Monthly Archives: March 2010

Releasing Creativity

Does the church encourage creativity and innovation? Are we helping people discover their talents and gifts and encouraging their creativity?   These are the questions asked by Dan Kimball in his recent blog post titled “May the church (and seminaries) be part of helping change how we teach and educate”.

Dan was inspired to write this post after watching this interview with Sir Ken Robinson who says our education system works like a factory in a post titled “Why Teaching is not like making motor cars” appearing on the CNN Opinion page. Robinson states that our current system of education is based on models of mass production and conformity that actually prevent kids from finding their passions and succeeding.   In other words we educate the creativity out of people.

This past week, I took my daughters to what I had been told was a “Creative Arts program” for inner city youth being hosted by a local church.  I was expecting art, drama, dance, and music but instead we realized too late that it was simply a Sunday school lesson with a craft at the end.  There was absolutely no creativity involved.  The “teacher” shared the lesson, asked a few questions, broke us into discussion groups with more lessons to read and questions to answer.  In the last three minutes of the “lesson” we did a quick well defined craft with little creativity involved.

My spirit grieved as we left at the end of the class.  What these urban youth so desperately need is to be heard, to be known, to discover their unique talents and gifts. Instead we simply dispensed information and took no interest in who they are or what they have to offer the world.

I watched the young urban youth all around me.  One youngster fell asleep next to me, another spent her time braiding my daughters hair, another played with my cell phone.  They all tuned out the teacher as I myself kept looking at my watch waiting for the end.  It is not that the teacher was unprepared, or unkind.  I could tell she really wanted to connect with the kids but the way she had been taught was how she was teaching these young people.  This is exactly what Robinson notes in his talk on TED titled “Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity” Robinson shares a number of wonderful stories that demonstrate the value of creativity.  Both video’s are well worth your time.

One of my favorite quotes from Robinson is this “If you are not prepared to be wrong you will never come up with anything original.”  Robinson stresses that our emphasis on getting it right is educating people out of their creative capacities.   Sadly I see this in my own children who are hesitant to try if they do not know the “right” answer and I myself still have a fear of being “wrong”.

In working with urban individuals, the lack of imagination and creativity among adults has been startling to me.  So many of our friends have difficulty imagining their world being different than it is today.  I hear so many reason’s why things can’t be done and so little creative problem solving skills.  The system is so focused on conformity and control that we are handicapping people and preventing them from being co-creators with God.

However, I have seen the power that creativity has to heal people and breed hope.  Just ask my friend Yolanda who defeated her drug addition and credits liturgical dance for helping to save her life.  This week we talked about gifts in our East End missional community and I heard the pride in Richard’s voice as he shared his artwork.  He shared how as a boy he had loved to draw but had not drawn in years.  Now he was regaining hope as he started to draw again.  I know from personal experience the power that writing has to helping us heal from difficult circumstances.  Yet, our society places far more importance on math and science than on writing, dance and art.

I encourage any of you who teach or are involved in Christian education to watch both these videos and share your thoughts on this subject.  I was blessed to be a part of a very creative youth ministry when I lived in Texas and I know the tremendous joy it brought both me and the young people who participated in it.  I truly believe as the educational systems in our area are cutting back on the arts, the church should be expanding in that area.  I believe if we want to reach this next generation, it will be through the creative and performing arts.

If there is an institution that should get the importance of creativity it is the church.  Shouldn’t we reflect the essence of our Creator God?

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Filed under Urban Ministry

Immersing into Emerging

What is the future of the church?  Denominations?  Christian leadership?  How is technology and cultural shifts impacting the church and shaping its future?  These and many other questions are being asked and answered through the Emerging Church conversation.

The Emergent conversation is something that I am aware of for many years but have never been an active participant in.  However, in many ways I am living its message. Today I spent much of the day exploring various blogs related to the emerging church discerning how I can position my book within this conversation.

Most of what I found on my journey into the world of countless blogs on the topic was theory and deconstructionist conversations around what should change in the church with only limited examples of what will emerge.  This is where I think Embrace Dreams: A Journey Beyond the Pew could add value to the conversation since we have seen something completely unique grow out of Embrace Richmond.

The one article that caught my attention was “Theology After Google” by Philip Clayton.  While the article was written to promote an event (which sadly I discovered too late), it contained some great insights:
“The new Christian leader is a host, not an authority who dispenses true teaching, wise words, and the sole path to salvation. Today, the leaders who influence our faith and action are those who convene (or moderate or enable) the conversations that change our life — or the activities that transform our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our God. It could be an older Christian who convenes discussions at a church, a house, or a pub. It could be Shane Claiborne leading an activity at The Simple Way on Potter Street in Philadelphia, say a time of gardening in the communal garden that gives you a sense of community that you’ve rarely had but always longed for. It could be a website or a blogger that you frequently go to, where you read others’ responses and add your own thoughts. Christian leadership is about enabling significant community around the name of Jesus, wherever two or more are gathered in His name.”

I would add “It could be a bunch of crazy Richmonders who gather in public housing complexes and join hands with formerly homeless individuals to be a blessing to their community.”

While so many are writing about the emergent church, I am blessed to be witnessing its birth through the work we are doing at Embrace Richmond.  I doubt many would see what we are doing as “church” but the emergent conversation is helping those trapped in old paradigms for defining church to discover new lenses and to see God at work in new ways and unexpected places.

Take a look at Clayton’s full article and let me know what you think.  It was an interesting read.  What do you think the church will look like in the future?  Do you agree with Clayton’s assessment?  For those of you in the missional communities birthed through Embrace, do you see your role as “host”?   I would love to know your thoughts on the topic.

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Filed under Leadership, Urban Ministry

The Gift of Discontentment

Do you ever feel torn between worlds?  Wanting to be fully present in two places at one time?

A while back homeless families from the CARITAS program were staying at my local church.  CARITAS provides shelter to the homeless through local congregations who host residence for one week a year.  In a large Sunday school classroom filled with cots my church was providing shelter to more than a dozen families.

I was headed into worship as the families were arriving and made a brief detour into the room where they were staying.  As I entered Shanna, a young mother of two, recognized me and said, “Hey ya’ll it’s the Embrace lady!”  I was greeted with warm smiles, hugs and words of excitement.  Gloria shared that she was exiting the shelter in the coming week and Donna announced she was coming to see me the following week for our employment assistance program.  I felt at home in that room, not because I was in my home church but because these individuals had become my community.

If my family had not been waiting for me in the sanctuary, I would have stayed in the back room with my urban friends.  As I was leaving, a dear woman by the name of Anne came up to me, took my arm, stared deeply into my eyes and with soft intense words she said “Please pray for me tonight.”  There was urgency to her words, as though her survival was dependant on my prayers.  I wanted to stay there with her but I couldn’t.  I wanted to take her with me, but I could not.  This encounter is a picture of the tension I find myself in.  My heart is in the city with the homeless I serve.  I want to stay with them, but my family and friends are in the suburbs, so I am pulled back and forth between these two worlds.

As I sat in service that day, I felt a strange sense of loneliness.  My Pastor preached on the importance of our new multi-million dollar building campaign and my spirit grieved.  I felt so disconnected from this place.  Every month I struggled to keep the doors of our ministry open so that poorest of the poor would have their basic needs met.  I have received almost no financial support from my local church and as I sat there, I felt like an alien in a foreign land.  My church is not a bad church, it is like most mainline suburban churches; it is focused on the needs of the affluent community surrounding it.

I have a third place I call home.  It is the twenty-two heavily wooded acres my husband and I purchased several years ago.  There is a small creek running through it and a steep ridge overlooking a grassy pasture on the other side of that creek.  It is the place where I experience God’s presence most deeply.  It is the place where I am reconnected with myself.  It is the place where I am most creative, where most of my ideas begin to take shape.  It is the place where I finally find the time to write all that has been stirring in my soul.  My family often comes here on Sunday.  For me this is a place of worship.  The trees, the creek and the birds sing of God’s goodness and beauty.  The sun warms me not only on the outside but deep within as I am reminded that God is in all of creation.

I began writing my first semester in seminary eight years ago.  Seminary was such an eye opening experience for me.  It has taught me much about the scriptures and the God who created us.  However, it has also taught me that we never arrive; we are always on a  spiritual journey.

One of my favorite professor, Dr. Stephen Brachlow once said “The way we know we are growing spiritually is that we are discontented.”  When we become comfortable, satisfied, and secure, we are no longer willing to take up our cross and to follow.  Following only results from a desire for change and a desire for change only comes from discontentment with where we are.  I used to think my constant journeying was a curse or perhaps a personality flaw, but I have begun to see it as a gift.  Dr. Brachlow called it “The gift of a discontented soul”.

I have reflected on Dr. Brachlow’s comment often and I think perhaps there is something missing from his statement.  As I sit here on my ridge, high above a babbling creek and watch the leaves gently float through the air in the cool breeze, I realize I am completely content at this moment and in this place.  Much of my journey has taught me to find this inner contentment.  I am totally content with who I am.  However, I am discontented with the world and its brokenness.  I am discontented with racial and economic segregation.  I am discontented with poverty and spiritual depravity.  I am discontented with consumerism and the world’s ideas of success.

I think spiritual maturity is finding contentment with ones self as a child of God, but recognizing the brokenness of this world and allowing ones self to be discontented in a way that drives us to action.  Christian leaders often refer to this as the inward and the outward journey.  We must journey in both directions at the same time.   The inner journey nurtures us and makes it possible for us to endure the struggles of the outer journey and the outer journey helps us to appreciate and crave that inner peace that can only come from God.

Teresa of Avila’s classic book, Interior Castle, teaches us about the beauty of the inner voyage.  She paints for us a picture of this journey complete with the trials and difficulty of reaching that inner place where we are totally united with our creator.  Liberation theologian Oscar Romero teaches us about the outer journey of discontentment that is willing to take up the cross and fight for justice for the poor and oppressed. Avila not only had a rich contemplative spirituality, she also served the poor in her community.  The same is true for Romero whose deep spirituality would not allow him to be content with the oppression of his people for which he became a martyr.

While my life would be simpler if I just had one home, I am thankful for all three.  My hammock on my ridge allows me time to continue that inward journey to wholeness while my time in the city teaches me discontentment and calls me to continue that outer journey to “do justice”.  My time in between, in the suburbs surrounded by wealth and waste, reminds me that we are all in this together.  We will never see an end to poverty until we take a hard look at wealth.  I must struggle with the continual cultural messages of accumulation and consumption that my neighbors must combat.  The hardest place to remain faithful to the Gospel is not the inner city with all its neediness; it is in the suburbs with all its affluence and its call to complacency and comfort.  I am thankful for my discontented soul that seeks and finds a home in God alone.

How do you find contentment for your soul?  What issues drive you to embrace your discontentment with the world?

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Filed under Personal Reflection

Recycled Churches

Have you ever wanted to peek inside of an old church, just out of curiosity?  This past Saturday a team from Embrace Richmond helped paint an old Sunday school classroom at Central United Methodist Church.  The room was donated to a Boy Scout troop started for the boys in the Hillside Court and surrounding communities.  I could not resist pressing the scout master for a tour of that old church which was built at the turn of the century.  The stain glass, the unique double sanctuary design and magnificent woodwork, were breath taking.

My daughters were with me and we were all moved by the sheer beauty of the building and decided to worship there this past Sunday.  (Chris was out of town and does not like my crazy church visiting ventures.)  At the conclusion of the worship service, I complemented the pastor on the beauty of the church and he shared that when he first came to the church, there was talk of closing the doors due to the low membership.  However, when he choose to come to this dying inner city church, he did so with a vision; a vision for using this magnificent building as a kingdom asset to serve the hurting community around it.

Several years ago Central UMC developed a partnership with Trinity UMC, a thriving suburban congregation.  Over the years, members of Trinity UMC have breathed new life into this congregation through community focused outreach ministries including the Micah Initiative, a Sunday Afternoon art focused Kid’s Club, and now a Boy Scout troop led by my 83 year old church tour guide, Jim. Jim inspired me.  He could be out playing golf in his retirement years but instead he was investing in urban youth, taking them camping and instilling in them pride in their American heritage.

However as wonderful as the volunteers from Trinity are; had a remnant from Central UMC not remained to keep the doors open, this church like so many others would have died long ago.  What is unique about Central is that they have come to recognize that it is not “their” church but the Lords and are willing to open it up to the community as a safe haven for the children of this impoverished community.

I am often challenged by the emphasis suburban churches place on building buildings while beautiful structures such as Central UMC are so underutilized.   In my previous post “Has the Light Gone Out?” , I questioned the effectiveness of these large traditional churches that adorn the landscape of the inner city.   However, today I just want to give thanks and praise God that these structures still stand and continue to inspire awe through the beauty of their design and the beauty of the remnant that is keeping them alive.  Most of the members of Central UMC are seniors and most no longer live in the community where they worship.  While they are small in number with only an average of 50 people in worship; they are faithful.  They drive past dozens of “conveniently located” churches and journey into the city to preserve Christ Church for the next generation.

I have a question; will all their effort be in vein?  What if my generation, a generation obsessed with convenience, refuses to make a similar sacrifice?  Are these magnificent houses of worship destined to be abandoned?  Will we grieve when the “For Sale Sign” goes up?   Is there any real kingdom value in keeping them alive?  If so, what role can we play in assuring they stand as a beacon of light and do not add to the darkness all around them?

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Filed under missional church, Stories from the Street, Top Post's of All Time, Urban Ministry

Riding in the Passenger Seat

My daughter needs just 10 nighttime hours of supervised driving to get her driver’s license.  So we planned an evening trip from Richmond to Northern Virginia to visit family this past Friday.  All day Friday I was at a board retreat, sharing with the board my desire to move out of operations and into more of an oversight or director role.  There was much discussion over what that would look like and some honest concern over whether I would be able to step aside and let the staff, Joe Torrence and Susan Carminucci, take the lead.

As I climbed into the car  and allowed my daughter to assume the driver’s seat, I realized that this is exactly the season I am in with Embrace Richmond.  I have tremendous confidence that my daughter will one day be a superb driver but if I simply gave her the keys and instructed her to take the car to Northern Virginia without me there beside her; I would not only endanger my daughter, but could cause harm to others.  Likewise, I have tremendous confidence in Joe and Susan’s abilities to lead Embrace Richmond, but for a season, I need to be in the passenger seat helping them avoid the pot holes and learning the roadways.

Letting go is never easy.  My first debate with my daughter was over who got to choose the music.  I had been in a board meeting for six hours and really wanted something smoothing and relaxing and feared what my daughter would select but I conceded to her request.  She selected “The Shins” a group I had never heard of.  To my surprise, I actually liked The Shins.  Likewise, Joe and Susan will have their own style and will rhythm and I am looking forward to learning a few new tunes.

The second challenge we faced was how to get to Northern Virginia.  An experienced driver would of course take I95; but the thought of my daughter who had never driven on a major freeway and never driven long distances at night driving on I95 terrified the both of us.  Thankfully, I sought wise counsel and learned that Route 1 was a good alternative.  It would take longer to get to our destination but it would afford me much needed instructional time with Caitlin.  Most of Caitlin’s driving experience had been on country roads and suburban roadways.  Route 1, while new to both of us, required the same skills she had already mastered.  We were building on what Caitlin already knew, simply adding new territory and a new twist…darkness.

Joe has proven his abilities in a number of areas; he is great at motivating people and skilled at executing programs that help fulfill the overall vision and mission of Embrace.  Susan has a strong background in business and finance and excellent administrative skills.  However, this new role is going to require both Joe and Susan to venture into new territory.  For Joe the challenge will be managing a large number of AmeriCorps members and for Susan the challenge will be insuring compliance with the complex requirements of our AmeriCorps grant.  Both have had prior experience that we will build on but both will have a steep learning curve in the next few months so we are going to take it slow.

As we drove along Route 1, my daughter got excited as she saw new towns and interesting buildings.  At our Board Retreat, our consultants shared with us some wonderful new management techniques and I watched as Joe became excited about his ability to venture into this role of manager.  Likewise, Susan brought joy to me as she got excited about a process flowchart that I had done for one of our programs…she actually likes flowcharts!   Like my daughter, Joe and Susan, recognize that they will have to learn new skills but their passion for the work of Embrace is the motivation they need to do the hard work of refining their skill sets to meet these new challenges.

Finding Route 1 proved to be a bit more difficult than expected.  We missed our exit and had to take back roads to get back on course.  Thankfully I knew that part of town and was able to direct Caitlin when we got off course, at least during that part of the Journey.  When we got closer to our destination, I no longer knew the way and when we again got lost, we had to pull over and consult a map together.  I am thankful to have this season to share with Joe and Susan the back roads that I have learned over the years but I also realize that where we are going is new to all of us and we will have to consult the map together as we enter new territory.

The most difficult part of our trip occurred when Route 1 ended and we had no choice but to get on I95 for 6.8 miles until we could turn off on Hwy 17 toward my sister’s house.  I knew Caitlin was not ready for the fast pace of I95 at night and we had to change seats for a short distance.

At first she thought she could handle I95, but once she saw the massive number of cars and break lights she said “Mom, I am really glad you are driving.”  One thing I know about Joe and Susan is that they are humble enough and wise enough to know that there are some roadways that are beyond their current skill level.  True maturity is recognizing your limitations and relinquishing control or seeking wise council when you know you are outside your area of expertise.  A year from now, my daughter will be able to drive on I95 with no fears, but for right now, an experience like that could make her fearful of highway driving.  Likewise, before I know it, Joe and Susan will not need me in the car at all but I am thankful for the wisdom they have to know that for a season they need a companion that in difficult times will help them steer.

I was dreading my trip to Northern Virginia but we arrived safely and I actually found there were moments that I enjoyed the passenger seat more than the driver’s seat; I got to look out across the lake and marvel at the beauty, I was able to turn around and watch the sunset, I was able to enjoy the passing scenery and point out interesting new sights to Caitlin but most of all I got the joy of watching my daughter gain confidence in her own ability to drive.  By the end of the trip she asked, “I did pretty good didn’t I?” and I was able to honestly say “You did a great job!”

I am looking forward to my new role of driving coach with Joe and Susan and I promise not to be a backseat driver!

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Filed under Personal Reflection