Community and D&D

This month The Church Lab welcomes aspiring pastor Erica Nelson.
We invited Erica to ponder the ways she finds community outside of the church, and what the church could learn from such groups. Welcome, Erica!

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Erica Nelson is a Presbyterian candidate for ministry who graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She works at Texas Impact, an interfaith advocacy organization that helps people of faith connect their faith with public policy.

Growing up, my parents played a game called Dungeons and Dragons. This game, nicknamed D&D, is a role-playing game where the success of decisions is determined by dice rolling. You create a fantasy character alongside several other people, and you all play a storyline put together by the Game Master. Within this storyline, you will work through combat situations, puzzles, and social interactions using skills, spells, and equipment that your character possesses, which are determined by a carefully cultivated set of rules.

Watching my parents play, I was always fascinated by the storytelling, the fantasy, the ingenuity, and the fun that my parents and their friends experienced. So, when I came to Austin Seminary to pursue theological education and found out there was a student led D&D group, I was eager to join. We met for two of the three years I attended seminary and out of this group, I formed some of my best friends, friends I still have even though we have almost all graduated. I also enjoyed D&D itself so much that I went out and found other groups to join.

There is a sort of magic that comes out of the community formed between people who laugh together, solve problems together, write a story together. There is power in exploring new ideas or ways of being by embodying a character who may be completely alike or different from yourself. There is growth in the experience of team building, learning to adapt to new situations both real and imaginary, and exploring different ways of problem solving.

For me, that community was formed out of shared interests and fun. But more importantly, that community was formed in learning that we are not alone. For this reason, that community lasted because we found that those of us who came together, despite our vast differences and walks of life, had more in common than anything else.

As a member of the Christian community, I know that D&D has a lot of stigma for being ‘satanic’ or ‘blasphemous’. Some of the people I play with were surprised when I told them I was going to seminary to become a Christian minister. But I do not view this as something that is opposite of my faith. I view this as an expression of my God given gifts, a way to use the imagination, the critical thinking skills, and the curiosity that God imparted to me.

Ultimately, what I get out of this type of community that I could not get in the Church is a form of self-expression that encourages ways of being that are outside of ordinary. Many of my friends, and I myself, have used our characters as a way of exploring alternative gender expressions, sexualities, manners of speaking, behaviors or quirks that might otherwise be shunned or mocked in more conventional settings. The Church could learn to encourage this kind of exploration, this kind of self-expression. But most importantly, the Church could learn to encourage this kind of fun and storytelling.

Strategies for Successful Dialogue, No Matter the Setting

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After the 2016 election, TCL’s pastor Carrie Graham shared some thoughts on building community in successful dialogue. In a charged cultural setting growing more divided each day, TCL revisits some strategies gleaned within our community that not only keep us healthy and productive, but that may be carried out to the community at large.

  • Expand Proximity! Sometimes we mistake being “open-minded” for being around like-minded people. Take note that embracing diversity and trying to understand people you don’t already understand are at times different things. We have good work to do. To do it, it takes intentionally placing ourselves in less comfortable, less like-minded environments. It may not be comfortable, but it is fruitful over time!

  • Note the Narrative! Strongly held within us are narratives that we subconsciously affirm and perpetuate. When we have new experiences, what stands out to us are the pieces that endorse already-held beliefs. We follow a script that is hard to change, and it is bewildering when we encounter someone that doesn’t follow a script very similar to our own. Necessary in dialogue is humility. Specifically needed is a willingness to change, question our own biases, and to take a step back and wonder what else might be at play when we are tempted to make the world simpler by blithely dismissing others’ convictions.

  • Gauge Readiness! There is such a thing as someone who has been talked into a dialogue, attends, and is not ready. For instance, I often say if someone “needs to win,” they are not ready for the dialogue and would do better to wait to attend until a different season of life. There is also such a thing as a dialoguer being well-meaning and not ready for certain topics within a particular dialogue. A dialogue’s success depends in part on the honesty and vulnerability of its participants. We validate and invite, which allows for participation at the level each participant is prepared for.

  • Watch for Undercutting! When someone asserts something about their own convictions, feelings or reasons for actions, and another dialoguer contradicts that person's lived experiences, the dialogue is dismantled. If one person is permitted to undercut someone’s feelings or convictions, then we lose the vital dialogical commitment of seeking to understand before being understood. Here, we must pause, back up, and work toward collectively to re-committing to the legitimacy of each dialoguer’s experiences.

  • Self-Awareness is a Work in Progress! Sometimes we may encounter a feeling or response to something someone shares that we simply didn’t expect, or that we do not understand. This is an opportunity to grow, to reflect beyond the dialogue, and perhaps to seek pastoral care or the care of your worshipping community. We expect difficult moments when we risk vulnerability around sensitive topics! We ask for grace and compassion for ourselves and others when caught off guard.

We at TCL invite you to employ some of these considerations as you engage in any number of settings with others who are different from you. If you are curious to engage in TCL’s dialogue community or have any questions about successful dialogue strategies, please visit our contact page!

Dialogue Encounters Difference

One person describes her mini-internal-roadmap when encountering

significant difference during dialogue.

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Pam Jarvis attends dialogue and assists in the running of TCL. She raises her high school freshman daughter, enjoys watching The Office with her cat, and likes to have people over for dinner. She graduated just last spring with an MDiv from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is currently discerning her place in ministry and mainline religious denominations.

Having gone to a Christian seminary and spending four years thinking about my faith, I felt pretty good coming into dialogue for the first time. I figured I could easily describe what I believe and why. Which did, in fact, turn out to be true! But my participation in dialogue pushes up against other areas that turn out to be challenging. In fact, I suspect that these are the very areas dialogue is supposed to push up against, and the ones that perhaps provide challenge for many people who participate. Specifically, I want to share about my experiences in those moments when I encounter difference. Especially difference that contradicts what I believe.

We talk each gathering about a specific topic, some more sensitive than others. That sensitivity touches on me to varying degrees, sometimes in surprising ways. I knew the week we were scheduled to talk about death would be hard and anticipated that the joy conversation would be fairly easy! Both of those turned out to be true. I find it difficult to predict which other topics will push emotional buttons for me overall. In some cases, the conversations simply disclose information that adds to my overall technical understanding about other belief systems. Nevertheless, I can guarantee that each discussion will include one of my fellow participants saying something about their beliefs that runs up against what I believe.

When this initially happens, I feel a flush through my body, like heat. Sometimes it almost feels like my breath is taken away - I stop breathing for a second! At these moments my initial reaction is to come back with a counter-statement, the way I might with one of my friends over lunch or on facebook. So I have to intentionally stop myself. I keep myself from saying anything out loud. That’s the first step, and a big one for someone who occupies a position of privilege in our culture. I’m used to offering my opinion and getting my voice heard. So, I remember the rule we have set for our gathering: seek to understand before being understood.

The next thing I do is breathe. I take a breath and bring my attention back to the conversation, which has continued in my internal absence! And I listen. I continue to listen. Then, most importantly, I let go of whatever it was that popped in my head to counter with. I just let it go and try to hear what the person is saying in real time across from me. When I do that, I have created space to actually hear their experience instead of sitting in my own. I recognize that I can’t just paper over another’s beliefs or dismiss them, relativizing or replacing them with my own narrative. I start to wonder and want to know more. And at that point, questions arise rather than statements. I find myself in a relationship rather than an argument.

What makes this so hard is that my faith is not just something I believe. My Christian identity is just that: a very part of what makes me who I am. I deeply value my faith system and my own faith path within it. Someone expressing their path can sometimes feel in the moment like a threat to my very being. I recognize that it might feel this way for others as well. And in our culture, Christianity is dominant. I understand better now that it is my responsibility to internally make a space and leave room for those practicing non-dominant faith traditions and for variety within my own. This seems like a small thing, but for me, I realize now that I benefit when I try. Things stay complex and have grey areas and don’t get nailed down into a neat package. The real people I am talking with take on dimensions having nothing to do with me. And what I have gained is a group of people I’ve come to value and care deeply about, regardless of our differences or similarities. Within dialogue, my challenge has become my blessing.


Where Did Church Go?

The Church Lab’s pep talk to those of us on the winding religious road in America.

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Rev. Carrie Graham, founding pastor of The Church Lab

Church these days can often be a “butts in the seats” kind of game. There is not just competition from other worshipping communities of a multitude of faith traditions, but also at yoga centers, co-working spaces, coffeeshops, meetups and podcasts that pipe wisdom into the ears of joggers and drivers alike. The latter options provide community and connection in a way that the Protestant church could exclusively offer just decades ago in the United States. None of these options create stressful experiences around when to stand or kneel, what outfit to wear early on a weekend morning, or whose names one can remember when folks likely only see each other a couple of times a month at best. So, what is the point of church, and what is it for in 2019 and beyond?

Worshipping communities of many traditions do offer distinctive experiences, but you won’t find our culture encouraging such experiences in commercials or on billboards or even in your spam filter. Worshipping communities offer spiritual maturity - an ongoing growing opportunity that both provides an uplifting sanctuary for our souls - alongside a continuous sharpener of the wisdom our traditions each offer, literally to the infinite degree. There is no limit to the depths that a lifetime of spiritual engagement can offer when it comes to encountering a wholehearted life experience. Worshipping communities representing traditions that have wrestled with these questions and practices for thousands of years are here amongst us, ready to offer specific approaches that bring limitless depth for any generation, throughout any lifestage, period.

 What a beautiful opportunity! Wow!

But where are all the crowds filing in for such fulfillment? There are a couple of massive obstacles in the way of this beautiful opportunity. The communities and their leaders are the first. You are the other one.

Worshipping Communities and Their Leaders

Let’s use Protestant churches as a very live example of this obstacle. Congregations and their leaders become their own obstacles for growth because the very framework we’ve come to depend on often threatens to take the place of God and the richness of life we experience when seeking God. This framework says we have services that must be in certain types of rooms, with certain types of furniture in certain arangements, led by certain types of rhythms, and fully funded by a devoted community that focuses on resourcing the church above any other commitment. However, the gears that run these frameworks have turned against each other in recent years, creating a well-meaning but inevitably discombobulated system.

Our society is no longer unified about which religion to engage with, if any religion at all. This can be scary to those who have been inside the church walls all this time. For instance, when congregants demand that the leadership provide them with the comfort of their historic rhythms, movements and songs, regardless of theological integrity, they may be making a dangerous trade. Perhaps they could instead trade their own comfort for the accessibility newcomers need. People coming in are looking for a place they feel at home enough to encounter both connection and spiritual depth. Some church leaders or congregants may yearn to create this accessibility by shifting old patterns. But they are often kept hostage by tithers who say, “You better make the decision we want or we’ll leave.” Decisions of integrity become difficult, as the systems that once helped the mission of church now work against its own health. Stewardship is just one example of something that can become twisted into power plays that shut down new ideas with the stroke of a pen.

The Church Lab is, in large part, an experiment in how to align the workings of a ministry with its mission in our shifting religious landscape. How can the community, the leaders, the funding, the environment, the communication channels, the very operations, all align themselves with the mission? How can The Church Lab also come alongside leaders and systems to say, “What vital things need to be shaken loose which are bound out of habit - ultimately keeping communities from fostering meaningful growth in their spiritual lives?” What needs to be sacrificed so that, out of the ashes, a new expression of a timelessly meaningful core can be offered to communities? This is an exciting question worth pursuing. It often takes leadership finding help and support. The Church Lab seeks to be that for other communities going through “integrity growth spurts,” if you will.

Of course, the only way it can be pursued is if we first commit to get out of our own way.

HEY YOU. AND ME.

It’s true, admittedly, and probably not a surprise to you. We are often our own problem. We like to talk about change as long as it doesn’t need to be difficult or internal, even though that’s often how the very world is ultimately changed. We like to talk about depth, as long as it doesn’t ever hurt to reach for it. For instance, we often talk about the country desperately needing to build bridges. However, we don’t rush out in great numbers to make friends with folks with whom we vehemently disagree so we can listen deeply to understand them, and not try to convince them of anything. We talk about the need to welcome folks into our communities, but it is hard to grieve the death of the tools we have used for so long to connect with God and others. It is hard to take the netless leap of faith that there are tools to be shared, tools others can invent, perspectives not yet heard that can delight and grow us closer to God and maintain the timeless pieces of our traditions that could never go extinct. What the church and other worshipping communities offer are depth. They offer growth in wisdom offered in the crossroads of ancient communities and our world today. There is mystery that we often opt to oversimplify, for comfort’s sake. There are questions that would grow us, but we often don’t believe God is big enough to tend to them, or we ourselves choose to ignore them. This is extremely hard work. It is not quickly “sold” on anyone. There are no shortcuts. It is not easy.

Rarely do humans volunteer for change, and almost never do we dedicate ourselves week in and week out to not just a service, but a lifestyle that involves great commitment with few metrics. Not so marketable when put that way, eh? This lifestyle won’t make us money. It won’t make us look glamorous. To the contrary, such work will likely confuse people. They might judge you, lest you fulfill the religious stereotype of judging them first. This lifestyle will not numb difficulty. However, it will bring riches that cannot be conceived outside of dedication to depth, plied with a specific direction.

The Church Lab just completed its 5th year of ministry. We are experimenting, day by day, with what faithfulness looks like when it is sustainably offered in this changing religious landscape. Here, we are continuously striving to remove the obstacles that we, our communities, and our leaders may toss in our own way. Even as we strive to deep dive into spiritual maturity, forsaking religiosity for its own vanity’s sake, we trip up. We sure can benefit from any blueprints in the making.

The Church Lab is in the blueprint making business. We seek to foster care, commitment, depth and service through dialogue over sustained periods of time in a diverse micro-community. At times we also do so via worship and outreach and intentional discipleship (depth development). We are learning how this shapes and deepens folks’ spiritual lives, within the specific depths of their chosen tradition(s). As mentioned above, The Church Lab also experiments with its own operational alignment so that it can also walk alongside other traditional and nontraditional systems and leaders, caring and supporting them through risky but worthwhile operational discernment into the next exciting, faithful chapter of religious life.

No matter the numbers, let’s grab some tools and join hands as we follow this road together, wherever it may go. There are many blueprints to record as we are led on new paths, many lessons from our adventures to share with those depth-seekers to come.

Who’s in?

Email carrie@thechurchlab.org for more info.

How Dialogue Speaks to Core Convictions: Partners in Enlightenment

Gene Goldfeder  This year, Gene Goldfeder retired from the Borough of Catasauqua after serving 40 years as Borough Manager. He still serves the Borough part time as Zoning Officer. Now retired, he enjoys spending more time traveling, visiting family and friends, reading and cooking, all with his wife Donna.  Gene earned an MS in Architecture with a focus in Urban Planning from Penn State University and a BA from Lehigh University. In 1989 he received a Certificate in Management from the International City/County Management Association Training Institute.  Gene was brought up Jewish by parents who were born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. While he lived his entire life in eastern Pennsylvania, the New York influence plays a major role in his food (deli style) and cultural (Broadway theater) preferences.

Gene Goldfeder

This year, Gene Goldfeder retired from the Borough of Catasauqua after serving 40 years as Borough Manager. He still serves the Borough part time as Zoning Officer. Now retired, he enjoys spending more time traveling, visiting family and friends, reading and cooking, all with his wife Donna.

Gene earned an MS in Architecture with a focus in Urban Planning from Penn State University and a BA from Lehigh University. In 1989 he received a Certificate in Management from the International City/County Management Association Training Institute.

Gene was brought up Jewish by parents who were born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. While he lived his entire life in eastern Pennsylvania, the New York influence plays a major role in his food (deli style) and cultural (Broadway theater) preferences.

As a person who considers himself to have a scientific viewpoint in most matters, I found the Dialogue discussion on Science and Religion extremely interesting and enlightening. I try to understand and explain everything. For that reason, I’ve never fully accepted the concept of creating the heavens and earth and everything on earth in seven days, at least as we now measure days. Dialogue gave me the opportunity to explore this apparent conflict between religion and science with the group and find a way to reconcile it in my mind.

Recently, I was reading a book by Stephen Hawking. He stated that all of our theories of physics work only as far back as the Big Bang. Prior to that (if there is a prior to that) time and the theories don’t follow the established rules. To accept the Big Bang, one might also accept that something “created” it and that before the Big Bang time might have been indeterminate. We have no way of knowing what occurred before earth’s creation, since we have no way of looking back farther than the Big Bang. This could explain how seven days for the creation might be millennia as we now measure time. For me this concept helps reconcile science and the biblical story.

I found it extremely interesting to discuss and discover how many rules, dictates and laws in the Bible have in modern times been shown by science to have medical value. Before partaking of the Passover meal we ceremoniously wash our hands; after Sabbath service as we enjoy the Kiddush (social gathering), we also wash our hands. This cleanliness, while a religious ritual, has obvious health considerations. In the Torah there is a list of those foods which are “unclean” and are not to be eaten. Many of them, like pork and shellfish, are scavenger animals. In Biblical times there was no medical or scientific reason for these prohibitions, yet today we know of the illness potential from improper storage and preparation of them, as well as the general health related reasons to at least limit their intake, such as fat and cholesterol and their relation to heart disease and other medical concerns.

Prior to Dialogue, I never had a reason to consider the number of times things that are discussed and “taken on faith” in the Bible, today have a scientific explanation. Those that still seem to be miraculous may be true miracles – I am not discounting that possibility – but they may also be something that we don’t understand yet. Dialogue has fostered the more in depth thinking to explore where and how science and religion are not antagonists but partners in enlightenment. They are coming at the issue of life and growth from different perspectives, but in the final analysis both have the goal of making our lives better.


The Church Lab's Harvey recovery work featured on The Texas Standard

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We are thrilled to share that the Texas Standard highlighted some of The Church Lab’s Harvey recovery work with photographers supplying new family portrats to folks that lost photos to the hurricane last year. We are so thankful that stories from The Golden Triangle, and the beauty of the families there, has been shared on a statewide basis. Thanks to all who were involved with our efforts!!!

Click here to listen to the story!

Gratitude for Growth: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us. This week, dialoguer Donna Goldfeder shares what she is most grateful for about her experience with The Church Lab dialogues. Enjoy!

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Donna Goldfeder is new to dialogue at The Church Lab this year.  She and her husband, Gene, connect remotely from their home in Pennsylvania.  Donna has an MEd in Counseling and served as Director of Career Services at Lehigh University for almost 25 years.  She and Gene are thoroughly enjoying retirement.

When I first became interested in participating in the dialogues offered by The Church Lab, I was seeking self-exploration.   As hoped, I have found guidance for the self-exploration that I sought …and so much more! One of the guidelines of dialogue is that participants should seek to understand before seeking to be understood.  Taking this to heart I soon learned that while I was on a personal journey for growth, I was now part of a group that was seeking greater understanding for all.

The group immediately made me feel welcome and accepted.  I connect to the group virtually through the computer from Pennsylvania.  The first time I connected to dialogue I was concerned that it would be difficult to form a personal connection with the group from such a distance, but that has not been the case at all.  Every time dialogue meets, I feel the warmth and acceptance of the room over all the miles.

Dialogue is an experience that promotes spiritual, emotional and intellectual growth.  Every topic we discuss is challenging and our exploration of the topic always goes deeper than I anticipated. For example, when we discussed the topic of Science and Religion I expected we’d discuss how people feel about evolution vs. creation.  And we did.  But the discussion also led to how often our religious writings predicted later scientific findings, such as how rituals like hand washing can promote a healthier more fulfilling life or how dietary laws often focus on restrictions on foods or substances that are now known to be addictive or potentially harmful.  Every time we meet I learn so much!

That is an example of intellectual growth, but the spiritual and emotional growth I’ve experienced is even more fulfilling.  As I hear the others share their experiences and how their faiths have helped them work through issues, it creates an atmosphere where I can explore and accept my own flaws and can start to resolve some of my own life challenges.  I hope that the experiences, insights and perspectives that I share help others in the group to explore the topics and their own issues more fully.  I didn’t anticipate that the group could be like a “support group”, but it really does provide emotional and spiritual support.

I am very grateful for the acceptance and support of the dialogue group.  I thank The Church Lab for creating such a warm and welcoming place where personal and group growth can thrive.  And, I especially appreciate that The Church Lab had the foresight to utilize today’s technology to include those of us that attend remotely.

My experiences at dialogue have truly been a blessing.

Dialogue Is Relationship: Bringing It Into the World

We have wrapped up our summer series on Interfaith Misunderstandings and are now entering into the fall season. This week, we hear from Dialogue member Sarah Shannon-Wildt. She describes what motivates her to participate in Dialogue and what she takes back out into the world. Enjoy!

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Sarah has been a part of TCL for over 2 years, regularly attending dialogues and Christian discipleship groups. She has her MDiv from APTS, and is currently working on her second master’s in counseling. She works for UT in administration and as a part time pastor at Church of the Savior.

Interfaith Dialogue has been something that I’ve valued and wanted to participate in for years. In college I took a class called “Dialogue,” and in that class I read an article by Diana Eck. She says that “dialogue” and “relationship” are synonymous--that dialogue is relationship. This concept has stuck with me ever since. When I learned about The Church Lab, I was so moved that Rev. Carrie was doing exactly this--creating dialogical relationships by having us participate in Interfaith Dialogue on a regular basis. The premise that deep systemic change occurs on the relational level--a friendship level, building bridges with people who believe differently than me, spoke to me so deeply. I knew that I had to be a part of this bridge-building.

Before my regular involvement with TCL, I would get stuck in the “us vs. them” phenomenon. My “them” tended to be Conservatives because I struggled to understand where they were coming from. Thanks to TCL, I can genuinely say that I have built friendships with people who identify as Conservative, and because of this, I have been able to humanize my “other”. This deep humanization has shifted the way I interact with people who I disagree with in my regular world. Though I still disagree, I can disagree in love rather than in hate. The way I speak about others has morphed from a place of anger and frustration, to a place of seeking to understand and discovering their humanity.

Our society today is becoming more and more and more polarized, and this polarization is only creating more hatred and discomfort, rather than unity and understanding. When I would approach conversations about those who identify as Conservative with the same hostility that so many people I know do, I was contributing to the problem, rather than the solution. I can still be angry with political decisions that negatively impact those I care about, but that doesn’t mean I need to demonize those who agree with those same decisions. There is a difference between fighting power structures and systems and hating people. Hating people does not change the systems--loving people is how we can change our world. This is why I come to TCL and why I continue to come back. As a Progressive Christian, I believe that goodness will always overcome, and I believe that the only way to create true goodness is through seeing the goodness in all people.

Salvation and Reconciliation: A View from Christianity

Welcome to Part III of our summer blog series about misunderstandings we have about one another's belief systems. Last month, Dash Kees gave us a roadmap for paganism. This month, Church Lab dialoguer and conservative Christian Eileen Drake describes the shape of her faith by clarifying law and grace. Check it out below!

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Hi, my name is Eileen. I am 31, biracial, and am a follower of Jesus. I grew up in Austin and immensely enjoy my family, chocolate torte, birdwatching and two-stepping.

I believe a common misunderstanding of Christianity is that Christianity is a set of rules to follow; namely if you are a “good” Christian and follow all the rules, God will be pleased with you and you will go to Heaven.

My thoughts that follow are my perspective from the lens of a Christian.

There are commands today that God gives Christians for their good. Examples include the Ten Commandments (Do not have any idols, honor your father and mother, do not steal, do not murder, etc. Exodus 20) and a summation of God’s commands which is love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40).  

While God gives Christians these commands, the Christian faith is about what God did for us, not about the commands He set in place. As Scripture states, humanity’s relationship with God was broken when man chose to disobey God in the Garden of Eden. God is a holy God (Leviticus 11:44) and requires that sin (evil) be reconciled. God chose to do this through himself (Jesus Christ, God the Son). In the book of Romans it states that sin is punishable by death. Jesus was sent to earth to take on all the sin of humanity upon himself as fully human and fully God. God’s wrath against evil was fully manifested against Jesus on the cross where Jesus died to be the perfect sacrifice for all of humanity’s sin. According to Scripture, when Jesus died, the curtain in the holiest part of King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem separating man from God was miraculously split in half symbolizing man’s new relationship with God.

Because of the free gift of salvation and reconciliation of our relationship with God through Christ (not by our works, Ephesians 2:8-9), the Christian life is a life of devotion, gratitude and willful obedience to God. It is a relationship between God and me. God already paid the price for us to be in his presence (Heaven) forever. When I accept the invitation to follow God, nothing I can do will change (negatively or positively) His love for me (Romans 8:29) because He loves me unconditionally. I live for Him because He has given me everything of true value. Recorded in John 10:10, Jesus says, “I have come so that they may have life and that they may have it more abundantly.”

I believe a relationship such as this is relatable to all people, not just Christians. If I respect and uphold someone in high esteem in my life, I want to hear what they have to say, listen to their advice, and spend time with them. That is true for Christians in regards to their relationship with God and why we choose to obey His commands on earth.

Paganism Understood (or at least less misunderstood)

Welcome to Part II of our summer blog series about misunderstandings we have about one another's belief systems. Last month, Qamar Zafar illuminated the concept of love in Islam. This month, Church Lab dialoguer and Pagan friend Dash Kees helps us understand the shape of Paganism a bit better than we did when we woke up this morning. Check it out below!

David Dashifen Kees is a professional nerd and amateur theologian.  But, starting in the Fall of 2018, he'll be pursuing a Master of Divinity from Iliff School of Theology so that one day he can be a professional nerdy theologian instead!  He, a Pagan, and his partner, Megan -- a Catholic, live in Virginia and use the magic of the Internet to be involved with the Church Lab as often as possible.

David Dashifen Kees is a professional nerd and amateur theologian.  But, starting in the Fall of 2018, he'll be pursuing a Master of Divinity from Iliff School of Theology so that one day he can be a professional nerdy theologian instead!  He, a Pagan, and his partner, Megan -- a Catholic, live in Virginia and use the magic of the Internet to be involved with the Church Lab as often as possible.

Paganism is, by and large, a fairly misunderstood family of religious traditions.  Because there are very few of us—a Pew research report from 2008 estimated that 0.4% of the United States population practiced some form of “New Age” religion, in which they included Paganism—it’s pretty easy for a person to simply never have met one of us.  Or, to not realize it when they do. This is further compounded by the fact that not everyone has the freedom to share their religious beliefs, especially when they differ from those of your friends, family, and community; there are a lot of Pagans still living in the so-called broom closet.

All this is to say that it’s hard to narrow it down to one thing that I wished others would understand about modern Paganism.  Further, there’s a lot of information online relating to some of the most common misunderstandings, such as whether or not we worship the Devil (answer: not generally), if we believe in magic and spells (answer: sometimes), and do we actually work with the gods of the ancient world (answer: some of us do, yes).  So, herein, I’ve decided to try and share a different tidbit about Paganism, one that might be a little harder to find elsewhere online.

Typically, when one thinks of a faith group, there’s a sense of a unifying characteristic around which that community revolves.  Christianity, for example, tends to share a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ whose sacrifice on the cross ushered in a new covenant between God and humankind as described in the New Testament of the Bible.  Things get harder for atheist and agnostic communities, but I suspect that many could probably agree on a shared value for science, observation, rationality, and reason

Paganism doesn’t really have that, and this a hard thing for many to understand.  Instead, it’s a group of traditions inspired by cultures of the ancient world, especially those of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.  Essentially: if Rome fought it, it’s a culture we’re probably fascinated by. But, this means that there are people in the community that believe in the gods of ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, or Mesopotamia; the Aesir and Vanir of the Norse and Germanic people; or the Tuatha de Danann of Irish myth and legend.  And new traditions continue to sprout and grow; the Wild Hunt—an online newspaper for the modern Pagan and polytheist community—posted an article in June 2018 about a revival of Gaulish polytheism, for example.  And, there’s a growing community of Atheopaganism—atheist Pagans—who live a Pagan lifestyle and sensibility without, as Mark Green phrases it in the prior link, “supernatural credulity.”

Without that central, organizing foundation on which to build a community, there is sometimes very little that holds the Pagan world together.  The Wiccans do their thing while the Celtic Reconstructionists do theirs; the Druids worship in their groves while the Heathens congregate in hofs.  And, while there are differences between, for example, Methodists and Catholics, there are a lot of strong ties that bind them together.  A practitioner of Kemetic Orthodoxy doesn’t even work with the same gods as a Gaulish polytheist!

So, when you meet a Pagan, understand that the point of view they share with you may not have much in common with the one you learn about from a different one.  Our cosmology is often shaped by the “hearth culture,” i.e., the people whose culture and religious practice we seek to understand is a way to better understand ourselves, and that cosmology is going to result in different theologies, different ways of living our faiths, and maybe even different understandings about what it means to live a virtuous, righteous life.

In short:  Paganism is a complicated community with different and sometimes contradictory beliefs and practices.  But, we sort of like it that way; we tend to be fairly individualistic. If you search for more information online, you’re bound to run into many differences, sometimes even within a specific tradition. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart | A Quranic perspective

This summer, we are engaging a 3-part series regarding misunderstandings of other belief systems, whatever "other" may be for any given person. We are excited to give you Part I here!

Love is a beautiful concept in Islam, thought at times misunderstood for those unfamiliar with the tradition. We are honored that in the blog below, Ahmadiyya Muslim dialoguer Qamar Zafar shines a light on what it means to love God.

Bio: Qamar, his wife and two daughters made Austin their home 3 years ago when they moved from Atlanta. Qamar works at an Industrial Automation company and resides in North Austin. He belongs to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community i.e. Muslims who believe in the Messiah Mirza Ghulam Ahmad – peace be upon him of Qadian.

Bio: Qamar, his wife and two daughters made Austin their home 3 years ago when they moved from Atlanta. Qamar works at an Industrial Automation company and resides in North Austin. He belongs to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community i.e. Muslims who believe in the Messiah Mirza Ghulam Ahmad – peace be upon him of Qadian.

 

Here I will elucidate upon the concept of loving your God

according to the Islamic and Quranic perspective.

 

We read in the Bible: 

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. -Mark 12:30, Deuteronomy 6:5

The sacrifice, steadfastness and submission to God’s will demonstrated by Jesus Christ – peace be upon him is quite remarkable. In a similar manner, Quran describes what love of God means and accordingly Holy Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him left us an example to emulate.

Before getting into this discussion, I want to acknowledge that the English word ‘Love’ is quite limited in its expression of the emotion it tries to evoke. Unlike some other languages, it carries neither the depth nor the breadth love can take.

Let’s now turn to expressions of love in relation to God from the Quran.

Never shall you attain to righteousness unless you spend out of that which you love; and whatever you spend, Allah surely knows it well.

Chap 3, verse 93

And there are some among men who take for themselves objects of worship other than Allah, loving them as they should love Allah. But those who believe are stronger in their love for Allah…

Chap 2, verse 166

So Allah gave them the reward of this world, as also an excellent reward of the next; and Allah loves those who do good.’

Chap 3, verse 149

‘And seek forgiveness of your Lord; then turn to Him wholeheartedly. Verily, my Lord is Merciful, Most Loving.’

Chap 11, verse 91

O ye who believe! whoso among you turns back from his religion, then let it be known that in his stead Allah will soon bring a people whom He will love and who will love Him, and who will be kind and humble towards believers, hard and firm against disbelievers. They will strive in the cause of Allah and will not fear the reproach of a faultfinder. That is Allah’s grace; He bestows it upon whomsoever He pleases; and Allah is Bountiful, All- Knowing.

Chap 5, verse 55

Having referenced the Islamic scripture on love, let’s go over how this teaching was practiced by Islam’s Holy founder. In short, every aspect of the Holy Prophet Muhammad’s – peace be upon him – life appears to have been governed and colored by his love for and devotion to God.

Once on a cold winter's night, he asked his wife’s permission to spend the night in worship. Upon being granted permission, he spent the greater part of the night in devotion; supplicating before his Lord so that the place of his prostration became wet with his tears. His prayers were so full of pathos that when praying he sounded like a boiling pot.

On one such occasion his wife Aisha – God be pleased with her – said to him: "God has honored you with His love and nearness. Why then do you subject yourself to so much discomfort and inconvenience?" He replied: "If God has by His Grace and Mercy conferred His love and nearness upon me, is it not my duty in return to be always rendering thanks to Him? Gratitude should increase in proportion to the favors received"

His love for and devotion to God found expression in many ways. For instance, whenever after a dry season the first rain-drops began to descend, he would put out his tongue to catch a rain-drop and would exclaim: "Here is the latest favor from my Lord."

It should be evident by now that building a relationship with and seeking nearness to God is central to Islamic belief and practice. So far, only examples of love of man for God have been mentioned. That only tells half of the story. God does return the favor. I will wrap it up by narrating how God treats man who is fully devoted to God.

It is related that the Holy Prophet – peace and blessings be upon him – said: Allah says: Whoever is at enmity with one whom I befriend should beware of having to battle with Me. When a servant of Mine seeks to approach Me through that which I like best out of what I have made obligatory upon him and continues to advance towards Me by dint of voluntary effort beyond that prescribed then my love for him grows stronger. When I love him, I become his ears by which he hears, and his eyes with which he sees, and his hands with which he grasps, and his feet with which he walks. When he asks Me, I bestow upon him and when he seeks My protection I protect him.  

In another narration: Holy Prophet – peace and blessings be upon him – said: Allah says: When a servant of Mine advances towards Me a foot, I advance towards him a yard, and when he advances towards Me a yard, I advance toward him the length of his arms spread out. When he comes to Me walking, I go to him running.

The above should provide a taste of what it means to Love the Lord your God with all your heart and how the Divine reciprocates this love according to Islam and Quran.

"Hello!" from new TCL Assistant Pam Jarvis

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Hello!  I am so happy to have joined the dynamic entity that is The Church Lab alongside Carrie, the Board members, and Dialogue participants both past, present and future, as well as all those touched by the work of TCL out in the world. As I graduate from seminary with my head full of theoretical ideas, I couldn’t be more pleased to have the opportunity to see where and how what I think is true may actually be true. I believe The Church Lab, with its commitment to experimentation and open dialogue, along with a mentor in Carrie, is just the right place for me to land.

In the interest of your having a chance to get to know me, I’d like to share a bit about myself. I grew up in Arkansas; my dad is a retired Methodist minister; my parents and brother all still live in Arkansas; I left to come to Austin at 19. I lived and worked at a children’s residential treatment center in Ft. Worth for two years in the late 80s under the auspices of the Catholic Church, but otherwise I’ve been here – eating barbeque and queso, listening to music, making friends, and wishing it weren’t so hot during the summer. I worked at local bakeries and as a nanny until I returned to school in 2008. I proudly graduated in 2012 from the University of Texas with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. I was called to seminary in 2014 and found myself right where I needed to be, in the thick of it at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I have a 14-year-old daughter; she will begin high school next fall.

I am Episcopalian. I love the liturgy and commitment to social justice I experience there. I love my home parish, St. James’ Episcopal on Austin’s east side. I found myself at a Presbyterian school because I was unable to pursue ordination at the time in my own diocese due to my sexual orientation. As it turns out, APTS formed me into a pastor, prophet and scholar. I have learned that my call is not into parish priesthood, but rather into a fusion of the world and into scholarship. I feel my baptism deeply. I am fully committed to living into who God made me to be and calls me to act. This commitment manifests itself in kindness, honesty, awareness, creativity, and passion. I do believe that humility is the beginning of wisdom, therefore I understand that I cannot know truth without community or without God’s guidance.

Tom Waits has written:

Pin your ear to the wisdom post

Pin your eye to the line

Never let the weeds get higher than the garden

Always keep a sapphire in your mind.

As I live into God’s call to me, which includes this work with you through The Church Lab, I welcome all the learning I can get ahold of. I invite you will help me to stay true to who I am and whose I am.

Grace and peace,

Pam

TCL's Team is Growing: Announcing Pam Jarvis!

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Pam Jarvis is joining The Church Lab's team as our first assistant!

We are thrilled to have her on board!

Pam is preparing to graduate with a Master of Divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary next month (May 2018). She is an Episcopalian intellectual and artist who joins our team with a passion for learning how nontraditional ministry works.

She will be working with Carrie to both help the administrative tasks of the community run smoothly, and as a mentee learning the ropes of The Church Lab.

Pam is well qualified both by her education and her disposition to offer not only assistance, but to share her gifts in leadership with her signature kindness, wisdom and laughter. We are grateful to benefit from Pam's gifts, and to get to offer her a home to find new tools in our Lab for her vocational toolbox. Thanks be to God that we get to walk with her as she begins her life of vocational ministry!

We wholeheartedly welcome Pam to our community!!

We Lift Up Parkland: A Prayer for People of Faith

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Lord, we pray for the students, school staff and families in Parkland. We pray for their hearts as they grieve and look to You and their community to grieve. We lift up all those who have experienced unspeakable tragedy. May they find safe ways to sleep soundly in coming days, weeks, months and years; may a peace belonging to You, which surpasses human understanding, be their companion as they walk through days echoing unfathomable loss. May the bonds of this school and local community be made stronger by Your close watch as they are stricken with communal grief, and as they over time look to You for healing help. We ask you to wrap Your arms around all those who have wrapped their own arms around their affected children, their students, their family and friends as they shook with shock and horror. We give You thanks for those who shielded kids, those able to usher them to safety, those who grotesquely died in total innocence, for the coach and others that heroically sacrificed themselves in true acts of Love.

Lord, we pray for our reckless amounts of layers of broken systems that allow human beings to fall through the cracks, to become isolated and hateful, to over time be moved to consider abandoning their humanity. We are each responsible for contributing to this brokenness, and for its embetterment. God, may we not mistake a system for something different than the collection of our culture's attitude, actions and inactions. We somberly beseech You forgive us for what we have done, and for what we have left undone.

Oh God who is Love, who can express Love when we cannot see how, we pray for this young man that did the unimaginable, especially after losing both of his parents in the recent past. His monstrous acts will mean he will experience new levels of isolation now in accordance with rightful consequences. We pray for the few that will answer a call from You to express care for him in this aftermath, for this child of God. We pray for the family that took him in after the death of his parents, and for any who did attempt to show up for him in the wake of his losses. May they be comforted.

God, none of our words suffice right now. None of our words are quite "correct," because there are no words that encompass what should so clearly not be. It is beyond us. You, too, stretch beyond us, and we commit to listening to You intently for guidance in the wake of chasms so strikingly expressed in our human experience. Amen.

God, those of us who are Christians look to Jesus' example and sacrificial acts of love as our guidepost. We need Christ today to help us respond to this tragedy with love that allows us to forget ourselves and idols to which we hold fast. May Jesus be a potent reminder of how we treat one another in these days. Again and again, we commit to embody active remembrance of His body and blood, committing to carry this Divine Love with us, to embrace the hard work of Love among us, perhaps especially in unimaginable times. Help us know when this means to be still and when and how it means to move, and please compel us to respond to Your quiet promptings with urgency. Amen.

PARENTING & INTERFAITH DIALOGUE

 

by Church Lab Interfaither, Cindy Haag

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My children are all at different places with their own faith, but no one felt like learning about how other faiths had destroyed their own.

As I sit here in the quiet, alone in my home in mid-August, it’s nice to look back and reflect. My three youngest children are back in school and my oldest is at work today, but eager to headback to her university in the next month. There are so many natural phenomena that lendtowards reflection, but autumn for parents of school-age children is one full of several different emotions.

New beginnings.

I stepped back and decided to take this conversation to who I think are the real experts. MY experts. I asked my kids.

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This year the folks at The Church Lab asked me to reflect on motherhood, diverse conversations and raising kids. Initially, I had a handful of ideas and stories, but there was also a voice that said, “You’re no expert. You hardly know what you're doing most days,” so I stepped back and decided to take this conversation to who I think are the real experts. MY experts. I asked my kids.

Like most things in parenting I got some unexpected replies. Some that make me extremely proud as a parent and some that help me remember we are ALL “in process”. My children are 19, 17, 13, and 9. I gathered them around the kitchen table and asked them to share their thoughts on practicing interfaith dialogue at school.

“Being exposed to a variety of cultures, languages, and religions from a young age is really important; it helps you be open minded.” Then this middle child somehow disappears. How do they do that?

Child number four’s quick reply was, “What is interfaith dialogue?” Uh oh. After a quick simple explanation the response was, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen you do that” and Child Number 4 left the table and room. Thirty seconds in and we’re down one expert. Number 3 says, “Being exposed to a variety of cultures, languages and religions from a young age is really important; it helps you be open minded.” Then this middle child somehow disappears. How do they do that?

My second born is one of few words. When it was his turn he simply said, “Proclamation on the Family.” This public statement from the leaders of our church is very familiar to me, yet I was momentarily baffled because I did not see the connection he was making. When asked to elaborate he pointed out one paragraph that says, “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live.” This sums it up for him. He then left the table. Number 2 gone.

Our firstborn and I are now alone at the table. The idyllic image of a deep and lovely conversation with all my children has been shattered. I have a collection of one liners. This is not going as planned....

Then, my firstborn starts to talk. Really talk. Sharing how she feels it’s important for kids to feel the freedom to explore and be open-minded. Reflecting on how an interest in another culture lead her to look at a religion common in that culture for a school project and how rewarding it was to find connections between her faith and theirs. How she has noticed that her dad and I have always had friends from different countries and with different religions and how she has too. How having conversations both with people in our faith tradition and out have been valuable—and that she agrees and disagrees with people both inside and outside of our church. Ahhhh.....victory!

Conclusions from my children, the experts:

Naming and defining complex concepts is a start.

By small and simple things, great things come to pass.

Children watch their parents even if they aren’t willing to admit it at times.

Listening is at least as important as talking.

Actions speak much louder than words.

Once again, I am reminded that parenting and life are an incredible journey and one that does not happen overnight. Small everyday actions can make an impact and often the planned events are not the ones that make a lasting impression. It’s also interesting to note that my children are all at different places with their own faith, but no one felt like learning about other faiths had destroyed their own.

This discussion ended up like most experiences in our family: Unpredictable yet beautiful in its own way.

Cindy Haag is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), mother of four, and wife to one. She has a masters degree in molecular and cellular biology and enjoys creating cool stuff that make her kids smile, ice cream, and admiring fabulous shoes.

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Vital Relational Harvey Ministry: We Need You Well After Anderson Cooper Leaves.

It’s unquestionably time to be the hands and feet of Christ for those who experienced Harvey.

Yet are you wondering, perhaps paralyzed or feeling disconnected or in disbelief, as to how to even begin to help? Are your resources already feeling stretched in helping those affected by Harvey? Have you told yourself you’re going to plan a mission trip? Have you donated online generously? That is wonderful! Praise God.

Now that that’s done, we can all take joy in getting ready for the NEXT VITAL chapter of help.

Have you ever grieved the death of a loved one? Perhaps your community sent flowers and brought casseroles, and it meant so much to be accompanied in your shock. When the noise died down after a couple of weeks, what did it mean to you when all got quiet and there were still the few that showed up to listen, to pray with you, to come alongside you a month, 6 months, a year after your grief began? It is a narrow road of unspeakable impact. It is Jesus’ love that says, “I will not let you become invisible in your time of great need.” Yet it is embarrassingly feasible to accomplish, since all you really need to be able to do is set a simple Google calendar reminder once a month for a couple of years.

My community -and many others - are going to need your help long after Anderson Cooper leaves Harvey’s aftermath.

For those of us not living in devastating conditions, this is the exciting moment where we get to prepare as they’re surviving, so we are ready to come alongside our sisters and brothers and refuse to let them be forgotten.

My hometown between Beaumont and Port Arthur -the area known as The Golden Triangle- was one of an unimaginable number of areas that is bearing the brunt of devastation. But the worst came for them after it had already hit Corpus, Rockport and Houston. The Golden Triangle is at high risk of folks running out of energy for charity by the time they tend to the devastation that came hours before ours.

Many of us preach about Christ-like ministry being relational by nature, and the good news about that this applies to helping people after the unprecedented devastation of Harvey. As one whose family has been displaced by a hurricane, I have learned there are many unsung needs that churches (read: any community) can take joy in meeting over time. Relational ministry means getting to develop friendships to learn those quiet needs and finding creative ways to meet them over time. It is mutually life giving, even as it is vital for those you may get to “adopt.”

Please don’t think you’re unqualified or unable: the great practical part of relational post-disaster help is that it is what you make of it, so you get to manage your own wallet, energy and time so your help fits in with your schedule’s boundaries and your church’s/communities’ resources. The possibilities are more connected to your creativity, dedicated consistency and the Holy Spirit’s leaning. Don't let it stop you from dreaming big.

I invite you - ok, maybe I am begging - you to mindfully invest in some friendships with folks recovering from this bigger-than-disaster devastation. Come alongside them, lift their spirits, focus on relationships that will uniquely reveal the unsung vital needs that are not on the news. Anticipate experiencing miracles as God guides you to learn from them, and as you send them anything from bottled water to children’s artwork of encouragement to a simple text with a prayer and a sincere+listening “How are you?”. Below are simple ways to involve yourself in this journey.

IMAGINE

But first, in case you’re numb or too far away to register this, I’ll briefly paint a picture.

Imagine waking up to a sunny work day just hours from your hometown, stopping to check facebook only to find the majority of your newsfeed is no longer full of annoying political posts and cute babies. Instead friends at home are begging for rescue for their families by anyone with a boat near enough to reach them. They are posting names in all caps, freely posting addresses and phone numbers. “My 98 year-old grandma is knee deep in her home! Please help!” “911 is overwhelmed and my cousins can’t get out!” Time becomes a blur. Your brain is spinning around how to help, even as roads are impassable and planes are down.

Imagine hearing your family members evacuated their home on a moment’s notice, only to have to be rescued by boat by the second “safer” home they fled to. (This was my aunt and uncle two days ago.) That scratches the surface.

As I type, my community is still trapped in their post-Harvey disaster area, many without potable water and most with diminishing food and supplies. I have lost count of which loved ones have lost their homes; right now they are all in shock and concentrating on survival.

These are people who were told NOT to evacuate. These are people that understand not only how to evacuate, but how to recover from hurricanes like Rita, Ike and Gustav, which have all hit the area in the last 12 years.

This storm doesn’t care how well you prepared, which official or meteorologist you listened to, where you went to school, how much money you make, which bathroom you want to use or who you voted for. These are doctors, professors, teachers, counselors, pregnant moms, grandparents with Alzheimer’s.

Yet God has miraculously provided survival via the astounding love-of-neighbor these communities have shown to survive amongst themselves. There are Golden Triangle jokes about the controversial statue conversation as they hope for survival-in-place or a helicopter out of there: All they know for now is that they’d like to erect a bronze monument of an average Joe in a flatbottom boat.

If you can get to a restaurant at all, the likelihood is that they’re giving away all their food until it’s gone. Every school and public hall I ever entered there is now a makeshift shelter, if not flooded. Churches that no longer have a building are fully mobilized, fully expressing that they were never a building anyway. Neighbors upon neighbors are reported miracles of rescue and provision: “Suddenly there was formula for this woman’s newborn, I don’t know from where! Thanks be to God!” My other non-religious aunt keeps saying, “Carrie, I am seeing God everywhere!” even as she and her children have no money to buy the limited food sources around them; they maintain lawns for a living.

Now it is our turn. WE get to bring the loaves and fishes in so many ways. What a joyful duty!

Picture your dearest family members in this situation, which nobody could have prepared adequately for because it has never happened in recorded history. What would you do if you were unable to get to them? What would you say to them, what would you send them, what would you pray for them?

Join me in helping my family because they’re yours, too. Our God is a God of abundance. You have more resources than you might think. I am hearing loaves-and-fishes miracle stories from loved ones trapped in The Golden Triangle right now, and now we have the opportunity to continue that story long after the first wave of assistance.

HOW TO HELP

I have done almost nothing but communicate with people in The Golden Triangle in the last 48 hours, frantically gathering information on what they need and anticipate needing. I am grateful for those that were able to take any moment to spend energy to communicate this, as many are rationing food and energy alike. After hours upon hours of consideration, here is my best layout for how we can meaningfully come alongside survivors of the truly evil wake of Harvey:

 

RIGHT NOW, THIS VERY MINUTE:

Pray - First, pray your heart out. Set reminders to pray. Pray as you’re led. Let God guide you and connect your heart to your neighbors in need. Pray for safety, provision, peace that surpasses understanding. Pray with joy for the overwhelming reports of God’s protection in the disaster.

Put specific communities’ and families’ names on your long-term prayer list at your church.

Donate - If you wish to donate, there are TONS of choices. If you’d like to donate to local churches that are scrambling to assist survival of people at this very moment, God is performing miracles through these (and many others) in my hometown area. See if your employer can match your gift! This community is unparalleled in any experience I’ve ever had of neighbors coming together to love each other. Help them help each other while we cannot get to them:

La Iglesia del Pueblo/Church of the People in Port Arthur, TX

Contact Info On The Way! They’re hard to track down because they’re so well mobilized, despite their building being inaccessible.

First Baptist Church of Groves

https://pushpay.com/pay/fbcgroves/XkCgxTcNl3WM6aAKJoxeWg?src=fp

Carpenter’s Way in Groves

http://www.carpentersway.com

New Beginnings, Texas, based in Port Arthur

This is an amazon wishlist that will allow you to donate specific supplies to be driven there from an accessible town: https://www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/2ZA3NITVFIPA3

COME ALONGSIDE AS PARTNERS:

1) Are you a pastor, religious or community leader? 

Can your community adopt a church in The Golden Triangle? The Church Lab is matching churches with each other to form ongoing partnerships. This way you can learn of on-the-ground needs from communities that know best, and you set yourself up to prevent the invisibility of our neighbors after the cameras turn off. This helps identify when and where to send in groups for labor and clean up, which will be a HUGE need in coming weeks and months. Also needs change quickly from initial recovery, to clean up, to construction, needs for counseling. Churches can keep you updated so you know when it's your cue to come in with your corresponding resources.

E-mail harveyhelp@thechurchlab.org with no more or less than your point of contact’s name, contact info, church or organization name, city, state, and 2-3 sentences describing the nature and scope of resources your community may be able to offer in partnering with another church. Every bit counts, no matter how small or large your community is!

2) Are you a teacher? Do you want to impact entire groups of children and their families at once over the next year?

The Church Lab is asking teachers around the country to adopt individual classrooms in The Golden Triangle. Our kids can connect with kids, lift one another’s spirits and help teachers in desperate need of school supplies that were just purchased to be wiped out entirely.

To adopt a classroom (or to be adopted, Triangle people!), visit our Southeast Texas Adopt-A-Class! page here.

3) Are you an ordained minister, LPC, LMSW or MFT with a phone?

Volunteer to be on call for a pastor/community organizer/first responders to have a listening ear. They are supporting every person around them. Be their support in this crucial season! Want to offer a listening ear to folks in shelters or trapped in their homes? You can name when you want that to be on whatever level of commitment you like. This opportunity is intended to happen solely in these first weeks of recovery.

E-mail harveyhelp@thechurchlab.org with your name and credentials. We are still pulling together the structure for this commitment and will contact you as soon as we are ready to put you to work.
 

SOON

More Supplies

In the next couple of weeks I will personally bring in supplies to bring to my community through my 501(c)3 community, The Church Lab. We are not priority, as bigger organization like The Red Cross can get to them before our vehicles can. But feel more than free to donate here, knowing in a week or two we will be able to bring supplies to specific groups we know are in need, and likely know personally.  https://www.crowdrise.com/goldentrianglestormfriends/fundraiser/church-lab

We’ll bring vital supplies, including some folks often forget to send. This will likely include supplies like water, food, cleaning supplies, socks, underwear, adult diapers, medicine, baby supplies of various sorts, basic medical supplies, tools for cleanup, tampons/pads and other toiletries.

Discretionary Fund Designations: 

Contact the churches listed above and ask to designate your donations to a discretionary disaster relief fund that can help families that fall through the cracks in coming weeks. There will be MANY families without employment because their workplaces don’t exist anymore or they cannot reach their workplace. They will be losing a way to provide for their families when they need more resources than ever. Some will fall through the FEMA cracks. Churches on the ground can often identify who these quiet sufferers are and come alongside them.

Gift Cards: 

It’s a great time to roll out the red carpet after all they’ve suffered! It’d be great to buy them all trips to DisneyWorld if we could! But perhaps we could send gift cards to Target, Home Depot, Lowe’s, furniture stores, Amazon, etc. Let folks replace their precious memories with the very materials their new homes will be made of instead of choosing for them or sending the things we don’t want anymore. Contact the churches listed above to send help most directly.

WHAT TO AVOID:

Sending Clothes: Folks donate clothes more than anything else in situations like this, and oftentimes shelters themselves have to donate clothes elsewhere.

Going in Without An Organization Expecting You OR Not Knowing What Specific Need You’ll Meet: You’ll become one more mouth to feed, using precious resources.

 

May we be the faithful hands and feet, and discover the joy of relational ministry after the storm AND after the cameras.

 

With gratitude,

Rev. Carrie Graham

thechurchlab.org

Building Peace in the Face of Hatred: Fight Isolation.

TCL condemns acts of homegrown terrorism, as is the case with the violent white supremacist acts of this weekend (August 12-14, 2017).

We recognize that oftentimes folks don't commit to ideologies first, but rather find connection, purpose and belonging in a community that may or may not ultimately have love of neighbor at heart. America has a vacuum of isolation and loneliness that threatens to grow. But there are communities like TCL that invite folks to find a positive purpose, a sense of belonging as you are, an encouragement to learn to love in discomfort -not fear- and a celebration of thoughtful spiritual depth that may or may not be shared by friends in the community. May God help us and other groups to build up powerful communities that do the hard work of practicing love that drives out fear, to invite connection where our culture may seem to be driving wedges between us in so many ways. Join us to make friends in a small interfaith dialogue group. Or just to talk to someone safe about how to navigate this divisive era. Email carrie@thechurchlab.org.

The Red Carpet: An Ahmadiyya Muslim Welcome

Qamar Zafar, Jana Sarnowski, Rob Sarnowski, Carrie Graham

Qamar Zafar, Jana Sarnowski, Rob Sarnowski, Carrie Graham

Clergy collar on, I walked into the annual gathering of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Our very own Qamar Zafar had graciously invited me. My friends Jana and Rob would join me that evening for the interfaith dinner, but this was my time to check out what this community was up to beforehand. I was unsure what to expect; below is a window into the highlights of my day at the Jalsa Salana.

Almost before I could get myself into the door, I was greeted with expectant smiles by new friends I’d never met. They gave me a gift as a guest and then some wished to guide me to the ladies’ section of the gathering so I could observe what they were up to. Others warmly insisted that I go to the exhibition hall to be guided through a general tour of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community’s history. One tour guide passed me to the next, each one eager to identify the peace seeking goodness of their tradition, if not outright overlaps in the endeavors of Christianity and Islam.

I was so relieved to see Qamar. He dropped whatever he was doing to come greet me when I let him know I was at the gathering. I asked polite general questions of the tour guides, but the trust built among the TCL community allowed me to ask any questions that came to mind if Qamar was present. I didn’t worry about accidentally being rude or offending someone. Though at one point I did ask a theological question that stumped someone; in a quick moment, a seminary student was summoned to address my curiosities. I was called from such interactions to do a live interview for the Jalsa Salana livestream channel, finishing just in time for my friends to arrive.

Qamar gave Jana and me hijabs (head coverings) only if we wished to “fit in” a bit more. I wore mine when Jana and I decided to pay a visit to the ladies’ sessions. Qamar already had a new friend, Touba, assigned to host us in the ladies’ area of the gathering. Jana and I got along with Touba instantly, and we found ourselves inspired by the talk we heard about female empowerment via education and purdah (modesty, including in clothing).

The interfaith dinner that evening showcased social and political leaders pursuing interfaith peace. One of the most moving moments was when a Jewish professor tearfully thanked the Muslim communities for being such wonderful advocates in instances like the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries.

The message of ongoing efforts of peacemaking was clearly communicated as an always-central theme of the Ahmadiyya community, and one that seems to inspire the behaviors and decisions of its members. However it was the excellent level of hospitality that was striking for myself and my friends. We marveled at how considered and cared for we were as honored guests, sometimes not even knowing how to respond to such thoughtful consideration for our orientation, learning and enjoyment of the events around us. This is perhaps especially meaningful for the multiple parts of the gathering we attended that were not necessarily built for interfaith guests; our observance was greeted with enthusiastic smiles, if not endearing curiosity.

Once again interfaith work has led to adventures in learning about another faith community by being welcomed into the midst of this community. It is only with Qamar’s encouragement, anticipatory consideration of our needs and with literally the entire Ahmadiyya Muslim community’s warmth, curiosity and care that even in the midst of theological and lifestyle differences, we were able to celebrate our friends’ convictions unencumbered.