Why am I here? A non-existential post

First, a confession.  If someone is willing to cover the costs for me to travel the world and engage in interesting activities, my ears usually perk up.  That’s why, while taking a Mission class with President Richard Bliese in the summer of 2009, I realized that I could go to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne if I just asked.

Now, as a father of two at the time (with a daughter on the way) and our second child, my son, being disabled and requiring a lot of attention, I couldn’t get ahead of myself.  Before I could ask President Bliese about going to Australia, I had to ask someone else first.  My wife.  When I told her that the Luce Foundation was providing a very generous grant that would allow our seminary to send students, she told me that if I didn’t ask to go, she’d go for me.

About a month and a half ago, because of my participation in the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I got on an email distribution list asking for people to apply to State of Formation.  There was potential for travel if selected, which was of course appealing, but what really drew me in was the opportunity to be a part of the next generation of conversation—conversation through social media that hits on the realities of our world and what people in my generation have to say about it.

Interreligious dialogue is not something I encounter face-to-face every day.  As an intern pastor in St. Paul, MN, most of my interaction is with people over 50 who are white with European ancestry.  Conversation around the office is about what ails our parishioners, what we are doing for worship, and of course, what is Brett Favre up to this week.

As an intern pastor at a stable congregation in an urban congregation that is healthier than most Lutheran churches in the country, this church is still faced with financial uncertainties and the question of how do we keep a dialogue with my generation—the 20-40 year olds.

One possible answer: Theology on Tap.

Developed by the Catholics, but an idea that is spreading throughout all denominations of the church, Theology on Tap is a chance for younger members of the congregation to come together in a place that is comfortable, less threatening, and allows for more questions and conversation than people feel able to do on a Sunday morning or a Wednesday night.

We meet at a bar and have open dialogue.  We have met twice.  Not surprisingly, the idea of interreligious dialogue is one that I am interested in talking about, but it’s something that this group seems willing to wrestle with too.

My favorite insight from our first meeting was a tangent that evolved from the question “if you had to describe your religious affiliation, what would it be?”  That tangent focused on how Facebook has a place for you to put your religion in your profile.  An observation was made by one of the twentysomething guys that he found most people who left it blank or ambiguous where often the ones who thought about it the most or where the most curious.  People want to talk about the mosque near Ground Zero and the idiocy of burning Quran’s.

The point that I want us to get at, as a group, is what does it mean to be Lutheran in a pluralist society?  How do we engage in dialogue with an open mind but also a sense of self-understanding and an ability to better express our faith?  How do we, as the church, demonstrate our care for the world, our neighbor, and ourselves in non-threatening ways or appear as if we’re just interested in increasing our church attendance?

State of Formation will be an avenue for me to do this.  As a busy father and full time intern, oftentimes it is nearly impossible to attend a local meeting about interreligious dialogue or to hear a speaker talk about Muslim-Christian relations.

But through State of Formation, this dialogue can occur when I am available to engage—after the kids go down and when I want to hear what other people have to say about the conversations that are happening, the issues that are penetrating our society, and the way we stand up to those who are intolerant, afraid of dialogue, or apathetic to what is outside their bubble.  Here is my peer group and here, at State of Formation, is what we have to say.

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3 thoughts on “Why am I here? A non-existential post

  1. Hi John – thanks for sharing your thoughts. It is, indeed, interesting to note that those who are most curious and engaging with respect to religion are often those who are reluctant to label/identify themselves. I wonder if this has something to do with the ways in which we tend to de/fine religions… if one de/fines oneself as “this” then they are presumed to be in opposition to “that”. People – especially young people – are reluctant to box themselves in and de/fine (i.e., making oneself finite) themselves, especially if that de/finition is perceived to put them into opposition with others. My hunch is that this has some connection to the quickly emptying pews in so many churches.

    I especially look forward to hearing more insights from you – and your twenty-somethings on-tap!

  2. With religious labels, there’s often a lot of baggage, and who wants to deal with that? A face book profile that says Catholic, Lutheran, etc., doesn’t tell me if the person is a Catholic who works for social justice, or one who denies communion to those wearing rainbow sashes. It doesn’t tell me if the Lutheran is one who will be open to hearing my side of the story or who has decided that his/her church has a lock on the truth. Yet, when people see a religious label, they associate that person with whatever they have heard about that denomination–good or bad.

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