Wednesday, March 10, 2021

"The Direction of the Church"

The church staff of the congregation I serve hears a lot of feedback, as do I. By far, the two most common themes in this feedback are: 

“I do not like the direction the church is moving.”


“I like the direction the church is moving but it is not moving fast enough.”

For brevity’s sake, I will summarize the two positions as “Please Stop” and “Go Faster.”

So it goes.

It is noteworthy that we hardly ever hear from people who say “I like the direction the church is moving and am perfectly content with the pace at which it is moving there.”

So it goes.

I have a bit of advice for you, if you’d hear me. When you are offering feedback about “the direction the church is moving,” whether that feedback is offered to me, to a church staff member, to another pastor, or to anyone, please be specific. Please say exactly what you mean by “the direction the church is moving.”

For the record, here’s what I mean when I say “the direction the church is moving.” I mean “closer to God.”

I mean in the direction of love. I mean along the way of sanctification. I mean our cooperation with God’s grace that draws us ever closer to being perfected in love in this lifetime. I mean towards fuller inclusion. I mean Exodus, liberation, a direction that takes us toward the Promised Land. I mean drawing the circle wider, ever wider. I mean along the arc of the moral universe, bending inexorably toward justice. I mean the direction of the all-encompassing Gospel of Jesus Christ. I mean outward into the world as ambassadors of reconciliation. When I say “the direction the church is moving” I mean the direction of the Holy Spirit, discerned and embodied in an intentional community of people, all of whom are just trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got.

And if I am serious about moving that direction, I believe that any and all forms of evil, injustice, and oppression must be named so that they can be removed from the way. That’s hard to say, because it includes removing the obstacles that exist within me, also.

So, whether you are a “please stop” person or a “go faster” person, I hope you will be very specific the next time you talk with someone about “the direction the church is moving.” And specifically, if you are in the “please stop” camp and the “direction” you are referring to means working to include more people more fully in the life of the church, please be very specific about what you believe the consequences of that work will be.

Go deeper than just, “I don’t like this.” Go deeper than just, “It breaks the denomination’s rules.” Say out loud what you believe will happen if your beloved sibling in Christ who happens to be gay is allowed to get married in your church. Say out loud what you believe the theological implications are if your dear neighbor whom you love and who is called to ordination and who also happens to be gay is allowed to be ordained.

Be specific. If you really think it’s wrong, claim it. Tell me exactly why you believe that working to truly extend God’s love and grace to all people, rather than just sitting around and talking about it all the time, is not the right direction for the church to go.

I am not being sarcastic. It sounds kind of like I am, but I’m really not. I truly value all perspectives. And if you have a perspective to share, I am inviting you to share it with me. “Please stop” or “go faster,” either one. Don’t make a vague reference to “the direction of the church.” Tell me. I want to listen. I promise I will hear you. I may not change my mind about “the direction of the church” or the pace at which we are moving, but I promise I will hear you.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

"New" Year?

To turn a page on a calendar from one year to the next is often an act of hopefulness. Resolutions are made, slates are cleaned, and new beginnings are … begun. It is an opportunity, albeit an arbitrary one, to breathe deeply and recenter ourselves for what lies ahead.

This year, to turn the page on 2020 and into 2021 feels nothing short of triumphant. We made it! We are through with this most weird and miserable of years!

Of course as we do so, we have to be mindful of those who cannot make this claim. There is something rather myopic about celebrating “making it through” a year in which 1.8 million people (and counting) died in a global pandemic. There is a certain sensitivity required of us this year, a certain empathy. 

So this year we celebrate and lament simultaneously. “New Year’s Eve” 2020 includes both grief and relief. We are able to feel more than one thing at the same time, and this year we feel them all.

And this year, we are more aware of the mundane truth of this “New Year” celebration. Namely, that there is nothing magical about it. There is nothing contained in the January 2021 page of our calendars that will miraculously erase our struggles.

Nevertheless, we resolve. We persist. We recenter and take another step. Even though we know it is just an arbitrary number on a calendar page, we embrace the opportunity to become something more. Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.’”

It is a weird feeling, this knowing and hoping anyway. At times we pendulum swing toward one or the other, alternately drifting toward despair then becoming nearly giddy in the next moment. Weird, isn't it? So it goes.

And so we turn the page. Happy new year everyone! Embrace the relief and the grief, the hoping and the knowing. Let’s figure out what the next step is, and take it together.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Tendrils: A Foster Care Transition

Some of the them work their way more deeply into your heart than others.

Which means that when they leave, it hurts that much more. It is an extraction. 

Tendrils have entangled and pulling them apart is work. In botany, a tendril is a specialized stem or leaf shaped like a long thread that a plant uses for support and attachment, generally by twining around suitable hosts. These hosts are found by touch.

In foster care, it is much the same. By twining around suitable hosts. Used for support and attachment. Very often found by touch.

And then they need to move on, to be transplanted in new soil, and the tendrils have to be removed from the hosts. Some of them release gently. But some of them don't. They're stubborn; they hang on. Some of them rip off and remain. Still connected to the host. Dangling.

Baby C, there are so many tendrils.

We met you in the hospital, where you had spent the first two months of your life. Such a little chubbers. Cheeks for days. Fluffy brown hair. Bright, happy eyes. Your nurses had long since fallen in love with you, and we very quickly followed suit.

We watched you grow through all the "year one" stages. From a bottle, to baby food, to solids. From random movements of your arms and legs, to rolling yourself over, to crawling, to toddling around like a pro. Your first smile. Your first belly laughs. The first time you started mimicking our voices. The words you were learning: "What?!" "Ball." "Gabe!"

You wanted to be so fierce, with that little growl. (You were not fierce.) Sometimes you would sit at the table and just ... yell. No reason. Just yell. You would often grab a single piece of food from your tray, throw it carelessly onto the floor, and then grab another piece and eat it. Again, why?

You were learning to throw the ball, but every time you tried to throw it, it ended up somewhere behind you, which really cracked us up. One of your best moves was your "double take" look, looking away and quickly turning back with a gleam in your eye and a little smile on your mouth.

Speaking of smiles, you smile with your entire face. It is the most amazing smile ever in the history of smiles. When people would see you smile, it just makes them happy, and we smile with you. Don't lose that, C. That quality will come in handy.

You cried when you were sleepy or when you needed changing. And that was pretty much it. I mean, you got a little crabby after dinner but we took care of that by stripping you down to you diaper, which tended to keep you happy until bedtime.

And when we would rock you to sleep, you had a habit of reaching up your little hand and touching our faces, your curious fingers exploring mouth, chin, cheeks.

Tendrils. Twining for support and attachment. 

Around whose heart though? Who is the trellis here?

And now, you are gone. We were careful with you; we tried to be gentle with your fragility during the process. Tried to protect the roots, the leaves, the tiny tendrils. We think the family you are with now (your family, after all) will be good soil in which you are going to take root and grow into ...

Into what? 

We might be lucky enough to see. To be a part of your life in a new way and watch you keep growing and learning and becoming. To see how you will blossom. Maybe. It's just that whether that happens or not is not really up to us. So maybe. 

All we know for sure is that we did our best. We loved you as best we knew how. We still do. And you are loved by so many people, C. So, so very many people. What a lucky kid you are, to have so many people who love you so much!

A foster family's job is to help a kid learn how to attach. And having learned that skill, they will then be able to attach more easily to the people in their forever family when they transition. 

In other words, once they've figured out how to grow tendrils, to touch another with tender dependence, to find a suitable host to twine around for support, taking root in new soil will be much easier for them. 

It's just that some of them work their way further into your heart than others do. And Baby C, you were in deep. 

I love you Lito. I think you are neat-o.

Oh, inconvenient heart. So quickly filled. So easily broken.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

The Good Samaritan, Covid-19 Edition

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he contracted an illness that left him with a compromised immune system.

“Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he wore no mask and did not maintain six feet of distance. ‘I’m not sick,’ he thought, since he clearly had no symptoms, ‘So there’s really no need.’

“So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, wore no mask and did not maintain six feet of distance. ‘Since I am free to choose how to live my life, I can do as I please,’ he said.

“But a Samaritan while traveling with a mask on did not come near him; and when he saw him, he greeted him with a wave from a safe distance. He asked how the man was feeling, and if the man needed anything. Then he did not put him on his own animal since that would have violated distancing guidelines, but rather walked along the road with him a while, always staying a minimum of six feet away.

“The next day he took out two denarii, donated them to Doctors Without Borders, and said, ‘Thank you for taking care of so many people; and when I come back, I will donate whatever more I possibly can.’

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Monday, June 01, 2020

The Comfort of Chaos

“...the earth was a formless void…”

This phrase, in the well-known first verses of the Bible, engages the imagination, and is worth a pause for contemplation. We may want to quickly rush to the part where God turns on the light, but maybe it’s okay for us to linger in the liminal space of the darkness that covers the face of the deep.

Many of us are “fixers;” we want to identify the problem, develop a plan to correct it, implement the plan, and move on. A “formless void” needs to be formed, it needs to be filled in, it needs structure and substance. Nature abhors a vacuum, right?

Our impatience is a product of our sinfulness. We want things done on our time, in our way, by our own calculations. We forget that we are we and God is God. 

This impatience turns us into our selves by prioritizing our own impulses and thereby away from one another. When we turn away from our neighbors, we fall short of the vision God has for this world, that we love one another as Christ loves us. When we turn away from our neighbors, we are unable to hear them. When we turn away from the world around us, we lose sight of the Gospel.

When things feel particularly chaotic, as they do these days, I take comfort in these first lines from Genesis. “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” The comfort comes from the next phrase: “...while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

In the formless void, the Holy Spirit sweeps. Within the impenetrable darkness, the Holy Spirit broods. In the chaos of the season, the Holy Spirit hovers among us, within us, and in between us. Therein lies our hope. We are in a liminal space. We are in a wilderness season. A time of uncertainty and weirdness. And we may be in a hurry for someone to just turn on the light so we can get out of this mess. 

To be sure, we must not sit passively, but rather we must actively engage the liminal space of this moment. We must be fully present to the formless void. We have to become fully aware of the darkness. We need to look into the face of the deep in order to see the sweeping presence of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Tipping Into Grace

Things feel precarious these days.

It is the end of May, 2020, and we have been living with a global pandemic for three months now. Even longer, actually. It feels to me like we are at a tipping point. It feels to me like what happens in the next few days and weeks is going to set the next few months in motion, and maybe years. And it feels to me that it could tip either way.

Put simply, we will either tip into fear and frustration, solidifying the divisions among us, or we will tip into love and grace, drawing us closer together than we have ever been.

Already angry protestors carry automatic weapons to capitol buildings to threaten government officials. Frustrated customers berate store clerks trying to enforce simple, easy to follow rules. A stylist with Covid symptoms shows up to work with dozens of clients, and when the story breaks she receives death threats. And decisions that should be guided by reason and science are guided by political party affiliation. And so it goes.

It feels precarious, like we are tipping toward fear, anger, and divisiveness. I just hope it isn’t too late for us to tip back the other way.

I get the idea we’re feeling it personally, as well. The weight of these three months is grinding us down. We are sad, tired, and grouchy. It is hard to focus. Our relationships are strained. Our hearts are heavy and a weariness has settled into our bones. And so just at the moment we as a society are hanging at this precarious tipping point, we lack the personal fortitude to do anything about it but succumb.

It’s no wonder though, is it? The pressure cooker of this pandemic has slowly increased over time, squeezing our anxiety until we have reached a point where it either has to be released or it will explode. Many of us, feeling this pressure build up, are rushing to restaurants and bars and gyms, foregoing masks and physical distancing guidelines. Or expressing caustic bitterness on social media with no empathy or understanding whatsoever. Or eating too much unhealthy food. Or drinking too much. Or… pick your poison.

It is as if we just need a pressure release, and we don’t care how unhealthy it is.

My prayer is that we will figure out a way to tip into love and grace, and become closer over these next few weeks than we ever have before. And it will take intentionality, cooperation, and determination to do so. It will take honesty and good communication and a level of vulnerability not many of us are naturally comfortable with. It will take trust, lots and lots of trust.

And most of all, it will take the Holy Spirit. It will take us surrendering ourselves to God’s desires and yielding our own wills to the divine. It will take a renewal of our commitment to our calling to be the church.

I refuse to think that it is too late, that we have overbalanced into fear and anger with no hope of correcting things. I continue to hold on to faith in the human capacity for love, which is far greater than we sometimes imagine. I continue to hold on to faith in God’s capacity to redeem and reconcile. This is a precarious moment, a tipping point. With God’s help, may we choose wisely, and discover ourselves tipping into grace.

(And yes, this song is on my mind a lot these days.)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Pandemic Pedagogy

Things I have learned during the Season of Weirdness:

1 - We can change. The idea that the church is incapable of change is a myth. Suffice it to say that myth is thoroughly busted.

2 - It is all us. People are the church, not the building or the pastors or the staff or the membership roll or the budget or the policies, processes, and procedures. The church is us and there’s no them. Every congregation is now and forevermore a “multisite” congregation.

3 - Belonging is more important than believing. Non-essential beliefs, like non-essential activities, have faded into near obscurity. For the past six weeks, the church has been all and only about “God is with you no matter where you are” and “God is love” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” and other such foundational truths. Isn’t it interesting that in a time during which the term “essential” has become so prominent, the “essential” doctrines of the church have also?

4 - We need each other. The categorizing labels of the church are all but meaningless any more. The lines separating “Evangelical” and “Social Justice” and “Liturgical” and even “Conservative” and “Progressive” have become permeable. Individual people and congregations will still lean into a particular perspective, but those who lean into another are no longer demonized. We have seen just how interconnected we are, and it will change how we interact.

5 - Who we are is more important than what we do. It has been tricky to “do what we do” as the church, and working to figure all that out has given us pause to consider why we do all the stuff we do in the first place. Asking the “why” question leads us inevitably to finding out who we are. It peels away the layers of irrelevance and reminds us of what truly matters at the core of our identity.

I cannot help but think that the church will emerge from this “Season of Weirdness” in a better place. “Stay at home” orders that limit gathering sizes, define essential activities, and establish personal spacing minimums have compelled the church to do some deep self examination. I am hopeful that we will have learned a few things in the process.