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Archive for January, 2012

Last night I returned from spending ten days on an academic delegation in El Salvador to learn from a local television station that the nearest morgue of my Chicago home has been piling bodies in a corner for several months, stacking 400 adult and 100 babies like piles of trash.

It is clear to me that my time in Central America has been and will continue to be a transformative time in my life.  I’m sure that the impact of those ten days will continue to roll out feelings, thoughts and insights for many years to come.  I learned a lot about humanity, hope, the impacts of civil war, U.S. foreign policy, violence, peace, faith, healthcare, justice and solidarity from the Salvadoran people.  I am beginning to realize that my former understanding of the complexities of life barely scratch the surface to what those complexities actually are, particularly in a non-first-world country.

But what I cannot understand is how in a first-world county, in the same county as what I consider to be one of the greatest cities of the United States, can the remains of people be treated with such blatant disrespect and disregard.

To make matters worse, the responses I’ve read this morning of the people in charge do not seem to be so disheartened.  I am appalled and horrified that not only something like this has happened, but that the response by Commissioner Fritchey includes the statement, “It’s difficult to find a morgue anywhere that’s going to look like one out of a TV show where everything is shiny and spotless.”  Clearly this issue is bigger then a difference between Hollywood and Main Street.  To attempt to make that parallel almost as disgusting as the conditions of which these bodies are treated.

Medical Examiner Jones has tried to brush this off as a result of the poor of our community not being able to afford proper burials.  Unclaimed bodies of Cook County are typically buried in the pauper’s grave of Homewood, along with the fetuses and babies who died during delivery of families who cannot afford a private burial.  While there is no doubt that $13 million dollars of budget cuts accounts for a challenging process to afford to bury these bodies, news reports have proven that many of the bodies currently in the morgue are family members of people who are trying to find out what happened to their loved ones.  The report I watched last night showed a mother who called every day seeking answers for the whereabouts of her daughter.  She was not notified that the morgue had her daughter’s remains until May, only to discover later that the body had been identified as early as April.

El Salvador taught me a broader understanding of the word “solidarity.”  As I sit here in my comfy apartment in Hyde Park, I am reminded that part of my responsibility as both a human and a Christian is to be in solidarity with those who suffer, whether they are families in Cook County or families near the equator. I will never be able to sort through what I learned in another nation if I am unwilling to do the work and sort through what I am seeing in my own backyard.

Those of us who are fortunate to be born in a first-world country and be born into a place upper societal standing within that world need to not be passive observers of the horrors and frustrations of our surroundings.  I could look at this morgue situation and do what I have always done – pray for the families, follow the news stories, vote for different officials – or I can take this message of solidarity and push harder against the injustices in my surroundings.  I’m not sure yet at this present moment how I can be a voice of change in this situation, but I need to do more than be a passive observer.

I live in a nation where I am free, and have been my entire life, to express my thoughts about what is happening in my government without the fear of being massacred.  This is a luxurious right that far too many inhabitants of this world do not or have not had.  I was fortunate enough to learn about the struggles that unfold from fighting for that right, and it would be an insult to my experience in El Salvador to forget that the moment I first encounter injustice in my own community.

What is happening at the Cook County morgue is an injustice, and it should not be tolerated.  I pray for the courage to devise a way to take action and remind my local authorities the responsibility that comes with the benefits of being a first-world nation.

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Click here to watch an interview by Day1, Four Preachers, One Call, regarding the 2012 National Festival of Young Preachers held in Louisville, KY in January 2012.

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I am currently in El Salvador, exploring with other seminary students (one a dear friend from Chicago, five from Philadelphia, and a spouse) about the current state of this Latin America country and how their experience shapes their spirituality.  I have been in the country for about five days, and the differences between this fine nation and the fine nation from which I come is astronomical.  It is not just the poverty.  It is not just the fact that minimum wage is $5 a day.  It is not just the fact that when it comes to pedestrians crossing the street, the driver has the right-of-way.  It is not just the fact that potable water is practically non-existent.  It is not just the fact that the juices here are the most delicious beverages I have ever drank.  It is not just the fact that private security guards carry shotguns and dogs wander the streets almost as regularly as squirrels climb trees in Chicago.  It is all these things in addition to one fundamental feeling and social ideal that is so thick I can almost taste it – hope.

My group and I spent the last 48 hours in a city of El Salvador named Suchitoto.  This community is about 90 minutes away from the capital of San Salvador, and in its municipality houses the survivors of a horrific masacar of civilians that happened during their civil war in the eighties and nineties.  I had the great privilege of hearing the testimony of two of the masacar survivors.  Sitting on the remnants of homes that have been destroyed, it was beyond heart-wrenching to listen to these brave souls share of torture so extreme that I would have thought I was listening to a holocaust survivor.  I had no idea that El Salvador went through a civil war that was as brutal as it was, had no idea that our government contributed financially as much as it did for fear of communism, had no real understanding that the fear of communism was really as awful as it apparently was.  Listening to these survivors, actually seeing what this war meant and the people it affected, all the while recognizing that this seemed to many like the best option at the time, was life changing.

I also didn´t realize how much I projected my U.S. history on other things.  For example, my father has many friends who fought and survived the Vietnam War.  When I hear guerilla warfare, I think about people I know and the trauma they felt.  I think about what that word means to U.S. soldiers who fought in an Asian war.  I didn´t recognize that my lens on that word is so focused to my culture.  Hearing the testimony of these survivors, people who were caught between the Salvadorian government and guerilla fighters, I struggled to let go of my Vietnam-associated connotations.  El Salvador is not Vietnam.  Similar words mean different things here.

In addition to hearing the testimonies, we ate lunch with our speakers.  I have never been so frustrated at being a foreign-language flunky as I was at that meal.  Sitting next to two of the most courageous people I have ever met, I couldn´t speak with them without an interpreter.  I couldn´t tell them from my own lips how grateful I was for the gift of their story, share with them that I will never be the same person for having heard it.

After lunch, we went to their new settlement.  After being refugees in Guatemala for almost two decades, the survivors were able to move back to El Salvador and rebuild close to where their original home was.  We hiked a half a mile into the mountain, and saw their houses (63 families returned) and visited their library.  We saw their memorial monument and dodged chickens that were running around the streets.

I was able to witness the crucifixion of their community, and celebrate in the beginning of its resurrection.  It is a feeling I wish all people could experience, and one that I can never explain well enough to do it justice.

We returned this evening to a guest house in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.  My group reflected on what Suchitoto meant to us, how we are now forever changed.  One member of our group began singing “Amazing Grace”.  In true Lutheran style, we broke out in four-part harmony on that patio in the warm evening, the haunting words of a spiritual from our home nation filling the silence of the house that is serving as home while we explore another nation.  Suchitoto´s resurrection made those words more powerful to me then I could ever have known.

This place is what God´s tranformative love looks like.  It is such an amazing grace inside an amazing place.  I pray that I never forget the feeling of this night, or forget the faith of those survivors.

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I’m sure by this point anyone who has a Facebook page has seen the video “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus” and has also seen the non-stop viral dialogue that has been occurring since then.  I am a proud to call myself a member of the ELCA and am in seminary in hopes of becoming qualified to one day be a pastor for the church.  I’m not going to pretend for a second that don’t have an opinion on this topic.  I do – I love Jesus and religion.

I also recognize that my audience who is reading this post probably already has their mind made up on where they stand on this issue.  I certainly did before I clicked the “play” button on the video.  We may hope that we are engaging in an open discussion for or against this topic, but I have a hunch that most of the people on Facebook who are re-posting articles are really trying to encourage people to see their perspective on where they stand.

I know where I stand in loving my God and my church, and I will continue to read posts about where other people stand.  Whether we want to admit it or not, sharing our philosophies on religion is really what the church is about anyways.  I find it ironic that people who “hate religion” are participating in one of its fundamental cornerstones – communicating their faith to other believers.

My purpose today is not to try to sell you on why you should like both Jesus and religion.  Yes, I do hope the words I write may inspire someone to build trust that the church’s goal is to promote love above all else, but telling you to believe that won’t make it happen.  I think what made that video so powerful is that it was one persons honest testimony, and as such I recognize that the only message that will reign true at a time like this is the power of my own testimony.

I am a woman who has always been strong-willed, opinionated, and self-sufficient.  Long before I heard my call to ministry I was determined to be the perfect balance of active feminist and romantic housewife.  I was content enough in my career, and was fairly successful within my field right from the start of entering the workforce.

My world shifted when the career I thought was my life force proved to be a passing moment in time.  I began working for a church, and in my service to people outside of myself inside the mission of religious based organizations, I started to see that my former life was only a fraction of the joy and happiness that it could be.  I had always loved Jesus and always attended church but not overly active in it.  It was only in immersing myself in a religious institution that I discovered who I really am and how I could make my ideals a reality.

That process was not easy.  Working in a church was not easy.  Seeing the challenges of living your individual understanding of God’s call in the context of a community was not easy.  None of it was easy – but it was all a blessing.  It was through the conflict, the errors, at the projects that fell flat and in the good intentions gone wrong where I witnessed what unconditional love was all about.  There is something pretty remarkable about a group of people who have no other connection to each other but their love of God.  It is even more powerful to witness them use that love to build relationships and learn how to communicate with each other.  It is hard work, often times with prickly edges, but a gift that means more to me then I could ever imagine.

Now I am in seminar, and have claimed an even more public position of my love for experiencing God’s grace through religion.  This present reality that I am in is also not easy.  There are many people who hate religion, hate pastors, hate everything that comes with being active in the church.  My studies now, who I hope to become, represents bad feelings for a lot of people, including some people who I love.  It is not easy to see friends that you have had for years walk out of your life because you embrace religion.  Yes, sometimes religion oppresses, but sometimes people who hate the oppressiveness of religion often wield the sword to which they claim to despise.

I struggle with finding a balance in this.  I recently was at a conference of other ministers and I had a war with myself as to whether or not I would wear my collar.  Wearing a collar makes a statement – I am a publicly active member of the body of Christ.  More than that, I am a publicly active woman of the body of Christ, and even within a ministry conference I knew that my presence would not always be welcome from the mere fact that I was a woman.

My bishop had mentioned once that we have a responsibility to dress as professionals now that we are in seminary.  We have a responsibility to our church to be leaders that will work towards changing the stigma for people who love Jesus but hate religion.  I have a responsibility as a woman to help represent that as baptized members of God’s family we are all called to a life of service.  As I was debating the responsibility versus the pressure, a friend told me that no matter where he goes, he wears his collar.  He admitted that sometimes associating himself with religion can be an ostracizing force, but more often than not it invites people who are having a hard time dealing with their faith alone remember that there is relief in fellowship.  It opens the door to a conversation that may in other contexts be closed.

It is with his advice that I wore my collar at that conference, and it is with that advice that I posted pictures of myself in my collar on my social network sites.  I extended the invitation through the silence of my clothing, and over the past few days I have had more emails, comments, and text messages about that collar then I ever could have anticipated.  One woman in particular, Rev. Peggy Howland (one of the first women ever ordained) commented after reading my blog that my words were inspiring and she rejoices in how far we have come in our work together as a church.

Sending the silent invitation allowed to see how we can stand alongside one another.  Thanks to that collar, that symbol of religion, people who I have never met are writing me, telling me how seeing that symbol has reminded them that God looks at women with the same amount of love that God looks at men.  People who I have never known intimately are now writing me, asking if I could recommend a good daily devotional so they can continue to grow their individual faith.  People are connecting to me in a way that they never have before merely because I wore a symbol that I am a part of the church.

Like Rev. Howland, I rejoice in how far we have come together.  I rejoice in the fact that I am a woman who is a part of one holy catholic and apostolic church.  I rejoice in the fact that we live in a nation where we can have debates about how to live out our faith through social media.  I rejoice in every leader who stands up and voices that while we still have a lot of work to do, we can be proud of the fact that we are working together in our faith to make the world a better place for our children, and our children’s children.  As long as we keep talking to each other, inviting each other into dialogue, we’ll continue to move closer to   the intentions of Jesus.

So let the videos post, and the rebuttals be written.  Let some of us put on our collars while other people tell us why they think we shouldn’t wear them.  We need to know where we all stand.  It is through sharing with one another that we will really be aware on how we can move forward together, living out the message of Jesus that is not only found in religion but inside the core of our hearts.

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“Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist.” – Ivan Illich

In the past six months, I have been privileged to travel quite a bit.  Not only did I move from Cleveland to Chicago, but I have spent time studying in Louisville, Atlanta, and New Orleans.  In a matter of days, my studies will once again pack my bags and take me to El Salvador in Latin America.

I work and study in the business of public ministry – inside a theological mindset where I feel called to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and the grace of God to anyone who has ears to hear.  I come from a place of privilege, growing up as a U.S. citizen in a suburban community while being a part of mainline Protestant denomination.  I, probably more than many other people, am in a position to make change.  And as I prepare for yet another experience where I will be in an environment that is very different from my own, the one truth of making change that I keep hearing is to be invited.

My experience in New Orleans where I met survivors of Hurricane Katrina showed me that sometimes the best intentions can cause the most damage.  It is all well and good to help those in need, but help should be defined as doing work that the community collectively voiced as an area for growth instead of forcing ideals that will surely fail when you pack your bags and go home.  Yes, I did service work in New Orleans, helping to clear the Lower 9th Ward, but I was invited by an organization who was in conversation with people from the community.  I followed their lead.  Instead of doing work that would have been more up my alley and match more of my ideals, I spent hours in the blazing sun clearing brush and debris because that was what the community said that they needed.

I read an interesting article by Ivan Illich entitled “To Hell with Good Intentions.”  He pointed out that the Peace Corps spends on average about $10,000 preparing each corps member how to deal with the culture shock of working in a different part of the world.  Illich then pointed out the irony that there is no money spent on helping the community adjust to the culture shock of a corps members work.

As Christians, we are called to action, we are called to help people reform.  However it is vital that in the process we are doing what is actually needed to help that community at that time and place, not what we as people who have only known a state of privilege think is needed. 

I have several friends in seminary who have worked in various parts of the world for the church.  I am loath to use the word “missionary” because the work they did does not meet the societal implication of that word.  They didn’t rush in, tell people to change, and then leave.  They didn’t go in without being asked, build a well, and then leave.  Instead they were invited, spending months or sometimes years in dialogue with the community.  They listened to the communities testimony of faith, sharing their own, and in the process truly discovered how two groups from different parts of the world can grow together.

These friends also mentioned that historically, missionaries have gone to where they are not invited and did work that didn’t always need to be done.  One mentioned that there is a country in Africa who continually has mission groups come wanting to fix-up schools with paint and nails.  What these schools really need is books and shoes, but the mission groups ideal is to fix a building so they only come with paint and nails.  Each year, the same schools continue to be repainted even when they don’t need it, and the true need is over looked.  The community is grateful for the ideal of help, and use the profit that is earned in housing these missionaries to buy the books and shoes that they need.  But think of how much more the students would be helped if the missionaries would have thought to ask what was needed instead of assuming.  The money they spent on paint and nails could have gone directly towards books and shoes years ago, and the tourist money raised could help take the mission of the community to the next level.

Over the years, the ELCA has changed the look of its missionary movement.  Now, instead of going to places where there are no Christians thus creating a sense of culture shock, they go to communities where Lutheran denominations have already been established.  Through mutual invitation and mutual conversation, they work with the churches that already exist to grow and expand.  They do so with the goal of the community in mind, not the ideal.

For myself, it is important for me to see how God’s grace plays out in the world.  At this point in my life I need to go to New Orleans, Louisville, and El Salvador and see how other communities to which I have no connection experience the love of a God to whom I am intimately connected.  In truth, I am a bit of an idealist.  I want everyone in the world to experience all the blessing I have experienced and to feel as loved and valued as I do.  My intentions are good, but they need to be based in reality  What I may think is a blessing may merely be unnecessary paint and nails, preventing me from listening to how God is speaking to the heart of that community at that time.

We shouldn’t give up on being an idealist.  We shouldn’t give up on our calling to bring good news, love and support to all people.  We just need to know when to wait and be invited, listening to the truth in the words of all of our brothers and sisters as they speak them, not how we assume them to be.

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Click this link to watch the sermon, “Looking Forward From the Rearview Mirror,” preached at the National Festival of Young Preachers in Louisville, KY in January 2012.  The sermon is based onthe passage Matthew 7: 13-14.

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A few hours ago I made the long drive back to Cleveland from Louisville where I had attended and preached at the 2012 Festival of Young Preachers hosted by the Academy of Preachers.  I would have thought that after three days of hearing God’s word through 30 different denominations, flowing from the mouths of over 120 preachers that my heart would be quiet and my mind still.  Instead my mind is racing in a post-celebratory buzz.  It seems that although my suitcase that carried my clothes is unpacked, the suitcase of my mind is just starting to reveal the extent the Festival touched my soul.

I had attended to Academy of Preachers preaching camp in Atlanta this past summer, thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Fund for Theological Education.  Almost six months later, I am still unpacking exactly how powerful that experience was in my life.  I gained an ability to experience God in a way I had never anticipated through other preachers, built friendships which will continue to define and support a lifetime of ministry, and witnessed the gospel transform right before my eyes.

I began my first semester as a Master of Divinity Student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago this past fall, and in the struggle of transitioning my life from full-time work to full-time academics, the memory of the peace, love and gospel I witnessed at preaching camp continued to (p)reach out to me when I needed it most.

That being said, coming to Louisville was nothing like I expected, for which I could not be more grateful.  I had anticipated it would be more like preaching camp where we would be up late, helping each other add finishing touches on our sermons.  Instead, I witnessed the celebration of work that was completed before planes landed, cars were parked, and people obtained their room keys.  I watched and listened to countless sermons that left no doubt in my mind that these young ministers diligently prepared their sermons well in advance.  It was very evident to me that most of my colleagues had been so prepared because they were equally as excited to receive God’s word as they were to be the voice sharing God’s word.

While the intention of the Academy of Preachers is to inspire and prepare young preachers to share the gospel, the hidden ministry the AoP teaches is the ability to be actively present, building the pastoral skill sets to truly listening to what is being said.  I witnessed time and time again, preachers in the assembly and not at the pulpit craving to truly be engaged in the snapshot moment in time, a moment that can be recorded but never relived.

I came to preach, but I left listening.  I came with the intention of celebrating the good news of Christ Jesus with people I had never met, but I left learning how to communicate with new brothers and sisters.  I came wanting to strengthen old relationships, and I left with new relationships that are already strong.

I know that in the days, weeks, and months to come I will continue to unpack and discover the blessings of this Festival, and the gifts of this snapshot in time will continue to (p)reach out to me when I need it most.

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