The Politics of “Just”

SELRES_b9c822e9-2cda-4a6e-b2b8-c7a9105634b5SELRES_e94ef793-d697-4d1e-84a0-516057e25d67SELRES_9df5d44a-10bf-4f9b-875f-3cfdbf8cfa26RevGalBlogPals SELRES_9df5d44a-10bf-4f9b-875f-3cfdbf8cfa26SELRES_e94ef793-d697-4d1e-84a0-516057e25d67SELRES_b9c822e9-2cda-4a6e-b2b8-c7a9105634b5is an organization dedicated to the mission of creating community for female clergy. Their website ( has new content every day. One of those features is a weekly column called “The Pastoral is Political.” Here is the column I wrote this week:

I have served almost exclusively in small-town and rural congregatioQuiltsns in the Upper Midwest. Each of those congregations has a quilting group that makes dozens, sometimes hundreds, of quilts each year. Today I’m thinking about two of those groups. In one group, one of the members made it her special ministry to cut up the donated fabric into standard size squares, pin the squares into bundles so they could be sewn together into strips, and ordered the strips into a pleasing design of colors and prints. The tops were stitched together, batting was added, and a coordinating backing added to the quilt. The other quilters occasionally grumbled about her high standards, but the quilts they produced were lovely, and sturdy, and warm.

In the other group, the phrase I heard most often was “It’s just for mission.” The quilts were usually made from donated bed sheets. Fitted sheets had the elastic cut off, and the corner seams cut out. Some other random-color fabric was used to patch the empty corner. A second sheet, or perhaps a donated tablecloth, was used as the “batting” and another sheet (similarly patched in one corner) was used for the backing. Newcomers to the group who asked about finding coordinating colors for the patches were quickly reminded that such effort wasn’t necessary. “It’s just for mission.”

Hearing the phrase “It’s just…” makes me cringe, every single time. It has also taught me to listen for the occasions when the word “just” is used to demean and dehumanize those whom we claim to care for, to excuse a lesser degree of caring for our neighbor.  How often to we think or speak the word “just” as we provide lesser quantity or lesser quality items to be given to those in need. Anyone who has volunteered at a food pantry can tell stories of donated items with expiration dates several years in the past. A few years ago, I helped to organize a drive to gather shoes to be distributed through clothing “free stores” in a several county area. Despite our requests for new shoes only, we filled a few shopping bags with well-worn (and sometimes aromatic) shoes to be discarded.

I have sometimes found it difficult to encourage members of my congregations to consider their “it’s just…” words. Sometimes they are proud that they can donate more pairs of shoes if they buy inexpensive, inferior brands. My spirit resists that quantity-over-quality reasoning. Still, it’s important that I keep raising the question. “It’s just” language can grow roots and turn into “it’s just” attitudes. “It’s just” attitudes can create a background against which “it’s just” actions can flourish. “It’s just” a refugee, a poor person, an LGBTQ+ person, a woman, a child, a person suffering from mental illness. “It’s just” someone we can ignore, someone we can make assumptions about, someone we can separate from their families, or imprison, or kill, without ever actually seeing them as God’s beloved children.

A number of years ago, I learned a lesson from a friend and mentor. In one of our “coffee and wisdom” conversations, she told me that when she looks in her grocery cart or her cart from Target, she doesn’t want anyone to be able to guess which items are for her family and which are to be donated. I hadn’t thought of it in exactly that way before. But ever since that conversation, I have made it a practice to shop for donations from exactly the same stores and brands that I shop for myself.

Buying Campbell’s soup instead of a house brand isn’t going to end poverty and discrimination or stop police shootings of people of color. And it may not even make a huge difference in the life of the person who gets that can of soup at a food pantry. What it does, however, is change me. It makes me more aware of the recipients of this food as individuals with names and lives and families and stories to tell. It’s not “just” for the food pantry, or for mission, or for disaster relief. It never is.

Barbara Bruneau is a retired Lutheran pastor, living in southeastern Minnesota and currently serving in interim ministry. She is a knitter, a weaver, and a very occasional blogger at An Explosion of Texture and Color.

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Cloud of Witnesses

FB_IMG_1521021848451In the church, we often speak of the communion of saints, of being part of a great cloud of witnesses. Mostly, we think about that cloud of witnesses as being invisible to us; they are the children of God who have lived in all times and in all places. Once in a while, though, that communion of saints becomes visible in an undeniably powerful way.

On Tuesday, I was one of a few hundred people who gathered to commend our friend and colleague, Ben Ahles-Iverson, into the arms of our Heavenly Father. Ben was only 37 years old when he died a week ago. I knew him for just half a dozen of those years, as a friend and colleague in ministry. Ben was known by church members in the area as the pastor with the amazing singing voice. Our congregations worked together on joint worship services and fundraising events in support of the ELCA campaign to fight malaria. For several years we were part of the same round robin preaching group for Lenten services. Ben and his wife Mara regularly joined our weekly text study group. I remember Ben never being content with easy answers as we discussed the scripture passages for the week. And I remember the charming delight he took in sharing with us the latest antics of their daughter Elizabeth. When a pastor was going to be away, Ben was one of the first to volunteer to be on call in case of emergency.

In the days since he died, I’ve learned more about Ben as I have read Facebook posts and other reflections by friends, colleagues, and especially by those who knew him when he was at Wartburg Theological Seminary. On Tuesday, nearly a hundred of those friends, colleagues, and classmates were part of the congregation that gathered for Ben’s funeral. We cried. We laughed. We shared Holy Communion. We remembered. And we sang. Oh, did we sing!

At the end of the service, clergy were invited to join the family in gathering around Ben’s cremains for the prayer of commendation. One of Ben’s seminary professors began the prayer. A moment later, without planning or intention, there were nearly a hundred voices joined in this prayer that we have all said so often in our own congregations.

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Ben. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

As those words flowed from some deeply ingrained part of my memory and joined with the voices of colleagues, I could imagine the very same prayer being prayed by generations of pastors with countless families as they took that painful but important step of commending a family member into God’s loving care. This is the great cloud of witnesses. This is the communion of saints.


Photo credit: Jacob Sorenson ©2018

Blind Dating with Books

pexels-photo-267586.jpegMy local public library is sponsoring a program this month called “Blind Date with a Book.” This is apparently not a brand new program; libraries have been doing this for a few years, and there are websites where you can purchase books based only on a very short description. But this was my first encounter with the phenomenon.

I saw a description of the program on the library’s website, so I made it a point to visit the library last week. On a table in the center of the room, they have a display of books wrapped in bright red paper and decorated with valentine stickers. Each book contains a label that gives clues about the contents of the book and a suggested age range for readers. The idea is to select a book based only on the somewhat cryptic description. The “bait” is that you may discover a new genre or author to add to your reading list. That, and a prize drawing at the end of the month for anyone who fills out and turns in a rating form for their “blind date.”

My first blind date was an audio book. It was described as one of the most challenged books to appear on Oprah’s recommendation list. I listen to a lot of audio books while I’m driving, so I decided to give it a try. After checking out the book, I unwrapped it in my car and found The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I had not been aware of the book when it was first published in 1993, and I wondered if it would feel dated to listen to it in 2018. A closer look at the box of CDs revealed that one of the readers was the author herself. I was completely drawn into the world of the main characters from the first moment. I laughed, I cried, I recognized familiar situations and I struggled to absorb foreign ones. As a “blind date,” I call this a success. I would spend time with Ms. Morrison and her books again.

Today I returned that audio book and chose a print book. It was described as a suspense novel set in a time when “crimes weren’t solved with DNA evidence.” There was something about the description that made me wonder if I had read it before; so I picked a backup book just in case. If my first choice was one I had already read, I would return it (still wrapped in red paper) and check out the backup. No need for the backup, however. I had not yet read The Alienist by Caleb Carr, had not heard of it in fact. From the summary on the book jacket, I learned that the title derives from a term used to describe psychologists in the 1890s. Only one of my Goodreads friends has read the book, so it feels a bit like I’m breaking new ground (kind of the point of a blind date, I guess). I haven’t started reading the book yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

I have really enjoyed this “blind date” idea; I had become a little too comfortable with my short list of familiar authors and genres. This has been an enjoyable way to step into some new arenas for my reading this year.


Friday Five – Halloween

Over in the RevGalBlogPals Facebook group, Monica Thompson Smith brought this week’s Friday Five questions: Halloween Candy

1. What is your favorite Halloween candy?
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

2. What candy lingers in the bowl because it most definitely is not your favorite?
Good & Plenty, or any black licorice

3. Will you participate in trick-or-treating this year?
I’ll be giving out candy and glow sticks.
Maybe it’s because I don’t have kids that I’ve never heard of the Teal Pumpkin Project. It’s a movement to offer allergy-safe Halloween treats, instead of or in addition to candy. A teal pumpkin is a sign that you have allergy-safe options to give out. I overheard a woman in Target talking about it last week, as she put a teal pumpkin in her cart. I tried to be subtle as I swooped over to the shelf she had just left; but there were only orange pumpkins left. But thanks to Target’s website and their free Halloween delivery, I now have two teal pumpkins to go with the orange ones on my front steps.

4. Do you like to decorate your home for Halloween?
Not extensively. I have a few things by the front door to welcome trick-or-treaters.

5. What was your favorite costume when you were a child?
Honestly, I don’t remember what costumes I had as a child. So I really hope my parents didn’t spend much time or money on them.


Friday Five – Change of Season

20131102_174437 (3)Over in the RevGalBlogPals Facebook group, my friend Julie Woods Rennick offers today’s Friday 5:

It’s mid October. In the northern hemisphere the days are shortening, leaves are falling and the earth is getting ready for a winter sleep. The season of comfort foods and bedding down is here! What are the things that qualify for comfort and ease in your life? Are there routines that you look forward to at this time of year?

Here are my five. Please share your responses in the comments below, or on your own blog (with a link here in the comments, so I can go read your five).

  1. The feeling of crawling into bed the first time I make it up with flannel sheets.
  2. The morning air, cool enough to give energy, and not yet cold enough to bite.
  3. A Crock-Pot simmering with soup or chili and sending its tempting aroma throughout the house.
  4. Sitting in my favorite chair with a quilt on my lap, and watching the first really big snow storm swirl outside (as long as I don’t lose power). And then my dog Sadie’s sense of amazement the first time she steps outside and the snow comes almost up to her belly.
  5. Cold weather foods from the cookbooks and kitchens of my Swedish relatives: potatiskorv (meat and potato sausage, homemade when i was growing up), rice pudding (the baked custard kind, with raisins), kringlar (think of it as a Swedish bagel in the shape of a pretzel), and julglög (mulled wine with brandy and vodka for extra anti-freeze properties).

Those are my five. I’d love to read yours, either in the comments below or on your blog.

The Tears of the Children

templo mayorWhen I was a student in seminary, one of the requirements for graduation was that we take part in a cross-cultural experience of some sort. There were rural immersion experiences for “city kids,” urban plunges for those who grew up on farms, and opportunities to visit many places in the world.

I chose to spend two weeks in Mexico, not in the gated resort communities where people go to spend their vacations, but in the neighborhoods where the poor lived and worked and improvised in order to get from morning to night every day, where they supported one another in prayer and in action, where they knew that their only hope was in Christ, because all other hope had been snatched away.

On one of our first days in Mexico, our group traveled to the historic central area of Mexico City. One of our stops was Temple Mayor, an archaeological site of an ancient Aztec temple that had been destroyed by the conquering Spanish forces in order to build their own cathedral on top of the ruins. One of the shrines at Temple Mayor was to Tlaloc, the rain god. Worship of this god involved sacrifice of children, in order to persuade the god to allow rain to fall. Dozens of children were sacrificed, many of them sold by their own parents. On the way to the top of the pyramid where the killing would take place, the children were threatened and physically hurt so that they would cry and scream, the louder the better. It seems that children’s tears, in addition to their lives, were demanded by the rain god.

What was your reaction as you read that last paragraph? Did you have the same reactions I did, that this was horrific, brutal, barbaric. What kind of parents would allow their own children to be subject to such inhuman practices! Who would allow their children to live in fear and to be killed because of the fears of their parents? How much progress we have made!

Progress indeed. We have progressed to the point that our children’s cries and screams are heard at country music concerts. We have progressed to the point that our children fear going to school because there might be someone with a gun. We have progressed to the point that we sell our own children into fear and even death because we are afraid to stand up to the tyrannical rain god known as the NRA. Just as we know that Tlaloc didn’t really need the death of children in order to send rain, we know in our hearts – in those parts of our hearts that know the truth, beyond the reach of all the propaganda – that the NRA’s predictions of calamity will not result from common-sense measures like background checks and limits on magazine size. And still, we knowingly send our children into the line of fire, into the heart of danger, in order to convince ourselves that the NRA-god will smile on us.

Progress indeed. We have progressed to the point that our children’s cries and screams are heard on city streets as they are shot to death. We have progressed to the point that our children of color fear going to the store, driving their cars, or walking home at night because there might be a police officer with a gun who is afraid. We have progressed to the point that we as a nation sell our children of color into fear and death because we are afraid to insist that their lives matter. Just as we know that Tlaloc didn’t really need the death of children in order to send rain, we know in our hearts – in our hearts as parents and friends and coworkers – that the danger the police claim to fear from young men of color is not real. And still, we knowingly send our young men into the line of their fire, into the heart of danger, in order to convince ourselves that we will somehow be safer if their lives do not matter.

Progress indeed. We have progressed to the point that our children’s cries and screams are heard as they are forced to deny their gender identity an orientation. We have progressed to the point that our children fear going to school, naming who they are, or loving whom they love because we won’t try to understand any experience but our own. We have progressed to the point that we sell our children into fear and death because we are afraid to stand up to those who would tell them that they are beyond the bounds of God’s love. Just as we know that Tlaloc didn’t really need the death of children in order to send rain, we know in our hearts – in our hearts as parents and siblings and friends – that these children are every bit as precious to God as we are. And still, we knowingly send our children into a world that would hurt, shame, and even kill them, in order to convince ourselves that we are worthy of God’s love.

Progress indeed. In so many ways, we are no different than the parents who sold their children to be tormented and killed to ensure their own comfort and prosperity. When we fail to defend our children from gun violence and hatred and abuse, we look in the mirror and see the brutal, barbaric, and inhuman parts of our souls.

We no longer worship the got Tlaloc. We have replaced him with an array of gods that try to demand bullets as the price of peace and conformity as the price of safety. Perhaps it is time to consign those gods to the history books as well. Perhaps it is time to remember that rain comes from a loving God who wants all children to thrive.ray

This is the prayer I wrote for our final worship on that Mexico trip. Much of it could still be prayed today.

We have been called to this place to see clearly, to think deeply, and to act boldly.  Let us join our hearts in prayer for the church, the world, and all those in need.

Two-thirds of the people in Mexico try to earn a living in the informal economy, including a third of children under ten years old.  Children sell Chiclets on the street and men lie on broken glass in the subway.

For those who must struggle each day to earn enough money to feed their families, that they might receive daily bread…  Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population…  Our real task is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.  [George Kennan, for the U.S. State Department, 1948]

For those whose self-interest blinds them to seeing the needs of others, that they might be awakened to their place in the family of creation…  Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

Solo:  Eternal Spirit of the Living Christ, v. 1

Each year, over 4,000 people die attempting to cross the border from Mexico to the United States.  Each of these people has a name, a home, a family.

For those who have died, for those who mourn, and for those who wait for news that will never come, that they might be comforted…  Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

As a condition for making loans, the World Bank imposes Structural Adjustment Programs that lead to reduction or elimination of social services.

For those with power and influence, that they might be guided to use their authority in ways that build up the body of Christ…  Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

Solo:  Eternal Spirit of the Living Christ, v. 2

I would like to make a special appeal to the members of the Army… In the name of God, in the name of your tormented people whose cries rise up…  I beseech you, I beg you, I command you:  Stop the repression!  [Bishop Oscar Romero, the day before he was assassinated while leading a worship service in 1980]

For those who take a stand in support of the poor and in opposition to ruthless power, that their voices might be heard and heeded…  Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

Across the country, base Christian communities gather to pray, to study the scripture, and to take action to accompany those who are struggling.

For those who care for others in your name, that they might be strengthened through their service…  Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

Solo:  Eternal Spirit of the Living Christ, v. 3

We have experienced the radical hospitality of home visit hosts, who give up even their own beds so that we might have a place to sleep.

For those who, in the midst of their poverty, evangelize us, that both we and they would grow in our sense of community with one another…  Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

For those who wait upon the promise of your favor, that their souls might continue to magnify your name… Lord, in your mercy… hear our prayer.

In the silence of this moment, send your Holy Spirit into our hearts to stir up faith in us and to pray for us those prayers that, right now, we cannot pray for ourselves…  For all that you see your children need, we pray, in the name of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.



Escaping the Echo Chamber

Escaping theEcho Chamber (1)I have a lot of friends whose views on political and social issues are pretty similar to mine. I am neither apologizing nor feeling guilty about that; it’s natural for all of us to want to spend time with people who have similar outlooks and ideas. The problem is, we can too easily get caught in an echo chamber, where the only voices we hear are those that sound just like ours. If we don’t have a chance to engage differing opinions, it becomes too easy to stereotype those who disagree with us. We start to imagine ourselves as the Good Guys and the “others” as the Bad Guys. And if we happen to cross paths on Facebook or in the comments section of a blog or media article, the dialogue quickly degenerates into name-calling and character assassination.

This is not a new problem. Jesus’ disciples were convinced that their Samaritan neighbors were completely evil and untrustworthy. They were shocked – scandalized – when they saw Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman by a public well. And the familiar Bible story is called The Good Samaritan because that’s what made it news. Samaritans were rarely thought of as good. When we only associate with people who think like we think, say what we say, we can start to think of that as reality, not as the echo chamber it really is.

One of the remedies is to intentionally seek out people from different places in the social-political landscape and to listen to them. Listen… not debate, argue, or try to convert… but listen deeply and respectfully. I have friends who have tried to create spaces for conversations that cross the red and blue political lines. Sometimes they work well, other times not so much. In my own associations, I have some people who might be good conversation partners, except that they won’t put in the time and effort to craft an original contribution to the discussion of any issue. Instead, they lurk around Facebook pages and blogs and wait for someone to make a statement about a news event or current issue. Then they jump in with (verbal) guns blazing and engage in all the bad behavior. Those aren’t thoughtful contributors to any conversation; they are what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians as noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. They simply generate noise and ill will.

Fortunately, I also have some thoughtful conversation partners. One friend with whom I disagree on many issues but whose voice I appreciate is Rebecca Florence Miller. She and I met nearly 15 years ago in seminary. She has a blog on the Evangelical Channel of Patheos (here), and she frequently offers opinions on the day’s events on her Facebook page.

Rebecca is significantly more conservative than I am. But I am enriched every time I read one of her blog posts. She does not paint issues with broad-brush simplistic strokes; she is attentive to the nuances of a situation. She is a strong believer in accountability and will challenge those who try to dodge their ethical responsibility, regardless of their political stripes. And she seems never to forget that even those who are acting the worst are children of a God who loves them and wants better for them.

I am grateful to Rebecca and to the many other people in my life who are thoughtful, ethical, and willing to hold me and others accountable for our own words and actions.