Interfaith Leaders To Confront anti-Muslim Sentiment and Actions

FYI…. I’ll let you know how it goes.

A group of prominent Greater Washington D.C. area religious leaders will hold a press conference today, Monday, August 30, 2010 at 1:00 p.m., to denounce the upsurge of anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions in the U.S. The leaders represent many of Washington’s largest Jewish congregations, Muslim organizations and Christian congregations with histories of social justice advocacy. “When one part of Washington’s wonderfully diverse religious community is attacked, we are all attacked. We will defend the rights of and demand respect for our Muslim brothers and sisters,” says Rev. John Wimberly, senior pastor, Western Presbyterian Church.

Responding to opposition to the construction of Muslim-sponsored projects in Wisconsin, California, Connecticut and New York, a rise in angry rhetoric aimed at Muslims, and other troubling events, the leaders will express their commitment to building local, national and global attitudes of tolerance and respect for people of various faiths. They will call on the religious community to come together to protect the rights of all people of faith.

Western Presbyterian Church was chosen as the location for the press conference because, in addition to being the home of a Christian congregation, it is home to large Friday Muslim prayer services held by the Muslim Student Association of The George Washington University. Over 250 adherents attend the services weekly. During Ramadan, break-the-fasts are also held at Western.

The press is invited to hear short presentations by the leaders of the interfaith community followed by a time for questions and answers.
Confirmed Participants as of 8/27/10:

Nihad Awad– Council on American Islamic Relations
Naeem Baig– Islamic Circle of North America Council for Social Justice
Rev. Canon Timothy Boggs– The National Cathedral
Rev. Karen Brau– Luther Place Church
Imam Mehdi Bray– Muslim American Society Freedom
Jean Duff– Center for Interfaith Action
Rev. Jeffrey Haggray– First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C.
Sr. Asma Hanif– Council of Muslim Organizations
Rabbi Mindy Portnoy– Temple Sinai
Rabbi Jonathan Roos– Temple Sinai
Rabbi Ethan Seidel– Tifereth Israel Congregation
Haris Tarin– Muslim Public Affairs Council
Rev. John Wimberly– Western Presbyterian Church

Where: Western Prebyterian Church 2401 Virginia Avenue, NW Washington, D.C. 20037 202 835 8383
When: Monday, August 30, 2010 1:00 p.m.
For more information: Contact John Wimberly 202 746 0951 or 202 835 8383 or
email: john@westernpresbyterian.org

Another death certificate for the emerging church

So the Wall Street Journal has proclaimed that Emerging Church has fizzled out. Brett McCracken has declared it a hipster trend and we’re moving on, because the hipsters were never about Jesus.

I don’t really want to talk about whether it’s dead or not. I don’t know. I know a lot of intelligent people who are still involved, and I think that it will have a huge impact on American religion for many years to come. My sense is that what died was “emerging” as an evangelical re-branding effort. The evangelical movement could not control the Gen Xers, so they will declare them dead. But the people who were writing interesting things are still writing. Those reeling from the after-effects of evangelicalism have not gone away. People who struggle to respond faithfully to postmodernism have not gone away. Whatever is happening, it’s clear that a transition is occurring and there are things that we can learn right now.

I say “we” with discomfort. I have felt shut out of the “Emergent” movement. I am a pastor in a historic, intergenerational congregation with traditional liturgy. A few years ago, when I asked an Emergent writer and leader if there was room for me, if the conversation could be about both/and (both innovation and tradition), he told me clearly and emphatically, “No.” Denominations were going to die at any moment, and I was holding onto a lumbering dinosaur. I was not part of a denominational church so that I could live out the fullness of my calling in a community of faith, but in order to gain power for myself.

As someone who grew up in a church that systematically oppressed women, who was constantly told that my calling into ministry was a sin and the only reason I felt a longing to minister was because I could not accept my God-given role of submission, and I was all about power, the soundtrack sounded the same…even though the intent was different. I feared that people in the movement did not understand the difference between abusive power and spiritual empowerment. I bolted.

(And, yes, for anyone who doesn’t believe me, I’ll be happy to give anyone the name, place, date and precise time of the conversation. I will email it to you though. I won’t do it publicly. But, remember, if you keep questioning the validity of people who complain because your experience has been different, then you just might be contributing to the problem.)

Many people wonder why I often make a distinction that I am not a part of the capital “E” “Emergent” movement, even though I write about being faithful in the midst of postmodernism and cultural shifts. Not to mention the fact that I dearly love many who are in the heart of the movement. It’s because that was one of many conversations that I’ve had. In spite of this, I have found friends among the loyal radicals—those who are in the midst of denominations, understand the shifts in culture, and are working to respond faithfully to them.

The Emergent movement might be dead. Denominations might die. But God’s not dead. I guess the question is, what we can learn in all this? How can we retool? How can we keep being the hands and feet of Christ in the midst of the shifts and changes? What is God calling us to become? Here are a couple of things that I have learned from this larger conversation.

First, we need each other. We need the tradition and wisdom of the generations who have come before us. We need the Boomers and the Builders. And we need the church movements of the past. We need the wisdom that comes from church structures and we need the passion that breeds in the postevangelical movement. There is no way that we can shut out all evangelicals and all denominational Christians and expect that a movement will survive.

Second, we will need to be kind with each other when it comes to financial security. Often times, in our new church movements, we can heap shame on each other for not starting new churches, or guilt one another for not giving everything up and living with the poor. If a person receives a pension then she’s a sell-out. If he receives book royalties then he’s a sell-out. Shoot… if a person runs ads on her blog and gets a monthly check for $1.27, she’s a sell-out. If he blogs for Beliefnet, he’s a sell-out.

If we continue this sort of hardcore attitude, it may be difficult for us to sustain in the long run. Many of us have families. We have student loans and mortgage payments. We love Jesus, but our kids need backpacks to go back to school. Many of us hope that we will not be eating dog food when we retire. We will keep having difficulty planting churches and working for social justice if we don’t have some realization that sometimes we need money. Our ministries need money. That doesn’t make us greedy capitalists. That doesn’t make us all about power. It’s just reality.

Third (and I have been clumsy as I’ve talked about this in the past, but I still think there’s more to say), when people complain that they are being left out (women, LGBTs, different ethnicities), there has been an assumption in the Emergent movement that there is no power structure, so there is no way that people can be left out.

It’s important to understand when we have power. And it’s vital that we use it to empower others in their ministries. If we want a diverse conversation, we will need to make sure that it happens. There are many people who have been historically left out of church leadership. Some have been ill-treated blatantly or discreetly. As a result, they just don’t have sharp elbows. They will not push themselves up to the table and make a place with ease. Those of us who are people of privilege will need to understand this. We will need to keep making spaces and extending invitations.

Reframing Hope Has Arrived

I’ve been told that my new book, Reframing Hope is now at Alban’s distribution office (you can get the first chapter and a great deals on it here).

It was a very fun book to write, because I was so excited about the topic. But it was also challenging. I talk a lot about social media, so I felt like it was important to be fully engaged with blogging and Twittering as I wrote it. And since social media can be a total time suck, it often took over my writing hours. I started speaking and traveling more, because Tribal Church did well, so that often took my days off. Then there was that weird second book thing. There can be a bit of pressure, internally and externally, to make your book better than the first one. With your first one, you can labor away in obscurity, but with the second, there are expectations…. Through it all, I’m pretty sure that I threw away more pages than I wrote (that’s not usually how I do things).

Eventually I learned to balance my time a bit more and turn off the Internet when I needed to. I even realized that I don’t need to put up a blog post every day, and it’s okay if I don’t respond to every comment, even when the comment is critical of my work (that was very freeing, indeed). I learned to turn down some speaking engagements. And I got over that second-book thing. And after a good long time, it’s out.

Now, I want to thank you all for your comments and conversations. They have fed me throughout the process. The book and article recommendations, your reflections of when I was on point and when I was off, the interview suggestions–it was all of great value as I put the manuscript together. I struggled as I wrote the acknowledgements for the book. Some of the people were easy to point to. There was, of course, my family, my husband, Brian Merritt, and my daughter, Calla. Diana Butler Bass wrote a great forward, and I was humbled by the kind endorsements of Phyllis Tickle and Paul Brandeis Raushenbush. Ruth Everhart, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Jan Edmiston, and Leslie Kingensmith were all a part of a writing group that I attended as I formed the proposal. As I wrote, I worked closely with Bruce Reyes-Chow and Landon Whitsitt on God Complex Radio. They are pastors, true techies (I’m not so much), and the former Moderator and present Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). They both have a unique perspective on the church. I learned a great deal from them, both in practice and long conversations.

But other people were a bit harder to point out. Ryan and Meredith Kemp-Pappan have been great friends and support throughout. And there were networks that I was a part of and struggling with as I wrote: RevGalBlogPals, Presbymergent, Beatitudes Society, D-mergent, Outlaw Preachers, and Transform. Each one of them, in their different ways, are faithfully sorting out what it means to be church in this time and place.

It’s sort of overwhelming when I imagine the great network of people who have encouraged me and fed me throughout. I think of those people in the Bible—the prophets, slaves, and outcasts—who ended up in the wilderness. They were hungry and exhausted, and somehow a raven came with bread, or manna poured down from heaven, or they miraculously saw a well in the horizon. I know I’m far from the wilderness, and I’m no slave or outcast. I don’t want to be too dramatic about all of this… but I have to say that I’m overwhelmed with gratitude when I think of all the generous spirits of the people around me. People who have said kind words, linked to articles, extended invitations, and sent emails. On many dry and anxiety-filled days, these things nourished me more than you could know.

I cannot thank you enough.

The Next Forty Years

A commissioner to the General Assembly (our denomination’s national meeting that happens every two years), came back to report on what he did. He was a bit disappointed that he was on the church growth committee. The first day they sat down and talked about how if the church continues to decline at the same rate, then there will be no members left in forty years. The second day, they studied Matthew 25. The third day, they studied Matthew 25. They went on a couple of field trips, and they studied Matthew 25 some more.

The people hearing the report were shocked. That was it? I mean Matthew 25 is super, but… that’s it?

Perhaps there was more to it than that, and that’s just what the commissioner reported, but wow. Why not come up with a strategic plan for growth? I realize that there is no denominational master plan that we can follow. We tend to be much more grassroots. But we had the best and the brightest minds of our denomination gathered in one place, why not dream a bit about what we could do? We have a lot of money, a lot of property, and some of the most gifted pastors… what could we do? Here’s what I would love to see happen:

1) Become determined to keep our recent grads. If anyone has met anyone who has recently graduated from seminary, you will know that we have a glut of qualified candidates, and no place for them to go. Actually. Let me rephrase that. We have some of the most brilliant people in our church who are unemployed. I have seen the most incredibly gifted minds walking around, wanting to be ordained, and we have no place for them. Some of them are finding jobs as interns, or working in seminaries, or non-profits, but they can’t get ordained without a traditional call. Can we begin to open up our idea of what a validated ministry is? Can we make sure that we track these graduates? Could Presbyteries support them and encourage them while they look for positions? Can we offer internships and educational opportunities for them? (I know you guys need jobs, not more education, but untill then….) We’re going to need them soon, and we don’t want to lose them.

2) Quit giving incentives to ministers who are past retirement to stay employed. I’m not sure what other denominations are doing, but in the Presbyterian Church (USA), pastors get incentives to stay in their jobs beyond the age of 65. This is going to take action from the General Assembly to change. I’ve written on this before, and here’s a comment from a Pension representative to explain exactly what they’re doing. With grads not able to get jobs, this seems like a bad idea.

3) Help churches to die well. There are many things that we do, as pastors, when we stand beside the bed of someone who is dying, and there are many things that we don’t do. It’s the same with our churches. We don’t tell churches that they are failures because they are dying. We don’t shame them for not living a few years longer. We celebrate their lives. And with churches, we can help them to imagine how they can use their resources and assets to plant new churches.

4) Support people who want to plant churches. While going to Bible School, I was told there was one way to “make disciples” and that was to plant churches. In our denomination, only a couple of New Church Developments were started nationally in the last couple of years, but I know at least twelve people who would start a church tomorrow, if they could. Many of them have been approved by the denomination. They are raring to go, but there’s no place for them to go. They have been told to just plant the church, and then look for denominational support. But they have children. They need insurance. They need some support.

I’m a part of a group of pastors who are starting to fundraise for NCDs outside of the denominational systems. They are DOC, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Post-evangelicals.

There will be some NCD failures, just like a percentage of new businesses fail. We can plan for those. And we can let the pastors decide what makes sense in their context—a traditional church, an emerging church, a monastic community, a coffeehouse church, a nesting church, or whatever…. There are a million ways to do it now.

Generation X is an entrepreneurial, innovative generation. We start businesses. We create new technology. And we are itching to start new churches. (The DOC is doing a great job of this.) And the Millenials are a very large generation. Can we begin to imagine congregations that make sense in their context?

Will we support our innovators? Will we allow people to retire? Will we give dignity to churches who are dying? Can we have a better vision for the next forty years? What would you like to see happen?

The Importance of Community

I was at a party, holding my plastic cup of beer and talking to a stranger in a crowded house. She was in thirties, like I was. “So, what do you do?” she asked. “Where to do you work?”

I smiled because this part of the conversation can become really interesting. I’m a five-foot tall woman, who’s part of a generation that considers itself “spiritual but not religious,” so people don’t usually expect my answer: “I’m a pastor.”

“Oh my God,” she responded. “I never knew why anyone would go to church. But last year, my mom got sick. She’s divorced, and I’m living hundreds of miles away from her, so I didn’t know what we were going to do. And her church totally took care of her. They brought her meals. They drove her to the doctor. They called me when anything out of the ordinary happened.”

“Yeah. That’s what the good churches do.”

“Really?” She looked completely confused as she continued, “I had no idea. You should really advertise that.” I laughed, and we talked for a bit more about her career. But, her initial comments stuck with me as I snagged a rare empty space on the couch. I looked at the crowd of mingling people, and the loud music triggered my thoughts. It never occurred to me that people would not know that churches care for the sick. What had church become in the minds of most people?

I wondered as I traced the condensation drops on the side of my cup. Do people only know our faith by what they see on Fox News? Has church become synonymous with the Religious Right? Has Christianity become known as a “pull yourself up by your boostraps” kind of religion? What about our progressive congregations who are serving the poor, caring for the environment, and helping each other out? What about those who love our neighbors, even when they’re going through difficulties? Do people even know we exist? And how would we advertise that anyway? It’s not like we are an elderly care service—someplace where you can drop your parents off so that we can take care of them and you don’t have to worry. No, it’s different than that. We’re a community. Which, I suppose, can be an alien concept in itself these days.

Our society rewards autonomy. In our educational system, the most important tests are the ones we take alone. We move away from our hometowns in order to get an education or a job. Then we keep relocating for every career opportunity. People would rather rely on high-interest credit cards than borrow money from their own family. Young men and women, who are trying to enter an extremely difficult job market, are considered losers if they live with their parents while they pay off their student loans. People put off marriage and parenthood, because there is a societal expectation that we must be financially independent before we become married (which is increasingly difficult when it takes two incomes to maintain household stability). In these days of economic turmoil, the young have been hit with student loans, high housing costs, and stagnant salaries. Older people have been smacked with increased medical costs, prolonged retirement plans, and diminished savings. As we realize how threadbare our societal safety net has become, it is becoming clear how faulty our notions of financial and emotional independence are. We need each other. We need communities.

While many civic organizations have become relics of the past, faith communities still thrive in our society, as a place of solidarity in all stages in life. In our sanctuary, there is a space where CEOs and homeless people sit together in the same pew. We’re a gathering where people from diverse ethnicities work with one another. It is a setting where the young and the old support each other when we’re in spiritual, emotional, or physical need. It is a place I can go to, in times of faith or in doubt. When I’m too weak to hold any belief in God or myself, I know that a community holds it for me. And I can be strong for others, when they falter. It is a sanctuary, in a broad sense of the term, where people can question and work to make the world a better place.

I don’t mean to say that our community of faith is perfect in any sense. None of them are. We can fight over silly things, and we have expectations that far exceed our human capacities. There are some churches where people can just be downright nasty to one another. But, in the right space, it is a place to build community, with all of our human messiness. It is a place where we can struggle alongside one another, helping one another in times of strength and weakness.

In this society where we are becoming weary, anxious and depressed with our struggle for autonomy and independence, there is a place where we still gather. We take each other to the doctor. We make food for one another. We care for each other. We see each other as neighbors and we still create community.

Genius Constellations

My friend, Ruth Everhart, reminds me that genius constellations have often formed. They are pockets of brilliance, where we can see how people worked together and fed each other with their creativity. Whether it was the Harlem Renaissance, the Paris Impressionists, or the Delta Blues musicians, there have been points in history where men and women have gained courage and inspiration from each other’s ideas. They have stretched each other, making their friends into better artists, writers, and professionals.

There is another sort of constellation now, one that connects our brilliant ideas and passions through vast space. Through the Internet and our ability to publish our theories, disseminate ideas, and organize people through it, community forms and friendships emerge, and people who were once segregated are able to hear one another and live together in a different way.

Speaking to one another face-to-face, seeing the expressions, and hearing the tremble in each voice has not waned in importance; it is just that we have various other tools that can enhance our personal expressions and make our interpersonal communication even deeper.

Just as the printing press revolutionized the printed written word with its ability to disperse information in an inexpensive and efficient manner, we are experience experiencing the same sort of transformation in our communication. Now, connections of like-minded people no longer have to congregate in one location to communicate, share ideas, organize, and spark one another’s imaginations, but can instead form constellations of thought no matter how far apart their geographical locations.

Even with the dangers of on-line communications, and even though such communication is unlikely ever to completely replace face-to-face interaction, we recognize the that blogging and social networking communities can be important avenues for ministry and pastoral care, empowering people to communicate freely their ideas, passions, questions, and doubts.

Right now, these constellations are forming, but the men and women do not have to sit around the same café table in order for the constellation of ideas to spark one another. Where do you see them? What effect do you think all of this will have on the church?

Born Again

I was teenager, standing in front of the mirror, hating every bit of the reflection. I was born in the seventies and grew up along a beach town in Florida. It’s a place where–sometimes by necessity–people don’t wear many clothes. The beach dominated our recreation and businesses, and it was so hot that a lot of clothing didn’t make sense. Many restaurants had to instruct their customers to wear shoes and shirts in order to receive service. I never wanted to wear a bathing suit in public. I had a less than perfect body, and never got over my self-consciousness enough to venture out without full covering. And as I stared into that mirror, my body consciousness turned into shame, and then hatred began to take root, until I loathed what I saw. Every imperfection, every curve, I treated with a disgust that haunted me throughout the day. It came out in subtle ways, mostly with an eating disorder that never allowed me to consume food without guilt.

Sadly, my Christian faith didn’t help matters much. As a teen, we attended a conservative mega-church. I was a “born-again Christian,” fashioned in a tradition where I was always taught to “take up my cross” and to “die to self.” There was a dichotomy between the flesh and the spirit, they told me. As a Christian, I was caught in an internal warfare, where I was trying to contain the flesh and discipline it. This hatred of the body fit in well with the emotional and hormonal turmoil I went going through as a teenager, as I began to develop in strange and unusual ways, and I could no longer quite squeeze myself into a bathing suit. Our church constantly encouraged us to fast as a spiritual discipline. Our pastor went thirty days without food, and preached about the experience constantly. So I fasted. I learned to ignore the cravings for which my body yearned. I turned away from the hunger, pain, and stress, all in the belief that I, as a good Christian, ought to keep any cravings of my body under spiritual control.

I didn’t come into a full understanding of my folly until fifteen years later, when my body began quickly and drastically changing again. I was pregnant, and each day I would stand in front the mirror, just like before. Yet, the experience was completely different. This time, it was with pure wonder at what was happening, as each part of my body swelled. I could no longer ignore my cravings. I had to listen closely to them, because they told me exactly what my body needed—leafy greens on one day and dairy products on the next. If I shunned my hunger and skipped a meal, I would vomit. My body let me know when the stress of my job was becoming too much and I needed to slow down, or when I needed to sleep more.

During this second time of profound physical change, I no longer had the same spiritual teachers. My theology had also evolved radically, as I read more feminists in my tradition, and the voices of those women reminded me that I needed to love my neighbor and I needed to love myself. They lifted up the fact that God said creation is good, and we need to take care of it. As I looked down at my enlarged flesh, I realized that I was not only a part of creation, but I was a partner in creation. As my body morphed into new shapes, my faith took on a new form as well, as I read theologians who shunned the idea that every sin begins with pride, while lifting up the fact that often people live with the violation of self-hatred. When I looked into the mirror, my new teachers whispered to me that I must great respect for that reflection. Because what I was looking at was imago dei–I was made in the image of God.

Feeling those first kicks made me experience my spirituality much differently. So much of what I had been taught had been focused on death, especially Jesus’ death on the cross, and that act of human cruelty had become central to my faith in unhealthy ways.  And yet, through those nine months, and the years that followed, I began to see my spirituality through the lens of birth and life. I became “born again,” as I understood that the Spirit was giving birth to me anew. God was using me in the act of creation, and I learned the importance of deeply-loved flesh.