letterHey guys,

I’m going to be a bit transparent and bear my soul for the (electronic) world, but mostly just for you for a minute (though you can’t read yet, but you will one day soon at the rate you guys are going!). I write as your dad. And I do so knowing that not everyone your dad knows will like this letter. But I’m banking on the fact that we can be honest with one another and still be together, right?  That’s what we say, right?

Look, I was disappointed in the election last night.  And not because a party won or lost, but because I really wasn’t sure what to do with the candidate that won.

And now, on the other side of Michigan’s electoral votes, I’m curious about the future, but I can afford to be.  Because our President-Elect (who I now pray for and who will be our President) said some things that really trouble me, though they weren’t to me. And I have to be honest about that with you.  That’s not to say none of the other candidates, including the primary rival, didn’t also say or do some things that made me cringe.  But he said things about vulnerable people. He said things about people with disabilities.  He said things about veterans, about our Muslim brothers and sisters, about our Mexican brothers and sisters, and about our Black brothers and sisters.  His VP pick has done things that hurt our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. 

He said things about women that I never want to hear out of your mouths.
Ever.

In fact, he said those things so loudly, that it was hard for me to hear the other things that he was saying, so I’m really confused today about what is next. Confused and curious.

But I know that others did hear him, and liked what they heard (what they liked and what they heard, I’m not sure, but it’s clear they did).  And they, too, are our brothers and sisters, many of them, I think, in vulnerable situations, too.  And I think that we share more common values than disagreements. I really do.

But you have to know something about yourselves, boys.

See, you’re middle class white kids in a country that’s still made for you. You don’t need to feel ashamed of that, by the way. But you need to be aware of it.  The current world is situated for you, and your responsibility is to start situating it for all, with all. The risk for you in the world is minimal, save for those risks we all have associated with living: cancer, natural disasters, deranged individuals, and the hazards of driving with your grandparents.

And so, what I want to say about disappointment is this: though I am disappointed (and disappointed that we do not, yet, have a female Chief Executive as an example for you, though your mom is pretty good at filling the role), disappointment is something you must get used to.  You don’t always get what you want, even when you feel you work really hard for something.

But I will be more disappointed if we somehow fail to help you understand two things:

  1. You live in community with other people, a community that is ever expanding, larger and larger. All of the following has to do with that, because no attempt at shrinking it will make it smaller. So you must get used to this. Know your words in this world have consequences. And your actions have consequences. So you must defend the weak and vulnerable. You must have courage to be who you are. You must look after your fellow brothers and sisters, especially those who are looked down upon or who are in vulnerable situations. That is your responsibility, no matter who is the Chief Executive of our country, because that’s what God and decency requires of us. And, if they’re worth their skin, they’ll look after you. That’s how good community works, and even if we’re not yet *good* at community, you can be good within community.
  2. Sometimes you’re going to be disappointed. And that doesn’t mean that you get angry (though anger is natural and OK in pieces) or get even (never OK). It means that you lean into your values of cooperation and love and respect and you do what you can, where you can.  And you don’t have to hate or hurt people who disagree with you. They are part of your global neighborhood, guys.

The world you’re growing up in is more divided than ever.  Some of that is because my generation and previous ones haven’t really learned how to disagree well with one another.  We’re struggling with an increasingly globalized world in a way that we aren’t really prepared (or mature enough?) for in most cases.  We’ve been fed that we must tolerate one another, when really what we should have been taught is how to love each other.  We’re not yet comfortable with that.

And no amount of platitudes will ease this discomfort.  What you must do is reach out to those different from you, however that difference is made evident, and be with them.  You don’t have to stand for intolerance, but I don’t want you to just tolerate anyone, either.

I want you to love people, as you’re best able. And loving people means you don’t make fun of them, you don’t assault them, and you don’t generalize them. It means you listen and have dinner with them, and you pick up the tab half the time.

And yes, you can be snarky, but try to avoid cynicism.  And yes, you can have strong opinions, but if your opinion becomes a personal attack, it fails to be an opinion and has devolved into a baser form of communication, which should be avoided at all costs because, well, you’re bright guys and are better than that.

We’re going to be disappointed sometimes, boys. But know yourself, and know who, when disappointment strikes, will feel the aftershock the most.  And that’s who you look out for. And not because you are some sort of savior or guardian, but just because that’s where you’re supposed to be, by God.

Got it?

Love you guys. Go Cubs!

Dad…

contact-lens-discomfort-296x238“Were you Baptist before Lutheran?” someone asked me recently.

No. I was more atheist than anything…which is sometimes like being Baptist (as any faith affiliation is), but mostly not.  A closet atheist, but a convinced one nonetheless. I think I was asked this question because sometimes I sing Gospel tunes in worship, or ask for an “Amen” in my sermons.

Lutherans can do that, right?

In one of my theology classes at university (called “Black Theology/Black Church) we were assigned the task of visiting a historically black church on a Sunday morning.  For a university that, at the time, was only 6% people of color, you can imagine this was a stretch for many in the class.

Off I went with two classmates one Sunday morning to First Church of God in Christ in Gary, Indiana.  We arrived a little early, disrupting a small Bible study taking place in the sanctuary.  And when worship started, the small Bible study turned into the small congregation, perhaps only numbering 20 in total.  And the little electric organ ramped up and we all stood up and clapped (on 2 and 4), and hands were held high and “Amens” came aplenty and we sang and sand for probably half an hour.  No hymnals, mind you. It seemed everyone got the words but us newbies…though we stumbled along.

And then the pastor came with a message, another half hour or so.  And then an offering, “the tithe” as it was called.  And then more singing.  And then a second offering, or “the gift” as it was explained. The pastor must have seen my perplexed face. And then an altar call, where no one was particularly saved but everyone was blessed.  And then gone.

And the whole thing was totally foreign to me.  Totally uncomfortable.  Doubly uncomfortable, in some ways.  I felt that my presence was a disruption…this white guy coming to watch.  And then I also felt disrupted by the strangeness of it all: I didn’t know the hymns, I didn’t shout “Amen,” I didn’t want to be saved.

And looking back I’m thinking, I’m wondering, if this experience wasn’t one of the big wedges that got stuck in my armor of atheism. It shook me up. It made me feel totally uncomfortable.

And I paid attention to it.

When something forces you out of your comfort zone, there are two natural responses: run or ridicule.

We can run from discomfort, preserving ourselves and what we already know.  As Father Richard Rohr has been known to say, “We only want to learn what we already know.” This is true in most all of life, but I see it most clearly in the church where the ruffling of the feathers means the rumbling of the masses.  We essentially decide to go find a place that makes us feel more comfortable…at least, for a while.  Because nothing is comfortable forever. Evolution is the way of all living things.  And even the relative plateau times are really just the cover for quantum leaps of change.  Even in times of so-called steadiness, the tectonic plates are shifting underneath it all.  Hence why a straw can “break the camel’s back.”  Were things not always in flux underneath the surface, a straw wouldn’t have that power.

Or we can ridicule it.  Write it off. “That’s not the way we do things,” I say, trying to preserve a sense of “we” that is largely based off of a heightened sense of “me.”  Ridicule is a philosophical tool we use to take power away from things that don’t fit in our worldview.

But we have another response that we can use: we can pay attention to the feelings of discomfort inside of us and learn from them.  Why do I feel this way?  What is the underlying thing, true or imaginary, I’m trying to hold on to?  How can this moment teach me?

Jesus employed discomfort as his tool for growth in everything that he did.  He caused everyone around him to feel uncomfortable.

The Christian church is going through this extreme time of discomfort.  It’s happening at all levels: from the denominational offices to the congregation (and even to the individual Christian).  And we can run from it; some are certainly doing that.  They’re voting with their feet and their faith.   We can ridicule it; some are certainly doing that.  “Just keep things the same until you push my casket down the aisle,” is a phrase many pastors have heard and many parishioners have entertained.

Or we can learn from it. We can let it instruct us.  We can trust that we catch a better glimpse of God in these moments of discomfort. After all, there must be some reason Jesus used this as his primary teaching tool!

Discomfort is now my friend.  We’re not best buddies; I’d like to see them less than I do sometimes.  But they always teach me something, usually something about myself and my preconceived notions.  Something I can’t learn elsewhere.

And it’s hard to learn these lessons…any other way.

It seems like after every national tragedy–and let’s be honest, tragedy on any scale–people have this “ah-ha” realization about the fragility of life.

I think that’s a pretty natural reaction.  A wake-up of sorts.

And that “ah-ha,” that realization, often gets filtered into a phrase that comes out something like this: “we’re not promised tomorrow.”  It’s a carpe diem phrase of sorts. A call to mindfulness.  A call to smell the roses.  A call to, as Qoheleth and Dave Matthews chirp, “Eat, drink, and be merry” for tomorrow we die.

Or, at least, we might die.

On the one hand, I get that sentiment.  In a cosmic sense it is absolutely true, and shouldn’t be ignored.

But the tragedy in Orlando was not some cosmically caused killing.  A meteor didn’t fall from the sky and destroy Pulse. It wasn’t some freak shark attack.

If it had been a meteor or a freak accident, then I could get behind the phrase “we’re not promised tomorrow” as a response to this terrorist attack.

But this was a terrorist with a gun living under the laws and regulations of the United States of America.  We can’t just shrug our shoulders, hold our babies closer, and hope it doesn’t happen to us.  That’s ridiculous.  On some level, uttering that phrase in response to this particular act is just plain stupid sentimentalism; a vapid romanticism.

At its core, the laws and regulations that we live under are a social contract of sorts, a promise if you will, that your tomorrow cannot be purposefully infringed upon by my actions in a way that inhibits your “life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.”

I’m saying that those people at Pulse were promised a tomorrow.  At least in the sense that no one could infringe upon their tomorrow in a forceful way by law.  We had a social contract that someone decided to break, and here we are shrugging our shoulders and saying, “No guarantees.”  Sure…no guarantees.  But we do have promises which, while not guarantees, are the social contract version that is pretty darn close.

And when we say something like, “We’re not promised a tomorrow” as a response to a situation that is a breach of social contract we abstract the incident to arms length, when what we actually need to do is draw the incident as close as possible.

Because things at arms length…we have little control over that. It’s a psychological crutch. But this type of mass shooting is actually something that we, through our social contracts, can take action on.

When Moses went up to Sinai and descended with those two tablets (three, if you believe Mel Brooks’ account), it was to establish a social contract both between humanity and between Divinity and humanity.  It is basically a response to, “how shall we then live?”  And it was, in essence, a promise of tomorrow for those people.  This is how we order ourselves, by promising one another a tomorrow because God has intended tomorrows for humanity.

And for the Christian, the promise of tomorrow goes even past death.  So Christians must take quite seriously this part of our social contract.

And we cannot, of course, ever guarantee something like this shooting won’t happen.  Our laws are no preventative guarantee; they are a promissory note, though.  A promissory note that we all sign onto.

And, look, the promise was broken.  Let’s not pretend it was an act of God.  Let’s not pretend this was written in the stars or some similar platitude that will help us swallow this pill.

Do not swallow this tragedy.  Choke on it.  Choke on it and let action to save lives be our response.  If you throw it out at arms length we’ll just do this all again.

Let’s not pretend we have no way of figuring this out. We know how this happened; we know how it happens.

Let our “ah-ha” moment not be a realization about the fragility of life, but a renewed commitment to tomorrow and to keeping promises and to doing the things that help us all to keep our promises.

Because, actually, we are promised tomorrow.  Not guaranteed…but at least promised.

And if you say otherwise, you are delusional or lying or just unwilling to face the reality that we are not powerless here, we’re just choosing to be powerless here…

Why I Wrestle With Faith

Posted: May 24, 2016 in Uncategorized

597961e7-c4f1-4177-b235-0568f285aa87On Tuesdays or Wednesdays…or sometimes Thursdays depending on the week…you can usually find me at the local coffee shop reading Tolstoy at 7am with one, sometimes two, other people.

Well, currently it’s Tolstoy.  Who knows who it might be next.

We’re reading The Kingdom of God is Within You.  I’ve read it before, at my previous parish in fact, with another parishioner on Friday mornings.

We sit there, we drink coffee (and sometimes eat a biscuit) and we discuss Tolstoy, chapter by chapter.

And one of the interesting cultural changes for me, having moved to North Carolina in the last five months, is that we’re surrounded by other people at the coffee shop at 7am (not a lot of people, but enough), and to a person almost every single group is doing some sort of Bible study.

Bible open, guide in hand (or on laptop), talking about Jesus.  That was uncommon back in Chicago, but here it’s like they’re happening everywhere: Bible out, guide in hand (or on laptop), Jesus talk.

And then there’s us, reading Tolstoy.

Sometimes I wonder what they’re thinking about us.  I see them looking over at us, and not just when I wear my awesome plaid suit-coat.  I wonder if they wonder what we’re talking about when we talk about Tolstoy’s thoughts.

But the thing is, we’re talking also talking about Jesus.  And the Bible absolutely comes into play, especially for Tolstoy.  We’re absolutely talking about the Word of God (hint: that’s Jesus), too, just like them.

Tolstoy is our guide, though.  And culture is our context.  Not a Bible guide.

And I’m not making a judgment call here, I’m actually making a defense of sorts.  Because, and this is the thing, I think Tolstoy forces me to wrestle with faith in ways that sometimes aren’t present, at least for me, with traditional Bible guides or traditional Bible studies.

And I have to wrestle with faith.

I have to wrestle with it…how else will I eek a blessing from it?

I have to wrestle with it…or how else will I know what it even is?

I have to wrestle with it…or else it’s just all too comfortable and too formulaic and I fall in love with my right answers and right beliefs much more than I experience faith and then I become my own savior…

And I certainly wrestle the text itself. I’m always wrestling with the text.  Unless you wrestle with the text, how will you begin to contend with the tension in the story where Jesus calls the Caananite woman a dog?

And the trouble I have with so many guides, and so many sermons, and so many Christian podcasts, and so many devotionals, is that they resolve the tension to easily, too quickly, and too simply.  They tell you what the parable means (as if any parable means just ONE thing). They give you the answer to faith questions too immediately (and often, wrongly in my opinion).

They make sense of it for you, instead of invite you to come to your senses with the text and testimony and story in hand.

And I get why it happens.  It happens because we want to make sense of everything.

But what if the point of faith isn’t to make sense of everything, but rather to invite you into the process of making sense through the lens of faith?

We’re wrestling with concepts in our Tuesday morning Bible study here (that’s the 9:30am group, not the 7am group).  Big concepts like “faith,” “post-modernity/trans-millenialism,” “theodicy,””soteriology.”

And I am so grateful for this group of people, from diverse backgrounds, wrestling together.  And as their pastor, sometimes I worry that we’re wrestling too much, or that we’re hitting the mat too hard and it’s not helpful for life or for spiritual growth, or that we’re wrestling so long that we’re getting fatigued.

And that’s a real problem, and this is where devotionals that comfort more than afflict are blessings.  We cannot discount that work!

But I wonder if that’s all that many are getting.  I wonder if the contending that St. Paul and St. Peter did in the early church is lost in a church quite comfortable just simply being reinforced in their beliefs and not stretched and pulled and prodded and pushed off the faith cliff into the open air of uncertainty.

Because there is where we learn to fly, to “soar on wings like eagles.”  There is where the true meaning of the term faith is found and experienced and actually does something.

This is all to say, the Word comes in many and various ways, including through Tolstoy as he wrestled with his own faith.

So wrestle on, good and faithful servants. And if you’re not wrestling, I encourage you to start conditioning.  Because the easy answers will run out, if they haven’t already.  And God is so much more beautiful and complicated than we’re often led to think.  And the story of salvation is so much more wonderful when you engage it than when you’re force fed it.

And when you’re fatigued from wrestling with it all, allow the angels of the church around you to attend you.

You know, like Jesus…

 

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Going up?

The votes are in.  It is clear that, in many and various ways, the church is slowly but surely abandoning the cross as its primary identity.

The new hotness? The arrow.

And if you doubt this is true, think of all the churches that have an arrow pointing upward, or “right and up” as the business world calls it, in their logos. As their logo. It’s the new “thing” and it speaks to optimism and the “you can do it” vibe that much of Christianity is giving off these days.

You don’t have to Google too much to find one.  You probably will see it on a bumper or as a window cling on your way home from work today.

And that’s not bad, necessarily.  But it certainly isn’t the cross.

Sermons are now “TED talks.”  They’re “how can I improve my life?” talks instead of “how does Jesus ask me to give up my life?” proclamations. (And I love me some TED talks)

And, look, I’m all for practical and relevant sermons.  I think I give them. And I’m all for trying to improve myself and others.  I hope I do that in some ways.

But I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t die on the cross so that I can learn how to reach higher in life.  I’m pretty sure Jesus talked, lived, and died in such a way that makes me desire downward mobility rather than upward mobility.

The downward mobility of washing feet.  The downward mobility of kneeling with those in grief. The downward mobility of embracing a life that banks more on repentance and grace rather than “trying harder” or “getting it right.”

In my neck of the woods so many churches are embracing the arrow over the cross.  The arrow of “make your life better” instead of “God is embracing you where you are, and believe it or not, that is better than constantly trying to make your life better.”  And I get why it’s happening, at least in part.  Arrows can speak to transcendence, a desire that humanity has been wrestling with since we first started to think bigger than our stomachs.  But the problem is that arrows promise a false transcendence; a transcendence that requires you to “keep climbing” instead of giving up.

But the cross speaks of giving up.  Specifically giving up your life for the sake of others.  And only then realizing that your life is given back to you in a new way.The cross speaks to the truth of human fragility, human vulnerability, human suffering and, subversively, Divine hope.  The arrow speaks to the lies of stair-stepping our way to salvation and human moral progress in such a way the sacrifice is less about “what I give up” and more about “I’m going to work harder.”

A difficult truth to swallow for some may be this understanding, which I’ve come to see as true: sometimes I find people following other faith paths (and sometimes even no faith path) living a more cruciform life than those with Jesus fish on the back of their cars.

And it’s not about wealth or church attendance or even belief statements, necessarily.  It’s about, as Jesus says, “Losing your life to gain it.”  It’s about starving the all-consuming ego monster in deference for the Other in front of you.  It’s about God resurrecting you more than you trying over and over again to resuscitate your happiness, self-worth, career, what have you.

This is something that 12 step programs understand so well, and something that we’re missing in the pews (or auditorium chairs, if that’s your thing).

Now, before you write that response below, I have to clarify something: I’m not for living or wallowing in total depravity.  I’m not for shunning the gym or canceling your therapist.  I am all for self-betterment in the non-annoying, non-cloying, non-consumerist ways it can happen (spoiler alert: that audio book will not “take away your Mondays”…but you knew that before you bought it and you bought it anyway because you’re willing to try anything to get rid of that feeling, right?).  This is not just a “grumpy church person” rant.

I think these things form and shape us.  And I think arrows are bad news when it comes to spiritual life.  They look like good news, but as a Lutheran I must “call a thing what it is.”  And it is bad news.

Because we don’t climb our way out of life.  This life is not about the climb.  We can’t climb out of that life, no matter how high you go, but we can live in such a way that we give up that life in exchange for a different one not so intent on moving up, but more intent on having the Spirit move within.

But the Spirit does all sorts of thing that will make you unhappy.  Things like:

Ask you to give up your life for the sake of others.

Ask you to put down the self-help book, to help the other selves around you.

Ask you to speak out against injustice  and own your role in the system (a system that promises you ascension at the expense of others).

Things like convince you that God is less interested in how much money you make, and more interested in how much money you decide to keep.

And, ironically, that’s exactly what we need.

maxresdefaultThere is an exciting but difficult reality facing the mainline church: the seismic shift mainline (and other) congregations are feeling will be in full effect in the next twenty years (which the sainted Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence“).  Right now we’re just feeling the tremors, and even these small shifts are causing extreme anxiety!

Which means that the landscape will look radically different in the near future, and I’m not trying to be an alarmist, but we need to start considering what might need to be in place so that we can move with the shifts, and we need to do so from a multiplicity of angles: pastor, evangelism, congregational structure, ecclesial hierarchy…all of it.

Many conversations around this topic focus on the pastor, specifically how we’ll have to embrace bi-vocationality or even employ circuit pastors as congregations dwindle to the point that calling full-time clergy will no longer be an option.

That’s an important conversation.  I fully realize that my generation may be the last who can expect to make a full-time living in mainline churches with this odd way of being in the world that we have named “Call.”  In some ways, seminaries today are training the ecclesial equivalent of a cobbler: a noble but antiquated profession.  That is to say, while much of humanity still wear shoes every day, the work of a cobbler has changed significantly (as in, they’re largely out of work).  I have no doubt humanity will still seek spirituality and look to religion as some sort of compass (when Google fails them), but it will not be the same.  It just won’t.

I, however, want to look at this seismic shift from the place of the congregation, or more rightly, from congregations.  How might congregations be organized now, or re-organize themselves now, to prepare for this inevitability?

There are a couple fronts already being worked.  Congregational renewal, missional training efforts, alternative (at least to traditional forms) worship styles are popping up all the time it seems (beware the hipness!).  Like advertisements during daytime TV, they all claim to have the fix.

But I want to move the lens out even wider than the individual congregation.  Move the focus out to the neighborhood.  And then wider still, to maybe a section of the geographical landscape.  As a point of reference, consider my own locale: Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill here in North Carolina.  In this geographical area we have 13 ELCA congregations, some just a few miles apart.

Why do we maintain this kind of density?  The short answer has to do with tradition, identity, and an allegiance to an old model of church planting.  The longer answer has to do with a merger in 1988 that happened without much sacrifice in the pews, causing churches of the same denomination to end up literally across the street from one another.  That is a lack of strategic vision, a “let’s play nicely” way of operating on the surface that, in actuality, is Darwinian “survival of the fittest” at its worst.

I’m not saying the 1988 merger that formed the ELCA was bad or wrong; far from it.  Indeed we’re one of the only denominations to come together despite disagreements.  Most other denominations simply fracture (looking at you, other Lutherans).  I’m just saying that it was done without the strategic vision necessary to ensure sustainability of mission (it deferred instead to sustainability of form).

But as I gathered with some area clergy yesterday, all of us sitting around the table in a first meet-and-greet of sorts, I made the bold claim that in 20 years one of our parishes would no longer be around (at least one).  And it’s not like any of our congregations are in trouble on paper; they’re not.  We’re all growing (in different ways), and doing good ministry.  But for how long?  With the seismic shift happening, how long with this model last?

The truth: not long.

And then I said this: what if all of the churches around the table started to live like the Acts community in scripture?  That is, what if instead of thirteen individual congregations being present in this geographical area, known colloquially as “the research triangle,” what if we pooled our resources, pooled our laity, pooled our creativity and ideas and just created Triangle Lutheran Church?

And Triangle Lutheran Church has eight sites and fifteen pastors, each individual site retaining it’s particular tradition(s) and flavors, though joining together in missional efforts, corporate identity, and even in specialized ministry (as the context dictates).  Live in East Raleigh?  Head to our Good Shepherd site or St. Philip site, depending on which side of Falls you live on.  Out in Cary?  Check out our Our Savior’s campus.

Nothing earth-shattering here as far as ingenuity goes, right?  But polity-wise this would be a seismic shift for our mainline denomination.  Perhaps big enough to match the seismic-shift already occurring…

What does this accomplish?

First, it is my conviction that this will begin to stave off the accelerating number of congregational closures that are taking place in the mainline church.  Banding congregations, and pastors, together not after they’re dwindling/dead, but even when they’re growing helps morale, accountability, and stops the siloing effect that is plaguing our churches today.

Secondly, yoking pastors together (with a Head/Executive Pastors at the helm of the parish) will provide a structure for mentorship that is desperately needed in the profession today.

Thirdly, we don’t engage in the creativity-killing practices that typically infect multi-site congregations, specifically when it comes to proclamation.  Pastors will preach and preside at individual sites weekly, none of this “live-streaming,” consolidating, muting of messaging that creates cultic personalities for clergy.

Finally, with pooled resources (and that’s a non-negotiable…too many yoked congregations fail because they fail to truly and fully pool their resources), logical distribution practices, and pooled missional efforts, a parish like Triangle Lutheran Church could afford a localized missionary (or two!) for those radical experiments needed to work with the new evangelism landscape this shift will bring about.

None of the above is new.  In fact, I think it’s probably the oldest model of church out there.  But we need to get back to it.

Look, I do not think the Church is going to die (or, following the story we tell every Sunday, stay dead for long).  But I do think congregations and even whole denominations will.  And my question, no…not a question anymore but a quest. My quest is to help ensure that there is still this particular voice being heard in the world.

Another way of saying that is: God’s not going anywhere.  But will we be the ones telling the story?  And if we want to be, how will we change to make it happen?

 

2165374689_0c605b8e92_bTransparency note: my bias is toward pastors in these situations, mostly because that’s my vantage point.  That being said, I do recognize that it is really difficult when someone comes in and starts changing things a community has held dear for centuries.  I welcome all responses.

This last week I heard another example; it was the second time in as many weeks. I heard about another colleague who had received an anonymous note or had been the recipient of anonymous passive-aggressive behavior from someone at the church who was disgruntled about something.  They were crestfallen.

Actually, I hear about these incidents a lot.  An image of Sisyphus always comes to my mind when I hear about these incidents, because that’s exactly what it feels like to get feedback you can’t do anything with. Anonymity provides the critique without the accountability…

Quick aside: speaking from experience, anonymous feedback is the worst kind of feedback.  It makes it absolutely impossible for follow-up, encourages tactlessness in messaging (after all, if no one knows it is you writing, you can be as mean as you like), and most disappointingly, it is endemic of a passive-aggression that seems to be fostered in the communities of faith.  It’s not scriptural. God is highly relational in the scriptures, so don’t you think we should be, too?

My advice? Throw it in the trash.  I’ve been blessed to have calls where I’ve received relatively few anonymous notes.  I can say I’ve not been the victim of bullying that I’ve seen some of my colleagues endure…which is a good thing.  But I wonder if I’m the exception.  I hope not, but I wonder.

Let’s be honest: if you can’t sign your name to a note or a criticism, it’s not worth sending.  If you can’t stand behind your statement, it’s not a conviction but a predilection.

But my above advice is just a short-term solution.  I think there is a larger issue that we have to deal with in some way, and it is this: many churches simply do not want the pastors that seminaries are producing these days, and many new pastors simply do not want the pulpits available.

Let me explain myself before you send me that anonymous note…

My seminary class was full of idealists.  We had, and many still have, a strong conviction that God in Christ is active in the world, and that as pastors we would connect people to God’s action and the world would start to look differently, first at the individual level (for hearts changed), and then at the communal level (for societal change), and then at a systematic level (for world change).

That’s still our vision, at least one that I cling to in big and small ways.

But I also know that, at least in some ways, social justice can be talked about as a savior in some instances…and that’s just not scriptural.  It’s evidence of the Savior’s work.  It’s a call of the Savior.  But social justice is not Jesus; it’s easy to fall into that rabbit hole, though…especially when Jesus is largely thought to be assumed in the church’s work.

We need Jesus along with justice, people.  We don’t need exclusive “social justice,” but rather “social Jesus.”  We need growth in faith while also being invited to act on that faith in real, tangible, life-changing/system-changing/world-changing ways.  We need that Jesus who speaks to our inner faith and discipleship growth as well as calls us out of our comfort zones to engage the world.

…”Social Jesus.”  I might trademark that…

And I wonder if sometimes the seminary community doesn’t find themselves falling down that rabbit hole in much the same way university students find themselves becoming entrenched in this cause or that, siloed off into affinity groups for action.  Group think can be a powerful force, even in a place of robust dialogue.

On the flip-side, faith communities can also become that siloed place where group think takes hold.  Jesus has often been talked about, communicated, and felt in particular ways in a particular community, ways that people are reluctant to change.  Particular patterns of life together are largely assumed to be universally understood in many communities of faith. Pastors are often expected to reinforce these particularities.

This, too, is a rabbit hole, the hole of particularity.

Traditions and community rituals form us together, but sometimes they also wall us off from new ideas or new expressions of the faith.

And so when you have two entities coming together from siloed places of formation, both with ideas of how and what they’re supposed to be doing, there is not only a gap in expectation, but a gap in understanding about what is going on.  The one believes they’re called to lead a people into finding out where God is active in the world, matching the two up; the second believes they’re calling someone to reinforce for them that God is active in what they’re already doing.

Now, forgive me for the broad brush-strokes.  This is certainly not true for every pastor or every faith community.

But I’m trying to figure out why I’m seeing so many of my colleagues leave the profession (or think of leaving…the stats are surprising), “take a break” from the profession, or trudge along into the headwind of anonymous notes and continual barrage of insults that I’m really not sure happens in any other profession, at least not the way it does for pastors, all the while nursing addictions, depression, self-loathing, or a callousness unhelpful in the profession.

Think about it: in what other profession, other than perhaps politics or a CEO of a non-profit, do you have the people you serve as your literal boss, even though they ask you to lead?  And even in those cases just mentioned, there is a level of abstraction from the person serving to the person being served.

As one meme nicely put it: pastors are the only people who get complaints when they don’t visit people who don’t want them there in the first place.

Imagine sitting at someone’s bedside as they’re sick or dying, and that person has had a history of trying to systematically stand against everything you’ve tried to do in your ministry at a particular congregation, and you have to be their compassionate hand and voice in that moment. Yes, it’s part of what we’re called to do, but let’s not pretend there’s not just a little bit of bitterness there on either side of that situation, and quite a bit of psychological violence as some pastors must minister to people who have said horrible things about them.

Jesus does say bless the ones who curse you for my sake, but he didn’t say that you have to preside over their funeral or entertain their insults to the grave…

Added to this gap in expectation are three more glaring issues that we continue to skirt around: pastors leaving seminary today often don’t look like their predecessors in style or theology (not to mention gender or race) than even a decade ago, some churches are in the pressure-cooking process of dying already, and my generation in particular is deciding that life is too short to do work for people who dislike you (mostly because we’ve seen our parents or our mentor-pastors endure it for years, and we just won’t live like that).

Those three issues create a perfect storm for dysfunction, vocational crisis, and just really bad behavior that looks nothing like Jesus and everything like evil.

Of course there is some fragility that we must be honest about.  Pastors: you need a thick(er) skin.  Let me walk that statement back for a second and re-state it:

WE need a thick(er) skin.

My skin has grown thick(er) over the years, but there are still soft spots.  And I still get frustrated, especially when complaints pile one on top of the other with this work.  Reading and re-reading Friedman’s work and the Psalms has helped with this.

But the Office requires it; demands it.  And the back-biting and dysfunction in communities of faith is not new, nor does it just affect certain flavors of churches.  Just look at the issues that Charles Stanley had when trying to assume the senior pulpit at highly conservative First Baptist in Atlanta alongside the issues that progressive Riverside Church in New York City has had finding a stable presence for their pulpit.  Or, just look at Paul’s advice to that church in Corinth who just couldn’t get their act together.  It’s not new.

I think what is new is that many from my generation of pastors just aren’t feeling the Sisyphean work is worth the pain, and that the situation is literally one of life and death for some churches who see continual decline and some pastors who find themselves trying to fit (or not) into a role they feel they never signed up for.

Pastor: ask for good behavior overtly.  Expect it. And if you’re a Senior or Lead Pastor, it has to come from the top down.  I cannot tell you how many colleagues have left calls because they’ve been bullied by congregation members and the Lead Pastor hasn’t had the stomach to do something about it.

But in a broader sense, I am seeing a really disturbing trend. My fellow clergy are entering parishes that simply do not want their ministry, despite calling them to the pulpit.  They want something else.  Sometimes they say that they want something that looks less like 2016 and more like 1956, or even 1986 (impossible).  Sometimes they say that they want someone who looks more like the pastor they had as a child than one of their grandchildren (even though their grandchild is exactly the person they want in the pew).  Sometimes they just want to get rid of the pastor, a “return to sender” to the Bishop…that’s just not how it works.

And I’m seeing fellow pastors who just don’t want the congregations they’re being called to, either. Sometimes because they don’t want to/can’t offer the ministry desired of them from the people.  Sometimes because they don’t identify with anyone in their congregation in theology or age, and loneliness catches up with them.  Sometimes because their creativity is stifled (though from the pew it can feel like things are changing for the sake of change), and sometimes because they just can’t make their zeal in seminary translate into a zeal for the people they’re called to serve.

And we say things like, “the system is broken” when it comes to matching seminary graduates and congregations.  And that is true; it is broken.  But that’s not the whole story.  It’s not all about bad matches.

It’s also about bad expectations on all sides.  It’s about a changing church and a changing world that we all give lip-service to, but aren’t quite sure how to actually be in yet.

A greater part of the narrative, greater than any of us might want to admit, is that the pews don’t look like the pulpit anymore and we’re all having a hard time figuring out how to do ministry together because of that.

The church today is a church different than a decade ago, and certainly a century ago.  And pastors are asked not only to lead congregations to faith, but also be marketing experts, small non-profit managers, funeral directors, and miracle workers, all without rocking the boat.

And our seminaries just aren’t training pastors to be all of those things.

And the result of that is often passive-aggression and the unhealthy tension of bad behavior and burn out and splitting churches and, well, you get it.

Is my hypothesis right?  Do churches just not want the pastors seminaries are producing, and pastors the churches that are offered?  Are expectations just so radically different on either side?

None of this is helping the body of Christ, by the way.  And this kind of stuff (really, would YOU join a church full of such strife?) makes many into reluctant Christians…if they stay at all.

We have to figure this out. Together.