When I Think About My Children on Ash Wednesday

636239814887137802-Ash-Wed-5I know I write and talk a lot about my children.  They have totally changed everything about my life, and even much about me.

Like, just now, my younger son, who attends preschool at the church I currently serve, popped his head into my office and said, “I love you, Daddy!”  It’s totally changed my work day.

He does this every day, mind you.  It’s one of the things I wait for in the morning.  “I love you, too,” I respond.  He always waits around until I say it, letting his class go on down the hall.  After he hears it he’ll run to catch up with them.

We wait for love.

One of the most moving and meaningful things as a pastor is Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday we get to do some public art: the public act of remembrance that you place on the foreheads of everyone who comes, from the oldest to the youngest, that we are dust.

That time is fleeting.

That the world buries us one minute, one hurtful act, one sinful offering at a time (much of which we participate in), and there is very little that we can do to stop it, so we should wait around to feel love whenever we can get it.

A few years ago on Ash Wednesday I was walking through the neighborhood in Chicago when a well-known gadfly said incredulously to me in my formal collar, “Gonna peddle some superstition today, eh Father?”

I ignored him.  But as I thought about it, I realized that if I was going to speak to him on one day, Ash Wednesday would be that day, because Ash Wednesday is the day where religion offers something that speaks to everyone, regardless of what they do, or do not, believe: you will die.

Dying is the leading cause of death.

The knowledge of our mortality is too much to bear sometimes, though. And as I mark my own babies with that cross, I always choke a bit. It is too much for them to bear, too.

And yet, with their bodies, they do.  Because cells grow cancer. Because heart disease and car accidents and suicide don’t seem to care about your age.  And my babies are made of cells, and ride in cars, and live, and it happens. To all of us.

But instead of being depressing, Ash Wednesday is like the day when we all communally hug the cactus of our mortality, hug the cactus that we do wrong and harm in this world, even when we do want to (but also, sometimes, we do want to) and remind ourselves that we are not gods.

We are not God.

And once we get that fact out of the way, somehow we start to truly live.  Like the cancer patient in remission who realizes that life is better spent on love than arguing.  Like the near-death experience that increases are thirst for life rather than makes us more fearful.  Like the person living with depression who, because the meds are finally working, smiles and laughs and realizes that they are worth it, by God.

When I think about my boys, my babies, my children on Ash Wednesday, I am full of hope.

I hope that they will embrace life, and death, and all of it with a gusto, with a big bear hug, as confident as they wear that cross, that sign of hope for Christians, on their brow.  I hope it reminds them to love really freely, and really intensely, and to wait for love, and stick around for it.  I hope it reminds them that they don’t have to do it all, they don’t have to be perfect, that nothing is unforgivable, and that they can admit that sometimes life is too much to carry alone, and that they aren’t alone even when it feels like that.

And, sure, my eyes will tear up, and I’ll choke a bit, but not because I will think of their death, but because I will think of how they can, they will, with their lives, and their love, overcome all that tries to bury them in this life, by God.

 

On Spiritual Heroin

6392110-depositphotos_27815151_original-1472641889-650-54cd1b8c1a-1492240092Dopamine.

That regulator of emotional response that infects our gray matter.

You get a little shot of dopamine when you see a social media post that you wrote gets a like. Or a share.

You get a little shot of dopamine when you eat a food you really love, and which is probably just a little bit (or a “lotta-bit,” as my kids would say), bad for you.

You get a little shot of dopamine when you’re involved in healthy and unhealthy sexual activity.

You get a little shot of dopamine in certain spiritual and religious settings, too.  Intense spiritual retreats or weekends that use physiology, sociology, psychology, and yes, some smattering of theology, can create a situation of euphoric high.

Not unlike a drug.

Connection. Creativity. All the feels…

The problem with the dopamine wave, of course, is that a trough follows. It always follows.  There’s no other way to make a wave.  You can’t have a wave without a trough.

And the real trouble, of course, is that if you experience a “spiritual high,” you may get the idea that “this is what God feels like.”  And so when you’re not feeling that high, you’re pretty sure you’re not feeling God.

And if you’re not feeling God, then you need to be finding God…

I have a few friends who are perpetual church shoppers.  They go from this big box to that big box, seeking out that spiritual high. Their excitement is always at its zenith when they find a new place.  But when the trough appears, or the shine wears off, or the lights fade just a bit, off they go.

I don’t blame them.  And I’m no better, perhaps. If I weren’t a branch manager, I might do the same thing. I don’t think I would, but I might.  I don’t know…but in looking objectively at it, I see the behavior without being in it, and wonder about it.

I can’t say if I’m again spiritual highs or not, actually.  Kind of like I can’t really tell if I’m against candy bars.

Because in theory, I am against candy bars in many ways.  They’re bad for your teeth, your diet, and your overall health.  Not just bad in excess, mind you.  They’re actually just bad.  And may be as addictive as nicotine.

It certainly can get your dopamine running.

And yet I eat candy bars sometimes. And I’ve had a cigar in my life once or twice.

We must be honest about this reality: we do destructive things on purpose sometimes because we enjoy them.

But we hopefully do them with clear eyes.

I worry, though, when it comes to spirituality, that the lens is foggy and the mirror is dark.

I’m not making a case for boredom when it comes to religion. Trust me: religion is making that case for itself quite well without my help.

But I am making the case for clear-eyed analysis of how we claim to experience the Divine; an inquiry into what we’re talking about.

Because an excess of dopamine creates monsters. Religious and spiritual fanatics who are willing to do terrible things.  Even believe terrible things about other people who don’t share the high.

Because they’re not thinking clearly.  They’re literally “doped up” on religion.

Modest, regular amounts of dopamine are necessary for creativity, courage, and pleasure.  It’s not that we don’t need it.  We do need it.

But when we regularly strive to get a rush from it, a high, we fall into the pattern of the addict, surviving the trough until the next hit, willing to do or believe terrible things to get the fix.

And yet the faith says that we’re not to survive, but to live.  Not live through the trough, but in it.

I’m wondering, out loud, if spiritual highs are less about God, and more about us.

More about our brain than metaphysics.

I don’t know.

But I do think they’re probably addictive.

And I wonder if the addiction is part of what has effectively wounded the mainline.

 

 

“I Only Do This in Two Places: the Church and the Bar”

imagesThis past Sunday it hit home to me again.

I’ve said it for years, but it hit home for me again.  In church we do this absolutely counter-cultural thing.  This thing that, really, we only do in two places: the church and the bar.

 

Now, some might also do it at other, in-frequent places, like sports arenas or concert halls.  And you might do it with professional organizations, if you’re the kind of person who digs it more than the hoi polloi.

But I’m going to guess that this activity is one that, for most people, only occurs in two places, namely the church and the bar: communal singing.

Well, and probably confession, but we’re going to stick with singing in this blog post…

Yes, you probably sing in the shower, but not in community (though, that would be funny to hear that coming from the gym locker room at the local YMCA).

Yes, you sing in your car, but probably only by yourself or one other trusted person who won’t make fun of your mis-remembered lyrics and off-key high note to a-ha‘s Take On Me.

I’ve known atheists who were the most active church attenders simply for the music.  It’s that powerful of a movement within humanity.  It just wells up inside us, and has to have an out.

Here’s an out.

You might think this is a poor reason to go to church, but there are much poorer ones that motivate the supposedly pious…

If you want to talk about having a reason to check out a church, especially if you’re not particularly religious, this is one of the most practical reasons: to sing with other people.

The need is there within you.  Indulge it.  It’s human.

And probably Divine.

And probably (in the right community) a healthier habit than the bar.

 

Is The Church Growing or Just Aging?

68747470733a2f2f7777772e67696674737465722e636f6d2f6e6577732f77702d636f6e74656e742f75706c6f6164732f323031332f30332f492d646f6e742d6b6e6f772e6a7067I was recently listening to Krista Tippett and Adam Gopnik wax eloquently on all matters of faith and doubt.  The original airing of this particular episode of On Being  was first heard back in 2015, but they re-played it in December of 2017.

And, of course, I just listened.  Which gives you some insight into how far behind I am in my podcasts.

But Gopnik, who is ethnically Jewish, though he doesn’t practice a faith (and, funny enough, has a Lutheran spouse) was talking about how at his family reunions he’s been noting how some relatives are growing, and some are simply aging.

And though he puts himself in the “simply aging” category, I disagree.  Because he defines “growing” in this sense as “still discovering” and being filled with a sense of awe and wonder.  And if you read any of his writing (and you should read ALL OF IT) you know that’s not true.

He’s growing, even in his old(er) age.

But it got me to thinking about the church, individual congregations, and this common life we share together.  I have to wonder: is the church at large, and your congregation in particular, growing? Or just aging?

And not in numbers.  But growing like a tree grows.  Like a flower grows.  Like a sea full of life, grows and swells.

Are you embarking on new territory?  Are you changing things up, and allowing yourself to be surprised at what happens?  Are you discovering new gifts you never knew you had?

Or is it all the same?  Familiar, but frozen?

And what about you?  Is your faith growing, or just aging?

Are you finding awe and wonder at new insights and new thoughts?  Has your faith evolved with your experience(s) of life and death?  Are your encounters with the gay community, the immigrant community, that ethnic community you historically have feared, changed the way that you see God and see yourself?

Have you grown past seeing God as some sky wizard pulling levers, or some Santa Claus keeping track of naughty and nice lists? Has God become, as theologian Paul Tillich says, “The ground of all being?”

Or is your faith unchanged, and therefore, unchallenged?

Perhaps in 2019 we can all take a bit of stock, communally and personally, to ask ourselves:

Are we growing…or just aging?

And if you’re afraid to ask the question, well…then you know the answer.

“I’m Your Huckleberry” or “The Church Can’t Be a Storehouse of Issues”

1848441_1My therapist tells me things I don’t like to hear.

And I pay him to do it.  Which sounds like a racket, but it seems to work…usually…

In this last session we were talking about how sometimes people in helping professions become the subject of people’s ire for no discernible reason.

For people like me, well, it really bothers me.  I’m happy for you to dislike me if I’ve ticked you off or made an unpopular decision.  That makes sense.

But many times pastors end up being the subject of people’s disdain simply because, well, humans need enemies.  And pastors are pretty easy pickings, most days.

They (usually) care, and it’s always better to dislike someone who cares if they’re liked or not.  What good is a grudge if no one feels it but you?

And sometimes people just don’t like you for being you.  And that, folks, is the the hardest to take. Because there’s not a darn thing you can do about it.  And so you just have to let your skin get tough…and go to therapy.

Anyway, I was talking to the therapist, a former pastor himself, about this phenomena, and he said, “Ah, yes.  You’re their (expletive). They need one, and you get to be it. Lucky you.”

I mean, go ahead and choose your own expletive. He used one I can’t write on a public blog that my mom will (probably) read.

But being a Val Kilmer fan, I’ll choose his word used in his iconic role as Doc Holliday in Tombstone: “I’m you’re Huckleberry.”

I’m their Huckleberry.

We all have a Huckleberry, by the way.  Or even a few of them.

Our Huckleberries are usually that not for something they did, but usually for this indiscernible reason that we just can’t seem place.

We just don’t like them.  We just don’t.

When pastors get this kind of flack, there are all sorts of reasons.

It may be because they’re not the previous pastor.  Or not like the previous pastor enough to pass muster.

Or maybe it’s because they made that one comment that one time, and even though they’ve clarified it, you don’t buy it…

Or maybe you don’t like their preaching or personality.  Or they’re too outspoken, or a woman, or…or…

Or maybe, and this is the worst one, maybe it’s “just because.”

Most of my Huckleberries are my Huckleberries not for anything they did, but mostly because of me.

They are that because of my own baggage that I put on them and force them to carry, even though they didn’t ask for it.  I have to have somewhere to put it, and they’re usually an ideal spot in my mind: they don’t have to consent to carry it.

The Biblical model for this whole human practice, by the way, is the Scapegoat. It’s a totally human, and apparently ancient, thing that we do.

Check out Leviticus 16 if you’re interested…the Christian tradition’s most damaged atonement models flow from this idea.  And, I would posit, scapegoating is damaging all around, for everyone, both the goat and the “scaper.”

While having scapegoats, having Huckleberries, seem to be an important part of what it means to be a human with issues (and we all have issues), scapegoats (or, as I prefer it, Huckleberries) prevent you from ever confronting your own crap.

And instead, the Huckleberry becomes the embodiment of our issues. Our issues with legs on. Our issues that can talk and smile and do good…which makes us dislike them all the more.

See, we all know this intellectually.  We know this.  We know it’s a problem; we know it’s a manufactured malady that we create to deal with life.

And yet, we will do all sorts of mental and emotional gymnastics to justify having a Huckleberry.  Because we will run away from our shadows for as long as we can…and some of us have become very good at it, and the Huckleberries grow on every tree, and as long as we never have to deal with our issues, but can misplace them onto others, well, we’ll go on…

And so will our issues.

Part of what the helping professions do, I think, is take it on the chin for folks who just need a Huckleberry.  It’s just true.  And I say that with no amount of romanticism or martyrdom or any of that useless mess.

The world doesn’t need any more martyrs.  What I’m trying to talk about is truth.

And the truth is that as long as we use religion as the harbor for our misplaced issues, it can never do what it’s intended to do: free us.

Instead it just becomes the storehouse for the issues we hoard away.  A living museum of our personal problems transferred from one person to another.

And no one needs that enshrined…

So here’s an idea: let’s all start unloading our scapegoats and taking back our own issues. Leave your pastor, your musician, your teacher, your social worker, your doctor, your parents, your whomever out of your issues.

Let’s all start working through them, piece by piece, and clear out the rummage sale of religious baggage out there a bit so that the church can be a place of healing.  The church has enough issues of its own, they don’t need yours!

But the trick is, of course, that you can’t store them anywhere else, either. You have to start sorting them out, bit by bit.

I mean, it’s worth a try.

Because as long as you have a Huckleberry, you’re stuck working through your stuff from afar.

Because, in all honesty: you’re your own Huckleberry.

 

Why You Will Join the Wrong Church

6776-church_old_winter.630w.tnAlain de Botton’s 2016 New Yorker opinion piece, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” remains one of that magazine’s most read articles. And for good reason.

When I first read it back in 2017, after it was named the “most read article of the year,” I remember feeling both convicted and relieved. He names all the conventional reasons we marry (or fail to marry) in these days: we’re drawn together clumsily though, in our minds, through fate that reason cannot comprehend; we claim to want happiness but really we want familiarity, and we think this person will scratch that itch; and we really just want all the good feels we have in the present moment to continue.  Nothing will quite do that by putting a ring on it…or so we tell ourselves.

We all read this and laugh.  But it’s a tragic laugh.  Because it’s true, and we’ve all fallen in the trap at some point, even if we’ve never married, because we subconsciously buy into all of these ideas and adopt or abandon LTR’s (long-term relationships) before and after the ring because of how they do or do not meet these criteria.

The brilliance of the piece is not in that it points a finger at marriage and laughs.  It, in fact, does no such thing.

Instead I would call it an “apocalyptic piece,” in that it pulls back the veil of marriage and LTR’s to reveal them for the broken things they are.

Broken things are not unusable or useless, by the way.  But they are broken.

As I was reading the article I was thinking, “Huh. A related article could totally be something like, ‘Why You Will Join the Wrong Church.'” These same factors are at play in the subconscious in looking for faith communities, and seeking out spiritual leaders.

-We stumble into a church or a tradition and feel it is fate for us to be there because, in that moment, everything feels to good/right/just what we need.

-We claim to want love, but what we really want is the feels, especially the same old feels for those of us who have been doing this religion thing for a while.  It has to feel like church…or, conversely, feel like the idea of church that we’ve had in our mind but have never experienced feels like.

-We want permanence.  Grounding.  Which is why when pastors leave, hymns change, buildings change, carpets change, people leave, people arrive…you name it…we’re all too ready to opt out.

Alain de Botton suggests that we view marriage not like a romance novel, but rather like a tragedy, and often a comedic one.  As he puts it:

“We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”

In the same way, I’d suggest that we view joining a church like a comedic, and often tragic, tale of star-crossed lovers encountering one another and making it work.

Because here’s the truth about both marriage and finding a faith community: the active agents are not finished products. In many ways even the idea of “products” is not quite correct.  All the active agents in these relationships are unfinished and broken and, you’ll find quite soon, that you’re broken in different places.

See: you thought you were broken in complementary places.  And sometimes that might be the case.  But in most situations, you’re going to have to force the fit (at best), and at worst just hug the cactus that is the truth that you’re both broken in different places and aren’t going to get fixed.

At least not in a way that you want.

You’re going to join the wrong church, or have the wrong pastor, because our ideas of what makes a “right one” are romantic (and, perhaps, fantasy or fiction if we’re naming genres).

Marriage is an experiment where two people try to love each other into being better versions of themselves.  It is not about meeting needs (though there is that), and it certainly is not about meeting expectations.

It is not about not feeling lonely anymore.  It is not about constantly scratching your spiritual itch.  And it is certainly not about singing your favorite songs, sitting in your favorite pew, having your children experience the exact same things you did as a child, or even fostering that totally different experience that you’ve always longed for, and finally this church has it.

You will continue to be lonely (as we all are).  You will be disappointed in the lack of spiritual depth (or the different spirituality). You will be sad because it’s all changed or, conversely, all the same but just in different wrapping.

You will disappoint one another. Hurt one another. Be indifferent when you should care, and care too much about things that really don’t matter.

And you’re going to think to yourself “It shouldn’t feel like this!”

But it does. And will.  It shouldn’t be abusive, mind you.  But it will always end up being disappointing. On many fronts.

A faith community isn’t about any of that, anyway, when you pull back the veil.

It is about loving each other into a different way of being, by God.

Which sounds pretty Godly, if you ask me.

And, of course, there are totally legitimate reasons to leave your church, especially if you find that the Jesus they talk about doesn’t love as widely as you know God to love. Abandon any ship that isn’t good news for everyone.

But that’s rarer than we think.

More often than not the reason we’re dissatisfied is because, well, we just joined the wrong church.

Which is totally normal.

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.