Esteban and the Importance of Not Walking Away Too Quickly

TreadmillFeatureI’m at the gym, running, and minding my own business.

I have earbuds in, and I always choose a treadmill at the end of a row if I can.  The fewer people around me the better.  Especially at the gym.  Part of the reason for this is because I sweat.

A lot.

Like, an embarrassing amount of sweating happens with me, especially when I run.  My elbows literally just fling sweat every which way.  You might think that’s too much information, but you’d be mistaken because that little sentence doesn’t do the reality justice.

The second reason I want few people around me is because I hate talking at the gym.  I go there to be alone with other people.

Yeah, you read that correctly.  I go to the gym to be alone in a crowd.  Because in my work I don’t get a whole lot of “anonymous time,” and I crave it.  I’m not famous or anything, but the circle of people who recognize me is large, much larger than I expect, sometimes.

Coffee shops, hospitals, even the local watering hole…I see people I know there all the time.  And that’s all well and good!  I’m not saying I don’t want to see people I know at these places.  I enjoy the chat, the pint, the moment of connection.

But I also enjoy moments of disconnection, too.  And I find I have to schedule them.

Anyway, I’m running at the end of a bank of treadmills, and suddenly I notice this presence at the machine next to me.

My eyes stare straight forward.  I’m one mile in.  My earbuds are in, but unfortunately only one of them works, so I can hear pretty well.

“You know,” the figure next to me says, “a lot of people don’t like talking to other people.  But not me. I’m a social guy.”

I keep running.  I’m praying he’s on the phone.

“I lived in Costa Rica for a while, which is why I call myself ‘Esteban.’ Stephen’s the name my momma gave me.  Esteban is the name the cab driver in Costa Rica gave me.  I go by either…”

I finally look over at him, and sure enough, he’s talking to me.  He’s walking on the treadmill, and is of some considerable size.  Maybe mid-30’s.  I keep my pace, and he’s just walking…sweating…like two travelers on different journeys who, except for the machines governing their paces, wouldn’t travel together.  I was running. He was walking.  We wouldn’t be side-by-side in any other world except for the gym: that unicorn of a place where everyone goes a different distance, together.

I consider ending the run early, or moving to another machine.

“I got stabbed in the neck once,” he continued.  I turned my eyes forward again, but now have to stay because, who wouldn’t after an opener like that?

“I lived.  Obviously.  Maybe I’m a Warlock or something.  Who gets stabbed in the neck and lives?”  I took his question as rhetorical. I’ll stay for the conversation, but I’m not taking any questions at this time.

“When I go to the doctor they always wonder if they’re reading my blood pressure correctly.  I have a great heart.  Good genes, I guess. My grandmother lived to be 103.  We’re all big people in my family.  Good genes.”  His pace, both in walking and in talking, stayed steady.  I continued to look ahead, smirking a bit.  I think he saw that.

“The nurses always take that blood pressure,” he laughed, “and then ask if I jog.  Do I look like I jog, lady?!” I smiled bigger.  That was funny.  Especially because he was the embodiment of “second-hand smoke.”  I could smell it on him the minute he walked up, and the tobacco smell only intensified as his pores opened.

2.9 miles in.  I’m not sure I want to get off at 3, though.  Esteban, the large hulking beast next to me was on a roll and I had yet to say a word.

“I like day drinking,” was his next statement.  “Not a lot, of course, but there’s something about having a beer in the middle of the day that changes the second half of anything.”

He wasn’t wrong.

3 miles.  I stopped my treadmill.

“Thanks for talking, man.  I’ve got a bit more to do,” he said.

I nodded, wiped down the machine that now looked like it had taken a swim, and walked out.  He turned his attention back forward and kept walking.

And even though I go to the gym to be anonymous, I guess some don’t.  Some go to not be anonymous anymore.

And somehow Esteban and I both figured out how to make it work.  I was alone with him.  And he was not alone anymore.

 

“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.

“Jesus’ Rejection Letter” or “Hard Pass”

rejectionDear Mr. “of Nazareth,”*

We’re grateful that you applied for the position of pastor at our church.  Unfortunately we do not think that you are what we are looking for at this time.

In other words, “hard pass.”

We find you to be entirely too political in your public presence.  Word has gotten back to us that you participated in a recent riot at the temple, and were seen chasing people out of their stalls.  We find this kind of action unacceptable and far too controversial.

In addition, your sermon from the mountain top in recent days (which went viral, and not in a good way), though encouraging for certain demographics, failed to speak to all demographics with words of Godly comfort.  Making claims that some people are “blessed” implies that some are not, and we’re not comfortable with that kind of explicit bias.

In observing your lifestyle through social media, we note that you’re often found at local hangouts with people of questionable background.  As our mothers often told us, “Show us who you hang around, and you show us who you are.” We know who you are. These people are not the kind of people we want in our church, and should we call you as our pastor we’d expect you to cut ties with those kinds of people.

We also think you are far too young to lead a congregation on your own. At thirty-three years of age, you haven’t had enough experience to teach and preach the way you do. Your boldness is not only off-putting, but troubling to many, and maybe a bit narcissistic.

In addition you:

-do not dress appropriately for the role.

-do not adhere to the behavioral norms that we expect from our leaders (must you really break the rules so much?).

-seem to advocate for things/people/ideas that make us uncomfortable

-speak to women as you do men, and find that blurring of gender-lines to be confusing.

And while we like the fact that you can attract crowds, we’re afraid that would bring too much of the wrong kind of attention, and we’d prefer not to make waves.

We think that perhaps you should entertain going back to school for continued training, or consider a profession that doesn’t involve public ministry.

Sincerely,

Popular Christianity

*consider changing this name

“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.

 

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?

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.