The Problem with Pulpits Today

lead_720_405<BTW: all of these quotes are paraphrases, not verbatim, and cobbled together from a few like emails>

“We personally like you,” the email said, “but we leave church services more frustrated than anything, and so we’d rather just stay home.”

It was sent after I offered an email saying that I hadn’t seen them in a while, and after hearing bits and pieces of them “being unhappy.”

I mean, it’s OK, people get unhappy with their pastors sometimes.  That’s part of the deal of leadership.

But why were they frustrated?

Because they heard political undertones in my preaching.  Which is strange to me, because I meant them to be political overtones…

Not partisan, mind you.  Partisan tells you what party to vote for; I don’t care what party you affiliate with, if any.  And although I might struggle with your vote, I’m not going to tell you who to vote for…I struggle with my vote, too.  I wasn’t partisan in my preaching.  I am not, to this day, partisan in my preaching.

But political?  Well, yes.  That was there.  Because the Gospel is political.

The Gospel is about God and people, and people in community are political. So if you’re upset, blame the politician, not the pastor…I didn’t make those laws. I didn’t say those de-humanizing things.

Because this was all going on during the so-called “Muslim ban” (which nations are being added to as I write this).  The ban continues.  You forgot about it?  Huh.  Guess who hasn’t: Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, as they try to fight this ban tooth and nail.

And this was all going on as talk of wall construction continued to be shouted about, even as children were being separated at the border, and some dying.  You forgot about it?  Guess who hasn’t: the families affected by this mean-spirited legislation, perpetrated under administrations of both major parties.

And this was all going on as the nastiest, meanest, overtly racist rhetoric (remember Charlottesville?) was being spewed from our nation’s top office.  You forgot about it?  No…who could forget white yuppies with tiki-torches marching without masks through the streets of a Southern city, newly emboldened in their racism because the fish rots from the head.

And if you are a pastor in those waters, and you’re not talking about any that, shame on you.

Seriously.

Do you think Isaiah wanted to say the things he said about the powers that held sway at his time?  No.  But he had to.

Do you think Amos wanted to call from the fringes of society to point to the underclass and the rural poor, showing how they suffered under the foot of the powerful?

No…but he had to.

Do you think Jesus wanted to point out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, call his local ruler a “fox” (or, a “sly liar”), or run toward the danger of Jerusalem rather than live safely, quietly, in Galilee?

No, but he had to.  You have to, pastor.

“Never trust a pastor who tells you how to vote,” the email went on to say, “or a politician who tells you how to pray.”

I think it was an attempt at levity, but all I could do was scratch my head and wonder what was happening in our society.  I’ve heard many politicians, especially recently, tell people how to pray (just Google “prayer in schools” legislation recently brought up in the courts. Again.).

Remember the age of women’s suffrage.  Remember the era of Civil Rights (did we ever leave that era?).  Remember, pastor, and speak.

Pulpits cannot be partisan.  And pastors have a responsibility to bring people along as much as possible when it comes to difficult and divisive issues, listening and leaning in.

You can be partisan on your bumper with that bumper sticker, but not on your stole.  The stole is reserved for God’s mark, alone.

But pastors, remember also, in our baptismal rite, have a responsibility to “work for peace and justice” throughout all the world, as do all baptized persons.  And part of that work is calling out oppression and danger, especially when it is aimed at those who are already disenfranchised.

The email was right: no pastor should tell someone what party to vote for. I never did and never will from the Office.

But the pastor must tell people the truth: votes have consequences, some you may not like, some that go against the ideals of a God who is love.

And if that’s the case, preach. From the Office, from the pulpit, preach.

That’s the problem with pulpits today: people will leave over them. And that’s OK.

It’s sad, but it’s a sign of our times, and you have to preach anyway.

Hi. I’m Pro-Life but Not Anti-Choice

1-1578136179258Hi.

I’m a father of two, and I consider myself pro-life, even though I’m not anti-choice.

And actually, I view access to safe, legal, and rare abortion as part of women’s healthcare…which is about life.  So I see this all as being very consistent.

What I don’t see as consistent is the idea that being “pro-life” strictly means being “anti-choice.”  That’s not pro-life at all.  That’s pro-fetus.  That’s different.

See, I’m pro-life because I not only trust environmental science and scientists when they tell us the Earth is warming at an alarming rate, I try to do things and support legislation that will slow, if not reverse, that tide.

I’m pro-life because I’m pro universal healthcare.  If we had universal healthcare, you know what?  There would be fewer abortions.  I’m almost certain there would.  Universal healthcare is pro all life.

I’m pro-life because I’m pro public education.  In fact, I’d love more of my tax dollars to head that way.  An educated public is in my best interest, and yours, even if you don’t have any children.  I want my baristas reading Kant, knowing long division, and well-versed in politics.  You should, too.  It makes for a better society.

I’m pro-life because I’m for a social safety net that helps those who are stuck in cycles of poverty and oppression.  I’m pro-life because I’m pro breaking those cycles at every turn. The biggest farce of the traditional so-called “pro-life” movement is their abandonment of those already born in deference for the fetus.  If you force people to have babies, you should be willing to support those children to adulthood.

I’m pro-life because I’m against the death penalty, in all cases.  You might see a contradiction there between not being against abortions but being against the death penalty, but here’s the thing: I know that the person on death row is a living, breathing, human.  It’s unquestionable.  I do not know that a fetus is…none of us do.  But we do know a living, breathing, post-birth person is, regardless of what they’ve done.

I’m pro-life because I’m anti-war.  I’d love to designate the majority of my tax dollars to education and public safety, and give as little as possible to public defense.  Not because I do not enjoy the merits of a free and well-protected society, and not because I do not respect our people in uniform…I certainly do.  But because I believe we have over-compensated in that arena since the days of Eisenhower, and have left our children and our homeless and our hungry and our lonely to get the scraps of our social love.

And what’s more: those who do fight in our endless wars, which are well funded, in too many ways become homeless and hungry and lonely and sick when they return from war.  We fund them while they’re fighting, and abandon them while they’re mentally and physically and emotionally dying. This is duplicitous on our part, and we can do better.

I’m pro-life because I’m pro-immigration.  I don’t believe in open borders, but I certainly don’t believe in walls, either.  And I don’t believe in family separation, no matter if a Democrat does it, or a Republican enforces it.  Anyone who claims to be “pro-life” but wants to build a wall is playing a game of semantics and lying to themselves.  They are not pro-life; they are pro their “way of life.”  That is very, very different.

I’m pro-life because I’m pro female healthcare.  Women can choose what happens to their bodies.  So few abortions happen because a child “isn’t wanted.”  So many happen because a fetus isn’t viable, or there are other risk factors involved, and though I cannot imagine ever counseling someone to end a pregnancy, I do not think it is my right to tell them they have to continue it. You just walk with them, give them the best information available, and support them.

The choice is too personal, and too difficult, to legislate in the negative, so we must protect the legislation of the positive, of choice.

We need a re-definition of pro-life in this nation, and I say this as thousands gather in the “pro-life” march at this moment.  Our popular definition is far too narrow.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t like that abortions happen, but I understand why they do. I don’t think anyone likes that they happen. I don’t think anyone is “pro-abortion.” I cannot, as a man, relate to having to make the choice, but I can empathize for sure. It’s always tough, always sad, always personal, and, as a medical procedure, should always be legal.

Because sometimes difficult things happen in life, which means difficult choices have to be wrestled with.  And the only way to safely wrestle with them is…well…this way.

It’s about safety and healthcare in the end. It is.

You cannot “protect” the fetus in the womb and abandon it the moment the umbilical cord is cut.  That’s not protection at all.  That’s forced abandonment. That’s pro-fetus.

I think you can be pro-life but not anti-choice.

In fact, I would say that’s the most consistent way to be.

The Particular Anxiety of the Local Congregation

let-it-goCommunities have anxiety.  All of them do.

Work communities hold anxiety, especially when rumors of acquisitions, layoffs, and resignations begin to swirl.  This may be what Jesus was referring to when he said that you will hear “wars and rumors of wars.”  Maybe it wasn’t literal wars he was referring to, but the weird wars we play on an uncertain future when given the chance.

Family communities hold anxiety, too.  This usually presents itself in grudges, passive-aggressive phone calls, or over-communication between parties.  You know, so Edna doesn’t bring too much egg salad again to the picnic because no one really likes it, anyway.  And, do you think Brian will bring his boyfriend?  Because grandma can’t handle that yet…

The local congregation, too, holds anxiety, but in my experience, they do it in these really strange, yet predictable, ways.

Way One: the rumor mill.  It starts churning in the parking lot after church.  Or in the Fellowship Hall (really, shouldn’t we call these gossip halls?) during coffee hour.  Or in whispers during the offering after spying that thing in the announcements that you really don’t care for.

Notice how, in this particular way, no one actually goes to the pastor.  Instead, the pastor will hear about these “wars and rumors of wars” being fought in the shadows, and will say the predictable, “Tell them to come talk to me if they have an issue.”  And they have to say this because no one will give up the name of the person with anxiety.  Their name is “some people.”  As in, “some people are talking…”

Pro-tip: If you’re not ready to reveal who “some people” are, or usually, is (mostly always singular), don’t bother saying anything at all.

Way two: the late-night email.  Pastor’s inboxes are these strange depositories for so many people’s anxieties.  And I can’t tell you how many anxious, terse, or even just plain nasty emails, usually emboldened by rumor or fact-less fret, were sent after midnight.  It’s just there, staring at you, the minute you check it the next morning.

The inbox is where we hold a lot of our anxiety, transferring it there for safe keeping.  More often than not, I’d just delete it.  Because they didn’t need the anxiety, and had put it in my inbox.  And guess what?  I didn’t need it either, so the delete folder got it.

Way three: the anonymous note.  In what world do we think these are helpful?  Can we just all agree to put our name on our issues?  Please?  Trust me, you will feel better if you put your name on it.  Why?  Because then the pastor can actually talk to you about it.

But if you don’t want to put your name on it, do yourself a favor and write it out…and then throw it away.  Because that’s where your pastor will put it: in the literal trashcan. Or, at least, they should.  It’s what I coach them to do.

Way four: the grand withholding of funds.  “Until this is changed,” it was said, “I’m not giving another dime.”

This particular tactic isn’t just harmful to the church, by the way, but I truly believe it’s harmful to the giver.  If I agreed with every. single. thing. a place who got my benevolence did, enacted, or invested in, I’d probably never give any of it away.  Which, ironically, is what so many protestants do, as we’re known for giving only around .46% of our income away.

Notice that decimal point.

Leveraging your generosity to get your way on a pet project is probably the definition of bullying, especially for an organization that runs off of generosity.

Times of change and transition are always touchy, no matter our context.  We are animals who say we like adventure, but love to anchor ourselves in routine.  Deviation is not something humans do very well.  Evolutionarily, deviation meant danger…our lizard brains take over and our anxiety can get the best of us.

So what shall we do with our anxiety?  Name it.  Call it out.  Voice our concerns honestly with those who can actually address them.

And then see what happens.

Let them drift down the river of life.

Because our anxieties are just preoccupations with the future that prevent us from being present, and prevent us from being our best-selves.

One of the reasons I always deleted those late-night emails I received was because I knew that the person sending them was not in their right mind…because no one in their right mind sends those off.  And I wanted them to be their best-selves.  None of us need a paper trail of our most anxious moments.

But why bother to name these anxieties anyway?

Because they destroy communities.  They erode trust using half-truths and misinformation.

And they infect a congregation like a virus.  This is how congregations get sick.

The best medicine when you hear of “wars and rumors of wars” is to name the war, name the rumor, offer it up as a sacrifice to both God and anyone who can do something about it, and then, as Elsa would say:

let it go.

The Problem of the Circles

three_circlesSince I left parish ministry, I’ve had many people inquire as to the “real reason.”

Well, when I find out the whole story, I’ll tell you…

There isn’t just one, but rather many. And they’re not good or bad or anything.

They just, well, are.

A new call.  A nudge away.  A pull away.  A new mission.  I mean, all sorts of things.

But after serving in parishes for ten years, I do know a thing or two about what kills professional church workers emotionally, psychologically, and physically.  Parish ministry is, as the saying goes, “death by a thousand duck bites.”  I still, to this day, have a post-traumatic stress relationship with my phone.  When it rings, I react negatively.  Even after six months out of the parish I can’t help but wonder who died, who’s pissed, who’s in crisis, or who needs my attention.

Parish pastors aren’t, of course, the only professionals who have this relationship with their phones.  Chaplains, medical doctors, undertakers, and all sorts of on-call professionals know that dread.

But I’m not writing about that today, actually.  I’m writing about a more acute issue, one that leads to burn-out more quickly than the phone, and most any other, I’d suggest.  I’ve named it, “The Problem of the Circles,” and it literally caused me more dread in my years in the parish than most any other problem.

So, here it goes, some truth:

You have circles you run in.  Everyone does. And they overlap somewhat.

Somewhat.

One is your professional circle, or where you do your work.  It’s how you make your money, how you earn the means to eek out your small existence in this corner of the universe.

Another is your family circle, both biological and chosen.  In this circle you form relationships that sustain you and keep you.

A third is your voluntary circle.  For some this takes the form of hobbies, and for others it takes the form of charity or philanthropic work.  In some lives, those two are combined.

These three circles make up our existence and friend-base, even though not everyone has all of them.  In fact, most of the people I’ve counseled over the years are lacking one of those circles.

They’re stuck in their work, and have neglected their family or hobbies.  Or they only have their family, and have no meaningful vocation or philanthropic outlet.

Or they have a meaningful service opportunity, but work sucks and their family is non-existent.

That’s a problem, of course.  And it can be a problem for pastors, as it can be fore everyone.  In fact, I want you to stop and consider what your three circles are right now.  What do you have?

Ok, moving on…

All of these circles will overlap a bit.

But actually, I think pastors have a unique problem when it comes to the circles.

See, most people have three distinct circles: work, family, and hobbies/philanthropy are separate. They overlap, but aren’t the same. They’re different. Comprised of different people and different foci.

But for a pastor, the circles are all one and the same, or at least, that’s the expectation.  I was expected to pull my work, include my family (and pull my friends), and spend my philanthropic time all in the same circle.

If I didn’t show up for a community event at church, did it even really matter?  The pastor wasn’t there, does it count?  Why wasn’t I there?

And if the pastor isn’t at every social engagement, don’t they really care?  Couldn’t they be bothered to show their support?

Pastors are often expected to pull their work, their friends, and their leisure-time from the same sphere, and it’s just often too much.  Because if M-F is for work, Saturday is for social gatherings (that “chosen” family), and Sunday is for philanthropy, when is the time the pastor gets away?

Away to cultivate a new circle?

And not just a vacation…because vacations won’t do it.  Vacations are where you get away from all circles.  We all need a vacation; certainly.  But even week-to-week, we all need time away.

Away to form other relationships.

I can’t tell you the number of times over the last 10 years I received flack because I didn’t volunteer with this pet cause or that pet cause run by various parishes.  If I gave my time to every pet cause, guess what cause would lose out?

My family. Because it would have been, just about, every night and every weekend. Oh, and why isn’t the pastor’s family here?

In that case, my work and my philanthropy became the same circle.

Or sometimes my hobby of writing would catch flack because, well, why wasn’t I working?!

When do you think I do most of my writing? Here’s a hint: it’s usually after 5pm, and often after midnight.

But when you’re on-call all the time, when is time off?

Here’s the thing: everyone needs three circles.  At least three.

A fourth might be a friend group even outside of all of that (usually that rolls into the hobby/philanthropic circle, but can sometimes be a stand-alone group).

But everyone needs at least three circles.  And you need to be free to have them, no matter your profession.  You need to have them so you don’t become co-dependent on any one of them.

And think that’s not a real thing?  How many parents can’t stop over-parenting, even after their kids are grown?  How many professionals never really give it up, even when they’re technically “retired?”

Too many.  We become co-dependent so easily…

So, Beloved, how are you doing with your circles?

Yeah…it can be a problem.

Cultivate them.  You need them. And let others have them.

Why I Don’t Think the Magi Actually Happened, but Still Believe it’s True

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A 4th Century Carving of the Adoration of the Magi. Note that fifth person hanging around…and how Jesus is older. In Matthew this happened a few years after the birth.

The Gospel of Matthew has an agenda: it wants you to trust that the Jesus it speaks of is the same Messiah spoken of in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The writer (we call them “Matthew” but have no reason to believe a person named “Matthew” actually wrote it) is not unbiased.

The writer is not objective.

The writer is not very original, either.  Want to read an original writer?  The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are super original.  Matthew cobbles his Gospel together from a few places.

We know that the writer used the Gospel of Mark, and some other sources, in the writing of this Gospel.  The writer quotes Mark directly in some parts, and goes off writing on their own in other parts.  Some of these non-Markan passages are also found in the Gospel of Luke.

And some, well, aren’t found anywhere else.

Like the story of the Magi.

BTW, I’m going to refer to the writer as Matthew and “he” from now on, but know that the only definitive reason we call it “Matthew” is because someone in the ancient world named it that, probably so that it would get wide readership.  Booklets that were attributed to Apostles got wide readership (which is why you don’t see the letters of Clement I and Clement II [which are faithful and wonderful and should be in scripture!], and instead find the scurrilous book of James included in the canon).

Here’s the thing, though.  If you understand Matthew’s point, you can see how the Magi play into Matthew’s working theology.  And through that lens you get the meaning behind the Magi.

And that’s the important part.

What’s not important? Whether it happened or not.  In fact, that’s the truth about a lot of ancient tales and sacred scripture.  It doesn’t matter if it happened; it happens all the time!  It doesn’t matter if it happened; it’s true!

That kind of lens is, I think, one of the things missing from the faith in these post-enlightenment days.  We want things to be fact, equating fact with truth.  But fact is not always true, and true things sometime never actually happened.

I can go on in another blog about that, but back to the issue at hand…

If Matthew wants you to see that the Jesus he writes about is the same Jesus, he’s going to go to great lengths to get you to understand it.

And so one of the things that Matthew is going to do is make sure that you see that the arrival of the Messiah in the world will have a global impact.  Kings, Magi, will literally bow down before him.

They have to.  It says so in Isaiah 60:3 and Psalm 68:29 and Psalm 72:10…and other places.

And Matthew is very concerned that you see that the Hebrew prophecies come true in the life of Jesus.

See?  That’s why Luke doesn’t include it: it’s not important for Luke to prove that to you.  He has other biases.  And that’s why Mark doesn’t include it: Mark doesn’t care about that, either.

And John?  He’s a lone-ranger on this sort of thing.  It’s a miracle that Gospel even made it into the canon (especially because Jesus dies on a Thursday in John).

The Magi prove Matthew’s point: the prophecies of old come to fruition in Jesus, and so kings, Magi, have to bow down to him, especially since Herod (we know) won’t.

But even though I don’t think it happened, I still think it’s true.  Why?

Because the Jesus story has had a global impact.  And that star that the  Magi followed inspired a whole generation of cosmic exploration by Christian scientists who furthered astronomy more than most know.  And the beautiful foreshadowing that happens in Matthew, by design I think, leads you to understand the nature of Jesus: gold for kingship, frankincense echoing the sacrificial gifts of the old temple, and myrrh because he will die (it was kind of like giving Jesus a coffin).

And what’s more, Matthew makes this wonderful political statement with the story of the Magi!

If Herod, the puppet king (who was ruthless, but historically not a terrible ruler), wouldn’t bow down before Jesus, these kings would.  And when Herod tells the Magi to return to him and tell him where Jesus is, they catch wind in a dream (dreams are important to Matthew because they’re important in the Hebrew scriptures [think Jacob, Joseph, and Samuel]) that they shouldn’t, and the Magi disobey.

The point?  When your rulers tell you to do something that your conscience won’t allow, you disobey, by God.  Literally: by God.

There are all sorts of true nuggets in this story!

And here’s the thing: your pastors probably know this.  But we don’t talk about it. Instead we spend time trying to find out how the Magi traveled and where they came from and what their names were (I love that part of lore, actually…it’s fun and true, even if it’s not fact).

And all of that is, in the end, like trying to describe how a number smells.  You can go round and round and get nowhere because, well, numbers don’t smell.  The story isn’t told because it happened…don’t get wrapped up in that!

In all of that we miss the points, I think.

Because the story of the Magi is important for Matthew, and is so true in so many ways.

But did it happen?

Well, it happens all the time.

It happens when people lay down their power and agendas in deference to God. It happens when people disobey their leaders because they’ve been asked to do in moral things, and choose the path of peace instead.

It happens all the time.