Monthly Archives: August 2013

Safely dead?

Today – today! – is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech symbolizes the sentiment and power of that historic event.  Hopefully you’ve had opportunity to tune in to any of the number of commemorations going on today and this past week. 

I have to admit I’ve had some hesitations leading up to today.  My fear has been that this would turn into a national exercise in hero worship, narrowing the significance of King’s prophetic message to the words of a larger-than-life individual who is now safely dead.  But in the few essays and radio programs I’ve caught this week focused on the anniversary, I’ve been pleasantly encouraged.  Overall I am hearing a collective sense of a struggle that continues, of this being not about a single person, but about a legacy that we are all responsible for continuing.  The recent ruling in the Trayvon Martin case and the Supreme Court’s diminishment of the Voting Rights Act, all in the last couple months, no doubt add to the sense of the unfulfilled dream.  Not to mention poverty wages many workers face, mass incarceration, and increased militarization of our country.

But hero worship remains the greatest temptation of the day – to create in our collective consciousness an image that is both false and debilitating.  To locate our power for love, justice, and healing outside of ourselves in a distant individual who himself depended on an entire community to be who he was.  It has its parallels in the temptation Christians have always faced in our relationship to Jesus – to worship him without following him. 

Maybe this is a poem that is being circulated today in other venues, but if you have not seen it, it’s worth pondering.  It was written by black poet and musician Carl Wendell Hines after the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X but is also applicable to King’s legacy. 

“Now That He Is Safely Dead”

Now that he is safely dead let us praise him, build monuments to his glory, sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make such convenient heroes.
They cannot rise to challenge the images we would fashion from their lives.
And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.

Enjoy the stories, memories, challenges, and inspiration of this day and live in the resurrection of the Christ who continues to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

More on conversations

To follow up from last week…

What does the church need to talk about?

What is the church afraid to talk about?

What has the church talked about too much?

These were the key questions that guided the discussion last Friday and Saturday at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS).  The time wasn’t quite what I expected.  It was much more contemplative than brainstormy, using a circle process that included passing around a talking object (only the one holding the object can talk) and practicing speaking into the center of the circle rather than to any individuals in the circle.  The time was also fairly non-conclusive in narrowing things down to five conversations the church needs to have over the next decade.  The goal of the conveners was to get ideas out on the table, not make any final decisions.  Over the next decade the seminary will be hosting five major conferences, and the themes from those conferences will be informed by the ideas that came out over the weekend. 

There were about 20 of us, from the US and Canada, and we were kind of all over the map with our responses to these questions, although some themes converged.  What does the church need to talk about? Power dynamics in the church, how we experience the Holy Spirit, many people’s drift away from church, why church at all? our language and theology and how we use scripture, watershed discipleship, countercultural formation….   What is the church afraid to talk about? Affluence/class/wealth, dying, historical sexual abuse of indigenous persons, idols, afraid to talk about God, afraid to passionately disagree….  What has the church talked about too much? Homosexuality, getting to heaven, its own failures, anxiety about people leaving church, community, the church has talked too much about its own impending demise – that last one was my contribution : )

A few observations from the weekend:

+  What gets said depends on who’s in the room.  There were no men of color and just a few women of color.  One young woman remarked at one point that she knew she was chosen because she was indigenous and she felt the need to speak for her whole people, even though we had been asked to speak just our own perspective.  At one point I noticed I was the only pastor in the room.  When we speak, who do we speak for?

+  Communication is an act of hope.   

+  These questions – What does the church need to talk about? What is the church afraid to talk about? What has the church talked about too much? – are also important ones to be asking on a congregational level. 

+  Loving the church and being critical of it are not mutually exclusive, on the contrary…



Five most important conversations

This Friday I’ll be heading up to Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana to meet with a small group of folks to discuss a compelling question: What are the five most important conversations the church needs to have in the next decade? This conversation about these conversations was initiated by the Institute of Mennonite Studies, the research and publishing department of AMBS. 

It’s an exciting event to be a part of and is encouraging to see the wider church asking this kind of big and long term question of itself, of us.  It’s a chance to shape church-talk for years to come.   

I have some ideas about what I’d like to bring to the Friday discussion, which I’ll mention briefly, but also welcome input from any of you.  In your mind, What are the most important conversations the church needs to have in the next decade?

Some initial suggestions:

+ Coming to terms with the ecological crisis that is upon us and finding new ways of faithful living and witness.  Watershed discipleship.

+ Renewing/Invigorating/Reimagining our language about God/Spirit/Mystery/Being to speak meaningfully into our 21st century cosmology of an expanding, 13.7 billion year old universe.

+ Embracing religious and cultural pluralism and nurturing a strong but open Christian identity.

+ The value of Sabbath and the curse of busyness.

+ Seeking justice amid the economic and racial disparities that persist and are widening.

+ Teaching biblical Hebrew to our elementary school aged children – OK, just seeing if you were paying attention.

+ I would mention a full embrace of gays and lesbians for membership, marriage, and ministry in the church, but I’m frankly a little tired of talking about it and ready to just live it…

What’s missing?  Lots!  What else does the church need to prioritize talking about?

(Note: Comments have been turned off on this blog.  If you wish to respond, feel free to email me, joel -at-

The Vacation

This fall-ish weather has been great – is Columbus like this all the time?!  It’s also somewhat of a reminder that summer is vanishing and the school year is pretty near.  Many of you have had the chance to take vacations out of town, are currently on vacation, or are planning one soon.  Wendell Berry is a favorite writer of mine (as you’ll be reminded on many occasions, I’m sure) and I came across this poem this week.  Vacation well, and may your pictures take you deeper into the experience rather than distance you from it.

The Vacation 

By Wendell Berry

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.

He went flying down the river in his boat

with his video camera to his eye, making

a moving picture of the moving river

upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly

toward the end of his vacation. He showed

his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,

preserving it forever: the river, the trees,

the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat

behind which he stood with his camera

preserving his vacation even as he was having it

so that after he had had it he would still

have it. It would be there. With a flick

of a switch, there it would be. But he

would not be in it. He would never be in it.

(from New Collected Poems, 2012)