Belonging and Becoming and the Problem of Sunday Morning

24well_askwell-tmagArticleI got an email yesterday.

“Tim, I read your blog, and used to more when I was in Chicago.  My daughter and her fiance are now living there, and I’m wondering if you can recommend any progressive churches that they might be welcome to join.

Her fiance is Hindu, and isn’t interested in converting. Where can they go?”

Last night someone popped in my office from an event being held here as I was burning the evening oil,

“Hey,” they said, “could I come to this church even if I don’t know what I think about God or Jesus?  Like, would I be able to be a part of it even if I’m not sure about the whole thing?”

There are two poles at play here, folks: people, especially those under 30, aren’t interested in religion as it has historically been practiced.  They are, though, interested in spirituality, connection, ritual, change, and belonging.

So what’s a church supposed to do?

Vox has a recent article out noting that places like Crossfit and Soulcycle are replacing churches in the lives of many.  Notice those names, by the way…I don’t think it’s an accident that they use the symbols of traditional religion and squeeze them in such a way that they speak something new.  The article is a spin out of a new study done by Harvard Divinity on where people are gaining their spiritual groove in the age of declining denominations.

Your fitness instructor becomes your pastor, whether they’re qualified or not.  The bike becomes your pew, the strobe becomes your candles, and your sweaty shirt smell is now the incense rising as an offering to the God keeping your breath from running out.  I say this with no mockery, by the way.  All of that ritual act is absolutely what is happening, and the problem for the church is that it is speaking clearer and better than what’s usually happening on Sunday morning in most churches.

Some might read the above paragraph and say, “Well, the church needs to speak clearer, then!”

But, I’m finding that it’s kind of like speaking sister languages, actually: they sound the same, have the same root words, and you can understand some of what the other is saying…but the translation isn’t the problem.

They’re similar, but different.

And so the question for the church isn’t how to speak louder or clearer, but the question is actually: are you willing to learn a new language?

The Vox article notes that people want two things these days: belonging and becoming.

The church has historically said that the belonging portion of Christian activity has to do with belief subscription and faith affirmation.  Well, at its best it does.  At its worst it has to do with transferring your membership and giving an offering…

And becoming?  Layers upon layers of issues have stacked up on this particular point for the church.  Doctrines like “original sin” and rituals like “the sinner’s prayer” have all emphasized how bad you are, and how reliant on God you are to become anything different or new.  The actual affects of such repentance and forgiveness cycles are hard to see, though.

The effects of Soulcyle though?  Look in the mirror.

The problem with Sunday morning isn’t that people aren’t interested in the topic.  They certainly are!

The problem with Sunday morning is that people aren’t interested in the medium.  They don’t trust the outcome because they can’t see the results.  They don’t feel like they belong, at least not in a way in which their whole selves can be present.

So, what’s the church going to do?

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.

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

Oh, NECCO wafers…necco-wafers

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

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

Because they were.

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

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

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

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

It’s not pretty, mind you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not for profit, but for pruning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?