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How Generosity Could Save the Church

I’m going to come right out and say it. The economics of future-proofing the church are directly dependent on the generosity of older generations. If the church as we know it is to survive the next two decades, it’ll be because something changed.

Either we changed or the culture changed. Or maybe the circumstances changed. Or all three.

If there is no change, however, then we will run out of time and we will be changed against our will. This event will happen, not because we screwed up someplace, but because that’s the law of nature. The status quo leads to death. We know this from physics and the law of entropy, which regards that energy is either growing or declining. The very cycle of life is growth or decline. The only way to stave off decline is to put more energy into the system.

And in the end, all things still die. All things come to an end. We can’t Botox the church forever.

The Church is dead! Long live the Church!

As certain as things die, we know that new life is created. Our central theological principle: the very thing that makes us Christians: is compatible with the central notion of nature. We will one day die. And from our death, new life will come.

Unless we wrap ourselves in plastic or encase our bodies in airtight and watertight boxes, encased in cement. Then we can’t possibly provide new life.

This is why the way we talk about “the dying church” matters so much to the way we understand the church itself. Because we can love this incarnation of the church and we can fight to preserve it with every ounce of strength we possess, but

  1. it will eventually die
  2. the church will be reborn
  3. and we are called by GOD to do a new thing.

So talk of the death of our church is not the same as the death of The Church. It certainly doesn’t prevent GOD from transforming the world. In fact, it might actually help. As ashes, excrement, and rotting plants and animals provide nourishment for the soil, decaying churches can create the very stuff that allows The Church to grow and thrive.

You might be interested in making sure this church survives the process. I can totally relate to that. Here’s the one thing that would ensure we have more time, the one bit of new energy that can be pumped into the system to provide opportunity for growth.

Generosity

Our oldest generations must be more generous than they already are. Notice that I am not saying “old people are stingy.” I am saying our oldest two generations need to be more generous. There are two reasons.

The Basic Economics

The Silents (b. 1930-45) and Baby Boomers (b. 1946-64) have more disposable income than the younger generations. There are more of them in the church, and there is a great need for more economic participation in the system from these groups. This is precisely the case because these are the generations that have the greater means of contributing.

There is also significant data that shows that these two generations also have more room in their financial ability to give in two important ways. One is that these two generations do not currently give at the high levels of the Builder generation (b. 1914-29) much of which came of age during the Great Depression and served in World War II. The Builders gave, on the whole, a greater percentage of their income to civic groups and churches.

The other reason is the confluence of two economic benefits: many Silents and older Boomers benefited from the heyday of both Social Security and work-related pensions, which allowed them more flexibility for personal long-term investment. In other words, despite the fixed nature of their income, this is the wealthiest age group in the country and many of its member have dramatically more giving capacity to the church than Gen Xers and Millenials, whose student loan and credit card debt, decreased income potential, and little retirement savings opportunity make these generations severely disadvantaged in giving now and in the future.

This means that not only have we likely already peaked in potential giving to the church,  we have only decline to look forward to.

generosity

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Generosity in Spirit

As dreary as the economic picture may be, there is actually a much more important opportunity for generous giving by our oldest generations, and it doesn’t have to do with money. It has to do with accommodating difference and relinquishing control. And I don’t just mean in serving on unpopular committees or doing the work nobody wants to do.

This kind of generosity means being generous in spirit, not just action. It isn’t the dollars given or the welcome made when a new family shows up to church. It is about allowing people who are different to be different. Allowing people with different backgrounds to speak and feel as if they aren’t really all that different. Allowing space for different outlooks or experiences or views of the world.

It is ultimately, more than learning to deal with change. We think that’s bad enough, but this is worse. Much worse.

It is letting go of complete control.

It isn’t all about you

At a music conference I attended some time ago, I heard the most important rebuttal to liturgical selfishness I’ve ever heard. It goes like this:

After worship one Sunday, an older gentleman approached the music director with a concern.

I did not like that anthem the choir sang at the Offertory.

The music director thought for a moment.

Oh no? What was the problem?

Oh, I just didn’t like it.

Did you like the opening hymn?

Yes.

Did you like the sequence hymn and the setting for the Gloria?

Yes.

How about the Sanctus, the communion hymns, and the closing hymn?

Yes.

You just didn’t like the anthem.

No.

So you liked 7/8 of the music. Maybe that one piece wasn’t for you.

Either we can acknowledge that our tent is big enough to accommodate things we don’t like or else it is narrow enough to find ourselves excluded because it isn’t 100% what we want. But we can no longer pretend that our liturgical selfishness isn’t having a real impact on our potential.

helping another out

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I do not favor one liturgical style over another for the church. If you have ever joined me in worship, you know that I can be as “high” or as “low” as the congregation needs me to be. I can sing praise songs and ancient hymns. I can preach from a manuscript, from the floor, and collaboratively in a liturgical Bible study.

What I do favor, however, is shedding that ridiculous belief that our selfish preferences are deciding factors for the church. Because if we worshiped the way I want to, many of you would have more than just a little change to freak out about.

Let me break the fourth wall and speak directly to my elders. This is why this isn’t about you, but about all of us. It is about how the younger generations need your generosity. We need you to choose to support us. We need you to choose a better church over a stagnant one. We need you to choose a generous spirit over a selfish or stingy one.

You may quibble about getting 7/8 rather than 8/8. And yet some of us are expected to be thankful that all we got is 1/8 because at least its something.

What if I were asking you to try on our shoes? ‘Cause right now, you’re making out like a bandit. And many of us are lying in the road, watching a priest and a Levite walk right on by.

Why TV Needs Father Gabriel

Warning: mild spoilers of The Walking Dead follow.

Photo Credit: Andre Kunze via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Andre Kunze via Compfight cc

The Walking Dead. I haven’t read the comics, though I should have by now. I’m a geek, I used to be a comic geek at that, and I love the show, so this is totally in my wheelhouse. Maybe I love the suspense of watching the show as it comes on: of waiting until the next episode, the next season: too much to ruin it with too much knowledge.

After seeing the appearance of a new character, Fr. Gabriel in last night’s episode, it had me thankful for the character. At least thankful for the way he was portrayed in this episode. I can’t vouch for who he will become or who he “really” is.

His introduction seemed so over-the-top stereotyped (the freaked-out pacifist, screaming in the woods) that I was already getting pissed. Hear we go again.  This is pretty much what happens for every depiction of a priest on TV that isn’t on Rev. We aren’t taken seriously or used in any way that isn’t a prop for something really lame or of fleeting relevance.

In truth, I think, writers generally don’t know how to handle priests and pastors in creative works.

Often, we are the stand in for “religion” or for GOD/Jesus or righteousness. We are used as dampeners, blowhards, and comic relief. We are treated as serious, naive, and weak.

The themes priests and pastors are used for involve broken faith, Pharisaical and Puritanical rule-enforcing, or for the ethical defilement of the those in whom we are entrusted.

If a priestly character has any real plot point other than discovering a dead body in a church on the way to mass, then the plot revolves around sex abuse, cover-ups, lying, sex abuse, extortion, the mob, sex abuse, infidelity, bigotry, or sex abuse. These plots heavily depend on a priest who is himself compromised and doing bad things. Or else is the evil judge of depravity.

There are exceptions to this, but they all fall prey to at least one of these indulgences. The dark comedy and relatively current subject matter of the ill-fated The Book of Daniel and the much better and more witty Rev. demonstrate priestly characters that have actual souls and humanity, rather than the depraved or ridiculous caricature we see nearly everywhere else.

In last night’s episode, Fr. Gabriel ventures close to the norm, with his skittishness and devotion to non-violence. Except, they didn’t use him as a foil to prove why the expected paradigm is correct. He wasn’t used as proof why violence is good, or to prove a human proclivity to use violence when our backs are against the wall. He was literally in that position and didn’t use violence himself.

Even more refreshing is that his moral corruption (still unknown, but highly suggested) hasn’t led him down the road of Shane or now, Rick. He is being eaten alive from the cognitive dissonance of his sin. This is territory The Walking Dead has dealt with before, but continues to go unnoticed by its core viewers. Followers of the show make reference to “losing humanity” as people turn into vicious beasts. This certainly seems to be an elephantine weight on this new season, which keeps me eager for the next episode.

Yet we see in the characters of Dale, Hershel, and Tyreese, more than “humanity”. We see compassion and love. We see coolness when everyone around them is hot, often serving as the stabilizing conscience of the leaders, including the prone-to-distraction Rick. We see purpose and strength because they believe there is something more to this than surviving and killing. And the show has rewarded these characters, portraying them not as demonstrating weakness or that they were “too good” for the show, but that they actually helped the group survive. Each of these guys, on the average, outlived the hotheads on the show. The ones guests on Talking Dead are fond of saying are “built for this world”.

Gabriel enters the story as an overtly damaged moral compass, but one who hasn’t lost “humanity,” whatever we intend that shorthand to mean. He is realistically dealing with guilt. Guilt for his own cowardice and selfishness. However, his guilt does not mean he should have found a gun and set the world ablaze in righteous fury, for that would no sooner soothe his soul or release his guilt than it does when any of us resort to retaliation. Instead, he is simply guilty of sin.

Unlike the world from before and the world they inhabit, sin is not only the things we have done, but as we say in our public confession each week, “by what we have left undone.”

Gabriel, an Episcopalian, would also know the next lines of the confession:

We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Gabriel is not only racked with guilt, he is suffering through his penance without a confessor. He has no priest, and more, no community to make confession with.

Now, if he has a community, he may be able to receive the absolution he needs.

That is true religion. Given the moralism which passes for Christianity on TV, we are better for having this character. At least this week.

 

[NOTE: For more on Fr. Gabriel, check out this write-up. For more, please revisit my thoughts on the morbid morality of The Walking Dead's world, teaching violence as expectation, and an early exploration of the show's ethics. Or a link to what zombies and church have in common.]

Rejecting the Trap

The dishonesty behind asking compromises any answer Jesus may have to the question

a Homily for Proper 24A  |  Text: Matthew  22:15-22

read along while you listen

The Trap

This is not a story about taxes. This is a story about a trap that backfires. A trap set to deal with authority. And every time we go near the question of taxes, we spring the trap.

This trap is creative, devious, and very, very dangerous. And simple. Elegant. Like a mouse trap. It is a simple mechanism with a cunning purpose.

This trap they’ve set for Jesus is just as simple. Some disciples of the Pharisees and followers of King Herod set up a simple binary choice: either one thing or the other. Easy enough. Just answer the question, Jesus, we can almost hear them salivate like gotcha journalists. All we need is a yes or no. That’s it.

The elegance of their handiwork is found in how it guides Jesus into a trap: both paths lead to derision. So it is a false choice. If Jesus goes one way, he will be discredited as a false-prophet. If he goes the other way, he will be condemned as a traitor.

Jesus is their prey. They have set the trap so that there would be no way out. No way if Jesus follows their script. But he doesn’t. He lures them into their own trap.

a mouse trap

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The elements of the trap

This decision that the Pharisees and Herodians hope Jesus will make is about the Jewish relationship to their occupiers.

It is very important to remember that there is no separation of church and state for 1st Century Jews living in Jerusalem. Herod is their GOD-appointed king, even if he isn’t seen as a credible authority by many of his subjects. Nevertheless, GOD is responsible for this authority.

They also are living under occupation by Rome: an empire clearly not led by GOD. And worse, an empire that demands it’s emperor be worshipped as a god. Replacing, superseding, above their own GOD of Israel. The GOD that liberated them from Egypt, gave them a home, and gave them David. The GOD that saved them from Babylon and led them to build and rebuild the Temple. Their GOD, who is responsible for all things, is supposed to play second-fiddle to some guy with a lot of soldiers.

It would be very tempting to see separation here, and see Jesus’s response as prudent. We might hear

“give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s”

as if he actually said yes, pay your taxes. As if the second sentence were Your GOD will still love you if you are stuck doing what you have to do to survive. But he doesn’t say that. Because he is not really talking about taxes. Instead, he deals with that sense of separation. Can there even be things that are not GOD’s?

Running into the trap

The trap the disciples of the Pharisees and the servants of Herod set for Jesus goes off for us the second we try to deal with this question of taxes in precisely the way they intend Jesus to. In other words, when we read this text, get to the question about taxes and then say yeah, Jesus! What are we supposed to do about our taxes? When we ask it, we are at the same crossroads: are we asking because we want an honest response, or will we punish Jesus for the response we receive?

Our own problem, then is to deal with the expectation we have that Jesus presents a gospel that is easy. That Jesus’s teaching will lead us to simple solutions that dovetail nicely with the way the world already is: with the way we are used to doing things. Even with the things we’ve been taught in church.

Instead, we might follow Jesus’s example and turn into the challenge the way a driver turns into a skid. Stanley Hauerwas writes

“You know you have a problem, at least if you are a disciple of Jesus, when you do not have a problem.”

Ditching the trap

The trap set for Jesus was created out of dishonesty. These people try to butter up Jesus with flattery, calling him sincere and honest. They hear that he is supportive and impartial. So they want to trick him.

Jesus, on the other hand, deals with them directly and honestly. The Mennonite Pastor Michael Danner writes:

How do we answer dishonest questions? Honestly. That is what Jesus does. An honest answer to a dishonest question addresses the whole picture. It refuses to accept the ruse. It says, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” Then it reveals. It uncovers. It lays bare.

And it does something else.

It creates space for an honest dialog to occur around a good question.

This story we’ve received of Jesus, a question, and a coin is, at its roots, about honesty. It is about the way we are together and how we approach each other. It is about respect and getting rid of our suspicion. It is about dealing with issues directly and openly. It is about relationship.

In a few moments, Jesus will be asked what the greatest commandment is. He is going to say it is exactly that: relationship. Love. Not abstract love, or the idea of love, but the love that we give to GOD and to our neighbors. Our greatest commandment is to be in a healthy relationship with GOD and one another.

It is only when we are honest with one another in healthy community that we can rehabilitate that really good question about taxes. That we can begin to address our own questions of financial health, our future, and living into our hopes and dreams.

May we continue to build those healthy relationships, may we build healthy space in this community and in our lives, and may we become open to honestly wrestling the hard questions of our faith.

Loving is more than words. So is GOD.

A long, long time ago, a deeply faithful people were given a name. A very important name. The very name of their god. The same god who was revealed without a proper pronoun, but a description. The popular translation is

I AM WHO I AM

But even these words in English don’t capture the movement and power present in the Hebrew.

EHYEH ASHER EHYEH

Everett Fox, in The Five Books of Moses suggests

I will be-there howsoever I will be-there.

Not so poetic as the Hebrew, but much closer to what it communicates to the reader. For this god who is being revealed as EHYEH ASHER EHYEH isn’t saying I am timeless but that I will be. And more, that this god will be there where the people are. At the Exodus, in the desert, at the homecoming.

This revelation of a “name” became the name used: YHWH. It is likely pronounced “Yahweh” and comes from a form of “to be”.

A new name

Other faithful people suggested that we stop using the name. Wherever the name is used, we put a marker, so as not to defile the name or take it in vain. They even began altering our scripture so that the name would not be printed for us to see. Unfortunately, the name’s placeholder came with a ton of baggage: LORD.

This of course isn’t enough. The LORD is not our god among many, they argue. But the only. Let our LORD become God.

And God became Father, man.

The Pronoun

I have written before of my struggle with the divine name and with the personification of GOD. I sincerely struggle with the ineffectiveness of our language and the imprecision of our preferred words. That’s why I found such kindred thought in Sarah Bessey’s writing on the pronoun problem.

Bessey is an incredibly thoughtful, precise, and honest writer. Her prose in “Pronouns: Or, why I still use masculine pronouns for God” vocalize my own feelings on language and experience. Her concern for those hurt by the masculine pronoun and those who demand we all use it encourages my deepest sympathy and concern for a church that is for all.

I can totally relate.

And yet, I come to a very different conclusion.

I want us to communicate our best, not just the language of our ancestors. But I used to think exceptions should be made for the sake of community. The argument I made was about The Lord’s Prayer. It was much like Bessey’s: though I would prefer the use of the “modern” Lord’s Prayer, many people have a deep affection for Elizabethan English. It is how they memorized it. For the sake of community, we can throw them this bone.

This was my compromise. I was doing it for the church. Then I had my son and began to pray with him at night, rocking him to sleep. And the newer version came so easily, so rhythmically, so naturally from my lips. It is the prayer as he is coming to know it. The prayer that is already his.

I refuse to deny my son his prayer. The prayer that is closer to him, that makes more sense, and is much more poetic.

a blank page

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There is so much more to GOD than being a He.

And so much more to us and how we relate, than our calling GOD a He.

The page of this life is far from full.

zero-sum

Using masculine language or the “traditional” Lord’s Prayer aren’t compromises, but artificial victories in a zero-sum game. It is not speaking faithfully in a way that some need to hear it. It is maintaining traditions for the sake of ignorance. For if there are people that cannot hear Bessey’s prose about faith and about GOD and know GOD in the entirety of her writing, regardless of the pronouns she uses, then I doubt that knowing GOD is what they want.

Language, like faith, is imprecise. It is not only about what we want to say, and it certainly is not about what we demand to hear, but the respect and dignity of an imperfect attempt to put into the finitude of words, the infinite. It is not a battle about my words vs. your words or new words vs. old words in some winner-take-all deathmatch in a steel-cage.

Real compromise, the kind Bessey is describing has no winners or losers. It isn’t about the pronouns she adopts for herself to which she has trouble relating purely for the comfort of the other. It is only compromise if her gift is reciprocated: if she is joined in compromise. If there will be true learning and respect for the great number, ever increasing number, that struggle with a masculine pronoun for an infinite source of all life. The one who will be-there howsoever the one will be-there. A sincere effort to learn about GOD and why words matter.

That right there, is holy work. Work we continue to do. For our sons. For our daughters. For ourselves. For a present and a future that are much closer to GOD’s dream for us than the dress-up games of our childhood. For all words lose their meaning, even the very Logos, GOD’s Word made flesh, even that Word will lose his meaning if we aren’t building the kingdom.

Our Kids Deserve Better Than Columbus Day

Let’s give Columbus Day the heave-ho. It is long past time.

Besides, it isn’t a big deal anyway.

Columbus Day is the lamest of national holidays:

There are no long-standing American traditions of cookouts and celebrations today.

It has no significant religious connections other than the fact that Chris was Catholic.

It isn’t beloved for its parades, its recognition of loyalty, or fun celebrations of spooks or tricks.

The only thing remarkable about Columbus Day is its ironic reputation for commerce.

Our prices are so low, it’s a steal

It’s almost as if you are destroying our culture! Ha ha!

Tradition doesn’t trump the truth.

Thankfully, The Oatmeal doesn’t just want us to end a bad holiday which possesses no logical, traditional, or rational reason for being a national event. It suggests a more honorable replacement: Bartolomé Day.

As this art piece created for Columbus Day last year argues, Bartolomé de las Casas was, like Columbus, a morally-compromised adventurer. But rather than celebrate a man’s greed and sociopathy, we have the opportunity to celebrate personal transformation.

Because when I consider Bartolomé de las Casas,

both the things he did and the person he was, I think:

now this is a man whom children should learn about in school.

This should be the sole reason for maintaining a tradition. Not our own fear of change, but what we actually want our children to learn. Such as how to be better people.

Learning to Feast

The Wedding Banquet, the king’s demands, and a kingdom of opportunity

a Homily for Proper 23 A  |  Text: Matthew  22:1-14

Listen and read along!

A Strange Wedding

There’s a part of this story that Jesus tells the Pharisees that makes sense to us and a part that doesn’t at all.

This is the story of a weird kind of wedding. This isn’t like any wedding I’m sure any of us has been to. Who here has come to a wedding after the personal invitation of the groom’s father’s slave? None? Clearly we’ve all been sheltered.

Many of the story’s conditions are fascinating. This isn’t our culture and we can’t exactly relate to it all. But we shouldn’t skip over them. We should explore them a little. To help the whole story make more sense.

Jesus begins by again saying

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

This may be a simile – the kingdom of heaven is like…

Or it could be a contrast – compare the kingdom of heaven to… This is the reading that makes more sense to me given the fact that the king seems a bit…let’s say…fickle.

So let’s compare the Kingdom of Heaven to this wedding. Not the wedding, but the wedding banquet. The king has invited people. Are they his friends, or his son’s? Are these people that care about the king or the king’s son or are they people that are expected to care? And what of the bride and her family? Or the king’s family for that matter? Are these even the people that should be at this reception in the first place?

Given the response they give to the invitation, these people clearly have better things to do and don’t really want to go.The king says that he’s got everything ready, everything paid for, so these people need to show up.

So he sends some slaves to go collect the people. Right about here is where I stop relating to the story. I don’t know about you, but stories that involve kings who have slaves is about two steps removed from my reality as it is. I can imagine a wedding with a poor father sitting there, looking at the empty banquet hall, the food is almost ready, and what he wants most is to honor his son on his wedding day. Won’t someone show up? If we skip this next part, we could see the king doing just that–getting someone, anyone to come. But something has to happen first.

The king has to send out his slaves to gather the guests. What do the invited guests do? They brutalize and kill the slaves. Like the tenants in the previous parable about the vineyard. Again, these are people brutalizing and killing the king or master’s slaves. And just like that previous parable, the king or master brutalizes and kills them. Then replaces them.

This story has a little bonus “treat” in it. Oh goody! we think. As if that weren’t bad enough. What is the king going to do now? Well, he finds a guest isn’t dressed right, so he throws him to the outer darkness.

So the question raised at the beginning is now even more confusing. How does this compare to the kingdom of heaven?

What its not like

Last week I spoke to the value in learning what the kingdom is not like. That holds true this morning, given that this is practically the same story with a small twist at the end.

I am most drawn to the image Jesus uses of a wedding banquet. We probably shouldn’t get it too confused with our experience of weddings, but I’ll hazard to go there.

We celebrate the marrying of the couple twice, don’t we? Once in the nave and a second time at the reception: out there or at a banquet hall.

And we do what we do: we worship GOD, hearing about the glory of GOD in scripture and in preaching. We pray and bless the couple. Then we gather around GOD’s table for Holy Communion. The people are dismissed to proclaim the Good News to the world.

But most of us get into cars and drive to the reception hall for a second party. One where the food tastes a lot better and the portions are much bigger. We drink and we dance and we have fun.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound anything like what the King is trying to give his son. He tries to order them to come. He’s less interested in giving these people a good time and more concerned with being out a few thousand dollars. Would we think the Kingdom of Heaven is supposed to look like that?

a wedding day

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Too Scared

More than a decade ago, I drove with a close friend of mine from Lansing over to Bemidji, Minnesota for a wedding. My buddy was to be the best man for a childhood friend. It was a weird situation and really, really long drive to get there. More than 16 total hours, I think. And we got there and the evening before the wedding, the groom started to freak out. He thought this might be a big mistake. He didn’t really want to get married. It was she who wanted it.

My buddy caught up to him before he could skip town. He told one of his oldest friends that it was too late to get out of this. The night before is too late. They’ve paid for everything, the guests are all in town. He is as good as married.

At the time, I was really conflicted by the advice. Yes, I thought it is too late. But I also wondered what kind of marriage begins with such questions. How fair would that be to her and to her family in the end?

It was no surprise a year later they were divorced and the friend left town.

In the kingdom of heaven, it is never too late. It isn’t about spending the money or planning the event and it isn’t even whether or not anyone else shows up to the banquet. It is about the banquet itself!

The Banquet

Jesus loves to eat. And so do we.

Jesus also likes to make sure that everyone gets to. That’s why we pray every week in the way he taught us

give us today our daily bread

and not give me today the bread you owe me. May we all be fed today.

Food isn’t as scarce as our willingness to share it is. This wedding banquet Jesus talks about reminds us of our banquets. Not just the one we will have in a few moments, but the one we had on Wednesday at Women Dining Out. Some seriously good food was eaten, by the way. And the banquets we share at our tables at home with friends and family: these powerful opportunities to give thanks and praise GOD for the abundance.

For the kingdom of heaven reveals abundance where we see scarcity. It gives us hope when all we know is pessimism.

May we know the willingness of GOD’s offering to us. May we receive it as an opportunity to love more, and may we be so filled with GOD’s love that we wouldn’t even think of taking one more bite.

When the Leader Is Not the Problem

We are eager in the U.S. to blame our leaders  and hold them responsible for our dysfunction. I am now realizing that this often should not be the case. Or, to be honest, it should rarely be the case.

A friend reminded me in the spring as I spoke to him about some structural plans we had started implementing to help the congregation organize and create more accountability. He replied with what he called “an old engineer’s slogan”:

Culture eats structure for lunch.

No matter what I hoped to do or who I might recruit to lead the charge, change wasn’t going to happen in the congregation if the culture didn’t want it. We remember, then, that culture is not the sum of the individuals involved, but its own character in the story.

The culture is the primary motivator in the organization. And the culture likes to blame the leader for the culture’s problems.

The Michigan Example

I love my University of Michigan football team. Which is why the last seven years have been a great pain to me. And I have my preferences. I like the power running game and a 4-3 defense. I like lockdown corners and defensive lineman that can manhandle the opposing offensive line. That’s my favorite style of football. But I also like long passes and roving linebackers. I like speed and strength. I like quarterbacks who can scramble and I like running backs that can make opponents miss. I like football, not just my favorite style of football.

We like to blame the leader when the whole team fails. It isn’t fair, but it is consistent with the mantra from the business community. Leadership gurus make it all about the leader. Our wider culture’s fear of networked leadership has led to a rising interest in singular authority (notice the power of the culture on a wider scale?).

Michigan’s problem isn’t the leader. It isn’t the quality or the personality or the fit. Just look at Rich Rodriguez before he came to Michigan and after. It isn’t the leader that is dysfunctional. It isn’t the leader that has caused the problem. It isn’t the leader who is to be expected to fix it by himself.

Sometimes the problem isn’t the real problem.

Small Issues / Big Problems

The current issue with Michigan football is the same as it was last year: the offensive line. If we look at the team, we can see that the one unit that is failing to produce consistently is the offensive line. There are other weaknesses that are minor, and certainly wouldn’t be an issue if the team were 6-0 rather than 2-4. The line is producing few holes for running backs and giving too little protection for the quarterbacks.

Here’s the rub. There is a lot of talent on the offensive line. Lots of good recruits all along the line. It was bad last year when it was anchored by a couple of seniors (who both were drafted) and is bad this year. It is beginning to show some life, however.

All of the team’s problems on the field are fixed by better play by the offensive line. All of them. They have talent. The coaches are talented. And it is starting to come together. Sort of.

But the culture is eating the whole team alive. A close game against Minnesota turned into a blowout when the team was worn down. Not by a vastly superior Minnesota team (it isn’t), but by angry booing fans and the weight of ESPN’s constant nitpicking.

The culture is eating the structure.

Fixing the Culture

There are fixes, we just don’t like the honest ones. They involve working hard, forgiving, rooting even when we fail. They involve giving more than we receive, being patient, and living with great optimism. They involve building different expectations for success or different expectations for what we see as the Michigan Way. It means change. And Michigan fans don’t deal with change that well. In fact, Michigan is just like the church when it comes to tradition.

We’d rather catch lightning in the bottle. Blame it on the coach so that we can go get a new one. A new one about whom we can say This time is different.

Sure it is. It is always different. Anything that keeps us from looking in the mirror. Anything that acknowledges that we are the problem. We are the culture. And we are hungry. But must we insist on feasting on ourselves?

What One Expects of a Fortune Cookie

I like my fortune cookies to contain fortunes.

It seems like a necessary part of the deal. Being in the name.

That’s what I expect: a fortune. That’s also what I want. I take a moment, thinking of what I am in most need of, and crack open the cookie.

Sometimes I don’t get a fortune in my fortune cookie. Sometimes I get proverb cookies. I don’t like those. There are two reasons.

1. They aren’t fortunes.
2. I didn’t break open this cookie hoping to hear a quaint aphorism. I wanted my fortune told.

Sometimes, though, I get something that isn’t a fortune or a proverb. Something like this:
IMG_2844.JPG

A compliment.

I like compliments.

A compliment like this one in the picture, saying “you are imaginative in using your skills.” Is at least about me. That puts it in the vicinity of a fortune.

It is personal, specific, and deals with my future. That’s close enough for me.

And the fact that I needed to hear it makes it perfectly fortunate.

What do you expect of a fortune cookie? What does yours tell you?

What Ben Affleck Should Have Said to Bill Maher

Dear Bill Maher,

I know you aren’t trying to condemn a whole particular religion. But you actually like condemning religion. You’ve done it before. So when you say it’s about “the ideas” rather than the people, I don’t buy it. The argument you made last week, and again this week, is based not on the ideas, but the people. That’s what Ben Affleck should have said to you on Friday. He almost got there.

In an earlier episode of your show, Real Time with Bill Maher you made a pretty compelling case for liberals acting like liberals and denouncing acts of abuse, violence, and prejudice in other parts of the world, rather than obsess about local political correctness. I really wanted to agree with you. In another interview with Charlie Rose on Rose’s own show, you argue that Islam is different from other religions. I can’t follow you there.

This, of course, is the argument you tried to make on Friday, isn’t it? You recruited a sympathetic voice to help; the noted atheist antagonizer, Sam Harris. I suppose, to make things interesting.

It certainly did.

I almost couldn’t watch as you and Harris try to control the conversation, having trouble with Affleck’s aggressive response to your blanket statements about Islam. You started to speak over Affleck every time he spoke. Then watching Affleck stew as he waited to break in. It was agonizing. And I think we just caught a glimpse of the brood he’s bringing to Batman.

The two of you make a fair argument about the current state of the world only if I am to believe that people have religious hats and political hats: that abuse by the state in the name of religion is different from abuse by the state in the name of anything else. That this religion (your point) is different from any other.

If the problem, however, is Islam’s “bad ideas,” then why aren’t we talking about the actual ideas? Would you truly be having this discussion if these bad ideas were not tied to religion? Such as the tyranny and government abuse by Amin, Stalin, and Lenin? Aren’t we supposed to be talking about those places in which leaders brutalize and devastate their own people? Isn’t that the actual problem? And no discussion is complete without a Hitler reference. Nazi gas chambers are a non-Muslim example of brutality done toward one’s own people. None of these are an example of Islam. Or Christianity. I know I just invoked Godwin’s Law, please forgive me, but I did it for a reason.

If you want liberals to act like liberals, then Mr. Maher, I expect the same of you. The problem isn’t Islam, it is fascism. It isn’t the religion, it is the abuse. It isn’t what the leader’s religion tells him/her, it is how leaders wield power.  You want liberals to name the abuse, then you name it, too. The abuse and the abuser. Name that the problem is the leadership of Saudi Arabia and what they do to their women. And that’s what you did last week, sort of, when you spoke about genital mutilation. Name the problem. Name the perpetrator. Then try to fix it.

I know you think you are doing it, because you think the problem is Islam. Or that some countries are theocracies. But that isn’t sticking to the problem any more than the liberals you are condemning are. You are drifting from the liberal values you defend and toward someplace else.

If we are to make the argument that this is about the beliefs themselves, then attack those expressions of belief, and who is making those expressions into laws. Islam is no more the Saudi royal family and Ali Khamenei than Christianity is Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. No more than liberalism is Bill Clinton and Barack Obama or conservatism is the Georges Bush. Religions, like ideologies aren’t people. Religious fundamentalism isn’t a problem in the abstract but in the very actions you decry!

Bill, this is why you are totally wrong about Islam. Because no religion is so directed as you claim. There is no singular teaching about Islam any more than there is for its cousins: Judaism and Christianity. I don’t expect you to understand this idea because most Americans don’t.

There isn’t one Islam. There isn’t one ruler. There are plenty that claim to own the truth. But that’s what makes it so much like Christianity and Judaism. There are many Islams and Judaisms and Christianities. The religion isn’t the problem, it’s the abuse.

This is also why I brought up fascism; with governments who centralize the power in individuals and subject the people to their whims and prejudices. And don’t forget superstition and ignorance. Don’t forget those places in which scientific evidence has been rejected for local rumor. And what about the global patriarchal problem? See, it isn’t the religions themselves, but the people who scapegoat religion for their own acts of evil. The Devil God made me do it! You can’t pin all of this on religion, absolving the people and the governments from responsibility, but you will try!

Religion isn’t responsible for ignorance, but bad religion preys on it.

If we want to talk about the problems, lets talk about the problems. Let’s talk about the violence and pure acts of evil.

If we want to talk about the solutions, lets talk about the solutions. Let’s talk about education, women’s empowerment, and eliminating global poverty.

Or, if you want to blame your favorite boogeyman of Islam, go ahead. Just don’t expect me to join you. Or respect your hypocrisy.

Ben Affleck should have called you a hypocrite. It isn’t about the religion. It’s about the abuse. It isn’t the tenants of a whole religion you named, but the tenants of a particular group. It wasn’t the actions of the whole Islamic community, but the actions of political actors. You conflate certain interpretations of scripture by certain leaders as true of all Muslims, which is false for any global religion. Mr. Affleck should have said

Bill, I do understand what you are trying to say, but you are wrong. It isn’t Islam that does this, it is a few strains of Islam. They are doing evil things. I am not saying that it is “a few bad apples,” but powerful leaders are exploiting and abusing their own people and their neighbors. Deal with the injustice, rather than creating more prejudice and hate, scapegoating an entire religion. You are spreading evil because at the heart of it all, you have trouble understanding religion.

Peace,

Drew

 

PS – Please let Sam Harris know that his concentric circle analogy about Islam makes about as much sense as concentric circles for guitar players.

Imagine that every guitar player who ever lived listens to Jimmy Hendrix, then in the next ring are Keith Richards and BB King who wait on baited breath to hear what the master plays, but they are unwilling to go that far. They will merely play this way. Oh, and then the next ring out has the guy from Nickleback who would totally shred like Hendrix, but he thinks you know, um…Hendrix is sort of dead? so he wants to play like Hendrix but he just can’t bring himself to. Then the next circle out has Eric Clapton and Joe Strummer who say what the hell? Nickelback is closer than I am? That’s total– and the next ring has guitarists from all over the world who have never heard a note played by him, but somehow just know that they need to play like him anyway, subscribing to a style by magic fairy dust, and so on until all guitar players around the world expect to die early and be called drug addicts, because: Hendrix!

Closer to the Kingdom

How the negative helps us find the positive in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants

a Homily for Proper 22 A  |  Text: Matthew  21:33-46

You may listen while you read the text below!

It is a great honor to be here to join you this morning. I am so thankful for the grace and generosity that has been shown to me already. I am so excited about the work we will be doing together.

About a month ago, as I was preparing to come here, I was speaking to my friend Tracie, telling her about all the sermons I had to write between then and now. I had to not only say goodbye to St. Paul’s in St. Clair, Michigan, but I had just a few weeks left to help them see where GOD is moving in that community. GOD is still speaking to them, even if I am not there to help them hear it.

My friend suggested that I should do a simple introduction sermon: who I am and introduce you to my family. Now, Tracie knows me pretty well. And she knew that I couldn’t fully embrace her suggestion. Not when we have such a tough gospel to deal with.

Violence and the land

Let’s think back to last week. We heard Jesus tell a group of Pharisees the Parable of the Two Sons. One says he won’t do something, but then chooses to do it anyway. The other says he’ll do it, but then doesn’t. Jesus asks the Pharisees “which did the will of the father?” The one who did the work, right?

This question Jesus asks is in the midst of the great confrontation at the Temple after Palm Sunday. Jesus has just come to Jerusalem and the Pharisees are trying to trap Him and Jesus, instead traps them. His trap leads them to lose face, to lie, and to cover their backsides. So he presses them some more. Is it about doing the right thing or claiming the right intention? They know the truth just as we do.

Jesus tells another parable about a landowner who sets up a vineyard and leaves tenants to care for it.

When the landowner sends his people to check on the tenants, they brutally attack the slaves.

So the landowner sends more. And the same violence occurs.

And the landowner sends his son. And the same violence occurs to him.

So when Jesus speaks of the landowner’s response to these tenants: that he gave them, what, 3 tries? He asks them rhetorically: what do you think the landowner would do in response? He tells them the unsurprising response is that they would be tortured and killed.

What we normally hear

At this point most of us have some Christian programming that kicks in. The little voice we hear saying This is just an allegory for GOD and Jesus. The landowner sends his Son to die–that’s totally just Jesus talking about Himself and the crucifixion.

Or the little voice tells us Well, that’s why we are supposed to do what GOD tells us to do, or else we’ll find ourselves punished like those tenants. And we ignore the implication of a GOD that would torture its own children.

I hear those voices too. I also hear a different voice. One that reminds me that Jesus doesn’t always speak directly or plainly. Jesus doesn’t speak in the language of law, but in the poetic of story. And Jesus’s story reveals something really important to us about GOD and the Kingdom by showing an example of the kingdom breaking through our world.

I don’t think the vineyard is the kingdom and the landowner is GOD. This isn’t a story of the world GOD has created, but the world we keep creating and Jesus reveals how the kingdom peeks through it.

What isn’t the Kingdom

When Jesus introduces the story, he says

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.

a vine growing on a fence

Photo Credit: flatworldsedge via Compfight cc

Several years ago, Rose and I went on a self-guided wine tour in northwestern Michigan. There are some great wineries on the hilly coastline near Traverse City. We stopped and tasted and ate lunch and had a great time. Not a single one was surrounded with a fence and none had a watchtower. You know what places have fences and watchtowers? Prisons.

And it was near the outskirts of Jerusalem when Peter asks Jesus how many times must he forgive: 7 times? No, Jesus says, but 77 times! The landowner doesn’t forgive anywhere near as many times as Jesus tells us to.

So this parable Jesus is telling the Pharisees is not a clear picture of the Kingdom. It is a picture of the world as the Pharisees know it. Brutal. Selfish. Destructive. Not at all the way GOD wants it.

Remember then, who Jesus said gets to be first in the kingdom? The tax collectors and sinners. Or, to be more direct, the traitors and the prostitutes go first. They get the highest place. The rest of us still get in, of course. We just have to wait our turn.

After the parable, Jesus quotes the Torah

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”

This is not just about Jesus, but about GOD’s vision for the world as the kingdom. That the rejects go first. It is time for those who are ignored to have a say. For those that the world rejects to get an opportunity to shape the world’s future.

Moving forward

In my experience over the last 6 weeks, it has become abundantly clear that Jesus isn’t condemning St. Stephen’s in this passage. The warmth of the welcome, the enthusiasm in all of the emails I have received, the well wishes and offers of help to me and to Rose have been abundant and truly amazing.

We aren’t supposed to be the primary audience for Jesus’s parable. We aren’t those Pharisees. However, it is helpful for us to remember the negative teaching: the make-sure-you-aren’t-like-this kind of parable. The this-isn’t-the-kingdom parable. Because then we know when we aren’t seeking the kingdom, so that we can turn and chart a different course.

We always need reminders of what the Kingdom does and doesn’t look like and who it is for. That, in GOD’s house there are many rooms, and we know that we are welcome. And we know that other people are welcome, too. People we may not be so excited to have with us. Or people that behave in different ways. Or people that communicate different expectations.

And then the positive teaching becomes easier to find: that we are called to care for the kingdom, celebrate our guests and tenants, and give rest to the sojourner.

So, now that we know what it doesn’t look like, may we all be eager in our growing relationship to continue in our lifelong discovery of what the kingdom does look like. May we do so with great hope, honesty, and thanksgiving.