“Dare I Take That Away?” A Question Every Pastor Wonders…

1668-lec6-1536x865In the mornings we would stay with her, my grandmother used to rise around 10am.  She was a late riser because she was a late drinker and laugh-er and argument-starter, and would often be up to see the clock tick past 1am.

And she would come out in her night clothes, silk usually, paisley as I remember them. And slippers even though it was Miami, Florida.  She called them “house shoes,” and they were for tooling around the house in the morning, or for going out to the back shed to start the laundry.  But nowhere else.  She was a respectable Southern woman, after all.  You weren’t caught in your rollers or house shoes…

And she would come out of her bedroom in those night clothes, pour herself a cup of coffee in a 50’s-style cup that could maybe hold four ounces, and she’d make one egg, over-medium, and sit at the little kitchen bar on a stool.  She’d pull out a cigarette, pull out the paper, light the cigarette, sip the coffee, and slowly eat the egg while devouring the Miami Herald’s front page.

I can still smell it.

Ever since I was a little boy I remember this routine.  I don’t remember it deviating much, unless we had morning plans.  But usually “morning plans” started at 11am at grandma’s house.

That was morning.

She was a woman of routine and I loved her for it. I loved her in it.  I loved her, and she loved it.  Even if it was frustrating at times.

Grandma was also a woman who loved her God.  She had been raised in the church, a Methodist by upbringing, but “a Lutheran by choice,” as she would say.  The pastor of her church, the church where she would become the secretary, came to their door in Miami Springs one day, and as they gave him a cold glass of water he invited her and my grandpa to attend the church he was starting.

And they did.

She would talk about her faith.  Not like an evangelist, but like one who had been evangelized.  Honest conversations.  She saw meaning in everything…sometimes to her detriment, I think.  She’d come out with an illogical statement, how someone’s universe had flipped upside-down because of some crazy thing that had happened years earlier, and we’d say, “Grandma, that doesn’t seem right…”

She’d laugh in this cackle of a person who had smoked since she was sixteen and would say something like, “Well, it doesn’t have to seem right! That’s how it is!”

That’s how it is.

Every pastor I know, including me, struggles with the phrase, “That’s how it is.”  Because our knowledge of theology, our knowledge of the Bible, our thoughts about society and God and how they interact, intermix, and intertwine…it has all changed.  It’s changed from the 1940’s to the 1990’s, and believe-you-me, it’s changed from the 2018’s to the 2019’s.

It’s changed.  And “that’s how it is” never holds up in the future very well.

And so sometimes conversations end up overlapping.  Sometimes new theologians come out of seminary smelling like books and sleepless nights arguing about Tillich, with their box of ideas, and they enter into much more ancient sanctuaries where people hold entirely different boxes.  And as the pastors unpack their boxes, and the parishioners peer inside their own, they see different contents.

And it can cause discomfort. Pain. Hurt. Even, yes, harm.

Faith can change. But it need not be destroyed. Even if it doesn’t seem “right.”

My grandmother was a woman of routine, and a woman of routine beliefs.  The world worked a certain way for her.  And, yes, she could change.  She did change.  She became outspoken for LGBTQ rights and Civil Rights.  She spoke Spanish, and eventually learned how to drive in such a way that we weren’t all scared of her being on the road.

But the changes came slowly, as all change usually does.  And it usually came from her falling in love first.  With people who were gay.  With people who didn’t look like her, talk like her, or even think like her.

But there were some things that never changed.  She conceived of heaven in a pearly-gates, golden-streets sort of way, and that never changed.  And even though that’s not my seminary-trained, science-brained view of heaven, I don’t think I’d ever have wanted to take that away from her.

Besides, it’s not like anyone knows what the afterlife is like, anyway.

So, dare I take that away?  Or could I just walk with her, asking questions, exploring notions, and providing my own perspective as I listened to hers?

Theology is done in the pews as well as in the academy, and pastors need to remember that.  I need to remember that.  And while hurtful doctrines and dogmas can, and should, be torn down like the idols they are, not everything that the newly trained seminarian thinks is outdated has lost its meaning.

Tear down the idols and the isms, but dare we take away everything?  Can we not still sing _In the Garden_ even though the theology is largely crap?  Dare we not use the phrase, “Jesus died for us” even if we have many asterisks next to what the phrase means, and each of us will have a different corresponding footnote?

My grandmother, in her paisley satin pajamas and little cup of coffee had a good routine (though that cigarette was probably not helpful), and even though I had a different morning routine that I thought was healthier, dare I take hers away from her?

Instead, I learned to do my routine, and when she appeared, shuffling in the house shoes, I’d sit down with her at the bar, chatting, laughing, and occasionally enduring her telling me to “be quiet” because she couldn’t read the headlines and talk at the same time.

Conversation led to engagement, love, and yes, change.  For both of us in some ways. Frustrating change.

Things have changed.  And will change.  And even I will change, and the things I was taught will be questioned and reformulated one day.

But if it’s not harmful or hurtful, dare we take it all away at once?  It might be frustrating, but it’s a good question.

When I Think About My Children on Ash Wednesday

636239814887137802-Ash-Wed-5I know I write and talk a lot about my children.  They have totally changed everything about my life, and even much about me.

Like, just now, my younger son, who attends preschool at the church I currently serve, popped his head into my office and said, “I love you, Daddy!”  It’s totally changed my work day.

He does this every day, mind you.  It’s one of the things I wait for in the morning.  “I love you, too,” I respond.  He always waits around until I say it, letting his class go on down the hall.  After he hears it he’ll run to catch up with them.

We wait for love.

One of the most moving and meaningful things as a pastor is Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday we get to do some public art: the public act of remembrance that you place on the foreheads of everyone who comes, from the oldest to the youngest, that we are dust.

That time is fleeting.

That the world buries us one minute, one hurtful act, one sinful offering at a time (much of which we participate in), and there is very little that we can do to stop it, so we should wait around to feel love whenever we can get it.

A few years ago on Ash Wednesday I was walking through the neighborhood in Chicago when a well-known gadfly said incredulously to me in my formal collar, “Gonna peddle some superstition today, eh Father?”

I ignored him.  But as I thought about it, I realized that if I was going to speak to him on one day, Ash Wednesday would be that day, because Ash Wednesday is the day where religion offers something that speaks to everyone, regardless of what they do, or do not, believe: you will die.

Dying is the leading cause of death.

The knowledge of our mortality is too much to bear sometimes, though. And as I mark my own babies with that cross, I always choke a bit. It is too much for them to bear, too.

And yet, with their bodies, they do.  Because cells grow cancer. Because heart disease and car accidents and suicide don’t seem to care about your age.  And my babies are made of cells, and ride in cars, and live, and it happens. To all of us.

But instead of being depressing, Ash Wednesday is like the day when we all communally hug the cactus of our mortality, hug the cactus that we do wrong and harm in this world, even when we do want to (but also, sometimes, we do want to) and remind ourselves that we are not gods.

We are not God.

And once we get that fact out of the way, somehow we start to truly live.  Like the cancer patient in remission who realizes that life is better spent on love than arguing.  Like the near-death experience that increases are thirst for life rather than makes us more fearful.  Like the person living with depression who, because the meds are finally working, smiles and laughs and realizes that they are worth it, by God.

When I think about my boys, my babies, my children on Ash Wednesday, I am full of hope.

I hope that they will embrace life, and death, and all of it with a gusto, with a big bear hug, as confident as they wear that cross, that sign of hope for Christians, on their brow.  I hope it reminds them to love really freely, and really intensely, and to wait for love, and stick around for it.  I hope it reminds them that they don’t have to do it all, they don’t have to be perfect, that nothing is unforgivable, and that they can admit that sometimes life is too much to carry alone, and that they aren’t alone even when it feels like that.

And, sure, my eyes will tear up, and I’ll choke a bit, but not because I will think of their death, but because I will think of how they can, they will, with their lives, and their love, overcome all that tries to bury them in this life, by God.

 

On Spiritual Heroin

6392110-depositphotos_27815151_original-1472641889-650-54cd1b8c1a-1492240092Dopamine.

That regulator of emotional response that infects our gray matter.

You get a little shot of dopamine when you see a social media post that you wrote gets a like. Or a share.

You get a little shot of dopamine when you eat a food you really love, and which is probably just a little bit (or a “lotta-bit,” as my kids would say), bad for you.

You get a little shot of dopamine when you’re involved in healthy and unhealthy sexual activity.

You get a little shot of dopamine in certain spiritual and religious settings, too.  Intense spiritual retreats or weekends that use physiology, sociology, psychology, and yes, some smattering of theology, can create a situation of euphoric high.

Not unlike a drug.

Connection. Creativity. All the feels…

The problem with the dopamine wave, of course, is that a trough follows. It always follows.  There’s no other way to make a wave.  You can’t have a wave without a trough.

And the real trouble, of course, is that if you experience a “spiritual high,” you may get the idea that “this is what God feels like.”  And so when you’re not feeling that high, you’re pretty sure you’re not feeling God.

And if you’re not feeling God, then you need to be finding God…

I have a few friends who are perpetual church shoppers.  They go from this big box to that big box, seeking out that spiritual high. Their excitement is always at its zenith when they find a new place.  But when the trough appears, or the shine wears off, or the lights fade just a bit, off they go.

I don’t blame them.  And I’m no better, perhaps. If I weren’t a branch manager, I might do the same thing. I don’t think I would, but I might.  I don’t know…but in looking objectively at it, I see the behavior without being in it, and wonder about it.

I can’t say if I’m again spiritual highs or not, actually.  Kind of like I can’t really tell if I’m against candy bars.

Because in theory, I am against candy bars in many ways.  They’re bad for your teeth, your diet, and your overall health.  Not just bad in excess, mind you.  They’re actually just bad.  And may be as addictive as nicotine.

It certainly can get your dopamine running.

And yet I eat candy bars sometimes. And I’ve had a cigar in my life once or twice.

We must be honest about this reality: we do destructive things on purpose sometimes because we enjoy them.

But we hopefully do them with clear eyes.

I worry, though, when it comes to spirituality, that the lens is foggy and the mirror is dark.

I’m not making a case for boredom when it comes to religion. Trust me: religion is making that case for itself quite well without my help.

But I am making the case for clear-eyed analysis of how we claim to experience the Divine; an inquiry into what we’re talking about.

Because an excess of dopamine creates monsters. Religious and spiritual fanatics who are willing to do terrible things.  Even believe terrible things about other people who don’t share the high.

Because they’re not thinking clearly.  They’re literally “doped up” on religion.

Modest, regular amounts of dopamine are necessary for creativity, courage, and pleasure.  It’s not that we don’t need it.  We do need it.

But when we regularly strive to get a rush from it, a high, we fall into the pattern of the addict, surviving the trough until the next hit, willing to do or believe terrible things to get the fix.

And yet the faith says that we’re not to survive, but to live.  Not live through the trough, but in it.

I’m wondering, out loud, if spiritual highs are less about God, and more about us.

More about our brain than metaphysics.

I don’t know.

But I do think they’re probably addictive.

And I wonder if the addiction is part of what has effectively wounded the mainline.

 

 

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.

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?

On Being Converted

find-a-business-mentorToday I sat down for a coffee at the midway stop between the office and the hospital.  It’s become my midway stop mostly because I can take a minute to read there without being too disrupted.

I collect coffee shops like some people collect cars: the one they choose depends on their mood.

If I’m open to being interrupted, I’ll go to the ones near the office.  Rarely do I not see someone I know there, and the inevitable conversation becomes an important moment.

And then there’s this one.  It’s very public, and therefore, very private.  There I can get outside to get inside: inside my thoughts, inside my heart, inside the places where I store all the crap from work and unpack it.  Sort it.  Discard some. Cherish some.

Everyone should have such a place, by the way.

But here I was, sitting and having a coffee and reading what needs to be read to keep up on this work, and across from me two men, probably just over middle-age, were chatting about the Torah, with a large study edition of it open in front of them.  They were lay scholars, obviously, and their conversation was winding through the intricacies of orthodox Judaism and evolution.  Not Orthodox Judaism, mind you…not the strand of Judaism that is labeled as “Orthodox”…but rather orthodox in the sense of “what is in the norm.”

I found them being surprisingly frank with each other, willing to wrap their faith around the scholarship and science, embracing evolution.  It was apparently the topic at hand.  I was heartened.

I had my earbuds in, but I wasn’t playing any music, because I was engrossed in their conversation.

And then a third man walks up and stands there with his coffee in one hand and an excuse in the other.

His coffee?  Nondescript.  His excuse? I’m all too familiar with it…

“I couldn’t help but overhear you,” he said, “and I’d like to offer you my thoughts on your conversation.  See, I believe in Jesus Christ.  And the questions you’re discussing are all found in the new revelation called the New Testament.  We are all imperfect, and our understanding is imperfect, but God’s understanding is perfect, and…”

On and on.  I remember it well because it was kind of like witnessing a theological and philosophical car wreck in real time as he interjected himself into their conversation that, until that point, had been open and full of questions and honest responses.  The whole scene is seared into my brain.

I looked over at the seated gentlemen content with their Torah.  They were obliging but expressionless.  I couldn’t tell if they’d heard it all before or not.

The man with an excuse went on with something like:

“I just had to come over here because God invited me into the conversation.  I felt like I had to tell you these things.  You can put your trust in him.”

At this point one of the gentlemen said, “I do put my trust in God.”  Then the man with the coffee and the excuse to interrupt the conversation said, “Jesus is God.”

And then he walked away.

And the men sat there almost as if they had been assaulted.  Saying nothing. Just looking down at their open Torah, sipping their coffee.

And I thought to myself that, in that conversation, the one who needed to be converted was the one doing the converting.  He had interrupted an open and honest journey with his stock answers and intruding presence.

I understand that he had something to say.

But what if…?

What if listening is more important than saying in these days?

What if the real place of conversion is the place where the answers are so rigid they’re brittle?  And rough?  And used to assault more than affirm?

What if the saved need saving just as much as everyone else?

After all, the Jesus the scriptures point to started with converting the believers.  And believe me when I say: we need to take down that “Mission Accomplished” banner on that front…

I’m not sure how the silence at the table broke because I felt the pressure of the clock and had to move on to the next thing in the day.  I don’t know if either of those men’s hearts were moved.  It didn’t look like it.  They looked more annoyed than anything.  And I have no idea if the man with his coffee and excuse to interrupt their day felt anything from the exchange, either.

But one thing I do know: my heart was changed, just a bit.

I resolved not to replay that scene.  Ever.

I mean, not that I was in danger of doing it.  But sometimes I need to be reminded.

Re-converted, even.

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

Oh, NECCO wafers…necco-wafers

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

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

Because they were.

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

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

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

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

It’s not pretty, mind you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not for profit, but for pruning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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