About Timothy Brown

A pastor. A writer. A dreamer. Occasionally a beer brewer. Pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Come check us out!

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

maxresdefault

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.

How To Read the Bible-A Primer

bible-pagesThe Bible is not a book.

It is a collection of books.

The Bible is not a type of literature.

It is composed of many types of literature.

Christians hold the Bible in high esteem, perhaps too high in some circles, because the way that some Christians talk you’d think the Bible is their God, superseding even the very acts of Jesus described in the Bible.

This is actually heretical, even sinful, because it breaks the very first commandment in the Decalogue (if you need a reference, go ahead and check out Exodus 20:1-17 or Deuteronomy 5:4-21).  In my view Fundamentalists have become what they continually deride: idolaters.

So, if you’re a reforming Fundamentalist, an Evangelical who has read the Bible like an encyclopedia, a Mainliner who doesn’t really know where to start, or perhaps you’re on the edge of being Christian at all (or maybe you’re not even sure you can claim to be that close), I have a prescribed way to read the Bible that I commend to you.

  1. Read a good study Bible.  Not any study Bible, but a good study Bible.  The Harper Collins Study Bible, the Lutheran Study Bible, or some annotated version of the New Revised Standard Version are all to be commended.

    To be avoided?  The King James Version (or any variation of it).  The Living Bible. Any form of an “Augmented Bible.”  Any version of a gender specific/life-stage specific Bible (unless it’s an NRSV translation).
    Get’s a “meh” from me: the NIV, the Common English Version, or anything the Gideons pass out.

    The Message is a fine paraphrase to use if you’re using it for devotional purposes, as is The Book of God.

    Not all Bibles are equal, and what I mean by that is not all Bibles are translated with the same scholarly scrutiny.  Some of these interpretations take terrible liberties with translations, and even more problematic, some of them take absolutely wrongful liberties with commentary.  Any Bible that tries to pinpoint Eden, that attempts to locate support for the Rapture, or posits Esther or Jonah as history rather than story, are of poor scholarly quality.

    And it’s worth noting that the Christian industrial complex (if I can name it that) has consistently duped and made money off of people because they assume that most Christians either aren’t smart enough or discerning enough to know the difference. 

    Just like you should not buy any snake oil from a traveling salesman, don’t buy it if it’s embossed in gold, says “The Bible” on it.

  2. Read it with other people. The Scriptures are best read in community because then you hear what other people are taking from a passage.  Read it and re-read it. Because parts of scripture say different things at different times in your life.
  3. Reading the Bible from front to back is not usually helpful. The Bible was compiled with some logic to rough timeline, but it’s not like a novel.  So reading it front to back is not always the best way to read it.

    The Jewish ordering of the Hebrew Scriptures places the books according to type of literature rather than timeline.  Sometimes adopting that kind of reading schedule is more helpful, because you group types of writing together, staying in the same medium.  This is roughly how the New Testament is arranged.

    And, boy I know this is controversial, but there are simply parts of the scripture that perhaps are better left as un-turned pages.  There are pieces that are shallow, and some even dangerous, without some extra guidance (like a good Pastor, a great lexicon, or a reputable commentary).  Adopt a way of reading that works for you, and if something presents itself as a head scratcher, let it go unresolved for a bit.

  4. Speaking of unresolved…you’re going to find contradictions and errors…but keep reading and don’t try to resolve them too quickly, and don’t force a resolution.  And if you don’t, you’re not reading with your brain (which is a mistake, friend).  Why is it that scientists and mathematicians, engineers and auto-mechanics are well-practiced at using problem solving skills in their every day work and perfectly welcome scrutiny as a useful tool in their trade, but all of that is suspended the minute they crack the Bible?

    The Bible is held in high esteem by Christians, but this does not mean that we do not use methods of discernment and scholarly discipline when reading it.  In fact, I’d say that people who take a “plain reading” view of Scripture (or anything!) holds that thing in such low esteem that they are unwilling to submit it to the same tools and rules of finding knowledge.

    The Bible is not an encyclopedia, so don’t treat it like one.  It is not an instruction manual, either.  Any reading that adopts this kind of “hunt and peck,” or “search and find” method does it absolutely no justice and, I would say, is not how it was intended to be read at all.

    The scriptures are full of tension.  The Bible contradicts itself.  It has errors.  And those who put it together saw these, by all accounts, and decided to keep it all the same.  They lived with the tension.  Why can’t we?

    Don’t force a resolution.  Live in the tension.  Such is the life of faith.

  5. Literary over literal. These books were not written for these times, specifically.  So we must adopt a malleable eye and meaning-making mind when reading the scriptures.I am not saying that they’re not applicable to these times.Certainly the message(s) is applicable!  Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing any of this.

    But to imagine that the writers had you in mind when they wrote it is to steal their agenda and make it your own.

    The scriptures continue to speak into today, but they use the language, imagery, and thought process of yesterday.  This is helpful when reading passages that don’t jive cohesively with our understanding of psychology, sociology, and even systematic theology.

    Again, allow the tension to linger.

    And one of the worst things that we can claim is that the scripture contains science. It does not.  When representatives in Congress come to the floor to advocate that Creationism be taught alongside Evolution, they make the mistake of thinking that all theories are equal.

    They are not.  Christianity does itself no favors when it mistakes theology for biology (and I would say that science makes the same mistake all the time, too).

The Reformation may have brought the Scriptures to the people, but in some ways the theological world is paying the price for interpretations that have happened without any regard to good scholarship and training.

We wouldn’t buy a chemistry workbook written by someone who only took Chemistry 101 in high school, so why do we buy Bible studies written by people with little more theological training than an advanced Sunday School curriculum (looking at you so-called Bible Colleges)?

Not all Bibles are the same.  Not all studies are the same.  And when we treat them all the same we create an environment that is not only hostile to Christianity (because who would trust a discipline with such terrible standards?), but an environment also hostile to the pursuit of knowledge.

Ye (Me?) of Lots of Beliefs but Little Faith…

BeleifBrian McLaren, in his book The Great Spiritual Migration, has this phrase that he used early on in the piece that caught me as being very true.  He said that some people have “many beliefs, but little faith.” (p.45)

Beliefs, he suggests, are opinions or judgments about which someone is fully persuaded. While they may not be verifiable in any reliable way, they are held as un-waveringly true by their adherents.

Faith, on the other hand, doesn’t flow forth from certitude, but rather from the conviction that risking for the sake of love is better than not.  And faith, in McLaren’s definition (and in mine) is always connected with deep, abiding love.

So, according to McLaren, an individual might have a ton of beliefs, these things they are so certain about, but have little faith.  Their propositions are not rooted in a deep, abiding love that is much bigger than their human understanding of the notion.

They can spout off the Apostle’s Creed, for instance, but have no experience of the God they profess.

They can assert supposedly moral dictums, but have no understanding of the generous space from which morality flows.

They often want to impose their beliefs on others, ignoring how such coercion violates the love they want to claim they have.

Faith, on the other hand, holds the tension of not knowing, not needing to know, and not needing everyone to agree with them, well.  Faith leans into the great mysteries of God and holds loosely to the small dogmas that we’ve created about God.

Faith has no need to coerce, but rather coaxes through intentional dialogue and open invitation.

Faith doesn’t just spout off any Apostle’s Creed, but knows intimately the creative, salvific, and sustaining properties of God’s presence because they’ve made it past the life/death, resurrection/redemption, sin/righteousness dualisms that religious history has tried to make us choose between.

The life of faith lives the creed, it doesn’t just believe things about the creed.

Beliefs are so strong, like concrete.

But they crack over time, making them hard to maintain, hard to navigate, just…hard.

Faith, though, is like soil. Tillable, changeable, able to adapt and move with the uneven landscape of growth and advancing years.

And many will find faith challenging their beliefs, growing up through the cracks.  Sometimes this invasion of faith can be worrisome.  It’s hard for faith to coexist with beliefs sometimes…faith is so unpredictable, and beliefs are so rigid.

Usually a good dose of fear will take care of the faith growing through the cracks of belief. Fear that too much overgrowth will create too much upheaval and then, well, where would we be?

Lots of organized religion has centered itself around beliefs.  Just take a look at church websites and click on their “What We Believe” page.  You’ll find it all there.

But what about faith?

Lots of people, whether they consider themselves religious or not, have a lot of beliefs.

But what about faith?

So…

Do you have beliefs?  Or do you have faith?