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.

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.

Zeus is Alive and Well in the Church

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What’s the difference between this portrayal of Zeus and most common portrayals of God?

“Tell me about your Sky Wizard,” they said to me with a smirk.

They were referring to God, of course.  A God they didn’t ascribe to.

I think there was a time in my life where hearing that phrase would have offended me, but it certainly doesn’t anymore.

Because they’re right.  The God that many Christians subscribe to is exactly like some sort of “Sky Wizard.”

They’re granting wishes (though usually people call them prayers).

They’re in control of everything: the weather, your fate, every single outcome of every single instance, pulling levers like some busy 1940’s phone operator.

They’re a trickster: Zeus was known for tricking people.  He was fair and just, but also would throw obstacles in people’s way. In the same way we have people say, “God is testing me!”

I hear it all the time, as if God has nothing better to do than mess with your life.

Blessing people who do the right thing: “God is so good.”  I don’t want to deride people for saying this, but we have to make a distinction between getting what we want and getting something from God. A lot of times I find that God calls me to do exactly what I don’t want to do.

For Christians, God is most clearly seen in the person of Jesus.

Jesus: who would give up everything for the people he loved.

Jesus: who, especially in the Gospel of Mark, doesn’t need to be in control of everything, but remained steady and dedicated to love no matter what happened.

Jesus: who didn’t grant wishes as much as responded to the needs of the world with healing and hope…and called others to do the same.

Jesus: who is not interested in blessing people with things, but forming them into blessings for the world.

Zeus is alive and well in the Christian church.  He spends his days occupied with you in so many ways.

But Jesus?  Well, Jesus is dead.

And resurrected.

And asking you to be focused more on others.

And I sometimes have trouble finding him in places where people of faith dwell.

Seriously. I find this to be a problem.

How To Read the Bible-A Primer

bible-pagesThe Bible is not a book.

It is a collection of books.

The Bible is not a type of literature.

It is composed of many types of literature.

Christians hold the Bible in high esteem, perhaps too high in some circles, because the way that some Christians talk you’d think the Bible is their God, superseding even the very acts of Jesus described in the Bible.

This is actually heretical, even sinful, because it breaks the very first commandment in the Decalogue (if you need a reference, go ahead and check out Exodus 20:1-17 or Deuteronomy 5:4-21).  In my view Fundamentalists have become what they continually deride: idolaters.

So, if you’re a reforming Fundamentalist, an Evangelical who has read the Bible like an encyclopedia, a Mainliner who doesn’t really know where to start, or perhaps you’re on the edge of being Christian at all (or maybe you’re not even sure you can claim to be that close), I have a prescribed way to read the Bible that I commend to you.

  1. Read a good study Bible.  Not any study Bible, but a good study Bible.  The Harper Collins Study Bible, the Lutheran Study Bible, or some annotated version of the New Revised Standard Version are all to be commended.

    To be avoided?  The King James Version (or any variation of it).  The Living Bible. Any form of an “Augmented Bible.”  Any version of a gender specific/life-stage specific Bible (unless it’s an NRSV translation).
    Get’s a “meh” from me: the NIV, the Common English Version, or anything the Gideons pass out.

    The Message is a fine paraphrase to use if you’re using it for devotional purposes, as is The Book of God.

    Not all Bibles are equal, and what I mean by that is not all Bibles are translated with the same scholarly scrutiny.  Some of these interpretations take terrible liberties with translations, and even more problematic, some of them take absolutely wrongful liberties with commentary.  Any Bible that tries to pinpoint Eden, that attempts to locate support for the Rapture, or posits Esther or Jonah as history rather than story, are of poor scholarly quality.

    And it’s worth noting that the Christian industrial complex (if I can name it that) has consistently duped and made money off of people because they assume that most Christians either aren’t smart enough or discerning enough to know the difference. 

    Just like you should not buy any snake oil from a traveling salesman, don’t buy it if it’s embossed in gold, says “The Bible” on it.

  2. Read it with other people. The Scriptures are best read in community because then you hear what other people are taking from a passage.  Read it and re-read it. Because parts of scripture say different things at different times in your life.
  3. Reading the Bible from front to back is not usually helpful. The Bible was compiled with some logic to rough timeline, but it’s not like a novel.  So reading it front to back is not always the best way to read it.

    The Jewish ordering of the Hebrew Scriptures places the books according to type of literature rather than timeline.  Sometimes adopting that kind of reading schedule is more helpful, because you group types of writing together, staying in the same medium.  This is roughly how the New Testament is arranged.

    And, boy I know this is controversial, but there are simply parts of the scripture that perhaps are better left as un-turned pages.  There are pieces that are shallow, and some even dangerous, without some extra guidance (like a good Pastor, a great lexicon, or a reputable commentary).  Adopt a way of reading that works for you, and if something presents itself as a head scratcher, let it go unresolved for a bit.

  4. Speaking of unresolved…you’re going to find contradictions and errors…but keep reading and don’t try to resolve them too quickly, and don’t force a resolution.  And if you don’t, you’re not reading with your brain (which is a mistake, friend).  Why is it that scientists and mathematicians, engineers and auto-mechanics are well-practiced at using problem solving skills in their every day work and perfectly welcome scrutiny as a useful tool in their trade, but all of that is suspended the minute they crack the Bible?

    The Bible is held in high esteem by Christians, but this does not mean that we do not use methods of discernment and scholarly discipline when reading it.  In fact, I’d say that people who take a “plain reading” view of Scripture (or anything!) holds that thing in such low esteem that they are unwilling to submit it to the same tools and rules of finding knowledge.

    The Bible is not an encyclopedia, so don’t treat it like one.  It is not an instruction manual, either.  Any reading that adopts this kind of “hunt and peck,” or “search and find” method does it absolutely no justice and, I would say, is not how it was intended to be read at all.

    The scriptures are full of tension.  The Bible contradicts itself.  It has errors.  And those who put it together saw these, by all accounts, and decided to keep it all the same.  They lived with the tension.  Why can’t we?

    Don’t force a resolution.  Live in the tension.  Such is the life of faith.

  5. Literary over literal. These books were not written for these times, specifically.  So we must adopt a malleable eye and meaning-making mind when reading the scriptures.I am not saying that they’re not applicable to these times.Certainly the message(s) is applicable!  Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing any of this.

    But to imagine that the writers had you in mind when they wrote it is to steal their agenda and make it your own.

    The scriptures continue to speak into today, but they use the language, imagery, and thought process of yesterday.  This is helpful when reading passages that don’t jive cohesively with our understanding of psychology, sociology, and even systematic theology.

    Again, allow the tension to linger.

    And one of the worst things that we can claim is that the scripture contains science. It does not.  When representatives in Congress come to the floor to advocate that Creationism be taught alongside Evolution, they make the mistake of thinking that all theories are equal.

    They are not.  Christianity does itself no favors when it mistakes theology for biology (and I would say that science makes the same mistake all the time, too).

The Reformation may have brought the Scriptures to the people, but in some ways the theological world is paying the price for interpretations that have happened without any regard to good scholarship and training.

We wouldn’t buy a chemistry workbook written by someone who only took Chemistry 101 in high school, so why do we buy Bible studies written by people with little more theological training than an advanced Sunday School curriculum (looking at you so-called Bible Colleges)?

Not all Bibles are the same.  Not all studies are the same.  And when we treat them all the same we create an environment that is not only hostile to Christianity (because who would trust a discipline with such terrible standards?), but an environment also hostile to the pursuit of knowledge.

Ye (Me?) of Lots of Beliefs but Little Faith…

BeleifBrian McLaren, in his book The Great Spiritual Migration, has this phrase that he used early on in the piece that caught me as being very true.  He said that some people have “many beliefs, but little faith.” (p.45)

Beliefs, he suggests, are opinions or judgments about which someone is fully persuaded. While they may not be verifiable in any reliable way, they are held as un-waveringly true by their adherents.

Faith, on the other hand, doesn’t flow forth from certitude, but rather from the conviction that risking for the sake of love is better than not.  And faith, in McLaren’s definition (and in mine) is always connected with deep, abiding love.

So, according to McLaren, an individual might have a ton of beliefs, these things they are so certain about, but have little faith.  Their propositions are not rooted in a deep, abiding love that is much bigger than their human understanding of the notion.

They can spout off the Apostle’s Creed, for instance, but have no experience of the God they profess.

They can assert supposedly moral dictums, but have no understanding of the generous space from which morality flows.

They often want to impose their beliefs on others, ignoring how such coercion violates the love they want to claim they have.

Faith, on the other hand, holds the tension of not knowing, not needing to know, and not needing everyone to agree with them, well.  Faith leans into the great mysteries of God and holds loosely to the small dogmas that we’ve created about God.

Faith has no need to coerce, but rather coaxes through intentional dialogue and open invitation.

Faith doesn’t just spout off any Apostle’s Creed, but knows intimately the creative, salvific, and sustaining properties of God’s presence because they’ve made it past the life/death, resurrection/redemption, sin/righteousness dualisms that religious history has tried to make us choose between.

The life of faith lives the creed, it doesn’t just believe things about the creed.

Beliefs are so strong, like concrete.

But they crack over time, making them hard to maintain, hard to navigate, just…hard.

Faith, though, is like soil. Tillable, changeable, able to adapt and move with the uneven landscape of growth and advancing years.

And many will find faith challenging their beliefs, growing up through the cracks.  Sometimes this invasion of faith can be worrisome.  It’s hard for faith to coexist with beliefs sometimes…faith is so unpredictable, and beliefs are so rigid.

Usually a good dose of fear will take care of the faith growing through the cracks of belief. Fear that too much overgrowth will create too much upheaval and then, well, where would we be?

Lots of organized religion has centered itself around beliefs.  Just take a look at church websites and click on their “What We Believe” page.  You’ll find it all there.

But what about faith?

Lots of people, whether they consider themselves religious or not, have a lot of beliefs.

But what about faith?

So…

Do you have beliefs?  Or do you have faith?