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.

Six:Eight Core Values and the Stages of Faith

I took a class a few weeks back entitled “Spiritual Formation in Congregations.” The majority of the class focused on the Stages of Faith set forth by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich in The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith. A part of our class work was to create a set of core values for our congregations and to describe what each core value looks like at each stage of faith. Thankfully, my pastor – Jason Guynes – had actually taken this very same class and had already developed a solid list of core values for our church – Six:Eight Community Church – so I didn’t have to do that part. Over the past few weeks, rather slowly I might add, I’ve been working on “fleshing out” these values for each faith stage.

I found stage theory to be somewhat helpful personally, and I always love to gain new understanding or new perspective. I’d encourage you to check it out if you are not familiar.

So, what do the values of Community, Grace, Story, and Passion look like at each faith stage? Here’s my take:

When Jesus Responds to Opposition, We Should Listen

Tracing Jesus’ Response to Opposition in the Gospel of Luke

As the story of Jesus unfolds in the Gospel of Luke, opposition becomes a recurring theme. Jesus faces a diversity of conflict from a wide array of characters: his family, his disciples, the Pharisees and religious elite, demonic spirits, and the crowds. In each of these cases of opposition, Jesus responds in a certain way. Some conflicts provoke the telling of a parable and others need only Jesus’ correction. In others, Jesus adds a rebuke along with his correction and sometimes he simply rebukes. Then, in moments where his life is threatened the most, Jesus seems to have no response at all. These categories of Jesus’ response to the opposition he faces in the Gospel of Luke will now be explored in further detail.

Parable

Luke records six instances of opposition towards Jesus that provoke the telling of a parable. In each instance, the opposition finds its source in either the Law of Moses or rabbinic tradition. First, Jesus is confronted over the behavior of his disciples who eat and drink instead of fasting and praying like the disciples of the Pharisees and John the Baptist. Jesus uses the parable of the new cloth and new wine to explain his disciples’ behavior.[1] The parable of the debtors[2] and the parable triad of the lost sheep, coin, and son[3] are told in response to the Pharisees’ and scribes’ complaints about Jesus associating with sinners, which conflicted with their understanding of purity and holy living. In the parable of the Good Samaritan,[4] Jesus is responding to the lawyer’s test of his scriptural knowledge and his specific definition of “neighbor.” A very interesting situation unfolds when Jesus responds to Pharisaical ridicule by telling the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.[5] In this parable, he chides the Pharisees for their failure to recognize him as the Messiah even with their great knowledge of the scriptures. Finally, the chief priests and scribes question the source of Jesus’ authority as he is teaching in the temple since he acts as if he were above the Law of Moses and those who are charged to enforce it. In telling the parable of the wicked tenants,[6] Jesus reveals the wickedness of the chief priests and the scribes and his own superior status as the son of the vineyard owner. In each of these conflicts, Jesus tells a parable in order to reshape and broaden the understanding of the Law accepted by his opposition.

Correction

On at least twelve occasions, Jesus offers correction to those who have either misunderstood his mission or are confused about the nature of the Kingdom he proclaims. The misunderstanding of his mission begins in Jesus’ adolescence as he reminds his mother at the temple that he must be “in his Father’s house.”[7] Just as his ministry launches, Jesus must tell the crowds who want to keep him for themselves that he must proclaim the gospel to the other cities as well.[8] Simon Peter experiences his first correction when he commands Jesus to depart from him. Jesus must explain to Simon that he has come to make him a fisher of men.[9] A major source of misunderstanding arises from Jesus’ interaction with various kinds of sinners. The gospel records three episodes where Jesus explains his mission towards sinners: calling them to repentance,[10] forgiving their sins,[11] and seeking out even the very worst of them – to offer his salvation.[12]

Jesus also felt compelled to correct those who were confused about the nature of his Kingdom. He patiently explains to the Pharisees that his disciples cannot fast and pray like their disciples because the wedding guests do not fast while the bridegroom is present.[13] John the Baptist even appears confused about whether Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus has only to point to the many signs of kingdom being performed in their presence to answer the questions of John’s disciples.[14] Those closest to Jesus also have the wrong idea about his kingdom. As the twelve disciples argue amongst themselves about who will be greatest, Jesus teaches that the least among them will be the greatest in his Kingdom.[15]

Correction and Rebuke

Some experiences of opposition caused Jesus to both rebuke and correct those who were confronting him. This rebuke came in the form of a question from Jesus or as an act of healing. Two types of situations resulted in this combination of rebuke and correction: when Jesus’ identity is at stake and when the spirit, or identity, of the Law is being compromised. Jesus first responds this way when the scribes and Pharisees call him a blasphemer and question his identity as one who can forgive sins when he forgives the sins of the paralytic man.[16] The Pharisees’ are rebuked and corrected by Jesus again when fail to recognize him as “the lord of the Sabbath.”[17] Some in crowds also questioned Jesus’ identity by either claiming that he was from Beelzebul or by demanding other signs from him. Jesus rebukes their claims and teaches them about his power over Beelzebul.[18] When the crowds began to increase, Jesus once again rebuked and corrected them for demanding signs to prove his identity.[19] Jesus’ Messianic identity is especially challenged when the chief priests and scribes question his authority both in the temple[20] and before the Sanhedrin.[21] Finally, Jesus has to rebuke and correct the disciples when they mistake him for a ghost upon his appearance to them after his resurrection.[22] In all these instances, Jesus’ true identity is being questioned and he responds with rebuke and correction.

When the spirit, or identity, of the Law is being compromised, Jesus also responds with rebuke and correction. The first example comes as Jesus “works” in order to heal the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath as the scribes and Pharisees look on in disgust.[23] A similar situation occurs when Jesus heals a crippled woman, also on the Sabbath. When the leader of the synagogue ordered those who were seeking healing to come back another day, Jesus responded with a strong rebuke and correction that put “all his opponents… to shame.”[24] The clearest example of opposition that provokes this kind of response occurs when Jesus is invited to dine with the Pharisees. When one of them was “amazed to see that [Jesus] did not wash his before dinner,” Jesus unloads a litany of woes against the Pharisees, lawyers, and scribes because they “neglect justice and the love of God” even while claiming to follow the Law.[25]

Rebuke

In experiences where Jesus confronts demons, those who do not believe, or those misuse power, his response is simply rebuke. When Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he quotes scripture as a rebuke to each of his temptations.[26] Luke records three instances where Jesus is said to have rebuked demons: the man with the unclean spirit in Capernaum,[27] the Gerasene demoniac,[28] and the boy with the evil spirit.[29] Jesus also rebukes Peter, James, and John, along with Jairus and his wife, when they laugh and do not believe that Jairus’ daughter is alive.[30] Peter is once again rebuked when he refuses to believe Jesus’ prediction of his denial.[31] In addition, Jesus pronounces a forceful rebuke of the unrepentant and unbelieving cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida.[32] The misuse of power also provokes a strong rebuke from Jesus. James and John are the first recipients of this rebuke when they ask to call down fire as punishment on Samaritan villages.[33] An unnamed person in the garden who cuts off the ear of one of the officials coming to arrest Jesus is also strongly rebuked for using violence.[34]

Silence

In the moments of opposition fueled by anger or fear, where Jesus’ life is most threatened, he has no response at all. When the angry and jealous crowd at Nazareth led Jesus to the edge of a cliff to throw him off, he simply “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”[35] As the chief priests and scribes plot to kill Jesus, he ignores them and keeps on teaching.[36] Even as he witnesses Peter’s denial,[37] stands unjustly accused before Pilate[38] and Herod[39], and bears the vile hatred of the crowds shouting “Crucify!”[40] – Jesus has no response. He has no response when the soldiers mock and beat him[41]; when they cast lots for his clothing[42]; when the leaders scoff[43]; when the criminal ridicules.[44] Then, in the moment when opposition towards Jesus culminates in his brutal execution, he breaks his silence: “Father, forgive them.”[45]

Personal Reflections

The Power of Parable

In a culture both inside and outside and the church that is permeated with seemingly irresolvable conflict, I find Jesus’ varied responses to opposition in the Gospel of Luke to be very informative. As I consider all the current debate within the church over fine points of doctrine, ecclesial structures, and the ever-vigilant guarding of the boundaries of salvation, I am deeply encouraged by the way Jesus used parables to break through the old understandings of Law and tradition that were opposed to the new work of his Kingdom. Through his parables, Jesus told a new story that was firmly rooted in the old but too big to be contained by it. As I reflect on the hostility I see in the church, I wonder if we have lost the ability, or the willingness, to tell new stories. It seems that we would rather impose our will on those who disagree with us instead of winning their hearts and capturing their imaginations with the stories we tell.

Forgiveness and Grace at the Core

Jesus’ silence during the times of greatest opposition is even more challenging to me. It is hard to imagine the intensity of conviction that empowered him to suffer through the torments of crucifixion. The depth of his love for me and for the world takes on a new meaning as I consider how I struggle to renounce my own rights and privileges. I can hardly bear to be unfairly blamed for trivial problems, yet Jesus endured the pain and shame of the cross as a completely innocent man. Then, when he did speak, he asks for forgiveness. It seems that the core of Jesus’ response to the opposition he faced was an unrelenting and steadfast desire to forgive. As Christians today face various threats – both real and imagined – we would be wise to desire forgiveness and grace above our personal success.


[1] Luke 5:36-39 (NRSV)

[2] Luke 7:41-43

[3] Luke 15:3-32

[4] Luke 10:25-37

[5] Luke 16:19-31

[6] Luke 20:9-19

[7] Luke 2:48-50

[8] Luke 4:42-43

[9] Luke 5:8-10

[10] Luke 5:30-32

[11] Luke 7:44-48

[12] Luke 19:10

[13] Luke 5:33-35

[14] Luke 7:18-23

[15] Luke 9:46-48

[16] Luke 5:20-25

[17] Luke 6:2-5

[18] Luke 11:14-23

[19] Luke 11:29-32

[20] Luke 20:1-8

[21] Luke 22:66-71

[22] Luke 24:36-45

[23] Luke 6:6-11

[24] Luke 13:10-17

[25] Luke 11:37-53

[26] Luke 4:1-13

[27] Luke 4:33-35

[28] Luke 8:28-30

[29] Luke 9:42

[30] Luke 8:49-55

[31] Luke 22:31-34

[32] Luke 10:13-16

[33] Luke 9:51-56

[34] Luke 22:49-51

[35] Luke 4:28-30

[36] Luke 19:47-48

[37] Luke 22-54-62

[38] Luke 23:1-5

[39] Luke 23:7-11

[40] Luke 23:20-21

[41] Luke 22:63, 23:36

[42] Luke 23:34b

[43] Luke 23:35

[44] Luke 23:39

[45] Luke 23:34a

Story

Every once in a while, it is good to slow down and look back over who you were and who you are now becoming; over where you have been and where you are now going. It is good because it tells your story to the person who needs to hear it the most: you. This is the work of a spiritual autobiography. It is good work because we so easily forget our own stories. We are overwhelmed by a cacophony of other stories that seem more appealing and exciting than our own. We listen to those stories instead. By ignoring our own stories, we replace our unique identities with pre-manufactured fantasies of people we wish we were. If we desire authenticity, we must first listen to ourselves – our whole selves. Further, we cannot begin to share our stories with others until we know them ourselves. As followers of Christ, the sharing of our stories – our testimonies – reveals our hope; as John the Revelator said, “they overcame [the accuser] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.”[1] In a society that is desperately searching for meaning, we have no greater asset than the stories our lives are telling. As we reflect on our past, we prepare ourselves, and others, for a future that is free from the accusations, lies, and deceptions of our false selves. We are prepared to love; to walk in the freedom of love that is based in our very own stories of redemption in spite of all our failures and shortcomings. In light of all this, I want to share my story with a spiritual lens. Beginning with my early religious memories, through many shaping experiences and moments of transformation, continuing with the insights I have learned from my Spiritual Formation class, and ending with a look to the future, I hope to genuinely reflect on my journey towards wholeness and reconciliation with God in Jesus Christ through the power of His Spirit within me…

 

[to be continued]


[1] Rev. 12:11