Spiritual Formation at the Conference Level or – “What’s up with Lay Academy?”

by Karen Richter  

A small but tenacious group has continued thinking and dreaming and talking about lay theological education in the Southwest Conference. Julie McCurdy from the Prescott congregation and I attended the Regional Theological Education Consortium gathering in Oberlin, Ohio last fall. We had an opportunity to see what other groups are doing regarding lay education, preparation for authorization, alternatives to traditional seminaries, and support for formation in local congregations.

Since November, conversations have continued and lots LOTS of questions have come about…

  • What formation experiences are best kept in the context of the local congregation?
  • What’s the purpose (mission, goals, etc.) of lay formation at the conference level?
  • What are other organizations doing and how can we participate in those efforts in a mutually beneficial way?
  • How can the conference best support “everyday” formation of laity in our congregations?
  • What are the various needs for discernment resources and skills in different settings?
  • What are we hearing about what people need? What do people need that maybe they’re not yet aware of?

As I’ve thought and daydreamed, I have found it helpful to make some little piles – metaphorically tossing ideas and concepts into where-does-this-happen groups.

In the “Local Church” pile, I’ve put

  • Discipleship
  • Navigating culture as a person of faith and conscience
  • Discernment and calling (“what work in the world is mine to do?”)
  • Interpersonal and family support networks
  • Values clarification

In the “Southwest Conference / Middle Judicatory” pile, I’ve put

  • Navigating culture as a congregation/institution/denomination
  • New church forms and ways of being church together, sometimes called Church 3.0
  • Discernment around authorization (“in what way am I called to authorized ministry?”)
  • Boundary training
  • Leadership development for congregation and the conference
  • Available resources for staff and volunteers managing formation at local churches

What’s left that doesn’t have an easily defined pile?

  • Nonviolent direct action training and mentoring
  • Church history
  • Mid-level theology (that broad territory between Sunday School and seminary)
  • Meditation and spiritual practices beyond the basics
  • Interfaith, ecumenical, and multiple religious belonging conversations

What have I left out? Where do you see your own needs reflected in these piles, if anywhere? Where is energy around spiritual formation and lay education bubbling up around the conference (hat tip to Barb Doerrer-Peacock for this evocative language)?

Share your thoughts (karen@shadowrockucc.org or bdoerrerpeacock@uccswc.org) Conversations continue – stay tuned! In the meantime, please hold in prayer those called to work on lay formation in our congregations and throughout the United Church of Christ.

Do You Feel Out of Sorts Lately?

by Amanda Petersen

Ever have one of those days where you just feel out of sorts? There is nothing happening in your life to cause it, yet you feel like that commercial where the little blue cloud is following you everywhere? If that has been happening lately, you are not alone.

One of the side effects of living a Deep Listening life will be days where –for no reason at all– the little blue cloud will show up. It makes sense if one believes we are all connected, and there are tragedies happening in large proportions, that one would feel the pain of others. When there is a lot of sadness in the world, that sadness touches others.

What do you do with these blue cloud days? I could make a list of ways to move through these days, yet I really believe each of you have your own wisdom. I’d love to hear what you do when these days of communal sadness show up.

For myself, the blue cloud days mean reaching out to community, increasing self care and meditation, and balancing the sadness with inspiration. In the midst of all the sad stories there are so many of how people have reached out and loved each other. These seasons are times for me to ask questions like “Is this sadness moving me in a new direction?”

Let’s take a moment and inspire each other with our stories of blue cloud days and how they call us to a deeper and richer life. If that sounds impossible, I encourage you to reach out to one of our community to assist you in finding your way through blue cloud days. In the meantime, may your week be filled grace as we interact with ourselves, others and God/Divine.

Standing on Holy Ground

by Talitha Arnold

The place on which you are standing is holy ground. – Exodus 3:5

Moses must have laughed out loud when the voice from the burning bush told him he was standing on “holy ground.” How could a desert wilderness be “holy ground”?

The same way a hospital room or a graveside can be sacred ground. When filled with prayer and the awareness of God’s presence, even the lonely and scary places of our lives can become holy and sacred.

Nest Sunday, September 10, is World Suicide Prevention Day. It’s also a National Day of Prayer for ‘Faith, Hope & Life,” sponsored by the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Across the nation, people of all faiths are invited to join in prayer for persons struggling with mental illnesses and suicide, and for those who love and care for them. As part of the Action Alliance Executive Committee and co-lead for the Faith Communities Task Force, I hope you and your church will also join in.

Depression, bipolar disorder, suicide, or other mental illnesses can make someone  feel cut off from others, including God. That isolation increases exponentially if one’s faith community is silent about such concerns. When a church offers no prayers for persons struggling with mental illness (as we do for those with physical illnesses), it’s hard to find the holy ground.

We can break that silence next Sunday.  On this National Day of Prayer, let us pray for persons living with mental illness or whose lives have been touched by suicide—and for their families, colleagues, therapists, pastors, and all who seek to help. (prayers, videos and other resources at www.faith-hope-life.org.) Let’s help create holy ground for others.

Prayer

God, as you came to Moses in the wilderness of his life, so you do the same for us. May our prayers remind others they are not alone and that you make all things holy.

On the Light Rail

by Abigail Conley

A street preacher made her way onto the train, walking down the aisles, calling people to repentance. The odor hovering around her made it clear that her newfound faith didn’t include regular access to showers. Her language was crass, naming all the sexual sins people fall prey to, including what makes them appealing. Substance abuse was a far second in what required repentance. My drunken neighbor said to no one in particular, “Well, she’s got passion. I’ll give her that.”

I knew her particular brand of fundamentalism well, chuckling to myself as she shouted some new tenet. Only one person took her up on her offer to talk. Graciously, I wasn’t close enough to hear any of the conversation. My neighbor continued to sip from his gas station cup, a whiff of what was most certainly not a soft drink wafting over occasionally. His running commentary on events continued for most of the morning.

“Get through the train, then start over,” he said of the man panhandling. It was true. I watched the man quietly make his way from one end of the train to the other, asking each passenger for some money. Even those who had in headphones to avoid conversation were asked repeatedly, until they took off their headphones and offered a response.

When he got to me, he told his story, “I haven’t eaten in two days. Do you have just a couple of dollars? Even some change?” Truthfully, I didn’t. The three or four dollars in cash I currently have are in the glove box of my car. As he spoke, the odor of cigarettes permeated the air around him. Looking into his eyes, I saw that they didn’t meet mine or focus as they should. It’s often that way with people who are chronically homeless. I’m not trained enough to recognize the whys, but I have the guesses of mental illness, low IQ, or lifelong trauma. Truth be told, in most cases, it’s the last one that means they can’t get off the street. They’ve lived under toxic stress their entire lives and there’s no way out.

Today, the light rail was more interesting than usual. My work and life don’t often give me an opportunity to use the light rail. When I can, I do, because I believe in systems created for the good of the public: public schools, public healthcare, public transportation. The world here is different than the one I inhabit daily. The homeless people I typically encounter are in a program. They’re not the chronically homeless whose struggles are so great that they will always be homeless unless offered free public housing. These homeless neighbors have been coached to be polite, to say thank you, to act how people who want to help expect people to act.

There is a rawness on this train, a rawness that grows as the day goes on. In the morning, it’s filled with commuters and college students. By mid-afternoon, it’s full of everyone. Get on a bus if you want to see truly raw, though. The bus is where people lug groceries, and coach their kids through boredom, and sit in pain. Buses that run late and clumsily roll down city streets are a different world than the reliable, well-policed light rail.

Here’s my confession: about every third ride on the light rail, I think about calling the police. So far, I’ve talked myself out of it every time. The conversation about my racism is one I’ll hold for another day. I know that’s part of it and why I must think through events to reach the conclusion that I’ve never been threatened in any way on public transportation. Instead, I’ve been taught to see people as dangerous even when they aren’t. To fix that, I need Jesus.

When I think, “Maybe I should call the police,” I start to tell myself, “These are the people Jesus loves.” It’s difficult, at first, to believe that Jesus loves the smelly street preacher, from her unkempt hair to her booty shorts. Jesus loves that man sitting across from me, in who knows what state of intoxication at 7:30 a.m. The man asking everyone for money, Jesus loves him, too.

Jesus loves the jerk who didn’t move from the handicapped seats until asked, even though she was obstructing the only place for a wheelchair to sit. Those noisy guys who were doing only God knows what, Jesus loves them, too. And Jesus loves the probably homeless guy who was overjoyed to find today’s sports section of the newspaper left on the seat of the train.

I don’t think that Jesus loves them more than he loves me, but am pretty sure he would be quicker to show them he loves them because they haven’t had enough people to love them. This in-between, nowhere sort of place is beautiful in its own Jesus-breathed way. On mornings like this, I am grateful that it pulls me closer to Jesus.

Shine a light against racism

by Talitha Arnold

Flaming torches are a powerful symbol of racism in this country. For generations, they’ve been used to burn crosses outside the houses of African-American, Jewish and Catholic families and to torch churches and synagogues. During Reconstruction after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan Night Riders carried torches to light the way for the white-masked white men to spread terror throughout African-American communities.

Earlier this month, well-organized and heavily armed young white men carried Tiki torches in their march on Charlottesville, Va. As with their torch-bearing forbearers, their intent was not to illuminate or guide with their Tiki lights, but to intimidate and instill fear. They didn’t succeed, not that night, and not in the days and nights since then.

When Rabbi Neil Amswych, president of the Interfaith Leadership Association, wrote to Santa Fe clergy with Mayor Javier Gonzales’ request to organize a Rally Against Racism, I chose the African-American spiritual, “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let It Shine.” Born in the horror of slavery, the spiritual affirmed that African-Americans would let no one put that light out — not the slave owners, not the overseers, not the Night Riders, not the lynchers, not the Klan.

For a century after the Civil War, “This Little Light of Mine” also affirmed that no thing could put that light out — not the poll tax or voter intimidation, “separate and unequal” schools or a segregated military, unjust housing or employment practices. Not even church bombings or the water cannons and police dogs used against the children, youth and adults marching for civil rights could put out that light.

Most of all, “This Little Light of Mine” affirmed — and continues to affirm — the dignity of every child of God, regardless of race, color, creed, gender, orientation or every other way we divide and discriminate. That’s why we sang the song together at last Monday’s “Rally Against Racism.” It’s why we need to keep singing it — and living it — over and over again in this time.

Tiki torches or the light of God’s love for all people. Individually and as a nation, which will we choose?

Seeking Justice

by Abigail Conley

One of my sustainable sermons (that’s the preacher term for ones we can recycle at a later date) is on Matthew 7:7-8. The lectionary passage is surely longer, but that’s the portion I preached on. To save you Googling or grabbing your bible, here it is:

Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door is opened.

While not the point of the sermon, a point of the sermon is to call bullshit. Well, actually, it’s to call horse feathers. Because church. With little kids. I’m guessing most people who read that text would agree that most things don’t really work that way. Ask, and you’re turned down. Search, and you get lost. Knock, and no one’s home. It doesn’t make for a very promising Gospel, mostly because it’s too close to reality.

Less often than I probably should, I check on the legislative nightmares going on in Congress right now. The newest distracting or incendiary tweets receive just as much news, with Trump by far the most popular Tweeter. “Compassion fatigue” comes to mind as a possibility for the constant barrage; how much more can we manage to care when assaulted day in and day out?

This week, the fight to repeal and (not actually) replace the Affordable Care Act continues, along with political attacks on rights of trans people. I care about both deeply. The collective anxiety becomes a lot to bear, though. We’re only a few months deep, but we’re a few months deep in overwhelming collective anxiety. I keep pondering the story we tell.

Right now, we’re living in the parable of the persistent widow. In the story Jesus told, she receives justice because she keeps nagging the judge until he gives her what she deserved. Presumably, he gives justice begrudgingly. It’s pretty close to how we live. The other day, a friend and colleague called; we hadn’t talked in a while and she said, “Yes, I normally call my senators during my commute, but their offices are all closed right now.” It’s funny, but the standard expectation for many of us right now.  We are the people of #neverthelessshepersisted

Some of my friends are the widow, the one who is asking, searching and knocking. Most, though, have mostly had what they needed given to them fairly easily. They haven’t had to ask or search or knock, hoping to rouse someone.

This ask, seek, knock text is from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus teaches us what the Reign of God should be. Rather than a command about we should be doing, what if it were a command about how we should respond? What if we started with the assumption that someone should be given what they ask for? Or find what they are searching for? Or have their knocks on doors answered?  

That widow should never have needed to go to the judge more than once. Similarly, people should not have to ask for healthcare more than once. No one should knock on elected official’s doors and have it remain firmly locked. That’s the Reign of God. We need that reality in front of us if we are going to persist alongside the widow. We need that worldview as we continue to seek justice.

Tips for Interacting with Newer Humans, in Your Congregation and in Their Natural Habitats

by Karen Richter

My feminism became much more real when my daughter was born. She’s a native Georgian (with the double name to prove it), born where dressing and grooming your girl child is an expensive and full-time hobby. I was known for being a somewhat relaxed parent (maybe even a slacker), so I got this helpful advice from a friend,

“Oh for gosh sakes, don’t bring her to church with her diaper showing.”

There are, you see, cute, preferably monogrammed, little lace bloomers that one purchases to cover diapers when Baby Girl is wearing a dress.

Gigantic bows and lacy bloomers are not part of family culture in Arizona, for the most part. But it still seems that folks don’t always know how to interact with children in respectful, non-gendered ways. And we so want to make children and families feel welcome in our faith communities! Here are some things to try with young humans in your congregation.

  1. Recognize that children have moods just like adults. I have been in faith communities where the children’s behavior is seen as a direct reflection of the parents’ character. It was not fun. Accept that children don’t always welcome interaction with adults they don’t know well. Smile, and move on. It may be that we can learn something from kids who don’t hide their cranky moods, even at church. They are being real – you can do it too.
  2. Physical touch needs consent. When you see a child upset or sad, ask, “Would a hug or a back pat help?” For happy kiddos, you can say, “Are we fist-bumping today?” This can feel a little awkward at first. Practice… and know that you are doing a small part of changing our culture around consent and body autonomy! Plus it’s good for Safe Church culture. New families and parents visiting for the first time may be wary of adults who seem overly familiar with their children. When safe adults model consent, it makes unhealthy adult behaviors more obviously out-of-the-ordinary and protects all children.
  3. Strive for gender-neutrality. OMGoodness this can be hard! I’ve observed that adults most often make comments to little girls on their appearance and comments about ANYTHING ELSE to little boys! Discipline your reactions; respond mindfully and intentionally. Here are some conversation starters you might try…
    • How are you today? (It’s a classic!)
    • Is there something you’re looking forward to this week?
    • I saw a bunny/lizard/fast car on my way to church this morning! Did you see anything cool?
    • We are singing ‘Blahblahblah’ this morning… it’s my favorite! Do you have a favorite church song?
    • Replace “Boys and Girls” as your default way of addressing a group of children! Try Young Ones, Friends, Beloveds, Children of God… Be creative and find what feels natural for you.
  4. Learn kids’ names and help them learn yours. It feels good to be known by name. Decide how you would prefer to be called by children: Mrs. Smith or Ms. Sally… Mr. Johnson or Bill. Parents may feel uncomfortable with family titles like Grandpa Joe.

Are you cringing, thinking about that sweet kid just the other week whose sparkly shoes and hairbow you complimented? Or are you annoyed… seeing my suggestions as political correctness run amok? I recognize that our culture doesn’t encourage open-minded open-hearted ways of communicating with young humans. It’s a place where we can grow and learn – because there’s never a time in which children don’t deserve our best efforts. We must find ways of talking with one another – at all ages – that are true to the values of inclusion, respect, and inherent human dignity.

Let’s keep talking!

Not Your Kids

by Abigail Conley

A story flashes across my screen. Philando Castile. Charleena Lyles.

“Not your kids,” a voice says from somewhere inside.

It’s the voice of relief, a promise really, “not your kids.”

June is Pride Month, so there’s an array of rainbow everything on that same screen.

Pictures of happy couples, of families with moms or dads, of chestfeeding and breastfeeding, of pronoun etiquette and label etiquette. Amid those happy pictures, happy shares of stories, there are stories of rejection intermingled.

“Not your kids,” says the same voice from deep inside. I rest assured that my LGBTQ+ kids know they’re safe at church, if nowhere else.

I know the hijabs the little girls wear set them apart from their friends and neighbors. I know the color of their skin does, too. Their families are from Pakistan. I cannot imagine what many of them have been through in their lives. These Muslim children joyfully welcome their Christian neighbors, snuggling up to the adults who are more familiar. I wonder how often they are not safe outside these walls.

“Not your kids,” comes the same voice.

This is the echo of privilege. The fears that accompany so many people do not accompany my kids—the ones from my church, the ones of my own I may have some day.

Children seem to be the great equalizer among people. Children are easier to play with and easier to talk to. They seem to more easily embrace any adult willing to play with them. They worry less about language barriers. My Spanish is even perfect for hanging out with preschool kids, where I can quiz them on colors and shapes.

I remember a plea made in my own denomination that stopped some of the fighting about LGBTQ+ welcome: our kids are dying.

Even the naysayers realized that’s the worst sort of pain.

The voice comes often, “Not your kids.”

If it’s not your kids, it’s easy to forget the sort of desperation that comes with it is your kids. It’s the kind of desperation that dragged Jairus from his home to find a man he’d only heard about. It’s the kind of desperation that made him pull Jesus along with him through the city streets, to a house where mourning had already begun. It’s the desperation that will do anything to save a child’s life.

“Not your kids,” will echo, again. Our privilege will remind us of the fears we don’t have for our children. I wonder, can we learn the answer, “But they’re somebody’s kids”?

A Socratic Path to Online Serenity

by Greg Gonzales

The Socratic Filter might be one of the best tools we have in this world of information overload. Each and every day, we’re bombarded with more information than we could ever memorize, use, or discuss later on. That information gently drops upon our brains, like a drop in a pond which ripples and changes the whole life of the pond ever-so minutely, so it’s important to mindfully decide which bits get our direct attention, and that includes our interactions with people with disagree with online. We could ignore those people, but we can also question them until they don’t have a good answer. Luckily, Socrates gave us a couple of techniques to break down beliefs and build bridges across disagreements.

One day, a friend visited Socrates to offer up some gossip (and I’ll abridge the story here for length). Before letting his friend speak on it, he asked, “Have you ensured that what you’re about to tell me is true?” The friend said no, he’d only overheard the gossip. Socrates then asked, “Is what you’re about to tell me something good, or kind?” The friend said no, quite the opposite. “So you don’t know it to be true, and you don’t know it to be good,” Socrates pointed out. “So is what you’re going to tell me useful or necessary to know?” Deflated, the friend said no. Socrates concluded, “If what you’re going to say is neither true, good, nor useful, please refrain from speaking at all.” At least one must apply, or it’s not worth sharing or listening to.

We should all be so discriminate with our words. Facts and truth are something we ought to share because we live in a democracy and because we all ought to learn more about the world we live in. Same can be said for the good things in life, even if they aren’t necessarily true, because we can grow and heal from them. For example, if a discovery next year proves Socrates was merely Plato’s invention, his stories would still bring us the same joy and wisdom they do now. Useful words ought to be revered, too, for their applications in our own lives. Not all useful ideas are good or known to be true, but they can still hold utilitarian value. To share something true, good, and/or useful is a service to all, whether through art or through a comment at the bottom of a hotly-debated article.

Socrates’s world and our world aren’t all that different when it comes to social and societal challenges we face on a daily basis. We understand that the world isn’t controlled by a set of incestuous gods now, but we still find ourselves shocked by support for flat Earth conspiracies and the millions of U.S. adults who think chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Those ideas are known to be false, they’re not good, and they aren’t useful. When faced with ideas that don’t pass the Socratic Filter, we just need to remember that “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing,” and begin questioning from there.

What I mean by questioning is Socratic Questioning, a technique of inquiry used in philosophy and even cognitive-behavioral therapy to break down beliefs into evidence and assumptions, to build complex thoughts and stronger viewpoints. The same technique can be applied online and for brewhouse debates, to deescalate the situation and even build a bridge through in-depth understanding of a fellow human.

Though there are multiple kinds of Socratic Questioning (six, actually, outlined here; they add up to a few main principles. The main idea is to question fundamental beliefs. We all have assumptions that build the foundations of our ideas and beliefs, but they should be questioned and recognized as such so they can be changed when reasonably challenged. If I think chocolate milk comes from brown cows, you might ask, “Then how does the chocolate get into the milk?” If I have to explain myself, I’m likely to uncover something absurd, and change course. Another principle is to never let any part of a person’s position or reasoning or evidence be a given. Everything has a source, and can and should be questioned. If someone claims an idea is true “because it’s in the Bible,” then we ought to ask why they think the Bible is unquestionably true. The second is to get the other person to consider and even explain other viewpoints. This gets the conversation outside the social safety bubble, off defense, outside the pop-culture framework, and into the dynamic marketplace of ideas. We ask how, we ask why — we investigate the views of others, rather than lambaste them for being wrong — and everyone walks away with a truer and more interesting version of the world.

Though I don’t pretend that all lines of questioning will result in Hands Across America 2, it’s pretty obvious that questions are better beginnings to cooperation and sanity than insults and silence.

Prayers for Annual Meeting

by Karen Richter

Good day, SWC friends! It’s Annual Meeting time! Like many of you, I am full-up with travel plans, budgets and resolutions, to-do lists, and tiny bottles of hair products. Instead of the “usual” blog article for this first Monday of May, I’d like to share with you my prayers for our gathering in Albuquerque.

Spirit of Life; Spirit of Love – we ask that you cover our Annual Meeting with good gifts:

  • That a spirit of prayer mark all parts of our time together.
  • That volunteers for the hosting congregations have a good experience and feel appreciated.
  • That delegates and guests are welcomed with hospitality.
  • That all persons speaking in the plenary sessions and workshops feel heard and valued.
  • That relationships with one another and with You are renewed, deepened or begun afresh.
  • That we might more fully cherish our covenants with one another.
  • That each person present listens gracefully to the voices around them, especially when there’s disagreement.
  • That we grasp opportunities for celebration and connection.
  • That our inaugural anti-racism training goes smoothly and that lay and clergy participants and participant/facilitators are energized and inspired to further reflection and to work in counter-oppression movements.
  • That travel is a safe and enriching time for those who are coming to Albuquerque by car or plane.
  • That each person attending leaves with a sense of renewal and centeredness around their calling in the United Church of Christ’s setting in the Southwest Conference.
  • That we each travel home safely with energy to work alongside God and our brothers and sisters to further our mission and vision in the world!

Spirit whose name is mercy, hear our prayer! Amen.