Essential For the Soul

Backyard 5-22-15Imagine a weekend when we can just sit and let The Spirit ooze into our deepest places.  No responsibilities.  No places to go.  No chores.  At least for one day of this three day weekend.

Stare into space at a national cemetery if you wish, or in your own backyard or out your own window.  But stare and notice what we usually overlook. Listen for what usually gets drowned out.

Hoping for a serene Pentecost.  (Is that an oxymoron?)

Site a our backyard wedding three months from today.

Climate Refugees We Have Known & Loved

Dry Bones Nathan Moskowitz 2010The President’s commencement address to the graduates of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy included a few words about climate change and the expected increase in “Climate Refugees” in the future.  Climate Refugees are those who must move because of extreme weather conditions:  drought and desertification have made a place intolerable, cyclones and flooding have caused mass migration. That kind of thing.  “It’s a national security issue,” Obama said.

It’s also a spiritual issue.  It’s been an especially anxious couple of weeks for The Church, and some of that challenge is because of the incidence of Climate Refugees in the church.  You know who I’m talking about:

  • Mass migration out of the church because the climate was too toxic and divisive.
  • Individuals parting ways with their congregations because it felt so dry they were perishing.
  • Families slowly slipping away because the spiritual food was scarce.

There are also the people who leave church for good reasons:  they move away, they die.  And there are people who leave for reasons that we can interpret in several ways:  personal conflicts make church awkward,  a personal life change makes church feel uncomfortable, their children’s schedules or their own schedules have become complicated.

But today I’m thinking about Climate Refugees we have known and loved.  On the one hand, it’s very important to let people go – especially when they can be fed and refreshed elsewhere.  Spiritual journeys shift and sway. What fed me as a child isn’t as satisfying as an adult.  It’s normal and fine.

But the climate our communities create are just that:  created.  Churches are rarely impacted by the weather or environmental issues.

We can create a climate that feeds the soul and we can also nurture a climate that sucks the life out of people.  And remember: the climate impacts everyone in a congregation no matter what my personal experience has been.

Maybe I like it hot and sticky.  Maybe conflict doesn’t bother me and I kind of get a kick out of all the power moves. Maybe I don’t mind the chilly comments or cold stares.  But I am not the church.  We are the church.

How are we creating a climate that truly quenches spiritual thirst and feeds those who were starving in another land?  How are we providing shelter for those who’ve been displaced?  How are we tending to refugees and wanderers?  Are we embracing them or tolerating them?

None of us can spiritually survive in a valley of dry bones.  But climates can change to become life-giving again – at least in the church.

Image source.

This I Believe As Well

It’s been a long week so far and I’m sharing someone else’s words today. From The Charlotte Observer in my home state. Enjoy.

Who Are the Most Creative Leaders in Church Leadership?

I’m a sucker for articles about creative business leaders like this because they introduce me to people I don’t know. And it sparks ideas about how we might be more creative in the non-profit world of spiritual communities. Linda Boff makes boring GE products sound cool. Cameron Piron is creating more precise methods of brain surgery. Katy Fike is dreaming up new inventions to make growing older safer while also finding money for those inventions. I love reading about these people.

So where are the creative non-profit leaders? There are lists of Important Preachers out there. There are lists of best-selling authors who are also church leaders. There are church consultants paid to work with congregations to improve their organization and mission outreach.

But who in the church would you say are the most creative leaders in terms of helping to shift their congregations into a new way of being the church for these days? Who is doing the on-the-ground work? (I’d selfishly like to know because I want to work with them.)

There are many factors that keep us from being creative non-profit leaders:

  1. Administrivia gets in the way. When our people still expect us to spend most of our time creating bulletins and worship power points, and attending meetings, it’s hard to do The Big Things that make a difference in the overall movement of an organization.
  2. Expectations are dated (but still expected.) When church members expect pastors to keep regular office hours so that they can drop by at a whim, that’s a problem. When it’s expected that the pastor -and only the pastor – will offer pastoral car, that’s a problem. No pastor can simultaneously be a 1950s leader and a 2010s leader. They require very different foci.

Many of the middle judicatories in my denomination are seeking new leadership and – from what I can tell – we all want something new. We want creative change agents. We want skill sets that reflect a changing culture (e.g. multicultural outreach, technological know-how, anti-racism chops, mediation proficiency, superior gifts in imagination and communication.)

Who are those people in Church World who both have the creativity AND the leadership to Make Shifts Happen? I’d like to see that list.

Video is a TED Talk featuring Chicago potter and activist Theaster Gates. He was named one of the 100 most creative people by Fast Company in 2015. He has the skills to bring both imagination and impact.

Praying Well with Others

One of 8 Banners in Fountain Hills, AZ Advertising a Series Decrying Progressive Christianity

One of 8 Banners in Fountain Hills, AZ Advertising a Series Decrying Progressive Christianity

I am blessed with three siblings. We are all unified in our love for each other and diverse in our theology. We also agree that none of us has cornered the market on God’s Truth.

With this in mind, I am struck by the campaign of eight churches in Fountain Hills, Arizona who have ganged up on one of their sibling churches whom they deem to be “apostate.”

Those are dangerous words, my friends. (Here‘s the website of the church under attack with their pastor’s response.)

Eight Protestant pastors in Fountain Hills all agreed to preach a series of sermons called “Progressive Christianity: Fact or Fiction?” They penned a united op-ed for their local newspaper that you can read here.

[Note: Among the most heinous things written in the article is the reference to the great John Wooden who was indeed all about the basics of basketball, but – another article – Coach Wooden “never imposed his Christian faith on anyone, only insisting that his players ‘have a religion and believe in it.‘” Exhibit A: Kareem Abdul Jabbar who converted to Islam during his years on Wooden’s team. The Fountain Hills Eight have used the wrong example if they believe that John Wooden would have supported their efforts.]

In my house, we do not mess with John Wooden.

The Fountain Hills Eight are asking these questions in their sermons, united against their neighbors in The Fountains United Methodist Church:

  1. What is the difference between “Progressive” Christianity and Biblical Christianity?
  2. Does that difference really matter in a relativistic age?
  3. How can a Christian decipher what he or she should believe?

Slow down gentlemen.

Accusing Progressive Christianity of being different from “Biblical Christianity” reminds me of the time I sat beside a man in an airplane once who told me that he was the pastor of a Bible Church. “That’s so cool,” I said. “I’m the pastor of a Bible Church too. It’s called The Presbyterian United Church of Schaghticoke.”

I take the Bible so seriously that I want to dissect it, study under, over, around, and through it – preferably in the most original languages we have. I want to understand what it meant when it was written, when it was first read, and as we read it today for a 21st Century Church.

  • Do I believe that God never changes? Sort of. Keep in mind that even the Bible shares examples of God changing God’s mind. (Hello Jonah.)
  • Do I believe Mary was a virgin? Sure, but honestly, my faith doesn’t rise or fall on Mary’s virginity. If we found out conclusively somehow that she wasn’t a virgin, would we toss everything thing else?
  • Do I believe that Jesus is The Only Way? Absolutely, but what does Jesus mean by “Wayhere? (And don’t think for a second I’m pulling a Bill Clinton – “it depends on what the meaning of the word is is” – kind of verbal gymnastics.) Scripture speaks of people who speak all the right words but do not live the way of Jesus. God bless the Pharisees who believed they were following the right way only to miss the point completely. I know Muslim, Jewish, and Atheist friends who follow the way of Jesus quite closely. Do they call Jesus “Lord”? Nope. But I trust in a non-Pharisaical God. And it seems that this was the way of Jesus too.

How do we discern what to believe? I suggest reading the Pentecost story very carefully this week. The Spirit continues to work and speak as it happened in Acts 10. God still has no partiality. God still calls us to move in directions that we once believed were unfaithful. God still sends us places we don’t necessarily want to go.

I have brothers and sisters in Christ who interpret Scripture in a different way from how I interpret it. But note: we are all interpreting it. We all consider some verses more essential than others. Not one of us takes it literally, even when we say we do. Rachel Held Evans and A.J. Jacobs are required reading for those who believe it’s possible to take the Bible literally.

God calls us to pray well with others. I believe in the Jesus who had dinner at the home of Zaccheaus the loathed tax collector even at the risk of offending the faithful. I believe in the Jesus who touched an unclean woman even though it would have rendered him unable to enter the temple. I believe in the Jesus who told parables that rocked everything believers had been taught. Helpful Samaritans? Really?

It’s a particular congregation’s choice to worship in the way we will and believe what we do. But we are treading on dangerous cosmic ground if we expend our energies throwing theological stones. It’s the kind of action that sadly supports what too many people believe about the church.

Evidence of the Existence of Satan?

Jesus v SatanOn Tuesday my friend D and I were talking on the commuter train about the high incidence of LBGTQ kids born into conservative evangelical Christian families.

Me:  I’ve come to believe this is evidence of the existence of God.  “You have a hard time with gay people?  Meet your daughter.”

D:  Or the existence of Satan.  You have no idea how terrifying it is to be a gay kid in a family that gives money to organizations that want to arrest gay people. 

My jaw dropped.

I had never once considered this  – mostly because I can be an idiot sometimes.  I was imagining families like this one or this one –  shifting their views because their beloved son or daughter was gay.  I was not imagining the horror of being in a family that would respond by humiliating or condemning or banishing their child.  Or trying to “beat the gay out” of their child.  Or even killing their child.

Lord, have mercy.  I’ll say it again:  I can be an idiot.

Nevertheless, I still believe that God can use everything for good – including the conservative Christian families who are blessed with an LGBTQ child.  When churches like this one provide safe haven in the name of Jesus Christ, I see the hand of God.  When congregations like these make the conscious decision to support LGBTQ people, I see the hand of God.  It reminds me of this verse in Genesis.  God can make something good even out of evil.

In our own lives, in our own congregations regarding LGBTQ people, are we displaying evidence of the existence of God or the existence of Satan?  It’s a real question.

Pew’s latest report on religion in the USA states that 48% of all LGBTQ people self-identify as Christian – which is shocking considering how many congregations do not welcome these folks, much less celebrate their leadership gifts or marriage commitments.  But we can be the kind of communities that love in the likeness of Jesus – further evidence that God changes everything for good.

Next steps:  there are a lot of LGBTQ people out there who most likely do not have church affiliation.  How might we offer a welcoming, nourishing community?

Image source.

One of My Favorite Cultural Shifts

On the first day of third grade, a little blonde girl I’d never seen before came up Mentorsto me on the playground and announced, “I’m going to be your best friend this year.”  Although she was perfectly nice, it didn’t work out that way.  It takes more than a declaration to become friends.  She was new and probably lonely and definitely gutsy.

As young pastors and other professionals are encouraged to Get A Mentor, I think about that little blonde girl.  As in the case of best friends, we can’t merely hunt down and claim a mentor.  It’s an organic, natural process.  Relationships are made and they bloom or not.

In a perfect world, we mentor each other.  Exhibit A.

I know people who seek out Church Celebrities in hopes of being mentored by them.  But it still doesn’t work that way.  Maybe we ask someone to be our mentor, but the relationship never clicks.  Perhaps it’s too one-sided, based on  I-want-something-from-you rather than mutual sharing.

One of the most fortunate shifts in 21st Century Church Culture is the transition from transactional ministry (I joined the church so that I have a place for my funeral) to relational ministry (I wanted community with these people).   Of course many congregations are still driven by transactions (If I pledge money, I get to have my baby baptized.  If I work with Middle Schoolers, I will get into heaven.)  But those churches are missing the point.

Imagine serving or mentoring someone or sponsoring somebody for the sheer joy of it. “Sponsoring” refers to more direct advocacy for someone, explained well here, especially for women.  But I’m also a big fan of sponsoring talented men who sponsor talented women.

I love it when someone asks “who would be good for” a certain church position or project, and I get to suggest names.  It’s a splendid way to lift up a young pastor whose awesomeness has gone unnoticed or a seasoned colleague who now has the time and wisdom to excel in new ways.

We need to do more of this:  natural mentoring and sponsoring.  

And less of this: using people for personal gain – even if it’s semi-innocent and unconscious.

Consider who has mentored you without a formal mentor-mentee relationship. Who has touted you among other people?  Let’s do more of this for the sake of healthy spiritual communities.


Lack of Curiosity Might Be a Sin

I can’t think of examples of Jesus being curious (because he already knew what Rodin The Thinkerwas going on cosmically or in other people’s minds?  I don’t know.) But being curious seems to be an excellent way to help us live our lives.

  • Instead of dismissing the person so unlike us that we automatically hate them or judge them, consider why they are the way they are. We don’t have to like everybody, but we are called to treat everybody with dignity.
  • Instead of engaging in small talk at parties, risk asking something more interesting:  Do you like to sing?  What’s your favorite place to hang out?  Do you like art?  What kind?
  • Instead of connecting to get something out of somebody (i.e. trying to befriend a person who can help you get a job, be cool, etc.) learn from that person and consider that learning the gift.
  • Instead of talking about ourselves, ask questions that help people share what they do well, what they’ve accomplished, what they’d like to achieve.

Being curious is one of my favorite traits in a person – especially in a person with whom I work professionally or hang out with socially.

Curious people are neither self-absorbed nor fascinated with themselves. They are inherently appreciative of others’ skills, interests, experiences.  They are naturally grateful. They are lifelong learners.

And this brings me to Church World.  Among the saddest things I’ve ever heard in church:

  • From a 40-something elder:  “I haven’t learned anything new about God and the Bible since the 7th grade.  I already know what I need to know.”
  • From a 60-something pastor:  “I don’t take classes or workshops at this point in my ministry.  Been there.  Done that.

The world is endlessly interesting because it’s how God created things to be.  It’s about the back stories:  the story behind that river’s name, the story behind  that activist’s life choices, the story behind that child’s fears, the story behind that recipe’s presence in the family cookbook, the story behind that song’s lyrics, the story behind that friend’s scars, the story behind that parable, the story behind that prophesy, the story behind that Levitical law about rock badgers, the story behind that fountain in the church courtyard, the story behind the portrait in the church library, the story behind the custom of wearing clergy collars, the story behind the annual strawberry festival, the story about the pastor who ran off with the liturgical dancer back in the seventies.

Aren’t you curious? And if not, why not?

Image of The Thinker by Rodin (1904) which was originally named The Poet (Le Poète)

To the East Coast and Back with Sheryl and Lena

driving down the highwayIt’s a 12 hour drive from my current home in the Midwest to my former home on the East Coast and I decided to listen to two books on my most recent trip there and back – mostly for their sociological insights on women. They reflect what two differently successful women have learned.

[Note: I am sorrowfully obsessed with Sheryl Sandberg these days. And I am not much of a Lena Dunham fan. Self-absorption = ugh. But I’d like to understand her.]

One of the joys of my life is talking with women of all ages about their calling. Family, friends, colleagues, seminarians.

I believe that we are called – not to a particular thing necessarily as in “God is calling me to buy this specific red car” – but to a general way of abundant life that feeds us spiritually so that we might make a positive impact in the world. God’s will is not always particular. Sometimes yes (e.g. God: “This is definitely your next job!“) Sometimes no. (e.g. God: “Really, you’ll be fine either way.”)

Discerning our journey in life is ceaselessly interesting to me.

  • How do I decide between Q & Z?
  • Am I making the biggest mistake of my life if I do X?
  • Will I ruin my professional life if I just drop out and go to South America for a few years?
  • Should I marry someone whose work will require us to live in a place where I don’t particularly want to live?
  • Will I regret it forever if I don’t grab this opportunity to live on the Space Station?
  • Is it professional suicide to move back home or have a baby or take a year long internship in Mozambique?

Sometimes our decisions feel this dramatic.

What helps make sound decisions and – after those decisions are made – what helps us glean the most from our experiences? Generally speaking, it seems that there are some common threads that keep us engaged and moving forward:

  • Be curious.
  • Accept the positives.
  • Don’t allow life to “happen to you.” (Enough of life is random as it is. But here are proactive choices we can make.)
  • Help others on their own journey.
  • Stop confusing transactional for relational.

More about these threads this week.

PS Here is a lovely tribute to Sheryl Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg.

Mothers’ Day Friday: Seek Out an Invisible Mom

Invisible MomsThere are many famous, visible mothers out there.

We know them via art (Whistler’s Mother), celebrity (Kate Middleton), politics (Michelle Obama), literature (Marmee) or the Bible (Mary.)  Sometimes mothers are famous because of their children:  Carol Brady, Karen Kempner, Katherine Jackson.

Some moms are famous for a few moments of newsworthiness:  Toya Graham, Amy Chua.  And some moms are simply hard to miss.

But most of the world’s mothers are not famous, and some are essentially invisible. I would like for us to consider those moms today.

They are the mothers who will not be taken out to brunch this Sunday.  They will not receive a card or flowers.  But they are the heroes who raise children in refugee camps,  serve as the primary caregiver for a sick loved one, or parent children with special needs.  They are the ones whose children have died.  They are the ones who mother children as aunts and neighbors.

Especially if you are bummed out this weekend because you are not a mother but wish you were or you had a mother but she’s gone or you wish you had a different mother . . .

Seek out an invisible mom.  Look for the mom who gets no respect from the culture.  Notice the mom who is too exhausted to notice herself that it’s Mothers’ Day. Try to find a mom who will be forgotten by everyone but you.  And do something lovely for her.

Or make a contribution to an organization that supports invisible moms  – like your local women’s shelter or food bank or Dress for Success organization that supplies work clothes for women with limited income.

We who are privileged enough to celebrate a Happy Mothers’ Day have an excellent opportunity to do something that makes an uncelebrated woman visible this weekend.  Let’s do it.

If you want additional reading material about invisible moms: The annual State of the World’s Mothers Report is out this week.