2721032_1408333739618_acee1eadStart-ups are motivated by possibility and imagination.  They’re not just reacting to what’s going on around them, they’re forming what’s going forward.

Start-ups are interested in perfecting one or two things that they’re doing, while dreaming of that one next thing.  They’re not trying to be everything to everyone, becoming bogged down in propping up the part of their enterprise that is flailing.

Churches should behave like start-ups.  All churches, not just new churches.

Now, I get it…you don’t like comparing a church to a business model.  I don’t like the comparison much, either.  But let’s not pretend that we don’t have something to learn here.  Churches *should* excel at implementing metaphor to everyday life (looking at you, parables), so let’s metaphorically explore this, OK?

Start-ups respond to imagination; establishment responds to fires.  If you don’t spend more time on what you can do than what you used to do, you’re not responding to imagination.  Big establishment brands have just that: a brand.  But they’re constantly having to try something new to keep the brand and keep the edge (think New Coke). They’re constantly putting out fires to maintain the status quo, instead of starting new fires of inspiration.

“Thing kingdom of God is like yeast,” Jesus said, “which leavens the whole loaf.”

The yeast starts a fire in the loaf, and try as it may, the loaf can’t help but react.

Be the yeast, young grasshopper…not the loaf.

Instead of trying to keep the brand, though, why not just make innovation and imagination part of the “brand?”  Google has successfully done this (so far), as has Apple. It is possible to change the narrative, but you have to respond to dreams rather than fear.  Which brings me to my next point…

Start-ups dream and have faith; establishments fear. Once you get power, you long to stay in power.  Once you become the biggest, your quest becomes about staying the biggest.  One of the terrible things about being a start-up is the uncertainty factor of the future.  But if a start-up moves into the establishment phase, they quickly learn that the uncertainty factor never fully leaves, it just changes into fear: fear that you’ll lose market share or newness or what have you.

And so the trick, then, is to ignore the uncertainty altogether and rely on innovation and potential as your main motivator.

This doesn’t mean you don’t heed advice or warning signs in a failing endeavor.  If anything, leaning on potential and dreams will hopefully spur you to do some due diligence and research before setting out on the next new adventure you undertake.  But when big establishment thinking entrenches a system, it becomes about big conservation strategies, big consolidation efforts, and big risk-aversion…which leads to big death.

Jesus said that we are to give of ourselves for others (Matt 16:24). Which might mean that the current decline of the church might just be a sign that we’re starting to understand what Jesus means.  I’m not saying that size is indicative of discipleship (though I’ve made a claim smelling like that before), but I am saying that if we’re failing to risk on reaching out because we’re afraid it will change things and change us (and our church culture/habits/etc.), then we’re probably adopting fear rather than faith as our motivating impulse.

Start-ups make history; establishment protects history. Well, sort of.

Look: the history of your church is important.  Your church has done a lot of good in the neighborhood.  It has changed peoples lives.  It has provided a spiritual home.  Perhaps it has been a change-agent in the footsteps of Jesus for your community.  None of that can or should be denied.

But if your church is going to continue to do good in the neighborhood, to change lives, to be a spiritual home, to be a change-agent, it can’t be trying to lift up its past as some sort of golden-age of life.  Every living thing has a life cycle.  But if you want to hasten a demise, start pining for the past.

Start-ups don’t have hang-ups about the past because they don’t have one to be hung up on.  No matter how long your church has been at the corner of First and Fairbanks, every day it has a ministry opportunity that was not present yesterday, and so while it has a past, it also has tons of potential futures.  That is what you focus on, by God.

Look, I have the unfortunate lot in this work of being stuck in the post-boom years of churchgoing.  I call it unfortunate only because so many people lift up the 50’s as the standard of how churches should be and operate in America.  If you look at the 50’s, where civil religion and the church walked hand-in-hand post World War II, you’ll see an anomaly, not a norm, when it comes to church participation.

If you want a norm, check out church attendance from the 30’s.  There’ll you’ll see kind of a plumb-line.

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And, can I be honest?  While church attendance in the 50’s and 60’s may have been high, poll folks around my age and ask them if they think the society they’ve inherited is utopian.  Turns out that church attendance may not directly correlate to societal health.

Churches of the mainline: hold on to your past loosely and embrace the dreams of the future.  Innovate. Explore. Jesus calls this out of you more than anything because it’s what we need now more than anything.

In other words: be the yeast, not the loaf.

 

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best-family-beach-vacations-east-coast_f_mobiThere are certain times when my office sits empty.

Sometimes it’s because I just work better at coffee shops for some reason.  Sometimes it’s because part of my work as a pastor is to be with people, and those people aren’t always at the church.

But this summer it has largely been because I’m on vacation. I have one more on the books, the first one that Rhonda and I will be taking without kids in over 4 years. And I have to be honest with you about why, especially this summer, I’m using up all my vacation time…and why you should, too.

Reason #5: I’m never not a pastor unless I’m gone.  And even then I usually am. As I approach the 10 year mark in this profession, I am becoming more and more aware of this reality.  Now, I know pastors aren’t the only people who feel this way about their jobs, but I’ll let you in on a little secret:

If, by some miracle, I make a friend who is not a parishioner, and who did not know me before I was a pastor, you know what I tell them that I do for a living?  I tell them I work for a non-profit…and that I don’t like talking about work.  Because the minute I tell them I’m a pastor, I either a) become their pastor/counselor with no chance of reciprocity, or b) become seen as the morality police, and the relationship significantly changes.

Vacations, being with family, these become grounding experiences where I am reminded that I am not just a pastor, but a father, husband, son, and yes, friend.

And you are those things, too.  And if you forget that, you need to go on vacation.

Reason #4: I’m allotted the time, but no one expects me to take it.  Even I don’t normally expect that I’ll take it.  And so when this summer came around and I had the opportunity after, frankly, a difficult year, to spend extra time with family far and near, I decided to set my calendar…even though I didn’t think I should.

How amazing is that?  I didn’t think I should.  And I didn’t think I should because, implicitly and explicitly, I have been trained to see my work as my measure of worth and value, and that is just not true.

One of the reasons I’m offered a generous time-off package is because I work a lot when other people aren’t working like, oh, every weekend (and most every holiday except for 4th of July requires me in a funny robe).  And having sat next to people on their deathbeds on many occasions, none of them wax nostalgically on their time in the office.  They wax on their time with family, “away”…and, well, I want some stuff to wax about.

And you should want some, too.  I sit with people on their deathbeds, and not once have they regretted a vacation opportunity they took, even in the face of mountains of work. Go on vacation.

Reason #3: When I’m “off,” I’m not off.  This is closely related to issue #5, but not exactly the same.  In this world of hyper-connectivity, even when I leave the office my “work day” doesn’t end until I close my eyes, and it begins with a “quick email check” the minute I open my eyes.  It’s a personal problem.

Oh, and that emergency number knows no clock…which it shouldn’t.  There’s a reason we have an emergency number, and please know that I am always willing to rush to the hospital.  But that means I am on call.  And it is something you should know about your pastor: they feel as if they are always on call, because by and large, they are.

And I’ve noticed, especially as my children have gotten older, that the divided life I lead between watching them with one eye, while keeping the other eye on my iPhone, has been destructive for my spirit and my parenting (let alone my “spousing”).  Jesus says we are to give away ourselves for others, but that means I have to have something to give away.

Let me be very honest for a moment with you: I am jealous that you get to leave Friday late-afternoon and come back Sunday night from mini-holidays to the beach or to the mountains or to the lake.  With my work schedule, we can sometimes leave Friday evening, but we always have to be back Saturday night.  And if there’s a wedding or a funeral or a church event or…I mean, it just doesn’t work out.

And if none of that resonates with you, remember that the Sabbath is instituted by God.  Do you take an actual Sabbath?  I often don’t…and I need to.

Vacations can, if we allow them, be times that we are actually, truly off (even though that’s not always the case).  And if you are leading a divided life, with one eye on the things you love and the other eye on the things other people think you should love, you need a vacation.

Reason #2: My grandfather. He worked for “Ma Bell,” as he called it.  Southern Bell at the time.  Union work, which allowed him to retire early, support a family, have a great pension, and live a good life; it taught him the value of a work week.  Jobs like that are scarce anymore.  But he told me once that his people (union folks) worked hard to make sure that 40 hours a week was the standard unit for work in these United States, and that though I would probably work over 40 hours, it shouldn’t be the norm.  And if it was the norm, he said, “well, what did we work so hard for?”

Well, it’s the norm.  And not only is it the norm, it’s the expectation for most salaried professionals. For you, probably. Which is a problem, and it is killing our ability to work so we can live, and pushes us into the living to work category of existence, save for the privileged few who have 4 hour work weeks.

Do honest work. Do good work. To meaningful work, a full 40 hours of it.  And then we should honestly rest.  Good rest.  Rest with meaning and intention.  

Reason #1: I love my family more than my work. I have to say that because, well, I’m not sure they can tell that by my behavior most of the time.  It is just true that, as a pastor, I put other people’s families in front of my own. A lot. And while I can’t make up for lost time, I can look toward the future with intention.  Vacationing is one way I can do it.

And don’t get me wrong, I love these people, and I (usually) love my work.  But do I love it more than the first calling I had, to be husband and parent and son, to be faithful to that first claim upon my life?  No, I do not. And if I don’t want to become resentful, and if I do not want my family to resent my work, I have to attend to the balancing act somehow…imperfect as I walk it.

So, what about you?  Do you love your family more than your work?

The ability to vacation at all is such a privilege in this world, and it’s not afforded to everyone…I realize this.  How can my work as a pastor speak to that inequality, while also being honest about my own need to be away?  How can your work do the same?

 

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…

 

version2-ryze-logo

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.