America’s Next Top Model

by Karl Fredrickson

Sunday before service started I told Nate Noonen that the sermon was hard for me, hard in the preparation. I told him it was harder for me than the words appeared to me on the page after I’d written it.

Usually I try to move beyond a sermon when it’s over. I know that many preachers find this difficult, even if by virtue of our work we, simply, have to go off to the next thing. I learned from Dallas Willard how important and ministry nurturing it can be to move along, to keep going, and to not get stuck in a sermon.

It can be a tempting thing to linger over what we say as preachers. Aside from our easy proclivity to esteem ourselves, we can also lose sight of the purpose of the sermon. It’s purpose is, in part, to move people to action.

Lingering and action contrast. The best sermons are worth lingering over, returning to, hearing again, and they somehow move us to act, to be in the world, and to be different in the world.

For me, moving beyond Sunday’s sermon has proven particularly difficult. I invited the church, our intentionally multiethnic church, to listen to and learn from the life of Hannah, a sister in the first testament who spent years asking God to remember her, asking God for a son. Most of us don’t embrace the real experience of waiting while asking for the same thing. I personally find it’s more efficient to keep going. Especially in terms of injustice and other topics that prove our country’s lack of growth, conception, and productivity.

As part of the sermon, I gave a few names of people that I think our church folks would be tutored by in our work of reconciliation. These people “came up before me” during my sermon preparation the weeks prior. They aren’t, by any means, an attempt at a longer treatment of the question. Of course this was in the same message that I offered my personal and hard questions about why that ministry of reconciliation is even important and how hard it is despite its biblical relevance. Hannah is answering some of my personal questions these days.

My brother, David, has offered a wonderful resource on the topic and related themes of reconciliation in the form of an annotated bibliography. You need to read it here.

At Nate’s request, here are those names of people I mentioned. I characterized them as contemporary renderings of 1 Samuel 1-2, fully realizing that these folks themselves would use other words to describe their work. Thanks for asking, Nate Noonen.

  1. The writings and work of Audre Lorde whose poem, New York City, I read as a contemporary version of our scriptural passage (1 Samuel 1:1-20)
  2. The writings and work of Peggy McIntosh
  3. The writings and work of Patricia Leary
  4. The writings and work of Tim Wise
  5. The writings and work of Ida B. Wells
  6. The writings and work of bell hooks
  7. The revolutionary suicide post on Dr. Melissa Harris Perry’s blog was to be my second contemporary version of the text but I didn’t have the time to include it; it’s here.

Quote of the Day

Photo Thanks to Talia Cohen

Photo Thanks to Talia Cohen

I’m posting quotes as we go through the fuzzy zone of being new parents again in these next days. This quote comes from Carrie Doehring (The Practice of Pastoral Care: A Postmodern Approach, 111):

People become most aware of their values when they reach turning points in their lives and must make choices or when they are thrust into decision making because of a crisis. Prior to such moments, they may not have thought much about the values that orient them to the meaning and purpose of their lives. At its simplest, theology is a way to talk about people’s deepest values.

Stuff I’m Writing (3 of 3)

Photo Thanks to Aaron Burden

Photo Thanks to Aaron Burden

When I started the supervisory education program in CPE, I noticed that there were hardly any meaningful trails about the process on the internet. I decided to write through my process. So I have some “public process notes” on the blog in order to keep track of some of my experiences.

Related to that, I’ve been working on materials for a committee appearance in early April. While I won’t go into much about the appearance on this side of the meeting, I want to put up a few thoughts from the three papers I prepared for submission to the committee.

This is a part of my theology theory paper—a major paper for the supervisory process. I’ll get feedback and work on it until it sings and is ready for the subsequent processes. This portion is around the mini-section on contextual theology and the incarnation, a major second step in the paper after I talk about sources of theology which emerge out of the narrative tradition of my African-American experience. There are quotes from James Cone’s God of the Oppressed and Smith and Riedel-Pfaefflin’s Siblings By Choice: Race, Gender, and Violence.

My experience shaped how I arrived at scripture, how often I visited the Bible, and how basic encountering the passage has been to how I encountered the God behind it. In that sense, I’m a contextual theologian. In my pastoral theology there are roots of contextual theology. Having sources like experience from which to draw theological language eventually brings me to God, the content rather than the periphery. God is who we were singing about in my younger days.

Traditional Christian formulations of God are Trinitarian. They are more than that for sure because God cannot be captured by our formulations. As is true in the grand historical human experience, God has been disclosing God’s person in many ways. I’ve “met God” through conversations with an addict named Lawrence who talked to me about beauty while painting the church. I’ve met God through the silence of a person who was struck by a loved one’s sudden death. God’s come in those moments and come to me. Always sensitive to me, to us, to the audience, God meets us in our specific conditions.

The incarnation where “God becomes flesh” is the striking example of this. Thurman called the incarnation “the great disclosure.” Through the incarnation God is at work, revealing, disclosing, and opening to others who God is. James Cone reminds us that Jesus is not a theological proposition restricted to the conceptual. Jesus matters because he is matter, because he exists outside of our heads.

He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people struggling for political freedom…Jesus is not simply a doctrine or even a particular event limited by time. He is the eternal event of liberation in the divine person who makes freedom a constituent of human existence. There is no existence apart from him because he is the ground of existence without whom nothing is.

I think of God as eternal, as essentially loving, as relatable. I think of the inextricable way that justice is the avenue whereby God’s loves. “In short, God is manifest to us through material means.” God expresses all that God is through particular means. We never is love without justice, mercy without reconciliation. One is the expression of the other, the explicit exhibiting the implicit. As Kelly Brown Douglas, a womanist theologian writing Christology, says, there is a compatibility between Christianity and acts of justice.

Spiritual care, then, as an incarnational act is an expression of God’s intention toward human beings, and that care is at the bottom of our work in CPE where we attend to our selves and our ministries. As an expression of love, our work is also an expression of justice. As necessary as people are to that theological articulation, the first actor is Divine. God acts, expressing love and justice—expressing God’s self—and people receive that action, respond to it.

People are created by God, and as created beings have a host of ways through which we interact with the world; we are emotional, intellectual, and physical beings. Each element of a person’s makeup is grounded in the Creator’s initiation and desire. Seen and unseen elements compose us. All of these avenues become vehicles through which God can reach, heal, teach, and transform us.

God touches the world through us, connecting with us—the incarnation, again, being an exemplary portion of this, a clinical encounter is another—and then connecting with the creation through us. God cares for creation in other ways which we cannot see. A chaplain’s role is to participate in God’s work in the world by, variously, cooperating with God to care for, protect, preserve, challenge, and observe the work of God through human interventions, through silence, and through the variety of ways we care. People are the means for and recipients of that care. Care is aware of the past.

In Siblings by Choice, the authors tell us the truth about the power of the past:

The past represents ways of knowing that emerge from struggle and can inform us today. The complex and ambiguous present is the result of the experiences, thinking, and struggles of our ancestors who were born and raised in civilizations and circumstances different from our own. Their struggles birthed the conditions under which our consciousness develops and our life narrative unfolds. From them we may gain wisdom for patterns of living that extend an otherwise limited perspective on the present.

Care isn’t beholden to the past. It honors the past, holds the past and present together, particularly as people struggle with the present crises of life such as death, sickness, loss, and change. But care is future-oriented, always looking for the right now connections between humanity and divinity.

The Trouble & Beauty of Wheaton College

MlecezekI’ve been reading occasional media reports for two months as one of my alma mater’s has been in the news. Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian college, in a western Chicago suburb, has been on screen as some administrators and board members have tried to remove from the faculty Professor Larycia Hawkins, the school’s first tenured female African American scholar. She is a political science scholar who wore a hijab in an expression of solidarity with Muslims being persecuted in the political sphere. She also wrote on her Facebook wall sentiments about standing as a Christian with other people of the book, Muslims in this case.

The administration’s initial response, putting Dr. Hawkins on a forced leave, was on theological grounds. They quibbled with her theological articulation which included a quote from Pope Francis about who God is. Very recently faculty members responded by questioning those grounds, Bible and Theology faculty included. The faculty voted unanimously for the administration to revoke the leave and restore Dr. Hawkins. More information can be read here, here, and here.

There is trouble and beauty in what Wheaton’s done. As an institution, the place where I did my first master’s degree, has singled-out a sister scholar and chastised her for publicly showcasing the thing the college stands for: Christ and his Kingdom. They didn’t like the way she did it, of course. And they unfairly chose to punish Dr. Hawkins and not follow a similar course for other faculty members who made similar testimony of faith in relationship to political issues (i.e., theologically informed ethics in society).

Do something a black sister scholar, tenured mind you, and there’s theological and historical refuge. Overlook the white sisters and brothers doing the same, and it’s something else altogether. There’s trouble. I’m ashamed of Wheaton’s administration.

But there is beauty too. Students and teachers have reacted in Christian ways to an administration that in its hyper-evangelical consciousness lost hold to the message of evangelicalism. And I saw the name of the scholar who taught me principles of hermeneutics, which a class about how to read and apply the Bible. And what he said was freeing, moved me to actually write a quick blog.

Dr. Greene called Professor Hawkins’s gesture(s) beautiful. And he wasn’t alone. A unanimous faculty, in its own way and for its own collective reason, joined together to underline the beauty of Wheaton. If they hadn’t done so, I’d have a whole load more of trouble with Wheaton. And I do have stirrings for the school for sure.

Nonetheless, I pray for Dr. Hawkins, that her faith would not fail, that it would flourish. I pray for Wheaton, that the entire community would live deeply into the values and acts of the person of Jesus.

Prayer As Protest (4 of 4)

As I’ve mentioned in the previous three posts, I asked my church Sunday morning to participate in a time public witness and my reasons why are in this last post.

Photo Thanks to Jeff Sheldon

Photo Thanks to Jeff Sheldon

First, my brother asked me to. David Swanson serves as the lead pastor of our sister church, and he asked us to publicize what he and other leaders were doing. I have a rule in my life–one that has yet to be abused–and that rule is this: when David tells me to do something, I don’t question it. There is probably one other person who gets that treatment. It’s another way of saying that when David asks for something, I’ve already answered him.

Second, New Community is multiethnic, and I know that one specific way that people from different ethnicities do mission together is by our being invited to something specific. We have so many nuanced experiences that it becomes impossible to know when to show up. There are people in my church who would never be inclined to even consider it appropriate to come to a protest. And they’d have their good reasons. But a specific invitation would change that for them.

Third, I told the church that “some of my cousins” would be at the vigil. There would be a few Black folks. And then I said that I wanted my other family members to be there as well. I was certainly looking at particular people in the room. I even gave everyone a way out so as to soften my tone. I was feeling “very close to myself” as I spoke. But my spiritual relatives–and not just my spiritual friends–were sitting there. And before I preached the sermon, I had to bare my honesty. I wanted them to show up. My congregation is a part of me, and I wanted them to know that I valued our relationship enough to invite them into what is making a difference in my life right now.

Fourth, I know that a congregation in Logan Square, a neighborhood with about 4 Black residents, could consist without getting into things on the south side. I didn’t want that. We have people in our church who live as far south as Will County frankly. Beyond that acknowledgment, I want us to be a church that responds to the realities of a few because those realities reflect the experiences of the few. In a city where the dominant narrative and dominant culture–which tends to be the white narrative and culture–is always accepted, the church has these slight chances to underline another story, another’s story. The church that follows Jesus is always listening for the story of the crucified one, the busted one, the marginalized and misunderstood one. That search makes us followers of the splendid and maligned Christ. That search makes us Christian.

Fifth, I’ve been inviting the church for 2 years now into experiences like this. It felt good and terrible to get up Sunday wearing these same clothes and saying these same lines. To have the church attend another experience, to pray about this same type of tragedy, was heartbreaking. I’m tired of it. I was tired of it. But in that soul exhaustion was the blessing that the church had heard this before. They heard me leading in worship and sermonic form as we dialogued the day after Zimmerman further experienced the distortion of his injustice and crime. They heard me ask for their prayers the Sunday before my family joined with David’s family to travel to St. Louis County and as we prepared to participate in similar public witness as clergy. It felt good to know that I didn’t have to explain it all.

Sixth, I value presence as an outgrowth our church’s life. In general, I suspect churches that proclaim things without practicing the same. I question leaders who say one thing and do another. I question that tendency in myself. So when I have chances to pair my action with my words, I gesture toward integrity and authenticity by living the words. As one of the pastors in our church, when I exercise my gifts in the congregation, I’m offering the church an opportunity to move toward the same integrity and authenticity which I’m moving toward personally. In other words, for us to claim our mission weekly that “We exist to be a city within a city, an alternate Chicago…” leaves us open to any opportunity to go and live into that mission. That’s why we remind people of those opportunities at the benediction. Go and live it. Monday was about our corporate life living into the mission. It wasn’t the only way but it was one good way.

Seventh, the final reason behind my invitation was my personal need to, at that time, identify with a need in my life and in the lives of the Black people in our church. I (and I’ll see we) needed to ask for evidence from our multiethnic congregation that Black life, indeed, mattered to them. I knew Sunday that Blackness mattered to me. I continue to need the general, regular reassurance that what matters to me matters to the faith community. That’s part of the unfortunate reality of living in exilic conditions: you need the people of faith to remind you of what truth is. The church on Monday–from all over the city–got together to remind Black people that the persistent and sinful actions against Black kids is unjust. I invited my church into the stream of grace-filled evidence that God is working now in the midst of this present darkness. And they showed up. My small group on Sunday discussed it. Those who couldn’t come committed to praying from afar. I was emailed or texted by a few people. New Community people greeted and hugged me at the vigil. The church stepped up. May God grant us the total grace to keep at it.

Prayer As Protest (3 of 4)

I said to my church Sunday, in advance of a public witness Monday, that the church was gathering to pray. I emphasized prayer and said that our focus wasn’t protest but prayer. Even while saying it, I was questioning my cadence, my precision, and my intent.

I was using an approach in the brief appeal, one I’ve heard the preacher use in the church of my upbringing. I was italicizing the word I chose. And I said it because the focus of the time Monday was to be public witness generally and prayer specifically.

But the more accurate reflection of my thought and, I think, the biblical material from which I draw is that prayer is protest. The people of the book protest through the particular form of prayer. Protestations as we understand them now are foreign in the world of scripture. It would be anachronistic and arrogant, unfair and unreasonable to say that the bible includes protest unless that protest takes the form of a kind of prayer, on one hand, or prophetic utterance, on the other.

In other words, the way that we see protest occurring in the scriptures is through prayers and prophecies–prophecies of the forth-telling flavor, not the foretelling kind. I’d call these two gestures really good metrics for gauging our contemporary public witness. If there is no prayer and if there is no prophecy in public places, there is no public witness. If there is no public witness, what role does the (local or gathered) church have in that civic arena?

Monday NightIn thinking since about prayer as an act of protest, I’m holding onto the following truths I see in the scriptures. And I’m correcting my own use from Sunday. I didn’t take as much time to enrich my invitation, because Sunday was very full, but I would edit myself to clarify a bit to involve the following.

Biblical people call God out. The bible is about a people who are a noisy folk. There is quiet in our text but not a lot. When the people of God needed God, they did not shrivel in a corner. Rather, they called upon their God, even during long days and nights when they felt unheard and disinherited. The Hebrew people cried out while enslaved, and you can’t tell a slave to hush. You can’t convince an unpaid laborer that calling out for “one more day” is reasonable, particularly when the audience of his pain is the Divine Audience. But the people called out nonetheless.

Biblical people name harsh, right-now reality. The content of lament is real life. The guts of the people’s prayer is what happens now. People who know the Black faith tradition know that this has always been a part of the common religious stream of beautiful Black folk. We have been unrestrained in our proclaimed expectation for life now to mirror life wherever else God dwells. If life in the white neighborhood is good–replace that with “suburb” or heaven if you please–life in Englewood and Auburn-Greshem and Washington Heights should be good. When reality is harsh, the prayerful protest calls for another reality.

Biblical people state interior experience unequivocally. There is a false sense that we carry and that is that we cannot be honest with God. It’s wrong. God desires truth in the inner parts says the songwriter. The truth is that God wants you and your interior reality, your vulnerability, and your honesty because those things combine to equal who you really are. God isn’t concerned about your front or my social self. God cares less for that because it’s a grand mask. God’s people state what is real: their pain when they’re in pain and their joy when they’re in joy. Wouldn’t your life be better if you told the simple truth? Wouldn’t you feel freer with your God if you were honest? That’s the God-offered requirement anyway.

Biblical people assume that prayer changes everything. Ms. Virginia used to sing in the choir at Sweet Holy Spirit that she knew that prayer changed things. Oh, can she sing it! She was informed by her life and her reading of scripture. Even when the church and Israel before her lived in the exact opposite condition; even when Babylonian exile seemed to be the only gift the Jews could hold; even when the crucifixion was the longest reality during those dark days from Friday to Sunday; people gathered to pray. They knew that faith would collect them and inspire them to acknowledge fear but to acknowledge that fear wasn’t the only feeling in the room. In faith, they prayed because prayer moves and changes and turns and performs. Prayer is a means of grace, and where grace is change is.

Biblical people start from a corporate location. I could flip the order of these points in my post. Surely, it’s fine to start with this point. Biblical people aren’t individualistic. They are individuals, for sure, but their orientation and the orientation of all the words of God are that God is up to wide, massive, increasingly participatory redemption of the entirety of creation. The writings of scripture have personal application but that isn’t the starting place. God’s people and God’s words to that people involve a regular communal nature that is very different from me and mine.

May we pray better. May the Lord teach us to pray.

Living the Intersection

I appreciate that my training in clinical pastoral education is giving me reason to enter into a beautiful reading list. I’m covering by necessity pastoral arts, theology, history, and supervision. I’m spending my time becoming a better minister, a slower thinker, a deeper educator of servants, and hopefully a person more responsive to these gifts in a clinical encounter, whatever form it takes.

As I’ve mentioned on my blog, I’m reading, and in an effort to “keep more of what I’m reading,” this review is, in part, in order for me to see again some of the words of the writers I’m encountering. This book, Living the Intersection: Womanism and Afrocentrism in Theology is a book on theology, particularly womanist theology in contradistinction to afrocentricism.

The contributors draw upon their reading of Molefi Asante’s use of Afrocentrism. His conceptualization is widely read and has been a persistent critique to Christianity and Islam with regard to black people. The description of the concept is in the book, so I won’t completely summarize their rendering of Asante. Still, one of Asante’s basic assertions according to the editor of Living the Intersection is the mistaken notion that Christianity is a historically acceptable religious option for African Americans. His basic critique is the mismatchedness of the Christian faith and the better natural fit of, presumably, African Traditional Religions. His notion of Afrocentrism is in conversation in this book with thinkers from the womanist theological posture.

Womanist is a term from Alice Walker who in the novel The Temple of My Familiar “has taken some of her womanist ideas and tried to run them through narratively.” As Gilkes says in the collection, Walker gives writers a rich term to capture her own artistic attempts to debate humanity and reject racism in order to push “for a larger, relational, humanist vision.” Walker used a word (i.e., womanist) started something. Note that she was moving toward a vision. I think that’s an evocative theological motive: vision.

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

To be fair, most will tie Alice Walker’s literary genius to the conceptual offerings of others before her. Living the Intersection does the same. Deborah E. McDowell does this in her chapter on “Slavery as a Sacred Text.” McDowell reminds us of the tenuous relationship between black people and already-determined-and-already-decided-principles-of-somebody-else’s-interpretation, saying, that “Scripture is not sacred as an untamperable given; it is rather a set of texts to be questioned, negotiated with, and variously interpreted” (p. 82). Womanist interpretation is tied to the experience of a slave being told what to think and how long to think it relative to being “free in Christ.”

Youtha C. Hardman-Cromwell connects womanism to the wealth of poetic contributions written by black women. She decorates her chapter with pieces from Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Maya Angelou among others. She’s doing what the biblical psalmists did: pointing to the poetic, musical expression of a sister in order to underline some truth about life and God. Womanist theology comes out of poetry.

Given their nod to the historical connections leading to womanism, the contributors in Living the Intersection give much respect to Walker for snatching up the spirit of such fruitful work in Walker’s careful word choice. Edited by Cheryl J. Sanders, these writers are connecting language with spirituality and theological reflection in order to pursue a vision of beauty and wholeness. “We are here because we believe we have a story to tell to the nation, and our experience has something special to say to the world.” (p. 22) I wish that was on a t-shirt worn by all the people I love: I have something special to say to the world.

Living the Intersection is an anchoring text for those interested in listening to tones and songs of black women teaching foundational theology for the purpose of telling a story of faith which changes lives and builds people. This book, among those I’m reading as I study in CPE supervisory education, is about how we understand God, how we understand the lived experience of black women, and how we take cues from those two understandings for life.

Theology is God talk, language we use to express who we think God to be. It is necessarily risky. After all, theology is language about God. It relates to us, to those God has made, but it starts in relation to the One for whom words could forever be written and read. Eventually that linguistic effort ends in wholeness. Kelly Brown Douglas in the book delineates that wholeness is about triumph over oppression “so that the individual is whole even as she or he struggles for the community’s wholeness.” And “wholeness for a community indicates that it is not divided against itself and that is free, liberated from oppression.” (p. 68)

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

As students, we draw from our various sources to unearth, examine, and interrogate the ingredients of faith, to critique forms of faith, to inspire better uses and practices of faith. In the language of Sanders, our work is about the “survival and wholeness of an entire people” and about the “affirmation, assertiveness, and actualization of women.” The book says enough times for the reader to get that the affirmation of women is never akin to the diminution of men. There is a holistic vision that womanist theologians are pushing us toward, one that names the general and boldly wrong unnamededness of women. Encouraging the regular procurement of black women’s identity from themselves (Hardman-Cromwell), we are “moving the black community toward wholeness” (Douglas).

In this book, womanism stands next to afrocentrism, and the sister theologians–from a decidedly black, feminist, ethical, theological, and literary sphere–offer us an introduction to the foundational elements of womanism as a way of doing theology.

Doing theology is important. I can’t recall what I first meant when I started using that phrase, just after my seminary days. When I use the phrase now, I intend to mean that theology is immediately and always practiced. It is reflection with a purpose. It is considered and expressed language that is Spirit-empowered, generative, constructive, and prophetic. Theology is ethical because it meets the practice of our lives; it tutors us, trains us to be. We don’t simply write theology. We do it. We live it.

This beautiful book is full of my sisters and aunts and mothers, and they are all writing me into becoming…