At the Start

August 31st, 2014

Today marks the beginning of a  conference in Albuquerque.   Action and Contemplation.

Yesterday thought of the importance of this work, work many pastors – the last of the generalists as one colleague phrased it – find both so enlivening and heart rending.  The work is hard and important because pastors and many others on the spiritual journey continually must stand in two places.

One, the world of the world.  Worries about budgets and guiding and somehow helping that person who with a chipper, shallow glowing grin chirps “Isn’t life great” with little of the depth that adds meaning to those words.  ”Great”, I fear, can simply be code for “I have a lot of stuff.”

Second, the word of the Spirit, where life remains precious, connected and touching and at the same time broken so deep that tears come easily.  Imagine shuttling between McDonalds and the silent oasis in prayer.   That is often my day.  Not just with others.  But with myself.

And so the work matters.  It matters that we effort to cross over to new places and new language and new ideas, it matters that we go back to to help others and those lost parts of ourselves do the same.

At the start.

You know what I notice?

August 28th, 2014

I am blessed in sharing life with a number of deeply spiritual people.  Far beyond me and my petty compulsions and annoyances, these folks work on a different floor.  I have met them in many walks of life.  Some Christians. Others Jewish … take your pick of backgrounds. Some – don’t tell anyone -  proclaimed agnostics though I suspect if I got a few beers in them I would find out otherwise.

And you know what I notice?

I notice a deep reverence for the individual’s journey.  I notice an unwavering dedication to the work of love – “long obedience in one direction.”  And I notice a a distrust.  Not a distrust of God.  Not a distrust of their fellow human beings.  But a distrust of their own personal thoughts and emotions.  Pleasant travel companions – thoughts and emotions – yes but to be faithfully and fully trusted without question? No.  Get to that “ah-hah” and I think we find laughter!

This week spent time on the porch with two friends.  One expecting, one there helping.  And me listening.  I always feel a rush to talk, to fill uncomfortable spaces with chatter.  And that night was different.  More conversation.   Less chatter.  Long enough that what started as a pleasant evening on the porch became a need for a candle so we could see each other that warm summer night.

And as with all friends, new and old, there are those tell tale signs, those words or phrases that let us know we are home.  That it is ok. Safe harbor.

For me those phrases are honest, clear, joyous statements, and some tears, around us, as human beings.  The smiling mess, held by God, that we are.  And how we are called to be more than ourselves with “ourselves” understood as all our thoughts and all our emotions that race through our lizard brain.  There is something else to be seen.  Beyond thoughts.  Beyond emotions.  Beyond all our self-proclaimed identities.  And it is brilliant.

From Thomas Merton:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.

I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.

 

The criticism that sucks the life right on out of me … and breathes life right back in

August 27th, 2014

Fr. Richard Rohr offers a painful, necessary, and strangely liberating prayer, “Lord, I am praying for one good humiliation a day.”

I HATE that prayer!  Not because I find it theologically offensive or too long or too hard to remember.  I hate it because it is true.

And some humiliations, for the necessary good they do, hurt more than others.  This week got a battery of those from an individual. The pattern is consistent …

  1. That was not church
  2. Where was the Altar/ Bible on stage?
  3. Where was the Lord’s prayer?
  4. I can see that service anywhere
  5. Seems like you have sold out to popular culture

This script gets passed off and recited by a different individual once every few months.  Their profile … similar.  They have been in the New Church for several generations.  They attend or lead a conservative congregation.   They are usually a male over 45.

The challenging part is where does one “park” this critique?  Every critique offers a least a parcel of truth that I need to hear… that I MUST hear.  Got it.  But where does the bulk get parked?  It is not appropriate to share specifics with the congregation or even necessarily the board because the one critique will outweigh the 20 other positive comments … such is human nature and our “negativity bias.”  So I share the specifics “on the side.”  I hope I can refrain from sharing them in a catty/ I’ve-got-a-story-for-you! kind of way.  I hope I can share it privately in a “This is the stuff that hurts.  This is the stuff that sucks the life out of me…. And now, back to the business of life and sharing and growing.”

So I loved this response after a private email exchange ….

My question would be were 315 people served [this past weekend]?  Were their lives better for having attended that service?  Did those people leave reminded of God’s love?  Did they hear some truth?  Were their hearts stirred to make the choice to let God’s love flow through them and make a positive difference in the world?  Did they wind up feeling a deeper sense of unity and connection with God and God’s people?

I suspect they did. 

And that, my friend, should be the only thing that matters in anyone’s mind.  If we truly care about the part of the Lord’s prayer that asks for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, our prayer should be for there to be hundreds if not thousands of services just like the one you led last Sunday… services that accomplish those sorts of outcomes. The more the better!

Thank you.  And life gets breathed right back in.

 

“Twitch”

August 27th, 2014

Amazon just purchased “Twitch” for $970,000,000.  And Twitch is a website … where you watch other people … ready for this …. play video games.  I think it safe to say churches offer more.

And yet why aren’t churches growing? Why is it such a struggle?  Write me if you know.

And in the meantime, let the words of Jenny Childs find soft soil in our blessed little “We want our church to grow” hearts  … “Keep doing the right thing for the people that present themselves to you and it will grow as it should – not just how we think it will!”

 

 

And Why Is It That Bad Things Happen?

August 21st, 2014

No easy question.

Much of the tragedies in life play out beyond understandable reason.  Why do kids get cancer?  Why was James Foley killed?  What happened in Ferguson Missouri?  I wish I knew.  I wish answers came easily beyond just simple platitudes around “It is all is God’s hands.”  But when my friend Matt passed those simple answers left, swiftly, permanently.  I got clear on one thing when Matt died … God is not in the business of taking a loving father away from his 5 children.

F. Scott Peck observed the mystery of health is far greater than the mystery of illness.  Absolutely.  There is a greater mystery around grace and caring and compassion than evil and depravity.  Over and over again in this job one witnesses those greater mysteries of love, self-sacrifice, resilience.  Last night, Ronald McDonald House, one of our first time volunteers …. “I was amazed how happy people were.”  So am I.   15 years volunteering there and I remain amazed.

And that amazement … what does it mean?  I think it means I can simply rest that God is there too, in those breakings large and small.  It is not for me to understand the why’s and wherefore’s.  It is for me to watch and listen and pray.  And thank God for his presence in those kids and those parents, a presence beyond me and my cracked, futile attempts to figure it all out.  As if figuring it all out would matter.  Because what matters is that my heart breaks as does God’s.  And that we learn again and again in a way simple, hard and profound … to roll up our sleeves.

Autopsy of a Deceased Church

August 19th, 2014

In a very well written work, Thom Rainer observes these characteristics of deceased church.  Churches that failed shared the following traits …

  1. The past was held as hero
  2. The Church refused to look like the community
  3. The budget moved inward
  4. The great commission became the great omission
  5. The “preference” driven church focused exclusively on the comfort and wishes of current church members
  6. Pastoral tenure declined
  7. Church rarely prayed together
  8. The church lost a clear purpose
  9. The church became obsessed over facilities

To summarize churches moved away from being self-sacrificial and instead became self-serving, self-giving, self-entitled.

This list is accurate.  New Church theology clearly warns against this very turning of churches inward that eventually leads to their demise.

It is hard to make an argument supportive of churches solely focused on their members’ needs, churches in turn that regard ‘outsiders’ with deep suspicion.  Organized religion as such becomes organized and sanctified exclusion, more interested in talking about outliers than talking and working with outliers whomever that might include be that the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, or simply the different.

Commentators like Richard Rohr rightly posit … if the above is the preferred future for organized Christianity there is no future for organized Christianity.

There is likewise no future for the opposite extreme either, an extreme that values entertainment over engagement, that proposes a “soft” Gospel with nothing sacrificial in its bones.  As Ken Wilbur noted, such a Christianity leaves “the self” intact and does little to dig at the soul, to dig at the true self, to sacrificially call out humanity to wider, more challenging and more promising vistas.  There is then no connection to Christ because there is no call beyond self.

Hope lies, as always, in a third way.  And this is a hope not for  the continuance of an institution but a hope for  a reborn institution living powerfully and humbly into a new era.  Church with strong enough structures and boundaries to stand for many things.  And church with porous enough structures and boundaries that enable it to easily easily connect and breathe with the communities in which it is placed.   There are bones … strong. There is muscle, and flesh, and heart… warm.  And it all serves.

 

Unrest in Missouri and The Third Way

August 15th, 2014

Unsettling to watch the unrest in Missouri erupt after the shooting of an unarmed youth, 18 year old Michael Brown.  In these events which so often pit one side vs. another, police vs. protestor, white vs. black the truth remains elusive.  As tempers flair, as pent up frustrations work their way to the surface in spasms of violence, how do we know where blame lies?

I believe that accountability is for time and justice to work out.  What we can stand for, now, today is the third way.

Much frustration grew, following the shooting of Michael Brown, with what many see as over-reaction by the police who appeared outfitted for combat – tear gas, rubber bullets, black ballistic gear.  There is little question that following 9/11 many police forces have become increasingly militarized. Several weeks ago a picture in a leading paper showed Texas game wardens, body armor on, patrolling in a boat on the Rio Grande, dual machine gun mounts fore and aft.  I don’t know that world.  I don’t know the fear of drug traffickers and terrorists and gangs or mobs in Missouri.  I suspect however that those types of responses – logical, understandable as they might be – can in turn reinforce the exact the behavior they seek to curb.

With the violence appearing to subside, what changed?  It appears the Governor made a wise decision in replacing local police with State Highway Patrol Officers to deal with the protests.

Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, the highway patrol official appointed by the governor to take over the response, immediately signaled a change in approach. Captain Johnson told reporters he had ordered troopers to remove their tear-gas masks, and in the early evening he accompanied several groups of protesters through the streets, clasping hands, listening to stories and marching alongside them.  (New York Times, August 15th)

That approach is the third way, a call from Christ, a place where we all can stand.  And where we all can heal.

Shark Week: Thoughts on Criticism

August 14th, 2014

The dining section of the New York carried these scathing remarks …

I am still trying to erase the memory of the One and Only Truffle Burger, a culinary experiment so botched that is almost made a vegetarian out of me….

The second course did not fare much better for the reviewer….

What is the point of offering a six-option Sausage Fest if each meaty link has been cooked so that it has the texture of sun-bleached sailing rope?

Ouch!

If we are going to do life, we will face criticism.   If you are going to open a restaurant some will not like the food.  And criticism hurts.   So how might we hold criticism?

Accept criticism from those who have had their “ass kicked.”  Limit your time responding to those who have not.

Brene Brown nailed it, “If you’re not in the arena, also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”   A good line to live by.  Criticism in my experience from those without experience of what you are endeavoring/ hoping to do is most often cheap.  Worth little.  Unless you primary concern is popularity.  In which case listen to it.

Every critic offers at least a partial truth

Not an easy one to accept.  Even the most off-the-rails, crazed, narrow critique usually offers criticism that is at least 10% true and valid.  Find that 10%.   Discard the rest.

And there is always, in my experience, at least 10%, gulp, that I need to hear.  And usually the real percent is north of that 10.

On occasion that truth might just be that we need to remain humble and clear.  Popularity binds all of us from saying what we must say, and doing what we must do.  Thomas Merton wrote that finding ourselves, trapped by adulation, we come to a point where we realize “They dig you.  You are canonized.  You are the embodiment of their own complacency.”   Critique ironically helps us to speak more clearly, more frankly, and when warranted, more directly, all of which in turn break our habitually benign yet deadly turn towards complacency.

Criticism with no movement attached is worth little.  Criticism with movement attached is worth a great deal.

Much of the time arguments in churches substitute for the work of church.   Churches, as human institutions, respond readily to drama.  Churches focused on human preferences quickly lapse into a work of the church, usually in the form of debates around Sunday worship format or pastoral leadership styles, that leads, well, nowhere.  Just to more debate.

The flip … criticism with movement attached is worth its weight in gold!  Are we serving?  Are we reaching out?  Are we welcoming enough?  Are we choosing the scary thing or just the easy thing?

Keep first things first

We are here to serve God and others not to argue.   So live THAT life.  In the highest forms of spiritual life “people moved by heavenly love have wisdom written not on their memories but on their lives.  They don’t talk about divine truths, they simply do them.” (Divine Love and Wisdom, 427)    As such, little room for argument.   Who has the time!

Bon appetite.

Issues Small And Large

August 8th, 2014

It is hard to grasp the brutal nature of the ISIS insurgency in Iraq and Syria.

Who is ISIS? “The West considers ISIS to be an international terrorist organization. It operates in Iraq and Syria with the aim of creating an Islamic state across the borders of the two countries and beyond. Initially called Al-Qaeda in Iraq, it became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria last year. It has played a prominent role in Syria’s civil war with the chaos enabling it to quickly develop a reputation as one of the most extreme groups operating in the region.” (New York Times)

The immediate crisis centers around what looms as a potential genocide as ISIS fighters surround  over 40,000 of Yazidis refugees, who have fled to Mt. Irbil in Northern Iraq. They are of Kurdish descent, and their religion is considered a pre-Islamic sect drawn from Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.  (CNN)  In calling in today’s airstrikes President Obama noted “We can act, carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.”

ISIS holds to a radical view of Islam that in turn regards Shiite Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others who differ from their conservative views as infidels and worthy of destruction.

As Christians, we must deplore the rank fundamentalism that feeds this kind of genocidal fervor.  We likewise must speak as Christians to the authentic alternative of a multicultural, religiously pluralistic world that embraces diverse faiths and perspectives captured in the words announcing Christ’s birth in Luke, Do not be afraid I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all  people.”

What is the “call to action?” What is the way forward?  While options are limited maybe some thoughts …

  1. Speak clearly and act clearly against religious fundamentalism that seeks to destroy others where ever that fundamentalism appears, in whatever form fundamentalism takes, in whatever religious group however small or large we find it espoused.  That includes our own churches and in the world at large.
  2. Speak clearly and act clearly against that same fundamentalism in ourselves, a fundamentalism evidenced by a binary world view of “ins” and “outs”, of members and non-members.  The word “diabolical” means “to divide”… a poignantly accurate description of hell.
  3. Pray

There is nothing small or light here folks.  This is our world.  This is our choice.  This is where Christianity through you, through me, through courage and commitment, returns to being “The Way.”

“I am and there is none beside me”

August 1st, 2014

“I am and there is none beside me” … a very human position, a very dangerous thought.

These words crafted a warning captured 1,000′s of years ago by the prophet Isaiah, a warning against human hubris and toxic individualism.  They speak directly to our often lived belief that the world revolves around us, solely and exclusively.

And, as a Pastor I know nothing sexy in speaking to self-sacrifice!  Read ages of Christian literature and one finds such warnings replete, open, and discussed.  Read today’s literature, and there is less than one might hope.  Simply phrased …. “Live Your Best Life Now” is only possible if we cease being jerks.  But my petty human concern? “Live MY Best Life Now” with no thought of “Our” or “We” or “Them” or “Other.”

Cravings to convictions.  We tend towards cravings.  God pulls towards convictions.  Our cravings rationalize themselves, create their own logic, pull our attentive energy away from the deeper and quieter musings of the spirit.  Convictions center us, silently and solidly, in an alternative world view.

And the difference between cravings and convictions?  Maybe hope.  Hope in cravings is only hope in a frenzied “more” that satisfies less.  Hope in convictions is a hope in the bright, grounded work of love.  Begin there.  End there.  A place where creation breaths.