Spiritual Lessons from NECCO and Bad Cake Bakers and the Pruning Hooks of Life

Oh, NECCO wafers…necco-wafers

I’m not sure I know any NECCO enthusiasts.  To me they taste kind of like a benign version of TUMS.  Just as chalky, but not as…well…nasty.

But at the news that NECCO was going out of business, people started buying the rolls of “great flavors!” candy like they were going out of style.

Because they were.

Each little quarter-sized wafer became a bitcoin all of a sudden.

And the panic was not without warrant.  NECCO is America’s oldest candy company, and not unlike Meister Brau and Toys ‘R’ Us, the potential loss of the icon was not so much the loss of a great product, but the loss of a great past in the eyes of many.

And then the bidding war started.  Candy moguls (there is such a thing) lined up to bid on the waffling wafers, with the Metropolous family winning out in the end.

You probably haven’t heard of the Metropolous family, but if you’re at all familiar with the incredible come-backs of Pabst Blue Ribbon (once the working class coozy filler and now a “trendy American lager”), Utz, and Twinkie, you’re familiar with the fruits of the family labor.

It’s not pretty, mind you.

If the Metropolous family were farmers, they’d be known as judicious pruners.  Their trees would we short but full of harvest.  They basically take whatever a company is best at and works only on that, stripping away everything that is no longer producing.

It’s a ruthless practice in many ways, and I don’t mean to romanticize it at all.  When making a comparison between the spiritual life and the actual lives that are behind a business, we run the risk of forgetting the spirit behind the stocks.

But we can learn something here, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Because NECCO was about to go belly-up, wholesale.  A total loss.

And I talk to people all the time who are quitting the faith wholesale all the time.  In their eyes, though the faith may be the longest single anchor in their lives, it has just become untenable anymore.  They feel they have to cut anchor altogether.

But what if, instead of doing that, they “sold it” in some form or fashion?

Not for profit, but for pruning.

Prune away the beliefs and ideas that are no longer life-giving.  Prune away the dead-end answers and the non-sensical moralisms.  Prune away the ideas that “defending Jesus” might mean not baking a cake for a gay couple because, God forbid, they might have something sweet on their wedding day.

I mean, c’mon. Let’s be real here.  If your religion asks you to be a jerk, it’s not worth following.  That can’t be right…prune it away.

Sometimes religion is just a cover to reinforce people’s xenophobia.  And not just the Christian religion, but any religion.  That, too, needs to be exposed and pruned away for the dead-end life that it is.

And for those of you ready to abandon the faith because some Colorado bakers are idiots: don’t.  Stay with it.  Don’t sell it wholesale, but understand that some people just can’t be made to love, no matter how much Jesus spoke about it, modeled it, commanded it even.

If Jesus were a baker, I bet he’d bake for anyone who showed up.  And every cake would rainbow-cake-finishedt-today-160621_86a1445147f5a7eda43a54f6e86033f4.today-inline-largehave a rainbow, regardless of the sexual orientation of the customer.  Because rainbows are pretty.

Allow some beliefs to be pruned away by the knife of life, which, when lived outside a bubble, will surely present you with some situations that will expose some faith ideas as inadequate for the demands of living in a world as diverse as this one.

But, and here’s the thing, I think a wholesale abandonment of the faith will prove to be inadequate, too.

Faith does not make sense of life; it helps life make some sense.  And, when it’s at its best, it keeps us from being jerks, it doesn’t encourage us to be one.

So, don’t sell off the faith wholesale, friend. Don’t lose the great past of your faith without fighting for it a bit.  You can lose parts of the faith of your past and still retain the best.

Focus on what is working best, and foster that spiritual muscle above all else.

Allow some good pruning to happen…and bake some cakes.

Thoughts About and In “Unbelievable” by John Shelby Spong

9780062641298_p0_v2_s550x406I was gifted Bishop John Shelby Spong’s latest, and reportedly last, book Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today by a parishioner.  He was her childhood priest who presided over her wedding, and I am grateful to have such a close connection to a theologian who is as kind as he is controversial.  We all should be.  Too many are either/or.

An exciting heresy is better than a boring orthodoxy, as my now sainted Systematics professor once noted, and Spong is the embodiment of the former.

Except, as this book points out, he might actually not be so heretical in the eyes of the future.  He may be right on the money, though a bit ahead of his time. I hate to be too fanatical and fanciful about it, but Spong might be for theology what Galileo was for astronomy: saying the inconvenient truths that will be the cinder blocks of future foundations of faith.

If you polled pastors, and probably many pew-sitters, Spong’s theological formulations may not be not far off for anyone who has spent more than a few Christmas Eves and Easter mornings pondering the subject. He systematically walks through the dogma of the Christian creeds, deconstructing and reconstructing them in a gentle but firm manner.

His Christology and thoughts about the after-life (parts IV and XIII) will certainly be the most controversial parts of this book for the majority of Christians, but that is no surprise.  Spong’s disregard for Jesus’ eternal divinity may cross the theological “Maginot Line” for many.  But I encourage you to hear him out before you slam the book shut.  The fact is that he has no need for a know-it-all and endure-it-all Jesus, not to mention the golden gates of heaven, or the fiery pits of hell. And makes you ask whether you do, either.

Perhaps you do. Maybe you don’t. Regardless, think about it for a hot second.

Read his thoughts about the Christ.  Ponder his ponderings on what it means to enter the eternal.  Engage rather than be enraged.

In all honesty, my own thoughts about these topics have evolved over time, too.

I will miss John Shelby Spong when he’s gone.  He speaks things that the church is often afraid or unready to say, though I have hope that we will one day be able to say them before it is too late.

And I guess, that’s my major take-away from this book: we must become more and more unafraid to say what we believe, no matter how heretical it might seem, if we’re going to be a church that has a future.  The push and pull of psychology, sociology, and biology will only shrink theology if we do not grow as a discipline alongside these other ones.  Spong’s parting shot at orthodoxy doesn’t graze the bow, and neither does it sink the ship.

Rather, it sets out to remind all of us sailing in the Christian boat out on the waters of the world why we’re sailing at all and where we’re going.  “Are we in the right kind of ship for our destination?” we might ask, not to belabor the metaphor for too long. “Is this ship the one that will take us where we need to go?”

Below are some of the most interesting (and controversial!) quotes I came upon in the book.  I do not agree with all of them, but they all made me stop and think. I commend the book to you.  Do not be afraid to have your faith deconstructed and reconstructed.

Is denial of theism the same as atheism? Is there no other alternative?“-pg 38, “The Challenge of the Copernican Revolution”

Before Darwin we thought of ourselves as ‘just a little lower than the angels,’ but after Darwin we began to think of ourselves as ‘just a little higher than the apes.‘” pg 44 “The Impact on Theism from Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin”

Truth, no matter how challenging, can never finally be determined by either majority vote or a court case.” pg 45 “The Impact on Theism from Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin”

One only has to look at our God language to validate Freudian insights.  The theistic God was a being like us human beings in all details, except with human limitations removed. We called God infinite and immortal because we knew ourselves to be finite and mortal.  We called God omnipotent and omnipresent because we knew human life to be powerless and ultimately bound by space. We called God omniscient because we knew ourselves to be limited in knowledge.  Only a deity not bound by our weaknesses could address the anxieties of our limits and provide us with the security we sought. Then we named this deity ‘Father’ or ‘Almighty Father,’ which served to make Freud’s insight all but irresistible…The religious institutions then sought to control these anxieties by keeping their adherents in a state of dependency which, like children, they did not worry about what they did not or felt they could not understand. People were exhorted to be ‘born again,’ never to grow up, never to take responsibility. It was no wonder that the parental word ‘Father’ became the name for the church-appointed representative of this theistic deity.“-pg 52, “Dealing with the Insights of Freud”

God is not a noun that needs to be defined. God is a verb that needs to be lived. It was and is an ancient idea, but perhaps because it is not always a satisfying idea, it never grasped the core of our humanity.  ‘Being itself’ does not offer us a lifeline to security. It does not promise us aid in time of need. It does not put the supernatural at the service of the human.  It does not teach us how to manipulate the divine for the benefit of the human…it suggests that we are part of the Holy.“-pg 60 “A Place to Begin–Being Not a Being”

Religious honesty requires the admission that certainty in religion is always an illusion, never a real possibility. Religion, which was born in the need to provide security for self-conscious creatures wrestling with issues of mortality, finitude and meaning, now finds itself forced to admit that it has no security to offer. Radical insecurity must now come to be seen as a virtue, which we must learn to embrace as central to our religion.“-pg 70 “Our Definition of God: Evolving, Never Fixed”

An evolving Christianity is not our fear, but our hope.“-74 “Our Definition of God: Evolving, Never Fixed”

No one prior to the writing of Mark in the eighth decade ever seems to have associated miracles with Jesus. This fact surprises many. Paul, who wrote between 51 and 64 CE, never spoke of Jesus as a worker of miracles.“-81, “Escaping the Idolatry of the Incarnation”

The second and last Pauline reference to Jesus’ birth was in Romans, written in the middle years of the sixth decade of the Christian era. Her Paul writes, making a messianic claim, that Jesus ‘was descended from David, according to the flesh’ (Romans 1:3). Since royal descent was always through the male line, there is no way Paul could have written this line if he had ever heard of or entertained any idea of a virgin birth.“-pg 105, “The Story of the Virgin Birth”

The virgin birth was never universally believed even in the earliest developing Christian tradition.  Of the five major writers of the New Testament, two, Paul and Mark, appear never to have heard of it.  Two others, Matthew and Luke, offer quite different versions of it.  The last, John, appears to have dismissed it.  Our task is not to believe it, but to understand it.“-pg 117 “The Actual Details Behind Jesus’ Birth”

After centuries of laboring to understand stories that made no sense to us, we now discover that the problem was that we did not know how to read those stories.“-Pg 152 “Messiah Miracles–The Final Clue”

Jesus did not die for your sins or mine! This distortion of Christianity, atonement as traditionally conceived, must be lifted out of the unconscious realm of our faith story, challenged, and expelled.  It stands between us and any possibility of rethinking the meaning of Christianity.  it is so deeply part of our religious jargon that precise, radical theological surgery may be required, for, like a malignancy, atonement theology has wrapped itself around vital Christian organs.“-pg 159 “Renouncing ‘Jesus Died for My Sins'”

Resurrection, I now believe, was not a physical act. No formerly deceased body ever walked out of any tomb, leaving it empty to take up a previous life in the world.  For Paul for the other early Christians to whom Paul says Jesus ‘appeared,’ resurrection was, rather, a moment of new revelation that occurred when survival-driven humanity could transcend that limit and give itself way in love to others, including even to those who wish and do us evil.“-pg 182 “Paul’s List of Resurrection Witnesses”

Resurrection, you see, was not just something that happened to Jesus; it is also something that happens to and in each of us.“-pg 184 “The Gospels’ Understanding of Easter”

The Easter experience in the New Testament, contrary to what we have traditionally been taught over the years, is not about bodies walking out of graves. It is far more profound than that. It is about God being seen in human life.“-pg 188 “The Gospels’ Understanding of Easter”

The ascension story is both powerful and real, but it is not, and was never intended to be, literally true.“-pg 196 “Elijah Magnified”

We can safely conclude that the Ten Commandments were never themselves meant to be an eternal code. They changed in history; they were edited. The ethical life has always been an adventure.“-pg 213 “How the Ten Commandments Have Changed Through History”

Do we dismiss the great codes of the past? Now, but we also do not endow them with the status of ultimate and unchanging laws. We do, however, ascribe to them the wisdom of the ages, and we give to our ancestors, who codified those laws, the courtesy of our attention.“-pg 220 “Meet Moses’ Father-in-Law”

Prayer is not about the attempt to change reality; it is about approaching reality in a dramatically different way.“-pg 243 “Prayer: An Act of Being or of Doing?”

All of this is to say that the Christianity of tomorrow will set aside the literal formulas of our Christian past, but Christians will not ever set aside the power of the experience that expressed itself in scripture, creed theology and liturgy. We honor each, but we literalize none!“-pg 279 “The Marks of Tomorrow’s Christianity”

I am a disciple of Jesus. Why? Because when I look at the life of Jesus, as that life has been refracted to me through both scripture and tradition, I see a person who was so fully alive that I perceive in him the infinite Source of Life.“-pg 287 “My Mantra: This I Do Believe”

My Annual Reminder: Confirmation isn’t Graduation

matte-product-navy-325Different churches have different schedules for Confirmation.  Some have a three-year class, spanning 6th-8th grade.  Some invite 9th graders to confirm their faith.  Some, like the church of my childhood, put it all into one year for 6th graders.

Regardless of when it happens, it’s important to remember why we have Confirmation at all.  So pull up your (electronic) chair…

Confirmation is the part of the baptismal rite where people (youth or adults) take on the promises of baptism for themselves if they were baptized as a child.  It is, in practice, the reversal of the ancient rite.

In the ancient rite the Catechumenate would study for a year with someone from the church, learning the “stuff of faith” …for lack of a better term.  This came to include the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, and the 10 Commandments, among other things.  This person they studied with, sometimes called a sponsor (you’ll recognize the term “Godparent” here…and not an honorary position you give to your brother because he’ll be offended if you don’t, but with real responsibilities), then presented them to the priest, or whomever was doing the baptizing, as ready to be submersed in the ancient waters, fit to join the community of Christ.

They were fit, mind you, not because they had “accepted Jesus into their heart.”  In the first church that sort of theological and biological gymnastics would be non-sensical. For me it still is non-sensical in most ways.

No.  They were fit because, having been moved by the Word of God as they met with the assembly, they saw that this community was living and acting in a way that changed them, and the world, for better.  Walking the pathway of Jesus was better than those other paths out there.

Part of the rite was a remission of sin.  In baptism God washes the baptized clean of any eternal ramification of sin.

But only part of the meaning of the rite was that.

The overwhelming balance of the symbol of the rite was acceptance into the community of Christ through the promises of God.

Now, in medieval times baptism became a one-trick pony: forgiveness of sin.  This was largely because, in the Christian world, baptism was basically a given.  You were born and then baptized. Christendom reigned and sought to keep control in the Western world, and what better way to keep control than to tell you that you are lacking something (righteousness) that only the church can give you?

But that’s not the fullness of the ancient symbol.  For more on this check out Ben Dueholm’s upcoming book _Sacred Signposts_.  He does a masterful job explaining this movement in his chapter on baptism…

Back to the topic at hand.

So the norm in the Catholic/Mainline world became to baptize first and teach later.  Which is absolutely fine, by the way, especially if the focus is on the promises of God and not the worthiness of the person.  Studying the “stuff of faith” does not make one holy, anyway.

Confirmation, then, is the fruit of this reversal in strategy.  We normally baptize first and teach later and then confirm the faith of the person who was baptized in their early years.

But here’s the thing: the teaching, while formally called Catechism, does not end at baptism for the ancient person.  It just starts to get put into intentional practice. And so it also means that it does not end at Confirmation, either.

It has only just begun.

Which means that, when you order graduation gowns for your Confirmands, have elaborate banquets for them, throw elaborate parties where cards full of money and whatnot are all part of the deal, you (the church) are effectively giving off a very different signal than what the rite actually means.

Confirmation is part of the growth of the Christian.  It is not the culmination.

Which is also why strict book curriculum, filling out worksheets, and tricky tests all give off the wrong impression, too.

If anything the test should be the same every year!  It should ask them to recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the 10 Commandments, and maybe give a bit of explanation about it.

But by and large, Confirmation should be about formation into the faith, not primarily information about the faith.  After all, those first Christians were forming themselves to one another in that year of study…hence why you did it with someone else in the church, and not on your own!

It wasn’t about inviting Jesus into your heart, it was about inviting the community into your life and being invited into the life of community!

I am frustrated that we have to explain this at all.

Back to the original point: the more you make Confirmation look like graduation, with academic robes, elaborate banquets, etc, the more you invite the Confirmand to imagine their work is complete…when it is only, really, beginning.

And, sure, we can explain that to them in all sorts of ways.  But if we keep up this tradition that basically mirrors the graduations that many of them will be participating in just a few weeks after, what with elaborate ceremonies and walking across stages and all, then we’ll be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

So, my advice as a pastor in the church: slowly phase out these subliminal messages and practices.  Slowly phase in new messages and practices.  Change the narrative to the more ancient one, and I bet we’ll find new life here.  Make it a milestone of the faith, not the culmination.

Confirmation is not graduation.  Let’s all stop giving off that impression.

The Impending Clergy Shortage…Coming From Left Field

EmExitRumors of an impending clergy shortage have been circulating for years in the mainline church.  The aging pastors who had put off retirement because the economy took a nosedive are finally choosing to head out to pasture, as most of that mess has rebounded.

But the more I look at the Christian landscape, and not just in the mainline, the more I see a different clergy exit looming and, yes, in process.

Largely from left field.

Many younger clergy are “giving it up for Lent,” as a colleague of mine once said, describing why he left the ministry after just five years.

Thousands of dollars in schooling and investment, while certainly not wasted, are not being used as originally intended.

The church really should take a hard look at why this is, and will continue, happening.  And look at it with eyes wide open.

Many who are leaving the ministry are doing so because the churches that they are prepared to lead, and the Jesus they fell in love with, don’t live in the same place. They’re finding so many churches too occupied with propping up the past instead of embracing the future.  They’re finding the Jesus of radical love and action to be hard-hearted and bound by fear.

They love the people in so many ways, but are having a hard time finding ways to let the people love themselves or others without spiraling into self-preservation and sniping.  The Jesus who said, “Those who lose their lives will gain it” seems to not have been talking about whole congregations, because they are not usually willing to lose their past to gain their future.

Some who are leaving the ministry are finding their particular faith doesn’t quite align with the faith in the pews.  Too esoteric.  Too mystical.  Too interested in justice, and not what the pews consider “Bible-based” (which, ironically, is the charge leveled at Jesus by the Pharisees who continually wanted to know what authority [scripture or tradition back-up] he was using to say and do the things he did).

Some who are leaving the ministry are finding the debt crushing.  Church attendance, and therefore giving, is at 1920’s levels.  Full-time calls at wages that will put food on the table and pay for seminary debt are disappearing.  Health insurance costs keep rising.  The business sector promises stability that the church can’t offer anymore.

If the church wants a learned clergy, it’s going to have to figure out this conundrum.

And some are leaving because they’re getting eaten up, and life is just too short to put up with that for too long.  We follow a Jesus who said that we’re to give our life away, but not in the way that disregards life itself. You should hear the stories coming from clergy about what is being said to and about them from the “Beloved Kingdom.”   The culture shift in the world that the institution is resisting is creating a difficult environment in many corners.  Anxiety and anger fill and fuel more than hope and service do in many places.  It’s not true everywhere, but in enough places to snuff out budding vocations.

Couple this with the fact that seminary enrollment is at unsustainable lows, we’ve really got to do some soul searching, church.

And the solution is only partly about encouraging people to go to seminary.  That won’t do the trick.  That’s like patching a road that needs to be replaced: it won’t work, at least not for long.

I think there is a clergy shortage coming from two directions.

We need to take an honest look at how it all operates.  Because we’re pumping out non-traditional clergy these days for a church that continues to want to operate in a very traditional way.

And this just isn’t going to work in the long run.

Zeus is Alive and Well in the Church

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What’s the difference between this portrayal of Zeus and most common portrayals of God?

“Tell me about your Sky Wizard,” they said to me with a smirk.

They were referring to God, of course.  A God they didn’t ascribe to.

I think there was a time in my life where hearing that phrase would have offended me, but it certainly doesn’t anymore.

Because they’re right.  The God that many Christians subscribe to is exactly like some sort of “Sky Wizard.”

They’re granting wishes (though usually people call them prayers).

They’re in control of everything: the weather, your fate, every single outcome of every single instance, pulling levers like some busy 1940’s phone operator.

They’re a trickster: Zeus was known for tricking people.  He was fair and just, but also would throw obstacles in people’s way. In the same way we have people say, “God is testing me!”

I hear it all the time, as if God has nothing better to do than mess with your life.

Blessing people who do the right thing: “God is so good.”  I don’t want to deride people for saying this, but we have to make a distinction between getting what we want and getting something from God. A lot of times I find that God calls me to do exactly what I don’t want to do.

For Christians, God is most clearly seen in the person of Jesus.

Jesus: who would give up everything for the people he loved.

Jesus: who, especially in the Gospel of Mark, doesn’t need to be in control of everything, but remained steady and dedicated to love no matter what happened.

Jesus: who didn’t grant wishes as much as responded to the needs of the world with healing and hope…and called others to do the same.

Jesus: who is not interested in blessing people with things, but forming them into blessings for the world.

Zeus is alive and well in the Christian church.  He spends his days occupied with you in so many ways.

But Jesus?  Well, Jesus is dead.

And resurrected.

And asking you to be focused more on others.

And I sometimes have trouble finding him in places where people of faith dwell.

Seriously. I find this to be a problem.

Both Biden and Trump Just Reinforced Why We Can’t Have Old, White Men in the Oval Office Anymore

shutterstock_233563201jpgSay it ain’t so, Joe…

Joe Biden has been, and continues to be, my favorite.

“Favorite what,” you ask?

Favorite most everything. Almost all of the things.  Favorite comb-over, favorite smile, favorite wink, favorite glad handing, favorite meme generator, favorite politician, favorite arm-chair theologian about life and death, favorite Catholic, favorite Delawarean (an admittedly small category).

But this most recent blustery mix of machismo and stereotypical masculinity was met by my mix of eye-rolling and head shaking.  And they both went back and forth, with Trump’s favorite weapon, Twitter, locked and loaded.

Yes, old white men, we get you…you’re going to beat each other up.  It’s how you solve problems.  And we’re oh, so impressed. And, sure, Biden was talking about taking Trump to physical task in defense of women…or so he said…but the appeal to violence, no matter how on the face noble, is simply, and unquestionably, ridiculous in this hypothetical world that these talking suits live in.

Our addiction…no…our incessant NEED for violence, our cheering on of violent rhetoric and schoolyard chest puffing is just. so. exhausting.

And as a parents raising boys, I am just. so. frustrated.  Because this is the stupidest example of “My dad could beat up your dad” kind of back and forth, except these guys are supposed to be adults.

Supposed to be.

Violence and bluster will only remain the answer to all of our problems as long as we put people in power who see it as the answer to all of the problems.

And for me, as a theologian, this whole line of thought is especially prescient because we’re heading into Good Friday where Christians will hear how the only thing Jesus “takes behind the woodshed to give a butt whooping to” is violence and death, the very thing both of these men are appealing to for power.

The disciples surely would have followed Jesus’ lead in the Garden if he had started fighting back.  They were ready for it; Peter had his sword.

What they weren’t ready for was the idea, the wisdom, that that kind of response doesn’t work in the world of the Kingdom of God.

And, as one who will one day be an old(er) white man, I have to say that unless we change our trajectory, nothing else will change, and so it has to start with me and my boys and how we raise them and how we talk about violence and death.

And how we vote.

I’m not an advocate for being doormat; by no means.  But I am an advocate for getting rid of these machismo, idiotic, schoolyard braggadocious nonsense.  No one takes it seriously, anyway.  And the people who do take it seriously aren’t worth taking seriously.

And for everyone finishing this little article thinking, “But white men aren’t the only violent people in the world…and why does he bring race into it?” I say that I hear you, and some of what you say is true.  When thinking of non-violent older, white men two of my theological crushes, Richard Rohr and Parker Palmer, come to mind.

All cultures can be violent; surely.  But not all cultures are the dominant power.

And this white, male culture is, at least here in the states, and it needs to take a break.

Let’s give it a break.  It keeps reinforcing how inadequate it is to lead in these present times.  How much more proof do we need?

The Church of the Future is Full of Good Feels. Only.

kham-pha-nhung-cong-dung-tuyet-voi-cua-vitaminDA friend and colleague recently posted this article about Zoe Church and their mass baptism on the streets of LA.

The location is no doubt double-edged: they probably couldn’t host those baptisms in the night club their church meets in.  Blood is allowed on the dance floor…but not water (and if you don’t get that reference, check your Michael Jackson albums).

But no doubt at work was the optics, too.  LA loves to roll out and walk red carpets, and what better way to design a baptismal service than to entice the cell-phone paparazzi?

The whole article, while well written, smacks of gimmick and glam.

And trust me, I don’t say this without some self-conviction. I’m not far from receiving similar accusations.  We in the mainline get accused of being into gimmick and glam when we suggest a credit-card kiosk for offerings (because who carries cash anymore?), logo-label coffee mugs, or (gasp) suggest a coffee station in the Narthex.

I’ve been called arrogant and artificial a few times (this week).

I figure most pastors my age aren’t far from such accusations.  When you lead, people will call you arrogant, even if you don’t see yourself that way. When you try new things people will accuse you of being self-serving and gimmicky, even when that’s not your intention.

Doing things differently or with a new set of eyes and ears and minds is not gimmicky.

What is gimmicky?

Leveraging Sunday to purely provide the shot of feel-good that humans say they want. Like a drug, we’re addicted to the feel-goods.  And we’ll come back for it week after week, but never feel any better, ultimately.  It will work for fooling yourself, but won’t work for what you want from it.

Read the article.

See the ending where he notes that, at the end of the day, he’s “here to preach good news. To give humanity hope…When I come to church, you know what I need? I need encouragement.”

But here’s the rub: his idea of good news, of hope, has more to do with consumerism than it does with Christ.  It has more to do with individual dreams than with Jesus.

His good news is good news for the celebrity who stars in each of our individual plays, not for the world at the center of God’s drama.

Narcissism and the current Christian culture go hand in hand.  The Jesus who you invite into your heart becomes your indentured servant in this story, granting wishes and giving you unending personal encouragement as you deal with being an adult…

That’s the story, right?

Right now in Austin, people are being targeted by a serial bomber.  How is your personal Jesus going to help them?

Right now in Syria little boys and girls are being bombed. Weekly.  It’s far from you, but do you think Jesus has a thought about it?  Or is Jesus only about encouraging you?

This is the problem with the church of the future.  Pretty soon the self-help shelves will meld with the Christian Lit shelves in the book stores (which will soon all be electronic, anyway, save for the few who have a cult following), as Jesus becomes more and more the personal talisman of the believer.

Hope is not the assurance that in the end you’ll get what you want.  Hope is the assurance that, no matter how it ends, you won’t be left high and dry by a God who cares deeply about you, your story, but also everyone else’s story, and deeply cares about how you will intersect and interact with their story.

You will be encouraged, because you won’t need the drug of the feel good every week when the true story of the wandering prophet from Galilee is seen.

You will have hope because you’ll see that the whole world can be moved and changed, not just your world.

And when the pastor in the article mentions he wants to avoid politics…well, what are we to do with church and politics?

Friend, we’re about to come up on Palm Sunday.  If you want to talk about a political march, about resistance theater done in public, read this story about a Galilean who rides on an ass instead of a white horse to snub his nose at Caesar (who would enter cities on a white horse), effectively calling Caesar the ass in the play.

You might be able to take politics out of church, but you can’t take it out of the Bible.

Is this the future of the church, the “church of the good feels”? Yes.

And no.

Because it’s the current reality.

I’m not against good feels in church.  But I am against an uncritical faith. I am against stripping the Bible of it’s power to change the world because you want to make it about solely changing your life.  I am against public theater that serves the self over the whole community.

The church is a place to know and be known.  It is a place to receive comfort and be made uncomfortable.  It is a place where your wounds are healed and the wounds of the world revealed (and, often, the ways you’ve caused such wounds whether you wanted to or not).  And it’s a place where you learn that the Good News is both about you but also about everyone else, and that should be jarring to you.

The church is about the feels, but they aren’t always what the world would call “good.”

But they are good in the same way we call “Good Friday” good…

The church of the good feels is alive and well, but I wouldn’t call it “good.”  And I wouldn’t go there.

But I would eat an acai bowl with you.

Because I like acai…not because I think you’d think I’m cool if I did.