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?

 

Corporations Need Pastors

manager-1

This is from the movie _Office Space_…please don’t sue me.

Corporations need pastors.

Not in some “personal spiritual advisor” sort of way that many people take it…as if God has to rubber stamp your thoughts and your work.  That kind of pastoring is largely just ego-stroking.

I’m talking about the real day-to-day work of a pastor that has more to do with picking up the broken pieces of existence, not reinforcing the powerful-but-fragile personalities at the top.

I’m talking about pastoring the real, vulnerable, crap-laden work of the corporate world.

I mean, let’s be honest, many HR professionals unofficially take on this role.

Or perhaps it’s the admin at the front desk who is both gatekeeper and secret-keeper for the people behind the door.

You know the situation: he’s the one everyone comes to with their frustration; she’s the one that everyone sees as both their confidant from the power brokers and their access to the power brokers.

But often times these are ad hoc roles, a way for the living organism that is the corporate ecosystem to right itself (or keep the even keel) so that harmony can exist within and mission…if there is one…can be maintained without.

Really, though, HR can only go so far before they break their own rules and regulations as both confidant and enforcer.  And the person at the front desk may have the skills…but do they have the time?

Or, even worse, they have the time but not the skills…which is part of the problem…

Which is why corporations need pastors, chaplains, spiritual leaders. Because…well, let me give you a glimpse into the life:

-at our best we are well-practiced at the art of prioritization.

-every week we prepare at least one, but normally 4 or 5, formal reports.  We do research, we write, edit, and re-write. We lean on knowledge and actively gain more knowledge as part of our work.

-every week we craft experiences. Every week we seek to engage hundreds of other people into the mission of the place, intentionally, through shared experiences.

-every week we seek to make direct connections between people’s experience and their greater purpose in the world.

-every week we seek to foster community.

-every week we mediate between individuals.

-every week we mediate between people and their personal struggles.

-every week we invite people to intentionally reflect on their lives.

-every week we deal intimately with a budget, and when we’re at our best, we filter our budget through our priorities.

-every week we manage staff and volunteers.

-every week we coach people in problem solving, both personal and otherwise (which I’ve sought special training to be able to do).

-every week we provide an ear and an open presence to take on the burdens of others, throwing them into the nether regions of the world so that the person doesn’t have to carry them…or at least, not as much of them.

-we’re trained and skilled in counseling, and don’t charge counseling fees.  And when we’re healthy we’re a discerning referrer, paying attention to what we can help you through and what might require therapy beyond our capacity.

-we’re a trained dumping ground for anxiety. We can teach and encourage practices that alleviate stress and move people to living fuller lives.

-if you’ll let us, we’ll help you tap into something bigger than yourself.  Most people I work with call it God.  Some call it “purpose.”  And some just say that they feel different after our time together.  But regardless of what you think is going on, something is.

-we’re great at giving permission: to let go; to feel; to stop feeling; to ignore; to pay extra attention to.

-every week I have active projects with moving deadlines.  We juggle people’s expectations and weigh them against our calling…and we help people do the same in their lives.

-every week we tell stories that wrap up the stories of others into a larger purpose

-every week we provide ritual moments that ground people in their contexts.

None of this is intended to glorify the work.

If anything, writing all this down terrifies me a bit (no wonder I’m tired as all get out every day)…

And, of course, I’m leaving out the phrases like, “Every week I wonder what the heck I’m doing and if I’m making a difference and I sit at my desk and scratch my head for a half hour deluding myself into thinking I’m working when actually I’m just not sure where to start…”

Which, of course, means that we’re just like you in many ways.  But often times that’s exactly what you need: someone assigned to walk with you who is in many respects just like you because in this social media crazed world it feels like no one can relate to you. Right?

I write it all because, more often than not, when I talk to people in the corporate world, they’re struggling with time management and purpose.  They’re struggling with having the rat-race business rub up against their values.  They’re struggling with connecting their work with their deeper purpose in life.  They’re struggling with how to relieve anxiety and stress in an ever expanding work week.  They’re struggling with a corporate culture that encourages competition to the detriment of personal actualization and mission cohesion.

And I write this because the CEO’s and managers I talk to struggle with keeping mission and vision at the forefront of their work.  They struggle with asking the hard questions about their role and impact in a society that is feeling more fragile and fractured these days.

And there’s evidence that a deep spiritual life helps an individual handle life…which makes me think it could certainly help a corporation handle life.

Most people think a pastor’s work is primarily one of evangelization, and certainly that fits our training.  But practically, I see the soul-emptying work of many of my friends screaming for a chaplain for their soul.  And not just outside of their work, but specifically in their work.

With the growing number of “nones” and “dones” who are leaving organized religion (and with good reason…I get it), there is an aspect of life that might be lost here.  An aspect of the whole person that might get neglected.

And I wonder, I just wonder, what would happen if a corporation took a chance and, instead of hiring a new M.BA sought out an experienced, nuanced, competent M.Div?

Not to convert, but to convey.

Convey that this organization cares about you past your on-paper productivity.

I just wonder, what would it look like for corporations to invest in the soul of their employees in the same way they ask their employees to invest in the corporation.

I just wonder if corporations need pastors.

 

We Need to Stop Stigmatizing Mental Illness Every Time There’s a Mass Shooting

53dc9ad853199-fullI haven’t quite figured out how to say what I want to say here.  It’s just not coming out right.  So I’ll start by saying these three things that I think are absolutely true:

First, there is no excuse for the Parkland shooter.  What he did was evil and horrible.

Second, we cannot have a conversation about mass shootings that only looks at mental illness and not at gun availability, gun sales, or our culture that idolizes violence.

And finally, when we talk about mental illness or mental health in these tragic situations, we need to start being more specific.

Because not all mental illness is the same.  And we further stigmatize it when that’s (now) all that we talk about after a mass shooting.

In fact, there are over 200 different classified forms of mental illness.

And every time we have mass shooting in this nation, pundits and politicians and talking heads start pontificating about “mental illness,” as this generic, scary thing lurking in the dark corners of the classroom, of the internet, of the backstreets of America far from where normal, happy, and healthy people live.

And the problem with all of this is that many children (and adults), who would never pick up a gun and never hurt anyone, live with mental illness.  And more and more are being diagnosed with mental illness at an earlier age…using that term (because that’s what it is)…and so they hear all this mess and it heaps loads of shame upon them.

Depression is mental illness.

Bi-polar disorder is mental illness.

ADD and ADHD are forms of mental disorders.

Anxiety disorders are forms of mental illness.

Schizophrenia is mental illness.

PTSD is mental illness.

Dementia, even, is mental illness.

The Greek word for “desert” is eremos, which literally means “abandonment.”  And for many people, living with a mental illness already feels a bit like a desert experience, like you’re alone and abandoned and no one understands quite what you’re going through.

And to trumpet this as the cause behind these mass shootings, well, it’s just not the full case, and doing so just intensifies that desert experience for many.  It further stigmatizes an already stigmatized illness.

And if we can’t talk about banning gun sales because not all gun owners and not all guns are the same, then we can’t talk about all mental illness as being the same.

(And don’t even get me started on the phrase “nut job” being in the same sentence as mental illness…which I heard from one politician.)

And today I heard calls for people to report “trouble children,” and news reports continually use the word “loner” when talking about him, and I’m not sure what to do with that.  If more energy was put into befriending and including and lifting up these so-called trouble or loner children, we’d probably be better off.

Sure, we should report any activity, online or otherwise, that fantasizes about mass murders (which this individual did…and authorities knew about).  And of course if a kid is talking about shooting up a place, we need to tell someone (which he did…and the authorities knew about it).

But, if you ask me, instead of looking for so-called loners, look for kids (and adults) with unhealthy idealizations of war, first-player shooting game obsessions (especially if they can talk to others online without parental supervision), unquestioned racism and bigotry, and unaddressed tragedy in the home or in the heart…these are probably more accurate indications of brooding unrest than just being a “loner.”

If you ask me, we should start talking about how we, as a society, have become violence voyeurs.

All of this is more troubling than having “weird kids” being singled out. So let’s not go reporting every kid who is quiet in class, wears black instead of blazing colors, likes to write and read and play role-playing games just yet…

All of my church’s research on youth ministry hammers home that the more adults that are active and involved in a child’s life, the more that child will feel cared for and accepted.  It’s not just peers, and even probably not primarily about peers (though peer-love is necessary), but active adults.

Active adults who can change the narrative of “you’re strange” and “you’re trouble” into the real truths that point out the good qualities of a youth, that reinforce their strength and creativity and courage.

And you want to talk about courage?  Talk to a kid who gets picked on every day at school but yet gets up the next morning and goes anyway.

Look, your parents may have mental illness.  Your pastors may have it. Your children may have it. Your spouse may have it.  You ma have it.  Mental illness is not some thing that people bring into “normal” society.

Mental illness is part of normal society.

There is no excuse for what this individual did. And it is clear he was ill in some way. But we all have to look in the mirror, too.

Our society has to look in the mirror.

And until we can all come to grips with the ways that our society hurts where it should help, alienates when it should alleviate loneliness, and ostracizes our children at the fringes, we’ll just keep stigmatizing mental illness, avoid talking about gun laws, and wait around as one so-called “nut job” after another amazingly reenacts the same scene over and over again.

Why I Just Can’t…

5079516280_dd8c5d1fe2Folks, I can’t.

I try as much as possible to “live and let live,” but I just can’t do this anymore.

When a televangelist says that “You don’t need a flu shot if you have Jesus,” I just can’t.

I can’t let it go without saying something.

Jesus may be called “The Great Physician,” but good golly, get a flu shot. Kids are dying.

When a popular Christian website run by neo-Calvinist author (and, in my opinion, Biblical hack) John Piper tweets “We will find mental health when we stop staring in the mirror, and fix our eyes on the strength and beauty of God,” implying that somehow people who have mental illness are just “looking at things in the wrong way,” I just can’t.

I can’t let it go without saying something, because people are dying from mental illness and it’s not that they’re spiritually deficient.  This is ignorance on fire, a charge too many people are already giving to Christians…thanks for proving them correct.

And when we start walking lock-step in line with political candidates, of whatever party, and claim such obviously blasphemous statements like “God has put them in charge,” I just can’t anymore.

Vote for who you vote for and don’t try to blame the outcome on God, regardless of who you wanted to win.  You break the Second Commandment when you do so, by the way.

Did God put Hitler in charge of Germany?  What about Pol Pot in Cambodia?  No?  It’s only in the US that God puts people in charge? Well, then God must have it out for the Native Americans to put Andrew Jackson in charge.  Or for the Japanese Americans to put FDR in charge (we kindly forget about those prisons, don’t we?).

I just can’t, folks.

The church is wonderful and beautiful. We take care of one another and do good by the world.  We can change the world for good, too, by God.

But boy oh boy, when we are silent in the face of such ignorance. When we just say, “Well, we’re not like those Christians…” to the rest of the world without providing the counter argument, without calling those voices to be silent, by God…

And even more problematically, when we continue to go to these churches, buy their spiritual wares, and don’t confront our friends and relatives (and even those shadow places inside ourselves) who buy into all of this, we are just sending invitations to the spiritually-seeking-but-religion-skeptical friends to not bother with the Jesus story altogether.

I’m all for big tent Christianity, but I just can’t anymore.  I don’t know if I’m in a totally different tent, or no longer find myself in that tent, or am just making my own campsite…I can’t think that’s the case, but perhaps it is.

But what I do know is that will not be quiet about it, and I don’t want you to be, either.

Because people are dying.  Because the cross cannot be confused with Caesar and still be the cross we see on Golgotha, the cross we find in scripture.

Because Christianity cannot be a religion where “ignorance is on fire and intelligence is on ice” as author Brian McLaren so rightly says (The Great Spiritual Migration, pg 7).

And we can’t let it become that.

You can’t.

And I can’t.

The Call to a Certain Amount of Loneliness

loneliness_coverMy post on how your pastor is not your friend has called forth lots of emotions from people.

Some have rightly identified that loneliness is a problem for pastors, and they’re not wrong about that.  I don’t think anyone entering the ministry with eyes wide open will dispute the fact that the call to ministry is, in some ways, a call to embrace a certain amount of loneliness.

By this I don’t mean that depression is to go untreated.  This is a real problem for many service professions, pastors included.  We must take actions to counteract this terrible reality.

And by this I don’t mean that pastors should not have friends or cannot have friends, just that deep, personal friendships should rarely (if ever) be cultivated within the congregation.

I think the solution to combating loneliness within this particular profession is two-fold:

1. Pastors need to find ways to cultivate healthy relationships outside of the parish.

This is difficult to do.  Let’s be honest, many people see the church and the church community as part of their service work in the world.  Choir practice, helping at service opportunities, even sitting on the church board or on the evangelism team are opportunities for them to give to something that is not work or family related.

Pastors are usually not free with their time or energy to invest in something else.  Their focus is on making this particular thing work, and it usually requires the church to be not only their job but also their hobby/service to the world.

It is tough.  If we make it impossible for our pastor to find outside friendships because we expect them to be at everything, especially things happening on Saturdays when the rest of the professional world is largely “off,” then we’re setting them up for burn out and churn out.

Pastors have to have space and time to cultivate relationships outside of the parish.  The parish is not enough for them…will not be enough for them.

2. With all of the above being said, pastors also have to be honest about their role in the lives of people: they are the container of both promise and problem, the dead-end for words that can’t be spoken in other places and to other people, the scapegoat for troubled people’s troubles and the savior for other people desperately seeking something to save them in the world (and this last one is, of course, not a good thing…but it is a reality nonetheless).

In short: the way the pastor is seen in the profession, used in the profession, and abused in the profession will, naturally, lead to a certain amount of loneliness…and unless this is somehow embraced by them it will gnaw at the pastor and eat them up.

And we need not embrace it like a cross to bear, or as something that sets us apart or special or as an object of pity.  Please…as if anyone should seek pity.  And let me be clear: we need not embrace abuse.  Guard your heart and your mind and, yes, your relationships against the wayward person who sees you as the convenient dumping ground for all of their own insecurities and psycho-social issues.

That’s not what I mean.

What I mean is that it should be embraced kind of like your ordination vows, even the difficult ones, are embraced.  In fact, one of the vows we take in the Lutheran Church is not to give illusory hope to others.  Perhaps we, ourselves, need to take that to heart, too.

Illusory hope in this work would be to expect that this profession will provide you with friends.  Your friendship needs will not be met here, even if you seek it out…it will disappoint you.

Embrace it like you embrace the shadow part of your life: you swing punches at it even though you know it’ll always be there.

Wide-eyed, without apology, let us say that a certain amount of loneliness is just a part of this whole gig.

A pastor must do what they must to make sure that it doesn’t take more of a share than it’s supposed to.

A Follow-Up: Don’t Pastors Need Friends?

handsThere has been quite a bit of chatter about my last blog post, so I thought I’d write a follow-up, an addendum, to clarify a bit of what I’m *not* saying.

I’m not saying that pastors are somehow “above” friendship.

I’m not saying that pastors don’t need friends.

And I’m not saying that pastors should be aloof or unfriendly.

In therapy circles we talk about the many different harbors we have in life, places where we take shelter.

What harbors do you have?  Here are some I’ve identified:

We have the harbor of our family of origin, those who raised us and (often) love us with an unconditional type of love.

We have the harbor of our close friends, a family of choice if you will, who provide the kind of filial love that we need to be fully actualized humans.

Some of us have the harbor of partners or spouses, a harbor that checks many different boxes on the needs chart.

We have the harbor of our closest friends, those intimate friendships where bonds are tighter than most any wind that can come along…most any wind.

And then we have the harbor of community, a place to belong and be loved in a communal way.

Now, just about every human needs almost all of these harbors to be fully actualized.  There are exceptions, of course.  Not everyone is called to be partnered/married.  And not everyone needs the harbor of a community past their family.  But, by and large, I think most humans need these particular harbors to be fully human.

Pastors included, of course.

But, depending on the issue that comes up in life, I would claim that not all of these harbors are *safe* harbors.  If you’re having trouble in your marriage, you shouldn’t go to your parents.  It’s not a safe harbor.  They are not unbiased.  You may receive the kind of love and comfort you desire, but it may not be the kind of love that will lead you to a resolution or an objective viewpoint.

When a pastor is looking for a safe harbor, a person to confide in, I would readily claim that a parishioner is not the port of call.  And can never be.

Categorically, can never be.  The relationship won’t work that way.

And this is what I mean when I say that your pastor is not your friend, at least not in the conventional sense of what deep friendship means: they can never confide in you.  Your relationship doesn’t provide them with a safe harbor.  There is always some distance necessary.

Most of the push back (most, not all) on my article has come from people in congregations who certainly feel their pastor is their friend.  In many ways, yes, they are right…in many senses of the word friend, they might in fact be “friendly.”

But if you cornered your pastor about whether or not they could confide in you, if you asked them clearly about the nature of your relationship, I would bet that they would be honest and admit that you’re not a safe harbor.

Because if you want your pastor to be a safe harbor, it can’t be any other way.

And look, I have lots of examples where this has messed people up, messed churches up, messed pastors up. I’ve encountered many people quite cold to their current pastor because they felt so close, so “friends” with the predecessor, even a sense of loyalty if you will, that it causes trouble, it causes deep confusion, some real hurt, and plenty of pain on all sides.

It is not a safe harbor in the end.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t have deep conversations, honest conversations, deep affection, and real love between pastors and parishioners.  That is all absolutely there.

But if the pastor is getting their friendship needs met by parishioners, they do so at the peril of the office, and the peril of that person continuing in the congregation after they leave the office.

In fact, I wonder what leads more pastors to depression: pastors realizing they can’t seek a safe harbor in their parishioners, or pastors who seek parishioners as safe harbors but then realize it didn’t work; it wasn’t safe?

Pastors need friends.  They need safe harbors.  And congregants need pastors who know that they cannot be it.