates in some pockets of the Extremes are double, some more than triple the statewide average. Overall, the average rate at which people in the Extremes commit suicide is 18.8 percent higher.”

“The rate of fatal prescription opioid drug overdoses in the Extremes is 56 percent higher than Virginia.”

Something is going on in the Extremes, and these indicators suggest that it isn’t good.  In fact, Wallmeyer says, “There is a pervasive sense of pessimism, hopelessness and doom in the Extremes.”

Well, that doesn’t sound good.

51LveuFwchL.jpgTo be sure, Wallmeyer, a former news writer, trade association executive and long-time observer of the General Assembly in Richmond, appreciates the beauty and lifestyle of these areas.  He is sympathetic to the psychic and spiritual effects of a declining and aging population, lost influence in state decision-making, and the collapse of old economic models.  And he understands that governmental policies are often contradictory and unhelpful.

But he’s not really sure what to do about it.  Along the course of his Extreme journey, he highlights some pockets of progress and people who are trying to make changes.  The high-tech rocket launch facility on the Eastern Shore is one of those bright lights.  The general tenor of the book, however, is that the problems are so engrained and severe that it will take outsiders to set things straight.

The general tenor of the book, however, is that the problems are so engrained and severe that it will take outsiders to set things straight.

After noting the aversion most residents of the Extremes have to being told what to do by people from outside the region, Wallmeyer’s most prominent policy recommendation is to bring in the experts who have been involved in development work around the globe.  “I suggest we use a small fraction of our budget and spend it on some highly qualified outside help with particular expertise in the kinds of situations and problems faced in the Extremes.”  He then outlines the qualifications of these outside aides in a way that seems hopelessly unrealistic: “The task of the consultants must be completely nonpartisan, completely indifferent to election realities or predictions, absolutely neutral in every respect.”

I appreciate Wallmeyer’s effort here.  He has collected some very useful statistics and has offered a clear-eyed portrait of the land I know.  But the reporting is spotty and relies too much on the legislative and bureaucratic world that he seems to know so well.

A crisis of “pessimism, hopelessness and doom” is not going to be solved by more tinkering with the system.

A crisis of “pessimism, hopelessness and doom” is not going to be solved by more tinkering with the system.  It’s going to require a revival of community, a proliferation of relationships and networks of local connection, and a renewed narrative that restores purpose and meaning to the land and its people.  It is, dare I say it, a spiritual problem that will require the tools of the heart and soul.

The Extremes of Virginia 

by August Wallmeyer

Dementi Milestone Publishing, 2016

126 pages

You are the one and only threshold

hisu-lee-26812“If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will haunt us.  We will become hungry with a hunger no image, person, or deed can still.  To be wholesome, we must remain truthful to our vulnerable complexity.  In order to keep our balance, we need to hold the interior and exterior, visible and invisible, known and unknown, temporal and eternal, ancient and new, together.  No one can undertake this task for you.  You are the one and only threshold of an inner world.”

–John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

How to Be Here (and Not There)

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The Crossroads Coffee House

“It is strange to be here,” John O’Donohue says in the opening line of his book, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom.  For O’Donohue, that meant attending to the mystery of the particular human life and acknowledging that each of is “the one and only threshold of an inner world.”

It is strange to be here…and anywhere.  The unique features of our lives and of the places we inhabit are threatened by the enticing, unrooted landscape of the virtual world.  What would it look like for churches to be here and not, for instance, there?

What would it look like for churches to be here and not, for instance, there?

“Will this work for East Dallas?”  That’s the question Andrew Forrest urged his church leaders to keep asking as he began a relaunched ministry at Munger Place United Methodist Church.  Munger Place has a long history in the neighborhood, but the struggling congregation needed to think of itself as a new church start.  They could have used a lot of models that were finding success in different locales, but they knew they needed to keep it local.

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Munger Place UMC, photo by church

“We tried to avoid anything that would seem like the big-box retailer was coming in and taking over the beloved mom and pop establishment,” Forrest said in an interview in Faith and Leadership magazine.  “So we kept asking, ‘Will this work for East Dallas?’ And I think that question helped us connect with our neighborhood.”

I cut my teeth in ministry in East Dallas as a seminary intern and there are many ways that that dynamic and growing neighborhood is different from the Eastern Shore, where I live now, but the question is a good one for rural churches as well.  “Will this work here?”

To be clear, asking this question doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of trying to innovate.  Because something worked here fifty years ago does not mean that it’s the thing that will connect us with the neighborhood we find ourselves in today.  Step one is to spend some time with people who don’t go to church.  You know – the majority of the population.  (Only about 20% of people on the Eastern Shore are regular attenders.)

The days I feel most vital are those where I am engaging with folks in diners and when I set up office at in the community college lounge.  As we build relationships and engage in real conversation with our neighbors we are building our capacity to offer the transforming gospel of Jesus in ways that speak to this place on God’s green earth.  Just as importantly, we will also be transformed when we meet the Jesus who is already present out there (around here?) in the lives of people with lived wisdom of their own.

“We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up.”

“We know that we all have knowledge,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:1.  “Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up” (CEB).  So I aim to be a little less sure of what I know and instead to love the mystery that is within me and around me.

In other words, I aim to be here.  Not there.

A comedy after all: Easter

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unsplash photo by Will van Wingerden

He says her name, “Mary.”  And suddenly Easter happens.  The random becomes the real.  The new story line clicks into place.  The world rotates on a different axis.  The universe is turned upside-down, inside out.  Mary becomes the first to understand that death cannot be the last word.  That Jesus’s story was not a tragedy.  That life is a comedy after all, because God will not let loose ends go untied, and God will turn every stumbling block into stepping stones.

–Alex Joyner

Attention was paid: The strange & sensual movement of Holy Week

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unsplash photo by Bern Hardy

Last night they didn’t try to package Jesus into a digestible savior.  In the Good Friday service I attended, the space was prepared.  Attention was paid.  The movements were purposeful.  Light and darkness played across the sanctuary.  There was little attempt at explanation and what there was was superfluous.  The story was told well.  Music leaned into the spaces where words fail.  Silence even more so.

Holy Week is strange and sensual.  It presents us with a drama that resists reduction.  Our multiple theories of atonement reveal the struggle to comprehend what it’s all about.  So good worship doesn’t try.  It just leads us into the story and lets us walk around with all our senses on.

I was grateful for the care that was taken with last night’s service.  It respected the shadows and light in Jesus’s life and in my own.