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 www.loopchange.com 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.