Turning the (Christmas) Lights On (Advent II)

facebook_cover_turn_nlOver the past week I’ve been driving around in the dark. I’ve seen a lot of Christmas lights. From a few lights on a tree or front window, to entire yards with various biblical and secular Christmas scenes spelled out in them. Some of these displays have been up since just after Halloween (maybe even before). I love Christmas lights, no matter how tasteful or tacky. I love them because people love putting them up. I don’t know if it is because they simply love Christmas or there is a primordial/primeval hope that we might be able to bring light back into the world as the days are getting shorter.

The longest and coldest nights of the year are up on us and we are attempting to celebrate the birth of a savior. We don’t really know how to do that. We don’t really know what it means. We still sense the mystery of Christ’s life. We also perhaps sense within us the desire for the light to return, for the days to get longer again, for the warmth of spring. In times before we knew that little grows in the winter, that food will become more scarce and that firewood is needed for warmth.

While today, at least for those who are financially stable enough, heat, food, and light are not a major issue. Still, no matter the class, people like Christmas lights. Tiny little balls of light. Some colored. Some white. Some large. Some small. Some twinkle, some chase, and some stand still. I remember one set we had that had 20 Christmas songs to which the lights danced and the sound box played music.

So many of us are drawn to these little fragments of light. These little lights which, while they can neither compete with the power of the sun or the life giving Christ, seem to be people’s shining of their hope.

This hope, while it remains fragmented and small, seems to tell me something. In the rural world I live in, these people are not completely gone. They have not fallen completely into the despair and darkness. They hold within them a glimmer of hope and will turn on their twinkle lights from Halloween until well past the New Year.

The thing about this hope, this fragmented, colorfully whimsical hope, is the audience. Sure, they get some joy out of these lamps and designs, but the audience is whomever passes by. They turn their hope outward. Jean-Luc Nancy seeking the very act of speaking of pointing something from within outward as prayer audience. Christmas lights, in a practical way, seems to constitute a prayer. A turning outward.

On Being an Earthkeeper

img_20161120_121523On Sunday, November 20th, 2016 I, along with over forty other United Methodists from around the world were commissioned in the first class of United Methodist Earth Keepers. We are missionaries commissioned to care for God’s creation.

For me, this came at the perfect time. My discouragement and anger following the general election in the United States led me to recommit my life to justice.After several days of training and getting to know amazing people I would have never otherwise met, I felt a passion rekindled in my desire to care for creation as a United Methodist.

Earthkeepers are described on the General Board of Global Ministries Website:

Earthkeepers [are] United Methodists who are aware of the ecological challenges in our world today and feel called to be part of a movement to transform the world. They can be laity or clergy, students, part-time or full-time workers, or retirees. (Earthkeepers aren’t paid, although some may have a paid job that allows them to work on creation care projects.)

Earthkeepers will participate in four days of intensive training in creation care theology and community organizing, and then commit to 10 hours per month of providing leadership for a community project or advocacy campaign. Each Earthkeeper would select his or her own project or focus area. They could include efforts like creating community gardens in urban “food deserts,” advocating for renewable energy policies, working for environmental justice by cleaning up toxic waste sites, or creating a green team within an annual conference.

We also have a focus on community:

What’s particularly unique about Earthkeepers is that its focus is on communities rather than the church…It’s within communities where solutions lie and where they can best be identified and implemented. But a lot of those who are passionate about creation care aren’t sure how to organize and engage people around a common cause. That’s why the training and the quarterly meetings will be so critical. And churches may want to become connected Earthkeepers’ projects in their areas.

I am honored to be among the many amazing clergy and lay members of the first class of Earthkeepers. My project is to develop an online library of faith formation resources integrally tied to creation. My understanding in all my work is that people must be connected to their place and space to survive and thrive. Rural ministry and faith formation must be rooted in known land and sea as a means of connecting both with God and with our world.

The collecting of resources from around the world on faith formation in connection with creation is the beginning of providing resources for clergy, laity, students, and anyone else looking to develop a deep spiritual relationship with creation, which will prompt care and action for and with creation. The hope is that as this project grows, new curriculum, tools for writing and adapting curricula, and space to experiment with these resources will begin to appear.

As for my community, I hope to become active in local eco-justice organizations, my annual conference Green Team, and possibly begin leading local groups on hikes, outings, and activities around developing faith based connection and action with creation.

Keeping Watch (Advent I)

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36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 37 As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One.[a] 38 In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One[b] will be like that. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left.42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming.43 But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. 44 Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One[c] will come at a time you don’t know.

Matthew 24:36-44 (CEB)

I’ve become a fan of Discipleship Ministries’ Advent-Epiphany worship series. I don’t know of a church using it, but I’ve decided to use these resources as jumping point for my personal devotion and my posts. (All rights to the images I use each week belong to Discipleship Ministries, I recommend you check out their resources).

The idea of keeping watch is one of great interest to me and my work. When I received my driver’s license and was able to drive to and from places, I often liked to, with this new found freedom, drive around at night and not go home immediately. Mostly places I had already visited. Over around the homes of my aunts and uncles and of family friends.

The thing about driving around at night is that things are different. Things are a little off. Things seem different at night, especially when you’re first out on your own. Not a scary, evil things live in the woods different, instead it was a difference which led to curiosity.

 

I never experienced the sky exploding with celestial beings or songs of a savior born in a barn in town. Still, I experienced things simply because I was watching. I noticed lights on in houses late at night, cars that were not home, people caught in the headlights as I turned at an intersection near their homes. I knew some of these homes, many I did not. Still, I gained experience through keeping watch.

The same is true for my work. My work in rural life. My work in rural pedagogy and theology (It is clearly not untrue for any and all other contexts–I just work from where I stand). I feel as if one’s role as a theologian and educator is partially to keep watch. To look for snags in the carpet, breaks in the pasture fence, smoke on the horizon, and lights on when they shouldn’t be. It’s a feeling of alienation. Just as driving around at night had an effect on my view of my community, our role is to become re-oriented, making the familiar strange.

In my watching today, I tend to find myself looking for the Kingdom of God. Keeping watch over my community, I look for the Kingdom of God in the rusty old cars, the dormant fields, the empty and almost empty factories, and in the surprising amount of  Dollar Generals.

Keeping watch is difficult.

 

A cool drink of water

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The Earthkeepers training today was long. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, it was just a long day.

I’ve met so many people doing work in climate justice, environmental advocacy, community development, and education. The work people do is amazing.

Many of them are clergy working in their communities to organize around environmental action. Some are students in seminary, some are people working in other jobs, and others are retirees dedicating this portion of their life to this work.

What I’ve learned from all of them is that this is a struggle. No matter where they are, no matter if things are going great, there seems to be a struggle taking place. A struggle with policy, with time, with apathy, with competing issues, with tradition, and the withs go on.

In my work, I talk about Sabbath a lot. Sabbath is not, NOR WILL IT EVERY BE, a day off. Sabbath is a disruptive time, in which all work and production ceases in order to look back over what God has done and to look ahead and imagine what God will do. In that space comes the potential for imagining, re-imagining, re-membering, and resurrecting aspects of life. This time seems to be that. A time away from our work and life, a time to look at what has happened and what could possibly happen.

I recently heard a rabbi talking on NPR–which sounds like it could be any NPR show at any time–about how there is never really a silver bullet for any of the issues of justice we work on. There is more something like silver buckshot. That is, we are all aiming at the issues, but not all using the same weapon. Our approach may appear scattered but it is effective. Advocacy, education, solidarity, companionship, organizing, spiritual formation, and more.

Being here is more than a cool drink of water, its diving headfirst into a mountain pond. It is shocking. It is revitalizing. It is disruptive. It is necessary.

One Week Later

“This loss hurts, but please, never stop believing that fighting for what is right is worth it. It is worth it. We need you to keep up these fights now and for the rest of your lives.” – Hillary Clinton

 

Armadillo.jpgOne week ago I turned 31. One week ago Donald Trump won the general election for president of the United States. One week ago things changed for me.

If you follow me on Facebook you probably saw my enraged post invoking my baptismal vows, my vocation as scholar-teacher, and call to action for those in education, ministry, and advocacy. You also saw my beginning list of actions toward justice and education including raising money for an educational program, being trained in environmental advocacy and community organizing, continuing my work in Christian education in the wake of rural deindustrialization, and connecting with the people in my community.

I’ve begun that work. I am in Georgia at a training full of United Methodists from around the country being trained as the inaugural class of Earth Keepers. (I also an armadillo up close today just walking under the bridge of the train I was on. But that’s neither here nor there.)

I’ll continue to post his week about the experiences, but it is a beginning for me, not in environmental justice (I’ve been passionate about that for a while), but it is a beginning of my response to an election which screams out to me as a dangerous trajectory for the future of humanity.

As I go forward, I will listen, hope, create, and speak out. My vocational call to the rural United States is reaffirmed in these election results and my dissertation. My study of hauntedness, the promise of lost futures, the need for resurrection which require death, and the presence of Sabbath disruptions in the lives of rural people, but often absent in their churches.

 

Sidewalk Chalk and the Coming Utopia

“The determining element in the Latin American person is not the past (ours is a European past, one of colonization) but the future. Herein lies the activating function of the utopian element. Utopia ought not be understood as a synonym for illusion or a flight from present reality…Faith promises and demonstrates as realized in Christ as utopia that consists in a world totally reconciled, a world that is the fulfillment of what we are creating here on earth with feelings and love.”

Jesus Christ Liberator, Leonardo Boff, 44-45

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Sidewalk chalk with two young boys is a lot of fun. They both drew rocket ships. The one pictured was headed toward a collection of several planets (also drawn by the children). Another child drew a space ship with legs, arms, and a face. It was so big I could not adequately fit it into the lens of my camera.

I simply gave them the chalk and they went to dreaming. I followed along and drew some o the planets and stars, but let them guide me. They actually told me I was drawing the “easy stuff.”

The Boff quote and the title of this post let you know the point I am working toward. Utopia, that is, a no-place and yet an idea which is always possible. For Boff, utopia is wrapped up in the hope made possible by Jesus Christ. I go back and forth on the idea of utopia, partially because of the tendency to do what the quote says (to escape from the present reality). However, I mostly am averse to utopias because in rural areas they tend to be haunted by the lost futures of days gone by. They sit in the “good ‘ol days” and if we could just get back to those days. Whether those days be ones of good jobs, full church pews, or strong community, they are always rooted in a past, that for worse or for better are not coming back.

Yet, in working with children, they tend not to worry about days gone by, usually because they have no experience of those days since they are less than a decade old. The thing I look toward is letting children describe their utopia and us helping work toward it. I can hand the sidewalk chalk to the children and let them create. I can ask them what they want, and I can work with them and others to make it happen.

 

 

Sand Castles and Creative Community

“Very little creativity was allowed the faith that, lived and tested in our milieu, could have expressed itself naturally and with greater liberty within the structures having peculiarly Latin American characteristics. The general horizon was one that dogmatically interpreted dogma. This basically impeded healthy attempts to create a new incarnation of the church outside the inherited traditional framework of a Greco-Roman understanding of the world.”

Jesus Christ Liberator, p.44

IMG_20160628_141618321_HDRThis past Tuesday I took sand toys to the apartment complex I visit. I took them because the kids asked me to bring sand toys. They played and raked and built castles.

I gave them the freedom to create what they wanted to, to imagine what could be.

As I look at transplanting liberation theology in a rural setting, I have to let the new setting dictate the shape of my children’s ministry. The kids determine what I bring, when I come, and how far into the community I can come.

Just as Boff says above,  if I go in with set structures and expectations, I limit the potential in the community. Two scholars come to mind as I look at focusing on the anthropological nature of a liberative children’s ministry.

The first is Michael Corbett. In his chapter in the edited volume Dynamics of Social Class, Race, and Place in Rural Education, (Howley, Howley, and Johnson, 2014), he speaks of rural virtues. He names these rural virtues as (1)stewardship, (2)deep place sensitive knowledge and (3)making do as one sees fit on known and loved land and sea. These virtues give me some understanding of the community I am working with. Stewardship – using resources in the best and most helpful way. Place sensitive knowledge- knowing the ins and outs of one’s community. Making do as one sees fit – self-explanatory. These three virtues appear present in most rural communities, even if they are dealing with some very different experiences from the traditional ideal of rural communities.

Sure, an apartment complex appears much different from a rural home place, and living in a community for two years is more common than living in a community for four generations here. Still, there seems to be some carry over. Kids know who to ask for help, they know how to help each other. They share games, toys, and freeze-pops. They know which door to go to (front or back) to know if their friends can come play. They know that sand bees get agitated if you throw sand at them, where the path to the trash dump is, and just how far they can ride their bikes without getting in trouble. Making do as one sees fit, is just that, as the children and their families see fit, not as I see fit, or you see fit, as they see fit in the space and place they know.

The second scholar I think of is Yolanda Smith and her book Reclaiming the Spirituals: New Possibilities for African American Christian Education. In this book–which of course I am transplanting as well, because while some of the kids I work with are black, others are white, latinx, and other ethnic backgrounds (also, I am white, which is not unnoticed)–Smith sees the Spirituals as a means of reclaiming faith formation in the community. She highlights the fact that the Spirituals were based on the rhythm of the community and work in which they were created. The spirituals also arose spontaneously, just as faith formation my arise spontaneously. Spirituals were often call and response and dialogue centered, just as spiritual based faith formation can be. Finally, Spirituals grew out imagination deeply rooted in a very specific place.

Smith’s work calls me to learn the rhythms of the community. I already know that several kids are not there or do not come out for lunch. As the afternoon comes, more and more kids are home, either because school is out or parents are home from work. I also know that some of them already attend church, so traditional church times (Sunday and Wednesday) may not be the best time for creating a space. Spontaneity seems key, as impromptu bike races, games with sand, and door knocks have occurred almost every time I’ve been there. Dialogue is crucial. I first asked the kids what they wanted. I was told sand toys. I asked if they would come if I had something at night, they said yes. I asked a grandmother if she thought evening might be better, she said yes. I then began to throw out ideas: games, reading groups, singing, etc. These were well received. I now have to begin talking to parents and guardians about what they might want to see. Finally, imagination is it. I have to allow the space we create to be imaginatively named, formed, and led.

With Corbett and Smith, I see the really interesting insights into the possibility for allowing this community, through its rural virtues and its natural rhythms and spontaneity to create a new iteration of children’s ministry for the church and community I serve.

Next, we will move on to Boff’s next image of a liberation Christology: The Primacy of the Utopian Element Over the Factual.