A KY Farmer on What It Means to Be Human

During my days as a student pastor in rural Kentucky, I learned a great deal of theology that I did not find in the books I was reading at school. My teacher was an elderly deacon who had spent his life working the soil, loving people, and being a faithful church member. Often he would lead in prayer in morning worship, and we knew to expect one phrase, in particular. He would always ask God to help us “remember where we came from,” “how much we’ve got to do,” and “how much we need one another to do it.” I think his prayer offers a good summary of what it means to be human.

Molly T. Marshall, What It Means to Be Human

TUSKEGEE: A Photo Journal

My community is the small, rural city of Tuskegee, AL, located in Macon County in the east-central region of Alabama. As my photo captions demonstrate, there is much to know about Tuskegee and its unique history, but to begin I present a selection of demographic statistics to provide a high-level view of the community. According to the most recent estimates published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013, Tuskegee’s population is approximately 9,556 persons most of whom (93.5%) are African-American. Its economy has been struggling for several decades, but is showing signs of new life with a higher-than-average median household income growth rate of 36.6% since 2000. Despite this encouraging growth, the median household income in 2013 was $26,848. The rates of poverty and unemployment are high at 29.9% and 22.2% respectively. With regard to education, 82.8% of Tuskegee’s residents have earned a high-school equivalent education, while only 25.6% have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The median value of homes in Tuskegee is $80,000, but the housing situation is deteriorating with nearly 21.4% of housing units vacant. These statistics provide a helpful place to begin getting to know this community, but they cannot tell the whole story and therefore must be held lightly with some degree of critical suspicion to provide a space for the personal, familial, and communal stories which compose Tuskegee’s rich narrative to be told.

I do not live in Tuskegee, but it could be considered my “place of work.” In August 2014, I began working for a non-profit organization called Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM). Our ministry focuses primarily on home repair. ARM was founded in 1998 in Sumter County, AL (my hometown), but has been serving in Macon County (and the neighboring Lee County) since 2002. Many of ARM’s ministries are based in Tuskegee, and for the past several years, ARM has been in close partnership with the Tuskegee First Methodist Church. Out of all the communities where ARM serves, Tuskegee is the one where we are most heavily invested.

According to Mtika and Bronkema (2011), a community is “an arena (locality factor) in which community social processes (non-locality factor) take place” (p. 1). As I reflect on how I define Tuskegee as a community, my definition includes all three types of locality factors defined by Mtika and Bronkema (2011): (1) territorial because the actual geographic place known as Tuskegee, AL is the primary focus; (2) institutional because ARM and its ties to local religious groups are also in view; and (3) associational because Tuskegee’s place in the “black community” in America is highlighted. With regard to social processes, my definition of Tuskegee as a community points to the development of common ties, collective reflection over issues, and the formation of identity (Mtika and Bronkema, 2011, p. 10).

My photos of Tuskegee tell a story about the black community’s strength and patient endurance in the face of racial inequality. At the same time, it reveals the deep wounds of racial division, which remain to be reconciled. Ultimately, though, the story I tell about Tuskegee is the story of an outsider. In many ways, it is the “typical” story one might hear about Tuskegee in a history book. My telling of the story lacks what Ledwith calls the “heart” of community storytelling, which are the “voices of the people” (p. 34). This lack of personal character puts me at risk of objectifying the community, of ignoring its particularity and uniqueness, its “soul.” A story without heart and soul is devoid of love, without which, community work becomes “technical, routinized, shallow, and exploitative” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p.25). It is love, Westoby and Dowling (2009) note, that keeps people from getting “stuck in their own story” and allows them to develop a capacity for deep listening that is fundamental to relationships founded in mutuality and dialogue (p. 26). While deeply challenging, this critique encourages me to move humbly out of my place of comfort, safety, and privilege in order to hear and learn from the personal stories of Tuskegee’s people.

Bibliography

Ledwith, M. (2011). Community Development: A Critical Approach, 2nd edition. Birmingham, United Kingdom: Venture Press.
Mtika, Njalayawo M and Bronkema, David. 2011. “Definition of Community Development” (unpublished).
U.S. Census Bureau. (2013). Tuskegee city, Alabama. Retrieved from http://factfinder2.census.gov.
Westoby, P. & Dowling, G. (2012). Dialogical Community Development. Australia: Tafina Press.

The Wilderness Journey of Faith

worship is like telling stories around a campfire

scripture is like the “trail mix”

disciplines are like setting up camp

the church is like your wilderness caravan

sin is like being lost and alone in the wilderness

Jesus is like the wilderness Trailblazer

Spirit is like the wilderness Guide

Parent is like the wilderness Native

creation is like a wilderness home

salvation is like a journey in the wilderness following the Spirit on the way of Jesus toward home with the Native

consummation is like being welcomed home to a feast

Story Matters

A powerful story about care, compassion, and redemption among the poor in La Paz, Bolivia

A powerful story about care, compassion, and redemption among the poor in La Paz, Bolivia

This is an essay I wrote for a class on church renewal and evangelism responding to the question: What are the characteristics, elements, approaches, as well as practices to avoid, in telling our faith story? I’m posting it now after experiencing the power of story firsthand over this weekend. During a meeting of community group leaders at my church, we took about an hour to hear each others stories. Two people shared their stories and, after each one, we sat in holy silence simply to revere and regard what they had shared. We then offered words of encouragement and held a time of prayer for each person. In light of that experience, I thought I would share why I think story matters.

Our stories are valuable because they reveal God’s personal presence in our lives and the way God desires to be in redemptive relationship with all people as they communally share in the love of God, the grace of Christ, and the fellowship of the Spirit.

As the Trinity of Parent, Christ, and Spirit, God’s life affirms relationship in communion as the ground of all being. The Persons of the Trinity exist in eternal relationships with one another in which each co-inheres and interpenetrates the other such that it becomes impossible to conceive of the Trinitarian Persons apart from their relations.

However, even in the mysterious depths of these relationships, each Person maintains their unique, ineffable identity; without their personal otherness, the dynamic community of Trinitarian relations would collapse into a static mass of uniformity and sameness. This Trinitarian life is the One who is always reaching out towards others in grace and inviting them into God’s communion. God as Trinity is the God who is for others and all creation.

God’s life as Triune Persons who live as saving communion is the story that comes before, mingles within, and goes beyond all our stories; it is the “big” story in which our stories find their origin and meaning. Our stories need to be told because they narrate our unique otherness which constitutes our personhood and enable us to be in loving relationships with God and others.

In his book True Story, James Choung develops a very helpful paradigm for telling God’s “big” story. It uses four circles which represent the four major turning points in the narrative of God’s salvation: (1) God created the world good; (2) Humans marred the world’s goodness and introduced brokenness into their relationships with God, each other, and the planet when they rebelled against God so they could be in charge; (3) In Jesus Christ, God comes to restore this brokenness and inaugurate a new way of abundant life for all creation; (4) God calls those who follow Jesus to be sent out together into the world to work for its healing and restoration by the power of God’s Spirit.

Evangelism – bearing witness to the “good news” of God’s story – can be understood as an invitation to God’s story through the telling and living of our personal stories. Telling our stories is a profoundly powerful act and one which must be done with care – both for ourselves and others.

First, stories need to be told in way that recognizes and celebrates our unique, yet limited perspectives. Our stories are not the whole story, but that does not make any story less valuable. Second, our stories should attempt to reveal the common ground between ourselves and those who listen. If our stories are totally strange and foreign to others, they will not understand who we are and our relationships with them will be strained. Third, when we tell our stories, it is important that we be honest with ourselves and others about our intentions. Our stories do not reveal the God who welcomes all just as they are when they are told for manipulative reasons. If our stories are told in ways which belittle others or glorify ourselves and our achievements, they will be of little use for inviting others into the story of a God who emptied Godself to become a servant to all.

Finally, we need to understand and articulate how our stories are being shaped and guided and transformed by the “big” story of Trinity lest we lead others down a path that ends with our limited experience. “Our” stories are not just about us; they are about all the others in our lives who have made our lives possible – most notably: God. Because God’s life is the source and destination of our lives, our stories can become means of grace that open up and put flesh on the story of God.

Hauerwas on The Enemy of Christian Discipleship

Stanley-Hauerwas_by-Lydia-HalldorfThe moral threat is not consumerism or materialism. Such characterizations of the enemy we face as Christians are far too superficial and moralistic. The problem is not just that we have become consumers of our own lives, but that we can conceive of no alternative narrative since we lack any practices that could make such a narrative intelligible. Put differently, the project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they have no story. Such a story is called the story of freedom and is assumed to be irreversibly institutionalized economically as market capitalism and politically as democracy. That story and the institutions that embody it is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching.

Stanley Hauerwas, “Preaching As Though We Had Enemies,” First Things May 1995.

Newbigin: Evangelism as Overflow

A community of people that, in the midst of all the pain and sorrow and wickedness of the world, is continually praising God is the first obvious result of living by another story than the one the world lives by… and where there is a praising community, there also will be a caring community with love to spare for others. Such a community is the primary hermeneutic [interpretive] lens of the gospel… a congregation that has at its heart a joyful worship of the living God and a constantly renewed sense of the sheer grace and kindness of God will be a congregation from which true love flows out to neighbors, a love that seeks their good regardless of whether they come to church.

Lesslie Newbigin, “Evangelism in the Context of Secularization,” in The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church

I must say that I agree. The “other story” we live by as followers of Jesus is the one where God becomes a particular person whose Spirit-anointed life, death and resurrection both inaugurates God’s saving reign over all creation and secures our hope in a future where that reign is made perfect and complete. As we come to know this person Jesus, we come to know God’s gracious, loving welcome. Our response to that welcome is simply to welcome others. A community is formed… a community where hope overflows.

God is in Our Midst

Regardless of what you hear in the news this morning, or what you see on your drive to work, or what your thinking after whatever happened this weekend: God is in our midst. God is dealing wondrously with us. God is restoring all things: the land, the animals, the plants, the people – ALL creation. If you are seeking to know God and are following after Jesus today, this is the story you are walking in right now:

Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield. O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

I pray that we – myself included – would have faith in this story, in its Author and Finisher, who has been poured out on us so that we might take up our our parts in this wondrous drama. Amen.