Monday, December 5, 2011

Was Mary the First?

Was Mary the first?
     Was she the first woman to whom Gabriel appeared?
          The first to be called to serve as the theotokos - the God-birther?
               The first to ponder the meaning of this kind of surrender;
                    this kind of sacrifice?

Was Mary the first?

I think not.
     There may have been one whose sophistication exceeded
          those who may claim ability with angels.
     There may have been another too proud to yield
          to a telos demanding such time and selflessness;
               too goal-oriented to consider this inconvenient detour.
     There may have been another too busy, too important
          to surrender reputation to such inexplicable circumstances.

Was Mary the first?
     Perhaps, not the first to be invited.
          But,...the first to say,
               "Let it be to me, according to thy will."

Yet one more question, dear friends,
     begs for an answer.
Yet one more question
     haunts our very soul:

Was Mary the last?

Was she the last to whom an angel spoke
     of God's invitation to live out an inexplicable mystery?
Was she the last called to set aside a time of life
     for the purpose of growing and nurturing...
          love within,
               grace within,
                    peace within,
                         hope within?
Was her call to abandon goals, dreams and reputation
     to an unknown, yet God-filled telos the last ever offered?
Was she the last to ever utter,
     "Let it be to me, according to thy will,"
          while not knowing fully where it led
               or what it ultimately would demand?

Was Mary the last?

I pray not...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

...In My Heart...

This video has crossed my computer desktop more than once recently and I’m just enough of a mystic to think that God may be trying to get my attention.  It’s part of a presentation Francis Chan gave at the RightNow Pastors Conference.  Here it is…

I love the last analogy about telling your child to clean their room.  How true!  We take Jesus’ words.  We parse them in Greek, then in English, in an effort to “mine the richness” as one professor used to tell us.  But in doing so, don’t we also often find ways to ‘spiritualize’ the teaching rather than ‘physicalize’ (new word there, I think) it?  We ponder, we meditate, we question, we delve, and when we’re sure we’ve cogitated the life out of it, we move on to more of Jesus’ words and begin again. 

We often sing, “Lord, I want to be a Christian….in my heart.”  However, the unsung expectation held by many seems to be something like this: “Lord, I want to keep my Christianity…in my heart.”  Instead of the seat of motivation, the heart has become a sealed receptacle of all things Christian for many of us.  I include myself, a clergyperson, because who else can better spiritualize the Gospel than one trained in parsing Greek/Hebrew, de-contextualizing, de-mythologizing, etc.?

Moving it from heart to mouth, or hands, or feet is risky business.  Proof?  It is so risky, so fear-instilling, to let this Jesus move from my heart to my mouth that, according to Doug Anderson, executive director of the Bishop Rueben Job Center for Leadership Development, the average United Methodist member invites only one person to worship every 38 years (  To be fair, I’ve seen others say the figure is once every 15-17 years.  Even so, we either are too afraid we’ll appear  pushy or we don’t really believe what we say we believe about the possibility of a transformed life, transformed community or transformed world.  In other words, what really is at stake when we fail to let Jesus out of our heart to become actual words and actions? 

Though there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the seeming disinterest that the majority of the population under the age of 40 has in organized religion, it’s definitely not a disinterest in things related to faith or spirituality.  Far from it.  I’ve encountered many in that age category who are desperately seeking a way to incorporate a spirituality into their daily lives.  However, the post-modern mindset in this seeking process is most often this: Please show me a spirituality that is greater than something to merely think about.  The “middle road,” “I’m just going to think about a world where everyone cleans their room,” forms of spirituality and approaches to being the Body of Christ carry little persuasive power anymore.

Solutions?  The solutions are easier to describe than managing the response they generate in the average mainline church.  We know the litany of solutions: take seriously our membership vows, provide opportunities for real hands-on service, equip all to be able to tell their faith story, reorganize local church structures and infuse new leadership…  This list is barely a beginning, and more complete listings can be found at most church vitality websites.  The secret is learning to respond to and sometimes ignore those for whom this is a stretch and these expectations were not something they “signed up for.”  I know when I feel stretched – and when I’m confronted with something I don’t remember signing up for – it is at those moments when I learn what is actually…in my heart…

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Crunky Questions - Redux

I want to thank you for your crunky prayers which were requested in my October 4 blog in which I shared my concerns for leading some studies that would certainly generate crunky questions (you can find that blog and the definition of ‘crunky’ here).  

Briefly, I was concerned about the questions that might arise in the three small groups I led during our October small group immersion experience.  The studies were Christian Atheist (Craig Groeschel), The Reason for God (Timothy Keller), and Revelation – Unraveling God’s Message of Hope (Ben Witherington).  Some of the topics covered in one or more of these studies included: theodicy (the problem of evil), our relationship with money, heaven, hell, Christianity’s relationship with other world religions, hypocrisy, and the parousia (second advent of Christ), to name a few.  To anyone who’s ever led a small group or Sunday School class, lay or clergy, this list sounds like a minefield of questions capable of blowing up with little warning.

Turns out, it wasn’t a minefield at all…just a mine.  From this mine I have been gathering valuable ore in the form of observations concerning believers today.  Here are a few…

·         Folks new to the Christian faith as well as those who have sat in our pews for decades are yearning for a place where it is safe to ask questions.  Out of some of these conversations came the painful realization that questions have remained unasked for years because it was either directly or indirectly communicated that such questions revealed a lack of faith…or, salvation.
·         Many people are yearning for an informed, holistic study of scripture that is done in community.  Some have experienced real pain and borderline abuse generated by those whose individual, subjective view of scripture is wielded like a club.  
·         People resent having their thinking done for them by any one person or institution.  Folks want to be informed, equipped and then trusted to discern their faithful responses to the questions of the day.  It’s like those math textbooks we had in high school where the answers to the odd numbered problems were found in the back.  The reason all the answers weren’t given was to ensure the student was equipped and informed as to discern the answer on their own.  Too many experience church as a place where the moral/ethical/theological answers are all predetermined and the average person cannot be trusted to work out the problem on their own.
·         There are many people in our churches who highly desire and value opportunities to actually enact their Christian faith on a daily basis.  Living in a day where schedules are already over-booked, belonging to a church for purely social reasons is senseless especially those who are under 45 and newer to the faith.  In other words, the phrase ‘nominal Christian’ is an oxymoron to such folks.

  • Seekers and those new to the faith are first frustrated and then discouraged by long-time Christians and church members who openly confess an ignorance of the basics of the Christian faith, Scripture, and liturgical traditions as if they were 'extra-curricular' to the membership experience. 

For most of you, there may be nothing new in this brief listing.  I, like many clergy, have read about these dynamics as the harbingers of the post-modern age.  But, to see them actually lived out in a context free enough to allow such post-modern questions, behaviors and expectations has been powerful to me. 

And, my mom may have been wrong.  It’s not always impolite to answer a question with a question.  To answer some questions too soon kills the inquisitive nature of our minds that leads us to deeper faith.  To keep the question alive with another question  is to venture deeper into the mine where the really precious ideas and insights can be found.

Peace, Jon

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Midwives & General Conference

O God, they begged you for help when they were in trouble,
   when your discipline was so heavy
   they could barely whisper a prayer.
Like a woman having a baby,
   writhing in distress, screaming her pain
   as the baby is being born,
That's how we were because of you, O God.
   We were pregnant full-term.
We writhed in labor but bore no baby.
   We gave birth to wind.
Nothing came of our labor.
   We produced nothing living.
   We couldn't save the world.
                    - Isaiah 26:16-18  The Message

It's probably just me...or maybe it's just here in Anchorage...but it seems as if we're in the midst of some kind of baby boom.  One of the churches I serve is blessed with several newborns with some still on the way.  It seems as if everywhere I go, I see pregnant women!  What's going on?

It might be a real boom - or, more precisely, a Boomer echo, since most of these pregnant women would be children of the Baby Boom generation.  Or, it might be that I am experiencing that psychological phenomena of a heightened optical awareness of certain things around me because they align with what I'm experiencing personally.  My wife and I once purchased a certain red auto because we were sure it was the only one like it for miles around.  We saw at least a dozen of them in the following week.  More to the point, perhaps the reason I seem to notice more pregnant women is because our older daughter is now carrying our first grandchild.  You see, all of that was just an excuse to tell you I'm going to be a grampa for the the first time.

However, there is a reason for the Isaiah 26 quote at the beginning of this blog.  Whether there really is a baby boom or my awareness is just a projection of my life on the world around me, I have been reflecting a lot on the birthing process in recent days.  Wait...I already know that any man foolish enough to opine too much about the birthing process deserves whatever grief he gets from spouses, mothers, sisters, daughters, female colleagues and co-workers, and pretty much any woman who has given birth or soon will.  I fully embrace the ancient notion that the reason God decided men could not give birth is because our pain threshold is entirely too low to endure it.  I have nothing but awe and respect for all women who have given birth and immeasurably more so for those who choose to do it a second time or more.

My reflection has more to do with my election to the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.  General Conference is a quadrennial meeting gathering laity and clergy from around the world to discern, discuss and enact the rules and structures that will shape the future of the church.  For most of the last 40 years, General Conference sessions have made news through their discerning and fussing over many of the socio-political hot topics of the day: abortion, homosexuality, capital punishment, war, economic justice, et al.

In contrast, the 2008 General Conference spent much time and energy around issues of structure and, by its action, ensured the conversation would continue in 2012.  That's not to say the topics that made headlines in previous years were totally ignored.  They weren't.  But, as an interested observer, it seemed to me that they were overshadowed by the institutional concerns for a sustainable structure for the future.

In one of the many pre-General Conference online articles/blogs I've read, one metaphor has caught my attention.  Of course, I'm never prescient enough to record who wrote what...but here's a rough estimate: We're living in a time when our denomination is experiencing the labor pains of birthing the church of the future, which will be much different than the church of the past.

If true, and I believe it is, one question emerges: What role will the 2012 General Conference play in the birthing process?  One choice is for the Conference to see itself as a collective midwife - coaching, coaxing, encouraging and comforting during this time of emerging new life.  Or, another choice is to continue the role most bureaucracies play when confronted with significant change and/or downsizing; that is as the stereotypical expectant father of the 50's and 60's - not in the birthing room but pacing nervously in the waiting room, nearly panicked by the immensity of the meaning and impact of new life.  Even more, all the energy spent by this father is so removed from the actual birthing process that it affects neither the pains of birth or the new life waiting to emerge.  This nervous pacing only reveals a combination of helplessness and fear concerning the ramifications of all changes new life brings to any family or institution.

So, to borrow Isaiah's metaphor, we will either engage the process by coaching, coaxing and encouraging or, by continued rhetorical pacing, we will give birth to the wind of our own words alone.  My continuing prayer for myself and all General Conference delegates: Give us the courage to be midwives.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Of Destinations and Foolish Consistencies

Life is a journey, not a destination.
-          Ralph Waldo Emerson

The only teachings of Emerson that I remember from my American Literature studies years ago are the one quoted above and this gem from “Self Reliance.”
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,
adored by little statesmen, and philosophers and divines.

Earlier this year, I was laying out a sermon series for this fall.  The goal of the series was to encourage and equip folks to more deeply experience the means of grace by challenging folks to move beyond their regular routines in prayer, service, and study of scripture.

One evening, I was struggling to find a metaphor for the sermon series while walking my dog on Powerline Trail in Anchorage.  My usual turn-around point, Volunteer Bridge, was approaching.  Volunteer Bridge is about 2 ½ miles from the parking lot, making a 5-mile roundtrip hike; just right for my schedule.  As I neared the bridge I noticed a sign Scout (my hiking companion Lab/Great Pyrenees) I walked by a sign I’d walked by dozens of times before.  It read: Hidden Lake – 2 miles.

Hidden Lake…folks had been telling me for several years about this lake located in a cirque just 2 miles beyond my usual turn-around point.  Hmm…why hadn’t I gone up and discovered this little lake that can only be viewed when you’re nearly upon it?  I’d talked to plenty of folks who’d made the hike.  They had seen it…experienced it.  But, it meant more time…more energy…some planning.  There is a big difference between a 5-mile hike on a gentle slope verses a 9-mile hike, 4 miles of which are climbing/descending a steep mountain trail.  For me to actually experience what others had, I had to make some changes: allot more time and maybe, no definitely, get in better shape were the first to pop into mind.  But…seeing Hidden Lake became a sort of obsession.

And…a metaphor was born.  We hike these spiritual trails of prayer, worship, service, stewardship, scripture and others.  But, over time, we develop safe turn-around points.  To travel beyond these points means change…re-allotment of time and levels of commitment.

By the end of the summer I was ready to take the hike to Hidden Lake.  After waiting a week for a break in our August rains, I was blessed with a sunny morning to take the hike. 

I wish I could tell you that my first sight of Hidden Lake was life altering, inspiring and held meaning beyond words.  I wish I could tell you that.  I can’t.  After 4 ½ miles of hiking – 2 of which were quite steep and muddy – I arrived at the cloudy, rainy cirque containing Hidden Lake.  Alaska has some views which both take your breath away and leave you wordless.  This, in my opinion, was not one of them.  I was breathless only because of the climb and the words I came up with weren’t necessarily the ones you hear when someone views Denali for the first time.

So, I expressed my disappointment to Scout, took a few pictures and headed down the mountain.  Thinking that I’d not only wasted my time preparing for the hike, but I’d also blown my primary metaphor for the sermon series to pieces with only 3 weeks to spare, I was let down.  When I got home and started sharing the story with my wife I realized she was more interested in the journey than the destination.  I told her about the time we encountered a flooded bog where the trail disappeared and how Scout found the most efficient alternate route.  And, when he refused to cross a creek at a point I considered logical and ran a few hundred yards showing me a place where I could both stay dry and cross it.  In other words, I was so fixated on the destination, the real blessing of the journey had escaped me.

I’ve known people who have read the Bible focused on the destination: Revelation 22:21 – the last verse.  Those folks rarely, if ever, do it again.  I’ve known folks who have read the Bible focused on the journey – those with whom they read – how these stories parallel stories in our own lives – and, how these words seem to ‘come to life’ from time to time.  These spiritual hikers keep climbing. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that “bottom-line-the-meaning-is-in-the-destination” thinking is a foolish consistency.  It is a hobgoblin making trouble in our hearts and our churches by robbing us of the joy of lives woven together on spiritual paths of service, prayer and witness.  However, bottom line figures and destination-thinking make for easy statistical reporting.  Journeys and their meanings, on the other hand, are not easily quantifiable.  I fear that in the part of the Body of Christ I call home, the United Methodist Church, we may be sacrificing journey for destination for that very reason: it is quantifiable.  We seem obsessed with numbers while journey-stories and journey-questions arising from those with whom we hike are lost in the process.  A foolish consistency, indeed. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Crunky Questions

October is a month for a “small group immersion” for the two churches I serve.  It is the second time this year we’ve had this kind of experience.  As many who read this already know too well, it is difficult to get folks to commit to the 30+ week studies that were more common in years past.  Today, it seems the magic number is 6 as the majority of small group studies and resources are published in 6-lesson units.  What this says about our society and collective attention span is for another day…

My caffeinated God-talk that I generally have with folks in small groups is going to need a few extra shots of espresso this month because I somehow managed to find myself facilitating 3 small groups over the next 5 weeks.  More challenging is the divergent  nature of the three studies: Christian Atheist by Craig Groeschel; The Reason for God by Timothy Keller; and, Revelation – Unraveling God’s Message of Hope by Ben Witherington.

I began my prep work on the studies in August…more than once asking how in the world I got myself into this.  The answer was simple: I love getting to know folks in small group settings and it is especially rewarding to see people’s lives changed – sometimes drastically – by the experience.

Over the past several weeks as I’ve read and re-read the materials, I realized the largest part of my prep work was preparing myself for the crunky questions that studies about nominal Christianity, doubts and objections to Christianity and the Book of the Revelation will always generate.  You know them…we’ve all asked them (though, maybe not out loud):
·         What does it mean to have a relationship with God or Jesus?  I’ve always thought knowing about them was enough.
·         If God is so good, why does God allow such bad things to happen?  Especially to the faithful?
·         Isn’t the Bible mostly myth?  Why should I pay attention to a piece of literature written by people who believed the heavens were a dome of fabric stretched  from horizon to horizon, holding back waters on the other side? [Genesis 1:6-7]
·         What does it mean when we say, “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”? 

There are many more crunky questions, but these give you an idea.  In the event you may not have ‘crunky’ in your lexicon, I like one of the definitions in the online Urban Dictionary.   According to that source, ‘crunky’ is a combination of grungy, clunky, and funky.

These questions are grungy in that there are rarely any nice, neat answers.  The answers tend to have sharp edges and rough surfaces.  They are clunky because they are also often oversized, awkward to explain, and difficult to transport from one person to another.  Finally, they are funky because they can do funky things to relationships, teachings received much earlier in life, and  all unquestioned assumptions regarding faith, life, death, scripture, etc.  Crunky.

In nearly 30 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve observed many mainline Christians (including pastors), given the choice, will avoid crunky questions at all costs.  Usually this is because their previous experience with such questions included inadequate and/or dysfunctional conversations and answers.  Sadly, when we avoid these crunky questions, we don’t allow ourselves to wander into the spiritual territory that is most likely to grow our faith and transform our lives assuring ourselves that faith need not grow and our lives need not change.

Here’s the problem…or, at least, my problem…I sometimes forget crunky questions have crunky answers.  I occasionally fall into the trap of thinking my job is to come up with a concise, comforting, non-abrasive, salve-like answer.  Experience has shown me, time and time again, that those kinds of answers only further crunk-ify the original question and, perhaps, my relationship with the questioner.   And so, as I prepped for these studies, I developed a new mantra: Embrace the crunk…lean into the crunk…become the crunk!  Never run away from the crunky…you only rob yourself and others of opportunities to grow and change into the likeness of Christ.

Your crunky prayers for me in the coming weeks, as always, are appreciated.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Res Ipsa Loquitur

Years ago I was in a group of clergy who met weekly to share our experiences, our woes, our joys, and, in general, how it was with our soul.  One of our members was a second career pastor whose first career was as a lawyer.  I’ve never forgotten his assessment of the causes of dis-ease and decline found in many local congregations.  “Res ipsa loquitur,” he said.  Waiting for us to admit we had no idea what he was saying, he finally explained, “The thing speaks for itself…many local churches are, themselves, the reason for their decline.”

I went home and did some research on the legal principle of res ipsa loquitur and found most of the explanations used a situation similar to this: 
Imagine you’ve  recently had abdominal surgery.  A few days after the surgery, you develop a pain in the site of the surgery.  This is followed by signs of infection.  You go to the doctor and an X-ray reveals a piece of metal in your abdomen which is exactly the size and shape of a surgical scalpel.  More than likely, your malpractice suit will be based upon the legal premise of  “res ipsa loquitur.”  The presence of a metal, scalpel shaped object in your abdomen speaks for itself and to how it got there.
I have played with this analogy off and on for several years.  The condition of the church speaks for itself.  The cause of whatever “infection” that is afflicting and weakening many of our bodies, is within us.  Like many clergy, I’ve done my share of blaming realities outside of the church building.   I’ve belly-ached about sports leagues on Sunday morning, the explosion of child and youth activities, and the overall dismissive tone the “world” and the “media” use in describing organized religion in general and the Christian faith specifically.  But, though true, are these factors really the cause of our dis-ease and decline?

To go back to the analogy of a medical lawsuit, many of us (I include myself) not only suffer from some spiritual infection that tends to weaken us and make us susceptible to a plethora of other spiritual conditions which only hasten this weakening, but also we are the ones who performed the surgery!  Our own lack of spiritual purpose and increasing unwillingness to address the reality of our dis-ease are, themselves, the cause.  Res ipsa loquitur.

My wife is also an ordained clergy in the United Methodist Church and experiences this dis-ease as well.  She is also quick to add that she hates blogs, articles, sermons and speeches like this one because all it does is describe the dis-ease, it doesn’t offer any solution.

In an effort to keep things relatively quiet on the homefront, I do have some modest suggestions which, I believe, may heal our self-inflicted infections.

1.      We need to rediscover the wonder of bending over and seeing an empty tomb.  If the contemporary church was a journalist, it would be fired for “burying the lead.”  We find it easier to tell stories about ourselves, our structures, our activities, our programs, our positions and our traditions than it is to talk about the story which gives purpose to all we do.  The stories we tell shape us.  If our story is mostly about us, then we shouldn’t be surprised that most folks outside our churches think we only care about ourselves.  Can we tell a story in which we aren’t the main character but Christ is?
2.      We need to quit worshiping the scalpel which we have planted in ourselves.  Many church consultants will tell you that even when told a certain congregational tradition or behavior is off-putting to some members and most visitors, they will continue to do them because they are “sacred traditions.”  Though the scalpel was necessary at one point to do the surgery, there is a point where it is no longer needed and its presence causes more harm than good.  Can you say, “Let’s have all the visitors stand up and tell us about yourself while we slam this glow-in-the-dark ribbon on your chest identifying you as a VISITOR!”  I admit, that was an easy one.  But there are others: “We’re a hugging church!” (usually said after an unwelcomed hug), or keeping the front doors locked because everyone knows we use the side door on Sundays, or making visitors and newer members wait for a bulletin or assistance because we’re a friendly church whose ushers and long-time members speak in closed huddles until the service begins.  Are we able to name and address the causes of our dis-ease?
3.      We need to move away from all forms of rhetoric, leadership or structure which equate being a disciple with being a customer.  Clergy and denominational leaders have become so fearful of losing more “customers,” that many churches operate out of a customer satisfaction mode and mindset.  Can you do that and still faithfully proclaim the message of One who calls us to “take up our cross and follow?”  Our call to discipleship is a call to serve, not be served.  Ironically, obsession with customer satisfaction has led us to lower expectations and demands and instilled a certain level of distrust of an entity whose founder expected servanthood and self-denial but whose current management seeks success and self-fulfillment.  Such a mindset has, according to Stanley Hauerwas, reduced the office of clergy to a “quivering mass of availability” (sorry, I do not have a direct source on this, but have heard Bishop Willimon quote him on several occasions).

If you have other suggestions that address this dis-ease, I’d love to hear from you.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ruts, Graves and Routines

“The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.”
Ellen Glasgow

How many of us actually enjoy detours?  I know there are some; there always are.  Just as some actually enjoy Brussels Sprouts, there are some who enjoy detours.  With regard to both, I am not one. 

I can understand the necessity of detours.  Put up with them for a few weeks and you’re rewarded with newer, wider and, hopefully, safer roads.  I appreciate why we have them (the same is not true of Brussels Sprouts, however).

It’s just that I’m a creature of habit.  I like routines.  Though some of my parishioners over the years, once they learned my Sunday pre-worship routine, have compared it to the pre-game superstitions of baseball players, I find these routines center my spirit and give life.

Imagine my discomfort when I find myself preaching a sermon series in which my colleague Pastor Jenny Smith and I are challenging people to blast themselves out of their spiritual ruts and discover the blessings of the roads not taken.  I even used Ellen Glasgow’s famous quote (seen above) describing the difference between a rut and a grave.

So, I’ve been wondering what is the difference between a rut and a routine?  From the outside, they can appear frighteningly similar.  For me (as I sit here trying to justify my current routines), I experience routines as patterns that open me up to life, to God and to those with whom I’m in community.  Ruts, on the other hand, are patterns whose mindless and unexamined repetitions keep me from experiencing life, God and community.

Pastor Jenny Smith shared with our congregations an excellent example of the difference between a rut and a routine this week.  She confessed to being addicted to checking her email dozens of times each day and how it was robbing her of time with family (rut).  Over a period of 21 days she developed a new pattern in which she was in control rather than the behavior controlling her; in other words, she developed a routine.

In doing so, she also taught us about a relatively new online tool which provides the two most important ingredients for changing behavior: a community of folks seeking to make changes in their lives and accountability.  You can lean all about this at where, over a period of 21 days, you can be encouraged to make significant changes of your own design.

Whenever I’m challenged to make some serious changes in my life – whether it’s concerning my health, my relationships, or my spirituality – it feels like I’m being forced to take a detour.  It’s inconvenient.  It’s taking me somewhere I don’t usually go.  It feels like I’m taking the long way around (ruts can be very efficient in the ways they rob us of life).

One day, however, I wake up and this new pattern no longer feels like a detour.  Instead, I experience  it as a new way being and I wonder what in the world made me think the previous pattern was life-giving.

I think this is one of those posts where I’d like to challenge you to write your own ending.  Do you have ruts and routines?  Can you tell the difference?  How would life for you be richer if God were to blast you  out of a life-robbing, relationship-killing, spirit-breaking rut of your own making and replaced it with life-giving patterns of servanthood?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Lies My Preacher Told Me…but with good intentions

[Warning: A fascinating summer read has drawn me back into the confessional...bear with me.]

My summer reading began with  Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook God Wrong by James Loewen.  The basic purpose of the book is to describe the reason why the average American knows so little about our own history.  He argues it is because, in an effort to idealize the Republic and its key historic figures, we have edited out information which clouds the preferred ideal narrative of American history.  In doing so, we have defined competence in the subject of American History to three areas.  First, we must learn and respect a series of dates (October 12, 1492; 1620; July 4, 1776; 1860-65; December 7, 1941; September 11, 2001).  Second, it is deemed imperative to learn the oversimplified biographies of several key historic figures (most can describe Helen Keller’s childhood stories, but few know she was a radical Communist her entire adult life; and, many can describe President Woodrow Wilson as the progressive thinker behind the League of Nations, but few know he was a white supremacist).  Finally, the student must appreciate the way events and figures in world history have been used by the larger sense of America’s destiny; even if this “history” is outright fabrication (for example, pretty much everything you think you know about Christopher Columbus).

Loewen argues that the visible agenda of teaching history in such a manner is to ensure that all high school  graduates  have an ability to name certain key figures, maybe recite a few tales about them and to describe their place and role in the creation of the American Dream.  The hidden agenda is to ensure the preservation of a narrative written by and to the glorification of those who have benefitted the most from history.

He begins by saying that History is one of the few academic subjects which, at certain key junctures, the student is pretty much told that everything they’ve learned up to that point is idealized and simplified tripe.  College freshman taking American History 101 are shocked when a professor portrays Lincoln, the martyred, log-cabin-raised/country lawyer become savior of the Republic, as an emotionally haunted person who dug up his dead son’s body more than once and was married to a woman who may have been insane much of her adult life.  Franklin, the inventor-statesman, is recast as a lewd, womanizing manipulator.  Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, is also a slave owner who fathered children with a slave.  At what point did we decide that learning the less-than-ideal, though true, side of historical events and personas was not essential to learning our history?  Those who have never read  or learned about such primary source documentation of the other side of history experience such information as an effort to undermine truth, justice and the American way.  So, purposely ignorant of the whole of our history, we are doomed to repeat it.

The process Loewen describes is also a fair description of how the Christian faith transmits – or, rather, fails to transmit - its message.  We begin with idealized Sunday School descriptions of key figures: Abraham, Jacob, David, the prophets, the disciples, and, even, Jesus.  But most American Christians’ historical and theological education end at about 8th grade where Scripture is largely still taught to what Piaget called the concrete operational mind, thereby reducing all Scripture to the preferred narrative of a morality play; that is, good things happen to good people.  However, these characters and their stories begin to take on entirely new meanings when engaged with critical thinking methods learned in late adolescence and adulthood.  Sadly, the majority of folks never get – or take advantage of – an opportunity to do so.

I have led a couple dozen Disciple Bible Study groups over the past 16 years.  This intense and lengthy study pulls few punches and challenges lay persons and clergy to delve beneath the superficially idealized understandings of Scripture they’ve harbored since childhood.  Watching an adult begin to struggle with the moral realities of David and Bathsheba – a story not typically taught in elementary or even junior high Sunday School – is rewarding, but somewhat scary as well.  For most life-long United Methodists, the wheels nearly always come off the wagon when reading Paul as an adult.  Most remember the Sunday School stories about a brave Paul preaching and being persecuted; writing from prison cells and being happy about it.  But, to allow oneself to read Romans and Ephesians 2 and be confronted by the full implication of the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone is to realize Scripture is not merely a morality play, salvation is not about achieving a passing grade in the deportment category of one’s spiritual report card, and discipleship is neither a spare-time volunteer activity nor does it have anything to do with seniority within the church or living a pain-free life.  In short, the predominant preferred narrative implodes.

Thousands of hours in Disciple Bible small groups has also shown me that, like those confronted with the realities of the fullness of American history tend to blame the messenger rather than deal with the cognitive dissonance of a learning opportunity, Christians with arrested faith development can get angry, even ugly, when confronted with a less-than-simplistic Scriptural teaching.   Even after actually showing them where it is that Jesus says, “Think not that I have come to bring peace; I have come not to bring peace but a sword,” or other such shocking expressions we rarely quote in Sunday School, I’ve seen folks view me askance and say in doubt-filled tones: “If you say so” as if my saying so created those red letter words ex nihilo. 

As a preacher, I pray I haven’t lied to my congregations.  But, if I have, I have done so with good intentions.  Further, I’m pretty sure I’ve passed on some gigantic fabrications. [The difference between these two, dear readers, I’ll leave to you; this is me dealing with my own cognitive dissonance.]  Most often, I’ve just avoided challenging the predominant preferred narrative.

Seriously, it’s so much easier to preach a morality play. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mean Christians

I was doing some research for a sermon series the other day when I stumbled upon a website that automatically linked to a podcast.  The purpose of the podcast was a “Christian rant” against Rick Warren, the renowned author and pastor of Saddleback Church.  The question at stake was: Is Rick Warren a true Calvinist?

The speaker proceeded to examine Warren’s writing and preaching against the T-U-L-I-P doctrinal acronym (an explanation can be found here).  Failing that test, according to the speaker, automatically made Warren a disciple of Pelagius, that ancient heretic.  And, as such, it seemingly gave the podcaster permission to rant without limit against his absent opponent, finally condemning him and anyone who agreed with him to eternal damnation.  Most troubling was the glee with which he seemed to do it.  [In the interest of full disclosure, I am ordained in a tradition whose founder pretty much rejected the “U” and “L” in T-U-L-I-P; so, I may be overly defensive.]

I’ve observed a growing trend toward meanness in Christianity in recent years.  It looks/sounds like this: Because I’m right and the Bible, church doctrine and Jesus himself all agree with me (and, rightfully so), I have permission to get as angry, ugly, and judgmental as I can.  And, if that’s not off-putting enough, I’ll do so with a great big sarcastic smile on my face.

Talk radio has turned this behavior into a form of entertainment over the past 20 years, but the behavior predates the rise of that genre.  Many of us remember the age of “bullhorn guy” – the guy who would stand at busy street corners and spew out words of warning and judgment that sounded more like threats than invitations to discipleship (for more on “bullhorn guy,” see Rob Bell’s classic here).  There’s always been this tendency among some to proclaim a Christ-like love for the world as expressed in John 3:16, but to reserve the right to still hate people.

I recently had an up-close-and-personal reminder of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such mean Christianity.  While waiting in a church hallway to take a visiting ecclesial dignitary to the airport, a member of that church decided to aim their disappointment in particular clergypersons at me.  Now, I’ve been a pastor for nearly 30 years and have heard words of disappointment before, but they’re always from people who are members of the churches I’ve served.  But, this vitriol was from a person who doesn’t even attend the churches I currently serve.  In her mind, the correctness of her opinion gave her permission to spray her words on anyone even close to the category of person with whom she was upset.

Just what is the Christ-like response to such behavior?  Debating the issue just throws gas on the fire.  Becoming defensive merely confirms what the mean Christian already believes to be true about “those people” – of which you are now one.  A holistic reading of Jesus’ life reminds us that He wasn’t always in the “forgive-them-for-they-know-not-what-they-do” mode.  Especially when dealing with those within the faith, Jesus would also question motive of those who used their faith as a weapon. 

Maybe the more productive response is to ask why they are so passionate; what event was it that led them to discern this particular opinion?  On one level, I know this is a preferred response; but, on another, I know that doing so runs the risk of actually entering into conversation and potential relationship with this person who has triggered my “fight or flee” mechanism.

So, what do I do?  Isn’t the answer obvious?  I blog.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Credit Where Credit Is Due?

For several years I, along with other Alaskan clergy colleagues, have been wearing a pedometer which measures how many steps I take in a day.  Our denomination’s wellness plan has a website where I can download my step count each day.  From time to time, there are contests where the spirit of competition motivates some to take even more steps than usual.  Throughout the time I’ve worn the pedometer, I’ve learned a lot about myself.  For instance…
·         I can go to work and have a “normal” day and still only take 3,000 steps;
·         Most Sundays I can have over 7,000 steps by noon (I must wander physically as well as homiletically as I preach);
·         Contests do not bring the best out of me…I take far too much glee in out-stepping younger, skinnier colleagues;
·         With my current work situation and home life, to maintain an average of 12,000 steps per day requires more than two or three exercise sessions per week.

But, most surprising to me is that I’ve learned how important it is to me to have those steps entered, recorded, and credited to my wellness website.  Last weekend I took a 9-mile hike in the Chugach mountains.  That was the longest hike I’ve taken in some time.  I was looking forward to seeing how many steps I ran up on the pedometer.  After 5 hours of hiking, I finally got back to my car and eagerly pulled out the pedometer.  I’d already done some ‘guesstimating.’  I was sure it was going to show at least 30,000 steps.  Imagine my disappointment when it was frozen on 15,000 and the low battery warning was on.  Worse was how devastated I felt when I later tried to download even those few steps only to have the website credit me for 0 steps that day.  Zero…zip…nada. 

I felt as if the entire hike was a waste of time.  Five hours climbing up to a cirque to see a hidden lake were gone.  Five hours of enjoying scenery which some travel thousands of miles to experience were meaningless.  Five hours of walking with my canine companion Scout and enjoying his boundless enthusiasm and benefitting from his ability to find alternate routes when the trail seemed to peter out were without value.  None of that mattered, it seemed, because I could not see those steps on my wellness site bar graph where all my other steps were counted and neatly piled on their respective days. 

What is up with that?  Surrounded by the God’s gracious gift of beauty, I still want some form of credit; something to show how much it cost me to enjoy God’s grace in creation.  I’ll go ahead and admit it…there’s something seriously wrong with that picture.

Perhaps, on some deep spiritual/psychological level, I am so overwhelmed by God’s grace that I must compensate through some pitiful effort in telling the world (or, at least that website) how many steps it took for me to experience something for which I can take absolutely no credit.  My Midwestern-work-ethic-inspired values demand “credit where credit is due.”  My relationship with a Creator whose Son died for me reminds me I have no such claim. 

Maybe this is one elaborate form of “pay back” for some thoughts I had a few weeks ago when a colleague had the very same thing happen to him.  He told of how he emailed the website and asked to be credited for his lost steps.  And, within a day or two, he got them credited to his wellness page.  His bar graph had no gaps.  I remember thinking, “Wow…get over it…a few thousand steps…get a life!”

Yup…you guessed it.  I sent the email requesting steps last night.

Pray for me.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Almost or Altogether?

Earlier this year, I posted a couple of entries concerning “Jesus Deficit Disorder” (here) and “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (here).  To me, both phrases capture what seminaries described as “nominal Christianity” 25 years ago.  In those blog posts, I confessed my need for affirmation and a tendency to sometimes settle for superficiality in faith and preaching.

It was shortly after writing those posts that I committed myself to addressing this “in-name-only-therapeutic-assuaging-vague-theism.”   Itseems to have infected many clergy and laity with a spiritual disease whose main symptom is ennui – a restless boredom.  We know something is wrong, but can’t quite work up the will to either discern the problem or address it. 

As I write this, I find myself just weeks away from preaching about this condition.  I have spent my summer immersed in some of the best post-modern description of this disease: Craig Groeschel’s The Christian Atheist, Kyle Idleman’s Not a Fan, and Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian.   As I read these books, I heard their descriptions of the disease more loudly and with more detail than I did their suggested cures.  I began to lose both hope and direction…

But, one day, the title of Dean’s book reminded me of a sermon preached by John Wesley in 1741 by the same title (almost always the second sermon in any collection of Wesley’s sermons; you can find it here).  I first read this sermon nearly 30 years ago during a Lenten study in which I participated while, at the same time, discerning my call into the ordained ministry.  I remember my pastor, Don Johnson, telling our group that the church can’t “make” Christians;  rather , the best the church can do is to make people “appear” to be Christian…what Wesley calls an “almost Christian.”  He went on to teach us that the “altogether Christian” Wesley describes is not the product of a study, retreat, program or worship service.  It is the product of a very personal experience of surrender and acceptance which may or may not take place in a study, retreat, program or worship service. 

Shortly after this study, this same pastor introduced us to Tillich’s “You Are Accepted.”  The words from that message changed my life, confirmed my call and helped me experience real grace for the first time in my life.  Here they are:

Do we know what it means to be struck by grace?  It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost contrary to the meaning of grace. Furthermore, grace does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults, and in our relationships to men and to society. Moral progress may be a fruit of grace; but it is not grace itself, and it can even prevent us from receiving grace. For there is too often a graceless acceptance of Christian doctrines and a graceless battle against the structures of evil in our personalities. 
Such a graceless relation to God may lead us by necessity either to arrogance or to despair. It would be better to refuse God and the Christ and the Bible than to accept them without grace. For if we accept without grace, we do so in the state of separation, and can only succeed in deepening the separation. We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it. 
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!"  [The complete text is here; emphasis mine.] 

Those words seemed to both pierce and heal my heart at the same time.  With those words, I discerned my call to ordained ministry.

I wonder if the institutional church, in its current self-absorbed, survival-oriented mindset, isn’t trying to “manufacture” an experience of grace and, in so doing, is creating that which it seeks to transform.  No wonder we’re restlessly bored.

I wonder if it isn’t time for us to get out of the manufacturing business (which, let’s face it, keeps Zondervan and Cokesbury in business) focused on filling our ‘toolboxes’ and get into the surrendering business focused on dropping all our defenses and yielding to a love that seeks to transform us and invite us into a new way of living and being in the world. 

At one point a few weeks ago, I began to fear that addressing the difference between Wesley’s “almost Christian” and his “altogether Christian” may be a fool’s errand.  But, as I continue to run this errand, I have remembered and re-experienced the power of self-surrender and self-acceptance.  But in so doing, I have also realized that I cannot – indeed, should not – manufacture it for anyone else.  The best I can do is to create a space which is spiritually safe enough for others to surrender.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Too High? Too Low? Just Right?

My wife is a first-born.  She is goal-driven.  If we’re scheduled to arrive somewhere at 7:30 and we arrive at 7:30, we are “almost late.”  I have a different label for that event.  I call it “on time.”  But, I’m a middle child…an appeaser.  For the goal-driven, being on time for a 7:30 event means arriving at 7:20.  For the appeaser the goal becomes whatever the rest of the family seems to want.

Tonight I’m delivering an update on the goals our church leadership team adopted for 2011.  So it is with mixed feelings that I will report that of the 26 goals established for the year, 19 have been or are being accomplished, 3 have yet to happen, 3 will not happen, and 1 has been discontinued as a goal.

The perfectionist in me wants all 26 to be done already.

The pessimist in me says, “I can’t believe we even got to 19!

The pragmatist in me says, “The denomination already has a goal for the church: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Why do we need more?”

The exhaustion in me says, “19 out of 26 is a passing grade…enough already.”

The appeaser in me still has some questions.  Were these goals too high?  What happens to our self-image if we keep establishing goals too high for us to attain?  Or, were these goals too low?  Did we really just establish a series of goals each one of which could be attained without much of a stretch on our part?  Or, were they just right?  The year is 2/3 over and we are 2/3 of the way through our goals!

This is a difficult time in which to be a leader – clergy or lay – in a mainline denomination.  We look to the methods of our glory years in the 1950’s and 1960’s and are tempted to re-establish the same goals and methods of that time…all the while knowing that at some point (I believe it was 1984 if for no other reason than the literary irony) those goals/methods/mindsets became instruments of decline.  Worse, our initial reaction to the signs of impending doom were to do the same old things only with much more intensity and sincerity.  That is much like realizing you are driving east instead of west on the interstate and solving the issue by flooring it without first turning around. 

I like goals in general.  They are benchmarks providing an organization a sense of both accomplishment and accountability.  But, they are also always open to interpretation by each person within the organization.  Were we “on time” or “almost late?”

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Where in the World...?

I currently live in a very transient community within a very transient state.  One of my clergy colleagues estimates that, between the military bases and the petroleum industry, the annual turnover of population is nearly one in five.  As I begin my fifth year in pastoral ministry in Alaska, I can affirm his observation and would add that some years I consider it conservative.  About three and a half years ago, one of the churches I served lost 9 very active families to relocation to the lower 48.  For a church with just over 100 families, that was a blow.

I remember asking myself, my spouse (who was my co-pastor at the time), and God, where in the world would new families come from?  Our response was to go back to the basics:

  • hospitality - taking a hard look at what it felt like to walk into our church building for the first time; 
  • outreach - advertising in local media, social networking and personal invitations;
  • relevance - worship services and studies gravitated toward the practical application of faith ('practical divinity' we Wesleyans like to say).
Turns out, we were on to something.  My friend and colleague, Scott Hibben, who is a Leadership Development Minister for Evangelism and New Ministry in Iowa, has recently written an article answering the question: "Where will your next 10 members come from?"  He offers 6 answers to this question many of us in church leadership ask ourselves these days.  Here is a condensed version of his answers and observations (with a few of my own observations thrown in):

  1. Folks will come to your church because someone invited them.  82% of people who are invited by someone they know and trust will come to church if invited.
  2. Folks will come to your church because there is something worth inviting them to.  Cleaning up the building, improving worship and training ushers not to stand in huddles and talk to each other while visitors and members wait for a bulletin are all forms of evangelism.  The best advertising efforts, personal invitation campaigns and social network sites can all be undone in an instant by a smelly nursery, inept worship leader who's only doing it because it was "their turn" and not their calling, or uncaring usher.
  3. Folks are more likely to come to church in certain seasons.  Missiologist Ed Stetzer says that 47% of adults say they are more likely to consider matters of faith during the Christmas season than any other.  In many parts of our country, Christmas has surpassed Easter as the season in which most newcomers will visit churches.  Further, unlike the liturgical approach to holidays in which members are urged to prepare themselves for the holiday (Advent and Lent), newcomers are more likely to begin their attendance on the holiday and the weeks following.  Rather than the "low Sunday" mindset for the week following a holiday, the church needs to be ready to offer a journey using the holiday as the springboard.
  4. Folks will come to your church and stay because there is something beyond an initial welcome.  New folks may enter your church because of an invitation or some kind of advertisement, but they will stay because of relationships.  Are there groups or activities in which any newcomer can become active within a week or two of their first visit?  Or, do they have to wait several months before they can get involved?
  5. Folks will come to your church to hear your clear answers for the crucial questions of life, today.  In over 25 years of pastoral ministry, I've never had one person enter the church with a pressing need to know the difference between Proto-, Deutero-, and Trito-Isaiah.  Nearly all, however, enter our churches with questions about meaning, significance, suffering, and self-worth.  For these, the message of Deutero-Isaiah is far more important than why s/he's "deutero-."  Scott observes that long established members stay out of loyalty, but not new members; and, that, more and more, this is not true of long established folks either.
  6. Folks who come to your church will tell you what their most pressing spiritual needs are, if you listen.  Our churches must be safe places in which there is both authenticity and acceptance; where it is safe to ask questions and disagree without condemnation.
I'm sure none of these six surprise you.  But, once in awhile, it is very helpful for us to be reminded of the basics.  Thanks, Scott, for sharing these recently...and, I hope my few commentaries align with your observations.  If you'd like to read more of these Stirrings written by Scott Hibben and others in Iowa, you can find them here. 


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

For What It's Worth

What the chirp of cicadas is to the Midwest, the topping out of the Fireweed plant is to Alaska: a harbinger of the end of summer.

I love these God-made signs of the inevitabile cycle of time and change.  They bring to mind promises of God's providence and presence.  They are God's ways of saying "gather ye rosebuds (or Fireweed) while ye may..."  This God-authored drama of life and death is one in which we're privileged to have a front row seat.

But, human-made signs of inevitability have a different message and effect entirely.  They bring to mind threats of "my way or the highway," instead of promises of abiding presence.  They speak not of a cycle of time, but of the end of time.  We in the United States have a front row seat to such a human-authored drama.  This drama whose main characters are Revenue and Spending seems to awaken the less-than-better angels of our nature.  Regardless of which side one takes, it seems the financial well-being of our children and grandchildren demands a higher sense of self-sacrifice and service than we are currently witnessing and expressing at the current time.

I am a fan of old time radio programs which, thanks to Internet radio stations, I listen to on a regular basis.  I am especially fascinated by listening to the programs from the early years of World War II in which pleas for saving aluminum foil, eating less meat, rationing gas, collecting cooking fat, purchasing war bonds and sacrificing many creature comforts were woven into the plots of every show and their advertisements. I can't even imagine how such pleas would be heard today, nor can I feature any politician who still cherished her/his future uttering one.  Of what is this a harbinger?

Brothers and Sisters, may we turn to the gospel according to Buffalo Springfield?
There's something happening here 
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there 
Telling me I got to beware...

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong 
Young people speaking their minds 
Getting so much resistance from behind...
 For what it's worth...there may be better ways...more difficult ways...ways of denial and sacrifice...but better, nonetheless.  Didn't I hear of One who said something about gaining life comes in giving it up...the first being last?  But, then again, He never had to be concerned about the next election cycle.

For what it's worth...

P.S.  For the benefit of those not as chronologically blessed as this writer, here's the entire musical reference: