Wednesday, February 21, 2018

We Have to Get Smarter

I heard a news story this morning on NPR about how Russian bots have been amplifying the extreme positions in America. I do not understand the technology fully, but apparently these programs scan social media for extreme positions and highlight them and spread them so that they seem more mainstream than they really are. The result is that we as a nation end up constantly fighting with each other, which is exactly the point of the whole process - to keep us at each others' throats.

As I listened, I couldn't help but think back to October of 2017, and the sermon that I preached immediately following the Las Vegas shooting. ...

At 15:00 minutes, I say, "If you listen to how the conversation is framed, you would think there are only two possible ways to think about it - either 'no guns for no people' or 'all guns for all people.' That’s the way our 'national conversation' has been discussed. But it is just not true! It isn’t reality!"

I also published a blog post with the full text of that sermon - Click this.

In that sermon last October I posed the following question: "Who is framing the conversation that way? Maybe that’s where we need to spend some time and energy. Who benefits from keeping us at each other’s throats over issues that aren’t really issues in the first place? That is where the power resides, after all. And they stay hidden, under the surface, in the shadows."

Now, I am not claiming any kind of prophetic insight, but there is a resonance that cannot be ignored.

And of course, the more important point to make here is this - We have to get smarter.

When it comes to discussion and debate about public policy, there will naturally be disagreement on what is the best way forward. But we cannot allow the hidden powerful elite to define the conversation for us. That has to stop.

We have to get smarter about how we speak with one another about contentious issues.

We have to get smarter about who is truly holding the power in our nation, and what is actually at stake here.

We have to get smarter about fixing the gun crisis in America.

We have to get smarter about what the vast majority of us believe are the core values of our nation.

I started this blog (oh so many) years ago with the premise that "The Conversation Matters," an idea I flat-out stole from the title of a book by Hal Knight and Don Saliers. I still believe that. The conversation matters. HOW we talk to each other is just as important as what we say.

And we are failing miserably at HOW we are talking to each other. That is, if we are talking to each other at all. We seemed to have recused ourselves from any responsibility for framing the conversation, and are just allowing that work to be done for us, by strangers we will never meet.

Honesty, integrity, humility, and compassion are in short supply these days - they have been stolen from us. It's time to take them back. We have to get smarter.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Kids are Going Off Script

The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice.” – Emma Gonzalez, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Student & Self-proclaimed Kid

 There isn't any tragedy that justifies taking away the rights of innocent people.” – Austin Peterson, Candidate for Missouri Senate & Definitely a Grown-Up

Mr. Peterson apparently believes that the right to own a piece of property, namely an assault rifle, is more important than the right of a person to be alive.

Ms. Gonzalez apparently sees things differently.

I’m with her.

One week after the latest mass shooting in America, the script is changing. At this point we are in the scene in which we all are supposed to be reacting to the reactions of the people around us, telling them how their reaction is ridiculous and won’t work and how they are so naïve to think it ever would and how our reaction is obviously the more correct and reasonable one. 

This is the scene in which we forget that our neighbor's reaction isn't actually the problem, that the problem is that 17 people went to school last Wednesday and were shot and killed while they were there. But, you know, projection.

This scene is supposed to transition into the next, in which the conversation devolves into mindless yelling and nothing changes. Which brings us inexorably back to scene one again, and I think we all know what happens in scene one.

But this time, some really brave people are going off script. They are ad-libbing this scene, and it is glorious and terrifying and wonderful to see.

The actors who are going off script are mostly students, high school students. Led by people like Emma Gonzalez, high schoolers around the country are lifting their voices in smart, articulate, and courageous opposition to the status quo. With laser beam focus they are staying on message, and are showing a relentless determination that ought to have NRA politicians sweating bullets.

People kill people, the grown-ups say, not guns. Yes. Right. You did a logic thing. Groovy.

See here’s another logic thing: People with guns kill a lot more people than people without guns.

Also, people with semi-automatic guns kill a lot more people than people without those kinds of weapons. If we’re going to use logic here, let’s really use it. Assault weapons are designed for one purpose – assault. Not hunting, not home security … assault.

No one needs an assault weapon. And no, your right to own one is not more important than someone else’s right to be alive. The right to be alive supersedes the right to own property. I feel like that truth should be self-evident, or maybe even that right should be … oh what’s the word I’m looking for … ? Oh yeah – Inalienable.

So maybe the script is being rewritten this time. These kids certainly aren’t behaving in the way they are expected to. And already it is making the grown-ups nervous. Already the reactions are getting ugly. The latest is the right-wing idea that the students are being “used” by bigger political organizations as tools to advance some scary left-wing agenda.

Right, because seventeen year olds couldn’t possibly have come up with this stuff themselves, huh? Surely someone MUST be pulling their strings from behind the scenes. (Read that with a sarcastic tone of voice, by the way.)

The truth is, these student leaders are making sense. They are saying rational, reasonable things that the majority of Americans agree with, and it is making the grown-ups in places of power very nervous. And it’s fabulous!

Kids these days! Thank God for kids these days.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

A Call for a Bigger Unity

I am so tired of the “my way is the only way” Christians belittling the rest of us who see things differently than they do. Stop, please. Just … stop!

The latest is an absolutely absurd blog post shared by the “Wesleyan Covenant Association” (W.C.A.), a group of United Methodists who doesn’t think gay people should be allowed to be married or ordained. The author's premise is that calls for unity are actually asking for disunity, although the blog's author does not clearly define what is meant by "unity." Here’s a link to the blog in question.

Here is the most telling statement - “It is not fair to ask a global church to sanction the progressive mores of a minority group largely centered in the U.S.”

When I was in elementary school, there was a kid in our class whose go-to response to life was “That’s not fair to me!” He said it any time anything at all didn’t go his way. It was annoying from an elementary kid; it is infuriating from an ordained United Methodist Elder.

But I don’t know if spiritual immaturity is actually what’s going on here. It may be, but it’s quite possible there is something else happening. And I have an idea about what it might be.

There is an illness that has infected the church, one I have dubbed “Obsessive Christianity Disorder.” The symptoms of this version of “O.C.D.” include an inability to validate anyone else’s perspective but your own and a quickness to condemn other ways of relating to God that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable for you.

Happily there is a treatment! It’s very simple, found throughout the Bible, and something that Jesus himself modeled for us. It is humility.

Dear United Methodist Church, if we can foster the ability to “walk humbly with God,” we may very well be able to remain united as a denomination. If we cannot, we will splinter.

Dear Wesleyan Covenant Association, I humbly submit to you that no one will force you to marry a same-sex couple if you cannot find a reason to do so. No one will force you to vote “yes” for a gay person when they come up for ordination, if you cannot find a reason to do so. No one will ask anyone to “sanction the progressive mores” of anyone.

You do you. Carry on.

All the rest of us simply ask that you let us do us. All we ask is that you let us do ministry in a way that makes sense to us, in our contexts, with and among the people around us. And if that means marrying a same-sex couple so that God will indeed be at the center of that lifelong covenant commitment, then we want to be free to do so. And if that means we think a person is gifted for ministry and would be an amazing deacon or elder in our church, then we want to be free to vote for them without taking into consideration the gender of the people they are romantically attracted to.

Again, no one will force you to include persons you find morally objectionable in your worldview. You can say “No” to all the gay couples you want. You can vote “No” on all the gay ordination candidates you want. That will not change. I absolutely trust you in your ministry, when you say that is the best way for you to focus on the mission of the church. I do not agree with you, but I trust you that it is right for you.

I am just asking you to trust me in the same way by removing the denominational restrictions that make my ministry so difficult.

Finally, let me add this. The blog I read today, speculating about the possibility of a UMC compromise, includes this observation: “One pastor would be teaching that the practice of homosexuality and same-sex marriage are unbiblical and therefore incompatible with Christian teaching, while another UM pastor, just miles away, would be teaching the practice of homosexuality is a good gift from God and same-sex marriages should be celebrated.”

Right. And …? I am unclear as to why this is a bad thing. In fact, is it not a strength of our connection, and a reason to work for unity? I am aware of several pastors close by me who have a “traditional marriage only” viewpoint. (By the way, icymi I have a “marriage equality for all people” viewpoint.)

Does it not make a whole lot of sense that, if someone in my congregation cannot abide marriage equality, I would be able to recommend to them a great pastor and colleague down the street that I know shares their view? And vice versa? Isn’t that what Christian unity really ought to be?

Further, I believe that denying a couple their marriage vows because they are the same gender is oppressive and unjust. My colleague down the road does not. Only if we remain connected, unified as the church, would my colleague down the road be able to send a same-sex couple to me to be married. Does that make us uncomfortable? Perhaps. But who promised anyone that following Jesus would be comfortable?

The truth is that ministry context is already taken into consideration when appointments are made in the UMC. District Superintendents and Bishops already know where individual pastors and individual congregations are on the theological spectrum. So appointment making really would not change all that much; we would just be more honest about it.

For me the bottom line is this – The Christians who claim their way of following Jesus is the only possible way to do so are just plain wrong. “Their way” is just one way among many ways to follow Jesus all around the world. I certainly do not believe that my relationship with Jesus is the only possible way for anyone to be in relationship with Jesus. So why does anyone feel that way?

I hope our definition of “unity” is not as small as this. I hope our definition of “unity” finds its source in Christ, not in us. I hereby call for a bigger unity, and I hope we who follow Jesus truly believe the Bible when it says that “all are one in Christ,” and nothing we do can change that.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Work Harder, Preachers

Hey preachers, let me have a moment…

There is a lot of low hanging fruit out there this week. A lot of easy barbs, jabs, pithy snark we might include in our sermons. There is a lot of it, and it’s hanging really, really low.

Work harder. The Word of God needs to be proclaimed this week as powerfully as it ever has been, maybe even more so. Work harder. This coming Sunday’s sermon is crucial; it’s impact will have a lasting effect on those who hear it. Work. Harder.

How many sermons will include the word “shithole” this Sunday? How many times will the line, “Galilee was a shithole country, too” be uttered by how many preachers in how many pulpits?

That’s just too easy, preachers. Work harder.

Don't just negate; create something new. Don’t only deconstruct; let your preaching be constructive. Do not waste vital sermon time reacting; preaching is a proactive moment.

Every one of us needs to invest some significant time this Sunday morning describing the world as God intends it to look and then letting the people know that it is up to us to go out and make it look that way. Creative, constructive, proactive - Preach the Word.

Yes, resisting the evil forces of the world is a significant part of our role, preachers. And yes, we need to name those evil forces. Racism is real, and it is roaring as loudly as it ever has. Bigotry, misogyny, hypocrisy … all on vibrant display in our country this week. Sure, call it out, name it, drag it into the light.

But don’t stop there - work harder!

 Don’t spend your entire precious time slot speaking against something; speak for something. Offer the alternative. Describe God’s preferred reality, and be specific about how we together can bring it to life in the world.

There are dozens and dozens of Biblical descriptions of the world as God intends it to look - the prophet Isaiah, the words of Jesus in Matthew 5-7, the practices of the early church, Paul’s descriptions of unity in diversity. Find them, read them out loud, and then dare people to live like that.

There’s probably a MLK march or rally or event of some kind in your community, right? Whatever it looks like specifically, it is an opportunity to stand in connection with others on behalf of justice and peace and understanding. Tell your congregation to go to it. (Springfield, MO - Click here)

There’s probably a program in your community designed to help people who have immigrated from another country, right? Get the information and put it into the hands of your congregation on Sunday. (Springfield, MO - Click here)

Yes, there is a lot of low hanging fruit this week. Preachers, do not be tempted. To simply negate, deconstruct, and react is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Create. Construct. Proactively proclaim the Good News. God has an amazing, gracious, love-filled, just, peaceful, vibrant vision for what this world is supposed to look like. Announce it. Proclaim it. Tell them that it is here! Just sitting there, waiting for us to realize it! Waiting for us to enter it … to receive it.

It’s a big Sunday, preachers. Work harder.

(11:15 a.m. - UPDATED with links for Springfield, MO responses)

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Is Diversity Still a Strength?

In the past month, I have heard both from a family who is leaving the congregation because it is too conservative for them and also from a family who is leaving because it is too progressive for them.

Now obviously, as I spoke with each one they shared more; their reasons are more nuanced and complex than that. There is always more to the story. But that’s the nutshell version: for one it is “too conservative” and for the other it is “too progressive.”

For nine and a half years, I have been preaching a consistent message: Love can overcome different perspectives. Diversity is a strength. The conversation matters. “Though we do not think alike, may we not love alike?” as John Wesley said.

I believed that the church was made up of people who see the world differently, people whose politics and theology are labelled either “conservative” or “progressive” or some other such label, and yet who could embrace our variety of perspectives together as we focused on the mission and ministry of the church, and could do so with abiding love for one another.

But the two conversations I mentioned above have given me pause to wonder if that is true anymore, and to ask myself some existential questions. Here are a few…

Question 1 - Has something fundamentally shifted in our world that makes it simply impossible to be in relationship with (much less have a conversation with) someone who sees the world very differently from one’s self? We all know the cliché about knowing what people with whom to avoid discussing politics. It has become a meme, but it really isn’t funny. Why can we not even talk with each other anymore?

Question 2 - Does the “malevolent spirit” currently unleashed upon us have more power over us than the power of God’s love? I do not believe that in my heart of hearts, but from the way we are acting these days, it seems that it may. Or rather, it seems that we have allowed it to.

Question 3 - Is it time for a season of being intentionally apart from one another? Should we just seek out like-minded people and commiserate for a little while, take comfort in similarity, breathe deeply without fear of conflict or attack, without the anxiety of defensiveness, and simply renew our souls? And plan for some point in the future in which the atmosphere might be sufficiently healed that we can come together again?

I am very progressive – theologically, socially, and politically. And yet I have made every effort to temper my own bias, knowing that I am preacher in a diverse congregation. Obviously my bias is revealed every so often; how could it not be? It is who I am. It’s just that I take very seriously the Biblical admonition to avoid being a stumbling block for others who are seeking God. And if my progressive perspective is a stumbling block for anyone’s relationship with God, it breaks my heart. Every time. But that begs another existential question…

Question 4 - Has my tempering of my bias become in and of itself a stumbling block for others? Here I am thinking of the family who told me the congregation is “too conservative” for them. And moreover, here I am thinking of the many, many people who have rejected church as an option in their spiritual lives because they assume that being socially, theologically, and politically conservative is the only choice for a follower of Jesus. This is of course an incorrect assumption, but am I exacerbating it by trying to moderate my progressiveness?

Please forgive my processing these questions “out loud,” so to speak. This is a highly narcissistic post, I know. I’ve been pretty transparent here about some real internal struggles I’m feeling right now, and I understand the risk that entails. But I know that I am surrounded by gracious, loving people who are a continual source of encouragement and support for me, and I’ll just throw myself on your grace and understanding at this point.

And at the same time, I get the feeling I’m not the only pastor struggling with these kinds of questions. There are enough of us, in fact, that the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church put together an excellent webinar series on the topic, called “Pastoring in Partisan Times.” (You can watch the recordings here.)

One of the most helpful ideas that came out of that webinar series for me came from Dr. Leah Gunning-Francis, who said, “I know that we are looking for ways to try to appease and make people feel comfortable, but the truth of the matter is it is impossible to do that in light of the gospel.” I get that. In fact that really pokes at the dead center of my existential struggle. How do I hold “making people comfortable” and “not being a stumbling block” in tension and still be an effective preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

So that’s where I am at the moment. I’ve been here nine and half years, preaching the same message (diverse perspectives are a strength), and now have had two very faithful families from opposite ends of the spectrum tell me they are not going to be a part of the congregation anymore, because it is not closely enough aligned with their own perspective. It has shaken me, and left me wondering if diversity actually is a strength anymore.

And now I’m just trying to figure out what to do with that.

UPDATE (1/4): I would like to add that the people who left are people whom I love dearly and whom I consider to be very good friends. Which makes the whole thing all the more befuddling and heartbreaking.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The Church I Want

Ever since I became a pastor (way back in the year 2000) I have felt a connection with people who have been hurt by the church, who were maybe once a part of the church but have rejected it for reasons, and those who just really see no need for the church in their life.

You might say that a part of my calling has been to acknowledge the harm the church has inflicted both by action and inaction, and to present an alternative relationship, another way to think of church. It has been one of my driving motivators to be able to say, “There is another way. The version of the church that you reject, I also reject. And there is another way.”

But I’ll be honest. That’s getting harder and harder to do.

The litany of reasons is far too long to catalog here. Christians behaving in blatantly un-Christlike ways may very well have done irreparable damage to the church. There seems to be no way to “fix” it at this point. All we can do is …

What? What can we do?

Maybe I’m in this mood because I’m so old and cynical. I feel like I used to be so gracious and understanding, saying things like, “Well, that may be the way that you relate to Jesus, but I relate to Jesus differently than that. Everybody’s different! Whoopee!” But now I see people who say they are Christians doing and saying such abhorrent things, and I honestly cannot say that with integrity any more.

I’m getting tired of thinking to myself, “No, that’s not what following Jesus looks like. That is not what church is.” I’m sick of reacting to Christian awfulness.

So let me instead phrase it in the positive. Let me tell you what I want:
+ I want to be a part of a church that struggles together to make sense of things; not one that presents one narrow set of doctrines as the only possible way to look at the world.
+ I want to be a part of a church that makes art and writes songs and dances and sings together; not one that is run like a corporation.
+ I want to be a part of a church in which content is more important than form.
+ I want to be part of a church that blesses human love expressed in sacred covenant; not one obsessed with forbidding gay people from being married.
+ I want to be a part of a church that reflects the racial diversity of the community around it; not one whose worship features “the most segregated hour of the week.”
+ I want to be part of a church that values and cultivates the spiritual gifts of women in the same ways, with the same leadership roles and corresponding salary levels, as men; not one in which sexism clouds every decision.
+ I want to be part of a church that celebrates cultural nuance and embraces the beauty of difference and distinction; not one in which anything out of the “ordinary” is inherently wrong and to be feared.
+ I want to be a part of a church in which scientific discovery is embraced, doubt and skepticism are encouraged, and intellect and reason are seen as complimentary to spiritual growth.
+ I want to be a part of a church that does not campaign for specific candidates, but is passionately engaged in politics for the sake of God’s justice.
+ I want to be a part of a church that, in word and deed and thought and attitude, represents Jesus Christ with love and grace and peace and justice and truth and life and light and wonder and meaning and hope and joy.

That’s all. That's the church I want. Pardon my selfishness, but this is my blog after all.

(And before you say, “That sounds like OUR church!” take a minute to think about the theology behind what you are saying. You are severing your particular congregation from the body as a whole. Your ecclesiology may need a bit of work.)

I want to do something new. I want the church to be something that I am afraid it is not, but certainly can be. Should be. Is supposed to be. MUST be, if we are to be faithful to God’s desires. It's obviously not about the church "I want;" it's about the church God wants.

Can such a church happen within existing structures? Can there be a 21st century reformation of the institutional church? Or are we too far gone, and the only hope is to create something altogether new?

I think the church is in a season of great potential energy. We’re right at the top of the hill, and we’ll either get over the hump and move ahead or be pulled back down the backside. I’d really like to be one of those giving it a nudge forward.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

"Look Down" - Our Fundamental Connectedness

“Look down, look down, don’t look them in the eye.
Look down, look down, you’re here until you die.”

One of the themes of the musical Les Miserables is this refrain – “Look down.” These are in fact the first words sung, by the prisoners on the chain gang. They are words of caution spoken among them, since to make eye contact with the guards would invite a harsh response. And metaphorically, to “look up” and express any hope for the future was dangerous. Hence:

“I know she’ll wait; I know that she’ll be true.
Look down, look down, they’ve all forgotten you.”

Later, the refrain is sung by the people of Paris.

“Look down and see the beggars at your feet.
Look down and show some mercy if you can.
Look down and see the sweepings of the street.
Look down, look down, upon your fellow man.”

This time around, the words “look down” are spoken by the poorest in the streets as a plea to the people of the upper class, asking them to “look down” with mercy and pity. To “look down” on another person metaphorically is to think they are “less than,” to consider oneself superior to them. And if superior, then disconnected.

Herein lies the ethical problem of arrogance. When one person or group of people think they are inherently superior to another, they are assuming a disconnect that does not in fact exist. The person or group that has self-identified as superior will likely not see it as such, but in fact the separation they assume is mythical.

Because of course, we are not in the slightest bit disconnected from one another. In fact, we are more intimately woven together than we realize. The Bible expresses this truth in many ways, including in the creation story itself. Human beings are connected to one another and to the rest of creation from the very beginning, even receiving divine instruction to watch over the other living creatures in the same manner and with the same care as the Creator would.

In the Christian Scriptures this profoundly interconnected unity is one of the most significant themes. The people are described as individual parts of one body. When one suffers, all suffer. When one rejoices, all rejoice. “You are one in Christ” is not a word of instruction; it is a description of reality. Over and over again, the Christian religion affirms our fundamental connectedness to one another, and to the world around us.

In stark contrast, so much of what we experience in the world encourages us to separate from one another. Backyard decks with six-foot privacy fences have replaced front porches. Fear and suspicion are our initial reactions to strangers, rather than friendly hospitality. Public interactions are defined by video screens and earbuds rather than eye contact, handshakes, and real-time conversations. “Look down” takes on a whole new meaning for people messing around on their phones instead of interacting with the world around them.

Beyond that, the ones we do connect with tend to be very, very similar to our selves, and thus very, very familiar. We live inside of bubbles we have created for ourselves. We only watch news channels we “agree” with. We know which people we can talk with and which we can’t, and know which topics to avoid altogether. We rarely read anything that is dramatically different from our own perspective on life.

We even tend to drive by the same routes to the same places over and over again!

To live isolated lives is incompatible with Christian teaching. Jesus is the ultimate barrier buster (as I've mentioned before) and those of us who follow him are supposed to be the same. Rather than exist in our familiar bubbles, fearful of and reticent to encounter anything outside of our own comfortable echo chambers, Jesus asks his followers to lovingly eliminate the barriers we so expertly place among ourselves.

Simply put, one cannot follow Jesus by “looking down.” We need to look up, look out, make eye contact, be aware of one another, truly see each other. And who knows, maybe we’ll see something new, maybe we’ll learn something, and maybe we’ll make a new friend or two in the process!

If the religion you practice allows you to “look down” on another, I don’t know what it is but it is not Christianity. If the teacher you follow is making you feel superior to another person or another group of people, I don’t know who it is but it is clearly not Jesus. If the group of people you belong to is comprised only of people who are exactly like you in every way, I don’t know what it is but it is definitely not the church.