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7 Questions for Thursday: Phil Haslanger

Phil Haslanger is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ as well as a journalist. For 34 years, he worked for The Capital Times in Madison as a reporter, local news editor, editorial page editor and finally managing editor. He was ordained in 2007 and served as a pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg for a decade, retiring last June.  He is married to Ellen Reuter and their family includes four grown children and six grandchildren (and, oh yeah, one cat).

What does Jesus mean for you?
I try to make Jesus’ life and teachings the North Star for my life. I love the way the Gospel according to John begins: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  (That’s one of the reasons I like the title “Word Pulse” for this blog.)

I try to incorporate some of the big themes I see in Jesus’ life into my own – bringing those on the margins closer to the center, crossing the boundaries that separate people, embodying the idea of forgiveness, seeing himself as a servant, holding to his mission (“bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free”) even when it cost him his life. And then showing us that life can overcome death, good can overcome evil – and urging his followers (like me) to live that way.

Name your favorite 3 Christian music artists?
Some very different styles – Marty Haugen (folk), John Rutter (choral), Monks of Taize (chant). Others on my playlist include Kate Campbell (bluegrass), Carrie Newcomer (folk), Leotha Stanley (gospel) and Noel Paul Stookey (back to folk again).

What is the church body doing well and what could we improve on?
I think in many congregations, there is a deep sense of worship, of spiritual nourishment and of caring for each other. Many congregations also have a strong sense of mission to the wider world, whether in the community nearby, those facing disasters elsewhere or those struggling with poverty and injustices around the globe.

Where we could do better in our congregations and other faith communities is opening ourselves to the experiences of those who are in other parts of the body of Christ – those who have worship styles different than ours, beliefs that emphasize other parts of Jesus’ message, those who come from cultures different than ours. We have to get beyond the limits that our traditions sometimes turn into shackles. And then we need to reach beyond the body of Christ to learn from the many faith traditions that have formed other paths to God and other ways of serving the world around them. We don’t need to give up our own role in the body of Christ, but we need to see that we are just one part of that body in a very wide and diverse world.

Another would be to make sure we are treating all people as equal partners in body of Christ – women as well as men, people who sexuality and gender identity does not always fit traditional norms, people who racial and ethnic identity are needed as part of the whole body. In my tradition, we say, “Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

What scripture really defines where you are today in life and why?
The story of Jesus after his resurrection talking with two of his followers on the road to the village of Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35). That passage contains so much about how Jesus went about transforming those who encountered him along the way. He walked with them and shared their pain. He explored the scriptures with them, offering them new insights into old stories. He accepted their invitation to share a meal. He blessed and broke the bread and shared it with them. And in that breaking of the bread (just as his body had been broken), in that sharing they saw who he was and who they needed to be.

You recently retired from being a pastor. How do you still fulfill your calling to serve the will of God but not in a pastoral role?
As much as I loved my role as a pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ for a decade, I am excited about the new possibilities engaging in ministry in the community. Some of it involves a continuation  and expansion of work I already was doing, such as addressing issues connected with domestic violence, especially in the context of faith communities; engaging people around issues of racial disparities; connecting across church and faith community boundaries; being part of discussions of journalism ethics; exploring the links between people’s faith and the way they are leaders in our community and taking time to read and ponder and pray in the hopes that the Word will continue to shape and reshape my life.

Who are your two favorite evangelists of all time?
Francis of Assisi
, who lived in Italy in the early 1200s is often quoted as saying “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” He never exactly said that (the real quote is “All the Friars … should preach by their deeds.”) but it guides my thinking about evangelism and it’s one of the reasons Francis is one of my two faves. He lived in harmony with creation, did not get attached to material things, crossed the social boundaries of his day by caring for lepers and by crossing battle lines to meet with a Muslim Sultan in the middle of a Crusade. He had things to say as well, but it was his actions that reflected his efforts to live out the way of Jesus.

My second would be a more contemporary example, Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners. He is a writer, so he surely uses words to spread the good news about the Word, but he is also an activist who has helped shape a movement to tackle racism, war, poverty, climate change while being attentive to the spiritual and artistic dimensions of life.

And then for more inspiration, I look to Sr. Simone Campbell and Rev. Jacqui Lewis
and from outside the Christian tradition, someone of late for offers me good news is Sikh activist Valerie Kaur, how leads a movement called Revolutionary Love – a concept very familiar to Christians.

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions for the church in 2018?
I would focus my New Year’s resolutions on myself – but I also think that given how many parts make up the body of Christ, there is no one resolution that would apply to them all. For me, the New Year’s resolutions include continuing to widen the circles of people I know and to be more attentive to the details of the word around me by posting a picture each day on Instagram.