Posts Tagged ‘Honesty’

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…

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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.

 

 

 

 

pastor-search

Magnifying glasses can be used to bring things into focus. They can also be used to burn things. In this way they are the ultimate metaphor for good and bad scrutiny.

So you’re a new pastor, eh?  Or perhaps you’re a congregation looking for a new pastor.

Well, after five years in my current call, I’m now reflecting back on it all: the good, the bad, the great, the “man that sucked…”

And I think I’ve identified five things that either I didn’t anticipate, or the people of the church didn’t anticipate.  Nothing groundbreaking here, of course, but when you line it all up it is kind of sobering…and, I hope, hopeful.

Hopeful because for people who listen to death and resurrection stories every week, we’re still not very good at realizing that the pattern of death and resurrection is the pattern of the godly life.  So even when things die, new things rise.  We mourn in death, but we also wait for new life to emerge.

That is the story, right?

Anyway, here’s what I’ve identified as 5 things that will happen when you get a new pastor.

5) People will leave.  Yeah, they will.  No one is prepared for this (not even the people who leave, I think).

Perhaps they’re burned out from stressful leadership roles, or perhaps they’ve entered a new phase in life where the church isn’t as important for them, and their faith life takes a different path.

Or perhaps you’ve ticked them off.  That’s real, of course.  It happens.  As a pastor I don’t think you ever intend to tick people off (at least not to the point of their taking a hike), but it will happen.  And then people will come up to you and say, “What about so-and-so?  Where are they now?” And you have no answer because, while you’re pretty sure it’s because of you, your attempts to rectify the situation haven’t worked…or there’s really nothing you can do about it because their desires and the direction of the church just aren’t compatible.

Or sometimes people will be mad at you not because you’ve done anything, but because their life needs a scapegoat and you’re a convenient one.  That’s just true.  People take things out on the church, out on the pastor.  Or maybe they’re upset because you simply can’t help them in the way they want you to and they don’t know how to deal with that.

Or maybe you as the pastor don’t know how to deal with that.

Sometimes pastors take things out on the church, too.  That’s just as true.

And both cause people to leave or check-out.

I put this as number five not because it’s the least painful of these lessons.  On the contrary: this is the most painful part of it all.  I wish someone had told me early on that this would happen, though I don’t know that you can ever guard your heart enough not to take this personally.  I put this at number five because I think it’s surprising to all parties involved.  It’s a shared pain, but probably an unavoidable one.

Or if it is avoidable, I haven’t figured it out.

4) People will arrive. New people.  People you didn’t ever think would darken the door of a faith community will show up.  And then you and the community have to decide if you’ll be able to make enough social space to have them there.  Most communities want to make space, but they’re unsure how.  Patterns develop, both good and bad.  You have to work together to change them.

And this is difficult.

But people will arrive…you must prepare for that.  You should expect it.  And you should have a lot of open discussion about how these people may not know anything about being a part of a faith community, or may not care to join this committee or that, or may want to start a new initiative that looks nothing like previous missions.  You have to be prepared to tell people in the church that things will not be the same.

I remember one of our members pointing out to me that they started collecting high chairs years and years and years ago, long before there were enough children to fill them, with the expectation that they’d be used one day.

That’s good prep-work.

3) People will feel excluded.  Sometimes leadership change is welcomed, and sometimes it isn’t.  Sometimes ownership over ministries and initiatives are willingly and eagerly changed over, and sometimes they’re not.

It’s tough.

It’s tough when the ministry that really gave you purpose is now shared by others.  It’s tough when the close relationship with the previous pastor isn’t shared with the new one, for whatever reason.  All of that is tough.

It’s tough when people who have been in the church for a long time feel like they’re being displaced.  It’s tough when you’re new to a church and no one has invited you to help in a ministry because it has run the way it has for years upon years.

No one expects to feel excluded.

It’s tough.  Community takes intention…and your pastor will try to do it all, but she can’t.  Your pastor will try to meet everyone’s need to be included and accepted and important, but he won’t be able to do it.

This, in my experience, leads to more burnout than anything.  As a pastor I sometimes want to sit everyone down in a room and say, “You are all important.  You are all needed.  And I need you to understand that without me having to tell you, show you, or start initiatives to prove it all the time.  I need you to live it.”

The cure for exclusion is to start taking inclusion for granted.  What I mean by that is that if you’re in charge of a ministry area, take for granted that you are to look for and invite new people to enter into it.  Constantly.

What I mean by that is that if you’re new to a community of faith, take for granted that you’re welcome to participate in all facets of life.

I hope any good pastor would try to foster that kind of atmosphere and would welcome it.  But we can’t create the atmosphere all on our own.  We all have to breathe the same air in rhythm to change the atmosphere.

2) New ideas will fail and old ideas will gain new life.  When I came to this community our second worship service, which is different in style and tone from the first, had a consistent 30 people in attendance and had been consistent in the 30-40 range for two years before I came.

That’s not sustainable in the long run. It was at a crossroads.

I was hearing voices on both sides of the “keep it/abandon it” argument speak logically.

Today after tweaking and retooling, it’s now a consistent 80-90.  This old idea gained a new life, and now has a life that is feeding many on a weekly basis…though it doesn’t look exactly like what it used to.

That being said, the evening service that was quiet and contemplative that I started two years ago didn’t last.  It was feeding people, but not enough to create a lasting community (though there is always a chance for resurrection!).

Sometimes old ideas gain new life and gain a new form.  Congregations need to be prepared and become OK with this.  Sometimes more effort isn’t what an initiative needs. Sometimes it’s effort that is differently focused.

In short, a new pastor will breathe new life into some old things, and will start new things that don’t have enough life to last.  There has to be space for all of this to happen.  New pastors always think that what they start has to last forever.  We think this because we don’t take seriously Ecclesiastes 3 when it lifts up time as the sordid mistress she is. There is a time for everything under heaven.  Not everything has to be forever.  Stars eventually burn out; but they’re beautiful in the process.

1) If you give it enough time and godly space, you will get used to one another and even love each other.

You will.  It will happen if you give it enough time and godly heart-space.

Despite the fact that some leave, that roles change and evolve and egos are hurt on both sides, that new things start and die while old dying things get new life (or vice-versa), if you allow godly space to grow together, if you hold each other accountable to the reason you’re called together, if you open your heart to the possibility that you might be wrong about this opinion/option/initiative or that one (both pastor and congregant have to reserve the right to be wrong), you will love each other.

You will.

All of my favorite theologians talk about the mature person as one who embraces the shadow-side of life (how Jungian, right?).  And the above are part of the shadow-side of having a new spiritual leader.

Embrace the shadow-side. That’s not a Star Wars reference; that’s life.

Hug these five cacti, prickly as they are, and trust that God’s mission in the world can work even through such imperfect systems.

I’m on vacation.  The beach.

I woke up on vacation to the sound of the surf and seagulls and the smell of salt water.  vacation-planning

I woke up on vacation to the sound of laughter being silenced as a brilliant comedic force lost a battle to depression.

These two things don’t mix easily.

I woke up on vacation to the sight of children running and playing in the surf.  Children of all ethnicities chasing crabs and picking up shells.

I woke up on vacation to the news of an unarmed black man being shot in cold blood. To rioting, angry voices justified in their anger, but not in the violence that followed. Death begets death.

…and yet in some ways I understand it…

These two things don’t mix easily.

What’s funny, of course, is that most of us are on “vacation” from this sort of death.  From pretending depression isn’t an illness but just a phase.  From pretending that racial inequality isn’t real because, well, if it is real then we might have to change the way we behave…

And, let’s be honest: we don’t really want to do that. (We have a black president, for Christ’s sake!  Doesn’t that mean racial inequality is a thing of the past?!)

Most of this country is on vacation most of the time.

And that vacation mindset can find a shock of reality in the church community, if we’ll allow it.

Most, though…I think most go to church to have their views reinforced, not challenged.

The pastor has become the conscience massager instead of the conscientious objector to the vacation tendencies that power and privilege provide.

People leave churches because their pastor mentions these things.  All congregations.  My congregation, too.  And in a time of church-attendance limbo we may feel like we can’t say anything because, well, what if people take a vacation from the congregation because of what is said?

So we massage it.

But there is another reality that can’t be massaged into something different, that can’t be escaped: a black man lay dead in the street.  A comedian became the victim of joylessness.

And we have to admit that God has something to say about that, something to say about a culture that considers you “OK” as long as you’re laughing; a culture that considers you “OK” as long as your skin color doesn’t automatically make you suspect.

Blood has only one color, though.

And for as much as we lift the blood of Christ up at the Communion table and say “for you,” you’d think we’d see the connection there.

So what to do?  Raise our voice in indignation?  Console one another? Tell the truth about depression?  Speak to racial inequality and violence and unchecked power?

Yes.  Of course, yes.

But also: let’s stop being on vacation.

Stop pretending these things aren’t reality.

The church can be a place where we help people live with the tensions of life, not trying to alleviate them, but helping us all live well with them.

Jesus helps us live here and now, in reality.  Jesus doesn’t let us take a vacation from reality.  “If you see me, you see God,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John.  If you see Jesus you see ultimate reality.

Do you see Jesus in the person battling depression?  In the black man dead in the street?

Or are we just all on vacation?

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 five of us sat down.  If you looked around the table you’d see the width and breadth of what a college education spits out: a teacher, an artist, a doctor, a financial advisor, and a pastor.  The lawyer couldn’t make it this year, though he often rounds out the crew.

College friends.  College roommates.  Most of us fraternity brothers (the doctor and the lawyer opted out of the fraternity experience in deference for books…a questionable choice).  We all raised a pint and celebrated our yearly vacation together, something we ceremoniously call “Mancation.”

We’d been in Denver for a few hours, had already visited a brewery, and were on our second hop.

I noticed him standing just behind the guard rail of the sidewalk patio.  Black shirt. Deep blue jeans. Black rimmed glasses. Beer in hand, cigarette emerging from his pocket.  He was listening in as we chatted.  I knew he was going to chime in.

“Nice glasses,” he said to me.  I was wearing my Aviators.  They are nice glasses.  Prescription sunglasses, which means I wear them inside, after dark, because I always forget to bring my other ones.  The Financial Advisor in our group (I usually refer to him as a “banker,” which he hates) never fails to shame me when I wear them inside.

But they are nice glasses.  The guy obviously has taste, so I affirmed the truth of his statement, which gave him a conversation “in.”

Turns out he was a visitor to Denver, too.  Staying in town for just a few more days.  We chatted about the area, the dream that is Denver living, local brews. We found out his name was Wit, short for Dewitt.  He’s from North Carolina.  As a fellow Carolinian, I naturally respected him implicitly.

“What brings you here?” I ask. He takes a long drag off of his cigarette. “Treatment,” he says.

And I realized at that point that, every once in a while Wit would scratch himself just below his belt line. Every time he did that you’d catch a glimpse of his stomach, and these nice little cut marks all along his pelvis. And when he said “treatment,” I looked over at his left arm. Nice little cut marks all the way up it.

He looked at me and said, “Tell me Tim, do you think I’m too skinny?”

I sat for a moment. What to say? It all became clear: the bony elbows, the ribs showing through his baggy shirt if he shifted just right, his collarbone showing clearly through pale skin.

“Do you think you are?” I asked. He smiled, his pierced lip breaking a little at the edge.

The Doctor gave me a knowing look.  He’s seen this about as much as I have.  His diagnosis is technically the same as mine, but I use a different word for it.

Wit’s plagued by a demon.

Maybe a demon of his past; maybe it’s more recent.  Whatever it is, it torments him.  It tells him lies.  It tells him things like, “Every bone should show…I can’t see that collar bone enough.”

It tells him things like, “If you cut just a little bit, the pain will go away.  You’ll see the red, you’ll feel the release.  It’s something you can do.”

He never answered my question.  He’s sitting down now, scratching the cuts on his pelvis every once in a while.  Bright red.  Not old cuts.

No one really knows what to say.  It’s kind of like when someone who has attempted suicide shows you their wrists.  You lose your words, and rightfully so.  There’s no words for those types of demons.  They eat all our words.  They digest them and spit them back out to us as shallow platitudes, no matter how much sincerity is behind them.

But I know that Wit already feels different.  He wants to be in the conversation, not out of it, even though he’s exposed himself.  It’s the reason why it took him five beers to get up the courage to join us.

“Treatment, huh?” I say, “Decided it wasn’t for you?”

“Let’s just say we had disagreements regarding method,” he said in-between a drag.  Cool. Smooth.  He’s used that line before.

“Well, if you’re wondering about skinny, that beer’s empty calories are giving you some answers.”  He laughed.  I figured he could laugh at that.  It wasn’t sensitive to him in that kind of way.  “I’ll allow these calories,” he said.

“Yeah, I know those other calories they try to give you.  Ensure and Carnation and all those chalky drinks.”

“Can’t stand the stuff.  Doesn’t taste good, anyway,” he smiled again.  Another crack. His lips were chapped in the middle of summer, the beer and the lack of calories sucking out the water from his skin.

We chatted a little while longer and after a bit my friends and I decided to head to a different brewery. We all bid Wit farewell, and I got up last to leave. And I looked at him before going, and somehow the pastor in me, the Christian in me, the human in me couldn’t just leave. And I put my hand on his shoulder and I said, “I don’t want you to give up on treatment, OK?”

He took out a cigarette, put it in his mouth, lit it and said, “Tim, do you think I’m too skinny?”

I said, “Wit, I don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t want you to worry about that question anymore. Don’t give up on treatment.”

And this guy, who was probably in his early twenties, who I’d never met before, grabbed my hand and pulled me down into one of the tightest hugs I’ve ever had in my life. His cigarette fell to ground, and he just squeezed me. And he started crying.

Jesus says in Matthew, “My yoke is easy. My burden is light.”

Wit was yoked badly. It was sucking his life away. He thinks he needs a lighter body, but he needs a lighter yoke. He needs a yoke that doesn’t cut into him, like those red lines on his arms reveal the one he carries does.

He’s trying to force a balance on his life, a balance of weight loss to counter-balance his pain, but he’s breaking himself in the process. He’s being devoured by this demon.

I’m not sure religion is the answer for Wit, but I’m pretty sure love is.  Love of self.  Love for self.  The love of Divine love that loves you even when you’re ill and possessed by the demons of this world…and somehow that helps you become well.

Usually I tell people that possession doesn’t really fit into my worldview.  And yet, I’m not sure how else to describe what Wit is going through.  He’s possessed not by some other-worldy entity, some literal demon, but by this worldly entity that continues to spit out lies to him.  A different tap spits out a different lie each time he draws from it.  His cup runs over in a bad way.

I was on vacation, and all I could think is, “Holy shit.  This guy needs a pastor and a doctor.”

And there we were…but we were helpless in that moment.  Or at least it felt that way.

I still keep Wit in my prayers, though we last met about a month ago.  I wonder if he’s back in treatment; I pray he is.

I wonder if he’s sitting somewhere today asking someone, “Tell me, do you think I’m too skinny?”

I wonder what they say.

I wonder if anything that can be said is enough to battle these demons.  I’ve seen both sides win in this.

For some reason I wanted to write this out today.  Maybe it’s because I’m going on a longer vacation tomorrow.  Maybe it’s because it’s a summer day in August and it’d be a good day for a beer.  Perhaps I’m still processing the encounter with this demon.

Perhaps someone needs to hear this today.

Perhaps.

 

My faith community doesn’t do a special children’s sermon every Sunday.  Bored Boy

In fact, we don’t do them most Sundays.

Now we only do them on festival Sundays, or special occasions. Sure, some of our children leave the sanctuary during the sermon on Sunday mornings to go with our Deaconess and hear a message or do an activity specifically geared toward them, but that’s not a children’s sermon.

No more coming to the front every Sunday.  No more sitting quietly and looking at an object lesson. No more watering down the story about Rahab, glossing over that she’s a prostitute (because it’s kids, you know) and trying to make some sort of moralism out of it.

No more of that.

And there’s a reason.  It’s important to be honest here.  There’s a reason for why we’re not doing that every week anymore.

The biggest reason is that a children’s sermon has, by and large, turned into a “viewer” event at most churches.  That is, the kids are called up front to be viewed by the parents while the pastor engages them like an episode of “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”

And that’s really annoying to me.

It’s annoying because then the message can be as cheap as it wants to be…because the message isn’t the point anymore.  Just the act.  It’s annoying because then kids get the unspoken social cue that they’re supposed to be cute and “ask the darndest things.”

We should teach our children to ask questions.  We don’t need to teach them to be cheeky.

We also then have this “dual sermon” thing going on during worship, where the children’s sermon will have this simple, distilled point, and the other sermon (“adult” sermon?) may have a more complex point.  But which one do you think most adults will remember?  Perhaps Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed is multifaceted and complex and requires a great deal of pondering, but if you also hear that it simply means some trite moralism that uses a potted plant as an object lesson, which one will you cling to?

Jesus often posits that “infants” and “children” are the true holders of God’s wisdom.  Fr. Richard Rohr expounds upon this in Everything Belongs (a book that also belongs on every bookshelf) by calling it “beginner’s mind.”  That is, it may not be children per se that hold the kingdom of God, but those who are open to learning and unlearning…as children are…who do so.  When seen in this sense, the “children’s sermon” does more harm than good, especially if it aims to explain really complex texts as moral tales.

In this light, the sermon is for everyone, adults and children.  Maybe especially children, as they are the most open to confronting and questioning assumptions.

And I know some parents miss the children’s sermon every week because it is nice to see all the kids in the church together and cute to watch them and…yeah, I get it. To a point.

And I’m sure some kids miss it, too.  They like sitting with the pastor and sitting next to their friend that sits five rows over.  And some really like a special message for them in that unique situation.  Some children are obviously ready to listen to a sermon, but some need a different environment to stay focused.  I don’t deny that.   In that case I suggest a separate space for the sermon portion where children can engage in a similar message another way.

But I really can’t justify the children’s sermon anymore as a regular practice.  I know some love it, but I have some serious problems with it.  And I’ve tried it every way, in every style, in every form.

And I just can’t get around the fact that they don’t do for what I think we, as a faith community, want them to do.

It allows more to be lost than to be gained, I think.  It doesn’t encourage questions more than it suggests pat answers.

And, really, anything that gets away from worship being “entertainship” is good by me.

Look, I love children.  I’m good with children.  And we have a ton of children in my faith community.  The 0-7 age skews our average age like crazy.  And for these reasons, I think it is important that children are involved in the liturgical work on a Sunday morning, but not as spectator or spectacle.  Rather as worshiper of a God and as a fellow traveler on the road of faith.  No need to carry them; they can walk on their own.

I’ve never seen a 6 year old happier than when I’ve handed her the communion cup to help serve.  Exponentially larger than any children’s sermon smile.

After all, the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these…