Candlemas Sermon | Merger with CLU | ParablesNYC | Being There | Specialized Ministry

Candlemas Sermon

by Jane Strohl
Candlemas, February 6, 2013, Luke: 2:22-40

Lucy and I were seated beside a pair of Jersey boys, jovial brothers who kept “high tenning” each other and then us. Once the concert started, the brother next to me kept turning around with this goofy grin and saying, “Terrific, huh? Just unbelievable!” At the end of the performance (2 ½ hours of sexy, strutting Stones paradise), he told me that he had been to every one of their New York concerts since 1981. “But this is the best one ever, hands down. Just incredible. If I died tonight, I would leave this world satisfied.” Considering the price of the tickets he should have.

Simeon may be the most contented customer of all time. Please rate your experience on a scale of 1-5 where 1 is “completely satisfied” and 5 is “not at all satisfied.”

The product was of the quality promised by the seller: 1
The price was appropriate for the quality of the product: an easy one (1) since it didn’t cost Simeon a shekel.

The product was delivered within the time period promised: “And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Looks like another one (1). Simeon turns to Jesus’ parents, especially Mary, makes several cryptic remarks, and then HE departs in peace. “[F]or mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples . . . .” Really?

Last year my daughter took an environmental science course. She said to me, “Given what’s happening to the earth, I don’t think it’s right to have children.” Great – for a king’s ransom in tuition, my daughter comes to the conclusion that it is unethical to give me grandchildren. What is the world coming to? Flying back from the East Coast at the end of the holidays, I sat next to a woman of ostensibly mature years from New Hampshire. She started ranting about gun control and the second amendment right to bear arms so one could resist an unjust government. The solution to shoot-outs in schools was arming the teachers. I suggested to her that attitudes towards guns were shaped by setting and experience. I talked about the killing fields of Richmond and West Oakland, for example. Her response? Those guns were obtained illegally and all the legislation in the world couldn’t do anything about that. Well, “couldn’t” is generally a code word for “why bother?” and at the root of that “realism” is racism.

No doubt you can name your own horrors, the swords that pierce your hearts that keep your awake at night, the siren calls of fear and despair. The Reformation spoke boldly to the anguish of the individual conscience. Sin abounds in every one of us; there is no life without repentance, no future without grace. But in our infinite capacity to be incurvatus in se, we are able to hide behind our personal dishonesty and cruelty rather than move out of ourselves to face the destruction engulfing our neighbors.. Repentance as self-protection – as Luther points out, there is no gift from God that the evil one cannot corrupt.

My mom is almost 93. One afternoon when we were talking, she suddenly dozed off. Just as suddenly she woke up and cried out, “Where’s Dad? Where’s your father?” I reminded her that he was dead. She answered dejectedly, “I know. I dreamed he was here, right here by me, but he isn’t.”

Simeon departs in peace; he is satisfied that God has made good on the promise of salvation. It is not so easy for us. We long to have God here, right by us, fixing what we cannot and delivering the world from our consequences. Indeed, our Lord Jesus Christ has been set for the rise and fall not just of many, but of all things. We must honor God’s will and God’s ways. We must endure the onslaughts of the evil one but never surrender our hope in Christ. Brothers and sisters, we must fight, for what people accept as the way of the world need not become its nature. And when the one who fulfilled Simeon’s hopes, comes again, we too shall be satisfied. Amen.

Exciting Times Ahead!: Merger with CLU

by President Phyllis Anderson

Step by step PLTS is moving closer to the proposed merger with California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California.  The conversation began more than two years ago.  Our alums, students, faculty, donors, board members and friends have been extensively consulted and have contributed their wisdom.  Consistently they have affirmed this relationship as a hopeful way to strengthen theological education in the West and to prepare leaders better together. In the proposed arrangement PLTS would come under the governance of the CLU Board of Regents.  Our seminary constituencies have stated clearly again and again the importance of PLTS continuing as a seminary of the ELCA on a parallel with the other ELCA seminaries, even if it is not an independent seminary. The second priority raised by our friends is that PLTS continue as a vital part of the Graduate Theological Union with all of its richness and depth. Others have raised questions about the status of the endowments and the freedom of the seminary faculty to determine its own curriculum.  The faculties of both institutions have been very proactive in imagining new possibilities for students to participate in joint degrees and programs enriched by the diversity of offerings at CLU in management, psychology, education, youth ministry, and music, for example.  We anticipate offering programs on both campuses, in Berkeley and in Thousand Oaks. 

Through months of thoughtful, nuanced negotiations, we have come to agreement on these and many other items critical to the ongoing life of the seminary, given the ultimate authority of the university to make decisions regarding the seminary as necessary.  It is a delicate dance that requires wisdom, clarity, and trust.  In the fall of 2012, the governing boards of both PLTS and CLU unanimously approved a list of 27 principles that would inform an eventual merger.  Copies of the 27 principles are available upon request from the office of the President: president@plts.edu.  The boards also encouraged the administrations of the two institutions to take the next steps toward merger.   

In December we began consulting jointly with legal counsel who will develop the formal merger documents to be acted on by the PLTS Board of Directors and the CLU Board of Regents. We anticipate that these documents will be ready for action at the spring meetings of our boards, in April and May respectively.  The merger could go into effect as early as this summer.   

So we are cautiously hopeful that we are moving toward a major decision that will strengthen the seminary over time.  There is a lot at stake.  Surely there will be bumps along the way, but we are dealing in good faith with trustworthy partners, who are invested in the work of the seminary and want to make it part of the mission of CLU for the sake of the church.  Join us in praying for a good outcome of this process which so far has been blessed at every point along the way.

ParablesNYC: Fostering Faith Through Art

by Ben McKelahan, MDiv ‘11

My first Christmas night in New York City was spent inviting strangers in the park to dip golf balls in different colors of glow paint and drop them down a glow-stick pegboard.  As the balls would randomly bounce down, they would leave color trails of light, and at the bottom they would land in one of four dog-bowl “mangers” to win prizes of suggested random acts of kindness.  People of all ages would come and play; then they would stare at the clerical collar I was wearing and ask, “Why are you doing this?” My response was, “It’s Christmas. Tonight we celebrate light appearing in a feeding trough to give love to the world.”

That was just over a year ago.  Since then I’ve encouraged commuters to solve giant crossword puzzles together on the walls of subway stations, enticed artists in salons to write psalms through colliding magnetized bibles, and invited children on the street to catch giant dye-filled bubbles on foam-board.  I do this all because I have been called to develop a congregation for the young creative people flocking to Brooklyn.

This is not how I imagined my first call when I went to seminary.  I grew up mostly in Roman Catholic and Episcopal congregations, so the love of high church liturgy is deep in my bones.  But when I encountered Lutherans and their theology as a teenager I knew that my religious identity would always be grounded first and foremost in trying to express God’s radical grace for the beautiful sinner-saints of humanity.  So when I was drafted across the country from everyone that I knew to start a church in America’s cultural capital, I decided I needed to do something to get people’s attention.  But I wanted whatever I did to be an honest expression of Lutheran theology.  Art encouraging strangers to create together seemed like a good fit. 

First, it meets people where they are at, literally.  I do these activities on the street, the subway, and in bars.  And I always design it so that anyone can participate without any art background, because I have no formal art background.  Second, it creates connections between people. For me, the greatest significance of the Trinity is that God is inherently relational, and so I never just want to put on a spectacle, I want to invite people into a relationship. New York has plenty to see, but it is very hard to actually get to know people. Folks are always walking fast and with purpose, but I find that if you give most people here a chance to connect with or help a stranger, they will immediately take it. Third, participatory art is an experience of grace because it allows people to express themselves without judgment and see their self-expression as a positive part of a larger whole.    

Of course, all the people I met this way who found out I am starting a church, expected worship to be the same.  So I have spent a lot of time, and done a lot of experiments figuring out that what works to engage people for five minutes on the street, and does not necessarily work to create a deeper experience of the gospel in an hour-long communal worship.  Plus, deep down, people want a sense of stability, familiarity, and ritual that they can return to each week as shelter from the city that never sleeps. 

So after a few initial faltering steps, this past fall I started holding weekly services in the bell tower of an old Lutheran church.  Believing that we need to be heard before we can truly listen, each week we begin by sharing stories from our past week.  Then we read a story from scripture, the same story for a month, and examine art, literature, and film that re-imagine the story or themes within it.  After some conversation, congregants have ten to fifteen minutes to use the various art supplies in the bell tower to re-imagine the scriptural story in whatever way is meaningful to them.  We then share with each other the ways in which we have remade the biblical story in the forge of our hearts.  At the end of each month we collect ideas as to how we, as a community might respond in our neighborhood to the story in which we have dwelled. Responses have included donating to charities, direct service projects, as well as a hiking trip, a bread/juice making party, and more.

Currently the community is small, but passionate and growing.  We call ourselves Parables, which comes from the Greek words “para,” meaning “alongside of,” and “ballein,” “to throw.”  At Parables, we throw the stories of lives alongside the stories of scripture, and we see what grows.  Learn more at ParablesNYC.org, and find us on facebook.

Being There

by Stephen Hokonson, MDiv ‘79

Slapping 1400 six-packs of Snickers Bars between the bars of inmate’s cells on Christmas Eve 1993 was how Greg, the Catholic Chaplain and I celebrated Christ’s birth.  It was heavy, hot, and stuffy by the time we reached the top tiers and we hardly waited for any responses as we hurried to get the job done. 

Six years later, I received a check in the mail dated Dec. 24, 1999 made out to “The Chaplain’s Fund.”  No note, just the check.  I called the phone number on the check to thank the benefactor and asked him the reason for the unsolicited donation.   He simply replied, “you were there for me 6 years ago.”  “But, it was only Snickers,” I responded.  “No, you were there,” and he hung up.  I looked again at the check.  It was a company check from his own Paint Company.

“Being there” has defined my “Prison Ministry.”  I was a Confinement Facility Commander for two years in Pennsylvania, an MP Captain in Viet Nam, and worked in prisons in Washington and Oregon before attending PLTS from 1975-79.  While at PLTS I worked as a child care worker for Alameda County.  Motivation for prison ministry came from all those sources plus raising about 20 foster children.

I retired in 2009 after over 20 years with the Department of Corrections in Minnesota, spending the last 12 years as DOC Religious Coordinator for the 10 adult prisons in Minnesota.

The tremendous religious diversity in prisons in a closed confined community provides a tremendous challenge to ministry.  Though modeled upon the medieval monastery, where a monk and a Bible would make a better person, modern prisons isolate individuals from the experience of community in a suspicious and hostile environment.

While providing religious ritual opportunities from an often reticent volunteer religious community was a primary responsibility, my more important function and ministry was to “be there.”  Being there meant immersion in the prison culture so that friendships developed, trust became possible, humor was spontaneous, and no one was expected to confess until they absolutely knew they were loved.  Try that with a bunch of suspicious, depressed, angry, over-medicated men.

So, we offered opportunities for community, and singing was central.  We provided opportunities for belonging for many who never “belonged.”  We experienced acceptance without the obligation of repentance, we provided confidentiality where everyone knows your habits, we “forgave” lapses, mistakes, and screw-ups all in the context of a God who knew what “being there” was all about.  For many reasons, prisoners, more than parishioners, can accept “faith” that only involves saying a simple “yes” or “no” to a man dying on a cross.

Yes, I’m retired, but, I’ve never left and never will. 

Specialized Ministry

by Julie Webb, MDiv '99

Never one to attend school for four years when I could attend for five, I found myself, in 1998, needing a part-time job while I finished up my MDiv.  I heard – I think through Pastor Donna Duensing – about a chaplaincy position at the jail in west Contra Costa County. No intern had shown up to serve at the jail that year, so I applied to fill in for the intern chaplain.  If I were going to work part-time, it seemed like a good idea to use my pastoral skills if I could! I had really never before considered working in a jail, and didn’t know how I’d be received there.  I mean, I’ve led a pretty sheltered white middle-class life, on the whole, and I didn’t know whether the jail inmates could find a way to respect me in spite of that!  But, as I explored the opportunity, it seemed as though the Holy Spirit might be “nudging” me toward a new experience. 

As a part-time chaplain, I worked primarily in the women’s building at West County Detention Facility (WCDF).  My supervisor was the late Reverend Harold Wright, a wonderful American Baptist minister who became a dear friend to me.  Harold took responsibility for the three men’s buildings, when he was on campus; when he was away, I responded to calls from those buildings, as well.  In the women’s building, I led an interfaith spiritual support group called “Care Group”, which met each week.  We sang, and talked, and learned together.  Inmates could submit to detention staff requests for things like Bibles, devotional booklets, special religious diets (like Kosher, Hallal, or vegetarian), or pastoral counseling – and the Chaplain’s Office would fulfill the requests if it seemed appropriate!  Sometimes, detention staff (Sheriff’s Deputies) would call me in to assess whether an inmate was suicidal; other times, they’d ask me to spend some time with someone they were concerned about.  In the three years I spent at WCDF, I logged hundreds of hours of pastoral counseling!
 
Both inmates and detention staff received me with surprising grace.  With inmates, I tried always to be honest, and to let them see my own wounds – so we had ground on which to meet.  That doesn’t mean I talked about myself all the time; instead, they saw that somehow, I was able to empathize with their struggles, even when I hadn’t experienced quite the same things.  Because of that, most found they could respect me.  And they were very generous:  I’ve kept piles of sweet letters and notes.  The thing about jails and prisons is that the buildings, and the location of the buildings, and the whole system give a clear message that society really wants nothing to do with the people locked up there.  The people inside the walls receive that message; so, when someone – just about anyone -- from “outside” comes in to visit, the inmates are so overwhelmingly grateful!  Some local churches had gotten this message, and had created simple weekly or monthly ministries in the jail – just Bible studies, worship, or the like.  Those churches reached a lot of people!

The work is with people in crisis and with staff who sometimes become discouraged or embittered by the tough things they see.  So, it can be intense.  When I was at work, I usually took my meals with the detention staff, in their cafeteria.  Occasionally, however, some inmates would invite me to share their meal with them.  That was an honor:  it was one of the few things within their power to offer, by way of hospitality, and it meant they trusted me to sit down at table with them, so I tried never to say no.  But, the food served to inmates was SO MUCH WORSE than the food served to staff!  It was almost inedible, and always left me with indigestion – me, the person who likes almost any kind of food!  I always thought that was another clear way in which the larger society was communicating to inmates that we do not care about them or their well-being. Prison ministry breaks down barriers, which seems to me to be one of Jesus’ top priorities.   

In the ELCA, chaplaincy of any kind is still, I think, considered “specialized” ministry; and I’ve often heard it denigrated as a kind of ministry suitable only for those who can’t handle parish ministry.  Parish ministry is considered the norm, and (if you’ve trained for the Ministry of Word and Sacrament) you can’t be ordained until you receive a call to serve in a “normal” congregation, unless you receive recognition that you have a special vocation.  Usually, you can’t even do “specialized” ministry until you’ve served three years in a parish.  I think we need to reform ourselves in this area, because jails, and prisons (and hospitals, for that matter) are congregations.  They may not fit our usual model of steady membership, but they are legitimate communities of faith gathering regularly around Word and—where possible—Sacrament.  Since my Candidacy Committee told me I could not be ordained while I was serving in the jail, I was unable to offer Holy Communion to inmates—which was sad, because they were some of the hungriest people I’ve ever met, and they were often keenly aware of their hunger.  What if we removed some of the barriers to this kind of ministry, and gave more of our leaders the opportunity to experience the presence of Christ behind jail and prison walls?

Jail and prison chaplaincy can be a real balancing act:  you’re navigating between inmates and detention staff constantly—those who are imprisoned and those who are keeping them there.  Both groups are thirsty for spiritual support.  As chaplain, I think, you are called to identify with each group, but not to over-identify; and you always have to follow the rules of the facility, to help keep everybody safe. Be patient with our imperfect Lutheran categories for ministry, and find a way to do what you are being called to do right now (even if it doesn’t feel like a lifelong calling).  There are ways to seek the community’s affirmation of your call.

What did I learn from these ministry experiences? I learned that I had a lot in common with the people behind bars. I learned that I was rich in privilege, in family support, and in culture; I learned how empty the concept of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” was, when you didn’t have a good foundation to stand upon.

Inmates who were suffering from addictions taught me that the root of their addictions was emotional pain.  Everybody has emotional pain of some kind; I learned that when you try to ease that pain with drugs or alcohol, your emotional development gets hung up at whatever stage you were in when you started to “use”.  The pain doesn’t go away, but just kind of accumulates, and is waiting for you when you get clean and sober.  It takes real courage to deal with that, and to remain clean and sober.

I learned that recidivism isn’t necessarily a bad thing:  often, incarceration saves a person’s life in one way or another.  A lot of people haven’t learned the skills to live successfully in this world, and many feel more secure within the boundaries and routines of an institution. Over three years of service at WCDF, I got to see many “returnees”.  Detention staff found this very frustrating, but I felt like I got to have an inside perspective:  in one-on-one counseling, I sometimes got to see small signs of growth in a person over several incarcerations.  They might not yet have accumulated enough tools to be successful in living “outside”, but they were growing. I learned that many inmates were released just after midnight; I was told that this was so the county could claim one more days’ worth of funds.  But who’s going to pick you up in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night?  -Your old friends, who are enmeshed in your old patterns, that’s who.  So, I learned the tremendous importance of jail and prison aftercare programs.  

I learned that sheriff’s deputies witness a lot of difficult things, both outside and inside jail, and that they can become discouraged about human nature.  For various reasons, their personal relationships often are difficult to maintain.  So, they need steady kindness, too. If I were incarcerated, I think I’d get depressed and sleep all the time.  Some people do that, but I met a lot of people who were trying to use their incarceration to better themselves, and I felt respect for them. In turn, they respected me, and together, we were able to make significant, meaningful connections and progress. Although not necessarily “traditional” ministry, often times it’s ministry like this that is most needed.

These articles is from the February 2013 issue of Above The Fog, the PLTS monthly e-newsletter. Click here to subscribe, and receive great articles and seminary news right in your inbox.