Saturday, September 27, 2014

Christian Identity and the Mighty Ducks

First, I recently posted a piece I did as part of my final independent study at seminary on my website. It is a theological look at how Christians can approach pop culture, and you can read it here. It's called Jesus Christ: Superstar! So you should check it out just for the clever title, if nothing else. :)

So onto the real post... 

I was recently watching D2: The Mighty Ducks because despite the awful cheesiness, it's a movie from my childhood and makes me feel nostalgic. In case you don't know, the premise of the movie is basically this team from Minnesota ends up being recruited to represent the US (with a few additions) in the Junior Olympic competition and Gordon Bombay, a jaded lawyer turned passionate peewee hockey coach, who had worked such a miracle before that he is offered a contract with a sporting outfitter to be the face of their gear as he coaches the team in. In order to get "the big contract" Gordon has to dominate in the tournament, and so when the team hits a snag, he turns into a jerk and works the kids way too hard. The kids and their tutor call him out, he has a "come to Jesus" type of moment and reforms his way. The point is that it's not about winning but about the love of the game and playing well. My husband kept pointing out how much bigger the other teams were from the ducks, and as I was watching Woo, a figure skater recruited to play, do a double axel over an opposing player in order to get close to the goal, my brain turned to theology, as it sometimes does.

I won't go into too much depth here, but the point of these movies, trite though they may be, is that good character and individuality are ultimately stronger than big beefy players that are in it to win it and don't care about how horrible they become to do it. So then I naturally started thinking about the Holy Spirit, and a conversation I had with scholar and professor Lois Malcolm from Luther Seminary, who says that the Holy Spirit acts not by creating conformity but by creating unity within diversity. In other words, if you look at the apostles and the early church, and particularly the teaching of Paul when he discusses the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians, it becomes clear that we are called to function with freedom within our own beautiful, God-given uniqueness for the sake of the church and the world. "For just as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body--though many--are one body, so too is Christ." (1 Cor. 12:12, NET)

This is important because it touches on a very common misconception about Christianity, and that is that it promotes conformity and insulation from the world. I read a very sad story of a woman who had been born into and living within the Quiverfull movement, which is a loose association of families within American Christianity that believe that the highest calling of a woman is to bear little Christian soldiers, and promotes a number of other harmful ideas about the roles of men, women, and children in the family and within the world. This woman had, understandably, felt extremely suffocated by the role that had been imposed upon her, and ultimately left both her husband and Jesus because she was sick of the message that she should conform to a certain way in order to be acceptable. I understand the frustration she must have gone through, but it's unfortunate that she failed to discover that this very fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian vocation is false. It's very common, though, even in less fundamentalist churches, to promote the idea of conformity: this is what a Christian looks like, acts like, or should be. Those who don't fit into this definition are excluded. Some do this intentionally in the name of protecting the community (and I have a whole other post about that), and some do it unintentionally, because they don't know any other way to be.

Despite that unintentional message, this is exactly opposite what the Bible says about how the body of Christ should be. According to Dr. Malcolm, some of the signs of the Spirit at work in a movement are expansiveness, inclusiveness, and diversity. God didn't create things to be the same. Just look at the diversity of plant and animal life on the planet. These things evolved in a million unique ways, and people are no different. To say that Christians should be in any way uniform is just silly. We live in a broken world carrying a variety of burdens that shape us into different people, and we are given different gifts meant to account for the diversity of needs around us. If we were all gifted healers, who would comfort those who don't get well? We need people with different gifts, talents, and skills to be a successful society, and the body of Christ is the same

Toward the end of the movie, we see Gordon, returning to his true self, gathering the team together with the duck call, reminding them who they are. In the same way that the lasso-swinging skills of the Texan and the figure skating skills of Woo or speed skills of Martinez ultimately make the Ducks more successful, the community of Christians is most able to live out our vocation of bringing about God's kingdom through service when we all act out of our uniqueness. That means that some of us are going to be very proper teachers who love grammar and hate swearing, and some are going to be spitting, cussing, tattooed bikers. Because the proper person is not going to be able to touch the world in exactly the same way as the swearing bikers and we need to serve the world in all places and ways. That's why we need the teachers and counselors and business people and accountants and musicians and stay at home parents and vets and janitors... If a community is calling you to uniformity, such as the Quiverfull movement, that is most certainly not a community acting out of the power of the Spirit of God. Rather, the Holy Spirit calls us to unity, bound by the transformative love of Christ which turns us towards others and brings new life out of our dead places, so that we may live out that common vocation exactly as we are individually equipped.

Who you are called to be is you, and to define your ministry not by the role but by the self that you bring to it. Now get outta here in peace to love and serve the Lord!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What does a chaplain do, anyway?

I finally started my first big-person job as a hospital chaplain resident at a large hospital in the Twin Cities. People usually have one of three reactions. The first reaction is overwhelmingly positive. The second reaction is generally uninformed but curious. The final reaction is more negative or misinformed. There's an episode of Scrubs where Dr. Cox's super-Christian sister comes to the hospital and ends up ministering to a patient, much to his chagrin. They stand around all night praying and lo, and behold, a miracle! The impression is that chaplains are there because we think we'll be able to call healing miracles down Benny Hinn style or because we want to convert people. Having been met with a number of these reactions ranging from curious to confused, I have decided to write up a post. I strongly encourage people to take advantage of a chaplain's presence if they ever find themselves in the hospital, hospice, or other care setting, because it never hurts to have another person on your team.

So now that we've cleared up what a chaplain doesn't do, what exactly is it we actually DO do?

1.) Provide holistic care of the patient.

Being in the hospital, or even another type of care setting (assisted living, inpatient addiction treatment, etc) often feels like you are being looked at as a collection of body parts or as a "problem" rather than a human being. Doctors are great and gifted but sometimes look at people as if they are a liver with a side of intestines instead of a person who is 31 and unexpectedly ended up in the hospital with mysterious symptoms and a possibly really bad diagnosis. In my health system, we are considered "spiritual care" not because we necessarily deal with religious topics but because we see patients as whole people whose beliefs, values, sense of self and purpose also suffer because of medical diagnoses and, conversely, whose diagnoses can be worsened by these more spiritual concerns. There are scientific studies that show that patients who have their spiritual needs attended while in the hospital have better outcomes (are less likely to die) than those who don't! That's because the feelings of fear and dread that come up around illness and death can and do have a physiological impact. Sometimes these feelings and thoughts are mediated by organized belief systems, and sometimes they are not. Patients benefit from having a person who can help them integrate their current situation with their life philosophy and/or beliefs.

2.) Provide emotional and spiritual support for patients, families, and staff in crisis.

Being in the hospital is hard on patients, but it's also hard for family members and for staff. Medical and ancillary staff who work on ICUs or a hematology-oncology unit usually see more bad outcomes than good ones. There is a lot of pain, suffering, and death in these situations, and regardless of the spiritual or philosophical concerns, all of these people need somebody who is willing to delve into the emotions of the situation and address them. Usually this just looks like 'yeah, this is really hard, I'm so sorry' but you'd be amazed how helpful it can be to just feel heard when the world is going crazy around you and you feel totally powerless. I once ministered to a family of a different faith from mine during a terminal extubation (pulling life support). I didn't have the same traditions but I was able to draw from their traditions and mostly just sit with them, bring coffee and extra chairs, and help them talk about some happy memories as their love one died. What we do is walk into a house of sorrow and accept the pain and journey with them in it. It sounds simple, but when you just kissed your baby on the head for the first and last time, or when your wife isn't going to wake up again, it means a lot.

3.) Provide rituals and ceremonies, prayer, or facilitate contact with those who can.

My staff and resident group has several Lutherans, a couple Catholic priests, some Unitarian Universalists, Muslims, Mormons, Baptists and a few other types of Christians. People form their lives around stories and often part of our story is the story of a group of people who came before us and believe like us. Believing in something bigger than us either as a Christian, Muslim, or a Humanist or whatever is almost a biological imperative. We make meaning. Even if your meaning is that 'there is no meaning' you are still writing your life story according to an interpretation. Feeling connected to something broader is important for many people, and as a chaplain my job is to understand people's religious, spiritual, or philosophical needs and help them be met. If that means finding a Jehovah's Witness to minister to a patient, then I call their central office. If that means locating a Qu'ran or getting a priest to do an anointing, then I do that. If it means praying with patients, I will do that in any way they feel comfortable with me doing it (depending on their beliefs and their understanding of mine). Often the difference between total anxiety and a sense of peace is a thirty second prayer with a chaplain, or maybe just a five minute conversation. My job is to assess the need and meet it to the best of my ability.

4.) Give patients a chance to vent their feelings or take a break from getting poked and prodded.

Sometimes I have a visit that is nothing but talking about all the places the patient has visited, or all of their 80 grand-children and what they're up to, or maybe the latest movies we've seen. Hospitals aren't fun places to be stuck if you're not getting paid (worse if you're paying an arm and a leg), and sometimes the best thing for a patient's healing is to not be bored and frustrated. That means sometimes we talk about nothing at all. They ask about me, I ask about them; we chat. Or maybe they're really frustrated that the nurse keeps waking them up and just need to be grumpy with somebody. There are medical staff members and social workers and nutrition workers and occupational therapy and physical therapy, etc etc etc and they poke and prod patients non-stop. I come in and ask nothing of the patient but what THEY need and want right now. Sometimes feeling like you have a little bit of control, even if that means kicking the chaplain out, is everything.

5.) Work on interdisciplinary teams to advocate for, listen to, and care for the patient.

Believe it or not, religious or spiritual issues come up more than you would think for patients. Should a Muslim patient be undressed by opposite sex staff members? How do we handle the patient's beliefs there? What if a Jehovah's Witness opts for a life saving blood transfusion but is feeling extremely anxious about that medical decision? Maybe a patient is in a vegetative state and the medical power of attorney is unclear? There are ethics boards, care teams, palliative teams, and a slew of other teams that are there to care for the patient. As chaplains, we sit in on many of these and make sure that the patient's emotional/spiritual needs are being accounted for in such situations. Chaplains are there to really hear and understand patients, and we work side by side with doctors, social workers, therapists, etc to ensure that the patient is receiving the best care possible that accounts for as many needs as possible. This includes treatment decisions, end of life decisions, or even pregnancy termination decisions. We put on a lot of different hats, but our job is to see the whole person and do whatever we can to see that their values and spiritual health are taken care of.

Ultimately, you want a chaplain in the room because professional chaplains are trained to be on your side. They are there to listen, to advocate, to mediate, and most importantly to love the patients. Sometimes we have our hearts broken by the tragedy we walk beside. I remember these stories sometimes as if they were my own. But for me it's an amazing, fulfilling opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ to serve all people (of all faiths, beliefs (or not), and backgrounds). My personal belief is that Jesus and the promise of new life in the midst of all this crap that we trudge through day after day shows up through those of us dedicating our lives to serving the world. So I will continue letting the light of love shine in my hospital and wherever else I can for as long as I can.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Rethinking Church: A New Model for Ministry

I'm going to tell you the story behind this blog's name. A couple years ago I was taking a preaching class, and harassing my good friend N with videos of my latest sermon. He didn't have a lot of experience with church but he liked my sermons and told me I should start a YouTube channel. I was slightly horrified by the idea of putting my face on the internet for the world to critique but he kept bugging me with the idea. He had even thought of a name for the channel: My Little Parish. It was funny because it was like My Little Pony except like a magical online church world instead of a world with ponies and bronies and the like. I thought about it for a while but was ultimately too lazy and busy to record my sermons while trying to do ministry in a real-life parish (as opposed to a virtual one). By way of compromise, I decided to start a blog. Writing has always been my forte so I thought, what the heck, I'll give it a shot. I thought for a while about the name, but eventually decided that My Little Parish fit perfectly, not because it was as exciting and magical as a YouTube channel or Ponies, but because it fit precisely with the view of ministry that I have had since Clinton was president.

When I was a teenager I was friends with some people who, quite frankly, made my mother very worried. These were kids from broken homes who had dealt with things like sexual assault, drug use, unwanted pregnancy, and hiding their sexuality from their families. It wasn't that my mom didn't like them as people, but she was worried I would start doing dangerous stuff hanging out with them. Aside from them being awesome and fun people, I always saw my friendship as a sort of ministry. I remember once arguing with my 7th grade Bible teacher because he claimed that we should avoid hanging out with people who could be a bad influence because it could pull us away from the right path. I wasn't a very talkative kid in school but I raised my hand and said, "Um, excuse me, didn't Jesus hang out with prostitutes and tax collectors?" His response was a dismissive, "Well, you're not Jesus." But his class lesson didn't change my mind. I had always been taught that it is through our lives that others see Christ. These friends from messed up homes with difficult crap to deal with might never experience truly giving, unconditional love in any way but through me, and not even the principal himself could convince me otherwise.

A sacrament is something which manifests the reality of the risen Christ in our daily lives. Bread and wine, baptismal water, scripture, service, love, comfort, presence: these are things that break into our world full of illness, crime, disasters, accidents, abusive parents, rape, violence, war and proclaim the gospel of Christ. The gospel is the thing which proclaims that there WILL BE healing, there MUST BE peace, that the future which God is calling our world to is one of reconciliation, joy, brotherhood and sisterhood, and I see Christians not as some elect trying to stay pure in order to get to that future but as people who are put here to be doorways for that incredible future to come through every single day. We are to be living sacraments.

So what does that have to do with church? Well, for a long time, the church has looked like something very specific: parish ministry. Usually these parishes were based around small communities. They were a place where everybody in town gathered together to have the gospel proclaimed, to receive the sacrament of holy communion. They were central to our lives, and there was enough social pressure to keep most people within the church. The church became the place from which ministry flowed into the rest of the community. A hundred and fifty years ago, this model held true, and churches were doing pretty well until the last decade or two. Now, you can't swing a small catechism without running into a closing church. There are tons of dire statistics talking about how the church is dying. The emerging church movement has addressed some of the issues of the more traditional church, modernizing worship style, liturgy, and language to fit better with the culture of the people, and this movement is very important, but despite increasing numbers of churches like Humble Walk, Solomon's Porch, and even the food truck ministry called Shobi's Table (all Twin Cities movements local to me), there are still a lot of people out there who feel no real connection to a church community. The problem with these models is that for people outside the church, it doesn't matter if the pastor is wearing tight pants and hipster glasses, or if it gathers in a community center or school basement--it's still church.

Many people feel alienated from church. Talk to a few members of the LGBTQ community and ask about their experiences at church. More than a handful of these folks have been seriously wounded by negative attitudes at church. Talk to young women fleeing conservative churches in droves: they have been told they are worth nothing without men, that their destiny is to be a helpmeet, that abuse and violence are okay because they just need to respect and submit. Talk to anybody who has ever had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of a political battle in the church, or who dares to be the voice of justice while the louder voice is full of hate. Many, many people have been victimized by church communities that look like people gathering around an altar on Sundays. That's not to say churches can't be wonderful, supportive places; my current church is an amazing, healing place and I couldn't be happier to be a part of it. But there have been times in my life where I have wanted nothing to do with church because it hurt me badly. I am still healing from some of those wounds despite being in ministry and being in an amazing community now. But all that hurt or sense of disconnection (which happens for many reasons from hurt to introversion or social anxiety) doesn't stop people from thirsting for living water. Where does that leave us? How can we "re-imagine" church? Well, maybe we need to think like people outside the church instead of like church people trying to get more people to come inside. Maybe we need to go into the world.

We need to stop thinking of ministry as solely a part of the parish. Mainline denominations have an unfortunate tendency to think of ministry which starts in the parish even if it happens in the world, but if this was ever true (which I'm not sure about), I don't think it is anymore. Ministry is praying with an addict in recovery who is weeping in thirst for someone to tell him he is worthy. Ministry is studying the Bible with a family in the hospital before surgery. Ministry is serving food at a soup kitchen. Ministry is gathering clothes for women to go on job interviews. Ministry is anywhere we do work which presents the love of God. The church is part of that, but it's not the whole story. If we are a people who profess that the Holy Spirit is among us and our world like a breath that fills each and every one of us, how can we confine the definition of ministry to that which flows from the parish? Ministry is what happens whenever the Holy Spirit shows up, and the Holy Spirit shows up first in the world and calls us to gather in church. That means that if we think church has to look like a group of people singing hymns, reading scriptures, hearing sermons, we are mistaken. Parishes are, or should be, a training ground for ministry in the world. If that means ordaining people to carry out their vocation in the world as ministers of Word and Sacrament, we should do that!

So back to the name. I consider this blog to be a "parish" in the sense that it is a gathering place for people to come, to hear the gospel, and to take that message of being loved and called and turn right around to be ministers in their own world. That's what I hope you are doing if you are reading this. I want to empower you to live out your vocation as a servant and minister in the world. This is a parish, because it is a gathering place, but this isn't church. YOU are the church. The Christians you bump into out in your world, they are the church. The church is meant to go to the rest of the world to show it the gospel. The goal shouldn't be to get butts in pews, but to get feet on the ground, and until we stop counting "the church" as congregations, headcounts, and offerings, we're doing a grave disservice to the mission we have been called to.

Now stop reading this post and do something! Go in peace to love and serve the world!