The Church of the Future is Full of Good Feels. Only.

kham-pha-nhung-cong-dung-tuyet-voi-cua-vitaminDA friend and colleague recently posted this article about Zoe Church and their mass baptism on the streets of LA.

The location is no doubt double-edged: they probably couldn’t host those baptisms in the night club their church meets in.  Blood is allowed on the dance floor…but not water (and if you don’t get that reference, check your Michael Jackson albums).

But no doubt at work was the optics, too.  LA loves to roll out and walk red carpets, and what better way to design a baptismal service than to entice the cell-phone paparazzi?

The whole article, while well written, smacks of gimmick and glam.

And trust me, I don’t say this without some self-conviction. I’m not far from receiving similar accusations.  We in the mainline get accused of being into gimmick and glam when we suggest a credit-card kiosk for offerings (because who carries cash anymore?), logo-label coffee mugs, or (gasp) suggest a coffee station in the Narthex.

I’ve been called arrogant and artificial a few times (this week).

I figure most pastors my age aren’t far from such accusations.  When you lead, people will call you arrogant, even if you don’t see yourself that way. When you try new things people will accuse you of being self-serving and gimmicky, even when that’s not your intention.

Doing things differently or with a new set of eyes and ears and minds is not gimmicky.

What is gimmicky?

Leveraging Sunday to purely provide the shot of feel-good that humans say they want. Like a drug, we’re addicted to the feel-goods.  And we’ll come back for it week after week, but never feel any better, ultimately.  It will work for fooling yourself, but won’t work for what you want from it.

Read the article.

See the ending where he notes that, at the end of the day, he’s “here to preach good news. To give humanity hope…When I come to church, you know what I need? I need encouragement.”

But here’s the rub: his idea of good news, of hope, has more to do with consumerism than it does with Christ.  It has more to do with individual dreams than with Jesus.

His good news is good news for the celebrity who stars in each of our individual plays, not for the world at the center of God’s drama.

Narcissism and the current Christian culture go hand in hand.  The Jesus who you invite into your heart becomes your indentured servant in this story, granting wishes and giving you unending personal encouragement as you deal with being an adult…

That’s the story, right?

Right now in Austin, people are being targeted by a serial bomber.  How is your personal Jesus going to help them?

Right now in Syria little boys and girls are being bombed. Weekly.  It’s far from you, but do you think Jesus has a thought about it?  Or is Jesus only about encouraging you?

This is the problem with the church of the future.  Pretty soon the self-help shelves will meld with the Christian Lit shelves in the book stores (which will soon all be electronic, anyway, save for the few who have a cult following), as Jesus becomes more and more the personal talisman of the believer.

Hope is not the assurance that in the end you’ll get what you want.  Hope is the assurance that, no matter how it ends, you won’t be left high and dry by a God who cares deeply about you, your story, but also everyone else’s story, and deeply cares about how you will intersect and interact with their story.

You will be encouraged, because you won’t need the drug of the feel good every week when the true story of the wandering prophet from Galilee is seen.

You will have hope because you’ll see that the whole world can be moved and changed, not just your world.

And when the pastor in the article mentions he wants to avoid politics…well, what are we to do with church and politics?

Friend, we’re about to come up on Palm Sunday.  If you want to talk about a political march, about resistance theater done in public, read this story about a Galilean who rides on an ass instead of a white horse to snub his nose at Caesar (who would enter cities on a white horse), effectively calling Caesar the ass in the play.

You might be able to take politics out of church, but you can’t take it out of the Bible.

Is this the future of the church, the “church of the good feels”? Yes.

And no.

Because it’s the current reality.

I’m not against good feels in church.  But I am against an uncritical faith. I am against stripping the Bible of it’s power to change the world because you want to make it about solely changing your life.  I am against public theater that serves the self over the whole community.

The church is a place to know and be known.  It is a place to receive comfort and be made uncomfortable.  It is a place where your wounds are healed and the wounds of the world revealed (and, often, the ways you’ve caused such wounds whether you wanted to or not).  And it’s a place where you learn that the Good News is both about you but also about everyone else, and that should be jarring to you.

The church is about the feels, but they aren’t always what the world would call “good.”

But they are good in the same way we call “Good Friday” good…

The church of the good feels is alive and well, but I wouldn’t call it “good.”  And I wouldn’t go there.

But I would eat an acai bowl with you.

Because I like acai…not because I think you’d think I’m cool if I did.

Why I Just Can’t…

5079516280_dd8c5d1fe2Folks, I can’t.

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

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

I can’t let it go without saying something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just can’t, folks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we can’t let it become that.

You can’t.

And I can’t.

About That Knee…

football-player-kneeling-with-helmet-off“Take a knee,” he said.  We all knelt as he explained the next play.

I didn’t play football for long.  Let’s be honest: it wasn’t my calling in life.  Team sports leave me largely exhausted, and team players find me largely exhausting.

But for the short time I did play, we took a knee every time we had to hash through something.

“Take a knee,” she said as I grew really tired standing next to my wife during the birth of our second son.  Neither birth was long, mind you, but I had been standing up and needed to hold the hand…but also needed not to be on my feet the whole time.  I was going to give out, too.  So I knelt.

I took a knee by the bedside as we waited for something new to be birthed.

“I invite you down on your knees,” he said as I took my ordination vows.  Hands were laid on me and people spoke words over me, and I responded back, about how we’d try to care for God’s people and the world.

The position of humility, but also of power, of one assuming the mantle.

Their knees all bumped up against the counter as they sat there, still.  They couldn’t order anything, and they were harassed right out of their seats, and yet there they sat, knee to knee, protesting their right to exist at the same counter as their white counterparts.

It was another position of humble power.

We take a knee to hash things out, to encourage new things to be born, to take vows, and yes, to sit in and protest when things aren’t going well.

Are things going well?  Maybe it depends on who you ask.

But if my brother and sister are in trouble, it stands to reason that I’m in trouble…or will be soon…so maybe we do need to take a knee to hash it out.

And, from a Christian perspective, look…standing up for a flag, saluting, even putting your hand over your heart, the early church would absolutely be shocked that Christians ever do such a thing. 

For the early church the choice was clear: you were either part of the empire, or you followed the God seen through Christ.

For that early church, you could not do both.  Any allegiance to anything other than Christ was allegiance misplaced.

And that was true until the church and politics got married…certainly the definition of a “marriage of convenience.”

Convenient for whom, though? Are they still married? Can we pledge allegiance to both today?

Maybe we should take a knee and discuss it.  It’s worth discussing.

Now, please don’t get me wrong…I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t stand for the national anthem or salute the flag or place your hand over your heart.  I fully believe you’re welcome to wrestle with whatever you do or refrain from…whatever it is you decide to do.

Women and men died for the flag; yes.  That can’t be denied, and should be honored and respected.  Why did they die?  How did they die?  For what did they die?  That’s all part of this discussion, you know…not just that they died.

There is a larger conversation that is trying to happen here, some things that are trying to be birthed, some ways we need to figure out if we’re keeping our vows to one another as a country, some people who are protesting the fact that they feel left out of the promises our flag stands for.

So perhaps we should take a knee and discuss it all.  It’s worth discussing.

Why It May Be Impossible to Be A Christian and A Politician: A Reluctant Perspective

Gods-Politics-0921I offer this as the news of DACA being rescinded is officially hitting the news.  No matter what your views on immigration are, we must be honest about the nature of DACA and its dissolution: it is cruel to ensure a future to people who didn’t ask to be here and then take it away.

But for those who are for it’s dissolution, and for everyone else, I have to be honest with you about how hard (impossible?) it must be to be a Christian and a politician, despite what the voters want you to say about your religious tradition.

I have a hunch we have a bunch of functioning atheists on our hands most days, not just in Washington, but everywhere.  And count me in that mix most days, if I’m brutally honest.

But for those who are calling for “law and order” when it comes to this issue, or any issue, I have to point you back to Jesus.  Not to the Bible, not to tradition, but to Jesus.

Look, on the one hand I get it: we are under the assumption that that law is how we order ourselves in this country.  And in many ways, this is true.  Laws are how we find norms in our country as a society.  As Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst kind of government, except for all the other kinds.”  He’s right.  So laws and democratic rule form our norms.

But for the Christian, laws are actually not the way we order ourselves, at least not ultimately.

I am happy to write out a long, well-reasoned post arguing the many reasons I think that it may be impossible for a politician to actually be a Christian in both profession and action.

Because the orienting factor for the Christian is not law qua law, but rather a law that is centered around the good and well being of people, especially people at the margins (because, you know, that’s where Jesus operated his ministry).

In other words, and to be timely, just because we have a law, does not mean that it is good for people, especially people on the margins of society.

And so the politician who is being honest about their faith does not orient themselves to defending the law, the Constitution, or even (gasp) some historical idea of Jesus that is undoubtedly burdened by the trappings of religiosity.

The politician who is being honest about their faith must orient themselves toward the people Jesus oriented himself toward: the weak, the sick, the vulnerable, the poor, the oppressed, those in need physically, socially, and yes, spiritually.

People tell me that they think it must be hard to be a Christian politician.  Usually they mean by this that they think a Christian politician can’t be honest about their faith because, well, they don’t allow you to pray in school (which they do, by the way, they just don’t let people in power tell others how to pray).

I agree with them: it must be hard to be a Christian and a politician.  But not because I think Christians are somehow oppressed in this country or context, though they certainly are in others…and we must not forget that.

No, I think it’s hard to be a Christian politician in these days because to live out your faith would cost you re-election (or even election in the first place).  Because you’d have to be focusing your votes and your policies not on what’s popular, but on policies that watch out for the weak, the vulnerable, the stranger, the marginalized.

You’d have to focus yourself on graceful living and loving as being the norm for your work.  Not the idea of grace and love, but the actual practice of it.

In short: you’d have to be human-focused rather than law-focused.

And as someone who might one day run for office, I offer this as an honest confession. It may be impossible to be a Christian and a politician.

My parents are in Scotland and Ireland right now, experiencing the land of my foremothers and forefathers.  My people came from the cold coasts of those islands back in the 1800’s.  They came from yonder and non, and down the line sprung me, and yet so much of my life is oriented around the assumption that I somehow earned a right to be here just because my family has been here for a hundred years.

I didn’t earn this; I won this lottery.

And how difficult it must be for people who win the lottery, but have forgotten they have, to interact with others who haven’t in a way that honors that fact.

I guess I might close by saying that, the Christian’s call is to follow Christ, which would mean giving up their lottery in many ways.

Because the lottery of God is one where everyone gets the same prize.  And, man, that must be hard to follow as a politician.



A Letter to My Boys about Disappointment

letterHey guys,

I’m going to be a bit transparent and bear my soul for the (electronic) world, but mostly just for you for a minute (though you can’t read yet, but you will one day soon at the rate you guys are going!). I write as your dad. And I do so knowing that not everyone your dad knows will like this letter. But I’m banking on the fact that we can be honest with one another and still be together, right?  That’s what we say, right?

Look, I was disappointed in the election last night.  And not because a party won or lost, but because I really wasn’t sure what to do with the candidate that won.

And now, on the other side of Michigan’s electoral votes, I’m curious about the future, but I can afford to be.  Because our President-Elect (who I now pray for and who will be our President) said some things that really trouble me, though they weren’t to me. And I have to be honest about that with you.  That’s not to say none of the other candidates, including the primary rival, didn’t also say or do some things that made me cringe.  But he said things about vulnerable people. He said things about people with disabilities.  He said things about veterans, about our Muslim brothers and sisters, about our Mexican brothers and sisters, and about our Black brothers and sisters.  His VP pick has done things that hurt our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. 

He said things about women that I never want to hear out of your mouths.

In fact, he said those things so loudly, that it was hard for me to hear the other things that he was saying, so I’m really confused today about what is next. Confused and curious.

But I know that others did hear him, and liked what they heard (what they liked and what they heard, I’m not sure, but it’s clear they did).  And they, too, are our brothers and sisters, many of them, I think, in vulnerable situations, too.  And I think that we share more common values than disagreements. I really do.

But you have to know something about yourselves, boys.

See, you’re middle class white kids in a country that’s still made for you. You don’t need to feel ashamed of that, by the way. But you need to be aware of it.  The current world is situated for you, and your responsibility is to start situating it for all, with all. The risk for you in the world is minimal, save for those risks we all have associated with living: cancer, natural disasters, deranged individuals, and the hazards of driving with your grandparents.

And so, what I want to say about disappointment is this: though I am disappointed (and disappointed that we do not, yet, have a female Chief Executive as an example for you, though your mom is pretty good at filling the role), disappointment is something you must get used to.  You don’t always get what you want, even when you feel you work really hard for something.

But I will be more disappointed if we somehow fail to help you understand two things:

  1. You live in community with other people, a community that is ever expanding, larger and larger. All of the following has to do with that, because no attempt at shrinking it will make it smaller. So you must get used to this. Know your words in this world have consequences. And your actions have consequences. So you must defend the weak and vulnerable. You must have courage to be who you are. You must look after your fellow brothers and sisters, especially those who are looked down upon or who are in vulnerable situations. That is your responsibility, no matter who is the Chief Executive of our country, because that’s what God and decency requires of us. And, if they’re worth their skin, they’ll look after you. That’s how good community works, and even if we’re not yet *good* at community, you can be good within community.
  2. Sometimes you’re going to be disappointed. And that doesn’t mean that you get angry (though anger is natural and OK in pieces) or get even (never OK). It means that you lean into your values of cooperation and love and respect and you do what you can, where you can.  And you don’t have to hate or hurt people who disagree with you. They are part of your global neighborhood, guys.

The world you’re growing up in is more divided than ever.  Some of that is because my generation and previous ones haven’t really learned how to disagree well with one another.  We’re struggling with an increasingly globalized world in a way that we aren’t really prepared (or mature enough?) for in most cases.  We’ve been fed that we must tolerate one another, when really what we should have been taught is how to love each other.  We’re not yet comfortable with that.

And no amount of platitudes will ease this discomfort.  What you must do is reach out to those different from you, however that difference is made evident, and be with them.  You don’t have to stand for intolerance, but I don’t want you to just tolerate anyone, either.

I want you to love people, as you’re best able. And loving people means you don’t make fun of them, you don’t assault them, and you don’t generalize them. It means you listen and have dinner with them, and you pick up the tab half the time.

And yes, you can be snarky, but try to avoid cynicism.  And yes, you can have strong opinions, but if your opinion becomes a personal attack, it fails to be an opinion and has devolved into a baser form of communication, which should be avoided at all costs because, well, you’re bright guys and are better than that.

We’re going to be disappointed sometimes, boys. But know yourself, and know who, when disappointment strikes, will feel the aftershock the most.  And that’s who you look out for. And not because you are some sort of savior or guardian, but just because that’s where you’re supposed to be, by God.

Got it?

Love you guys. Go Cubs!


“You’re Not Promised Tomorrow” is a Lie

It seems like after every national tragedy–and let’s be honest, tragedy on any scale–people have this “ah-ha” realization about the fragility of life.

I think that’s a pretty natural reaction.  A wake-up of sorts.

And that “ah-ha,” that realization, often gets filtered into a phrase that comes out something like this: “we’re not promised tomorrow.”  It’s a carpe diem phrase of sorts. A call to mindfulness.  A call to smell the roses.  A call to, as Qoheleth and Dave Matthews chirp, “Eat, drink, and be merry” for tomorrow we die.

Or, at least, we might die.

On the one hand, I get that sentiment.  In a cosmic sense it is absolutely true, and shouldn’t be ignored.

But the tragedy in Orlando was not some cosmically caused killing.  A meteor didn’t fall from the sky and destroy Pulse. It wasn’t some freak shark attack.

If it had been a meteor or a freak accident, then I could get behind the phrase “we’re not promised tomorrow” as a response to this terrorist attack.

But this was a terrorist with a gun living under the laws and regulations of the United States of America.  We can’t just shrug our shoulders, hold our babies closer, and hope it doesn’t happen to us.  That’s ridiculous.  On some level, uttering that phrase in response to this particular act is just plain stupid sentimentalism; a vapid romanticism.

At its core, the laws and regulations that we live under are a social contract of sorts, a promise if you will, that your tomorrow cannot be purposefully infringed upon by my actions in a way that inhibits your “life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.”

I’m saying that those people at Pulse were promised a tomorrow.  At least in the sense that no one could infringe upon their tomorrow in a forceful way by law.  We had a social contract that someone decided to break, and here we are shrugging our shoulders and saying, “No guarantees.”  Sure…no guarantees.  But we do have promises which, while not guarantees, are the social contract version that is pretty darn close.

And when we say something like, “We’re not promised a tomorrow” as a response to a situation that is a breach of social contract we abstract the incident to arms length, when what we actually need to do is draw the incident as close as possible.

Because things at arms length…we have little control over that. It’s a psychological crutch. But this type of mass shooting is actually something that we, through our social contracts, can take action on.

When Moses went up to Sinai and descended with those two tablets (three, if you believe Mel Brooks’ account), it was to establish a social contract both between humanity and between Divinity and humanity.  It is basically a response to, “how shall we then live?”  And it was, in essence, a promise of tomorrow for those people.  This is how we order ourselves, by promising one another a tomorrow because God has intended tomorrows for humanity.

And for the Christian, the promise of tomorrow goes even past death.  So Christians must take quite seriously this part of our social contract.

And we cannot, of course, ever guarantee something like this shooting won’t happen.  Our laws are no preventative guarantee; they are a promissory note, though.  A promissory note that we all sign onto.

And, look, the promise was broken.  Let’s not pretend it was an act of God.  Let’s not pretend this was written in the stars or some similar platitude that will help us swallow this pill.

Do not swallow this tragedy.  Choke on it.  Choke on it and let action to save lives be our response.  If you throw it out at arms length we’ll just do this all again.

Let’s not pretend we have no way of figuring this out. We know how this happened; we know how it happens.

Let our “ah-ha” moment not be a realization about the fragility of life, but a renewed commitment to tomorrow and to keeping promises and to doing the things that help us all to keep our promises.

Because, actually, we are promised tomorrow.  Not guaranteed…but at least promised.

And if you say otherwise, you are delusional or lying or just unwilling to face the reality that we are not powerless here, we’re just choosing to be powerless here…

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.