Can Things Mean Whatever We Want?

I was wearing this necklace recently and someone asked, “What does it mean?”  I wonder if – because she knew I was a pastor – there’s an assumption that everything I wear (or at least the jewelry I wear) means something.image

If we wear a cross or a Star of David  or a little Buddha (does anyone do that?) people assume it means that we are of that respective faith.

Or maybe it doesn’t mean that at all.  Remember when wearing bejeweled crosses was a thing?  A fashion thing?

I love this necklace.  I bought it because it was pretty and light.  It’s a silver fan, according to the Stitch Fix receipt.  So . . . because it’s a fan – I could create a meaning for it:

  • “It fans me/cools me down/reminds me to slow my pace.”  
  • “It’s worn as a spiritual discipline to remind me of Sabbath.”
  • “It reminds me of my life verse:  ‘For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.’ ”  (2 Timothy 1:6 NIV)

Or I could wear it because I want to.

So it goes in our post-modern culture.

It used to be true that preachers taught doctrine (“This is what we believe . . .”) and now preachers are more like group spiritual directors.  In growing congregations, people come into our gatherings from a wide array of faith traditions/experiences.  The parables of Jesus, for example, are all fraught with meaning, but what it means to the person sitting in worship who grew up Missouri Synod Lutheran just getting out of an abusive marriage is different from what it means to the person sitting in worship who hasn’t been in a sanctuary since he was baptized as an infant.  Good preachers paint pictures and ask questions and inspire personal reflection with a solid core of (in my tradition) Reformed theology.

Increasingly it seems that we live in a culture in which Things Mean What We Want Them to Mean.  The choices for meaning are endless.  But because this is true, there is the temptation that nothing could mean anything.

Such are the thoughts of one pastor on the day we commend the ashes of a brilliant man –  whose brain lost its capacity for meaning – to the LORD.

This is post is dedicated to DES and his family.


What’s Emerging Now?

imageAlmost 5 1/2 years ago, Presbymergent was born when a group of PCUSA pastors met in Louisville face to face to discuss The Church.

Although we had connected digitally for a couple of years, it was the first time that many of us laid our eyes on each other up-close-and-personal. And after a fruitful and inspiring meeting, we did what churches did – both then and now:

  • We created an Executive Board
  • We left with great plans
  • We came up with a logo and a website (Thank you Adam Walker Cleaveland.)

This was before NEXTChurch was established, before Rob Bell left for California, before the works of Brian McLaren and Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass became must-reads in every traditional church library.

But – because we were better idea people than organization people – Presbymergent fizzled as an organization, except to open our arms to more and more Loyal Radicals.

So here’s my question: What’s Emerging Now?

Churches – even growing churches – still have pews and worshippers spend most of their sanctuary time sitting in them. Hymnals are still commonly used (and we Presbyterians even have a new version.) Many Sessions (i.e. boards of elders) still spend the majority of their time talking about Attendance, Building Management, and Cash (or the lack thereof.)

In 2007, to be an Emerging Christian involved loving Sufjan Stevens and candles. A lot. This article from 2008 speaks to this.

Just two years ago, another article tried to finish the sentence: You Might Be an Emergent If . . . . We had discovered The Wild Goose Festival and noticed that there are more females at the table.

But what is truly emerging for the PCUSA after that memorable February in 2009?

As far as the original Presbymergents go:

  • Some of us have left parish ministry to serve in non-profits, at least one seminary, and even a couple of Middle Judicatories in The Midwest.
  • Some have moved into intentional/neo-monastic Christian communities.
  • Some have been installed into pastorates in very traditional churches where we may not have imagined ourselves five years ago
  • All are still hungry, visionary, and hopeful as far as I can tell.

And today, thanks to organizations like NEXTChurch, more mainstream mainline churches are involved in moving us forward into the 21st Century. But what is it that we see emerging?

I see traditional worship done well with some creative additions. I see an increasing urgency as many churches still don’t get that church culture must change. I see that context is increasingly everything and we cannot force a culture that is not there. I see that it’s too late for too many congregations to change. (Because they waited too long.) I see many congregations that do not trust their pastors to lead them. I see disturbingly too few pastors equipped to lead a 21st Century Church.

And I hear way too many parishioners declare that “You can change everything – after I die or move away.”

What do you see and hear?

Forever grateful to Adam Walker Cleaveland, Troy Bronsink, Tim Hartman, Chad Herring, Eric Ledermann, Tom Livengood, Nanette Sawyer, David Parker, John Vest, Neal Locke, Landon Whitsitt, Jud Hendrix, Karen Sloan, Seth Thomas, Ryan Kemp-Pappan, Carol Howard Merritt, Jenny Warner, Shawn Coons, & anyone I accidentally omitted. In the words of JV: “Want to get the band back together?” Image Source.

That Feeling

leavingchurchLike you, I hear difficult things every day.  There’s the news (“Arizona Takes Two Hours to Execute Inmate“) and then there’s work (“I have nothing good to say about our church.“)  How do you handle it?

Some people tune out the world.  No more news – except maybe Jon Stewart or Colbert.

In Church World, some people simply drift away from their congregation, or maybe they make a long thought-out and prayerful decision to leave.

Ordinarily, I am blessed with the ability to compartmentalize these conflicts and voices and images, and I sleep very well at night.  But every once in a while there is That Feeling.  I have that feeling as I write this.

It’s the feeling I get when someone who once loved Church has come to a place of such disappointment or disinterest or misunderstanding that he/she has to go.  I totally get this but it makes my soul ache.

Church Brain

We’re familiar with Bride Brain and Mommy Brain. Maybe you’ve read the scientific research on how our brains are wired for God.

Vacation is coming up in a couple of weeks and my reading list will include a couple of brain science books.  The human brain is hugely interesting to me and reading about the complexities of brain science continues to be spiritually informative.  I don’t understand how the brain works, but it’s so mysterious and fragile and unspeakably marvelous that my belief in a supernatural Creator only broadens.

The Bible never uses the word “brain.”  It’s not in there.  (Note: this is further evidence that the Bible is not a science book, but that’s for another post.)

Interestingly enough – kidneys (kelayot) are mentioned more than 30 times in the Hebrew scriptures. Poor Job’s kidneys are divinely “sliced open” as a result of his misdemeanors, committed or perceived.

And the heart – often paired with the kidneys in Scripture – is where human sin is born.

We now know that the brain has different parts with different functions.  And if “Bride Brain” involves women who become obsessed with how sparkly their rings are or with the ability to match their nail color with their bouquets, imagine what “Church Brain” looks like:

  • We stop connecting actions and consequences.  If we don’t unlock the front door of the church (because “everybody knows to come in the back door”) we forget that guests will not be able to figure out how to enter the building.  If we spend all our time writing a draconian Personnel Policy than supporting our staff, they will work elsewhere.  If we talk more about the roof than What Breaks God’s Heart in the community, we will become dry and faithless.
  • We lose the ability to suppress socially unacceptable responses.   That’s my parking space.  Those teenagers don’t know how to dress for church.  Can you believe she went back to work after the twins were born?
  • We lose the ability to imagine.  (Enough said.)
  • Our long-term memory plays tricks on us.  Remember when our choir traveled to Europe every summer?  (Actually they went there once and it broke the bank.)  Remember how Rev. __ was the ideal pastor?  (Actually his family would disagree.)
  • Our language recognition becomes compromised.  We forget words like grace, forgiveness, holiness, reconciliation.

I could go on and on but you get my point.  Tony Jones used to tell a story about a person who informed him that her church couldn’t move the pews in their sanctuary because they were immovable.  He asked for a screwdriver.

We who’ve been in the institutional church for a long time all have a touch of Church Brain.  This is why it’s essential to have friends who are not part of the Church – to keep us grounded, to open our eyes, to remind us how ridiculous some of our church drama really is.  This is why it’s important to step back and remember that the One who created our marvelous brains is the point of it all.

Image from Wired Magazine.

The Future of Small Town Churches

small townRemember in 2008 when Sarah Palin – while traveling through North Carolina – praised small towns for being “the real America”?  She apologized later, saying that she didn’t mean to imply that the rest of the country was less patriotic or less “real” as America.  I believe her apology was authentic.

But living in a small town and living in a city are very different.  One is no more real than the other, but they are culturally poles apart.

As my family travels each summer, we drive through small towns on the way to cities or coastal villages.  And every summer, somebody says, “I wonder how our lives would be different if we’d grown up in one of these tiny towns.”  Short answer:  Extremely different.

According to this article, published just last week, 24% of the world’s best educated people live in the top 100 largest metropolitan areas worldwide. The article points out: “To put this into perspective, these metropolises accounted for just 11% of the global population in 2013.”

This is not to say that there are not smart people – or even very well-educated people –  in tiny towns throughout the United States and the world.  This is not to say that there are no uneducated urban dwellers.  Obviously.

But anthropologists are increasingly saying that those of us with college and graduate school educations are sorting ourselves into more populated parts of the world.  The Washington Post declared that “a ‘nationwide gentrification effect’ is segregating us by education.”  The better paying jobs are in cities.  The amenities that add to the quality of life (restaurants, parks, recreation leagues, museums, theaters) are in cities.

Population researchers are starting to wonder what will happen if everybody with a college degree leaves Small Town America – especially for economic reasons.  The Post article even asks, “What happens to Toledo and Baton Rouge without (college graduates)?  Will this sorting become even more dramatic in the next decade?

And this brings me to the future of spiritual communities in small towns.

We know that – across the board in every size town/city, in every denomination – church attendance and church giving are down.  But issues unique to churches in tiny towns include these:

  • What happens when the pastor is the best educated person in town?  Actually this was often the case in the 18th and 19th centuries in this country.  And it could be true again in communities with seminary educated pastors and parishioners who have not had the opportunity or interest to seek higher education.  Certified local pastors (also called lay pastors or commissioned elders) might not have seminary degrees, but they are still trained for church leadership. Still, the dynamic of a pastor with a graduate school degree, much less a college degree leading a people with a different kind of education can impact the pastor’s feeling of isolation.
  • What happens when the economy dries up in a small town to the point that the community cannot financially sustain a church?  I’m not merely referring to the ability to pay a pastor’s salary; this is also about keeping a church building, paying for educational materials, and pooling funds to help those in need.
  • How do we encourage pastors to move to areas of the country with few amenities?  Many tiny towns offer no job possibilities for their spouses, no schools for their children.

Every day, in my current ministry position, pastors contact me about wanting to move to Chicago.  Every.  Day.  They want to come to the city because their spouse has a job here or their grown children live here or they just love Chicago. It’s a great city full of life and art and recreation and beauty.  I assume that not as many people are clamoring to serve in Ridgeland, Wisconsin – Population 273.

Are we facing a future when many of our small towns will either not have churches?  Are we facing a future when many of our small towns will become suburbs or simply fade away?

Image from along the road in a lovely little town in Northwest, Wisconsin.


And in Other News: The Transgender PK Whose Church Loved Her

Greer changed her name and had sexual reassignment surgery at the age of 21, which was paid for by her father’s church.

greer-lanktonIs it fair to say that most church folks do not understand transgender people? Most followers of Jesus can identify at least one gay or lesbian person they know – or at least know of – but most church people do not come in contact with any/many transgender people. Or we don’t think we do.

This video of Debi Jackson, the mother of a transgender child made my heart ache. I wish everybody would watch this – especially the last part. Easy Adult Church School Class discussion topic for this Sunday: Just show this and discuss. (I’m totally serious. Please do this.)

Some of Debi Jackson’s church friends have said horrible things about her child which are 1) untrue, 2) cruel, and 3) the kind of words that make people leave the very community that Jesus tried to create by including everybody – “even” tax collectors, lepers, bleeding women, semi-clueless fishermen who were not smart enough to become rabbis.

Two weekends ago, a much loved retired pastor in our Presbytery was remembered at a memorial service several months after his death. He was an artist, a teacher, a Renaissance Man and a profoundly faithful follower of Jesus. He was also a father and husband. And Greer was one of his daughters. She died in 1996.

I learned recently that Greer was named Greg at his birth and when she had gender reassignment surgery, her father’s church paid for it. The year was 1979.

Yes, you read that correctly: in 1979 a church paid for the gender reassignment surgery of the pastor’s child.

For all the congregations that reject, humiliate, banish, and condemn GBLTQ people, there are others that welcome all people in the image of Christ. This church offers Pride Cafe every Friday night in Chicago. This church in Birmingham, Alabama is working to bring employee and housing non-discrimination protections to LGBT neighbors. This church partners with the Utah Pride Center which coordinates the Queer Prom each spring. This church sponsors a residence for LGBTQ youth in transition from the shelter system to independent living in NYC. There are supportive congregations everywhere from Anchorage, Alaska to Lilburn, Georgia. Check them out here.

I am tired of people believing that the common characteristic of Christians is hatred for/exclusion of LGBTQ people. It’s simply not the case. And in some communities, the support dates back for a long, long time.

Image is of one of Greer Lankton’s art pieces. Her dolls were exhibited in the Civilian Warfare Gallery and the Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC, the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, and the Venice Biennale.

A Silver Linings Playbook for the Church

The world will break your heart ten ways to Sunday. That’s guaranteed. I can’t begin to explain that. Or the craziness inside myself and everyone else. But guess what? Sunday’s my favorite day again. I think of what everyone did for me, and I feel like a very lucky guy.

The more I watch this movie, the more I appreciate it.  (It’s on almost every daySilver Linings Playbook on my TV for some reason.)

Yeah, their God is juju and their religion is football, but this movie speaks volumes about everybody’s God and everybody’s religion.

There is a SLP-esque response for so many church scenarios.  For example:

  • Tiffany: “I did my research”     When somebody says – at a congregational meeting – that things are not as great as they were in the (pick a decade: the 50s, the 60s, “when Rev. ___ was our pastor”) we need to have done our research like Tiffany:  In the 1950s, Protestant Church participation was at an all time high in the United States, with most citizens belonging to a congregation – if only on paper.  Blue laws were in effect in every state, keeping businesses closed on the Christian Sabbath.  Roman Catholics were clustered in specific parts of the country and so in many towns “everybody was Protestant.”  Jewish citizens were definitely clustered in specific parts of the country and you would be hard-pressed to find a Muslim, Buddhist, or Bahai neighbor in most communities.  Only the bravest citizen would admit to being an atheist.  Being a church member equaled being a good citizen and all politicians, bank presidents, and gentlemen farmers were members of churches – often the prominent churches in town (e.g. Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist.) Pastors did not deal with homelessness, AIDS, transgender teenagers, suicide, divorce, Sunday youth travel games, drug addiction, and 100 emails each day.  People pledged their money to the church because it was the main avenue for charitable giving.  Pastors in the 1950s married, baptized, and buried people, preached each Sunday, taught a Bible study or two, and visited their parishioners (who most likely never shared what was really going on – like the alcoholism and mental illness and marriage problems – because those things were kept in the family and family was close by.)  Church leaders:  do your research.  Of course your church isn’t like it was in the heyday of the 50s and 60s.  It was never like that before and it will never be like that again.  Today this is the truth.  It’s no more your pastor’s fault than is global climate change.
  • Tiffany:  “You’re killing me.”  When church people want to spend an entire meeting talking about pointing the bricks outside the sanctuary or arguing about whose fault it is when there isn’t enough money or insisting on getting their own way “because we’ve always done it that way” they are killing us.  Specifically, they are killing the church they claim to love.  Churches that focus on Attendance, Building, and Cash at meetings are dying churches.  (How many times do we need to say this?)
  • Pat“The only way you can beat my crazy was by doing something crazy yourself. Thank you. I love you. I knew it the minute I met you. I’m sorry it took so long for me to catch up. I just got stuck.”   Honestly, all of us are a mess – even (especially) those of us who seem to have it all together. Being in community is hard and Jesus has taught us some crazy ideas like “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek.”  Sometimes beating someone else’s “crazy” with Jesus’ “crazy” is the only way to help people get un-stuck.

We live in a crazy world where innocent children playing soccer on the beach get annihilated by bombs and the reporter who witnesses it and reports on it gets removed by his television bosses.  We live in a world where innocent people trying to cure AIDS are obliterated in the sky – their plane shot down by a surface to air missile.  We live in a world where parents would rather send their children into an unknown future hiking to the United States with strangers than keep them to face certain violence in their own neighborhoods.  We live in a world that fights over whether or not to turn these children away.

The world will break our hearts. That’s guaranteed. We can’t explain it.  But it’s possible – if we are the community God calls us to be – that Sunday can still feed us.  And we can come out on the other side thankful and feeling fortunate.  Can we be that church?

Image from Silver Linings Playbook – one of the finest films ever made.

Taking It Personally

How can we not take it personally?  Reign of God

  • The Good-bye Reception planned for you (their ostensibly beloved pastor of ten years) is identical to the Good-bye Reception held for the your extremely disliked predecessor. Cake and punch in the fellowship hall with a framed photo of the sanctuary.
  • The Bible Study on Revelation so carefully planned and offered after a core group of members had said, “We’d love to have a Bible Study on Revelation” attracts only two people – at a time and date that many said was most convenient for them.
  • The Speaker Series set up for the summer which was both labor intensive and in addition to your regular duties started strong with 20 people attending.  But by the third week, no one came.  Not. One. Person.  Except the invited speaker.

Professional ministry is Not About Us.  We don’t do ministry for accolades and gift cards.  But how can we teach each other those valuable lessons in leadership that include self-differentiation and non-anxiety when things don’t turn out the way we’d planned?

Leadership skills – in my humble opinion – are not taught well in seminary.

Some of our best leaders have these skills intuitively, but we need to help those who are not intuitive leaders.  In a perfect world, Field Education Supervisors are excellent models of leadership.  But too often they also model workaholism and defensiveness.  [I once had a supervisor who actually tried to sabotage me after parishioners started seeing me as "a real pastor."]

Non-clergy church members also take things personally when the event they coordinate is less than a booming success.  I’ve observed parishioners stomp off in a huff when volunteers let them down or participants didn’t thank them enough.

Here are my basic ideas for overcoming the trap of taking things personally in church:

  • Take Regular Sabbath.   The exhausted/hangry spiritual leader is more likely to burst into tears when someone criticizes our theory of atonement.  Or our hair.
  • Develop a Friendly Sense of Humor.  Humor can be biting and sarcastic, but that’s not what I’m talking about –  although it’s tempting when you set up coffee at 5 am and nobody showed up for the Pentecost Prayer Breakfast.
  • Let It Go.  Maybe nobody’s coming to the (stupid) Pentecost Prayer Breakfast because nobody wanted a Pentecost Prayer Breakfast but you.  If too few people volunteer to help with Vacation Bible School, don’t have Vacation Bible School.  (You are not the Professional Christian charged with Making All Things Happen.)
  • Remember Your Value.  It has nothing to do with attendance numbers, building use, or cash collected.

Who doesn’t want to be beloved and have that beloved-ness manifested by rousing applause and pats on the back?  But sometimes our efforts result in disappointment or failure, and the worst thing we can do in these situations is act defensive or threatened.

Instead we are called to model What Love Looks Like in the image of Jesus so that others will learn and live accordingly.  This is something to take very personally for sake of living out The Great Commission.

Image of a sign on the back of a door in the Presbytery Office.

Where We Live

Prospect Heights, BrooklynJust returned from a weekend in Brooklyn where we helped TBC move her stuff into her first NYC home.  I say “first” because already she’s mentioned where she might like to live next.  This was an interesting theme in weekend conversations – both our own and the conversations of others.

FBC has a plan to move into a different neighborhood next year.  SBC will be looking for a new place next month – maybe something closer to shops and restaurants.

Standing in the bagel line, walking down the sidewalk, sipping coffee on a bench everybody seemed to be talking about The Next Place They Hope To Live.  This is NYC – expensive NYC.  People were talking about rent-control and safe streets and proximity to Vanderbilt Avenue.  They mentioned Dream Apartments with rooftop space and central air and – is it even possible? – a washer/dryer in the building.

I came home to a freshly mowed yard that could fit a tennis court and a pool and a horseshoe pit but it’s farther out into Chicagoland than I would like.  But it’s great.

I mentioned this phenomenon of constantly talking about housing in Brooklyn with TBS’s friend M who is a native New Yorker. “Yeah, that’s a thing here. But there’s no such thing as the perfect apartment.”

Where We Live makes all the difference in the world.  Whether we live in a place where you can hear bullets all night or not determines our sensibilities as does living in a place with pristine sidewalks versus a place where a neighbor sweeps the garbage to the curb each morning.  But Where We Live often determines what kind of neighbor we are/what kind of neighbor is needed.

  • In a neighborhood with neat fences and landscaping, are we the kind of neighbor who reaches out to meet the people who live behind those freshly painted doors?
  • In a neighborhood with trash on the sidewalk, do we take our turn doing the sweeping?
  • In a neighborhood with kids riding scooters on the sidewalk, do we know their names and look out for them?
  • In a neighborhood with homeless people, do we ask if they’d like to join us for breakfast?

Missional church starts where we live.  I could be a much better neighbor.  I could be much better at even knowing my neighborhood.  How about you?

Image of apartment building in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

How OITNB Makes Me a Better Pastor

Chicago JailMy Girl Scout troop visited a minimum security women’s prison on a field trip many years ago and I remember thinking, “This is sort of like camp. Not bad at all.” It wasn’t in any way obvious that the inmates had back stories, curfews, limited choices, and the possibility of being shot or sequestered in solitary confinement if they acted out.

I am a big fan of Orange Is the New Black which is, of course, not a documentary on prison life, but it has had a huge impact on my life in terms of pondering what it means to live without power or freedom. The characters have made poor decisions or perhaps they’ve been victims of poverty and injustice.

There is more humor on OITNB than in real-life prison. I imagine that the graphic portrayal of abusive guards and terrible food and abject loneliness is often true. But the piece that sticks with me – a person who likes my freedom – is the humiliating lack of power.

We in the institutional church live in the thick and thin of power issues.

  • There are church members with little to no power in their home and work lives, but the congregation offers them their only opportunity to Have Power – or so they believe.
  • There are leaders with the enormous power to crush someone’s soul or to lift the most depleted or to brainwash, misinform, or mislead. Or to inspire!
  • There are the sitcom-worthy power struggles between the choir and the flower guild, between the pastor and the organist, between the church secretary and the head of the women’s fellowship.

I am reminded when I watch OITNB that:

  • Everybody has a back story which helps explain who she is
  • Everybody yearns for love and belonging
  • Everybody is innately beautiful – all sizes, colors, accents, personalities.
  • Everybody wants to be free.

The Bible speaks often about people in prison. Heck, several of the books were written by or influenced by someone in prison. I think about prisoners in a different way now. And I even think about parishioners in a different way.

Image – taken on my way to work today – is the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal prison in Chicago. Amazingly, the architect for this building was Harry Weese who also designed the Time-Life Building in Chicago, the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, the DC Metro System, and Union Station in DC. And so much more. Every person in Chicago and DC should know the name Harry Weese.