Friday, March 28, 2014

Recovering Christian Mysticism through Interfaith Conversation

What follows is a reflection I wrote following my conversation with Dennis Hunter, a Buddhist writer I met last year in New York City. You can check out Dennis's writing here. This writing derives from an assignment I recently completed for a "Scriptures of the World" course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I'm more and more thinking about how all sorts of powerful spiritual/ mystical practices have been neglected by the Lutheran theological tradition, and how important it is to recover such practices. Interfaith conversation with our Buddhist sisters and brothers, it seems, can help greatly in this regard. What are your thoughts? I'd love to receive some feedback and thanks for reading!

I met Dennis Hunter, a Vajrayana Buddhist writer, roughly a year ago on a Sunday afternoon while on internship in New York City. Dennis and I struck up a conversation regarding his own Buddhist practice and the similarity of various forms of Christian mysticism, particularly the work of Thomas Merton. A year later while in New York for the annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, I got in touch with Dennis about engaging in further dialogue around his use of scripture and how this informs his daily practice. While we were not able to meet in person, we were able have a roughly forty minute phone conversation. Coming from my own past experiences as a nominal Buddhist in college and my growing interest in Christian mysticism, I thought Dennis brought up some profound points that will greatly influence how I engage both Christian and non-Christian scriptures as I minister in our increasingly pluralistic, globalized age.

We began our conversation speaking about the basics of Buddhist scripture, highlighting how sacred texts have continued to multiply across the centuries since adding to the canon (if one could even use this term in Buddhism) is much less problematic than in Christianity. Different schools of Buddhism also hold different collections of texts as sacred. The Theravada school focuses primarily on the tripitaka texts, which are considered the Buddha’s earliest teachings, while Mahayana states the Buddha went through multiple stages of teachings and thus considers additional texts canonical, including the well-known Diamond Sutra and Heart Sutra. Finally, Vajrayana (the school Dennis most closely ascribes to) sees the Buddha as having “turned the world of dharma three times” through his teachings and thus ascribes to additional texts that speak of the inherent “Buddha nature” of all beings that lies beneath the many layers of dharma that obscure reality. In this way, a central notion of Buddha nature is that you only need to become what you already are. While this large library of texts, along with secondary and tertiary commentary, is considered sacred and literally placed on the altars of many Buddhist temples, at least in Vajrayana a practitioner’s direct relationship with the scripture often takes a secondary place to her or his personal relationship with a guru.

We also dove into some fascinating conversation around the ethics/ moral implications of our respective scriptural teachings, which Dennis also supplemented later on by sending me a blog post he wrote on the subject. In his view, Buddhist ethics can be boiled down to three basic tenets: refraining from causing harm (to self or others), practicing virtue (doing good or creating benefit) and taming/ training the mind completely. Dennis also stressed that the ethical teachings of his scriptures are not the commandments of a sovereign, creator God but are rather common-sense principles that can be tested in everyday life. Actions cannot be classified in a simple right/wrong dichotomy in the Buddhist ethical system, but are rather shaped by an individual’s intentions and circumstances. These three basic tenets are further refined through various Buddhist interpretations of the Eightfold Noble Path, Ten Virtuous/ Non-Virtuous Actions and (especially for lay individuals) the Five Precepts: refraining from killing, refraining from stealing, refraining from sexual misconduct, refraining from wrong speech and refraining from abuse of intoxicants.

Conversation with Dennis concerning the ethical implications of Buddhist scriptural teachings in my mind convicts Christianity’s traditional use of the Bible to construct its moral systems, and perhaps clarifies where we are moving as a Church in the future. Although certainly not universal in Christian teaching (both Luther’s Small Catechism and Large Catechism work somewhat differently, for instance), in general practice the Bible’s ethical teachings are understood as simply commanded by God and therefore are to be unquestionably followed. The theological principle that “through faith Christ frees us from the law” allows Christians not only to get around some of God’s more difficult commandments (very few Christians are walking around without eyes and teeth) but also leads most Christians to utterly abandon those difficult texts as sources of revelation. Furthermore, when those in power have decided that certain commandments should be followed in a way that oppresses others, the results have been devastating: a historical refusal to ordain women and condonation slavery, as well as the ongoing condemnation of sexual minorities.

As a Christian I still believe that the Bible’s ethical teachings have been inspired by a sovereign, creator God. At the same time, I firmly hold to the notion that Biblical ethics should still play out as common sense principals that can be tested in everyday life and contribute to human liberation, a practice that from my perspective would be considered subjecting Biblical morality to the love of Christ. While my own faith community, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has improved a great deal in recent years on its understanding of Biblical ethics, perhaps we could consider something that is still controversial as an example: sexual relations before marriage. Interpreted through the love of Christ, throughout most of human history the Bible’s prohibition of sex before marriage could be taken at face value. In a time without modern contraceptives and without two now identified life stages (adolescence and young adulthood), this teaching works partially as a women’s rights issue, as having a society filled young, single mothers without familial support does not make common sense, nor contribute to human liberation. In our contemporary world, insisting two young adults in a loving, long-term monogamous relationship who can barely find jobs should either spend their meager resources on two rent checks (in an attempt to avoid sexual temptation) or rush into a marriage they simply cannot afford, does not make common sense nor contribute to human liberation. Rather, interpreted through the love of Christ in this specific case, Biblical ethics regarding human sexuality would rather indicate focusing on the sacredness of human sexuality and its power to distract one from relationship with God and to harm other people if abused, whether or not the couple decided to live together.

The second half of our conversation focused almost exclusively on the role scriptures have played in religious syncretism. Dennis explained how whenever Buddhism has entered a new culture throughout its long history, a new school of Buddhism and a corresponding new set of canonical texts has eventually formed. As primary examples, the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools formed as the Buddhism expanded into new parts of Asia and incorporated some aspects of Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, and other local belief systems/ cultural characteristics. Now that Buddhism has to a great extent permeated Western thinking, there is conversation within Buddhism around what might next take shape. Indeed, as Dennis greatly emphasized, never before in the history of the world have things moved so fast and never have folks been exposed to such diverse ideas at once. While many argue Western Buddhism will primarily incorporate aspects of psychotherapy and modern science, Dennis tends to focus on how various aspects of Christianity might be incorporated as well.

In particular, there is a wealth of Christian mystical literature (some accepted by orthodoxy and some deemed “heretical”) that while largely unknown to most Western Christians (and especially Protestants), may provide great insight and revelation. Dennis once again briefly cited the writing of the 20th century Roman Catholic mystic Thomas Merton, but also spoke of an older text I had never heard of before, an anonymous work from the fourteenth century called the Cloud of Unknowing. I brought up how I was in the midst of studying the Philokalia, a collection of writings by Eastern Church mystics still read by many Orthodox believers. Dennis also discussed his interest in early Gnostic Christian writings largely excluded from the canonical Bible. In his view, many of these texts were likely deemed too empowering and thus dangerous by the Christian fathers, because if one could achieve salvation on their own, why would you still need the Church? We concluded our conversation by discussing how both the Buddha and Jesus intended for us to achieve salvation, and that the mystic tradition of both faiths may provide a strong foundation for future interfaith exploration.


My conversation with Dennis will greatly influence how I engage both Christian and non-Christian scriptures as I minister in our increasingly pluralistic, globalized age. In learning about his use and interpretation of the moral teachings in Buddhist scriptures, I was able to reconsider and better characterize my own use and interpretation of Biblical ethics. Our discussion around mysticism was also extremely helpful. Coming from my own Lutheran theological tradition, I will always be grounded in both the canonical Bible texts and the central tenets of Lutheran theology, especially “justification by faith” and “theology of the cross.” It in fact proceeds from our theology of the cross that we must humbly recognize all human creations, including religious systems, as imperfect. Such humility calls us to engage both the scriptures and believers of other faiths, both as part of our calling to love our neighbor but also in order to learn more about ourselves. Such humility also calls us to explore those Christian texts historically deemed “heretical,” for much the same reasons. Finally, such humility calls us (especially as Protestants) to carefully rediscover the rich mystical traditions of our faith that the Reformation sought largely to suppress. While I cannot help but hold to the core tenets of my Lutheran tradition, I can also recognize that other faiths and their respective scriptures may help answer questions my tradition simply does not focus upon. Such exploration and conversation can lead to both a more spiritually rich life and closer relationship between myself, the folks in my Christian congregations, and our neighbors of many faiths.

God's peace,
Dustin

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Advocacy, the MDGs and the Power of Stories

What follows is a cross-post of a piece I wrote earlier today for Ecumenical Women at the United Nations, an organization for which I serve as Communications Coordinator. Throughout the next two weeks we'll be sharing stories and other reflections from our organization's many delegates to the 58th Commission on the Status of Women which opened today at UN Headquarters in New York City. To hear powerful stories from our many delegates form around the world, please check out Ecumenical Women's website here.

This past Saturday at Ecumenical Women's Orientation Day for the United Nations 58th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), I was honored to give two brief workshops about advocacy, the Millennium Development Goals, and the power of sharing stories. We had extremely powerful conversations in both workshops that opened up a bunch of new insights for me about how the sharing of stories relates to Christian witness and working to end gender inequalities. Most importantly, folks got to share how they had used stories in their own local contexts to organize against gender injustice and accompany other girls and women in processes of liberation. Hopefully we all picked up a few new ideas and were able to share something from our own stories as well. As the crazy, awesome energy that is CSW swarms around me, I figured it'd take a quick break and briefly outline what we talked about. Thanks for reading, and I'd love to hear any feedback you might have.

We began by talking about the power and use of stories in the Christian tradition... how Jesus used stories and how we organize our Christian community around the story that is Christ death and hope-bringing resurrection over the worst of human sin. The group then got into discussion around one of Jesus' stories, a parable not regularly heard in many of our congregations called "The Parable of the Growing Seed:
He also said, ‘The kingdom of God 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 produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come" (Mark 4: 26 - 29).
Many participants offered interpretations about how this parable related to their advocacy work... some talked about the frustration of spreading seeds and not seeing how they grow into justice. Others talked about the joy when they do succeed in their work. One woman contributed a great interpretation, that she was not the person scattering seed but rather a seed itself. God was helping her grow and change into her calling as she engaged in advocacy work. We next watched part of the following film from Participate, an organization that is bringing the perspective of the world's most marginalized people into the debate about what will follow the Millennium Development Goals in 2015:



While Participate is primarily a secular organization, it's amazing about how their approach reflects the best of the Christian liberation theology tradition, which believes that Christ chooses to especially locate Himself in the lives of those who are most marginalized in the world, whether it be by poverty or other forms of oppression. The lives of oppressed people then serve as sources of revelation, and thus, prove the main source of liberation from whatever or whoever may oppress them. With this in mind, folks and organizations like the Church cannot simply swoop in and "make things better" in a patriarchal manner, but rather should simply accompaniment those living under oppression in their walk toward liberation, using whatever privilege they may have to amplify those voices who are not currently being listened to by decision makers. Furthermore, the global Church is likely the organization that in practical terms has the most direct contact with those living under oppression, including girls and women. The Church (and we as Christians) are therefore called to accompany oppressed individuals in are local communities as they seek to free themselves. After we discussed this concept, I highlighted two platforms through which the United Nations is providing an avenue for increased participation in evaluating the Millennium Development Goals, the World We Want 2015 platform and the MYWorld global survey of priorities for global development.

Whether it pertains to the MDGs or otherwise, amplifying the voices of those living under oppression is important in any community organizing or advocacy effort, whether on a local or global scale. Thus, we spent the second half of the workshop discussing how we had used stories in our local contexts. We heard about the power of stories in combat human trafficking. We heard about the power of stories in helping women reclaiming their lives after being victims of domestic violence. We heard about the power of stories in helping women discern how to interpret privilege and oppression. We heard about the power of stories in helping women gain access to education and sexual/ reproductive health services. At once point, one participant stated that "silence kills" when trying to overcome various forms of oppression. I couldn't agree more, and I feel extremely grateful for being able to hear the stories of all who participated. What an amazing experience, and I look forward to hearing and sharing more stories throughout the week.

God's peace,
Dustin

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. Recently approved for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Wailing at the Western Wall

What follows is a final piece I wrote on my recent ELCA Peace Not Walls leadership training trip to Jordan, Palestine and Israel. The intention of our trip was to prepare for leading future groups of young adults to the Holy Land while also working for a just end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. I've debated for quite a while about whether or not to post this piece, as it's a bit personal and difficult, but in the end I decided that it may be helpful in illustrating the difficult emotions and ambiguities that come with experiencing the Israeli occupation of Palestine first hand. I'd love to hear what you think, and thanks for reading.


Journal Entry | January 15, 2014

I'm now sitting near the Western Wall in Old City Jerusalem and just burst into tears. Let me explain. This place exhibits a profound sense of the sacred... contrary to what I've heard about the Western Wall in the past, most of the folks here don't seem to be mourning the destruction of the Second Temple at all but in fact are celebrating... it's really loud and joyful... Bar Mitzvahs are taking place all around me. The exuberant, celebratory sacredness of this place stands in stark contrast but feels equally sacred to the quiet, profound experience we just had in the Dome of the Rock and the solemness of al-Aqsa Mosque atop the Haram al-Sharif/ Temple Mount. Both the Jewish and Muslim holy sites similarly contrast with the equally sacred manic swarm of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher we visited a few days ago, where its easy to bump into someone penitently praying and kissing a sacred slab of stone only to turn around mess up some tourist's photo, all the while coughing yet strangely also appreciating the massive amount of incense.

All these holy sites prove equally sacred, all in their own unique way that's characteristic of their respective faiths. Yet, I can't help but crying. I can't help but crying because no matter how hard I try to sit and take in this sacred experience, the image of that case of spent bullets in the al-Aqsa Mosque, kept in memorial from when Ariel Sharon entered the Haram al-Sharif and set off the Second Intifada, is still burning in my mind. I can't help but crying because no matter how much my theological training might characterize it differently, I can't help but feel angry at God for passively letting Her children fight, betray and simply ignore one another over this place rather than joyfully sharing the unique sacredness I've experienced at all three faiths' holy sites this week. I feel angry at God for letting many of Her Christian children in America either ignore or actively work against the efforts of their Palestinian Christian sisters and brothers. I feel angry at God for letting some of Her Jewish children mix a rabid form of 19th century nationalism with their faith in a way that leads to the horrific oppression of Palestinians. I feel angry at God for letting a small radical minority of her Muslim children maim and kill in the name of their Creator while also providing a pretext for letting the occupation continue. Could God have revealed Herself in slightly different ways that would not have led to such a tragedy? I'm not sure, but I'm pretty pissed off anyway. And so I cry. I cry and angrily pray and write because I don't know what else to do. Damn glad I wore my sunglasses.

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. Recently approved for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sermon: How "An Eye for An Eye, A Tooth for a Tooth" is Gospel

Hey friends!

So I just got done preaching in midday chapel at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia where I'm in my last semester. What follows is a rough manuscript of my sermon, which was on Leviticus 24: 10-23Matthew 7: 1-12. I'd love to hear what you think.


So this past Tuesday I wasn’t in the best of spirits… I was stricken with cabin fever after being pretty much constantly snowed in over the last weeks, I had a bad cold, a bit of a sore throat and to top it all off, I was absolutely terrified about what this week’s assignment process might hold in store for me. After debating whether to go to class that evening, I did what any logical sick person would do and decided the best course of action would be to get in my car, head to CVS, get a fresh supply of cough syrup, get some ice-cream for dinner and then tough it out, heading to class with a soothed throat, full belly and cheered spirits. I hadn’t driven my car in a few days and thus knew it would be pretty snowed in, but the proud rugged New Englander in me figured I could dig myself out with no problem. After about twenty minutes of shoveling and chopping what turned out to be mostly ice and not snow I thought I was all set. I smugly got behind the wheel, turned the key, put my car in reverse and didn’t move an inch. Keeping my cool of course… I’m a proud, rugged New Englander after all, I got out, chopped at the ice a bit more, threw a piece of cardboard I had in my trunk under one of my front tires, got back in my car, turned the key, put the car in reverse, and once again, didn’t move an inch. After repeating this a third and fourth time, I started to get angry, was no longer thinking, and did exactly what I knew you’re not supposed to do in these situations… I gunned the engine, simply dug myself deeper into the ice.

Exasperated, I gunned the engine again, and then a third time, all the while digging myself even further into the ice, feeling more and more angrily self righteous that I could get myself out of this situation, even to the point that when a neighbor eventually came out to help me, I initially refused. She continued to press me, and eventually I conceded to let her give me a push and put some branches from her old Christmas tree under my car tires for increased traction. Around this same time, another woman came out of the train station across the street, got in her four-wheel drive truck that was parked next to mine, and only to immediately get stuck in the ice as well. Now I got really pissed off… if this woman couldn’t get out with four wheel drive, what hope did I have? And well… I absolutely gave up. I figured forget getting my ice-cream dinner, and going to class… I’m just going to go home, lay sick in bed, and wait a couple days for the darn ice to melt. And knowing my luck this week, I started figuring I’d be assigned somewhere deep in that scary part of the country frequently called the Midwest.

So I gave up, I stormed home, barely thanking the woman who tried to help me and not even thinking to help the other woman get her truck out of the ice. I gave up and went home cold, exhausted and defeated. Yet, after getting in the door and walking up the stairs, I felt an utter surge of hope. I felt a surge of hope because none other than my amazing housemate Doug Hjelmstad was home. Now, I think all of us recognize that if there is anyone on this campus that could help get a car out of the ice, it would be that rock solid, harder than the granite of the White Mountains, rugged New Hampshirite himself, Doug Hjelmstad. So, I asked Doug for help, and of course he quickly went downstairs, quietly puts on his coat, got a pry-bar out of his toolbox and headed out to my car. I followed him, grabbing a dead potted plant on the way thinking the dirt in it might be somehow of use, and we got back to work. Except, while Doug was hacking away at the ice under my tires, I felt pretty useless and kind of embarrassed so I decided to help the woman in the truck who was also still sitting there, spinning her wheels, stuck in the ice. By now one of her friend’s had come to help too.

No matter how much we tried to push the truck or put dirt under the tires, this woman still couldn’t get out of the ice. But right as we were about to give up, Doug took a break from hacking away and comes over, turns some sort of knob on each of the woman’s front tires, the four-wheel drive engages and only a few seconds later, she was freed from the ice. I immediately made a joke about how Doug and I are seminarians and that we’ve been blessed, etc. The woman and her friend actually get kind of excited they’re hanging out with almost clergy, were sort of almost having this mini worship service in the middle of the street but then they insist to try at least try one more time to get my car out of the ice too. So now, probably two hours after I originally intended, I get behind the wheel, turn the key, put the car in reverse, and with Doug, the woman with the truck, and her friend pushing, I slowly backed my way out of the ice. I backed my way out of the ice, put the car in drive, and immediately felt joy. I immediately felt joy.

So, why do I tell this fairly long story? I tell it not to simply to talk about myself, although it may seem it since I’m so long winded. I tell it not to simply proclaim my main homie Doug Hjelmstad is a modern day ice messiah, although let’s admit it, he’s not far off. Most importantly, and this may surprise you…. I don’t tell this story to necessarily proclaim some sort of ethics for humankind… I’m not simply trying to illustrate how this “do unto others as you would have done unto you” business Jesus proclaims to us today in the gospel, which is given a pretty way to go about things, played out in some cute story about getting out of the ice. Rather, I tell this story to show how both Jesus’ reference to the Golden Rule and even the more difficult principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” in today’s Leviticus reading, aren’t just meant to be law, they’re not just meant to be rules God provides us to regulate human relationships on Earth or to scare us toward embracing the gospel. Sometimes, much like the difficult situation I had with my car a couple days ago, the Golden Rule and “an eye for an eye” work like gospel too. They’re gospel, because they remind us quite simply that our lives aren’t just about us in the end. They remind us, as MLK put it, that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” If you look in the Talmud, “an eye for an eye” is rarely interpreted literally, its rather taken as a limit on how much someone could be punished for a proven transgression. If we ask ourselves what an extremely difficult part of today’s Leviticus texts might tell us about God, we realize even the stoning of that dude is meant to indicate how God, the people of Israel and even foreigners are amazingly interconnected. Nor was Jesus coming up with anything really new when he proclaimed the Golden Rule… it’s sort of in Leviticus 19, and only a generation before Jesus, the great Jewish sage Hillel pretty much said the same thing in summing up the Torah, as have the great sages of most other religions, many centuries older than Christianity.

When my car pulled off that ice and I was freed to drive away, I felt joy, but I didn’t feel joy simply because I could now go get my cough syrup and ice-cream dinner. In the midst of a week that felt like it was all about me, worrying over everything I’ve and said wrote in recent months to hopefully stay in the Northeast, bumming about me getting all sick, I felt joy in being humbly reminded that I couldn’t do it on my own, no matter how much I spun my wheels, no matter how hard I tried. I felt joy. And I believe that our texts today and situations like I had on Tuesday can be gospel, not just law… my experience was a humble reminder that it wasn’t all about me, that my life was inescapably linked with God and neighbor, and in some sense then, that I could let go, falling into God’s loving arms of grace. And whether God meets us in bread and wine, the waters of baptism, words like the Golden Rule or even "an eye for an eye" proclaimed or in the face of neighbors known and unknown simply giving us a push, my sisters and brothers it is profoundly good news that your life is not all about you either. For it is through these means, including sometimes seemingly insignificant occurrences, that our gaze is drawn outward to what is truly important, freeing us from ourselves and turning us toward the amazing work of God in Christ. Amen.

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Meeting Bishop Younan and the Gospel of Meaning in Old City Jerusalem

I wrote the following as part of my ELCA Peace Not Walls leadership training trip to Jordan, Palestine and Israel after visiting with Bishop Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land at Lutheran at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Old City, Jerusalem. The intention of our trip was to prepare for leading future groups of young adults to the Holy Land while also working for a just end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. You can find the writings of my fellow pilgrims on our trip blog here. This is somewhat a continuation of another recent post I wrote about Christian pilgrimage, which you can find here. Please provide feedback if you're able! - Dustin

Just got done meeting with Bishop Younan and it was a fantastic experience... He talked about how between now and April is a key moment in the Palestine/ Israel peace process because whether or not Secretary of State Kerry succeeds in negotiating a two-state solution is going to have far reaching consequences. Bishop Younan also talked a bunch about the idea of accompaniment, that instead of the old missionary we should have a relationship of mutuality, where we share and learn from each other. He specifically said in fact, "accompaniment is the strength of the modern church."

Given how much I've learned from our meeting today, from the other ELCJHL folks we've met with (both clergy and young adults), and other groups here as well, Bishop Younan's statement couldn't be more accurate. The strength of the ELCJHL's young adult program for instance is amazing... if young Lutheran adults throughout the West Bank can be brought together regularly for regional conversations despite a myriad of checkpoints, barriers and other difficulties, perhaps there's a model there we in the ELCA could learn from.

Most importantly though was something Bishop Younan said about pilgrimage and what pilgrimage can mean to those folks who come from a secular context (like my own up in New England). Speaking specifically about groups who come from Scandinavian countries and other secular areas, he said "many people in the Lutheran world are seeking pilgrimage and to find God. People are asking why they are living." This statement really pulled on my heart strings. Throughout seminary as I've learned about how the gospel, the good news of God's work in Jesus is supposed to free troubled consciences, redeem one's soul, and stuff like that, such a message has never really hit home. I frankly don't think about my soul very much at all. I remember when I was a kid seeing scary History Channel shows about the end of the world in the year 2000, I was worried about my soul, but I don't think I've thought much about it since. I pretty much just assume my soul will be rejoined with God in some sort of heaven and I'll be fine.


I think most of my clergy or almost-clergy friends feel the same way I do, because I very rarely hear much about souls being redeemed in most Lutheran sermons. I do hear though a lot about how God loves me, no matter what... it seems like we've either unconsciously or semi-consciously arrived at the idea that God's universal love is the gospel, the good news of what God does in Jesus. Now this is an idea that does help me out, sometimes, but not often. And when I talk to folks my age, most of whom aren't religious at all and have a lot of problems with the Church, and tell them that God loves them no matter what, they generally kind of like the idea that I don't think God hates them for living with their significant others or voting for Democrats, but it still doesn't mean much.

What Bishop Younan said about existential meaning, about people asking why they are living, that really got me thinking about how I experience the gospel. When I'm told God forgives my soul, it doesn't mean much. When I'm told God loves me, that means a little something to me, but isn't news that would wake me up on a Sunday morning. There's definitely folks that such ways of framing the gospel mean a lot for, and I'm not saying we should entirely drop such language. But the idea that God is calling us, propelling us into a life of meaning in relationship with Her and Her creation? Hell yeah, that's really good news! The idea that God gives me something to do, the idea that I'm not a random assortment of atoms with little purpose, that's a truly liberating word for me, that's gospel. I also think that's the sort of gospel all folks are looking for, especially us millennials, it's the sort of gospel you definitely experience on pilgrimage to Palestine, and it's definitely the sort of gospel I intend to preach moving into the future.

God's peace,
Dustin

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Balance" and the Israeli Occupation of Palestine

I wrote the following as part of my ELCA Peace Not Walls leadership training trip to Jordan and the Holy Land after coming back from occupied Hebron and the South Hebron hills a few days ago. The intention of the trip is to prepare for leading future groups of young adults to the Holy Land while working for a just end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. You can find the writings of my fellow pilgrims on our trip blog here. I hope you enjoy the post, and please provide feedback if you're able! - Dustin

Whenever I engage folks back home in the states in discussion about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the word 'balance' always seems to come into the conversation. "The conflict is complicated," folks say, "we're not experts so we should be balanced in our approach." Today as I experienced the abandoned central streets and massive military presence in Hebron that Israeli settlers have termed 'liberation," today as I heard the story of Palestinian villagers in the South Hebron hills having their bread oven, their main source food being destroyed by settlers again and again despite multiple Supreme Court rulings to the contrary, today as I heard a former IDF soldier breaking the silence about how military strategy is regularly break into random homes and detain Palestinians for up to 90 days without giving them access to a lawyer in order to "make their presence felt," I can't but cry out in anguish about what "balance" could possibly look like in such a dire situation.

Can one achieve balance in the collection of information, engaging all sides and narratives in assessing a situation? Yes, absolutely. A balanced assessment is the only way to credibly engage in advocacy. Yet at some point, balance becomes at best a hindrance and at worst an excuse for inaction. In the face of such a starkly clear situation of overwhelming oppression of the Palestinian people, to be "balanced" in one's prophetic proclamation and to neglect radical non-violent action simply proves unethical. I am not Pro-Palestinian. I am not pro-Israeli. But as a person of faith, as a Christian, I am pro-peace, I am pro-justice and I am pro-recognizing the face of Christ in all those crushed by overwhelming oppression. Perhaps there is a type of balance in that. But to be balanced or moderate in proclaiming that God's heart is breaking under this brutal occupation as my heart breaks as well? No, that is not possible.

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Reclaiming True Christian Pilgrimage

1555460_10102301006601174_1573624060_nI wrote the following as part of my ELCA Peace Not Walls leadership training trip to Jordan and the Holy Land while sitting atop the Mount of Beatitudes earlier this morning (with a couple slight modifications taking in experiences from later in the day). The intention of the trip is to prepare for leading future groups of young adults to the Holy Land while working for a just end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. You can find the writings of my fellow pilgrims on our trip blog here. I hope you enjoy the post, and please provide feedback if you're able! - Dustin

Sitting atop a devotional site called the Mount of the Beatitudes and seeing the sun shining on the Sea of Galilee, I'm a feeling a bit challenged... I've been thinking a lot over the course of my trip about how true Christian pilgrimage should strengthen relationships with God and people rather than necessarily visit specific holy sites, but now I'm beginning to think it's both. I certainly lament that most Christian pilgrims visit the Holy Land without ever learning from Palestinians living under the brutally apartheid-like system of Israeli occupation, don't get me wrong... our Palestinian Christian guide recently mentioned that we were the first group in his 4+ years of giving tours who were interested in hearing the Palestinian side of the story. Yet, walking amongst the gardens of the Mount of Beatitudes and hearing the Scriptures read and discussed in so many languages, it's obvious these "holy sites" are not just dead stones for some people.

The Israeli separation wall in the background.
Rather, people really are living out lives of faith by visiting these sacred places. Perhaps what really matters then is what one does with a faith renewed on pilgrimage, what that faith moves one to do and who that faith moves one to be in relationship with. Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land can still mean visiting the "holy sites," but it still must also mean accompanying our Palestinian sisters and brothers.

If we're to change minds back home and around the world in the hope of moving toward a just resolution of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, we need to be in relationship with Palestinians... God tends to make liberation happen within an oppressed people themselves, not through outside forces, no matter how altruistic. Our job as American Christian pilgrims is simply to learn the stories of Palestinians, raise those stories up and through those stories let God do the amazing work of liberating hearts and minds. Onto the Tabgha, the devotional site of Christ multiplying the loaves and fishes.
God's peace,
Dustin

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Acts 17: 16 - 34 or: How I Learned to Stop Whining and Love Christmastime

What follows will form the basis for the first of a four-part Advent adult forum series on the ongoing secular vs. religious "Battle Over Christmas" in American culture. The main premise is that hopeful desire and longing is at the heart of both the Christian liturgical season of Advent and secular Christmastime, and thus that there are more pastoral and useful ways to proclaim the Gospel to folks than zealously critiquing secular Christmastime culture. This adult forum series is the final assignment for an ethics course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia entitled Christian Discipleship in a Consumer Society. If some congregation actually makes the huge mistake of actually calling me to be a pastor next year (heheh), I'll probably do an adult forum series that's something like this, so I'd love to hear your thoughts.

So here's the deal... I was planning on going in an entirely different direction for this adult forum series until this past Friday. I was sitting in Georgia, enjoying leftovers from Thanksgiving, trying hard not to check my email while on vacation and watching college football when I opened up Facebook and was immediately flooded by blogposts, comments and the like critiquing Black Friday and arguing that we should put Christ back in Christmas. There was even an official Black Friday Death Count that was particularly ominous. Most of what I read though, at least from my Christian sisters and brothers, tended to go in one of two directions. Folks on the more liturgically theologically/ politically conservative side of the spectrum tended to be lamenting the fact that in American culture Christmas is joyfully celebrated throughout the month of December thus resulting in the hopeful, prayerful liturgical season of Advent being ignored. Other issues from these folks included nativity scenes not being allowed on public town greens and the like. Folks on the more liturgically/ theologically/ politically liberal side of the spectrum primarily were attacking the radical consumerism that has become a part of secular Christmastime tradition. Christian criticism of consumerism seemed particularly pointed this year, probably because of Black Friday sales increasingly eating up Thanksgiving itself.

Most of the posts I read made some good points, some more than others, but the one I found most insightful was "On Black Friday" by Micah J. Murray at Redemption Records. A main premise of the post is that its all too easy to zealously tell folks what to do rather than listen to their own perspectives. Check out the perspective of one of the commenters on Micah's blogpost, for instance:
This is a very generous and thoughtful post.
My family is lovely, but we grew up really poor. Money has always been scarce, and as you say, it's easy to be a minimalist when you have no money. And sure, making homemade bread, putting in a garden, and raising goats and chickens sounds idyllic, but becomes less fun and more urgent when your skills determine how you will eat.
Black Friday is an important time for my parents to be able to buy Christmas gifts, but also it's when my mother buys basics like jeans and winter coats for the family. The things she can't make herself she tends to buy at thrift stores or rummage sales, but Black Friday allows my siblings to have new things. It's a small but significant joy.
I love my family and can't imagine a better place in which to grow up, and when people get preachy about what other people should do, it's unkind and offensive. Many families barely get by, and we shouldn't forget or belittle them. ~ Holly Houston
So then, as all Christians, not just pastors, are called to spread the Gospel, especially to folks who haven't heard it, the question simply becomes how should we respond to God's call during our secular, overly consumeristic American Christmastime without sounding like overly zealous, whiny jerks? I really dig the Bible, and find it tends to be a great starting place for resolving these sort of problems. One of my favorite passages, Acts 17:16-34, provides a great deal of insight here:
16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there. 18Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. 
22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we too are his offspring.”  
29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ 
32When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ 33At that point Paul left them. 34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them. (NRSV)
Christianity, when it is at it's best at least, tends proclaim the good news of God's act of liberating love in Christ through a culturally relevant means, just like Saint Paul did in Athens by referring to "the altar to an unknown god." Our American culture is no longer a predominately Christian culture, and thus sharing the good news through the same old nativity scenes, Advent calendars and critiques of consumerism is like trying to talk about the Gospel in a foreign language. So, while it doesn't mean we'll be able to reach everybody (even Paul couldn't do that), if we can point to and embrace how Christ is already at work in our American secular Christmastime culture rather than zealously critiquing it, we'd probably do a whole lot better at fulfilling our Christian calling to spread the Gospel.

So, how is Christ at work in American secular Christmastime culture? The central theme of the Christian season of Advent and the true central theme of secular Christmastime is one and the same: creating space for the hopeful longing for the fulfillment of legitimate human desires. Think Christmastime and Santa and reindeers and toys is all about consuming material goods? Think again. In recent decades at least, most branding and advertisements for consumer products or commodities have veered toward emotional branding. It's not about selling the product on its material merits, but rather on the emotions or experiences that having a given product will bring. Just check out this famous Christmastime Folger's Coffee commercial as one example:



Everybody loves Peter! That great nineties hair, epic cable-knit sweater... huge fashion whoa! And everybody in the family is so happy that Peter is home for Christmas! While the commercial somewhat indicates Folger's Coffee smells good, the commercial isn't really about the coffee at all... it's about a longing for family, for togetherness, for lasting memories with loved ones, all legitimate human desires. And buying Folger's Coffee somehow will magically result in the fulfillment of all these desires.

If you still need further evidence that secular Christmastime is about hoping and longing for the fulfillment of legitimate human desires, check out these two famous and (primarily) secular Christmas songs:

David Bowie and Bing Crosby: "Peace on Earth/ Little Drummer Boy" (lyrics here)


The Peanuts: "Christmastime is Here" (lyrics here)


See? These two songs, and plenty of other cultural documents indicate secular Christmastime at its heart isn't about the toys or plasma TVs or wild drinking parties but rather hopeful longing for legitimate human desires: peace, family, love, joyful memories, cozy fires, olden times and ancient rhymes. Christ is present in all these legitimate human desires, and it would be pretty darn silly for Christians not to share the good news through these legitimate "altars to an unknown God."

So, the next question becomes how can we talk about and reflect on legitimate on the hopeful longing for the fulfillment of legitimate human desires through the lens of the good news of God's act of liberating love in Christ? While there's plenty of sinners/ saints who could help us out in this regard from our collective Christian heritage, I'll bring up two here, one for more rational thinking folks and one for more spiritual/ mystical thinking folks: Martin Luther and Gregory of Nyssa. While they both come at the question of desire using somewhat opposite approaches, they pretty much land in the same place.

Let's start with good ol Luther, a major 16th century reformer whose work pretty much touched off the Protestant Reformation. He's probably a better resource for more rational sorts of thinkers. I'll just provide one excerpt from his model sermon for "The Gospel for Christmas Eve" on Luke 2: 1 - 14, but I encourage you to check it out in its entirety. You can find it in Volume 52 of the English Edition of Luther's Works:
For the Gospel teaches that Christ was born for our sake and that he did everything and suffered all things for our sake, just as the angel says here: "I announce to you a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord" [Luke 2:10-11] From these words you see clearly that he was born for us.
He does not simply say: "Christ is born," but: "for you is he born." Again, he does not say: "I announce a joy," but: "to you do I announce a great joy." Again, this joy will not remain in Christ, but is for all people. A damned or wicked man does not have this faith, nor can he have it. For the right foundation of all salvation which unites Christ and the believing heart in this manner is that everything that have individually becomes something they hold in common...
A central teaching here is that while its extremely legitimate to have all sorts of human desires, including desiring God, God desires us more than we could ever desire anything, even to the point of being born in a manger amongst farm animals to an unwed virgin and a lowly carpenter.

Let's see what Gregory of Nyssa has to say, a 4th century Cappadocian Father who writes from a more spiritual/ mystical perspective. The following excerpt is from his "First Homily on the Song of Songs," discussing Song 1:1-4. I encourage you to check out the whole thing, especially as the more mystical side of Christian theology is lesser known in our contemporary times, at least in the Western churches:
Moses conversed with God face to face, as scripture testifies [Dt 34.10], and he thereby acquired a still greater desire for these kisses after the theophanies. He sought God as if he had never seen him. So it is with all others in whom the desire for God is deeply embedded: they never cease to desire, but every enjoyment of God they turn into the kindling of a still more intense desire.
Even now the soul united to God never has its fill of enjoyment. The more it enjoys his beauty, the more its desire increases. The words of the bridegroom are spirit and life [Jn 5:24], and everyone who clings to the Spirit becomes spirit. He who attaches himself to life passes from death into life as the Lord has said. Thus the virginal soul desires to draw near to the fountain of spiritual life...
A main premise here is that God is the gift that keeps on giving. Although God draws us closer and closer to Herself in faith, our ever increasing desire for her can never be satiated, through our own action or otherwise. Thus, the central focus once again becomes not on what we're doing, but how God's love is for us an infinite "fountain of spiritual life."

Martin Luther and Gregory of Nyssa are only two of many possible saints/ sinners in our collective Christian history that can help us think about how to proclaim the good news of God's act of liberating love in Christ through the "altars to an unknown god" that are the legitimate human desires celebrated during secular Christmastime. I'd love to hear more perspectives as well.

As a final bit (and one I don't have a lot of time reflect on), check out this letter from Lutheran World Federation General Secretary Martin Junge. Entitled "God’s Free Gift of Grace in Market-Driven Times" and written for Reformation Day 2013, it talks about how the LWF's upcoming celebration of the 500th anniversary of the reformation in 2017 will focus on three related themes: 1) salvation is not for sale, 2) human beings are not for sale, and 3) creation is not for sale. This letter can definitely help us think about consumerism, the hopeful longing for legitimate human desires celebrated by secular Christmastime and how we can respond as Christians. Thanks so much!

God's peace,
Dustin


Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Only Nativity Scene I've Ever Felt Comfortable With

What follows is a post I recently wrote for my Christian Discipleship in a Consumer Society journal, a semester-long assignment regularly making entries for a course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, where I'm currently in my last year of a Masters of Divinity program. Please comment! I'd love to hear what you think!


As we celebrate the Feast Day of Christ the King and begin preparations for the expectant, hopeful season of Advent, many folks (both Christian and otherwise) are probably not looking forward to the fact that Advent/ "the holiday season" is a time of the year when America's ongoing culture wars are probably the most pronounced. Things like fights over whether a child can mention the birth of Jesus in a public school, debates about whether a Christmas tree or even a nativity scene is allowed on the local town green and a common Christian lament about "the secularization/ commercialization of Christmas" around this time of the year are all too common.

While different understandings of the American concept of church/ state separation, concerns about the commercialization of Christmas and the skipping over of Advent are legitimate and thus are rightfully subjected to "spirited" public debate in our culture, there's one humble suggestion I have for my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ that would lessen tensions around this time of the year... if you have a nativity scene outside your church, make sure it conveys the good news of Christ that it's supposed to. With the exception of the nativity scene Saint John's Lutheran Church on Christopher Street in NYC had up last year, I can't really think of a particular outdoor nativity scene that does a good job of proclaiming the gospel (with some of those "living nativity scenes" as notable exceptions). Now I may think this because I haven't seen enough nativity scenes to make an honest judgement, but I do know that most of the non-Christian friends I talk with about the subject (if they notice them at all) tend to think one of two things about the nativity scenes they see sprouting up around town: 
  • Nativity scenes are sometimes offensive. This is because the human characters in nativity scenes are frequently all European American (especially odd since Jesus and everyone else except for perhaps the three kings/ magi would have been West Asian).
  • Nativity scenes are sometimes oppressive. For folks whose primary brushes with Christianity have been extremely oppressive, judgmental and perhaps even hateful, a nativity scene that doesn't proclaim the radical hospitality that Jesus is all about can simply become another reminder about all the sinful aspects of Christian history. For folks how have a sort of neutral view of Christianity but don't know the Biblical stories behind the nativity, such scenes can simply look like a bunch of pious "perfect people" standing around an empty manger with a bunch of farm animals instead of a display that proclaims God lovingly frees and welcomes in us sinners of all shapes and sizes.
So, with all that in mind, the two photos you see here are of the nativity scene outside Saint John's Lutheran Church last year in the heart of Greenwich Village. It depicts the nativity in a way that culturally translates... occupiers, a drag queen, a business man, hip-hoppers and a beat poet are all gathered around the manger with Mary and Joseph, expectantly waiting the coming of the Christ-child. What an amazingly creative way to get noticed and more importantly proclaim the gospel in a way culturally translates what Christ's coming is all about!

Many thanks to Pastor Erson for sending these pictures to me, but all the writing above reflects my thoughts and my thoughts alone. Please don't take this post as a challenge at all... I bet there's a bunch of really great nativity scenes out there! Rather, read this as an invitation to share some of those creative ways your faith community has discerned how to proclaim the gospel during Advent and Christmas.

God's peace,
Dustin

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

LWF Youth Desk: A Journey to Climate Justice

What follows is a video presentation on sustainable development and climate justice I recorded for the Lutheran World Federation Youth Desk's recent "A Youth Journey to Climate Justice" online quiz game. For more information and to play the entire game yourself, click here. "A Youth Journey to Climate Justice" is an AWESOME resource for helping your youth group or individual teen think about the intersection between climate change and faith. Presenters in the quiz game are young adult Lutherans from around the world.



Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. Recently approved for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in faith communities seeking to translate the rich and ancient traditions of the Church to proclaim the good news of Christ in a post-modern world. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.