Sunday, October 04, 2009

God's Dirty Work. Our Dirty Hands.

The clearing rests in song and shade
It is a creature made
By old light held in soil and leaf,
By human joy and grief,
By human work,
Fidelity of sight and stroke,
By rain, by water on
The parent stone.

We join our work to Heaven's gift,
Our hope to what is left,
That field and woods at last agree
In an economy of widest worth.
High Heaven's Kingdom come on earth.
Imagine Paradise.
O dust, arise!

-Wendell Berry, "The Clearing Rests in Song and Shade"

A few weeks ago Zach Parris challenged his fellow SS bloggers to think and write about our next steps during LSTC’s Earth Year. In classic Zach fashion, he urged us, as we seek to join the growing green movement, not to shirk the strengths of our theological heritage, nor to skirt the messy nature of ethical choices in a sin-soaked world.

Zach is right. If we fall into the trap of thinking that voting for a Democratic president, eating organic food, and buying a Nalgene bottle is all it takes to save the world, we will indeed build up a "works-righteousness bubble” that will be punctured as soon as we encounter a political headwind, read Michael Pollan, or see REI’s new BPA-free Nalgene bottle. As the air rushes out, we finally realize that no cobbled-together cure-all, taken on its own in increasingly desperate doses, can save us. We are grateful for Luther’s rediscovery of this crucial truth, and we Lutherans would do well to carry our forebear’s insight with us into the future.

Yet our goodly heritage has, unfortunately and for a variety of reasons, too often been used to justify an all-too-typical Lutheran quietism. The story of Lutherans in North America – and in Europe, for that matter – is ripe with examples of our church giving short shrift to the world-changing work God has called us to do. Trapped halfway through our paradox, we have sat out too many social movements. Oh, we have our heroes, and rightly so – our Dietrich Bonhoeffers and our Jon Nelsons – but as a church we have too often been inactive enablers of evil, often with our theology as an excuse.

But – thanks be to God! – we are sinful and forgiven, sinner and saint, dust and yet arising. It is well past time that we claimed our full Lutheran heritage, the one that declares the great paradox that we are sinners, yes, truly, but we are also saints, yes, truly, empowered by God through our baptism to, as Zach puts it, “act and move” for justice. And though we, the sinner-saints, work in “what is left” of a world – indeed, a creation – already devastated by sin and its brutal effects, we are freed by the cross and yes, called through our baptism, to, in the words of Wendell Berry, “join our work to Heaven’s gift.”

So, in answer to Zach’s question, what’s next in Earth Year for me? It is the work of joyful discovering that - much to my surprise - this sinner-saint work-joining is already happening!

I am blessed this year to be on a pastoral internship in a place where I am seeing God working through our hands every day through communities of faith in the Pacific Northwest. Three-fifths of my time this year is spent at St. John United Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington, a congregation already engaged in innovative Care of Creation ministries. (The other two-fifths is at the Lutheran Public Policy Office of Washington State, but I’ll say more about my Earth Year discoveries there in a future post.)

Several years ago St. John United, together with its then-intern, decided to reclaim a sidewalk and adjoining parkway in a residential neighborhood in the heart of urban Seattle. Over the past few years God put their dirt-covered hands to good work: They planted crops, from green beans to bright yellow sunflowers, adding new varieties every year. They invited others in the community to join in planting, nurturing, and harvesting. They built an irrigation system to run through pipes under the parking lot. And they grew more and more wild plant life to beautify the neighborhood, and produced more and more good food to donate to their weekly soup kitchen ministry.

Of course, the harvest is still small by most standards. We often bring in only a shoebox full of veggies – a harvest that pales in comparison to the one reaped by Celebration Lutheran Church in East Wenatchee, Washington, where I am visiting this weekend. They regularly cover several fellowship-hall sized tables with food (big orange pumpkins this Sunday!). And if I were to compare our crop to the big industrial farms that stock the Safeway grocery store, well… let’s just say the economists would tell us to give it up. But, as we well know, they’ve been wrong before. And so we press on, confident of what God can do with a few loaves and fishes – or a few green beans and sunflowers, for that matter.

As for me, I still have a lot to learn about gardening. On my first garden work day, I pointed at an ugly-looking plant that had pricked me and asked whether it was a weed.

“No,” a fellow garden steward told me. “That’s a wild rose.”

I stepped back to marvel at the mystery of God’s creation, and to marvel even more at the mystery that God can do such work through such clumsy, dirty hands as mine. Heaven’s gift, indeed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Everything I needed to know for Seminary…

Kwame Pitts is one of our newest bloggers--look for her photo and introduction, coming soon! But for is a first word from Kwame Pitts, Assistant to the Director of Advanced Studies & Registrar
“The Beauty of LOMC” Picture by R. Pitts copyright 2009 @ all rights reserved

Surrounded by darkness
Illuminated by your Light
My soul touched by your Voice
As the stars fall

Loneliness I felt
But cradled by your Creation
Welcomed through waves of green
As the stars fall

Awakening my spirit
Travelin’ through this journey
Surrounded by your Wonder
As the stars fall

Knowing how far I’ve come
And knowing where I will go
Confirmation that I am Home
Watching the stars fall.
Original by K.L.P.

As I was assisting a group of pastors out for a day of relaxation from the Northern Illinois Synod with a canoe trip on the Rock River, one of the pastors who is retired joined me as I tied a canoe down on the rack. He smiled and joked “Did you ever think that you’d be doing this? Hauling canoes and whatnot, like that would help you prepare for seminary?” I laughed and replied “Well, that’s true! Everything I need to know I learned…”

Sounds like a “What I did this summer” essay, right? Yet when we come to Seminary Sampler that is a question that is asked of us-what made us hear the call? What events caused us to make that decision and why LSTC?

One word I can equate with LSTC is community. Will you pick up on that during the Sampler? Perhaps yes and perhaps no. Yet dear readers, if nothing else through all of our cheerful ramblings through our blogs no matter where you are in the world, you will still be embraced by the community spirit that flows through every portion of our being and throughout these buildings. For it is in this community that encourages, enriches and excites us about answering that call-whether the open doors before us lead to becoming ordained, or modeling our professors and finally donning those beautiful hoods and colors of an advanced studies student. It also includes those charged with guiding, teaching and counseling all of us as well as those on the front lines, making sure this body of Christ runs smoothly. Every one of us is an important factor to the ministry and the mission of LSTC.

It is one part of that call that I have answered: being able to assist those students who are knee-deep in the trenches of the libraries working on research, fretting about exams and panicking about that all-important dissertation, along with supporting Dr. Esther Menn and the wonderful faculty with our Th.M and PhD students. It is truly a pleasure for me. Most students welcome a calming presence and I hope that my office will always be a warm place for them to lay their burdens, share in laughter and of course, have brownies. Often, graduate and doctoral students are tossed aside at other institutions because well, the administration perhaps feel that they are so mature they don’t need a human voice or one-on-one conversations. Yes, many of our faculty proudly wears the colors of LSTC in formal ceremonies and during graduations and this place nurtures future professors and leaders regardless of wherever their spiritual path leads them in this life!

It is a place that I too, am proud to be a part of and become a part of, for I too have listened to His voice and answered His call still even questioning it all the way. With His presence, love and mercy as well as the blessing of my Synod, I will proudly be able to count myself among those who call themselves, seminarians.

Regardless of where you are along your journey I pray that you think of LSTC as a home away from home, and that I am one of many that can show you, beloved through our eyes, the simple yet profound beauty of LSTC--what it means to us, and what it can be for you.

May God’s peace be upon you, until next time-

For more information or to check out a green space right here in the great state of Illinois, please visit

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Beginning a Year of Earth Bloggin'

As Pastor Joy mentioned previously, “Earth Year” has begun here at LSTC. “Earth Year” is a year in which the LSTC community will focus on greater theological engagement with ecological concerns. Throughout the year there will be many opportunities in our communal life to consider how we are being called to care for God’s creation and how the life of the seminary can further that mission. On the line, you can keep tabs on earth year with twitter (EarthYearLSTC) and a facebook group (Earth Year at LSTC). On the Seminarian’s Sojourn blog, we too will engage in this green year with some earthy blogging. Throughout the year we will wrestle and blog our way through ecological questions raised and insights gained.

Our terrestrial year kicked off this past Wednesday with a lecture introducing the theme from LSTC Professor of New Testament, David Rhoads. It was a powerful lecture. There were profound insights as Dr Rhoads articulated a theology of the earth, a theology grounded in our understanding of creation, justification, vocation, the cross, and the Holy Spirit. It was a lecture filled with beautiful imagery, in particular as Dr Rhoads described a vision of all of creation gathered around the table at the Eucharist. And it was a lecture filled with emotion. This topic is clearly a passion for Dr Rhoads, but the emotion in the room provided support to his assertion that “the signal issue has changed.” From the time of Luther and anthropocentric or human focused salvation, the signal issue in our current context has moved to a focus on the survival of humanity and creation. This issue and this year of green focus clearly resonates with our current context in the world. It was an inspirational lecture; those in attendance were filled with energy and excitement to begin this themed year. To borrow a phrase from my favorite college football coach, it seemed that everyone was “All In” with earth year. And to borrow an addictive theme song from one of the most memorable cartoons of my childhood, everyone was ready to sign up to be an official Planeteer.

As we walked out of the lecture, it seemed that we were of one mind and heart. And so it occurred to me,
what’s next? If in response to God’s call to care for creation we all shout “Amen!”, then what is the goal for earth year? What do we hope to get out of this themed year? What’s next?

For me, what’s next is some sort of green Lutheran ethic. For me, in this year I hope that our community will wrestle with how God is calling us to respond in action to God’s love of all of creation. If there’s anything that really bothers me about the environmental movement, it’s in this ethics department where we figure out exactly what to do. A popular green ethic seems to place most responsibility and power of ecological justice on the individual. It’s even at the end of the seemingly innocuous and catchy outro from Captain Planet above. It ends as Captain Planet tells us all, “The power is yours!!!”

Especially from a Lutheran perspective, when we speak of creation in a theological frame work this focus on th
e individual makes me a little leery. Because if the signal issue of our time is an understanding salvation not on just an anthropocentric level but in a way that embraces the salvation of all of creation; then I think the basic Lutheran insight still applies. It’s not me or I or we that have the power to bring about the salvation of creation, but Christ and the cross.

I can almost hear echoes of Captain Planet’s call of “The power is yours!” in the theology of our more evangelical brothers and sisters. If we are to reject this kind of semipelagianism in regards to anthropocentric salvation, then I think we must do so in regards to a salvation embracing all of creation.

I’m not trying to say that we are called to sit back and relax in our SUV’s while rockin’ CFC laden hairspray an
d let Christ and the cross take care of ecological justice and concern. Rather, I think our ethic must be connected to our theology. We must also beware of that great western heresy that locates all power in hands of the individual consumer, and tempts us to think that ecological justice comes when the individual consumer makes a single green choice. My undergraduate degree was earned in environmental engineering, and I spent several semesters co-oping as an environmental engineer. From this past life, I have retained enough knowledge of environmental science, to know that I don’t know enough. I must humbly confess that despite what Captain Planet says, I don’t have the power. I don’t have the knowledge or power or perhaps even the will to make choices to bring about ecological justice. But that doesn’t mean I’m not called to act and move for it.

Perhaps the most memorable part of Dr. Rhoads lecture for me was some of his remarks on community and salvation. He said that in the New Testament, “there is no salvation outside of community, and no community without creation.” I find these remarks instructive on how God is calling us to respond to God’s care of creation. It is a place where our theology can inform our ethic. I hope that this year at LSTC we are able to wrestle, as a community, with how we can respond to God’s call as a community. I find hope, that even as individuals without “the power,” perhaps as gathered together as a community listening to God’s call together we can find ways to respond together to help bring about ecological justice.

Again, this is not easy; especially for a community like LSTC. As we begin the year, we are reminded of how our community is diverse and dynamic. We are reminded that at least 2/3 of the folks on campus this year, weren’t here last year. We are reminded that a major part of our community is scattered across the world on internship. We are reminded that our community at LSTC is continually being reshaped and remolded. This diversity and dynamic nature certainly enriches our communal discernment of how God is calling us to ecological justice, but it also makes it more difficult. It is my hope and prayer that during this earth year our community engages in the difficult but necessary task of asking the hard questions and engaging in communal discernment of how to respond to God’s grace.

So, I guess my question for you other bloggers, commenters, and community members is, “What’s next in Earth Year for you?”


PS - I finally have a post that rivals Matt in word count.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Earth Year at LSTC

Students are back! We're almost through Orientation week and have welcomed many people back to campus. Yesterday, we heard an inspired Inaugural lecture from Dr. David Rhoads and celebrated Eucharist with thanksgiving for God present in Word and Sacrament and the whole web of creation.

Thanks be to God!
Pastor Joy

Friday, July 31, 2009

rainbow trail

Rainbow Trail
July 19th-25th
Brahm Semmler-Smith

The final camp we visited this summer was Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp, situated on the side of a mountain in aptly named Hillside, Colorado. Sarah and I both worked at Rainbow Trail five years ago, and this was our first time back since we left that summer. We were excited to be back in the mountains at camp, visiting a place that had made such a positive impact on us.

Adding to our excitement was that we happened to be on-site during a senior high week, with 115 or so high schoolers driving the energy of the week. These were all kids who wanted to be there, and had been coming to camp for many years. Rainbow Trail uses the village system, and each day of the week a village is invited to plan and coordinate the worships and activities. The counselors are there to support and encourage the campers as they do this planning. The campers and staff did an amazing job throughout the week planning and owning their week at camp. We shared communion under the mountain stars, got up at 5:30 for a sunrise service, hiked up the mountain, went rafting, and heard the staff witnesses of five of the staff in the morning, and messages from five congregational leaders in the evenings.

But what left me with the biggest impression of the week was the Bible Study theme: “Take it down the mountain.” How do we take the ‘mountain-top high’ of our faith lives at camp and live it out and experience faith back in our daily lives? For so many of these kids, camp is the ONLY place that they experience, wrestle with, and share their faiths. They come from so many different circumstances, some of which are extremely difficult, and they struggle to make their faith a part of their lives. For me, the Bible study focus at Rainbow Trail this summer emphasizes the importance of outdoor ministry in our church. Camp is a place to encourage and challenge ourselves and each other. Camp is a place in which we accept, love, and teach kids who need to be accepted, loved, and taught. Camp is a place of grace. And we hope and pray that they take what they experience at camp back down the mountain and live out their lives remembering the grace of God that surrounds them.

And this goes for the staff, too! During the staff meeting, I thanked the staff for the amazing week we had, but I also asked them what they felt this summer’s theme and Bible study was saying to them. How was God calling them? I invited and challenged the staff to take it down the mountains themselves, to find churches to be involved in and to be leaders in those churches. Maybe not as pastors (although quite a few were considering the possibility), but as leaders. There are kids and adults who are longing for people just like them to connect with at church, and God is calling them to be leaders in the Church.

At all four camps that Sarah and I visited this summer, we were struck by the number of young adults who showed such amazing leadership abilities at camp, while giving up their summer to do outdoor ministry. We thank God for such an amazing ministry of the ELCA, where faith lives are nurtured, and leaders are made.

mountain ministry

Friday, July 24, 2009

green lake bible camp

July 1, 2009

Green Lake Bible Camp, Spicer MN
Camp, Day 4
Sarah Semmler Smith

We’ve arrived at the ‘flow point’ of camp today. The kids know the songs, the Biblical theme verse, and are genuinely excited to be here. Friendships are forming. Flirtations and mini-dramas are unfolding between teenage campers. The counselors have hit their stride with each other and with the kids, having learned what makes them laugh and how to help them focus at the right times. The weather is sunny and breezy this week in MN and in the low 80’s – just cool enough to make swimming a brave versus essential activity. Its tie-dye day, and soon the camp will be an explosion of swirled rainbow colors.

I’ve been struck again, as I visit a Lutheran Bible camp after an absence of three years, at how much the campers truly love to sing and dance and spend time in worship. Two songs seem to be favorites for this week’s bunch; both have to do with dancing, interestingly. In the first song, there is a break-out/jam session in the middle of the verses where everyone yells, “Let’s dance!” and to the rhythm of the guitars, everybody breaks into their own free-spirited rendition or move. The giggles produced during that moment of the song are always contagious.

The second song, “Holy Time” really is a song that functions as invocation. The lyrics: “This is holy time, gathered together to worship you, to love one another. And as we pray, and as we sing, and as we dance and as we dream, Oh Lord I beg of you, just this one thing: Won’t you dance with me? Throughout the heavens and below the sea, up on the mountain top, flow with the breeze, come carry me. Oh Lord won’t you dance, with me?” This song captures so well the raw spirituality of children at this age; their longing for something real and of God; the vastness of their imagination; their incurable curiosity and ability to laugh and play in any moment. “Holy Time” seems to be a young persons prayer to be a part of the life of the Divine, a yearning for a life of faith that is hardwired to something profoundly close and accepting of them, and yet vast and powerful enough to take them on adventures to the worlds and beyond.

At camp, God dances with the counselors and children. At GLBC, you can see it during cabin meals, as counselors and their cabins chare a laugh over a rice crispy bar. You can see it in Bible study, where games and activities help make values a topic accessible and interesting to 7th grade boys; you can feel it in worship at the crackling of the fire as young eyes who peer into the orange flames listen to the strumming of the guitar and ask in that quiet moment, “Who am I, really? Who will I become? Where are you God in all this anyway?”

To the music, creativity, spirit of play, adventure, and dance at camp, I take off my hat, and Thank God for such a ministry in the ELCA.

Sarah Semmler Smith

at the shores of st andrews

Seminarians are again at Camp this summer!--
here are words from Brahm Semmler Smith:

I spent my week at Shores of St. Andrews, one of the sites of Green Lake Lutheran Ministries. Shores primarily hosts elementary aged kids, and this particular week there were 150 campers, although half were only at camp for a few days. We spent a lot of time playing, praying, worshiping, and eating; all the usually great things that happen at summer camp. Highlights included evening worship on the beach with the sunset out across the water, fun in the water swimming and kayaking, playing many games that involved chasing the kids, and many, many games of knockout/lightning on the basketball court. One of my favorite moments was walking next to two young girls, probably around 7 years old, who were holding hands as we were heading to an activity, and in our conversation they commented: “Do you know that we only met each other yesterday? And guess what, now we are BFFs. Isn’t that cool?” I don’t know if I was more floored of their quick bond or that they, at the age of 7, used the term BFF (Best Friend Forever).

The staff was a great group of individuals who cared for the kids, shared the Gospel, and were kind enough to welcome me into the fold of camp, allowing me to reminisce of my summer camp counseling days. I was able to sit in on Bible studies, play guitar at worship, and act in skits proclaiming the good news. I am very thankful for the week I was able to spend at Shores of St. Andrew, and was heartened and encouraged by the ministry that was taking place there. God is making a difference in the lives of the kids and staff of Shores, and I give thanks for this.

Brahm Semmler Smith

Friday, July 17, 2009

camp ewalu

This week Sarah and I spent our time at Camp Ewalu, in Northeast Iowa near the town of Strawberry Point. This was our first time at Ewalu, but we found ourselves able to plug into their program fairly easily. Ewalu is set up differently than any camp Sarah and I had worked at during our years on summer camp staffs. Firstly, Ewalu is situated on a 550 acre site, which means it spreads out – a lot. This space allows for the camp to have a very decentralized set-up. Different groups on camp can go much of the day without really seeing each other because worship, meals, and activities are done amongst the different programs rather than all together in a central location.

I spent much of my week bouncing around between two different groups, the Pioneers (going into 7th grade) and the Native Americans (6th grade). Sarah spent most of her time with the Trailblazers (5th grade) and Explorers (4th grade). We were able to worship, sit in on Bible Studies, play games, do chores on the farm, and do much hiking with these groups. We also got to go on a couple of fieldtrips, Sarah to an animal rescue and me to a state park on the Mississippi River.

These age groups can keep the staff busy and tired, but they did an excellent job with their energy this week in playing and worshiping God. While Ewalu may have had the most anxiety for us being that we knew nothing about it, we left feeling welcome and inspired by a staff committed to the mission of outdoor ministry and sharing God’s love with the children who came to camp this summer.

Brahm Semmler-Smith

Monday, July 06, 2009

Thinking about vocation through history

Walter Brueggemann once wrote that "we are heirs to revolutionary imaginations and songs." But sometimes we are heirs to actual revolutionaries, too, faith forebears whose contexts forced them to give their lives for their faith.

Last week, taking advantage of some summertime free time, I had the opportunity to visit two historical sites, one the home of a priest in the nineteenth century and the other the home of a priest in the twentieth century. Both visits have me thinking about vocation, and how vocation manifests itself, both then and now.

Miguel Hidalgo, 1753-1811

Miguel Hidalgo was born in 1753, in Guanajuato, Mexico, to a criollo family. In the absurdly complicated hierarchy of race and class in the Spanish colonies, criollos were those of European descent but who were born in the New World. Due to the location of their birth, criollos faced a legally institutionalized glass ceiling above which they could not rise.

Still, criollos were the equivalent of the upper middle class, and as such young Miguel was provided with an advanced education; eventually, he entered seminary and was ordained a priest when he was in his early twenties. From there he went on to teach at a prestigious school in Morelia, and before long became known as a hotshot young scholar, surely destined for great things.

During the decade he taught as a professor, however, he gained a reputation of one who was, to use the dreaded term, “unorthodox,” in his teaching as well as in his lifestyle. He earned the nickname el zorro, the fox (not to be confused with the masked “Zorro” of Mexican California). Father Hidalgo, in other words, attracted attention to himself, and in these days of the Inquisition, drawing attention to yourself could get you in trouble in short order. In 1804 he was transferred from his prestigious seminary post to a remote rural parish, presumably banished there as if it were Siberia, never, the powers that be hoped, to be heard from again. “But this reassignment,” as one of the museums I visited put it, “proved to be fateful.”

In his new rural parish in Dolores, Father Hidalgo’s life took a dramatic turn. Rather than treating his assignment as a punishment, he threw himself into the collective life of his parishioners, organizing a pottery cooperative, cultivating silk and planting vineyards. He learned several indigenous languages and reached out to the lowest social castes. In other words, the Mexico Semester Program might say, Father Hidalgo became a practicing liberation theologian more than a century before the term would be invented. (He also, it should be noted, faced the pitfalls of liberation theology, coming under criticism from contemporaries for neglecting his parishioners’ spiritual lives, as well as for his general “restlessness.”)

Within a few years of arriving in Dolores, Father Hidalgo met Ignacio Allende, a fellow criollo discontent (nearby San Miguel de Allende would be named for him). In 1808, when Napoleon destabilized the Spanish monarchy, Hidalgo, Allende, and several fellow conspirators began plotting their next move. A plan was formed to declare independence – and with it armed rebellion against Spanish rule – in the city of Queretaro in November 1810. In September, however, Hidalgo received word that the plot had been uncovered by the authorities, who were on their way to arrest the rebels. The conspirators fled to Dolores, where they hurriedly met in Hidalgo’s house to discuss their options. There was little time and few alternatives. By the early morning hours, a decision had been made.

At 5:30 in the morning on September 16, long before sunrise and the normal time for church, Hidalgo rang the bells of the parish, the Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Dolores, or the Parish of Our Lady of Pains, named for an image of Mary in which the mother of Jesus suffers at the sight of her son being crucified. Hidalgo’s cry for independence would become known as the Grito de Dolores, named for the town and its parish church but which, thanks to this coincidental background, literally translates as “the cry of pain.” From this parish named for the Virgin Mary, Hidalgo and his ragtag army went forth carrying a flag with, as a symbol of their American identity, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it. With a history like this, is it any wonder that I think of Mexico as the land of Maria?

Well. With a story like that, I knew I had to make a pilgrimage. Before dawn last Thursday morning I boarded a bus, and five hours later I finally roll in to the tiny but bustling town of Dolores Hidalgo, in the misty mountains of central Guanajuato.

I pull out my Lonely Planet guidebook and study its street map of Dolores. The central plaza is only a few blocks north of the bus station, so I start walking in what I hope is the right direction and I reach the plaza within a few minutes.

I head to the church first, and walk inside. It’s surprisingly beautiful, though poorly maintained. There is a Taxco-like churrigueresque façade and churrigueresque side altars, all impossibly detailed sculptures of stone, metal, and wood. I sit for a moment in the pews, then walk outside, pausing at the door to look out on the plaza, as I imagine Hidalgo did on that fateful morning. Next to the church entrance is an 8-foot-tall pillar with an electronic counter on it counting down the days to Mexico’s 2010 bicentennial. 447 days, 11 hours, 39 minutes, and 7 seconds… 6 seconds… 5 seconds…

From the parish church the rebels went to the town jail and freed all the prisoners, and so I, walking their path, walked the few short blocks to the prison, which is now the Museum of National Independence. Father Hidalgo, the museum tells me, was eventually captured and executed less than six months after crying the grito from the doors of his parish church. After being shot by a firing squad, his head was cut off and placed in a birdcage so that it could be hung in a prominent place in the city of Guanajuato as a symbol to would-be rebels. Hidalgo’s decomposing head hung there for ten long years while the war dragged on, but after the war was eventually sent to Mexico City where it was buried under the Monument to Independence.

And that was about all I needed to do in Dolores – and I needed to be getting home besides, what with my five-hour bus ride ahead of me – so I snapped a few more photos of the plaza and the church, grabbed a torta to go at a popular-looking restaurant, and bought a ticket for the first leg of my several-stage journey home.

Toribio Romo, 1900-1928

Santo Toribio Romo, for those who haven’t been to the interior of Mexico recently, is quite possibly the most popular saint in the country. To be fair, he does face stiff competition from San Judas Tadeo, whose image is everywhere in Mexico City. But the omnipresence of Toribio Romo’s black-and-white mug is powerful, and growing.

There are at least two obvious reasons for this popularity. One is that Santo Toribio Romo is becoming the unofficial patron saint of immigrants to the United States – especially those who cross the border on foot, without papers, under the natural threat of a deadly waterless desert and the man-made dangers of the Border Patrol, the Minutemen, and immense risk involved in choosing a responsible coyote. Is it any wonder that the God-fearing faithful, who have always cried out for divine intervention in their most dire moments, would find help from a spiritual source? For these vulnerable travelers, Santo Toribio often shows up as a guardian angel, helping the migrant through a tough spot before mysteriously disappearing into the darkness. We rationalists may scoff, but the stories – and the faith of the people – are growing.

The other reason for Santo Toribio Romo’s popularity, however, is that unlike San Judas Tadeo, Santo Toribio is certifiably Mexican. He was born on April 16, 1900, right here in the highlands of Jalisco, dirt poor. He grew up under the shadow of the Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos, and entered the seminary in San Juan when he was only 12 years old, to be ordained as a priest by the time he was 22. But of course, by now, thanks to my endless ramblings about it, you know that the 1920s were a dangerous time to be a priest in Mexico. As the government cracked down on religious practice, Toribio Romo rebelled – not with guns and knives, but instead by continuing to administer the sacraments to his people. On February 25, 1928, government troops finally caught up with him in the town of Tequila. He was shot to death in his bedroom. (He was my age, 28, when he died.)

Pope John Paul II canonized Toribio Romo as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church in 2000. Twenty-four other martyrs of the Cristero Rebellion were also canonized, but none of them have yet reached Santo Toribio’s popularity. Aiding his belovedness, Chris and I have surmised, is the arresting photograph of Santo Toribio that serves as his image. His eyes are almost sad, but fixed and firm, as if they are seeing his future and he is deciding in that moment that though it is not pleasant it is the path God has called him to, and he will not waver from it. Is it any wonder the saints are stand-ins for Jesus, stepping-stones to Christ?

Well. Enough background. On Tuesday last week I decided to visit this Mexican miracle-worker, to see Santo Toribio for myself. Santo Toribio’s shrine is in Santa Ana de Guadalupe, a tiny, tiny, tiny village outside of Jalostotitlan, a small town in northern Jalisco state. When my regional bus arrived in Jalos, it dropped me off at a street corner office that served as the Jalos bus station.

I walked over to the office and asked the man in an official-looking uniform how to get to Santa Ana de Guadalupe. He stared at me blankly and pointed at the corner where I had just gotten off the bus. Apparently this was the bus stop. As I was turning to go, another group of people who had been on the same bus – an friendly older gentleman and two women who seemed to be about the same age – came up and asked the official-looking person about Santo Toribio. I decide to follow these people.

When the little bus arrived, I and my (unsuspecting) traveling companions got on board and we all rattled our way out of town. We turn down a dirt road and pass under a stone arch that announces the place of Toribio Romo. There is nothing but dry grass and desert trees around this shrine; nothing is visible from here. The bus driver – who is extremely friendly – drops us off at a street corner, but I don’t see anything resembling a church. Not wanting to seem uncertain, I spot a weathered tourist sign and walk firmly toward it. It’s the right move – when I reach the sign, I immediately see the stone church around the corner.

It’s almost shockingly small. Later I discover that Padre Toribio built this church himself, organizing the people and resources to get a church built in his hometown. This explains the church’s size, but still: This is the land of massive parish churches and towering basilicas stuck in the middle of small rural cities, yet the shrine for one of Mexico’s most popular saints is a tiny stone sanctuary far outside of town.

As I walk through the church doors, a woman next to me drops to her knees, and then begins shuffling up to the altar. What is it with this shuffling up to the altar on your knees thing? People do it in San Juan, too, and I’m always bewildered by it. On the one hand, it’s beautiful piety, a powerful expression of devotion that even a Protestant can’t help but respect. On the other hand, what kind of God – or Virgin or saint – wants you to shuffle up to their throne on your knees? I understand it rationally – puny human before powerful deity – but this physical submissiveness doesn’t exactly make me feel full of love for the Lord.

On the other other hand, I continue to be amazed by the Mexican faithful’s use of physical acts in their religious practice. From the Christmastime posada parades to the outdoor theater of Good Friday, Mexican Catholicism gives you something to do and not just something to think. I’ve come all the way out to see Santo Toribio – now what? I can pray silently in my head, and I do, but as I watch the woman shuffle up to the altar I find myself wishing I had something physical and physically demanding I could do during my pilgrimage, to cap it off. I make a note to file this away for further reflection later.

Outside, in the “backyard” of the little church, I find a long walkway leading to another little church. This is the Calzada de los Maritires, or Walkway of the Martyrs. All along the little stone path there are cement busts and inscribed plaques to the other Cristero martyrs. Most of them are from Jalisco, but there are a few from Zacatecas, too, and at least one each in the northern border states of Durango and Chihuahua, and one, I am surprised to find, from the southern state of Guerrero.

In the middle of this walkway, there is a monument to Christ the King and the Virgin of Guadalupe, a visible rendering of the Cristero martyrs’ final cry: ¡Viva Cristo Rey y la Virgen de Guadalupe! Long live Christ the King and the Virgin of Guadalupe! The monument itself is a curious one. There is a black cross. On one side of the cross is Jesus, his arms up in the air and wearing the cloth of resurrection – this is “viva Christo Rey.” On the other side of the cross is the Virgin of Guadalupe, life size. They are positioned like two sides of the same coin – or two sides of the same cross. I have no idea what this means theologically, but it’s got to be worth a paper or two in a systematic theology class.

At the end of the walkway is another stone church, about the same size as the first one. Later Chris tells me this other church was built by Santo Toribio’s family after his death. Next to the church is a replica of Toribio Romo’s childhood home. It’s like one of those 18th or 19th century homes you can visit in certain national parks, complete with furnishings from the era. This one is about the size of the living room in our apartment in Lagos. Later Chris tells me that Toribio Romo’s parents raised five kids in this one-room log cabin. The point, she tells me, is that they were dirt poor. I try to take a photo of the house, but it’s difficult to capture without the fancy restaurant built just behind it.

On my visit I miss the retablo room, where visitors put thank-you notes, thank-you paintings, and random thank-you items like soccer jerseys on the walls as an offering of gratitude to Santo Toribio. Chris tells me that on her visit one retablo struck her especially: A family gave thanks to Santo Toribio Romo for helping them to finally find the body of their daughter who had died in her attempt to cross the border. For these parents, the miracle was that their daughter did not disappear in the desert like so many other sons and daughters who perish in the wilderness; against all odds, they found her body, they could bury her, they could have closure.

As I leave the place of Santo Toribio, I notice his photo over a doorframe on a nearby house. I gaze at it as I sit on the side of the country road, waiting for the little bus to come back and take me home.

Two Priests, Two Paths, One Faith

Toribio Romo and Miguel Hidalgo, for all their differences in character and context, were both priests, ordained ministers, each of whom had served his parishioners in a very particular way. Each found himself opposed to powerful forces, and each, in the service of his parishioners, led their parishioners in resistance to those forces, specifically those forces that they believed threatened their parishioners’ ability to live as God intended them to live. Am I oversimplifying? Of course – but bear with me for a moment.

Toribio Romo refused armed rebellion, but he did choose a path of resistance when he continued to administer the holy sacraments to his people in full violation of the law, an act of liturgy-as-resistance that brings to mind William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist. Miguel Hidalgo, on the other hand, rejected the brutal hierarchies of his day by forging cross-cultural, cross-class relationships and building up the community of his parish through cooperative economic life. And then, unlike Toribio, he chose the path of taking up arms, uttered the Cry of Pains, and unleashed a bloody war that quickly spiraled out of his control. That last part is easy to glorify as history but hard to justify as principle; if I were writing the story as an ideal I think I'd prefer a peaceful resistance akin to MLK or Ghandi’s spiritually-sourced people’s movements.

Still, I’m holding my pilgrimages to the places of Toribio Romo and Miguel Hidalgo in my head and in my heart this week, two examples of priestly vocation lived out in the Americas in the last two centuries. They are worth remembering, I think, as I continue to ponder the vocation of ordained ministry in the Americas in the twenty-first century, and as I prepare to take my adventures back across the border.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Visit with Christ the King

Writer's note: In the fall I was part of the first-ever Mexico Semester, a study abroad program that any LSTC student is invited to take part in. While I've completed that program, during the spring my wife and I have continued exploring Mexico while she researches for her dissertation on religious devotion and I prepare for internship. The following is one of our many adventures.

On Sunday we decided to take a day trip to the mountains of neighboring Guanajuato state. Our goal was to reach El Cubilete del Cristo Rey – the "tumbling" hill of Christ the King, where there is a towering statue of Jesus on top of a mountain that is said to be in the exact geographic center of Mexico. Mountain? Towering statue? Jesus? That sounds like an adventure to me…

We awoke just before dawn. Chris made tortas – crusty-bread sandwiches with Mexican fillings (we like beans, avocado, tomato, and chipotle) - for a midday picnic, and we headed out to catch a third-class bus to neighboring León (about an hour, see previous blog post), crossing the state line into Guanajuato in the process. From León we needed to take another third-class bus to the smaller city of Silao (another hour), and then, from the bus station in Silao, we boarded what looked like a small school bus that would take us up the long and winding – and rocky – road to… well, to Jesus.

Along the way we gazed out the windows at some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes we’ve yet seen here, making the ride itself as much of an experience as… well, as Jesus. Mainly this was because we left the highways that we usually ride on the bus for much, much smaller roads. The photos I took (see the photo album) are, I think, some of the most “Mexican” I’ve taken so far, in the sense that they fill the American stereotype of what rural Mexico looks like. Stereotype or not, I love what these photos were able to capture.

Cubilete de Cristo Rey

Dry semi-deserts patched with small green trees and smaller brown shrubs. Rolling fields of tequila-producing blue agave plants. A horse tied up under a tree. A woman walking along the side of the road with a child in her arms. The towers of a European-looking church placed seemingly in the middle of nowhere. A little burro – yes, a burrito – poking his head around for something to eat as the bus rolls by. And – though I took no pictures of them – there were beggars, mostly women and children, the children dirty and mostly in old torn clothing, sometimes alone, looking lost.

And the bus rolled on, on and on and on, going up the edges of the mountain on a road paved with rocks that made the whole bus bounce continuously, even as it whipped around hairpin turns that left you peering over the edge of a valley that seemed to withdraw farther and farther away. As the bus drew near to the summit - as we ascended to Jesus - food stands started cropping up along the side of the road. No McDonald’s here, only family fondas, outdoor diners set up like long tables around which people gathered to eat home-cooked, home-stewed, home-grilled food, served in brown clay pots and heavy gray molcajetes.

Finally we approached the monument itself, and the bus stopped to let everyone off. An older gentleman tapped us on the shoulder and told us not to follow everyone else because it was quicker up the back staircase. He was right. And then there he – He? – was, Jesus himself, standing tall on the top of the mountain.

Chris had visited this monument before, on her last trip to Mexico in 2006. When she shared her adventures with her academic adviser, a Catholic himself (and also working on research this year in nearby San Luis Potosi), he remembered his own visit here and recalled he found this particular monument to Christ the King “kind of Stalinist.” I suppose that assessment had me prepared for just about anything.

The heavy metal Jesus has his arms out at his sides, palms mostly down, as if he is attempting to calm a stormy world. Two cherubic angels stand at his sides, one on his left holding up a royal crown, the other on his right holding up a crown of thorns. Jesus himself stands on a spherical structure that looks something like a globe. Underneath the concrete globe is a small sanctuary, of which the most striking thing is a massive bronze crown of thorns that, just above our heads, rings the ceiling of the entire circular sanctuary. Also above our heads, some ways above this crown of thorns, is a more traditionally royal crown, smaller in size.

We left the sanctuary and wandered over to the information panels on the edge of the monument platform. They told the story of how and when the monument was built, as well as a little history on the Christian concept of Christ the King.

The festival of Christ the King, which takes place every year in late November – even in Lutheran churches – was made part of the church calendar by papal encyclical in 1925, notably not during but between the great wars. A decade later, this region of Mexico – northern Jalisco, southern Zacatecas, and here in western Guanajuato – put the concept into very concrete practice.

When the government began a brutal repression of Roman Catholicism in the 1930s, a number of priests and laypeople resisted. Some priests continued to offer the sacraments and were executed, later to be named martyrs of the church. And while priests and bishops officially refused to support a violent rebellion, many laypeople did take up arms. When they were killed, they were said to have cried a very curious rebel yell: ¡Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!

How quickly the world turns: Only ten years after what became known as the Cristero War, this massive monument to Christ the King was built, without government interference, in the heart of rebel territory, in a place that martyrs called home, in the very center of Mexico, a powerful symbol of what these Cristeros stood for.

But of course, the Cristero War, like any war, was hardly black-and-white. One of Chris’ host families from a previous visit continues to have a tenuous relationship with the Church because the family patriarch was beaten and robbed by raiding bands of Cristero rebels. Some historians continue to claim that the Cristiada was fomented by wealthy landowners who saw their power threatened by a newly socialist government; they, like so many others, used the power of religion to protect their possessions and keep out any threats to the status quo.

None of this means that there weren’t everyday Catholics who desperately sought out the sacraments from outlaw priests; none of it nullifies Padre Toribio Romo’s faithful dedication to his vocation, even in the face of state violence and repression. But this is the messy nature of giving Christ the man-made title of “king.” It inevitably ends in a knotty tangle of the secular and the sacred, of monarchism and monotheism. The golden crown may hide the blood better than a thorny one, but there is always blood, always, always.

Well. I suppose I should save any more meditations on Christ the King for November, or it will threaten to take over this entire blog post like Napoleon on a European rampage. And, anyway, you can only look at the monument to Cristo Rey for so long before your gaze is pulled away, in our case by the earthly landscape that lay all around us – and by the clouds that were now at eye level.

At this altitude your breath gets shorter; there’s not quite as much oxygen as down below. But the view takes your breath away anyway. We looked out over the bajio – the famous fertile lowlands of this region of Mexico – and to the dusty mountains that border it. Just a little lower on this particular mountain, a soccer match was taking place on a dirt pitch in the place where the mountain had been flattened out a bit. It reminded me of the ruins of an ancient Aztec ball court in the mountains of Xochicalco, near Cuernavaca. Outdoor team sports have been in Mexico for a long, long time…

We stopped in a little convenience store inside the monument to buy some cold Cokes for our picnic lunch – is Christ the king even over Coca-Cola? ...sometimes it’s hard to tell – and stuffed ourselves on bean-and-avocado sandwiches. We sat peacefully at the mountain’s summit for a little while longer, and then it was time to go. Leaving Jesus on his mountain, we boarded the yellow school bus and made our winding way back down to the ground, another adventure come to an end.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Omnivore's Reading Choices

“…and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself…” Mark 4:27

I finally finished Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, after about a month of listening to it on audiotape. Chris and I are both reading (listening to) it, as we’d heard so much about its contents from various sources, but this surely marks the first time that I have finished a book faster than my book-devouring spouse. It’s true, this might be due to her trying to complete a massive dissertation research-gathering project right now, but I’m taking a victory any way I can get it. (Commence classic Queen song… now.)

Anyway, the book’s title refers to the dilemma posed by the ancient and still daily question, “What should we eat for dinner?” Pollan divides the options into four broad categories, each of which he sees as typical of the process that led to it: First, a trip to the McDonald’s drive-thru, the end of the industrial food chain; second, a trip to Whole Foods, the a symbol of the organic-yet-still-industrial food chain; third, a trip to Polyface Farm, a place hewing hardcore to the values of an organic-and-intensely-local food chain; and fourth, an adventure hunting and gathering for food in the wild. Along the way Pollan uses his first question, “What should we eat for dinner?” to get at a much deeper question, namely “What kind of people are we?” – or maybe even more elementally, “Who are we?”

It’s a tall order for a single book, and as with most similarly ambitious projects The Omnivore’s Dilemma is full of absolutely fascinating reporting, rollickingly fun stories, and lots of question-raising – as well as, yes, a few sections where the implied argument is a little thin. But it’s well worth your reading time – and I’d especially put “your” in the plural here, as it is capable of spawning all sorts of discussions around what you and yours eat. It’s certainly sparked conversation at our little two-person dinner table.

As the book came to an end I was struck by a surprise move in Pollan’s story of his “fourth” meal. Not a religious man in any explicit way elsewhere in the book, Pollan suddenly feels moved by an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the food he is about to serve his dinner guests. His time hunting and gathering has somehow left him with a profound sense that the food he has acquired is not of his own making.

Oh, he spent plenty of time doing “work,” to be sure, trudging through the forest, on his hands and knees looking for mushrooms and even learning to shoot a gun in order to hunt for the first time, but somehow what he gained during his time spent outdoors was an deep sense of his own reliance on the work of the natural world for his sustenance and survival. Whatever chemical compounds our science provides us with – and it provides us with a lot – it is all but secondary work. “We eat by the grace of nature,” Pollan concludes, “not industry.”

What a thing to read during a week when the appointed Gospel reading has Jesus painting a picture of that very “grace of nature.” “The kingdom of God,” Jesus says,” is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow – he does not know how. The earth,” Jesus tells us, “produces of itself.” The “grace of nature,” indeed.

Yet as Jesus tells the parable, the small and scattered seeds do not simply grow for the sake of growing. They do not grow in order to compete, they do not strangle each other, they do not drown each other out to see who will be the tallest. True, the mustard seed, smallest of all seeds – and a weed at that – does grow to be, Jesus tells us, the “greatest of all shrubs,” but in Jesus’ parable, to be “the greatest” is not merely the end of some great natural game. Rather, even the mustard seed’s champion flourishing is in the service of something else.

What is that something else? I believe Jesus gave us two stories here for a reason. Each seed produces some different result, carries the chemical blueprint to infuse its plant with some specific qualities. Some shoot straight up in the air like grain stalks, some spread out all around like shrubs, some are brown, some green, some in orderly rows, some in a messy sprawl.

But the two plants – the precious grain and the pesky mustard seed – do have something in common. Both serve the rest of creation. They do not exist for their individual selves. They do not even exist only for their own kind. No, these seeds are grace-grown to be servants for the other creatures. In the parables Jesus tells us here, the seed-plants’ fruits end up serving creation at a very, very basic level: Food, and shelter.

Food: The first seed begins scattered but then grows up, step-by-deliberate-step – “first the stalk, then the grain, then the full grain in the head” – into a harvest to be gathered by someone who carries a sickle – in other words, it passes its work off, relay-style, to someone who knows what she is doing and will probably soon send that grain on to become bread that ultimately finds its way to someone who is hungry. The first seed, though it began scattered, ends up feeding the hungry.

Shelter: The second seed grows up into a mustard shrub, a garden pest, one we would at first glance be most likely to see as useless, and yet, somehow, infused with the grace of God’s kingdom, explodes beyond maybe even its own imagination and ends up as something more akin to the great and noble cedar tree Ezekiel prophesies in our Old Testament reading. And then, like his mountaintop forebear, the mustard shrub offers his inexplicably large branches to the birds of the air, that they might make nests in its shade. The second seed, though it began smallest of all, ends up sheltering the homeless.

So who are we, after all? The answer to that question must, as we have seen, begin with grace. “We eat by the grace of nature,” says Michael Pollan, and we know that this natural truth is but one reflection of the deeper truth about grace, that it saves us from death (and a deathly life) from day to day and from age to age. Saved at the seed, we grow up and out into the purpose for which we, as we remembered only two weeks ago on Pentecost, are sent, by the grace of God.

It is true: To live by grace, to grow by grace, is to be sent by grace. Like the grace-grown plant life in today’s parables, we, too, are grown for a purpose. We are sent, whether we, like the grain stalks, feed the hungry in our world, or whether we, like the absurd mustard shrub-turned-cedar tree, shelter the shelter-less in our neighborhood. There are many tasks to be done in the work God calls us to – but God sends many seeds to do them. May we sprout and grow as God’s seeds. Gracias a Dios.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Progressive Pentecost

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2:4

A rush of wind and suddenly you’re fluent? If only learning a new language were always this easy.

I’ve spent the last three years trying to learn Spanish. Back in 2006, when I first realized we would spend a year in Latin America, I started listening to audiotapes like a man on a mission. Thirty hours of repetition later, I knew quite a few phrases and I had started to get a sense for verbs in the present tense. But when I tried to watch TV shows in Spanish – a dubbed version of The Simpsons, for example – I still needed English-language subtitles to understand exactly why Homer was running for Springfield sanitation commissioner.

For the next two years I set Spanish on the shelf in order to learn the more, um, “useful” languages of Greek and Hebrew, but by 2008 there was nothing for it: It was time to take the plunge into full Spanish immersion.

First a three-week “Spanish Language for Ministry” program in Cuernavaca, where I learned the very, very basics by day and lived in a Mexican home by night. The first week of the program was wonderful, full of the adrenaline rush of new things, but by the second week I was frustrated at the slow progress I was making. I wasn’t learning as much as I’d wanted to as fast as I’d wanted to. Yet I got over many fears during those three weeks, and had some of my first great triumphs of using Spanish out in the real world.

Over the next several months I spent every weekend with a Mexican family. I tried sharing what we’d learned in Bible study with my very patient host mom, who was no doubt used to dealing with foreigners whose language skills were feeble at best. I talked Mexican soccer with my host dad, describing as well as I could how much I was enjoying attending soccer matches at the massive Mexico City stadiums. I had countless awkward conversations with their teenage kids, who had as little an idea of what to say to us as we did to them. And I watched hours of Spanish-dubbed Disney Channel TV shows with their youngest son, whose boundless energy brought a smile to everyone’s face. Yet in nearly every interaction I was painfully aware of my inability to speak in any tense other than the present. I cringed whenever I translated the tenses I was saying into English, imagining how awful I must sound. I knew I could do better with a good textbook and some well-organized teaching.

So in January and February I took six more weeks of Spanish language courses in a certified Spanish language school. We breezed through one textbook, supplementing its verb charts with computer-based exercises and in-class conversations. I gave oral presentations on current events and debated the merits of Guadalajara soccer teams with my teacher. I made lots of progress over these winter months, improving my ability to read, write, and speak the language of my new home country at a level and a pace that I’d always hoped for. And then, just as we were passing the halfway point of our second textbook, it was time to move again, out of the city – and far from any language school.

Over the next three months in the rural ranchlands of Jalisco I felt the well-structured grammar I’d learned in class slowly slip away, withering without the constant tending of daily homework and weekly exams. No doubt this feeling of hard-earned learning slipping through my fingers like sand contributed to the frustrated restlessness I couldn’t seem to shake off during the long, dry month of April.

And yet, as it so often happens, even while I was staring at the skies looking for answers, God was hard at work on the earth below. By May there were a handful of people around Lagos de Moreno who knew us by name and who seemed to relish the opportunity to speak with a couple of gringos from out of town. And somehow, over three months here, my ability to speak with them flourished.

“¿Que hay?” the barista at our favorite coffee shop says every time I walk in, using one of the Mexican equivalents of “What’s up?” He always seems to be expecting me – which makes sense, since I go there nearly every day. During the Mexican soccer season, Chris asked him where we could go in Lagos to watch a Chivas game. He recommended La Cura, a seafood bar where the most die-hard Chivas fanaticos gathered every Saturday night to watch their beloved Rebaño. Watching the Chivas-America Superclasico match there, shrimp-spiked michelada in hand, is a memory I’ll cherish nearly as much as the Superclasico we watched live at Estadio Azteca.

Across town, nearer to our apartment, is the Super-Fruteria El Gordo Salazar Jr. (phew!), the Lagos equivalent of Hyde Park Produce back home. The manager of the super-fruteria, a young guy with a big smile, has been super-friendly to us since the first time Chris stopped in for groceries. At first, I used to wait outside with our backpacks while Chris shopped, and the friendly fruteriero would ask Chris why I was afraid to come inside. When I finally did begin going inside the store – nearly every day – he grinned. “¿No tienes miedo?” You’re not afraid? No, I said, I’m not afraid, shaking my head with an embarrassed smile.

Now the fear, real or imagined, is a distant memory. On Wednesday he noticed my Chicago Fire jersey and asked me if I liked “el fut” (i.e. soccer). Of course, I answered. “Then are you going to watch the game today, Barcelona and Manchester United? Barcelona is my team. How about you?” Eeesh. I don’t really know, I told him, I only really watch Mexican and MLS soccer, not so much the European leagues… “Ah, but these teams are the best in the world! You have to watch. It’s on at 2:00 today. At 2:00!” So I did. And the next day, when he asked me if I watched the match, I could respond affirmatively. And congratulate him on his team’s victory.

Then there’s the owner of a local pizza place, where we always watch Mexican National Team matches. Like the barista, he, too, has a brother in the States he hasn’t seen in years.

And there’s the lady who runs the corner convenience store across the street. She always apologizes about the dust on the jugs of drinking water we buy, as if there were some way to avoid dust in this time before the rains.

There’s the man who runs a tailor shop next door to our apartment gate. Chris always says hello to him, but I continue to hold a silent grudge ever since he scolded Adam and I for playing soccer in the driveway.

There’s even my barber, who remembered me – with surprising joy – when I went in for a second haircut a few weeks ago. He hopes I’ll come back one more time before I leave.

And then, of course, there’s Luis. Yesterday he came by ostensibly to practice his English, but over the next three hours (!) we conversed in our usual English-Spanish hybrid – mostly Spanish, but trying English words whenever Spanish words didn’t seem to be hitting their mark. My conversations with Luis can be wide-ranging; at one point I explained that the lead singer of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Luis’s favorite band, is actually from California even though he writes all his songs about the Louisiana bayou. “Ah,” Luis says, nodding, “It would be like if you, from Chicago, were to write all of your songs about Lagos de Moreno!” Exactly. ☺

But yesterday Luis said something that surprised me. “Your Spanish,” he said,” has become much better.” Nah, I said, waving away what I took to be an empty compliment. “No,” he insisted, “When you first arrived you had so much fear, you’d hardly spoke at all. Now you’re speaking a lot, and getting better and better…” And it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, he might be right.

I’m a long way from being fluent, I really am. As one who’s loved grammar since he was in eighth grade (thanks, Mrs. Smith), it still pains me not to have proper verb conjugation at the tip of my tongue. My vocabulary is in the stratosphere compared to where it was a year ago and I’m even getting pretty good at understanding and pronunciation, but I still have interactions, like the unfortunate and, truth be told, rather terrifying interaction I had with an immigration official in the Guadalajara airport.

And yet, and yet. Little by little, step by step, paso a paso, I am beginning to speak in another language. As the Spirit, mysterious as she is, moving around like the wind, at her own pace, in her own unpredictable directions, is giving me ability. She has taken her sweet time, but she is filling me up, fanning my Pentecostal fire.

This slow-cooked version of speaking another language, filled as it is with imperfections, fits and false starts, and continued learning over a long period of time, is very different from how we often think of the Spirit’s work. It’s certainly different from the way we read the second chapter of Acts. WHOOOSH! a rush of wind and then BAM! you can suddenly speak another language – fluently and without missteps, we presume. If only it were that easy.

In the run-up to our Mexico trip I tried everything to get into Spanish-language ministry experiences. But always I faced the same roadblock. “Are you fluent? No? Well, then you're outta luck.” And so I was rejected from multilingual ministry because I wasn’t starting with fluency. And I thought, if this is our model, then our church will never be a multicultural church.

I’m not complaining about those rejections today, though there was a time when I did. Sometimes, I’ve come to understand, those decisions were, given the individual situation, for the best. And, as for me, I like my life the way it turned out better than the hypothetical way I’d planned it in my head. But I learned something from those come-fluent-or-go-home roadblocks, something that leads me to challenge the attitude that permits only the fluent to go forward.

In a sermon my first year at LSTC, my advisor, Dr. Richard Perry, urged the student body to take some uncomfortable first steps in learning a new language. He acknowledged that we’d probably feel pretty awkward at first, and tried himself to use a few Spanish words while we all laughed. But that was the point. Perfection – fluency – wasn’t where we started. A step was where we started. A word, two words, a phrase. Enough to make that first connection with someone else, someone you thought was so different you’d never bridge that gap. But you do, with those first awkward steps.

And then there will be a few more steps. And a few more after that. And eventually, the Spirit will fill you up. She will give you ability. Sometimes she takes her time, avoiding shortcuts and taking the long way round. But she will get you there. She will.

Eventually. Gracias a Dios.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cielos Nublados

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Acts 1:9

Clouds. There are more of them here in north-central Mexico now, more of them then there were before. Vienen las lluvias – the rains are coming, announce the hardware stores. Showers of actual rain are still rare, but the cielos nublados, cloudy skies, with their nubes gordos, fat clouds, are harbingers of the falling water to come.

Here in the neighborhood of La Luz, people are so desperate for clouds that they make their own. In an annual celebration of their patron virgen, Santa Maria de La Luz, laypeople at the domed, medieval-looking church at the bottom of the hill are sending off powerful explosive CRACKs that bounce off the mountains and hillsides of town, setting off car alarms and leaving behind, high in the air, a puff of cloudy smoke that quickly dissipates in the wind.

Clouds have long been a source of human fascination. We stare up at them, imagining what familiar objects they might look like. Sometimes we even look up to the clouds and find God. My new Green Letter Bible lists more references to Clouds than to such stereotypically Biblical nature objects as Deserts, Seeds, and Vineyards. Even Rain has fewer references than its mother, the Cloud. First God creates clouds, covering the planet with them in Genesis, and then by Exodus the Lord is using clouds to speak to Moses, to fill the temple, to lead the people by day. God uses clouds so much that when Job asks, “Can anyone understand the clouds?” it’s clear the poor man is just asking, in another way, Can anyone understand God?

Of course, the clouds are not God; rather, they simply become one of God’s primary traveling cloaks, a traveling tool God uses whenever God decides it’s time for a formal visit. The writer of Psalm 104 sees this pattern and calls the clouds God’s Winnebago: “You make the clouds your chariot.” “The Lord is riding on a swift cloud,” Isaiah says, continuing the transportation theme. For all the fun with winged wheels, though, the point, for both Isaiah and the Psalmist, is that the clouds are a sign that God is coming – or that God is already here.

Which is why it comes as a bit of a shock when the clouds come, in our Ascension Day readings, to take Jesus away. The disciples stand openmouthed, dumbfounded. It wasn’t that they didn’t expect clouds to be involved. Clouds always seemed to be showing up at important moments. Matthew records a voice coming out of a cloud at Jesus’ baptism, Mark writes of a cloud overshadowing the Transfiguration, and Luke tells us of Jesus’ proclamation that in the last days people will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and glory.” But that a cloud would come to take Jesus away? Away? Whatever can this mean?

When the clouds come, they bring a change. Here in Jalisco, the weather is cooler now with the clouds hovering over us; there is relief from the unrelenting heat of the sun but new cause to throw on a jacket. Soon there will be more cracks in the sky, accompanied by their fiery bolts of light, and the waters will come. Farmers will rejoice. And the season will change.

I walk up to the roof to see about the need for that jacket. The clouds are increasing, rolling heavily through an overcast sky. Vienen las llluvias, the hardware store announces. It won’t be long now.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Internship is Walking Through a Large Colon

As internship assignment time approaches for Middlers, I thought a brief reflection on internship might be appropriate. And based on my experience, internship is like walking through a large, inflatable colon.

And I don't mean that metaphorically. On internship, I walked through a large, inflatable colon. When I arrived at church this morning, a large, pink, inflatable, walk through colon greeted me in the parking lot. My internship site parish, regularly hosts health seminars sponsored by the University of Tennessee Hospitals. Today's seminar just so happens to be on colon health, and so the inflatable colon made its trip to Messiah.

These seminars are a huge hit in the community. On seminar days our parking lot is filled, as hundreds of members of the local community show up for the seminar and their chance to walk through the colon. It is probably the most attended event offered here at Messiah. Many of the people who come to the health seminars are not members of the church. These seminars are one of the ways in which our church is open to and connected to the community and world. And I think the popularity of these seminars illustrates the need for the church to be in tune with the larger communities and its concerns and needs.

I must admit that demographics of the seminar attendees is on the older side. However, that did not stop our Children's Center kids from getting in on the fun. Enjoy the pictures and remember that sometimes the church is called to walk through large, inflatable colons.

God's Peace,

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lenten Meditation: 3rd Sunday in Lent

John 2:13-22

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’


Immediately when I read “money changers” I had that picture of Bernie Madoff with his grin that you see in the papers. I had the images of the corporate executives who got major bonuses after receiving government bailout. The state of Illinois knows something about corrupt money changers...

This corrupt money-changing perpetuates poverty and injustice. The corrupt actions of a few can have extremely negative effects on the livelihood of the rest, and in a globalized world, even more so.

Jesus spills the coins of corruption and turns the tables that crush the poor and oppressed. In times of economic crisis and with record job losses and the lines growing outside of places (like the Living Room Café) that provide warm meals and job support...Jesus’ table turning is good news.

The tables that need turning are not limited to Wall Street and corrupt politicians, however. We’ve all got tables that need turning. We've all got things that get in the way...fears, insecurities, prejudices, excuses, pride, indifference, greed...
Lent is not only a time of giving things up, it’s a time to be honest about the tables in our lives that need turning.

Prayer: Oh Lord, turn the tables that crush the poor, turn the table that perpetuate injustice. If it gets in the way, turn it. Our pride, our greed, our indifference...May it all turn. May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Guide us in our Lenten journey of table turning and empower us to be table turners, too. Amen.
Josh Ebener, MDiv Senior

Senior Class Gift

For All the Saints: Fair Trade Paraments Celebrate International
Kirsten Fryer, MDiv Senior

When you walk into LSTC’s Augustana Chapel, you may notice that the window above the entrance is etched with a map of the world. At the bottom of the window, you see the words “For All the Saints.” This is a reminder that LSTC is indeed an international community. Our graduates serve as pastors, professors, and lay ministers all over the world. The intention of the folks who designed Augustana Chapel was that the paraments used in worship reflect that international mark of the LSTC community.

Currently, we have two sets of paraments that honor our international community. The scarlet set is made from Raj textile from India. It was purchased in 2003 and the paraments were used at the dedication of Augustana Chapel. Augustana’s blue set is made from Ewe cloth from Ghana.

After much discussion, the senior class has decided that we would like to add to this collection by giving a set of green paraments as our class gift. Our intention is to purchase fairly-traded cloth from artisans in Mexico, and with that cloth, make a chasuble, two stoles, and an altar frontal. We are currently corresponding with Marcario and Elena Pocop, a couple originally from Guatemala who fled to Mexico during the Guatemalan civil war in the early 1980s. Marcario and Elena are members of an artisans co-op in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

One of the reasons we chose to purchase cloth from Mexico is that the Youth in Mission students see the green paraments during their worship in Augustana chapel while they are in Chicago. We thought that it would be meaningful to make a connection for the entire LSTC community to our brothers and sisters in Mexico. Both the Youth in Mission students and LSTC students who participate in the ELCA Seminary’s Transformational Immersion program during J-term will have the opportunity to meet the artisans at CCIDD in Cuernavaca.

You can support the senior gift by attending the progressive dinner on March 20th, bidding on silent auction items this week, or writing a check to LSTC (include “senior class gift 2009” on the memo line and let Lynne Morrow know you donated by emailing her at

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

International Students' Cultural Night

Last Friday international students at LSTC had a night of celebrating cultures, arts, dances and poetry from around the world. The night consisted of African-American Singing, a Turkish Movie, Hungarian Music, an Indian Song, Japanese Kabuki, a Chinese Poem, an Indian Dance, a Burmese Cultural Dance, various dress styles from Jerusalem, Ramallah and a display of various internatioanl greetings. Afterwards we enjoyed delicious food from all over the world.

Open Mic Night

Last Thursday we had an Open Mic Night where members of the seminary community showcased their talent (or lack there of). We had songs, dance, poetry, etc (see pictures). Each performer had a coin jar with their name on it, and we gave prizes to the top three performers with the most money in their jars.

We are raising money for our Senior Class Gift. Every year the senior class at LSTC leaves the school a gift. This year our gift will be fair trade paraments from Mexico that will go to the chapel. We will have a series of events and opportunities for people to contribute to the gift.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Lenten Meditations

During the season of Lent, LSTC students, faculty and staff will be writing Lenten Meditations on the weekly lectionary texts.
You can read these meditations here:

'The Transfiguration of Our Lord' or' Casimir Pulaski Day'

So, about a week ago I preached on the Transfiguration at my internship sites in Knoxville, Tennessee. I ended up preaching on the Elisha/Elijah text. This text describes the journey of Elisha alongside of Elijah, during Elijah's last days on earth, before he is swept up into the heavens by a whirlwind.

As I prepared to preach, I was drawn to Sufjan Steven's song, 'Casimir Pulaski Day.' The songs tells the story of someone's journey alongside of a girlfriend's last days with cancer. Here's the song on Austin City Limits:

[Pretty sweet winged outfits, right? Does anyone know if Augsburg produces a similar product?]

The back and forth exchange of dialogue between Elijah and Elisha ('Stay here' - 'I will not leave you') even seems to be mirrored as Sufjan sings:

"Oh the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you."

But one verse towards the end of the song I find particularly powerful:

"Oh the glory that the Lord has made
and the complications when I see his face
in the morning, in the window."

It seems to me that in the narrator's Elisha-like journey, he experiences the fullness of God's presence. On one hand, he proclaims the glory of the Lord throughout the song. In particular, Sufjan's song seems to point to the sustaining presence and love of God in the places of death and disease. On the other hand, the narrator has difficulty with the discipleship for which this good news calls. And in the end the narrator comes away with a "complicated" understanding of God.

In this song, I find a moving experience with the Lutheran theological dialectic, law and gospel. I normally am really attracted to this paradoxical theological insight. But what makes this song so powerful, is its description of a lived experience with this sometimes abstract theological idea. It reflects our struggle on the day of the Transfiguration as we search for the words to describe our experience with the fullness of God.


ps - it was also a challenge to preach a sermon that prominently featured the words: elijah, elisha, and sufjan.