Monday, February 25, 2008

"Will they make you shave your beard?"

(This entry is from the article I wrote for today's issue of "The Door," LSTC's weekly student newspaper)

“So, when you are a pastor, will they make you shave your beard?” the ten year old Jose asked me during a youth camp last month. “No,” I replied smiling. “Good,” Jose replied, “it looks good on you.” This year I’m doing my internship in Argentina. Every day I learn something new, and I’m letting my beard grow out.

Like Kristin, who is in Oslo, my internship is through the Horizon International Internship program, which is a program that works with the ELCA Global Mission to provide seminary internships around the world. My assignment is at two small churches, at Misión Maria Magdalena (MMM) in Resistencia (population 422,400), and San Mateo in nearby Corrientes (pop-ulation 364,500). In Resistencia, 112,000 people live on $2 or $3 per day and almost half of Chaco's 1 million people live below the poverty line. In the interior of the province, neglected indigenous communities are dying of hunger.

Both churches are of the IELU (Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Unida - United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Argentina and Uruguay), the Lutheran Church here affiliated with the LWF and ELCA. I have been preaching every other week (in Spanish), teaching the first communion class with a couple of church members, teaching adult bible studies, and doing frequent pastoral visits, where I am always met by a warm welcome and offered mate (the classic Argentine tea). I also help with the various social outreaches of the mission, such as food distribution and various children workshops, like an environmental workshop, and a mural we’ve been painting on the church building. I have participated in IELU district and churchwide events, including three summer camps last month.

I’m now writing my mid-year evaluation, and I can’t believe it’s halfway through. As I look back at the last six months, many words and memories come to mind:

· I watch Cristina Kirchner speak a week before she was elected as president of Argentina and listened to hopes and doubts of political promises.
· In a conference with pastors from Argentina and Brazil (in a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese) we tackled questions like: “how do you do ministry in an increasingly individualistic society?”
· I listen to the joys and challenges of other churches at various assemblies.
· I sweat in my alb as I went outside to greet people at the Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) worship service.
· “What is a Lutheran?” the taxi driver asks me.
· I open the newspaper and read that more indigenous people have died in the interior of the province.
· Industry and employment have dried up, and corporations exploit land for soy production.
· “So, what do you think of that president of yours?” I’m asked.
· On my way to preach at church, I walk past a young girl looking for her next meal in the dumpster.
· Mercy and justice seem so far away.
· How great the urgency is when we pray for “Thy Kingdom come.”
· How great our call to “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
· Church here is both spiritually and literally the “pan de cada día (daily bread).”
· The boy’s face shows his gladness that tonight their will be a full meal, as he eagerly picks up the bag of food from the church, and carries it for his mother.
· I saw Jesus today.
· At the church planning meeting, each member talks about the fear neighborhood crime gives them, and how the police can’t be trusted.
· Vandalism abounds.
· We paint a bright mural on the front of the church.
· Natural Church Development workshops…The image of a horse pulling a cart with square wheels, and the cart is carrying a load of round wheels.
· Growth comes from within.
· We plant trees around the church, some are trampled, some grow.
· “No, you shouldn’t throw firecrackers at horses.” I tell the young boy.
· Church here is a place where hymns of praise are sung amidst the sound of kids throwing rocks on the roof.
· We pass the mate around the circle, laughing, sharing stories.
· My beard keeps growing.
· My pastor tells me stories about the military dictatorship in Argentina (a time when thousands of Argentines suspected in being a part of the political opposition were seized and “disappeared”), when he would receive visitors from the government who listened in on his sermons, because protestants were held under suspicion.
· Preaching the Gospel out of the conviction of it’s truth, and not letting the fear which sits in the back row preach it for you.
· Reading the Bible in Spanish continues to bring new meaning.
· “Why do you believe in God?” “I feel God’s presence when I pray,” replied the camper.
· Being invited to eat, receiving hospitality, being welcomed into a community of faith…ministry.
· At camp we sing: “Es lo más grande el amor nunca dejará de existir: no guarda duda o rencor, sin amor no es posible vivir” (Love is the greatest, it will never cease to exist: it doesn’t keep doubt or grudge, without love it is impossible to live).

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A Threefold Rhythm

For my J-term class this year, I chose to take Christian Daily Prayer, which is a class offered through McCormick Theological Seminary, the neighboring Presbyterian school with which LSTC shares classroom space and some community events. The first week of the class was spent on campus in Chicago, learning about Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim daily prayer, and praying in community with our classmates. During the second week of the class, my ten classmates and I traveled with our professor to New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, IA, a small community outside of Dubuque, so that we could experience monastic daily prayer firsthand. For over 150 years, the brothers of this Cistercian monastery have been living their lives according to a threefold rhythm of prayer, study, and manual labor. For a week, I was able to become immersed in this satisfying rhythm as well.

Although my classmates and I didn't get the chance to engage in manual labor like the monks do (they farm and make beautiful handmade wooden caskets to support themselves), we were able to participate in studying Scripture and praying through the book of Psalms during the seven daily offices of prayer. The daily offices happen at fixed times each day, and the monks order their time around these hours. Each morning, we began the day at 3:30 AM with Vigils, in the dark of the monastery's beautiful chapel, lit at times only by a single candle suspended from the ceiling, and on through the offices until we closed at 7:30 PM with Compline, again held in the darkened chapel lit by a single candle. It was different than anything I had ever experienced, and I found the week to be deeply meaningful.

There is something innately appealing about such a way of life. Rather than trying to fit in time for prayer in their busy lives, the monks instead begin with prayer, and structure everything else around it. Prayer comes first, and study and manual labor fit in the spaces between formal prayer. They do each have certain jobs and tasks to accomplish during the day, but they also realize that if they don't finish everything, there will be time the next day, and the next, to get it all done. They are masters of doing what they are able to do, and then giving the rest back into God's hands. This rhythm of doing what they are able to do and keeping their priorities in order allows them to live out their calling in a way that is holistic and authentic. It is this sense of authenticity and keeping first things first that has stayed with me since returning to Chicago.

As the new semester begins this week, I realize that it would be easy for me to thoughtlessly slip back into the normal busy rhythm of classes, work, study, friends, and so on, where time for prayer and God might get lost in the shuffle. But my time at New Melleray encourages me to think about my daily rhythm in a new way. What if I were to make time for prayer before the rush of the day begins, and to be mindful of God's work in my life throughout the day, rather than trying to tackle my to-do list first and then becoming frustrated when I run out of time for God? There is a lot of wisdom to this practice of praying first, as the monks have demonstrated over the centuries. It is one that I want to hold on to as the routine of the semester begins again.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Urban Ministry: Prophetic Voice for Change

“Speak Truth to the powers and principalities!” Name, unmask and engage God’s people to be a prophetic witness of Christ’s love in the City. J-Term SCUPE (Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education) course, Dimensions and Dynamics of Urban Ministry challenged me to think about the difference between a charity model vs. justice model of action if we are to address issues of injustice. Our focus was on issues of racism, economic injustice and violence.

If we are to truly change the condition of the poor and oppressed charity is not enough. Justice is served only through the changing of the systems (institutional and otherwise) that keep people in poverty and oppressed. The class visited 11 sites throughout Chicago to observe and learn from faith-based organizations; some provide services (charity) others advocacy (justice) and some provided both services and advocacy work.

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless works to organize the homeless to help them advocate for their right to housing. This was my first exposure to the art of community organization as the foundation for social movements. Organizing works to embrace the reality of self-interest, agitate (move into action) and empower. The Interfaith Worker Justice organization is doing amazing work for workers’ rights. IWJ is a purely faith-based organization standing in solidarity for the right for workers to organize and have a living wage. Bethel New Life is a wonderful example of comprehensive community renewal using asset based Community Development techniques. Instead of thinking about all that seems to be missing in the community, imagine rejoicing in the amazing gifts and life that God has provided through those around. This ministry is built of the people and by the people in the community. What a tremendous example of ministry and stewardship. All of these organizations in one way or another speak “truth to the powers and principalities.”

What I have shared may resonate with you or it may not but one thing is for certain, how we see and understand issues of injustice depends on the places in which we have sat. God help us to remove the blinders from our eyes, expose to us the injustices that persist in our world and give us the strength and courage to speak the Gospel Truth to the powers and principalities so that your kingdom may reign on earth as in heaven. Amen.

A Week Off

We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 2 Peter 1:16

These times between semesters can be a double-edged sword. Certainly it is wonderful to have a week free of any scheduled events save a few hours of working with second-graders on Tuesday and a few hours of guitar lessons on Wednesday. In my free time this week I finished a novel, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and cleaned the apartment (mostly) and learned to play some bass runs on my weeks-old guitar and watched half a dozen episodes of Planet Earth on DVD and spent probably too many hours at the local coffee shop, Third World Café, where today they gave me a frequent customer punch card. So yeah, it’s been a nice week.

Oh right, except I also called it a double-edged sword. On a week like this I can’t help feeling like I’ve been awfully unproductive. I keep thinking of all the things I did not do this week – and there were plenty of those, to be sure. I should have emailed some acquaintances I’ve lost touch with – and some new ones I’m supposed to start keeping in touch with. I should have cleaned out the all-purpose storage room in our apartment, which is becoming dangerously full of 2 or 3 important papers mixed randomly in with 3 or 4 hundred unimportant ones. I should have done some work for that Ministry-in-Context project that’s likely to get lost in the shuffle of the busy spring semester. But alas, now the week is over, and all of these things, along with the myriad other guilt-inducing not-done tasks that seem to keep sprouting up in my head, are going to have to wait for another time.

I could, of course, get started on one of these tasks. Instead, I’m sitting at the coffee shop (again), gazing out at the snow that has been blanketing our fine city for the last 24 hours or so. Since I’m trying to write a neatly conclusive third paragraph, I’m hoping the snow is trying to tell me something. If it is, it’s probably something like Quit worrying and enjoy the snow, you gloomy existentialist! (Snow has an advanced vocabulary.) And I should, really, enjoy the snow, because even though it’s been falling almost nonstop for the longest time all winter, it’s not likely to last. It’ll melt just like this weeklong vacation. And so, as always, even when I'm not paying attention I have indeed been an eyewitness of the majesty – a majesty that is unscheduled, gone-before-you-know-it, always falling always melting, and sometimes even, yes, gloriously unproductive.