Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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…

 

492284448_640Amidst the hand-wringing going on in churches these days over empty pews and the supposed death-knell of American Christianity there are still pockets of mainline churches growing steadily.  I’m not talking about those “quickstant” congregations that form and grow quickly in an instant.  I’m talking about those established faith communities who remain on a steady path of growth and health.  There are reasons for this growth, just as there are reasons that churches decline.

American Christianity is crowded.  There is a re-balancing going on.  It’s a system looking for stasis.  Great books have been written about this (of particular note is _The Great Emergence_ by recently deceased wonder-woman Phyllis Tickle. Buy it, be encouraged, be inspired, and be prepared to change the way you do and see things).  But these books have had a hard time settling into the pews of the average, aging, mainline church.

Let me be clear: I think there is a place for those congregations within the body of Christ.  I don’t think that quickstant congregations are providing food for all of a hungering humanity, and often I find that people who eat from that buffet make their way down the line and into our congregation wanting something more…substantial.

But it is true (and has become one of my mantras): people will put up with crappy theology for good programming.  And they will because, at the end of the day, at the end of the Beth Moore Bible Study where they’ve really only found one thought helpful in the half-hour but tons that they’re not sure they can swallow (though the company was good and the treats were tasty), after that sermon by that pastor where fear of the “______ agenda” (choose your favorite boogeyman, from either side of the spectrum) was trumpeted, they’ll go home and still think what they want to think.

They’ll still believe what they want to believe.

When I say “programming,” I know you’re thinking of clubs and initiatives and activities.  And that’s part of it.  But I’m talking more about a general feeling, a general ambiance, a general approach to life and ministry and the work of God in the world.  I’m not talking about struggling churches needing to “do” more, necessarily.  I’m talking about struggling churches needing to change the way they are experienced more.

When I look around, I see three main reasons (plus one more) that people aren’t joining your church.

  1. There’s no reason to.  You’ve made it too “easy.”  There’s no impetus.  I hear congregation members say all the time, “It’s so easy to join!  Just show up at this Saturday class.”  And at that Saturday class you’re pumped with information about the history of the church, the particular denomination, how you can join the altar guild and teach Sunday School, and all you really want to do is figure out how any of that is going to help you deepen your spiritual life.  No, seriously, that’s the problem.  You think you’re aiding the process by making things quick and simple, when really people (especially folks in their 20-30’s like me) want a process of formation.  We want something more ancient than “sign on the dotted line.”  That means nothing to us.  We’ve done that with every school loan, with every car payment, with every other obligation that is now simple and easy to do with a swipe of the finger or a click of the button.

    In reality, I’m post-membership when it comes to churches.  At the basest level, it’s just a form of counting.  But if membership means an invitation to study the mystery of faith deeply, to put some skin in the game with time and talent and treasure, to enter into a process of formation over the next few months whereby we’ll openly discuss the tenets of faith…for as time-consuming as it sounds, it also sounds like something that will fend off the feeling of being consumed by time that I currently have, allowing me to set aside moments for spiritual study.

  2. Your church is depressed.  You hear it in the singing.  You hear it in the reading.  You see it on the outdated website that is still announcing Christmas services in late March.  You see it on the faces of the long-time members who look at you during the sharing of the peace, wondering if you, too, will head out the door and never return…you with your young face, your energy, your desire, your passion.

    One of my first preaching gigs before being called to a full-time church was at a little church in a first-ring suburb.  The parking lot was overgrown. I couldn’t figure out where the front door was because all of the signage had faded.  I walked in and through the church, was met by an elderly woman who handed me the check for my work…which I immediately wanted to give back because, when I saw the 7 people who came to services that day (including me and my wife and the pianist!) I knew they needed the money more than me.  The place was depressed. The floor was depressed.  There were cobwebs in the balcony, evidence no one had been through there in ages.  I heard the elderly woman mention to another woman about how there had been a fight over worship styles a decade ago.  This was what was left: a church who didn’t show scars, but still open and bleeding wounds.

    It would not grow. It was depressed.

  3. You do nothing well.  Yeah, that sounds harsh.  Go with me for a moment.  We live in a time where excellence is highly desired.  Gone are the days when the organist could flub a few notes and everyone would chuckle to themselves and say, “That’s just Millie…”  Gone are the days when a pastor, clearly unprepared, could live off the grace of a congregation and recycle that sermon from three yeas ago.

    Now, I hear you: good communities extend good grace, and we shouldn’t celebrate the fact that those days are gone with too much fanfare.  It is an indication of a lack of tolerance on humanity’s part.  But the church that fails to recognize that “making it nice” is as important as good theology is one that fails to see what is on the minds of the people who come through the door.  Yes, the community will draw them in eventually.  But they have to come back multiple times for that to happen, and to even come back a second time takes intentionality on everyone’s part.

    What is your church good at, by the way?  Is it stellar preaching?  A great music program?  Youth and family programs?  Service? Christian education?  If you can’t name what it is currently known for, then it is not known.

    I once interviewed at a church who told me that they “were the friendly church.”  I applauded their self-identity, but knew it wasn’t enough.  You can be the friendliest baker around, yet if those cakes aren’t good, I’m just not coming back.  Likewise, just being “big” is not an identity, either.  Big churches struggle, too.  Cultivating skill for a community is freeing.  It’s freeing because it gives you purpose again.  Yes, the church’s main purpose is to praise God and make Christ known.  But knowing your preferred medium can focus your energies in a way that breathes life into your common existence.I promised one more…

  4. You don’t matter.  Again, go with me here…tough pill, tough wording, throw down your defenses, I’m trying to get your attention. This relates to #3, but it deserves to stand on its own.  Your current membership may see the benefit to this community’s existence, they’ve got strong bonds here. But do others who aren’t on the inside see it?Your theology isn’t relevant.  You’re either ignoring the world or providing too many answers that just don’t ring true with experience.  With a globalized world, the preacher must talk about current events.  And, I would add, not in a way that provides answers, but provides launching points for discussion.  Because folks my age can Google most anything.  The beauty of the Google for us is that we’re provided with a list of articles, links, memes, images.  No direct answers there, just opportunities to engage lenses in that search for truth.  Churches that have turned into answer-machines may be popular for a while, but it just takes that one person meeting that other person who they really like but who differs from them to start that de-conversion process.Likewise, churches that ignore the world aren’t giving us any context for spirituality.

    “If heaven is the goal, then approach me right before death.  What?  I don’t know when that will be?  Well, I’ll just take my chances then.”

    That’s actually the mindset (and I don’t think heaven is the “goal,” btw).

    Jesus walked in a world with political, social, economic, and spiritual forces at play.  We, too, walk in a world with all of these forces.  Jesus engaged them.  Are you really telling me that the church can’t or shouldn’t?  Add to that the fact that your church doors are always locked and largely only used on Sundays, and why bother? Yes, God will still deserve praise, but that church down the street that actively lets people use their space and engages the world does it better than you, and people will just head down there.

    If this is you (and be honest…it’s OK to arrive at this spot…all living things die eventually) then do the hard, tough, but faithful thing and sell your building, giving the money to the poor or to plant another church.  Jesus tells the rich man in Mark 10 to do this.  Perhaps the church rich in property can hear that as themselves.  Or are we too attached?

Let’s be honest with one another. I really do think that this can, at the very least, be a starting point for analyzing what a faith community is facing when numbers are dwindling, expenses are the same, and there is a genuine desire to impact people’s lives with the story of God’s work through the Christ.

And let’s also be honest: big isn’t always better.  If your church is one going for more intimacy, smallness, embrace it!  Jesus gathered twelve around him; small by design is not bad or wrong by any means.

But there are some real reasons that people aren’t joining, aren’t coming back; real reasons why they’re choosing that church down the street.  I think these are some.  Any more?

An Endless Falling

Greetings Disciples,

I’m not sure how to describe these last two weeks.

On Thursday morning as I was packing for vacation, my eyes were glued to the news, tears welling up in them, as I heard of the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.

Charleston, where my wife and I honeymooned.

South Carolina, sister to my home state.

In a church, where on any given week I spend the balance of my time, both personal and professional.mother-emanual-ame-church-in-charleston

That day Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, put forward a statement.  You can read it in full here. In it Bishop Eaton identifies that both the shooter, a member of an ELCA congregation, and two of the victims, The Reverend Clementa Pickney and The Reverend Daniel Simmons who both attended a Lutheran Seminary, are “our own.”

She’s right, of course.  I’d take it one more step, though.  All…

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Wit and the Battle of Demons

Posted: April 21, 2015 in Uncategorized

For some reason this was on my mind today.

Reluctant Xtian

He was beautiful and tragic.Drinking-the-beer-and-smoking-a-cigarette

At least that’s how I took him to be at the time.  And I’m not romanticizing here…at least I don’t think I am.  And I’m not talking about “beautiful” as in “attractive.”  I’m talking about beautiful in that deeper way you talk about beauty, if you get what I mean.

Maybe I’m not sure what I mean by that, but it’s the only way I can describe it.

We were in Denver at The Great Divide, a nice little brewery that spits out tasty pints.  We were waiting to take a tour, but it turned out that there weren’t enough people for a tour that day.  We had to just settle for the wares of the place, and I stood at the edge of the crowded bar for a long time before the tender, also enjoying a tasty pint, noticed me.

Drink in hand, the…

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If you all are wondering how this pastor tries to use the Biblical texts and current events to comment on one another, here is some insight into my sermon prep work…

An Endless Falling

2952906522_26eb2b9637_z Been musing on this Sunday’s Gospel text , as I think it probably gives us some insight into this whole mess with World Vision.

In the text Jesus uses mud to give this man sight.

Or, as I would say for the modern hearer, this man, in the muddiness of life, feels that Jesus has given him some new sight.

In the text it’s literal sight, but I love the over-arching metaphor, too, of how God, through the muddiness of life, gives us new insight.

Perhaps World Vision felt they had some new insight as they looked at their Christian brothers and sisters from all walks of life who had talent and vision and the ability to do good work, but were barred from employment because they were openly gay and partnered.  Perhaps they saw it as a justice issue.  Perhaps they saw it as a way to bring diverse…

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New Years Resolution

Posted: December 31, 2013 in Uncategorized

Today, just a bit of original poetry.

indexNew Years Resolution

Well 2013,

(or should I call you “Twentythirteen”?)

you had a good run.

The events, memories, touchstones,

too many to now recount

even if I had the desire to recount them all,

were all leading up to this one moment: the clock striking twelve.

And, sure, people who call themselves religious made fools of themselves this past year

as they did in 2012

and even as far back as year 1

(and before then),

but I expect nothing less.  Fear seems not to know that all things can be new

in the new year,

and it continually shows up, right on time, staying long past the party is over, waking up in a haze on your living room floor expecting breakfast.

Fear does that.

Fear of the other, of difference,

fear that “not being right” means failure.

Fear has survived too many years in a row, even past the angel’s cries of “Fear not.”

Fear doesn’t take a hint.

For 2014, I wonder if we can all make this resolution:

Let us hold that someone else’s opinions

beliefs

thoughts

convictions

aren’t threatening to me.  We need not fear them.

Let us instead hold that the only threatening thing in this world is indifference.

And then, maybe, we’ll get somewhere.

2013, you had a good run.  But sometimes the clown car took over the religious circus.

2014, here’s to hoping that you have within you

(and you do, as the incarnation makes clear)

the ability to have it done differently.

Blessed New Year

pt…