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.