What is the Point of Church?

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I am part of the St John’s Lutheran Church community in Sacramento. The leaders are always pushing our community to do better. This Sunday I had to laugh when I shut the stall door in the ladies’ restroom. These two questions (pictured above) were posted there. They also provided paper in the courtyard for us to share our thoughts.

I’m sure this was planned long before Hurricane Harvey hovered over Houston. However, in the light of the social media outrage over prosperity preacher Joel Osteen’s seeming indifference to the plight of neighbors flooded out of their homes, it is very timely.

Even people who don’t share our faith expect churches, synagogues and mosques to do good together. When a disaster or crisis hits a community, the public expectation is that these communities of faith will organize a response. I admit, I expect this too. I emailed my pastor to ask if St John’s was going to take a collection for the Evangelical Lutheran Church response. (yes) While the media was focused playing off Osteen’s lack of response against the muslim communities collective rescue efforts, I knew that all of the mainline denominations, World Vision and others were also on the ground with supplies and money. As I walked around the church campus on Sunday I wondered if as much water fell on Sacramento and the areas ringed by levees filled up like a bathtub, would St John’s be above flood stage? What refuge could we offer?

Everyday in Sacramento we have an on-going  emergency of homelessness and our church community does a lot with other communities of faith to respond. I participate in that effort. This is not the place to boast, but I did choose this congregation to join, in part, because of their service to the whole community: LGBT, homeless, youth, and the elderly and people like me.

Could I do all of these things without the church? Of course, there are many organizations that I could give to and participate in a variety of ways to address homelessness. And in Houston we see neighbors helping neighbors without being asked. Doctors and nurses reported to hospitals to volunteer. Social workers reported to emergency shelters, and so on.

I could meditate every morning instead of reading scripture and having a quiet time. I could go on a walk along the river each Sunday morning and enjoy God’s creation. But I crave the unique experience of singing, praying, reading scripture with my community. There are many styles of worship but all for the same purpose: to praise God, confess our sins, and experience God together. Do we actually experience God? Yes, but only faintly. Yet every Sunday I participate and marvel at way the combination of ritual, music and sermon ground me again in my values and beliefs for the coming week.

I also look to the my church family to help me through life, and me them. Celebrate the marriage, food and gifts for baby, comfort and aid when sick, comfort and condolence when death comes to someone we love. Again, this can also be experienced with family and friends; however, not necessarily with the hope our faith provides.

It is true that organized religion can also hurt. I’ve experienced the incredible agape love that transports and I’ve been judged very harshly and my family shunned. Some people have been victimized by the authority given to priests and pastors. It is a community meaning it is made up of humans and sometimes the phrase “only human” applies.

The church community can also coddle its members and become another self-help vending machine. There is often very little recognition of the spiritual disciplines and the importance of an interior life in the USA church life.  I want my church community to challenge me to spiritual growth.

Listening to the replay of Krista Tippett’s interview with poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, they discussed whether we are more impoverished than previous generations as to our ability to love and be a friend. He said no, we are just out of practice. This is where the church could be more active: in naming the love and friendship that Christ called us to and modeled for us. In the past the church has been a prophet in the community. The church community should wonder what they are not doing if everyone is comfortable.

Best if we show, not tell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#MarchforScience: Why I March

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Mom and I marched in Sacramento on Earth Day 2017

These remarks were prepared for a panel presentation at St John’s Lutheran Church on Earth Sunday April 23, 2017.

I am trained as a political scientist and work in California water policy on the big questions of how to keep water flowing to 40 million people and 7.9 million acres of irrigated farmland whilst sustaining native threatened and endangered species.

The water policy discussions I have been a part of are gaining in sophistication and specialization. Policy makers are relying on science more and more; demanding real time data to make decisions about daily water operations. This is driven in large part by environmental regulation: the California Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, to name a few.

As a result, there is a growing gap between the voting public’s understanding of the issues and the amount of technical information used to decide if water will be released from, say Shasta reservoir, or pumped at Tracy and so forth. This is eroding trust in decision-making processes and is part of the larger story of distrust of experts and anti-intellectualism in the US today.

Political scientists study power: for example, how it is held and exercised, and how tradeoffs are brokered. The story of the state of California can be told in the story of water rights, land use battles entwined with water, and battles for control of water. Whether water is absent in drought or over abundant in floods, Californians have debated water policy for its entire modern existence.

In the first half of the 20th century, civil engineers were the heroes of the story as they built the reservoirs, canals and pumping plants of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, plus the flood control structures of levees and bypasses. That generation’s gifts have allowed us to rapidly grow economically with both cheap hydroelectric power and relatively cheap and abundant water.

In the second half of the 20th century the chemists and the ecologists began to play a more prominent role in the story. We demanded better water quality, and sewage treatment, and we became aware of the damage we were doing to the environment by disrupting natural ecosystems–95% of the floodplain is gone; almost as much of the wetlands and vernal pools are gone.

In my work I am always looking for more information to better understand the challenges and to look for solutions to the conflicts that continually arise over water. I look to knowledge gained through science. I also look to what I call “native wisdom” from people who have worked or lived on the land for much longer—in some instances before we developed the water systems we have today. Wisdom can come in many forms.

Humility is invaluable especially humbly acknowledging what we do not know whether it is in the field of science or while reading my Bible. I also appreciate the times when the Holy Spirit inspired actions or ideas in my work.

When I became a Christian in the 1970s, the evangelical Presbyterian Church I attended was full of engineers and doctors. Over time, as the church became more and more certain or rigid about faith matters, I felt increasingly alienated. I thought then and now that since God gave me an intellect, it is my vocation to use it in ways that make the world in better alignment with the way God calls us to live and with reverence for God’s creation.

Scientists and persons of faith need not be mutually exclusive—listening to debates amongst scientists about salmon habitat has convinced me that there is as much faith in action amongst scientists arguing their theories as there is among theologians.

And in my experience there isn’t a conflict between the stories in the Bible and the truths that social science and physical science discover, because I do not always interpret God’s wisdom in the Bible literally nor do I swallow whole every hypotheses posed by scientists.

I have learned there are many ways to understanding reality and much mystery remains. This is true if you are trying to understand the mind of God, human behavior or determine the needs of Delta Smelt.

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One sign read “GOP, Science Doesn’t Care What You Believe”

My friend and retired science teacher Michael Bickford recently posted this on his Facebook page: “All humans are qualified to be scientists! Many people misunderstand what science is. It’s a way of defining, knowing and understanding truth. We use the truth (facts) in turn, like a tool, to determine the nature of reality and then, individually and collectively through communication, the meaning and direction of our lives together.”

Michael is a self-proclaimed atheist. And he is as hostile to the Church as some evangelicals are to science. In fact he wrote: “(Science is) under attack by those with alternatives systems of defining the truth.” In my experience it need not be a battle. While we may not seek the truth with the same methods, we are all truth seekers.

For the person of faith I would ask: why must God have created the earth in a literal 6 days for creation to be divinely awesome and amazing? And for the scientist who may be an atheist or agnostic, why is it threatening to leave room in the equation for the divine?

Leaders Say Thank You

I am stumped why so few leaders pause to say thank you. Maybe even saying “pause” is part of the problem. You can move forward toward your stake faster when people feel appreciated and included. Saying a sincere and thoughtful thank you in person is terrific. I also like a written note because as a recipient I can read it again and again. So few leaders say thank you in an intentional way.

In California Agricultural Leadership program we were taught to say a sincere and personalized thank you (sometimes with a gift) to people who gave to our program through teaching, speaking, or with financial gifts. I was not surprised when my end of year gift to the Foundation was followed within a month or so by a Thank you example from the Board Chair. I give to lots of different organizations and causes. Most feel that their autogenerated “thank you” with receipt is sufficient. The personal notes or typed letters I receive from the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation binds my loyalty to them as donor.

Last night  I hosted Taylor and Lauren from the Concordia University Irvine women’s choir. They performed beautifully at St John’s Lutheran Church and then I took them home and provided them hospitality. We had a delightful conversation, walked to get coffee and tea and Weatherstone coffeehouse, and they got a good night’s sleep. Twelve hours later I was dropping them off with very little inconvenience to me and yet they took the time to write a beautiful hand written note and leave it on the guest bed (that they made!). A handwritten note is the gold standard for expressing appreciation.

Is this leadership or just being a polite person? I encourage you to think of it as a critical part of leadership. Just ask yourself how much you appreciate when your boss or client recognizes your contribution and thanks you. For ideas about how to do this most effectively, listen to Episode 9 of Radical Candor podcast.  They emphasize the importance of being specific and sincere.

Honoring 9/11

Scrolling through Facebook on this fateful anniversary, I see a mirror for the schisms in our country. We cannot seem to embrace the diversity of ways that people honor this particular fraught anniversary. There is a spirit of competition as some people post photos of the World Trade Center towers on fire and say “Never forget.” Others focus on people–survivors, first responders, memorials to civilians who died that day. I posted the Budweiser ad that according to Jim Brooks who originated the post, they only aired once so as not to make money on this tragedy.

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Since it is also Sunday, our church at St John’s Lutheran in Sacramento held a Serve Day. We all worshipped together in our jeans and t-shirts and were graced with an amazing sermon from Rev. Dr. Stephen Bourman, who served as Lutheran Bishop of New York on 9/11/01. We then went out in small groups to accomplish projects in the neighborhood. Our group of 6 picked up trash for a couple of hours–a challenge after a second Saturday in Midtown.

These various expressions of remembrance and service are not surprising as they reflect the various cliques of people who emphasize some values over others. Social media facilitates this in a way that the traditional media never has. Traditional media likes to find one narrative for “the country”. There is competition for the narrative right after the event and then most of the media adopt this as “the narrative.” Social media allows us all to find kindred spirits who see things like we do in all of its diversity. Now we compete for “Team First Amendment” or “Team America First”.

When a quarterback decides to take a knee during the national anthem, there are groups who feel everything from support for the racial conflict in the USA, to his right to express his views but they’ll refuse to watch the 49ers play, to people burning his jersey. It often feels like football rivalries.

I wish instead of reacting with anger and competitive spirit, we could all take a breath and get curious. What moves this quarterback so deeply that he’s willing to risk his career and popularity to make a statement? Is there something we can learn from this perspective? If his statements trigger supercharged emotions in us, then what can we learn about our own values?

And I wish the media could continue to do more of what they did after 9/11 when they found many, many stories of personal heroism and tragedy and shared those with us. At least at first the narrative was allowed to include how we all pulled together to help one another grieve and regroup. Before it became the war on terror.

I personally do not to see a photo of the towers with billowing smoke as that image is forever etched in my mind; but I’ll do my best to stay curious about why others do. Mostly I want to remember that it was a time when the world was united behind the USA, when we all shared a tragic experience and looked for ways to help others–from volunteering at ground zero to giving blood. Finally, to search within myself to find that community spirit and act in ways that keep it alive.

 

 

 

The Beauty of Rites in a Faith Journey

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Leader Steve listens for the cue for our Luminaria class to begin knocking on the doors.

There is something wonderful about observing rites in your spiritual practice. This morning I participated as a Lumen in the first of four rites that our Catechesis class will participate in as we become more integrated members of the St John’s Lutheran congregation. This morning our Luminaria class participated in the Rite of Welcome.

The Rite of Welcome began with us knocking on the doors to the sanctuary at the appointed time. We processed to the front of the sanctuary with our companions (assigned sponsors). Much like a baptism we answered questions, as did our companions and then the congregation. The final chapter of the rite invited us to fill the center aisle where our companions gave us three gifts: the sign of the cross, a Bible, and a blessing (with the rest of the congregation). It was very significant. We all then joined the service for worship.

It is an intentional way of making disciples of Jesus Christ. As often happens the liturgical verses that come up on the calendar are often very fitting to the situation. We read Luke 14: 25-33 about counting the cost of discipleship as part of our regular class activity (Lectio Divina) where we study and discuss the verses for the next week. I have not often thought about the cost of following Jesus since I became a friend of Jesus at age 13. I will meditate on this throughout the week.

Most churches offer a few classes or a Saturday workshop before baptism, affirming baptism and membership. St. John’s Lutheran Church in Sacramento has a program that begins in mid-August and meets almost every Sunday until mid-December. It is part of a movement of offering adults a process of becoming one with Christ and his church. Sometimes referred to Catechumenate. Our pastoral team and lay leaders are working to help us understand how God is working in our lives and how we can exercise our gifts in the church and be a part of the community of faith.

The other rites include: the rite of enrollment, the rite of baptism (or affirmation of baptism), and the rite of vocation. I am experiencing the benefits of a more formal profession of faith. Just in the rite of welcome I feel more a part of the life of church. I have moved from being a visitor, even a regular visitor, to something more committed and integrated.

Inspired by the Idea of Sufficiency

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Nature provides ample evidence of abundance. Consider the lilies of the field..

My church St John’s Lutheran is helping to bring Lynne Twist, author of the Soul of Money to Sacramento on October 5. I attended a dinner and musical evening to raise the funds for her fee. It piqued my interest in her book. I may have read it before a few years ago but it resonated in a much deeper way this time. Sometimes the timing is finally right to think about a subject more deeply. I am at a bit of a crossroads as to the ways I am earning a living. I was ready to be inspired by the idea of sufficiency.

I am all too familiar with the idea of scarcity. Our western economy depends on the idea that we live in a zero-sum game where only the most competitive win. “This mantra of not enough carries the day and becomes a kind of default setting for our thinking about everything, from the cash in our project to the people we love or the value of our own lives.”

“In the mind-set of scarcity, our relationship with money is an expression of fear; a fear that drives us in an endless and unfulfilling chase for more, or into compromises that promise a way out of the chase or discomfort around money.”

“Scarcity is a lie. Independent of any actual amount of resources. It is an unexamined and false system of assumptions, opinions, and beliefs from which we view the world as a place where we are in constant danger of having our needs unmet.”

I have been caught up in these 3 toxic myths: 1) There’s not enough. 2) More is better. 3) That’s just the way it is. It is exhausting. I have had glimpses my whole life of another way but I have not been able to completely embrace it. I did not have a vocabulary for the other way. The way of sufficiency.

“Sufficiency isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough… When we live in the context of sufficiency, we find a natural freedom and integrity. We engage in life from a sense of our own wholeness rather than a desperate longing to be complete.”

“I suggest that if you are willing to let go, let go of the chase to acquire or accumulate always more and let go of that way of perceiving the world, then you can take all that energy and attention and invest it in what you have. When you do that you will find unimagined treasures, and wealth of surprising and even stunning depth and diversity.”

Enough is a place you can arrive at and dwell in.”IMG_0561

“True abundance does exist; it flows from sufficiency, in an experience of the beauty and wholeness of what is. Abundance is a fact of nature. It is a fundamental law of nature, that there is enough and it is finite. Its finiteness is no threat; it creates a more accurate relationship that commands respect, reverence, and managing those resources with the knowledge that they are precious and in ways that do the most good for the most people.”

The book is long on concept and short on practical steps. I look forward to attending the Impact Foundry’s conference on October 5 to learn more.

“When your attention is on what’s lacking and scarce–in our life, in your work, in your family, in your town–then that becomes what you’re about. That’s the song you sing, the vision you generate. You engage in lack and longing and what’s missing, and you call others to that same experience. If your attention is on the problems and breakdowns with money, or scarcity thinking that says there isn’t enough, more is better or that’s just the way it is, then that is where your consciousness resides. Those thoughts and fears grow from the attention you give them and can take over your life. No matter how much money you have, it won’t be enough. No amount of money will buy you genuine peace of mind. You expand the presence and the power of scarcity and tighten its grip on your world.

“If your attention is on the our capacity you have to sustain yourself and your family, and contribute in a meaningful way to the well-being of others, then your experience of what you have is nourished and it grows. Even in adversity, if you can appreciate your capacity to meet it, learn, and grow from it, then you create value where no one would have imagined it possible. in the light of your appreciation, your experience of prosperity grows.”

CTI Leadership instilled in me a belief in collaboration and cooperation based on the 10 month program experience. “A you-and-me world is full of collaborators, partners, sharing and reciprocity… Respected evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris notes that Nature fosters collaboration and reciprocity. Competition in Nature exists, she says, but it has limits, and the true law of survival is ultimately cooperation.” This is the reality I know exists and now I want to lean into it more fully.

 

 

 

 

In Remembrance: Orlando Innocents

20160619_090201I arrived at St John’s Lutheran a few minutes into the processional hymn. Usually there are about 80 people worshipping but today all I could see was a sea of black suits as the entire Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus was sitting in the last 3 rows on each side of the sanctuary.

I took my pew seat and looked at the order of service. I immediately began to look for a kleenex in my purse because the service was dedicated to remembering and honoring the victims of the Orlando massacre in the Pulse nightclub. Their names were printed in the bulletin and I was already tearing up.

Pastors Frank and Leslie led us through a beautiful, emotional morning of worship. Jesus was among us, offering comfort, inviting us to express our sorrow at such a tremendous loss of life. Prayer is an act of love and we prayed a lot this morning.

The Gospel lesson was Luke 8: 26-39, the story of Jesus healing the man with many demons. Jesus asks the possessed man’s name and he answers Legion. Pastor Frank asked us to treat evil seriously and to name it: bigotry, and hatred. Jesus meets us here in this mess and helps us to expel the darkness and replace it with love.

It is disheartening to have to remember the innocents slain in another mass murder with a semi-automatic. It is salt in the wound to know that some “Christian” Pastors incite more violence with their vitriolic and hate-filled responses. It was wonderfully healing and a comfort to join with members of the St John’s community and ring a bell for each one murdered while their photo, name and age was shown on a large screen. We rang a bell for Omar Mir Seddique Matteen but did not show his photo in recognition that violence affects all involved. His family lost a son and have to live with this tragedy too.

Community can come in all forms. Worshipping together is one way of bringing diverse people together: strangers become the family of God. As Dorothy Day says in The Long Loneliness, “The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community. The living together, working together, sharing together, loving God and loving our brother, and living close to him in community so we can show our love for Him.” (p 243)

We gathered this morning and the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus sang:

No never, never will we have that first time, or this last time, or just this time.

Never get to live our lives all over. Never. Ever.

Oh! Life will take us where it will. New beginnings. Ends.

Take each moment as a gift. Give it back again.