“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.

 

How Discomfort Became My Friend in the End

contact-lens-discomfort-296x238“Were you Baptist before Lutheran?” someone asked me recently.

No. I was more atheist than anything…which is sometimes like being Baptist (as any faith affiliation is), but mostly not.  A closet atheist, but a convinced one nonetheless. I think I was asked this question because sometimes I sing Gospel tunes in worship, or ask for an “Amen” in my sermons.

Lutherans can do that, right?

In one of my theology classes at university (called “Black Theology/Black Church) we were assigned the task of visiting a historically black church on a Sunday morning.  For a university that, at the time, was only 6% people of color, you can imagine this was a stretch for many in the class.

Off I went with two classmates one Sunday morning to First Church of God in Christ in Gary, Indiana.  We arrived a little early, disrupting a small Bible study taking place in the sanctuary.  And when worship started, the small Bible study turned into the small congregation, perhaps only numbering 20 in total.  And the little electric organ ramped up and we all stood up and clapped (on 2 and 4), and hands were held high and “Amens” came aplenty and we sang and sand for probably half an hour.  No hymnals, mind you. It seemed everyone got the words but us newbies…though we stumbled along.

And then the pastor came with a message, another half hour or so.  And then an offering, “the tithe” as it was called.  And then more singing.  And then a second offering, or “the gift” as it was explained. The pastor must have seen my perplexed face. And then an altar call, where no one was particularly saved but everyone was blessed.  And then gone.

And the whole thing was totally foreign to me.  Totally uncomfortable.  Doubly uncomfortable, in some ways.  I felt that my presence was a disruption…this white guy coming to watch.  And then I also felt disrupted by the strangeness of it all: I didn’t know the hymns, I didn’t shout “Amen,” I didn’t want to be saved.

And looking back I’m thinking, I’m wondering, if this experience wasn’t one of the big wedges that got stuck in my armor of atheism. It shook me up. It made me feel totally uncomfortable.

And I paid attention to it.

When something forces you out of your comfort zone, there are two natural responses: run or ridicule.

We can run from discomfort, preserving ourselves and what we already know.  As Father Richard Rohr has been known to say, “We only want to learn what we already know.” This is true in most all of life, but I see it most clearly in the church where the ruffling of the feathers means the rumbling of the masses.  We essentially decide to go find a place that makes us feel more comfortable…at least, for a while.  Because nothing is comfortable forever. Evolution is the way of all living things.  And even the relative plateau times are really just the cover for quantum leaps of change.  Even in times of so-called steadiness, the tectonic plates are shifting underneath it all.  Hence why a straw can “break the camel’s back.”  Were things not always in flux underneath the surface, a straw wouldn’t have that power.

Or we can ridicule it.  Write it off. “That’s not the way we do things,” I say, trying to preserve a sense of “we” that is largely based off of a heightened sense of “me.”  Ridicule is a philosophical tool we use to take power away from things that don’t fit in our worldview.

But we have another response that we can use: we can pay attention to the feelings of discomfort inside of us and learn from them.  Why do I feel this way?  What is the underlying thing, true or imaginary, I’m trying to hold on to?  How can this moment teach me?

Jesus employed discomfort as his tool for growth in everything that he did.  He caused everyone around him to feel uncomfortable.

The Christian church is going through this extreme time of discomfort.  It’s happening at all levels: from the denominational offices to the congregation (and even to the individual Christian).  And we can run from it; some are certainly doing that.  They’re voting with their feet and their faith.   We can ridicule it; some are certainly doing that.  “Just keep things the same until you push my casket down the aisle,” is a phrase many pastors have heard and many parishioners have entertained.

Or we can learn from it. We can let it instruct us.  We can trust that we catch a better glimpse of God in these moments of discomfort. After all, there must be some reason Jesus used this as his primary teaching tool!

Discomfort is now my friend.  We’re not best buddies; I’d like to see them less than I do sometimes.  But they always teach me something, usually something about myself and my preconceived notions.  Something I can’t learn elsewhere.

And it’s hard to learn these lessons…any other way.

“Return to Sender” or “Some Churches Just Don’t Want Pastors (at Least Not the Pastors the Seminaries are Producing), and Some Pastors Just Don’t Want the Churches We’ve Produced”

2165374689_0c605b8e92_bTransparency note: my bias is toward pastors in these situations, mostly because that’s my vantage point.  That being said, I do recognize that it is really difficult when someone comes in and starts changing things a community has held dear for centuries.  I welcome all responses.

This last week I heard another example; it was the second time in as many weeks. I heard about another colleague who had received an anonymous note or had been the recipient of anonymous passive-aggressive behavior from someone at the church who was disgruntled about something.  They were crestfallen.

Actually, I hear about these incidents a lot.  An image of Sisyphus always comes to my mind when I hear about these incidents, because that’s exactly what it feels like to get feedback you can’t do anything with. Anonymity provides the critique without the accountability…

Quick aside: speaking from experience, anonymous feedback is the worst kind of feedback.  It makes it absolutely impossible for follow-up, encourages tactlessness in messaging (after all, if no one knows it is you writing, you can be as mean as you like), and most disappointingly, it is endemic of a passive-aggression that seems to be fostered in the communities of faith.  It’s not scriptural. God is highly relational in the scriptures, so don’t you think we should be, too?

My advice? Throw it in the trash.  I’ve been blessed to have calls where I’ve received relatively few anonymous notes.  I can say I’ve not been the victim of bullying that I’ve seen some of my colleagues endure…which is a good thing.  But I wonder if I’m the exception.  I hope not, but I wonder.

Let’s be honest: if you can’t sign your name to a note or a criticism, it’s not worth sending.  If you can’t stand behind your statement, it’s not a conviction but a predilection.

But my above advice is just a short-term solution.  I think there is a larger issue that we have to deal with in some way, and it is this: many churches simply do not want the pastors that seminaries are producing these days, and many new pastors simply do not want the pulpits available.

Let me explain myself before you send me that anonymous note…

My seminary class was full of idealists.  We had, and many still have, a strong conviction that God in Christ is active in the world, and that as pastors we would connect people to God’s action and the world would start to look differently, first at the individual level (for hearts changed), and then at the communal level (for societal change), and then at a systematic level (for world change).

That’s still our vision, at least one that I cling to in big and small ways.

But I also know that, at least in some ways, social justice can be talked about as a savior in some instances…and that’s just not scriptural.  It’s evidence of the Savior’s work.  It’s a call of the Savior.  But social justice is not Jesus; it’s easy to fall into that rabbit hole, though…especially when Jesus is largely thought to be assumed in the church’s work.

We need Jesus along with justice, people.  We don’t need exclusive “social justice,” but rather “social Jesus.”  We need growth in faith while also being invited to act on that faith in real, tangible, life-changing/system-changing/world-changing ways.  We need that Jesus who speaks to our inner faith and discipleship growth as well as calls us out of our comfort zones to engage the world.

…”Social Jesus.”  I might trademark that…

And I wonder if sometimes the seminary community doesn’t find themselves falling down that rabbit hole in much the same way university students find themselves becoming entrenched in this cause or that, siloed off into affinity groups for action.  Group think can be a powerful force, even in a place of robust dialogue.

On the flip-side, faith communities can also become that siloed place where group think takes hold.  Jesus has often been talked about, communicated, and felt in particular ways in a particular community, ways that people are reluctant to change.  Particular patterns of life together are largely assumed to be universally understood in many communities of faith. Pastors are often expected to reinforce these particularities.

This, too, is a rabbit hole, the hole of particularity.

Traditions and community rituals form us together, but sometimes they also wall us off from new ideas or new expressions of the faith.

And so when you have two entities coming together from siloed places of formation, both with ideas of how and what they’re supposed to be doing, there is not only a gap in expectation, but a gap in understanding about what is going on.  The one believes they’re called to lead a people into finding out where God is active in the world, matching the two up; the second believes they’re calling someone to reinforce for them that God is active in what they’re already doing.

Now, forgive me for the broad brush-strokes.  This is certainly not true for every pastor or every faith community.

But I’m trying to figure out why I’m seeing so many of my colleagues leave the profession (or think of leaving…the stats are surprising), “take a break” from the profession, or trudge along into the headwind of anonymous notes and continual barrage of insults that I’m really not sure happens in any other profession, at least not the way it does for pastors, all the while nursing addictions, depression, self-loathing, or a callousness unhelpful in the profession.

Think about it: in what other profession, other than perhaps politics or a CEO of a non-profit, do you have the people you serve as your literal boss, even though they ask you to lead?  And even in those cases just mentioned, there is a level of abstraction from the person serving to the person being served.

As one meme nicely put it: pastors are the only people who get complaints when they don’t visit people who don’t want them there in the first place.

Imagine sitting at someone’s bedside as they’re sick or dying, and that person has had a history of trying to systematically stand against everything you’ve tried to do in your ministry at a particular congregation, and you have to be their compassionate hand and voice in that moment. Yes, it’s part of what we’re called to do, but let’s not pretend there’s not just a little bit of bitterness there on either side of that situation, and quite a bit of psychological violence as some pastors must minister to people who have said horrible things about them.

Jesus does say bless the ones who curse you for my sake, but he didn’t say that you have to preside over their funeral or entertain their insults to the grave…

Added to this gap in expectation are three more glaring issues that we continue to skirt around: pastors leaving seminary today often don’t look like their predecessors in style or theology (not to mention gender or race) than even a decade ago, some churches are in the pressure-cooking process of dying already, and my generation in particular is deciding that life is too short to do work for people who dislike you (mostly because we’ve seen our parents or our mentor-pastors endure it for years, and we just won’t live like that).

Those three issues create a perfect storm for dysfunction, vocational crisis, and just really bad behavior that looks nothing like Jesus and everything like evil.

Of course there is some fragility that we must be honest about.  Pastors: you need a thick(er) skin.  Let me walk that statement back for a second and re-state it:

WE need a thick(er) skin.

My skin has grown thick(er) over the years, but there are still soft spots.  And I still get frustrated, especially when complaints pile one on top of the other with this work.  Reading and re-reading Friedman’s work and the Psalms has helped with this.

But the Office requires it; demands it.  And the back-biting and dysfunction in communities of faith is not new, nor does it just affect certain flavors of churches.  Just look at the issues that Charles Stanley had when trying to assume the senior pulpit at highly conservative First Baptist in Atlanta alongside the issues that progressive Riverside Church in New York City has had finding a stable presence for their pulpit.  Or, just look at Paul’s advice to that church in Corinth who just couldn’t get their act together.  It’s not new.

I think what is new is that many from my generation of pastors just aren’t feeling the Sisyphean work is worth the pain, and that the situation is literally one of life and death for some churches who see continual decline and some pastors who find themselves trying to fit (or not) into a role they feel they never signed up for.

Pastor: ask for good behavior overtly.  Expect it. And if you’re a Senior or Lead Pastor, it has to come from the top down.  I cannot tell you how many colleagues have left calls because they’ve been bullied by congregation members and the Lead Pastor hasn’t had the stomach to do something about it.

But in a broader sense, I am seeing a really disturbing trend. My fellow clergy are entering parishes that simply do not want their ministry, despite calling them to the pulpit.  They want something else.  Sometimes they say that they want something that looks less like 2016 and more like 1956, or even 1986 (impossible).  Sometimes they say that they want someone who looks more like the pastor they had as a child than one of their grandchildren (even though their grandchild is exactly the person they want in the pew).  Sometimes they just want to get rid of the pastor, a “return to sender” to the Bishop…that’s just not how it works.

And I’m seeing fellow pastors who just don’t want the congregations they’re being called to, either. Sometimes because they don’t want to/can’t offer the ministry desired of them from the people.  Sometimes because they don’t identify with anyone in their congregation in theology or age, and loneliness catches up with them.  Sometimes because their creativity is stifled (though from the pew it can feel like things are changing for the sake of change), and sometimes because they just can’t make their zeal in seminary translate into a zeal for the people they’re called to serve.

And we say things like, “the system is broken” when it comes to matching seminary graduates and congregations.  And that is true; it is broken.  But that’s not the whole story.  It’s not all about bad matches.

It’s also about bad expectations on all sides.  It’s about a changing church and a changing world that we all give lip-service to, but aren’t quite sure how to actually be in yet.

A greater part of the narrative, greater than any of us might want to admit, is that the pews don’t look like the pulpit anymore and we’re all having a hard time figuring out how to do ministry together because of that.

The church today is a church different than a decade ago, and certainly a century ago.  And pastors are asked not only to lead congregations to faith, but also be marketing experts, small non-profit managers, funeral directors, and miracle workers, all without rocking the boat.

And our seminaries just aren’t training pastors to be all of those things.

And the result of that is often passive-aggression and the unhealthy tension of bad behavior and burn out and splitting churches and, well, you get it.

Is my hypothesis right?  Do churches just not want the pastors seminaries are producing, and pastors the churches that are offered?  Are expectations just so radically different on either side?

None of this is helping the body of Christ, by the way.  And this kind of stuff (really, would YOU join a church full of such strife?) makes many into reluctant Christians…if they stay at all.

We have to figure this out. Together.

 

 

 

 

Your Pastor Dreads Mother’s Day

depressionMother’s Day is a continual reminder to pastors that they are truly incompetent in the “make everyone happy” department.

A good lesson, I guess.

Except we’re reminded of it every day…it just intensifies on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, when the 4th of July lands on a Sunday, Veteran’s Day, and when 9/11 marks the first day of the week.

Out of all of those, though, Mother’s Day really does take the cake because it is really intimately tied to culture in a deeply personal way.  Mother’s Day is really about sex, sexuality, procreation, choice, marriage, divorce, and choosing to raise/not raise children.

And the pastor’s hands are tied, in this case.  Especially if the pastor is accustomed to preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  You cannot mention current events and not mention the reason why so many women are wearing flowers that morning, I think.

Or maybe you can…I don’t know.  I haven’t figured out a way to do it.

It’s just, well, whatever you choose, be prepared for the emails, anonymous notes, and comments following the service.

A very popular blog post has been making it’s way around this past week.  It’s good. Really good.  It’s been around for a few years.  Like that picture your mom took of you in the bathtub when you were four, it makes it’s rounds about the same time every year just in time to make you feel really awkward.

Yes, the blog post makes me feel awkward.

As a father, it doesn’t make me feel awkward at all.

As a feminist, it makes me shout “yes!”

As someone who wasn’t always sure they wanted children, it makes me feel affirmed.

As a pastor it makes me feel awkward.

Because it’s indicative of a Catch-22 for me.  Mother’s Day isn’t a liturgical holiday, so it really doesn’t need mentioning by the church.  And yet, we lift up Mary as the theotokos, the “God-bearer,” and note her motherly care of the Christ.  We talk a lot about the “womb of creation” as being God’s womb, and make the case hard for feminine pronouns to describe God, especially pointing to God’s work in creation.

And then comes Mother’s Day.

I’m not for honoring Mother’s Day during a Sunday service.  I’m not for pretending it isn’t happening, either.  I’m sure there are ways to straddle the desire to lift up mothering in this world while also not glorifying it as the end-all and be-all of existence.  I truly get that mothers are proud of that role in their life.  I truly get that not all women want to be mothers, and don’t need the church making them feel like they should.  Society does that well enough.  And I truly get that Mother’s Day is painful for some who are grieving their mother, or who have crappy mothers, or who can’t conceive.

Hopefully your pastor isn’t glib.  Hopefully they see all of these realities and try to acknowledge them all. I try to do that…to varying degrees of success.

But it’s just yet another example of why I suck in the department of making people happy.  Pastors truly die from a thousand paper-cuts…not just on this topic.  Which might be why your pastor responded to your email of “concern” or “complaint” in that way that made you feel like they really didn’t hear you.

It’s probably the fifth email of concern they’ve gotten that day…and they’ve stopped being concerned in order to just finish out the day without feeling absolutely dejected.

But I digress. Back to Mother’s Day.

These fights between cultural holidays and Sunday morning worship sometimes make me want to skip out on church altogether.  I don’t blame the women who do on Mother’s Day.  And I don’t blame the women who feel slighted when Mother’s Day isn’t talked about at all at worship, either.  The church of the past was the place to celebrate such things; for many it still is.

But for me?  I’d really just like to say a quiet prayer on Mother’s Day in thanks for God who is mother to us all, call my mom, kiss the mother of my son, greet the young woman who doesn’t want kids where she is, thank the couple who can’t conceive for worshiping God today in our congregation, hug the grandmother who has outlived her children and buried each one with a hug that she won’t get from them, high-five little girls without assuming that they’ll be or want to be mothers, shake the hands of the two fathers who bring their children to church, and not feel like by doing any one of those actions I’m hurting someone else.

Is that too much to ask?

 

Why You Get Mad When Your Pastor Mentions Politics, and Why She Has To…

Let’s start with some political statements:church_state

“Jesus is Lord.”

Yes; that is a political statement.  You might think it’s pretty innocuous.  Perhaps you even think it’s a bit annoying (sometimes I find how this seems to be a catch-all answer for some annoying).  But, actually, for the ancient people in Palestine, this statement was scandalous.  Because they only had one Lord: Caesar.  And if you went around saying Jesus stands in the place of Caesar for you and your family…well…keep your politics to yourself.

“Prince of Peace.”

Yes; a political statement.  Want to hanker a guess as to who was the Prince of Peace in ancient Palestine?  If you chose Bill Murray, you were off by a few thousand years.  No, it was Caesar.  He was hailed as the one who kept the empire out of war.  He was the harbinger of peaceful times.

That is, unless, you were some of the occupied people under him.  The Roman Empire kept peace through military might and subjugation; through intimidation and economic sanctions.  Is that really “peace”?  The absence of war does not mean the presence of peace…

In fact, the opening chapters of the first three Gospels are chock full of political language.  But no need to just stick to the New Testament.  The prophets were certainly not quiet about politics, both domestic and foreign.  The whole book of Exodus was leaving one political reality for another, tackling immigration head-on.  The whole book of Leviticus was about how the people would organize themselves in the new land.

See, we have people who get pretty angry when they hear “politics” preached from the pulpit.  In fact, a colleague of mine recently noted that pastors should preach the Gospel and then shut up.

But, well, nothing happens in a vacuum.

(…I love that pun)

We aren’t people who are floating free in our own little religious world.  We must talk about politics from the pulpit.  The ancient texts compel it; the modern times call to us from the news programs and paper rags.  We are being pulled into it by the past and the present, and the preacher must put these two things together to comment on how God might be leading us into the future…

We should talk about how farm bills do or do not help feed the world.  We should talk about how, in Chicago, we are bankrupt and giving huge corporations billions in tax breaks while, just this last year, my housing tax went up, but my house value went down.  And if that’s the case for me, who lives in a pretty good neighborhood, what does that mean for my sisters and brothers who don’t?

Explain that to me, please.

We should talk about what it means to be able to carry on your person a weapon that is made only to kill other people.  What might God have to say about that?  What might the Christian world have to say about that?  Especially in Chicago where we don’t ranch cattle, but live in a concrete jungle.

See…your pastor has to talk about politics because you are enmeshed in political systems that have a spiritual dimension.  But we’ve been trained by the world to have a negative reaction to such talk because we see politics as divisive rather than unifying.

But, if there’s one thing that does unify the world, it’s that we are all under a political system of some sort.  And we should talk about it.  Your pastor should talk about it.

What she shouldn’t do, and here’s the rub, what she shouldn’t do is be partisan.

Sure, she has her own opinions.  And you might know them, too.  But her opinions aren’t the Gospel.  And you preachers…that’s important to remember.  God is not a Republican, nor is God a Democrat.  God is not in the Labour Party nor is God a Tory.

That being said, to pretend like the texts don’t say something about political issues is naive.  You follow the Prince of Peace, and yet you don’t think that God might have an opinion on war?  You say “Jesus is Lord” and yet your church is making most of it’s decisions based off of economics, putting money in the place of power?

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

Your church shouldn’t feel like a gathering of the Democratic Party.  That’s a church that would have a hard time saying “Jesus is Lord” and meaning it.  That’s a puppet platform.

Your church shouldn’t feel like a gathering of the Republican Party, either.  Or any part, for that matter.

So many do, though.

And I’ve been accused in my time of preaching politics…it’s a careful line the preacher has to walk, and hopefully it’s done with fear and trepidation.  Politics so easily turn partisan.

But let us not pretend that God might not have a word or two for the systems that surround us, for the systems we’re embedded in, for the systems we inhabit.

We can be careful how we speak, but we cannot not say anything.

“Political Pandering” or “I Have Issues with ‘Issues'”

I hate election season.

I love election season.

I kind of love to hate election season, if I’m perfectly honest with myself.

For some pastors it is truly a struggle to stand in a pulpit and say…anything.  They struggle out of fear.  There is a fear that connecting the faith with the life of the body politic will illicit the dreaded “email of political shaming.”

Luckily, I don’t get many emails like that.  But I have colleagues who do.

I keep emails that I get telling me that I’m too “political” in my sermons in a special folder.  It’s tentatively labeled “Trash”…but I may change it to “Inconsequential.”

Funny enough, it’s the same folder where I put emails that deride me for not being political enough in my sermons…

It’s not that I discount what people are saying in those emails; I take them seriously.  But I don’t see a way around preaching the way I do.  I think we’ve screwed up our definitions on what is a “political” issue and what is a “faith” issue.

Poverty is not a political issue.  It is a faith issue. It is an ethical issue.  It has just been politicized.

Dignity for the marginalized is not a political issue.  It is a faith issue. It is an ethical issue.  It has just been politicized.

In many respects, how we care for our sick, our elderly, our children, our indigent…these are not political issues. They are faith issues.  They are ethical issues.  They have just been politicized.

I love election season because it has the potential to be an intellectual exchange of ideas that results in action.

I hate election season because it invariably turns into a steaming pile of vacuous rhetoric with sides parading issues as if they and they alone are the standard bearer bringing awareness to them, and that they and they alone care about them.  The opposition not only doesn’t care, but hates the issue and those that hold it dear.

Typical political pandering.

And then I rise in the pulpit on Sunday and say things like, “The early church held all things in common…” (Acts 2:44), or “And Jesus healed the paralytic who was cared for by his friends…” (Mark 2:1-12), or “Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus to Egypt, where he was kept as an immigrant in a strange land until the age of…” (Matthew 2:13)

And what I receive in return are emails that accuse me of preaching socialism, endorsing free health-care, and taking sides on immigration issues.  In effect, those emails are insinuating that these issues are political in nature, and that I’ve made them into faith issues.  Unfortunately, that’s a reversal of reality.

And then I hear issues of personal morality, particularly how we love and how we reproduce, take the stage in spectacularly religious language that seems to drip from pastors mouths in the pulpit laying the bedrock for party platforms.

I wonder if those pastors get emails.

The message is that personal morality fits within the church walls and the political sphere.  Communal ethics, however, are purely political and have no place within the church walls.

Let us not make the mistake of thinking that social issues are God’s good news for a suffering world.  As a Christian I see God’s good news as Christ himself and the work that he did/does in the world for humanity.

But let us also not make the mistake of thinking that we come from a tradition whose sacred texts have no commentary on ethical issues.

I’m a reluctant Christian sometimes because we have a schizophrenic relationship to just how our sacred texts can be used in public life.

To ensure freedom of religion we must have a political process that is free from religion; this is true.

For me, this means that a particular candidates faith tradition, whether it is Christian, Mormon, Muslim, or Atheist, doesn’t affect my vote.

(In our current political season, I care that Romney is a Mormon about as much as I care that Obama is a Christian: I don’t care.  Not one bit)

It means that you cannot use the word “God” to get votes, either in your party platform or in your stump speeches.

It means that if you pick up a baby on the rope line, it better be because you’re checking to see that she’s within the weight ratio for her age, and not to show that you value “faith and family.”

But while we must have a political system that is free from religion, I’m not sure how we can have a religious tradition, that seems to focus intently on how to live together, free from commentary on issues that have been politicized.

My faith is integral to how I treat my neighbor, and how I hope society treats my neighbor.  And to ensure that I keep my faith integrated into my practices, I need a preacher and a church that looks at scripture and civilization together in such a way that we acknowledge personal and communal issues within the church walls.

And I need candidates and political parties who are not opportunists. I need candidates and political parties who don’t look at moral issues through the lens of political manipulation.  I need candidates who shun the vacuous political rhetoric of vote-getting and take up the prophetic leadership voice of one who speaks truth to power even as they seek it.

No more political pandering to my faith, please.

But can we dare to speak about issues in church and not assume that we’re pandering politics?

I don’t know, but I don’t know how to stop doing it.  I have issues with issues.

And if you have an issue with this post, feel free to send an email.  I’ll put it in my special folder…