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.