“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.

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.

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?