The Holy Awkward with Pastor Ryan

Showing items filed under “Ryan LaRock”

When the church stifles its prophetic call.

If buzzwords and phrases these days like “peaceful protest,” “March on…” or “social justice” turn you off, this post will no doubt further the discomfort that typically leads you to remove yourself from reality.  But let’s be honest, these are no different than speaking truth in love, denouncing the forces of wickedness in our world, and the entire tenets of Matthew 25 (the bit about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.)

For the first time in a while since I have been in full time ministry, Sunday, August 13th was a morning where the Holy Spirit overwhelmed me with conviction and the raw grief festering inside of me.  I was angry, disappointed, and afraid.  If you ask any pastor about how fragile the pulpit can be, they will share with you something more or less along the same lines as what I felt.

One of the many actions our United Methodist bishops task us with as pastors is to speak boldly and prophetically.  And let’s be clear, this does not mean speaking for the sake of partisanship or with the intent of buying another vote for the values and beliefs pastors do or do not share with their congregants. I admire the late rabbi, Abraham Heschel when he suggested that

 “The prophet is human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears.  He experiences moments that defy our understanding.  He is neither “a singing saint” nor “a moralizing poet,” but an assaulter of the mind.  Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends.”  

Pastors are called with the lofty task of speaking the extra octave, the truths of God into a broken world.  We lead a life of inviting the complacent to witness rather than to sit by.  Last weekend, I preached on just how critical it is as disciples to venture out of the boat to live out the gospel the way Christ intended it.  And much of that has to do with our constant need to re-examine who we are as “church.”  To put it bluntly, if we are settled, we are missing the mark.

The always witty and always snarky Tina Fey went on Saturday Night Live last week and cast light, with a mouthful of sheet cake, on the incessant attitude of those who resist without reacting.  There is one kind of resisting that I personally feel lacks chutzpah.  The social media trolls who enjoy a good stirring of the pot and find pleasure in never ending paragraph responses that often have no resolve.  Granted, there are exceptions when these can be productive and helpful, but when does it come across simply as avoidance?  And what Tina Fey and others reveal is just how sobering the question is: “What will it take for the Church to react?”

I have been waiting to reflect on the events in Charlottesville, Durham, and elsewhere because I am genuinely discouraged.  I am discouraged when I hear about or see churches that don’t take initiative and I am discouraged when some choose to use Church as an escape from it all.  My heart has been filled with lament these past couple weeks for a variety of reasons:

 I lament as a graduate of two schools where the soil of education and community became a ground for bigotry and hatred.

I lament the trepidation that has confronted faith leaders from living into their call to speak prophetically.

I lament for those who fail to see that these events are not multi sided.

I lament as a white man, brought up in privilege and achievement, for those who have been dealt the brunt of racism as a consequence of white supremacy.

One of the most harmful things I believe you could say to a pastor is “move on” or “get over it.”  Why?  Because the entire gospel life pivots around reclaiming our salvation story in the here and now.  I taught my confirmation students this year the value in approaching Scripture with an open mind and open heart, not limiting themselves to a reading that implies God’s Word is written and done with.  Part of that informs our ability to allow God’s Word to speak not solely in ancient battles between empires, but the conflicts of race, gender, violence, and sexuality that throttle the Church today.

In an effort to press us forward in response to events like Charlottesville, I share some things that can be helpful to you as you seek to be the Church in the midst of such hate:

Don’t stifle our prophetic witness.  This is a collective challenge we share as the Body of Christ.  It’s not just the pastors that have this task.  Preaching professor and writer of Preaching as Testimony, Anna Carter Florence writes: “Jesus himself claimed the freedom of speaking the truth he saw and lived…He embodied for us the essence of proclamation and the essence of Christian faith–which is to speak the truth we have seen and experienced in our own way, no matter what comes.”  When we refuse to name things that occupy our communities, our country, and our world, we are doing a disservice to those who are suffering or who are losing their lives for the sake of what is good and right.

Allow the Psalms to speak into your life. What I’m saying in a nutshell, here, is to give yourself the freedom to lament.  An extension of our faith is crying out to God in the face of uncertainty or hurt.  Don’t treat the Church as a place of shelter from the storms outside of it.  The Church is a reflection of Christ and therefore, is a site where our wounds can be healed and redeemed.

Read and enter dialogue: Before you spout off things like “reverse racism,” the “race card,” or before you decry the Black Lives Matter movement as a hate group, please read the sources!    Assumptions do no one any good.  The New Jim Crow and Racism without Racists are two great starting points that I would recommend.  Read these books with others.  Ask questions.  Be informed.  Ask someone who is directly impacted instead of seeing their situation as exaggeration.

Ask, “What do I idolize? History is, sadly, written when it comes to the conversations at hand around racism, white supremacy, and bigotry; however, Scripture is always a living Word.  So when some decry the removal of statues as an erasing of history or a denial of their heritage, they miss the point.  The Confederate statue debacle raises a genuine question around what we choose to idolize.  Their removal is not about creating a new problem.  It’s about redeeming the wounds already in existence because of a persistent clash of idols.  Duke Chapel was a place where I worshiped.  The space where I graduated to a sermon given by a black woman.  A site committed to serving a student body of wide and diverse religious and racial backgrounds.  A place where among noted leaders in Church history stood Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The Dean of Duke Chapel, Luke Powery, remarked on the recent decision to remove this statue:

     “I looked at the empty space and couple of things came to mind,” Powery said. “I saw it as a hole, or a void. But it is a hole that in many ways represents a hole in the heart of the United States and the ongoing struggles of racism, hatred and bigotry – all the things we’re seeing in our streets. We haven’t come as far as perhaps we thought we had come as a nation.”

Is moving a statue that signifies hatred and a racist ideology to a museum or archive truly breaking your heart when it can serve as a means of helping us unlearn the past?

Lastly, we all should ask “What’s our excuse for not reacting?”  If claiming color-blindness has been your excuse for avoidance, you have bought into a false illusion that on the surface sounds all fluffy and nice, but actually denies our present (yes, present!) reality even further.  To say you “don’t see color” negates Jesus’ ministry entirely for the sake of living in ignorance to difference.  The gospel and early church thrived in communities of difference with the understanding that the Body of  Christ is not ours to define.  To not react is to refuse accepting there is a systemic problem at hand.

Lord, may we continue to strive to be your hands and feet in a world that tries to paint over reality with narratives that are not of You.  Grant that we may lead boldly, beginning with humble confession and moving on towards faithful witness.  Amen.

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Embracing Possibility: Inclusivity, Disability, and Meaning in Church

          “Inclusion” and “inclusivity” are words we often throw around in Church to the point where they become trite.  I do, however, find that when we reclaim these words in light of who we are as the Body of Christ, we return some of the spiritual depth and meaning back to them.

          I asked Brooke what an inclusive church would look like as it pertains to her own ministry experience: 

               “Inclusion has to be done meaningfully and not in a way to check a box to say we’ve done something…[where] somebody with a difference has the opportunity to participate fully in every aspect of church life.”  

In my years in various rural and urban churches, be it as a participant, a leader, and especially as a white male, I have noticed how easy it is for us to make tokens out of those who do not look, think, talk or live like the majority.  What I like to call the “representation effect” all too often gets the best of our ability to see in the way God truly wants and desires us to see; we do have differences within our communities and we cannot simply choose to be blind to that reality.  It is the phenomenon Brooke echoed and described to me where people in churches chalk up someone’s simple presence in a choir or in the pew/chair as inclusive when it is much more than that.  Brooke shared with me that the questions we should be asking pertain to how we are fostering an inclusive community that is meaningful to the whole rather than just creating isolated spaces where those with certain needs can be fed.  It involves posing the thought of are there ways we can collectively, regardless of ability, worship, connect, serve?

As it relates to Brooke’s ministry here at Christ Church, she believes a community that reaches those who are differently-abled is one that is willing to open its doors not just on a Sunday.  Drawing on her own family experiences attending various churches, she told me that it was not uncommon to encounter a faith community that pretty much designated a basement or back room for a ministry to meet those with different needs.  The stigma and social harm that have worked their way into the Church institution and many other social places have formed just as many pockets of microaggresion around physical and intellectual disabilities as they have race, gender, and human sexuality.

Brooke says responding to these sorts of reactions begins with the clarification that “We want to be treated like anyone else.”  She works with one adult who has a heart for holding the door open.  She ministers to others who learn and grow in their faith through multi-sensory means.  It’s about letting these adults and children use their gifts in self-advocating when and where they can.  If you have a leadership team, having someone with a disability on it deconstructs much of the stigma in place.  It was refreshing to hear from Brooke that labeling anything as “special” is not always as helpful as we might think it to be.

With that in mind, Brooke laid out for me some helpful foundations that we can adopt in our churches around how to begin having these conversations the right way.

Much of it begins with the naming of the reality, she said.  [Too often we are] “concerned or caught up in having the right, politically correct language” that we stifle inquiry or questions with unchallenged acceptance.  She proposed the challenge of engaging in these conversations when kids or youth ask instead of avoiding an opportunity for them to learn.  The other piece she put forth is that“Access is different.”  We always have to be thinking through questions like, “What does an outdoor picnic look like for someone in a wheel chair?  What does inclusion look like in our preschool?”

At Christ Church, we are exploring ways of entering these conversations and engaging in how we worship, connect, and serve.  Recently, Brooke and I have come up with creative ways that allow our entire community to experience things like communion and our service of anointing.

Brooke told me the verse that comes to mind for her and her ministry is Luke 1:37, “With God all things are possible” and “not like the cliche healing verse.” She says the most important thing to remember is that Church is about a relationship with Jesus Christ.  “As with public education, every one has a right to have that personal relationship with Christ.”  One of her friends in our possibilities ministry wanted baptism, saying “because Jesus loves me and I love Jesus.”  Brooke affirmed this as it sometimes being their unique understanding that offers us a simplistic and genuine view of Christ.  Something we pray and hope captures the heart of what the Church should be about.  The core of the gospel and what belonging to the Body of Christ means for us.

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