29 May 2008

"I already gave at the Box."

Last week Indianapolis installed five donation boxes downtown. The boxes, along with a large public education campaign, are aimed at discouraging people from giving to panhandlers and encouraging them to "chip in at the box" instead. The money will be given to organizations that help the homeless. Other cities have been able to reduce panhandling in this way; you can read more about the idea here.

On the one hand, it seems like a good idea; panhandling certainly doesn't solve the problem of homelessness. But these comments from our panhandling-hating, infinitive-splitting mayor gave me pause:

At a news conference Thursday, Mayor Greg Ballard and advocates for the homeless said most panhandlers are not homeless -- they are scam artists betraying people's trust and good intentions. "If you want to truly help the homeless, give to the groups who provide the services that make people more productive," Ballard said. "The panhandlers will go away when the money goes away."
The argument for The Box is that it is a better way to help the homeless, but its real purpose is to eliminate panhandling. I guess I'd rather the city do this than try to ban panhandling, which has been done in numerous places, including Durham County. But to couch it in terms of helping the homeless seems disingenuous to me. As someone who used to ask for money for a living, I think it's clear that The Box doesn't do any favors for people who live by panhandling; it is a public service for people who are interested in helping others without touching or looking at them.

Worship Planning

Yesterday, the pastoral staff had a daylong planning retreat where we mapped out our summer worship schedule. The plan is to focus each week of the summer on a different aspect of the worship service. So we'll be devoting different Sundays to gathering, confessing, baptism, reading Scripture, proclaiming the word, Eucharist, offering, silence & intercession, hymnody, and sending. I don't know whether this is a fair characterization of people's approach to worship at this church, but my general sense is that it is easy for us to view the Sunday morning liturgy as something we attend or consume in order to legitimate as "church" the mission work and business meetings we have during the rest of the week. Does "going to church" make you a Christian? The answer might be yes, but the determinative factor is participation, not attendance. So when we take the summer to slow things down and pay attention to what goes on in worship (and why), our hope is not only to increase people's understanding of the liturgy being performed before them, but also to show them how our worship practices, when done with care and intention, can cultivate habits of being that guide everything we do after we leave the sanctuary.

This is the central argument of the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, which I've just started reading. It was edited by two folks from Duke: ethics professor Stanley Hauerwas, and Sam Wells, who is Dean of Duke Chapel. Here's a taste: "[Baptism] creates a profound conception of politics, seen now as the best working of an organism - the Body of Christ - that sees itself as being genuinely a body, rather than a mass of discrete individuals. Worship is, or aspires to be, the manifestation of the best ordering of that body, and is thus the most significantly political - the most 'ethical' - thing that Christians do."

26 May 2008

The secret is out

I had thought that I would write this blog without naming the city where I live or the church where I work. I guess I was thinking this was a good way to avoid anyone taking offense at anything I write. I'm not sure in what universe I was imagining that (a) I would write something that offensive, and (b) that anyone who might care would be reading here.

In any case, all that is out the window because I just have to share the following with you:

I live in Indianapolis.

21 May 2008

Obama, part 2

Looking towards November, Marc Ambinder outlines the important questions regarding Obama's weak support among white/rural/less educated/lower income Democrats.

"Are the demographics of Obama's coalition so skewed (in terms of previous coalitions) that his national lead will greatly overstate his relative strength in the electoral college? Or is Obama's new coalition so robust as to absorb some of the bleeding of white, working class men in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and still end up winning?"

First of all, it is very important that Senator Obama never use a phrase like "the bleeding of white, working class men." But the critical question his campaign must address is how his "coalition" will translate to the electoral map. Here's one good discussion of the topic.

A Mighty Wind

The sound of rushing air in the ceiling overhead and the painstakingly slow scales being played down in the sanctuary can only mean one thing: it's organ-tuning day. Oh, the joy! If I ever have my own church, we're going to use all guitars and hand drums. And a hurdy-gurdy. But no pipe organ.

In other news, tonight is a Vacation Bible School planning meeting. I'm going to be substantially involved with planning & teaching the youth classes. They're supposed to relate to "power," which is the theme of our intense, over-the-top kids' VBS curriculum. I'm not sure yet what all we will do, but I'm pretty sure that it will include using Gatorade and an onion to charge an iPod:

19 May 2008

Two perspectives on worship

Tonight I heard two comments that jumped out at me, made at different points in a very broad conversation, by two people who probably don't disagree with each other. But they articulate two very different notions of worship.
  1. "[In talking about questions of worship and being a welcoming church], we need to start with theology, not sociology. We are called to be a worshiping community that reflects the fullness of the kingdom of God. From that starting point, you get a very different set of questions."
  2. "We don't come to church to be told that we're sinners and that we're damned if we don't change. We come to be intellectually uplifted."
Now, it's fair to say I was excited by the first comment and the second one made me squirm. The second one is, I think, reflective of the theological openness that prevails here. It's something that people value very highly, and even though everything in me wants to jump up and say, "But we are sinners!" I have only been here eight days and I'm going to tread lightly. More on that subject at another time.

The comment about theology vs. sociology occurred first, and came in response to the sorts of questions I referenced in my post last week: "What kinds of music will appeal to people who live closer to the church?" "Will people leave the congregation if the choir sings fewer traditional choral pieces?" They were aesthetic questions. Twenty minutes later came the second statement, which dealt not with the form of worship but with the content of the proclamation. Yet this is still, at its root, a sociological statement. As long as you preach a word that invites people into an open-ended spiritual journey, rather than delivering the sometimes unpleasant but non-negotiable truth, you will attract congregants who presume that each person is entitled to his or her own unmolested opinions, but you will repel people who think any other way. You'll end up with a sanctuary full of liberal thinkers, which might imperil the Gospel every bit as much as other types of homogeneity do.

I didn't mean to dwell so long on the second of these statements. I really like this parish and I know I will learn a lot from the people here -- and their openness is part of their genuine desire to practice hospitality as faithful disciples. I think the key insight I gained tonight is that we must think of that kind of openness just like we need to think about music or liturgy: in terms of its theological warrants, not in terms of its resonance with a particular audience.

17 May 2008

Foggy Mountain Breakdown

One bit of Conventional Wisdom that has cemented during this primary season is that Barack Obama fares poorly among white people who didn't go to college and/or don't make much money. Last week's 41-point drubbing in West Virginia was the ultimate illustration of this fact -- until this week's upcoming Kentucky primary, I expect.

But does it matter? Yes, says ABC's Rick Klein (and Hillary Clinton). After all, these folks make up a critical part of the traditional backbone of the Democratic party. A nominee that didn't have their support would be like ... well, like a Republican that made evangelicals, gun-lovers, and fiscal conservatives nervous. In truth, it's hard to imagine a road to the White House for a Democrat who can't win Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Michigan.

On the other hand, Today's Times op-ed page makes the case (complete with color-coded map) that West Virginians don't hold the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania, for the simple reason that though Appalachia is pretty consistently Democratic and anti-Obama, the region is divided across 12 states, of which all but Pennsylvania and New York went for Bush in 2004. In other words, blue-collar workers are loyal Democrats, but they don't swing the swing states. And, to the extent that Obama's support flags among this population, he should be able to more than make up those losses by picking up new voters in states like Virginia, which Kerry lost by 262,000, and Georgia, which has 500,000 eligible African-American voters who are not registered -- yet.

I would add to this a point that may be obvious: the CW says that poorer whites won't vote for Obama, but the only demonstrated fact is that they won't vote for Obama over Hillary Clinton. That does not mean they will stay home in November, or vote for John McCain, if Obama is the nominee.

What is worship for?

The first meeting I attended this week was a Ministries Council meeting on Monday, when they were discussing a recent document produced by a group of about 15-20 laypeople who had met to brainstorm ways of making the church more hospitable to people of diverse backgrounds. The recommendations of this group focused mainly on worship aesthetics; the underlying warrant was, "If almost everything that happens in the sanctuary derives from European Christianity, what does that say about who we expect/hope will come to worship?"

Monday's committee discussion sought to deal with this question, and some of the specific recommendations, while mediating the mutual misunderstanding and hurt between the people who wrote the document with good intentions and the people who felt most hurt by it (i.e. the choir and musicians). The conversation centered a lot around questions like, "What do we mean when we say we're a 'neighborhood church'? What is the 'diversity' to which we aspire? Should we be crafting liturgy based on who is already here, or based on who we want to be here?"

Good questions, to be sure. But I think a few other questions probably need to be addressed first. What is worship for? Is worship about satisfying our manifold tastes, or is it about praising God? Regardless of how satisfying our church experience may feel now, is there anything lost when we worship only with people like us? In other words, might worshiping congregations that are segregated by style & taste (not to mention race & class) be replicating the patterns of a fallen world rather than giving glory to God and bearing witness to a Gospel that incorporates all into One?

16 May 2008

Getting underway.

I arrived in town a week ago, last Saturday night, after a nice ten-hour drive. I was relieved (and a bit weary) once I arrived, and it was great to be greeted by my hosts, a very active retired couple with generous hearts. I made it through a good portion of the trip by listening to some recent podcasts from Radiolab, This American Life, and Bishop Will Willimon.

I was thinking a lot on the drive out about my expectations are for the summer. In general, I try not to hold too tightly to expectations, so that I can be flexible if they aren't met. So I was surprised to realize that as it turns out, I have put a lot of my vocational discernment eggs in this summer's basket. Since before I started at Duke last fall, I've been looking at my Field Ed placements as experiences that will really shed light on whether I am moving towards ordained ministry or not. I'm counting on this summer not only to give me practical experience and to teach me good skills, but also to help illuminate my vocation.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a pastor, but I don't feel ready for people to think of me as a pastor. I think my first challenge this summer will be to overcome that doubt by a step of faith.

(Speaking of This American Life, Melissa has a good post about their truly outstanding recent program explaining the housing crisis.)