Friday, January 26, 2007

The End of the Line

Like all good things, J-term too comes to an end, and that end is now. From here on out, all of our ruminations about our time in Nebraska are for us to ponder in our hearts, not in public, as we continue our journey through seminary. To all of the wonderful people that we were fortunate enough to meet during our trip; thank you for your hospitality and your patience. You welcomed us into your homes and lives and we were lucky to have you. Thank you to everyone who took the time to read what we wrote here. We appreciate it and hope that you got something out of it. We certainly did.

Good night sweet blog, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Mea Culpa

While stuffing my laptop into its carrying case for use in class presentations today, I quickly removed some papers that were hanging about in the case. My eye caught on one of the papers and I realized that it was something that I had promised to scan and upload to the blog awhile ago, and that I had failed to do so. So without further ado, here it is.

This artwork is from the cover of a bulletin from Followers of Christ Church. The church is led by Pastor William Barth and is located in the Nebraska State Penitentiary. The design was created by one of the congregants and is shown here with the permission of Pastor Barth.


There are seven principles, or practices, defined in Discovering Hope, by David Poling-Goldenne and L. Shannon Jung. They are:
Understanding Context
The final practice, Understanding Context, was the purpose of my last post. Therefore, I will not consider it here. However, I will spend some time reflecting on St. Matthew (and what I know about St. John), rural ministry, and these practices.

Prayer: Prayer is a primary practice among vital churches in all settings. In my worship class this past semester, my professor, Dr. Mark Bangert, suggested that we are the best answer to our prayers. Our prayers cause us to act. In all honesty, I did not see a lot of thoughtful prayer on this trip. I do not mean that as a criticism, but as a statement of fact. I ate a meal of leftovers one night and someone said "It's already been prayed over." Or, during the prayers of intercession, even in examples of worship services given to us at a conference, they were listed as coming from a worship resource instead of being written to suit the needs of the community. Lots of churches do that, but what are they loosing when they do so? Why isn't prayer a common practice? What effect is it having on the ministry in these areas? I am very curious to see a church with a strong prayer practice. Discovering Hope is full of examples, but I would really like to know how they practically work. What does a strong prayer ministry entail? How does a church decide what to focus on in its prayer ministry? What would be unique about that in a rural setting?

Worship: By far, the most exciting worship I went to on this trip was the worship at the Rural Ministry Conference on our second Saturday in Nebraska. It was geared toward our purpose. I also attended a workshop there on worship. It was taught by Pr. Nancy Nyland whose former congregation is outlined in Discovering Hope. She provided us with several examples of worship services she had done over the years. While I may not be brave enough to do the services in my own church, the strongest key to them was the fact that they were written for certain groups on specific days. For example, she had written a liturgy for Rogation Sunday, to commemorate the time for planting. Both Nancy and the book seem to emphasis doing things differently and creatively. However (and perhaps those things are a part of this), I think that vital worship is planned to suit the needs of the community while remaining open to newcomers. That does mean that it is important to create a level of comfort for worshippers. As Nancy pointed out, there does need to be some level of predictability, such as a familiar order to things. I think that if the congregation is comfortable with the worship service, they will be able to be more available to help visitors, they can participate with greater energy, and they can become more attune to the meaning of what is happening. I am not a proponent of doing things the same way every time, but, rather, or being aware of a congregation's needs and listening to them.

Discipleship: Discovering Hope thinks that learning is at the center of discipleship. They point out the importance of "Bible study and devotional reflection" (46). I never attended a Bible study at St. Matthew, but Marianna, my host mom, spoke glowingly of the Bible studies she attended. This does seem key. At the Rural ministry Conference, creative and thoughtful education through Sunday School and Confirmation ministries was the topic of two workshops. These things give congregants the tools to share with others what they have learned. Discovering Hope calls this "Disciples mak[ing] disciples" (47). I worry, however, that Bible studies may not be attended or at times readily available to everyone in the church body. More can be done to model behavior. Prs. Amalia and Eric at Long Branch Lutheran talked at length about how they struggled to model hospitality, leadership, and even family devotions for their congregation. Making disciples is not an easy task. One thing I thought that was frequently missing was the training of lay leaders to also participate in this modeling behavior.

Evangelism: I have a sneaking suspicion that what I have to say here will cause the greatest knee-jerk reaction among those who hosted us throughout our journey. While I am sure evangelism is happening among Nebraska's rural churches, I didn't see it on any explicit terms. These churches do do service, which puts their name out there, but I saw very little done to focus on bringing in new people. There seems to be an understanding that everyone knows the church is there, and anyone who wants to come, can. At the Rural Ministry Conference we talked about the importance of relationships in rural congregations (those of us on the trips really felt that this is a staple in ALL congregations) (I also think it is worth noting that "evangelism" was not mentioned, nor was it a "what's working workshop" topic). The congregations we met were pretty good at establishing relationships, but, at Salem, one member commented that even after several years she had still felt like an "outsider." The speaker at the Rural Ministry Conference talked about the importance of being people-centered instead of program-centered. I totally agree, but programs (ie, service projects, childcare, leadership retreats, bible studies, Sunday School, Confirmation - are these all not "programs") have a place in evangelism. They are places to invite people. They are places to encourage members to engage their neighbors. They are places were people can be on the same playing field, reducing the insider-outsider feel. I am not sure that I have the right answer, but I certainly feel that I still have a lot to learn about how successful evangelism works in rural areas.

Servanthood/ministry: Servanthood was something I saw everywhere I went in Johnson. People gladly giving up their time to help others. The rescue squad and fire department are volunteers! People whose children are grown are religiously at the basketball games to support the teams. Every church we went to made quilts for Lutheran World Relief. However, it seems that the churches limit their own ministries because they know of the many things their members already do. What effect does this have on the church members? What if they are not involved in these community service projects? What do they do then? Discovering Hope points out that these caring ministries must be oriented to the needs of the community in order to be successful and/or vital. I am not sure that I am able to answer the question I'm going to ask, but: what ministries might be started at St. Matthew/St. John to help meet the needs of the community?

Leadership: Here is a place where I saw some vitality. I met several strong pastors who are cornerstones of the community. I saw pastors who attempt to model the godly life for their congregants. Moreover, I met amazing lay leaders with genuine hopes and dreams for their congregation. They were storehouses of information, waiting to be taped. I think vital rural ministry will look inward at itself for ideas that can be used outward. I don't mean that they will be centered with themselves, but that it will listen to the needs expressed by their members. This is an excellent place to start when looking for ways to jump start any of the above ministries. This is where I saw the most success in Nebraska. First, look at all the leaders who were willing to host our group. We met people at the Sunday service who had stories to tell about what they had seen and are seeing happening in their areas. Many of the places we toured we places of employment for members of the area churches. They are the frontline of evangelists, whether or not they know it! The ladies went to Salem Lutheran and met lay leaders who were thoughtful and aware what was going on in their community, what was good at their church, and the places they were lacking. They were thoughtfully pondering where to go from where they are now. At the Rural Ministry Conference, there were many pastors, but there were just as many lay leaders. They had great ideas!

It may seems as though I am being harsh here. That is not my intent. Every congregation has room for improvement. As a non-member and an outsider, I am able to look more objectively at what is going on. On the other hand, I know that I am unaware of the full scope of a congregation's ministry. A good portion of my comments, I hope, will serve me well when I have my own congregation. I think the greatest key to ministry, in any of the areas above, is careful discernment of God's call. He is the most aware of the entire situation and can guide us in ways we never imagined.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Trade Offs

Anywhere one lives, there are bound to be some good points and some bad points. It's a thought that keeps on coming back to me since we left Nebraska. Be it Chicago vs. Nebraska or just rural vs non-rural, what's the trade, what are some of the strong points of each and some of the weak points? Everyone will value certain things differently, so I can't say how it would all stack up according to someone else. All I know is what are the factors that strike me.

Yesterday I was downtown, making my way to the nearest stop for the #6 Jackson Park Express bus, when I was stopped and ordered to proceed through six lanes of traffic and use the sidewalk on the other side of the street. This was because they were filming Fred Claus. (see the trailer here) right outside of Nordstrom there and had commandeered the whole area. This is where people value things differently. Some would be thrilled. Maybe they would get to see Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti or somebody else. Me? I was mostly just annoyed at having to cross traffic.

There are a lot of things like that. A city has certain amenities, but each person values them differently. I enjoy the shopping. As for sports, I am at best, indifferent. I have a sneaking fondness for things like opera and ballet, but not the resources to support such interests, so it makes little difference. I enjoy museums and the variety of restaurants, but rarely eat out. The public transportation is great, because I prefer not to deal with the traffic and parking here. However, it has its limits. I can't carry heavy furniture home with me on the el and people consider things to be so easily available in Chicago that they aren't very helpful about my need to be able to get the furniture somewhere. Whereas, when something is considered to be a rarer commodity locally, people are sometimes more helpful. (I've known someone to take a furniture shopping list composed by family, friends, and co-workers, buy the stuff and then drive it more than 2,250 miles to its destination, since they were going that way anyway.) Sometimes when I'm walking alone after dark, I wonder how much of the need for constant vigilance I would be happy to trade for sidewalks that rolled up shortly after six. So how do you feel about pollution obscuring the stars or a lack of options for your Friday night entertainment? Those are decisions that we all need to think about and be prepared to make when the time comes.


There are a few things I would like to do to reflect on my rural immersion. First, I would like to use Johnson and St. Matthew and St. John as a kind of case study of rural life. Thus, I will consider what I learned about Johnson, as Lawrence Farris suggest in Dynamics of Small Town Ministry. Then, I will consider how St. Matthew compares to the principles of vital church ministry established in Discovering Hope.

In his book, Farris suggests that a new pastor do a few things to get to know the community one is entering. He suggests that understanding the town's dynamics will help one understand the people. Farris outlines five areas one should investigate: area geography, town geography, town history, town culture, and town values. Farris also suggests why these things are important. I would like to consider each area independently by outlining the things I noticed during my short stay in Johnson and by asking any remaining questions I have.

Area Geography: Several of the books we read cite R. Alex Sim who, in his book, Land and Community, outlined four types of small towns: Ribbonvilles, Agravilles, Mighthavebeenvilles, and Fairviews. The names say a lot about them. After visiting Johnson, I think Johnson is a Mighthavebeenville. Truly, it is a great place, but if Johnson's residents need to do shopping or be entertained, they drive 15 minutes to nearby Auburn, which is an Agraville. Farris suggests that Mighthavebeenvilles are controlled by and dependent on the nearby Agraville, as seems to be the case in Johnson.

The area about Johnson is hilly (here is Johnson, its location in Nebraska, and its relief). From a high hill, one can see neighbors in all directions. Sometimes tall trees get in the way. Many houses use evergreen trees on the north and west sides to help protect them from the wind in winter. Most of the surrounding area is farmland. The people here seem very close-knit. My host mother could point out each house and tell me volumes about who lived there. I think the fact that they can see one another so easily leads to this open feeling.

Some remaining questions: What is the year-round weather like? How does that effect this area? What does the area look like at other times of the year? How does that effect people?

Town Geography: Johnson has a main street. On main street, there is a small grocery store, a gas station called "The Quick Stop" (though that name does not appear on the building), the fire station, the grain elevator (where the picture at left is taken), the meat processing plant (Wednesday is slaughtering day), the cafe, the tavern, the bank, the small funeral home, the insurance company, and the school. St. Matthew and the local Methodist church are two blocks west of the main drag. There is also a baseball diamond on the west side of town. One can see the remains of a lumber yard. Some of the business are boarded up.

The sidewalks roll up early in town, probably around dark. They cafe is open for lunch after church on Sunday. It has a buffet. There are no francaise stores. Other than the Cafe and the White Horse (the bar) there are no other restaurants. The signs pointing to the town talk about the famous chicken barbecue

Remaining questions: What was this town like in its heyday? What were the businesses that are now closed? What is the town like during the chicken barbecue? Who comes?

Town History: I was unable to glean much about the town's history. It seems to be very involved in agriculture. I did glean some recent history. For example, across the street from St. Matthew is a Habitat for Humanity House. Unfortunately, the family had some troubles, so the status of the home is unclear. The meat processing store used to be owned by Augie and Lois, the family Peter stayed with.

Remaining questions: What is the town's history? What were have been Johnson's defining moments? When did businesses start to close? Have the businesses there always been the same? What about the churches? When did they come in? Who founded them?

Town Culture: Farris outlines six things to consider about an area's culture: economy, politics, social life, education, and cycle of events. Johnson's economy is agricultural. The grain elevator seems to the hub of what's going on in town. According to the US Census Bureau, the two other major employers of people living in Johnson are education and "Transportation, warehousing, and Utilities." I was not able to tell much about the political situation in Johnson. I think it is worth noting that the rescue squad and fire department consists entirely of civilian volunteers. The social fabric of Johnson is complex. Of course, there is the chicken barbecue. There also are people who are regulars in the cafe and the White Horse. Education is extremely important in Johnson. The students had access to laptops. The teachers were very dedicated. Nebraska has open enrollment. Students DO come from other districts to Johnson. The offer a very quality education in their K-12 school. Finally, the cycle of events. The chicken barbecue is part of the cycle. Being an agriculture society, planting, harvest, and calving all, inevitably have to do with this cycle.

Remaining questions: What is the political situation in Johnson? What trend is being seen in the local economy? Why is education so important in this community? What are other important events in the town's year?

Town values: Farris, again, suggests four key values: community, longevity, place, and forbearance. Community was key in Johnson. One night the ladies of our group got together at my host mother's house to watch a chick flick. Marianna and I offered to take Joy home. On the way, we got lost. We couldn't find Joy's hosts' house. It became the talk of the day the next day because Marianna should have known where Mary (Joy's host mother) lived. Being a longstanding member of this community means being aware of where others live and what is going on in their lives. For example, one couple clips the crosswords from the newspaper for Marianna. If she's not there one week, it is assumed that she is with her daughters in Kansas (she normally lets Pr. Catherine know where she's going). If she were gone for more than a week, they would get concerned. That is very important to this community. Longevity is also important. Much of this is displayed in how things are described. Instead of being "the white house with green shutters" it is "So-and-so's Old House." So-and-so might have lived in the house three owners before, but that doesn't stop the locals from using their names to describe the landmark. Another example is the importance of the cemetery fund. Many of the pastors we spoke with told us of the untouchable, massive cemetery fund, used to care for a church's cemetery even after the church was gone - how's that for longevity? The idea of place as a value has something to do with being good stewards of the earth. It also has something to do with maintaining the town's existence. Johnson might be a good example of this because, despite of growing town nearby, the residents still exercise loyalty to their local businesses. They know the potential collapse that may result if they search outside of Johnson for things. They understand the consequences of their actions. Forbearance. I could go on and on about this topic. The loyalty I talked about above is one example of the community's forbearance. Another example might be the Habitat House. Or, the involvement of all the churches in Lutheran World Relief quilting projects. Or, the presence of community members at basketball games. And surely, the untold stories of generosity towards others.

Remaining questions: What would a resident list as Johnson's key values? What might they add to my list?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Unrepentant Laziness

Ahhh. Back to Chicago and nothing I have to do right now. I went, bought groceries and came back to my apartment which features a supply of down comforters (really, I own three) and a stack of library books that aren't due yet. I think I'll just hole up here and relax from all of the excitement of Nebraska, not emerging until it's time for people to do their presentations about the trip. But until that day (Thursday and Friday) comes, I think I'll just sit around, processing my experiences/watching television (that, and going "wow", I forgot how small house lots are in Chicago). If I have any deep thoughts in the mean time, I'll be sure to let you know. But if any do occur, I'm quite sure it won't be before noon. Until then - sweet dreams and I'm off to the land of fluffy blankets.

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

Okay, maybe a cheezy saying - it's very common in my family. I imagine my parents are smiling as they read it.

I wanted to let our readers know that we are home. We had a nice evening last night - we watched both the Bears and Colts win from the large screen T.V. Zach is watching in Joy's picture, below (the T.V. is not in the picture). We really enjoyed the camp's hospitality center (dubbed "the land of milk and honey"). We had a quiet night. On the trip to the airport, I tried to get carsick, but I'm fine now. Our flight was great.

I'm glad to be home.

I really wanted to write to tell you, dear reader, to keep reading! If you have a chance, check us out on Friday. By that time, I know I will have posted a sumation bit about my impressions of the trip and what I learned. See you then!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

I Corinthians

This morning our professor led us in worship (LBW setting one, no communion). There was no sermon, but we were supposed to sit there, meditate on the gospel for the day (from Luke, Jesus reading in the temple) and share our thoughts on it. However, my attention was caught, not by the passage from Luke, but by the second reading, from I Corinthians Chapter 12. It’s a very well known passage, with Paul talking about how the body of Christ is composed of many parts.

Something about the whole J-term experience this year made it strike me especially powerfully today. It struck me on a couple of different levels. The first level involved the different personalities on this trip. On most issues raised in the group, I am on one side of an issue and my classmates are on the other side. We get all excited and our professor wisely moves us on to another topic. Now I, of course, always believe that I am right, and am more than willing to defend my views. Not only do issues relating to religion tend to be rather important to me (I mean, one would hope that they are important to a master of divinity student.), but many have been formed by hard experience which is not easily ignored or discarded. However, most of the time, my classmates disagree with me. Issues of religion are no less important to them and based on the passion with which they talk about their experiences, they have obviously also had important experiences which have led them to different conclusions. We are very different people and will make different sorts of ministers. However, as different and contradictory as what we do and what we seek may seem, it doesn’t mean that any of us will be less useful. The body of Christ is composed of many different parts and we will serve somewhat different parts in different circumstances, because no two congregations are identical.

On another level, people connect to God in different ways and it is always a struggle to get the various ways to see that the various ways are equally valid. One person will feel closest to God when striving to bring God’s justice in the world. Another will feel closest when surrounded by others singing “Shine Jesus Shine”. A third may feel closest when deep in silent contemplation in a monastery. Yet another may feel closest to God when reading a lengthy treatise on theology. They are all very different ways of seeking relationship with God, yet they can all bring about the desired result. The problem comes when looking from our own path to God, we see that another person’s path has none of the same guideposts as ours, and so we assume that their path cannot be truly leading to God. One pastor once described God as a giant barn where God’s presence can be found in every inch of it. Our lives and our experiences of God are like a baseball that we get one chance to throw at that barn. That ball’s trajectory comes into contact with the barn and maybe even the space inside, but only a small portion of it. The reality of God is so immense that we can’t wrap our minds around it. Another person’s path and interpretation of what they’ve passed through may not intersect with ours at all, but that does not mean that they are not experiencing God.

Churches are like that too. They experience and express God in a number of different ways, but most importantly, they are all experiencing God. Different churches, of different sizes and different locations serve differently, but they all serve the same One. Some churches are about the excellence of their choirs and some are about the closeness of their communities, but all have the same goal of drawing people closer to God. Be it an urban church or a rural church, all are necessary to the body of Christ. There are different ways to serve God and different places to do so, but what is essential is that we serve God. Who knows what part of the body of Christ we will be in at the end of our four years at LSTC and whether or not it is a part that we would have picked. What we need to do is trust that God is putting us where God needs us.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. (I Cor 12:4-6)

But in fact God has arranged the parts of the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. (I Cor 12:18-20)

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (I Cor 12:27)

(above quotes taken from the NIV)

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

OK, they were right. The scenery here is pretty as a picture. So . . .

pretty scenery

more pretty scenery

the Swanson Center aka "The Promised Land" to me and my classmates - It is right down the road from where we spent the night and it is fully stocked with comfy chairs, a giant television to watch the Chicago Bears play, a multitude of beverages and most any snack available. It's amazing.

Enjoying the promised land (featuring Zach and our professor, Peter V.)