2 years Later – What I’ve learned as an “Economic Migrant” in Europe

We’ve been in Italy almost exactly 2 years now.  A few thoughts….

2 years Later – What I’ve learned as an “Economic Migrant” in Europe

Rev. Dr. Tim TenClay

 

Let me start out with a little disclaimer: I’m a married, straight, white, male American with two young, blond, outgoing daughters.  Each of those descriptors makes my life easier than that of the “average” immigrant in Europe (if, indeed, it is possible to speak of an “average migrant.”)

Nonetheless, about 3 years ago, we began preparing for a move to Italy, where from a technical perspective, we would become “economic migrants.”  Often, people in our situation, refer to ourselves as “expats,” but I dislike that word.  To me, it seems a not-so-subtle way of saying that “we” (generally, white mid- to upper-class Americans or Europeans) are not “them” (“migrants.”)

I have learned a lot over the past two years of living in Europe as an “economic migrant.”  Here are 10 things I wish people knew about the experience:

  • “Being legal” isn’t easy.

When I came to Italy, I did everything “right.”  I had a passport; I had a visa; I had all my documents; I had a helpful employer.  Still, knowing what paperwork to file, where to file it, when it had to be done, and what documents I needed to bring along (original? duplicate? triplicate? notarized?) is a never-ending struggle.  Websites seldom give me all the information I need (and rarely in my native language), and calling ahead is useless.

I want to be legal.  I’m doing everything in my power to be legal.  Yet, even those who are supposed to be “in the know” are often unable to tell me clearly what’s necessary.  (Then, when every time I think I have everything in place, we find a mistake or something needs to be renewed.)

  • “Learning the language,” even if one is highly motivated, takes time.

Let me be clear.  In general, I believe in the phrase: If you live here, you need to learn the language.

However, that’s much more easily said than done – even for someone who is extremely motivated (which, I’ll admit) is not always the case.  It isn’t enough to “watch TV” (even if that worked “so wonderfully” for your cousin when he spent a year overseas).  Finding a class that’s appropriate for my level, is affordable, and does not conflict with my work schedule is extremely difficult (and often extremely expensive).  All of those “free language classes” you have heard about are wonderful, but they are not all suitable for me.  (All of which at least quadruples in difficulty when dealing with a family and a school.)

  • Saying “Those immigrants… oh, but not you” still sounds racist.

This probably goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyhow.  Ending a sentence with “but not you” never works.  It doesn’t matter if one is talking about gender, race, culture, or religion.  I understand that you are trying to be kind, but I simply do not believe you.

  • Race and religion are a big deal.

My “migrant life” is vastly different than that of many of my African and Middle-Eastern friends.  Partly because I’m a white American; partly because I’m a Christian (and a pastor, on top of that).  People sometimes joke about how ironic it is that I moved to Italy when “Italians all want to move to New York,” but no one ever questions my motives.  When I go to the immigration office and answer their questions, they seldom give me the impression that they think I’m lying to them or that they do not trust my answers.

As a side note, the term “economic migrant” is so broad that it pretty much has no significance at all.  Essentially, it is the official category for anyone who is transitioning away from a country where the UN doesn’t recognize a real war or serious conflict where one is in imminent danger.  How do you measure any of those adjectives (real, serious, imminent, etc.)? No one seems to know.

  • Losing my identity was harder on me than I thought it would be.

I knew I was leaving behind some of my identity – my “place in this world.”  This is, after all, not my first time living outside of my home country.  However, I left behind a stable (dare I even suggest reasonably “successful”) career where I was known for the things I did well and had a “place at the table.”  I lost all of that.  No one understands my education or experience.  Even in the church, which at least recognizes my credentials, I am seen as a “new” pastor and lumped in with seminary students and recent grads (as if my decade and a half of experience never happened).  I have met dozens of professionals who, as immigrants, now mop floors, park cars, and deliver groceries (and that’s if they’re lucky – often even those jobs are hard to find).

People ask why we chose to move here, but “choice” is a tricky word.  I came because my wife had specific work to do.  Some of us come to provide a future for our children that we don’t believe that can have in our home countries, others leave their home countries to escape incredibly dangerous situations.  Remember, the term “economic migrant” means pretty much nothing.  There is no “normal” situation when it comes to migration or immigration.

In the end, though, our home countries no longer have us and our experience, and our new homes either refuse (actively) or (innocently) don’t know how to use us – often that all leaves us feeling useless and frustrated.

The thing I wish I could get across more than anything else is that my language limitations are not reflective of my experience, intellectual capacity, or capabilities.

  • I don’t trust the people I should be able to trust, and I’m almost always afraid.

I hesitate to say “I am always afraid,” but sometimes it seems like it.  I am in a constant state of (usually low-grade) worry.  I worry that if I’m pulled over, my documents may not be perfectly in order (or I will have forgotten one of them at home), that I will not be able to explain myself if I’m caught in a dangerous situation, that my children will not be able to find me if there is an emergency (or that we will not be able to find a hospital), or that I will say the wrong thing to the wrong person.

I do not trust police officers (even though I have met several on a personal level, and honestly believe they are good people), and I go out of my way to avoid situations where I might have to show my documents – even though they are all in order and I do speak the language well enough to understand questions and answer them with adequate clarity.  Even though I know I’m “above board,” I worry.

I know many people in my community whose documents are less certain than mine; sometimes I lay awake at night wondering how they manage to stay sane.

  • We’re not all the same.

Guess what? The United States is a huge country.  (Africa is a huge continent, too!)  I probably do not know that person you meet when you were in New York City on your honeymoon (even thought I lived in upstate New York for four years).  Not all Americans think the same, vote the same, grew up eating the same foods, or even like the same sports (some of us do not even really like sports at all.)

Italians have a highly-developed sense of regional discernment: they can tell where someone was born by the tiniest dialectical differences and food preferences.  Indeed, the dialects (in some cases, actual languages) of different regions are so different that Italians often cannot even understand each other when they speak.  You should know: the same is often true for the US, or Ghana, or Nigeria, or Syria.

  • “Little things” are often a very big deal (for you and for me).

My parents taught me that when encountering someone on the sidewalk, I should move to the right-hand-side of the sidewalk, the oncoming person moves to their right-hand-side of the sidewalk, and – in that way – traffic on the sidewalk will move effortlessly and with a minimal need to swerve or run into one another.  I was taught hundreds of little “rules” of common courtesy – ways of interacting with other people to make society more pleasant for everyone.   Almost none of them apply here.  I have to constantly remind myself that Italians are not more rude than Americans, they just have a different set of cultural courtesies and expectations – courtesies and expectations that I often do not know.

I’m an extreme extrovert and still sometimes want to lock myself in my room after a day of what – to my mind – seems constant rudeness.  I imagine my Italian friends often think the same thing of me.  I really am a polite guy, just know that I don’t always understand how to be polite in your context.

  • Everything is harder here.

This is not a criticism of Italy.  If I were a foreigner living in the US, it would be the same.  Nonetheless, things that are simple for a native are often more difficult for a foreigner.

In my home country, I knew what store to go to when I wanted to buy something.  I knew who to ask if I had questions.  I could guess the ballpark price for things I wanted to purchas.  In short, I had a lifetime of knowledge that enabled me to do things like buy a car or figure out what vaccinations my daughters need for school or buy a turkey for Thanksgiving.  Very little of that knowledge is applicable here.  Even if I understand the words, I often don’t understand what they really mean (i.e. a “doctor” in the US usually implies either a medical doctor or someone with a terminal degree in their field, in Italy an individual with the title “dottore” or “dottoressa” may have little more than a bachelor’s degree – same word, completely different meaning.)

I could easily walk into 3 stores in my hometown and buy a pie plate; it took me a year to find one here and I still have not found a 9×13” pan for cakes and brownies.   Granted, pie plates and cake pans are relatively insignificant, but they serve as a perfect metaphor for pretty much everything time I need to find or do something new.

  • It’s very seldom about you, but you can make a difference.

I need you to know: I love my new country.  I may live here the rest of my life (I have no clue, but I’m open to the idea).  There are so many wonderful things about Italy: art, music, architecture, great people, good food – the list could go on and on.  On the other hand, I’m sometimes worn out and frustrated at simply trying to live and take care of my family, and to do it all alone (remember, unlike for most Italians, our parents and family are a world away).  I don’t hold that against the people I interact with on a daily basis, but they can make a difference.

I need people I can trust (and people I can trust with my children).

I need patience when I’m trying to explain or ask something (I’m working on the language, but it’s going to be a while).  Chances are, I’m trying to figure out how to discuss  the implications of something like my doctoral thesis while using the equivalent of a 2nd grade vocabulary.

If you want me to do something, you need to know that I may know a dozen ways to do that in the US, but have no clue where to get what I need to accomplish even the most simple tasks here.

In short, I need friends who are actually friends.

So does every other “immigrant” in the world.

Posted in Immigration, Italy, misc. | Leave a comment

What is “Essere Chiesa Insieme?”

Several years ago (before knowing that we would, one day, end up in Italy), I attended a conference put on by the American Waldensian Society in Rome related to “Essere Chiesa Insieme” (Being Church Together). I wrote about it here.

In August, I became the pastor of an “Essere Chiesa Insieme” church. Indeed, that church helped begin the movement.

Last week I attended a training event in Braunfels, Germany for leaders of “international congregations.” It was an eye-opening, instructive, and life-giving week, and I returned from it with an even stronger conviction in the concept of Being Church Together.

All of my close friends know that I live in Palermo, Italy. Most of them know that I’m pastoring three different congregations, in three different communities, at three different places on their journey toward increasing faithfulness. Many, however, have asked about this Being Church Together thing. What is it? What does it mean? How does it work?

I’m still learning, of course (and hope to never stop), but I’d like to describe it a bit for those of you who wonder what I’m talking about when I say “Essere Chiesa Insieme” or “Being Church Together.”

The concept is based on two very simple beliefs:

  1. We are united in and through Christ, and
  2. Unity based in anything other than Christ is a cheap imitation of the real thing.

The difficulty with these two beliefs (despite being profoundly biblical) is that, it is dramatically easier to live out unity based language, culture, background, or tradition that it is to live out that which we have in Christ across differences of language, culture, background, and tradition.

In other words: it is even more difficult to live out the unity we have in Christ without unity in those other areas. (Put bluntly: it is immensely complicated to worship together, study the Bible together, seek justice together, and reach out to the world together when we don’t speak the same language, assume the same cosmology, enjoy a common history, or work from within similar cultural priorities.)

Being Church Together is the commitment to do the hard work of living out our unity in Christ.

It’s that simple. (Theoretically)

Of course theoretical simplicity is often less than helpful in practice.

“Unity in Christ” is one thing.

Not worshiping as you “always have,” engaging a new worship vocabulary (musically, liturgically, etc.), accepting diverse (secondary) doctrines, risking the death of your own “sacred cows,” embracing people who smell, look, act, speak, eat, and dress differently, and confronting racial, cultural, denominational, and linguistic biases (and prejudices, and privileges) is something very different. It may be “fun” and “inspiring” for a few days or a weeks at a retreat or conference, but to do it or months, years, or even decades is an exhausting journey of never-ending transformation (by everyone involved).

It is easier to be a monoethnic, monolingual, monocultural congregation. Indeed, the more times you can mention “mono-” in your congregational identity, the easier “being church” becomes.

But “being church” without “being together” is a pretty good indication that a congregation has (sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally) based their unity on something other than Christ.

So, what is Being Church Together (as I understand it)?

It is the commitment to “be church” and “be together” faithfully with those around you – it is a fundamental commitment to respecting “inter-” and “multi-” rather than (en)forcing a false (though often simpler) “mono-.”

Which raises the question: How does it work?

Well, that’s where things start getting interesting.

To do it faithfully, it has to be done differently in every context.

Faithfully “Being Church Together” means valuing each individual in the body, and that – by very definition – means doing things differently in each community.

My recent thoughts (as I’ve been thinking about this in my communities) have revolved these 7 questions:

  • Are we really (honestly!) committed to being together with “them” (whomever “they” are)?
  • Which values, of each person and group, do we have to respect?
  • What strengths do each person and group bring to the table?

(Note: sometimes we have to respect things that, in our opinion, are not “strengths.”)

  • What assumptions and preferences, of each person and group, can be and/or need to be challenged?
  • What weaknesses do we have to take into consideration?

(Note: “weakness” in this sense is not an indication of “goodness” or “badness.”)

  • What needs to be changed in order for us to “be church” and “be together” more and more effectively?
  • How are these things changing as we look at the different generations in our community?

 

I’m certainly a work-in-progress here. As always, I’d love your thoughts?

Posted in Essere Chiesa Insieme, Religious | Leave a comment

Immigrant. Displaced Person. Refugee. Emigrant. Migrant. Ex-Pat. Alien. Legal. Illegal. Documented. Undocumented.

Immigrant. Displaced Person. Refugee. Emigrant. Migrant. Ex-Pat. Alien. Legal. Illegal. Documented. Undocumented.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these words over the past couple of years, and for most of that time, I held the position that the key issue was “definition.” Most of these words are simply defining words. There is a technical definition, for example, for the word “refugee,” and to use it outside of that definition (as many do) causes confusion and disorder. Similarly, in many settings, the word “alien” is nothing more than a legal designation (despite its implications).

Other words are less clear. Consider, for a moment, what the definition of an “ex-pat” should be. Is someone an “immigrant” or an “emigrant?” Is someone “displaced” or “migrant?” Does “documented” make someone “legal” and is “illegal” an undeniable result of being “undocumented?”

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that the key question is not how we define any of these words. The key question is how each of these words is used to define the “other” – the “not us,” “those people.”

Each of these words are loaded with baggage – some of it positive, some of it negative. “Ex-pat,” for example, gives the impression of someone who will not stay forever, (often) someone who is white, (usually) someone who can sustain themselves financially, and (almost always) someone from a wealthy country; the word “refugee” is generically used to indicate the opposite of all of those things (usually positively), and the word “migrant” is often used to indicate the opposite of an “ex-pat” in a less-than-flattering way.

Even the relatively benign (or intentionally technical) terms are, in the end, “us/them” designators, and each of these “us/them” designators is used to define “who belongs,” “who is welcome,” “who is the helper,” “who is the receiver of help,” “who is like me/us,” “who is different from me/us,” etc., etc.

There are many laudable attempts to (re)define the baggage attached to words like “(im)migrant,” and I certainly hope they continue. At a more profound level, though, I find myself concerned about how intent we are at discerning who is “us” and who is “them,” and the fact that – in practically every situation – those designations are based on human-created (rather than ontological) distinctions.

Some of them are obvious. Clearly there is no ontological distinction between the US and Mexico. Mexico is Mexico; the US is the US, and the US is not Mexico (and visa versa) only because at a certain point in history an invisible, human-created line was drawn between one (invisible, human-created) country and another.

Other distinctions are equally as obvious, even if they seem less absurd on the surface. Take, for example, the suggestion that a country should welcome “Christians” and refuse “Muslims.” As a Christian pastor, certainly I believe there is a distinction between Christianity and Islam, but even this is a (not-so-subtle and fundamentally unhelpful) way of designating “us” and “them” in the world of human movement from one region to another – a (not-so-subtle and fundamentally unhelpful) way of trying to appear like we’re protecting the “us” from the evils of the “them.”

My wife is a sociologist and a social-worker. She understands the technicalities of human movement and the legal specifics related to it. Her job is an important one – it is essential to the maintenance and re-establishment of human safety and dignity both locally and globally.

I am a pastor. Although the distinction between pastor and social-worker is probably best imagined as a venn diagram, my job is different. My job is to encourage and equip people – at a very personal level – to abandon the human-created distinctions that we use to define “us” from “them” and embrace a profound doctrine of Imago Dei. In the Christian tradition (as well as in Judaism and some forms of Islam), the doctrine of Imago Dei is the belief that all humanity is created in the “image of God” – that we are all, at the most ontological level, bearers of the same divine spark. Thus, we are all equally as deserving of help (when needed) and equally as responsible to offer that help (when within our abilities to do so.) The distinctions that my wife has to work within as a social-worker are irrelevant to my world.

“Do unto others….”

“God so loved the world…”

“Love your neighbor…”

These are not statements with caveats attached. They are not statements followed by “if” or preceded by “maybe.”

There are people who have to worry about legal status, invisible lines, and human-created categories. Most of us are not those people. Most of us are people whose job is far more simple – and at the same time – far more profound: to honor the Imago Dei in all people; to accept help (when we need it), and to offer help (when we can).

Nothing more.

Nothing less.

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February 17th 1600, 1848 and Today

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

The 17th of February signifies practically nothing to American Christians. However, it is an important date to my colleagues here in Italy. On September 17, 1848 the King of Sardinia 353issued an edict extending full civil rights to the two people groups in his kingdom that remained ghettoed and legally relegated to second class status: Waldensians and Jews.

For the first time, both people groups were allowed to attend universities, buy houses and land, trade outside of their home regions, and worship without fear of persecution (at least theoretically).

Most people are vaguely familiar with the hardships European Jews have experienced throughout history, but Waldensian history is practically unknown to most Americans. In short, the Waldensians were “protestants” before “protestantism.” Legend traces the movement back to a man named Peter Waldo (born approximately 1140) who was roughly contemporary with the more famous St. Francis (for reference, Luther would not be born for another 300+ years, in 1483). Waldo gave up his considerable wealth (not unlike St. Francis) and eventually developed a community of men and women known as “the poor of Lyon” (Lyon, France). They were exceptionally committed to the Bible (studied and taught by both men and women), to poverty (as a discipline of faithfulness and a method for promoting justice), and anticlericism – all three of which made the established church deeply uncomfortable and lead to Waldo’s excommunication in 1184 (although his beliefs had been condemned by the Third Lateran Council half a decade earlier).

(As an interesting side note, St. Francis got himself into similar trouble for similar ideals but was later re-embraced by the established church and is now the patron saint of Italy.)

The importance of February 17th, however neither begins or ends with the edict of 1848. Giordano Bruno, (in)famous for his cosmic theories and commitment to science, was burned at the stake by the Inquisition on the same date in 1600. Not surprisingly, many consider Bruno the personification of the historic conflicts between science and religion.

Today, February 17th is celebrated by the Waldensians as a day of freedom – freedom for all religions and freedom for all people.

Although Waldensians are now legally recognized by the Italian government, they have not forgotten what it was like to be on the side of the persecuted and remain profoundly committed to fighting for freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom from the injustices of cultural and gender persecution, and freedom from all prejudices based on race, class, and history.

God has taken his place in the divine council…
“…Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Psalm 82:1a, 3-4

Posted in Italy, Music | Leave a comment

Let’s be Friends

Here is my article for this coming month’s church newsletter, the Courant:

Let’s be Friends

If there’s one thing that continues to surprise me, no matter how long I’ve been a minister, it’s the fact that “Church” is so hard. Have you ever thought about that? It shouldn’t be.

Most American congregations aren’t particularly diverse ethnically, or culturally, or linguistically, or economically, or educationally, or theologically. (Sure, there are exceptions, but most are not.) Indeed, most are made up of people who are remarkably similar. Many, especially small congregations, are dominated by just a few families who make up a huge percentage of the membership (thus, ensuring that many congregations aren’t even all that diverse genetically!)

Yet, for some reasons, this whole “Church” thing turns out to be incredibly difficult. It’s hard to keep people engaged and cared for. It’s hard to makes sure people are heard and valued. It’s hard to get over old hurts and ongoing mistrust. It’s hard to admit the wrongs we do (and forgive the wrongs done to us).

Which raises the question: Why?

If we aren’t separated by the big things (see above), why is it so difficult?

I’m sure there are many reasons, but two rise to the surface as I think about it: (1) we’re so close, we fight like family, and (2) we’re so close, we propagate a culture of status quo.

We’re so close, we fight like family.

Every relationship eventually has to deal with conflict. Sometimes it’s conflict over little things (“what kind of pizza to order?”); sometimes it’s conflict over bigger things (“what kind of end-of-life care do we chose for a loved one?”). Conflict is inevitable in every relationship. There’s nothing wrong with that. The question is how we engage it.

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that friends are often far better at engaging conflict than families (even conflict over big issues).   Friends tend to give each other the benefit of the doubt (families often don’t). Friends tend to fight fairly (families often don’t). Friends often overlook little slights understanding that some things just aren’t worth fighting about (families regularly argue intensely over things that are, quite frankly, utterly insignificant). Friends frequently seek harmony in the midst of difference (family often demands unanimity). Friends always know that a relationship could disintegrate (families usually [wrongly] assume that’s an impossibility).

I’m not a big fan of using the “family” metaphor for congregations and this is partly why. What if, instead of assuming we’re family, we actually worked at being friends? I’ve never met a church-goer who complained about their congregation being too friendly. On the other hand, I cannot even begin to list the times “family-like arguments” have infected congregations to a point where reconciliation seems almost impossible.

Friendship can be particularly difficult when so many of us actually are family (or at least have limited real diversity to overcome), but it is possible. Perhaps it is even necessary.

We’re so close, we propagate a culture of status quo.

As crazy as it may sound, the fact that congregations are often made up of people who are so similar, creates a context where change is disincentivized. One might be tempted to think that our like-ness would make us more affirming of each other’s growth and development, but the exact opposite is often the case. Why? It’s simple: the more we’re like someone, the more their change suggests we might need to change too.

Put bluntly, in contexts where true diversity is limited, an individual’s decision to change is, inherently (albeit perhaps unintentionally), a judgment on the groups norms.

This can be a good thing for some groups. It can facilitate stability and limit change just “for the sake of change.” On the other hand, the Church is an entity that’s almost all about change. Congregations don’t exist to help people stay what they are; congregations exist to help people become what they can be (in order, of course, to increasingly glorify God).

What an incredible irony it is: one of the primary reasons churches exist is to facilitate change, yet many congregations make true change almost impossible.

Again, the metaphor of “family” is less helpful than that of “friends.” Families usually experience change as condemnation; friends, more often, see change as opportunities for growth and development.

Let’s be friends.

I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a place for “family” language in the Church. (It is, after all, a biblical metaphor and sometimes helpful.) What if we put it on the back burner for a while though, and started replacing it with “friendship” language. Or better yet, what if we started actually being friends?! Not because we have to, but because we can. Not because we’re so much alike, but because we’re committed to being together even (perhaps especially) when we differ.

Posted in Church, NON-Belgic Confession, PRC - Courant | Leave a comment

Why do you care about AIDS?

This year, thanks to our anticipated move, I’m not riding the Aids Red Ribbon Ride (which I have immensely enjoyed for the past two years). Nonetheless, I know and love some incredible men and women who will be riding it and supporting it. As I watch their training on FaceBook and observe their fund raising, I’m reminded of how often I’ve been asked: Why do you care about AIDS?

Have you ever asked yourself that? (Probably not.)

Have you ever asked someone else? (Again, probably not.)

Believe it or not, I’m asked that question a lot. To me the answer is obvious (I’ll get to that in a second), but I guess I understand it. After all, I’m a middle-aged, married, straight white guy. I’ve never been promiscuous, never been a drug user, never been raped, don’t have a blood disorder, and – although I was an EMT for a short time – have never had an accidental sharps exposure.

To most people, I am exactly the opposite of someone who should particularly care about AIDS.

That’s why I care about it.

I care about it because most people look at me and assume that AIDS has nothing to do with me. As a matter of fact, most of my friends, colleagues, and parishioners assume that it has nothing to do with them either.

They look in a mirror and they compare themselves with “the kind of people who get AIDS” and they imagine there’s no overlap.

Except, they’re wrong.

AIDS – unlike pretty much everything else in the world – doesn’t discriminate.

Straight people get it. Gay people get it. Young people get it. Old people get it. Gorgeous people get it. Ugly people get it. Rich people get it. Poor people get it. Athletes get it. Musicians get it. Chess players get it. Parents get it. Single people get it. (I could go on, but I think you get the point….)

That’s why I care about it.

There’s more though.

I also care about it because I’m a minister. Every week I stand in front of my congregation and I call them to confession with words like: we have all fallen short of God’s will for us; we are all sinners in the hands of a gracious God – a God eager to forgive…. A God whose love is so deeply that nothing can separate us from it… nothing! “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation….”

I say those words, and I realize that the Church (big “C” – the Christian Church, as a whole) has not lived into them very well.  We’ve all-too-often imagined that God’s love doesn’t extend to people we imagine are unlike us… to those people… them… they… (whomever “those,” “them,” and “they” happens to be).

We’ve failed to realize that they are us.

I care about AIDS because, nearly every Sunday, when I call my congregation to confession I’m embarrassed at how the Church (big “C”) has responded to the AIDS crisis.

Yes, I think about AIDS that often.

Every week, I’m reminded of how often we have sectioned off people whom God Loves. (I wish I could say “they have,” but I know I’m stuck with the first-person-plural here.)  We’ve sectioned them off and imagined they’re somehow not us.

We’ve failed to realize that they are us… we are them.

That’s why I care about it.

Sure, AIDS is increasingly experienced as a disease to be “lived with” rather than to “die from,” but we have a long way to go.  Will you help?

Grace and peace,
`tim

Posted in ARRR, NON-Belgic Confession, Politics, Synod 2011 | Leave a comment

A Home Library

Here is my latest article for our Church’s monthly newsletter, the Courant:

This will come as no surprise to most of you, but I’m a little bit of a “book guy.” Although my library doesn’t hold a candle to that of some of my colleagues, I have been carefully adding new favorites to it for about two decades. However, with an overseas move on the horizon, I’ve had to rethink my approach to books and start evaluating which are important enough to take up space (and weight) in our luggage (or to reacquire digitally), which can be stored, and which to liquidate.

As I’ve thought about this, I was reminded of a list I put together several years ago describing what religious books are worth buying for a home library – as it turns out, it’s very similar to the list of books that I’ll be packing. Most people make the mistake of buying too many low-quality books and end up with a library full of relatively worthless ones that aren’t really all that helpful. Perhaps I can save you some money and space – here are the ones I think everyone should consider:

  • An NRSV version of the Bible: there are a lot of English translations and paraphrases available and each has their own benefits and drawbacks. The NRSV, however, is something of an “industry standard” and it’s the one we use in worship at Pultneyville Reformed. For what it’s worth, I prefer versions that include the Apocrypha – they usually cost the same, and it’s helpful to have at your disposal. ($10-50)
    (Also available online for free at: http://bible.oremus.org/)
  • A copy of the RCA creeds and confessions: you may not agree with everything in them, but they provide a helpful foundation for being able to think intelligently about matters of faith. The Bible is our “only rule of faith and practice” but it isn’t always easy or concise. The creeds and confessions often boil down complicated concepts into helpful explanations. ($7)
    (Also available online for free at: https://www.rca.org/standards)
  • The Isaiah Vision by Raymond Fung: It’s a simple little book, but the Adult Sunday School Class has spent most of the year discussing it and its implications. Sometimes congregations like ours find it easier to say what we don’t believe than to describe what we do stand for. The Isaiah Vision gives language for how “to do church” in a way that makes sense in a wide variety of contexts. ($8)
  • The New Bible Dictionary published by InterVarsity Press: Bible dictionaries are essentially encyclopedias of Bible information. If you run across the word denarii do you know what it means? What is a Psalm? What important contextual and genre information should you know when reading Nehemiah? Bible dictionaries give you all the inside information you need in (reasonably) short and concise articles (without actually telling you what to believe). I like IVP’s The New Bible Dictionary because it does a good job of straddling “easy” and “academic. ($30)
  • John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: believe it or not, the Institutes are exceptionally accessible. Even if you take a year or two to work through them, you’ll be better off than reading a hundred pseudo-religious books picked up from the sale aisle of the bookstore. Whatever you do, though, please get a modern translation like the one by Ford Lewis Battles. ($25-50)

You can buy all of them for around a hundred dollars, and if you never buy another religious book, they’d serve you well for the rest of your life.

Seriously, how often can you say that?!

On the other hand, if you’d like to go further than that, here are a few more I’d suggest:

One last thing: there are two categories of books that are generally a waste of money for a home library (1) original language resources and (2) commentaries. Although both do a great job a boosting the ego, they simply aren’t usually worth it. Why? Put bluntly: the NRSV is a quality translation and most people will never develop enough skill with the original languages to make it worthwhile, also most commentaries fit in to one of three categories: too academic, too unacademic, or too stuck on a particular position. Most people will benefit more from spending time studying the Bible itself (especially if they do it with other people) rather than studying what some “professional scholar” has to say about it.

As always, please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or would like help choosing specific editions.

Grace and peace,
`tim

 

PS: I provided links to the above resources on Amazon.  For the record, I get no “kickback” or benefits for doing so.  Most of them can be found through various distributors at similar prices.

Posted in Books, Church, NON-Belgic Confession, PRC - Courant, Religious | Leave a comment

Getting them in… and keeping them.

I read a lot of articles about how to get people to who “left the church” to “come back” and equally as many trying to describe why [insert particular group] isn’t coming to church.  At some level, they’re interesting.  Truth be known though, I’m increasingly convinced that most of them completely miss the point.

  • It doesn’t have to do with the fact that they don’t have enough time – that’s simply an excuse (and not an honest one, at that).
  • It doesn’t have to do with sports activities on Sunday – that’s only occasionally the case.
  • It doesn’t have to do with worship style – that’s, for the most part, a matter of preference and it’s possible to find a church that reflect pretty much any preference in most communities.
  • It doesn’t have to do with gender or racial realities – everyone knows there are congregations who fit any particular position one might have on any particular topic.
  • It doesn’t have to do with any of the things most people (and, it seems most scholars) try to blame it on.

Here’s what I think: People don’t come to church because – when push comes to shove – they don’t believe it’s any more significant than whatever else they might be doing.

Yeah… that’s it.  Nothing more/nothing less.

People’s actions reflect what they think is important.  Period.  You can comfortably ignore pretty much all of the excuses people give and all of the studies scholars do – as interesting as they may be.

Those who don’t attend church – regardless of what reasons they give for not attending – deep down inside simply don’t believe it’s worth their time… at least not as worthy as whatever else they might be doing.  (Which is pretty damning to those of us in the church if they’re not choosing anything more significant than an extra hour of TV or a second cup of coffee!)

It does beg the question, then, doesn’t it: Are they wrong?  Are we – who do participate in the life and ministry of the church – really doing anything significant enough to be worth their time?

  • Are we making the world a better place?
  • Are we fighting for justice?
  • Are we truly acting as outposts of God’s kingdom?
  • Are we engaging the living God in our worship?
  • Are we inviting people into deep, world-transforming discipleship (and helping them with it)?
  • Are we positively and powerfully influencing change in society and government?
  • Are we…  well, are we being significant?

It isn’t that we don’t believe significantly.  It isn’t even that we don’t talk about significant things.  Most of us do both.  The question is whether we’re doing anything significant.

Changing worship styles may temporarily bring a few people in; changing worship times or adding services may make a minor difference for a few; adding “social” activities may even help a little, but they’re all cosmetic.

The question is: when they get past whatever’s comfortable or convenient, will they find anything that’s substantive?

The days of people coming to church “because it’s the right thing to do” are long gone.  Societal pressure (at least in the US) used to be enough to get people in the pews on Sunday morning – regardless of whether or not it was actually worth their time to do so – not anymore!

The days have come when we have to earn our place on people’s calendars – when we have to deserve their time.

Yes, I know: God deserves it… but that’s not enough.  God’s worthiness is irrelevant if they don’t recognize God’s presence in our worship or God’s work lived out in our lives and congregations.

There you have it.  From my perspective you can ignore all the studies and stop wasting time on all the articles.  If you we want people in the pews, we need to be offering something significant enough to get them (and keep them) there.

Grace and peace,
`tim

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Dear Baby Music Majors

I was once one of you.  I started coursework for my music degree – along with all the other music majors – days before most of our classmates began digging into their 100-level classes.  I spent hours in practice rooms and rehearsals.  I took diction classes, conducting classes, music history, theory, composing, and a variety of instrumental methods.

UCB Music Library MS 1087I hate to break the news to you, but here it is: many of you will not graduate from college with a music degree.  Like me, a remarkable percentage of you will change majors and graduate with something only vaguely (or not at all) related to music.

Don’t feel bad.  As a matter of fact, I have good news: whether or not you graduate with a music degree, you will want to…

..Learn your history.

I imagine music history is useful for actual music graduates, however I know music history is useful for the rest of us.  Nearly everything you learn about in history class will apply to art, architecture, philosophy, theology, and literature.  Rent will make more sense to you if you’re familiar with La Bohème.  Movies and TV – from vampire dramas to reality shows – are more enjoyable if you can place them in context. (The musical/media mismatches can be remarkably funny, too!)  Whatever field you go into (even if it is music), your only regrets will be what you don’t learn. 

…Learn your theory.

Before I switched majors, I thought theory was something to “get through” – a prerequisite to the real music classes.  Little did I know that theory actually was the real thing.  When I initially switched majors, I looked back at my time in theory classes as wasted.  How wrong I was!  You probably don’t believe me, but you will actually use it.  You will never regret the ability to transcribe a melody or transpose a part.  Honestly (and this is no exaggeration) I lament my half-hearted attention to theory more than nearly anything else from my college career.

…Learn your foreign diction.

You may never again sing (or listen to) an Italian Art Song or German Lieder; IPA may someday be a dim and ancient memory, but it’s a small world.  The ability to pronounce French, German, Italian, and Latin will come in handy regardless of what profession you settle in.  Perhaps it will be on a honeymoon or vacation; maybe you’ll use it at a conference; the possibilities are endless.  You will use it, that much I can promise.

…learn a non-ensemble instrument.

Trombone and saxophone are wonderful, but let’s face it, most people don’t play them very much after graduation.  Piano, flute, voice, guitar… you will use them.  You don’t have to be “stage quality,” but you won’t regret being decent.  I was a vocalists, keyboardist, and (low) brass player who took alto flute lessons on a whim (and because I needed a “woodwind”).  Odd as it sounds, these days I’m generally more likely to pick up a flute than trombone, or baritone, or tuba… or even organ (even though I’m a pastor in an organ-playing church!)

…stay in touch with your classmates.

This one requires very little explanation.  My music major days are well-over a decade behind me, yet the music department of my alma mater remains a source of some of my favorite memories and the people that filled it remain some of the most supportive and resourceful people I know.

You may spend the rest of your life in the music world, or you may not.  Either way, enjoy your days as a music major and soak them up – I promise, it’ll be worth it!

Grace and peace,
`tim

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“Right” belief and “Right” Discipleship

Back to the grindstone after a bit of a break on my Belgic Confession series…

Today we turn to the question that haunts pretty much every page of every church history book ever written: What was/is Jesus?

One needent sit  through very many history or theology classes to recognize that nearly every conversation eventually comes back to how one answers the question of Jesus’ divinity.  Was/Is he God?  Has he always been God?  Did he just look like God?  Was/Is he human?  Has he always been human?  Did he just appear human?  Does “sonship” require divinity?  Did something change at Jesus’ baptism?  What was the extent of kenosis?  Did Jesus reveal divinity as a child?  Was the centurion at the crucifixion declaring Jesus’ uniquely God’s son or one of many divine children?  What is the relationship between the person of Jesus and the office of Christ?  Do the answers to any of these questions change post-resurrection?  post ascension?

The questions never end.

Nor should they.

Christianity is, fundamentally, a religion defined by our beliefs about Jesus, nd that means that Christianity, at some level, requires us to wonder about who (and/or what) Jesus is (and/or was).

Dear Guido, not surprisingly, has a deeply orthodox doctrine of Jesus, declaring him “…the only Son of God— eternally begotten, not made or created… [of] one in essence with the Father; coeternal…. [who] already existed before creating all things.”

Obviously, Guido was familiar with the Nicene Creed (which, had defined the orthodox view of Jesus for almost 1200 years by the time Guido arrived on the scene).

Importantly, however, Guido doesn’t just stop with a solid doctrine of Jesus, he ends Article 10 with the recognition that the whole point of trying to understand Jesus is to draw us into discipleship:

[Jesus] is the true eternal God,
the Almighty,
whom we invoke,
worship,
and serve.

The Reformed tradition hasn’t always done well at making the jump from solid doctrine to true discipleship (especially when we’ve allowed ourselves to be overly influenced by “get ’em saved” evangelicalism).  Guido, however, makes the connection almost accidentally.   To him, it seems, the two could barely be separated.  Indeed, they cannot.

This is the basis of what it means that the Reformed tradition is a “confessional tradition.”  Reformed folk aren’t “confessional” because we’re obsessive and compulsive about doctrinal issues (although, there are some….)  We’re “confessional” because we believe that “being Christian” and “being disciples” are the same thing and that “right” discipleship and “right” beliefs are – at best – causally related to one another.

I wonder what it might look like if Reformed denominations took that as their primary focus?

Grace and peace,
`tim

(As a side note: I deeply dislike the word “invoke” here.  In some religions to “invoke” is to ritually demand someone’s presence – Christianity’s use of the word is different.  While an “invocation” may be ritual, we do not perceive ourselves as somehow demanding God appear but rather humbly “calling upon God” to be attentive to us.)

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