Monday, January 31, 2011

JDD: Jesus Deficit Disorder

I think it was at a Bill Easum and Tom Bandy event that I first was challenged by the difference between faith and religion.  In their typical blunt style, one of them said something like this (sorry, this was too many years ago for an exact quote): God does not care a bit about your religion; God is infinitely interested in your faith...there's a difference, you know.  Well, fearing I would appear to be the only fool in the room, I did the knowing grunt of approval with dozens of others in the room (half of whom I'm sure did the grunt because they had the same fear as me).

There's a difference between faith and religion...hmm...  So I did what most preachers do when returning from such an experience: I took the teaching out for a little 'test drive' in my next sermon or two.  In fact, the test drive was so pleasurable, I bought the premise (and their book) and have been driving it ever since.  Over several years of teaching and preaching this idea, I've learned that, in general, people older than me (I was born smack-dab in the middle of the Baby Boom) have some trouble with the distinction and often politely reject the notion.  But, more interesting to me is the fact that people born after me hear the teaching with a sense of relief as if to say, "Finally...someone gets it!"

In the past four weeks, this idea has come into sharper focus for me.  I've been taking an online course with author, preacher, and professor Leonard Sweet.  Taking the course with me are nearly 20 other pastors from around the country and representing several denominations.  During the course, we read Sweet's So Beautiful: Divine Design for Life and the Church.  In it, he quotes this spiritual equation from a blog by Alan Hirsch: Christianity minus Christ equals Religion (p.22).  If you're like me, you have to stop here and ponder that just a bit.  Don't fight it - don't reject it out of hand - read it again and give it a minute...

OK...we're back.  So, following this, Sweet makes this observation about today's church in the U.S.:
"Today's church crisis stems from one thing: Jesus Deficit Disorder.  The church's narrative is biblically, theologically, and spiritually bankrupt.  The church has been busy telling stories other than God's story, dreaming other dreams than God's dream revealed by Jesus" (So Beautiful, p. 22). 
When I  read this, I was reminded of what a retired pastor told me in my first pastorate: "Most folks have been inoculated with a weaker form of Christianity for the same reason we've been inoculated by a weaker form of many that when the real thing comes along, they won't catch it."

In light of all this, dear readers, I realize I have, from time to time, been giving inoculations.  So, I confess:

  1. It's easier for me to inoculate Christians than offer the 'real thing.'
  2. I'm more popular when I water down the Gospel...and I like being popular.
  3. It's easier and safer to preach/teach about religion than it is faith.
  4. Whereas growing churches grow on the edges of challenge and a desire to be something they aren't presently, often making them feel discontent, I prefer 'happy churches' over discontent ones - even though the complacency in 'happy churches' is killing them.
  5. I am a product of a church culture weakened by Jesus Deficit Disorder and only by the grace of God in Jesus Christ can I be healed of this disorder.
Gene Rawls and Kirt Eldredge are two dear brothers in Christ who attended a church I served in Iowa.  They used to come up to me before the service and say things like, "Challenge me today, Preacher!" or, "Don't be holding back today."  Sometimes a powerful prayer would follow.  Those were healing moments in which I could feel myself being gradually liberated from the symptoms of Jesus Deficit Disorder.  I truly think the only way to be healed of JDD is by being in community with others who have also identified the disorder and seek to be made whole.

Stay tuned for part 2.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Seen Jesus?

Have you ever seen a person search for a set of keys they were already holding in their non-dominant hand?  Or, search for a pair of reading glasses that were hanging from their neck by a lanyard?  Maybe you've been that person searching for something that was there all along.

Over the years of leading classes and small groups, I've discovered the question, "Where did you see God at work this week?" stymies and silences people very quickly.  You'd have thought I'd asked, "Who wants to pray?"

We - mainline Christians who've attended a church much of our lives - are used to thinking of encounters with God or Jesus either happening in the church building or while encountering scripture.  In fact, we - mainline Christians who've attended a church much of our lives - kind of insist on it.  For the thought of a Risen Savior running loose in our world is as threatening today as it was nearly 2000 years ago.  Keeping Jesus in worship - worship we're comfortable with, music we know, orders of service that don't change or surprise us, if you please - ensures we won't encounter him at our workplaces, schools or homes where his presence and ethics may actually make a difference.  In contrast, I've found, in speaking with people who are new to the church or perhaps not even in a church, that they are able to see God at work much more easily.  In Leonard Sweet's recent book, Nudge, readers are challenged to awaken themselves to the God and Savior who are already here.  Thinking we "carry Christ" into the world is, as my mother used to say, like carrying coal to Newcastle.

Have you seen Jesus?  Jesus was in Tuscon.  You saw him in the form of a young man shielding and nursing a wounded politician; in the form of a federal judge shielding a stranger; in the form of a husband giving his life for the love of his life.  I see Jesus every month in the form of a middle-aged woman who, following worship, carries a picket sign and collars folks saying, "Follow me, and I will make you servers of breakfast at Bean's Cafe" (a meal site for homeless and poor in Anchorage).  I see Jesus standing at busy intersections selling baleen or begging; begging for us to be a better people than we are.  I'll stop here because seeing Jesus is more fun if you discover him yourself.  The last thing you want when looking at a "Where's Waldo" book is some know-it-all looking over your shoulder and pointing him out before you've had a chance to look on your own.

But, at the risk of being that obnoxious know-it-all, allow me to make one suggestion: the best place to start is the mirror.  In another book by Leonard Sweet, So Beautiful, he gives us his favorite benediction to end a worship service:
"Want to follow Jesus?  Leave the church.  Get out of the church.  Leave.  I mean it.  Right now.  Get out of here.  Scram.  Now.  Out of here.  Did you hear me?...Leave this church.  Now!  Jesus says, 'Go Do Me.'  Go be Jesus" (p. 60). 
Just as the keys we've been looking for have been in our own hands all along, the Jesus we - and so many - have been yearning for is capable of being seen in our own lives at any moment.

Seen Jesus?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Paradise by the Dashboard Light

Even Meat Loaf knew there was no long-term paradise by the dashboard light...

[If you're a Baby Boomer, this is an opportunity for a stroll down memory lane;  if you're the child of Baby Boomers, go to YouTube and watch the video by Meat Loaf performing the song by the same title as this blog entry and say to yourself, "That's why my parents are the way they are!"]

However, at least one Annual Conference in the United Methodist Church is praying the light from their dashboard will reveal at least growth, if not paradise.  If you haven't seen it yet, here it is:  Briefly, it is a series of dials measuring the weekly results emailed to the conference from each church by noon Monday reflecting the following metrics: membership, attendance, baptisms, professions of faith, people serving, people served, and apportionments paid.  Proceeding further down the dashboard, one can learn which churches excel in each category.

The dashboard was developed under the leadership of Bishop Will Willimon.  I have admired Willimon for years, having read nearly all his books and even listened to his tapes (back in the day) and his podcasts.  But I wonder if the Bishop and Conference, like the character Meat Loaf sings about, won't one day regret the actions they took by the light of their dashboard.

I want to share just a few ideas why this is an idea that may produce more trouble than light.  First, as any driver's education instructor will tell you, new drivers often get enraptured by all the data and opportunities for distraction made available by the dashboard that they'll not pay attention to dangers outside the car.  I imagine nearly all cars that run into trees had dashboards whose metrics were all within optimum parameters right up to the point the front bumper wrapped around the tree trunk.

Second, placing so much emphasis on the metrics on the dashboard measuring the performance of hundreds of churches clearly communicates the importance of the institution over that which comprises it.  Though automobile companies have tried to sell us the way a car rides as an end in itself, ultimately it serves a purpose larger than itself; i.e., getting us from point A to point B.

Finally, and most importantly, over time we forget these metrics represent real people with real lives and real problems.  Prior to going into the ministry, I worked in the financial industry and was very familiar with dashboards and the accountability they sought to establish.  What happened to every account representative, every manager and every vice-president was this: it was just a matter of time that all accounts were measured by and reduced to the numbers they generated.

From July 2006 to March 2007 I took a short term leave of absence from pastoral ministry and went back to the financial industry where I was a claims representative for a very large insurance company.  I worked in the department that took the initial claim report.  Each week, I spoke with hundreds of persons who had just had an auto accident or a house damaged.  Most times their voices were still shaking from the adrenaline released during the stressful moments just prior to the call.  The emotional state of the caller could suddenly move from grief to anger to remorse within a range of seconds.

The "appropriate metric" for our calls was 11 minutes per call.  If you were more than 2 minutes over, you were deemed "out of compliance" and a meeting with your manager was scheduled.  One week, I received such a notification; I was out of compliance and had a chat with my manager scheduled for me in my computer.  I went to the meeting.  Not wasting any time on small talk (I'm sure managers had dashboard metrics limiting the number of minutes they spent talking to claims reps about the number of minutes they spoke with claimants), he got right to it: You were out of compliance by several minutes last week.

I responded with a question: Do you know why?  He didn't - all he had was a dashboard...numbers.  Take a look, I suggested, you'll see one call that was about 2 hours long.  2 hours!?!?  What took 2 hours?  Were there computer issues?  You see, when metrics rule the day, the only acceptable reason for being out of compliance is if the instruments upon which you depend...the computer and its network...aren't working.  No, the system was up and working fine.  What in the world took 2 hours?

I spent several minutes detailing the experience of listening to a woman describe her house having just burned down.  She'd lived in it all of her adult life.  She'd been widowed about 2 years and the fire took all the pictures, memorabilia and other precious artifacts of over 40 years of marriage and 3 children.  Additionally, the fire had taken the lives of two beloved pets and the last, prized automobile her husband had purchased before his death.  Some of the call was listening to her describe the items lost and the stories that went with them.  Some of the call was spent placing her on hold while I arranged an auto rental for her since she had no idea how to do it.  Some of the call was spent listening to her weep.  It was at this point the manager closed my file and said, "Good job...get back to work."  I like to think his manager called him in and asked why he was out of compliance in his compliance meetings with claims reps...I like to think I messed up his dashboard so he could tell that story.

It's not that I'm not for accountability when it come to the church or pastorate.  I'm all for it.  Bring it on.  But don't, for a minute, think that these numbers will bring us any closer to paradise.  Accountability just has to be more than numbers when it comes to the church.  Accountability, especially in the United Methodist tradition, sounds like this: "How is it with your soul? Where did you see God at work in your life this week?"  Those answers cannot be reduced to a virtual needle on a virtual meter on a website.  Even more, those answers are much more messy, unwieldy, and, perhaps, even ambiguous.

I live in Alaska where there are pilots everywhere.  A pilot in one of the congregations I serve was explaining to me the difference between visual flight rules and instrument flight rules.  Instrument flight rules are used when there is no visibility - at that point "your instruments - your cockpit dashboard - is God!"  Are we, the Body of Christ, really flying blind?  I think not.  I think we're enamored with the numbers because the real questions of accountability are not easily measured at all.  There is no paradise by this dashboard light...or, am I out of compliance?

Monday, January 10, 2011

What if We Meant What We Said?

"What if We Meant What We Said?" is the title for my sermon this week.  It's been on the drawing board for several weeks, but somehow seems more timely than I ever could have imagined.

Originally, I intended for this message to challenge us as followers of Jesus Christ to remember what we said we'd do when we became a part of the Body of Christ.  The month of January has often been used in my particular tradition (United Methodism) as a time for covenant renewal... or, as they say in the military - "re-upping."  In renewing our covenant with God and one another, it's helpful to remember the words that were used to define our covenant.   

Too often, we relegate those faith questions about "renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness" and "rejecting the evil powers of the world" to the realm of tradition or ritual.  In other words, we answer those questions because everyone before us has always answered them and the asking and answering is actually more important than the content itself.  So, my plan was to ask: What if we meant what we said??  What does it look like to actually do this renouncing and rejecting rather than just give a traditional nod of assent?

But, then Saturday, January 8, 2011 happened.  An assassination attempt on a member of Congress...the slaying of a federal judge, a nine year old girl and  4 other innocent bystanders... and the maiming of over a dozen more by gunfire.  The immediate reaction from both ends of the political spectrum labeled the amped up rhetoric of recent campaigns as the 'identified patient' in our dysfunctional system of communication.  Some argue these kinds of actions are to be expected when our politicians and commentators use cross hair targets to identify opponents and phrases like "lock and load" or "reload" to signify readiness for attacks on those opponents.

When confronted with the potential danger of such words, some argue, "They're only words."  In a world where we are flooded with words - in print - on digital screens - or broadcast - we're tempted to think - even asked to think - they have no real power.  This whole debate reminds me of the old apocryphal story about a bar located next to a church.  The good Christians in the church had long prayed for God to destroy the evil bar next door.  One stormy summer night a lightning bolt struck the bar and burned it to the ground.  The owner of the bar then sued the church for their prayers whose words had brought the destruction of their property.  The church argued the words were "just prayers."  At this point the judge observed that the owners of the destroyed bar obviously believed in the power of prayer while the members of the church did not.  Words may have power, but it seems we only want to be held accountable for our words if they don't do anything.

What is the power of words?  Do they really shape your mindset and reality?  As a follower of Jesus - the Word become flesh - I've got to believe words have an ability to shape our lives.  In many Christian traditions, we have become aware of the limitations arising from using gender exclusive language metaphors for describing God or by using language that is not gender neutral in describing humanity.  This non-inclusive language and its effects prove, to some, the power of words and that we, on some levels, mean what we say whether we want to or not.  Our words are the tools that both describe and determine our reality.

Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan said, "We become what we behold.  We shape our tools and our tools shape us."  When our "tools" urge us to "target" those with whom we disagree or to "reload" when readying ourselves to attack those targets we are shaped whether we want to be or not.

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness?  Do you reject the evil powers of this world?  We become what we behold.  Our words describe that which we behold.  What if we meant what we said?  We already do.  The question is, will we be accountable?