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.

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.

 

 

Bubbles and the Space to Be Human

“The special focus in Latin America is not so much the church but the human person that it should help, raise up, and humanize.” – Jesus Christ Liberator, 44.

The Primacy of the Anthropological Element over the Ecclesiastical

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Today, I spent time at a local apartment complex with a bubble machine. Now, I’ve been to this complex before, but it’s been under the pretenses of providing lunches for children in the community. We’ve done that every weekday since June 9th.

Today was different, I packed up a bubble machine, chenille stems (pipe cleaners), and some freeze pops. I went with no expectations, a book in my bag in case no one came over to my table, and I turned on the bubble machine.

Within minutes a child came running. This child jumped into the bubbles. He leapt with joy on his face. I recognized (I won’t say I knew) this child from the lunches we had been feeding. I did recognize that he had not been there that day.

He asked why I was there, and I said, “Because I wanted to play with bubbles and give out freeze pops.” I then offered him both. I twisted a pipe cleaner (the word I will now use) into a bubble wand, gave him a small cup of bubble solution, and he played. I then gave him a freeze pop. A blue one.

He played some more. I asked him a few questions, like where he went to school, why he missed lunch that day, where his friends were (the school system is doing a new summer reading initiative and I assumed that they were there — they were). I learned his grade in school and that he goes to church on Sunday. We played in the bubbles some more.

I realized, in the five minutes I had spent with this child, creating a space for him to come and play with bubbles–which quickly became a fun game and a time of wonder–I had learned more about this child than in the several days I had been feeding. At first, I thought: Why am I cooking all this food, searching for volunteers, and dragging it all over here and then having a ton leftover (I cook like a Methodist, so if Jesus, John Wesley, and the Twelve Disciples show up I can feed them)? Then, I realized, he would not have run over to me had I not already had that material relationship.

We played in the bubbles some more. It was mix of dancing, some sort of made up martial arts, and guessing where the bubbles were going to go. I met his mama. I learned where she worked, who lived with her, and that she wanted to put her son in some sort of fun program over the summer. She appreciated both the lunch and fun times, and told her son that when I left (in about 30 minutes) that he needed to come home.

Before he left he asked for another freeze pop–and one for his mama. She wanted a pink one. He wanted a red one. I said bye and that I would see him for lunch tomorrow.

What does this have to do with liberation theology, and the anthropological over the ecclesiastical? Quite a bit. As Boff states in my quote earlier, the focus in Latin America is not the church, but the human it should help raise up, and humanize. For this I will draw first from two sources. Paulo Freire and a book called So Sexy So Soon. In his work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed,  Freire talks quite a bit about humanization. To be human is to be able to name the world, that is to create and recreate reality with space and community.

So Sexy So Soon, a book exploring the oversexualization of childhood in the United State, highlights the lack of problem-solving skills in children. The authors (Levin and Kilbourne) fault over programmed and technologically saturated childhoods. Children are no longer given the space to be children. They are expected to conform in the classroom, whether it standing straight lines, sitting completely still, waiting until lunch to go to be bathroom, not asking friends for help on assignments, and getting the correct answers the first time. I don’t do any of these things in real life, well, I will stand in a line at a check out counter or when I am waiting for the bathroom (which I find when I need to go).

Instead of playing pretend, making up games, and exploring the wonders of creation, children find themselves in front of tablets, TVs, and video games. Games and media which have distinct and unchangeable objectives. In the book, they reference a little girl who cannot detour from the exact story of Cinderella, even if it gave Cinderella a cape and horse to save people from a fire. The story had to be the same.

These things are dehumanizing. As a Methodist, I solidly believe each human being is made in the image of God. To be human means to grow in the image of God. My concern becomes not getting children to my church. If they want to come to our programs and activities all the better, but my concern is how can the church create a space for them to become human. Thus, I created a space for this child to play in the bubbles, with no objective or goal. I don’t expect him to come to church, ever. I just wanted him to have a good time, be a child. In that opening, I began a relationship.

My next post will speak to the distinctly rural aspects, and how this tenant of Boff’s Christology fits into this. Let’s see what comes next.

 

 

 

Hydrangeas and Liberation Theology

IMG_20160614_101729444_HDRA few weeks after we moved to Glen Alpine, I bought a hydrangea from the 18 Produce Market. Hydrangeas are really interesting plants because their blooms change colors based on the pH levels of the soil. This one is mainly a lavender color with the back side of it leaning more toward blue.

The practice of transplanting plants and flowers is intriguing to me. The soil, sunlight, flow of air, and many other things impact whether the plant thrives, what color it is, and how it grows.

The same seems true for ideas. When an idea developed in one context is engaged within another, several factors go into whether the idea thrives, adapts, grows, and impacts the new context. I want to explore this notion. I intend to spend some time thinking about the possibilities of reading liberation theology in the context of children’s ministry in rural, North Carolina. Particularly, I plan to explore portions of Leonardo Boff’s Christology, found within Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology for Our Time. 

I draw my inspiration for this from Boff himself in his reading of theology within his context. He writes:

“The predominantly foreign literature that we cite ought not to delude anyone. It is with preoccupations that are ours alone, taken for our Latin American context, that we will reread not only the old texts of the New Testament but also the the most recent commentaries written in Europe. The facts will be situated within other coordinates and will be projected within an appropriate horizon. Our sky possesses different stars that form different figures of the zodiac by which we orient ourselves in the adventures of faith and of life.” –Jesus Christ Liberator, 43.

For the sake of simplicity, I will use Boff’s characteristics of a Christology, that is, an understanding of Jesus Christ, for Latin America. They are:

  1. The Primacy of the Anthropological Element over the Ecclesiastical
  2. The Primacy of the Utopian Element over the Factual
  3. The Primacy of the Critical Element over the Dogmatic
  4. The Primacy of the Social Over the Personal
  5. The Primacy of Orthopraxis over Orthodoxy

                                                                               –Jesus Christ Liberator, 44-46

Now, this will not be perfect, it is an experiment that I hope can help people. I am passionate about the rural communities of the United States, and want to explore any possibility which might open up the Kingdom of God within these communities. My current role in ministry is an outward looking Children’s minister and a dissertating doctoral candidate. This seems to allow me to overlap the two nicely.

My goal with this to be both theoretical and practical. To play with ideas and concepts within the context, and also to provide real ideas for children’s ministry in rural communities. Let’s see what comes next.