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Moral Monday — November 2, 2015

Moral Monday

We started in a church. At 9:30 in the morning, leadership teams assembled for Moral Monday Illinois’ mass mobilization action. There was excitement and nervous energy overflowing from rooms packed with marshalls, energy-team members, and organizers. And in the back, in a small chapel, those of us who volunteered for civil disobedience gathered. An hour later, around a thousand people would assemble at the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago to demand a just and compassionate tax system and state budget.  After some practical preparations and prophetic sending remarks, we dispersed to our locations. Some rallied at the Thompson Center, others of us went in secret to action’s endpoint — The Chicago Board of Trade Building — and waited for the march to come to us.

Why would people do this? What is it about something as (seemingly) dry and wonky as a state budget that could inspire a thousand people to assemble and sixty people to risk arrest? Continue reading

ELCA Fund For Leaders Essay

The following was submitted as part of the application for the ELCA’s Fund For Leaders scholarship. The prompt was one of those generic “what does ‘leadership’ mean to you?”-type questions. (Incidentally, I just got word that I received a full-tuition scholarship from this fund, so.)

Within the context of Christianity, “leadership” should be an entirely horizontal concept. A leader in the church is not one who exerts dominion over others, or who perpetuates the power dynamics of the broader culture, but rather one who uplifts those whom they are called to serve, in order that those people might serve in the world. A leader is not the person at the top of an org chart, but one who sees herself as among, not above, those whom she leads. The church has not always fostered this form of leadership, and individuals have likewise failed to uphold it. As a result, the church as an institution is suffering a crisis of confidence that springs from promising fulfillment through vertical leadership, and being unable to deliver it. Over the last 50 years, trust in the institution has been shaken, and the church is on its heels, unsure how to react.

But make no mistake, this is good thing; exciting, even. Once the oppressive model of leadership dies, a different model can rise.

This renewed expression of leadership is not new; Luther’s priesthood of all believers and Paul’s image of the Body of Christ both call the church to renounce vertical organization and embrace the radical equality of community wherein all members are affirmed in their gifts and called to use them for the betterment of all those within and outside that community. A leader in such a context is someone specially trained to identify these gifts in others, matching them with the needs of the church and the world. Whose vocation it is to think seriously, theologically, and at length about issues of justice and equality, and then to see how the church can address those issues. Their role here is basically highly trained triage: connecter of the dots; seer of the big picture; servant of the servants.

From my own experience, this definition is refreshing, liberating, and emboldening. Were I held to the broader culture’s understanding of vertical leadership, there is just no way I could live up to it. If by “leader” we mean someone akin to a corporate officer or executive, I am not qualified in any way to be a leader. If, however, we define “leader” as one walking alongside and among a group of people trying their best to live out the gospel, then I believe I can be (and indeed have been) a leader.

The primary experience that induced this sense of leadership in me has been failure. To be sure, I tried with the best of them to prove myself through academic and professional achievement. It was through repeated and spectacular failure that I came to see hierarchy-for-hierarchy’s-sake as the empty promise it is. The achievement-based rat race fosters looking to self for affirmation and fulfillment, and failing in that regard was the best education in what leadership could look like. It disabused me of my notions of climbing any kind of organizational ladder, and reinstilled in me my dependence on God as source and ground of liberation and justification. I certainly wasn’t getting there on my own, and once I gave up the idea of self-justification as prerequisite for leadership(!), I became aware of another way.

The challenges facing the church are very real, not going away, and at this point only half-known. The vertically oriented leadership which gave rise to these issues will not cure them; for that, a different voice must speak up, emboldened by the spirit. I am here to raise my voice, and to actively create the space where those heretofore unheard may also give voice.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor

Complete StoriesThis is part of a series I’m doing on my summer reading. I’ve chosen nine books, with a few ground rules: nothing by straight white men, balance fiction and nonfiction, limit the amount of theology. I’ll write something here about each book…a review? reflection? something else? We’ll figure that out as we go, I guess. You can find all posts from this series here.

MARFA (TX)–You have driven west. You hoped to escape city life and stress by going into the high desert of west Texas. Your plan is to do as little as possible: read, eat some food, lay about. This is supposed to be relaxing. One of the books you’ve brought with you is the Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor.

An atheist woman is seduced by an hillbilly Bible salesman, who, before the act begins, steals her wooden leg and flees, leaving her stranded in the hayloft of an abandoned barn. Her fate is unknown. “‘We are all damned,’ she said, ‘but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see. It’s a kind of salvation.’”

You spend at least four hours a day in a hammock. You read for most of this time, interspersed with sleep filled with dreams inspired by O’Connor’s stories. You read so much that plot details, the ability for literary analysis, even basic comprehension all dissolve into the background. After about the seventh story, all that remains in this fever dream of a vacation is her characters. They are deeply human and deeply flawed. You remember a line from a country song: “baptized in muddy waters.” O’Connor didn’t write this line, of course, but it’s a better encapsulation of her characters than anything you can come up with.

An insufferably smug college student falls ill. The disease is traced to unpasteurized milk, which he drank in an attempt to bond with the black farm workers milking the family’s cows. The workers themselves did not, and indeed never do, drink the milk. It is heavily implied that the college student dies.

In the hammock, in your tent, in the wide expanse of the desert, you feel simultaneously connected with everything and more alone than you’ve ever been in your life. You did not know these were not mutually exclusive. You take late night drives on the backroads, pulling over to look at a sky so star-filled it’s unbelieveable. You feel immensely grateful to be in a place so seemingly exempt from human engineering, but there is also a twinge of sadness that comes with the realization that this desert doesn’t need you, and would be just fine without you here.

Two young people attend a town festival, but are more concerned with the fate of a man who had committed a mass shooting during the town’s preparations. They both greatly identify with the shooter. His loner status and disdain for phony pageantry attract them. The two visit him in his incarceration and find he is legitimately and dangerously insane. The young people are unsure what this says about them.

After reading 500 pages of O’Connor, something profound emerges, and despite not being in the south while reading these Southern Gothic stories, you realize that Marfa and the trans-Pecos are the perfect places to read her work. The beauty and the bleakness of the land mirrors the beauty of her prose and the bleakness of her characters. It is not the land’s job to comfort you; it is not O’Connor’s job to make you feel better about yourself. After five days, you go home, more aware, but also deeply unsettled. This seems to be the point.

An elderly woman is gored by a bull that is loose on her land. As she dies, “she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.”

Flannery

 

Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

This is part of a series I’m doing on my summer reading. I’ve chosen nine books, with a few ground rules: nothing by straight white men, balance fiction and nonfiction, limit the amount of theology. I’ll write something here about each book…a review? reflection? something else? We’ll figure that out as we go, I guess. You can find all posts from this series here.

Zadie Smith’s nonfiction collection, Changing My Mind, is subtitled “OccasionalZadie Essays,” and, according to the forward, was “written without [the author’s] knowledge.” Subject matter ranges from Franz Kafka to her experience of Los Angeles during Oscar weekend. This is all to say that there is nothing in particular which binds these essays, no deliberate through-line. Sure, the pieces are divided into categories (Seeing, Being, Remembering, etc), but lacking a cohesive subject matter, what truly unites the works contained in the book is the voice of its author. Through her wonderful gift for the phrase and a slightly non-standard approach to punctuation (the use of colons in particular is delightful), Smith suffuses these essays with a voice that is at once intelligent and self-conscious.

Continue reading

Coming Out as Sacrament by Chris Glaser

Coming Out as SacramentThis is the first post in a series I’m doing on my summer reading. I’ve chosen nine books, with a few ground rules: nothing by straight white men, balance fiction and nonfiction, limit the amount of theology. I’ll write something here about each book…a review? reflection? something else? We’ll figure that out as we go, I guess.

I was waiting for this book. I wanted something that integrated queer theology with a strong sacramental understanding; I was hopeful that I had found it in Chris Glaser’s Coming Out as Sacrament. Unfortunately, after a strong start, Glaser’s work struggles with the same question every freshman comp student faces: who is this for, exactly? Is this a book of serious theology or a devotional guide for the layperson? Glaser never seems to pin this down, oscillating between insightful theological reflection and almost embarrassingly simplistic biblical exegesis.

The good stuff is really good, though. Continue reading