Archive for May, 2012

Take This Job and Shove It?

May 31, 2012

That would require that one had the job in the first place, though.

I stumbled over this essay this morning on the concept of meaning work.  In trying to figure out who Thomas Sowell is responding to, I found this other article (not the one that Sowell is responding to) that tries to define the idea of meaningful work.  
I don’t agree with Sowell’s jabs at intellectuals via the warning signs about buffalos or the dangers of hitchhiking.  Ignorance bred out of of isolation to a particular danger is not a matter of greater or lesser education or intelligence necessarily.  If we don’t know that something is dangerous, the odds are greater that we will react to it in a way that proves to be potentially harmful.  If we survive our stupidity, we learn (theoretically) from our mistake and pass on that information.  
Likewise, we need to remember that attitudes of entitlement exist across all strata of society in different ways – some more obvious than others.  I believe they are born out of ignorance as well.  People are raised with certain assumptions about the world.  Those assumptions may be erroneous, and if they are (and if they survive), they will learn truth otherwise and be the wiser for it.  But this can take a lot of time.
I know a wonderful person who is seeking employment.  They don’t lack for education, good manners, a sharp mind, and a great personality.  They do seem to lack a sense of reality when it comes to finding a job, however.  At least a sense of reality as I’ve experienced it.  Their assumption is that their personality and education should allow them to bypass certain requirements for nice-paying jobs, like years of experience in the workforce.  They want the lifestyle and position of someone who has spent a decade or more working their way up, gathering experience and building connections, and they assume that their education and background will compensate for these other deficiencies.  They want an office without slogging through cubicles.
It’s a painful place for this person and their family to be in.  And I worry they’ll be there a while in this highly competitive job market, when they might be better off lowering their sights a bit and ‘settling’ for something that may not seem worthy of their background, that isn’t as meaningful.
I agree with Sowell’s idea that meaningful work can be a misguiding principle, that some work has to get done simply because it has to get done.  But I don’t think he’s operating from the same idea of meaningful work here as the second article I linked to above does.  I wish I knew what Sowell was responding to so I could understand why he takes this particular tack – it seems rather narrow.
Of course the whole notion of meaningful work is hardly new.  In fact, Martin Luther in the  16th century was asserting the notion that most forms of work were God-pleasing (so long as they were not sinful in and of themselves, ie. prostitution).  Bucking the notion that the best jobs were church-related (priests, monks, nuns, etc.), Luther argued that in fulfilling our vocations – whatever that might be – we were serving our neighbor and therefore conducting ourselves in ways every bit as pleasing to God, as holy, as it were, as joining a religious order.  Considering that Luther was himself trained as an Augustinian monk, this argument becomes even more impressive.  
I served in a variety of what would be considered menial jobs as I was growing up.  I stocked shelves in a grocery store.  I worked in a drug store as a cashier and a stock boy.  And perhaps most glorious of all, I slung burgers in one of the largest national burger chains that is not McDonald’s (though technically I worked for McDonald’s for roughly an hour, I think).  
These jobs weren’t meaningful, per se.  But each job served my neighbor in some way.  I provided her with necessary food items to feed her family.  I facilitated his purchase of prescriptions to cure his child’s sickness.  I cooked the food that allowed someone to go back to work for another few hours to earn a living.  Sure, I reeked of pickle juice at the end of the shift, but the job provided myself and others with something we wanted or needed.  The fact that I didn’t particularly care for the smell of pickles was a further incentive for me to figure out a job that didn’t require me to be elbow-deep in vats of pickles.  
The second article’s assertion that meaningful work is in part a matter of attitude and perspective is important here.  I thank God for the people that do the countless jobs that I personally would prefer not to have to do, which in turn enables me to do other work.  However seeing my work (and theirs) as meaningful isn’t just dependent on my current state of mind.  It’s how God has created the world.  We serve a God that doesn’t just command that we love our neighbor as ourselves, He’s actually designed us and the world around us so that we naturally do this.  Perhaps not wholeheartedly.  Perhaps in surliness and bitterness.  But any job that is not explicitly sinful can and should be seen as a way that God cares for his creation and allows his creation to participate in the process.  
I like to think that I learned things about myself and others from all of the various jobs I’ve needed to hold or sought to hold.  I like to think that each job benefitted not just myself and my needs and wants, but the needs and wants of others as well, whether that link is obvious or more subtle.  More importantly than what I like to think, though, I have the confidence that whether I see the link or not, it is there.  That’s the way I’m made.  That’s the way creation functions.  
Go to work.  Do the job well.  Give thanks.  It doesn’t matter if someone (or anyone) else sees your job as meaningful or worthy.  If it’s a job that needs doing, it’s meaningful in some way to someone.  

Book Review: Room of Marvels

May 30, 2012

I was lent this book with much enthusiasm as a useful and helpful read for those struggling to make sense of loss and suffering.  Since it’s hard to move very far without bumping into someone who is dealing with this or has dealt with it in the past, I happily accepted the loan.

Room of Marvels is by James Bryan Smith, who according to Google is a theological professor and author for Intervarsity Press.  The book is short and a very easy read.  From a literary perspective, it’s certainly not posing a threat to Shakespeare.  But my biggest concern with it is that although it purports to deal with God and heaven and the problem of evil, I’m not sure it’s actually Christian.  
Jesus does not form a part of this story, even though it deals with the abovementioned themes.  In fact, if I read it correctly, Jesus isn’t even mentioned until the Epilogue, which deals with the authorial process, and is not actually part of the book.  While the protagonist meets a variety of people and has a number of spiritual revelations, none of them involve Jesus – only a very generic ‘God’.  Issues of guilt and forgiveness are all treated without any specific mention of the atoning Incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son of God.  I find that interesting.  And dangerous.
In fact the issues of forgiveness are handled rather lightly as a whole.  Much more time is given to a glorification of the protagonist, those moments when he did good things that impacted other people.  This is where the title comes from, and it is intended to be one of the most powerful parts of the book.  It ends up easily sliding more into self-glorification.  Forgiveness and our actual awfulness is dealt with quickly so we can get a better appreciation of our real person – the person who has done plenty of good things that we can better appreciate and focus on when our guilt is removed from the equation.  The emphasis becomes much heavier then on living lives of love that impact others, rather than struggling (out of necessity) with the sin that continues to work its way through our lives.  
It’s a very anthropocentric view of heaven.  Heaven is a place primarily about us and ourselves.  It is suggested rather directly, in fact, that heaven is not really a complete and total cessation of suffering.  The protagonist has a meeting with a long-dead relative who seeks him out during his visionary visit to heaven because of her need for healing and peace.  Not only isn’t Jesus mentioned, He apparently isn’t capable of fully relieving the pain and suffering of those who place their faith in him.  That’s problematic.
The climax of the book is the protagonist’s brief reunion with his daughter who died from severe genetic defects at the age of two.  Again, in the effort to provide healing and comfort, the author rides roughshod over several millenia’s worth of theological and philosophical wranglings on the very thorny problem of evil and suffering.  It all has tidy explanations and God is fully defended from mystery and authority because we can figure it all out for ourselves.  
In this way, the book is problematic in similar ways to The Shack.  Good intentions butting up against very real and powerful challenges and limitations to our understanding of the created order and the God who remains outside of it yet vitally sustaining of it all too easily lead to easy answers that may relieve some anxiety and pain, but don’t truly answer questions in any lasting and meaningful way.  
This is because evil and the problem of our active participation in it and captivity to it is not part of the question, let alone the answer.  There’s no room for a real enemy of humanity in these sorts of theological explanations.  What appears to be awful and bad is really just our lack of understanding about how and why God works.  But if this is the case, then we lose the ability to talk in terms of good and evil at all.  The best we can hope for is more of a Confucian/Daoist concept of opposing forces in fluid play with each other, so that there is no evil – and no good – only a matter of how these neutral powers are perceived.  While this may sound appealing, it isn’t Biblical.  At all. 
I have not suffered the type of loss that the protagonist (a thinly veiled caricature of the author) has.  But I can’t imagine being comforted for very long with the very vague (and unScriptural) conclusions that this book (and others like it) make.  I pray that one day more will be clear to me than is now.  I’m not sure that it will ever be my place to know God’s mind on these things, but I trust that more will be revealed.  
I can’t recommend this book, but I appreciate it being loaned to me!

An Expensive God?

May 26, 2012

This post doesn’t really state the question flat out, but I bet it raises it in your mind.  Wander back here after you read it.

The question it raises is one that is frequently raised with a derisive tone of voice.  If the Church cares so much about people, why does it waste so much money on big expensive buildings?  That money could have been spent on caring for the poor.
The short answer to this is, yes, you’re right.  That money could have been spent on the poor.  In which case, there would be no fancy church building next to a slum, as the photo on the above-linked blog shows.  There would be nothing there but more slum, most likely.  Or perhaps a shopping center or some other sort of building.
This sort of question raises all sorts of interesting discussion directions.  We could talk about how many people in our society and congregations are functional utilitarians – defining what is good based on metrics of some sort –  quantifiable statistics demonstrating a maximum amount of good being delegated to the maximum number of people.  There certainly isn’t anything wrong per se with wanting to try and calculate the impact of our decisions.  
The problem with utilitarianism is that it only functions well when metrics are obtainable.  You can measure how many sandwiches the money used to build that church in the slums could have provided.  You can calculate out how many people might have eaten said sandwiches.  Those numbers are very compelling.
It’s harder to measure other things, though.  Such as the satisfaction or hope or even pride that might come when looking up at that church day after day.  It is hard to measure the inspiration that is provided by a faith that comes to the poorest of the poor and dares to see them as anything other than or more than their poverty.  It is hard to measure the way the days of these people who live in the shadow of that church – who enter into it weekly to pray and to be told of a Savior who loves them even if nobody else does – are impacted.  
The question sounds a lot like one that is raised in the Gospels – when a woman comes in and anoints Jesus with a costly perfume and some of the disciples complain about what a waste of money such an act is.  It’s not practical or utilitarian.  The money might have been used to give to the poor, rather than pouring it out (literally) on Jesus’ feet where it will be gone and forgotten within a matter of hours or days.  
It’s interesting to note that Jesus doesn’t side with the disciples on this issue.  He doesn’t chastise the woman and giver her a lesson on cost-benefit ratios.  In Matthew 26:10-13, Jesus reminds the disciples that there are other things that are important, that money can be used in ways that have an impact far outstretching a more utilitarian analysis.  The money could have been given to the poor, where it would have benefited them for a short time, at the end of which they would have still most likely been poor, and the short-term benefits of that money long forgotten both by its recipients and everyone else.  But instead, the story of this woman’s giving to her Lord has been told for 2000 years. 
What might a church in the midst of a slum say to the people in the slum?  It might say to them that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been, is, and will continue to be proclaimed in their midst, both inside and outside that church building.  It might say that people came and created a bit of beauty – however incongruous – in the midst of squalor and ugliness.  It might say that there are people who consider it important and valuable to give a gift of a beautiful building to people who are not beautiful, as a reminder that they are indeed beautiful to the God who created them, and that one day, their ugly surroundings and circumstances will be transformed.  It might serve as a symbol of the glory to come, when the human-induced squalor of our sinfulness is destroyed and we are cleansed and recreated, and when all suffering is eliminated.
It could mean a lot of things, and I can’t authoritatively speak to what it means to the people around it, but only what it might say to me if I were in their place.  
If it weren’t there, the slum would remain.  Suffering and misery and squalor would remain, and there would be nothing – and perhaps no one – to speak against it, to prophecy (as in the Ezekiel 37 text for this coming Sunday) that in the midst of death and loss there might be fullness of life.
I would argue that our God is not a utilitarian.  Were that the case, the infinite cost of his Son’s incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension would hardly be a good trade-off for the definitionally finite benefit of a few billion creatures that inhabit this tiny part of the created universe. Our God is lavish with his creativity and beauty and grace, even knowing full-well in advance what we were going to do to it, how we would abuse it and misuse it and one another.  I don’t think that it’s impossible that the Church that proclaims this glorious God might take the rather curious step of placing a piece of that beauty in the midst of some of the greatest ugliness we can create for ourselves and others.  

Of All the Crazy, Green-Blooded Ideas…

May 26, 2012

Ok, yeah.  This is pretty cool.


May 25, 2012

A friend asked me to listen to one of the podcasts on my denomination’s web site oriented towards young adults.  I write book reviews for this same site.  

You can listen to the podcast here – it’s about 40 minutes long.
It’s a valuable discussion for anyone and everyone to listen to, though it’s couched in terms of making sense to congregations grappling with the dearth of young adults in their midst.  
Andrew Root is an associate professor at Luther Seminary, and the topic in this podcast is relationship.  Now in my second parish with a much larger proportion of members advanced in years as opposed to younger folks, I often hear the mantra that what we really need is to get the young families with kids to join our congregation.  This was the formula for years of healthy congregational life.  Families raising their kids in the church.  
But unless I’m mistaken, I’m not sure that this was ever an intentional, programmatic approach of churches.  It’s not that they were more successful marketing themselves to young families with kids 50 or 60 years ago.  But it was the accepted thing for young families with kids to do.  Why?  Because those young parents had parents in that congregation (or another congregation like it somewhere else).  They had grandparents there.  They came from a long line of family members in church, more often than not.
Somehow, that pattern was shattered 40 years ago or so, so that in many traditional denominational churches, there are no young parents with children in the congregation – or very few.  The memo was never sent or maybe never received that this was what they ought to keep doing.  Or more likely, they were inundated with competing memos offering other alternatives.  I suspect that Christianity will be studying for however many years we have left until our Lord’s return, exactly why and how that pattern was shattered.  
Congregations aching to somehow attract young adults and young families with kids often attempt to deal with this programmatically.  If we just offer the right programs and classes, they’ll come.  Or they attempt to deal with it liturgically.  If we just update the music and get a great praise band here and get rid of the technical language and focus our sermons on practical life skills, they’ll come.  Perhaps those are recipes for success in some places, but I tend to suspect that more often than not they fail.  
Relationship is the key.  At least with people under 40.  This interview does a good job at focusing on that.  I like how the interviewer (a very nice woman, by the way), even highlights the church’s inappropriate approach to this whole issue even as she agrees with Dr. Root (And am I the only one who finds it curious that there are no credentials listed for this guy in the text intro to the podcast?  Does that make him more accessible to young adults?  There’s another interesting if unrelated side discussion!).    “How do we get them to come?  How do we show them that we care about them?”  These are programmatic questions.  These are the questions that an advertiser or marketer asks about customers.  And it is unfortunately how the Church has allowed itself to be conditioned to think as well.  
How do you convince your child (or grandchild) that you love them?  Is there anything that you can do for them that demonstrates this?  Sure – plenty of things.  But what cements the relationship is the time spent together.  Consistent acts of love and caring and interest that demonstrate to the other person that you love them.  Consistent enough so that when it is necessary to speak a word of discipline or challenge, the person hopefully hears it in the context of love – they don’t confuse what you have to say to them with your love for them, but rather hear what you have to say in the larger context of love.  
I suspect that if this is how we build cross-generational relationships in families, it will work outside the family.  The difficulty lies in the fact that outside the family, cross-generational interactions (outside of a church, at least) are more the exception than the rule.  Our culture is stratified by age – sometimes very rigidly.  Crossing strata to interact with people outside of your age group can be difficult, but not nearly as difficult as figuring out how to do it in the first place.  
That’s the only thing that I found slightly curious about this interview.  When asked point blank how young adults will ever know that a congregation is right for them, will deal with them relationally rather than as a demographic niche or the Great Hope for the Congregation’s Future, Dr. Root doesn’t have an answer.  Very few people have an answer, in my experience, or we’d all be doing it by now.
Therein lies the issue – we think in terms of what we can accomplish.  If we advertise in the right places, if we master Facebook or Twitter and the future realms of social media, if our website is savvy enough – we’ll find a way to draw in these young strangers.  Again, in my limited experience, it isn’t that simple, despite what plenty of church growth books may claim to the contrary.  Church growth books base their livelihood on giving you advice that you can implement.
But how does the New Testament talk about church growth?  What outreach programs are discussed?  What evangelism techniques are displayed?  How often does it talk about how people joined the small churches because they were hired the loudest people to go out into the markets and squares and yell above the other din?  How many were brought to churches because they were given a free stylus with the church’s name on it?  
Acts 2 and Acts 5 both describe people being “added” to the church’s number.  In Acts 5, it might be interpreted that the healing wonders of the Apostles are what brought people into the fold, but I think that such an interpretation may be reversing the actual order that is implied in Acts 5:12-16.  But in Acts 2 it is very clear.   It says “the Lord added to their number daily”.  
The one answer we have to the question of how will they know to come to our church, is that the Holy Spirit will bring them.  The Holy Spirit that is already at work in their lives in ways they may not even be aware of yet.  The Holy Spirit they may never have heard about let alone believe in.  That Holy Spirit at work.  It’s a painfully simple answer that many fear relieves us of our duty to be intentional about reaching out to others.  I don’t see the two things as mutually exclusive.  We put our talents to work in wise ways, but we trust that it is the Holy Spirit that is working through and despite our best efforts.  
I think this dovetails nicely with the incarnational emphasis that Dr. Root makes in this podcast.  We need to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in every single person.  Already.  Before we even meet them.  Every stranger we pass by.  Every person we exchange innocuous pleasantries with in the grocery store line.  There is nobody that the Holy Spirit of God is not actively at work in.  And if this is the case, our job suddenly changes.  We are not seeking to be friends with someone to introduce God into their life.  God is already in their life – He created their life!  Our role may be in helping them to see that at some point.  But we en
ter into the relationship not under false pretenses of I have something you need, but rather in celebration that this other person is a creation of God the Father and is worthy of being appreciated simply for that reason.  
When we do this, people stop being means to an end.  We await the fuller discovery of the Holy Spirit’s miraculous work between us.  We assume that in this new relationship the Holy Spirit is at work on and in us as well.  It is not a one-sided affair, but a symbiotic relationship that changes both of the people involved.  If we discover the other person doesn’t know about Jesus, we can share what our relationship with Jesus means.  We can talk about our relief and peace and hope knowing that we have been placed in right relationship with God the Father through God the Son.  And we can be as authentic in that exchange as if we were telling them about this great little restaurant we just discovered in some dumpy little strip mall.  As if we were telling them about the cheapest place in town to get gas.  Hopefully without the hesitation and self-doubt and judgment that can often cloud our efforts to share the Gospel.  

Book Review: Under the Overpass

May 23, 2012
In my first year or two at the campus ministry that I joined during my undergraduate studies, I worked as a part-time student liaison between the church and the campus.  I was leading a Bible study one evening when our small group was joined by a heavily intoxicated man.  I attempted to do my best to make him feel welcome, but the Bible study was rather a bust at that point.  The man had questions, but wasn’t capable of really articulating them beyond the point of interruption of whatever I was trying to say.  
The pastor came in, quickly took in the situation, and immediately ushered the man politely but firmly outside of our campus ministry building.  He assured the man that he was more than welcome to return once he sobered up.  I was aghast.  The intoxicated guy hadn’t been threatening in any way.  He seemed to be interested in talking about the Bible, even if that interest resulted in more commotion than communication.  It seemed genuinely unChristian to show the man out the door with so little care.  How could we claim to be the Church, and yet be unwelcoming to those who desperately need to hear the Gospel and receive the tangible love of Christ through Christian community?  

It is just this conundrum that perplexes this book and author.  

Under the Overpass by Mike Yankowski recounts an experiment in living as a homeless person that he undertook with a friend for five months spanning five different cities across the country. Yankowski at the time was a student at a Christian liberal arts college close to where I now live.  He felt compelled to do something radical to test his faith, and decided to leave his comfortable life to live as a homeless person.  It’s an ambitious undertaking, one that should not be undertaken lightly.  I commend Yankowski for his willingness to step out into an extremely different environment from the one he apparently was raised in.  His experiences are undoubtedly life-changing, and have certainly impacted many other people who have read the book.  
That being said, however, the book was greatly lacking in depth of spiritual reflection.  Not that the author didn’t make comments regarding the Christian faith – whether his or other people’s – but it never really grapples with what it means to be Christians and the church in our culture.  It stays rather pointedly on the Christians-should-be-nicer-to-people-and-not-be-so-quick-to-judge-or-ignore.  Is that true?  Absolutely.  But the way it is often interpreted and applied throughout the book is more problematic.  
What is the role of the Church?  What is its primary and unalterable function?  And what is the role of individual Christians?  There isn’t much distinction made here.  Churches are routinely criticized for being suspicious and unwelcoming to Yankowski and his friend.  Yet he admits that many of the homeless are mentally ill and substance-addicted.  How is the Church to minister to these people?  More specifically – since Yankowski doesn’t make this distinction – how does a typical parish church minister to these people?  Must every congregation feed the homeless and house them?  Is it possible to be faithful even when it seems heartless?  
These are big, complicated questions, because the answers are often yes and no simultaneously – a constant state of flux and fluidity that requires every situation to be evaluated uniquely and bucks hard against the convenience of policies and standing rules.  At times Yankowski and his companion appear to intentionally wish to make people uncomfortable, and are then critical of their discomfort.  
The Church has one role – to proclaim the Gospel.  More specific, historically what this has meant was the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments to those who had been prepared to receive them.  This is what the Church does.  It is the one function of the Church that is not duplicated by any other organization on earth.  If the Church does not do this job, this job does not get done.  There seems to be no awareness of this simple fact on Yankowski’s part.  If a church offers him free food, it’s a good congregation.  If it doesn’t offer him free food, or is disturbed by his smell, or seeks to protect its property from those who hold no respect for it, its a bad church.  
There is an important conversation to be had about both the opportunities as well as challenges that owning property and a building raise for a congregation.  But that discussion isn’t addressed here, and an overly-simplified approach to what it means to be ‘the Church’ is put forth.  
To be fair, some of these issues aren’t apparent to people until they are placed in a position of responsibility for a piece of land and the buildings on it, until they are charged with ensuring that the congregation is capable of carrying out its primary responsibility of proclaiming the Gospel.  In this regard, I believe that Yankowski is simply young and  inexperienced.  His passion is admirable, and it is a balance of that passion with the wisdom that comes from experience that is most needed in congregations around our nation and the world.  But the book doesn’t reflect much wisdom or depth of exploration.  
Further, I was disturbed by how little awareness there seemed to be that even in their homeless condition, these two men could be powerful witnesses to congregations through a desire to serve, by breaking the stereotype of homeless people and forcing people and congregations to re-examine their assumptions and pre-conceived notions.  The two seemed to spend all of their spare time in journaling and sleeping – but I don’t recall them ever seeking to be active in helping and serving any of these communities they came across.  Grace and giving seem rather one-dimensional in this book, and that’s problematic for any Christian when talking about any relationship other than God’s relationship to us.  In that case, it’s all one-way, all God giving and all us receiving. 
The lack of deep thought on major topics bears out at the end of the book.  A bullet list of 4-5 things that the reader might do to respond to the challenges raised in the book is provided.  They’re all decent suggestions.  But not one of them addresses any of the issues that the author was so critical of congregations for in the book.  Suddenly, it’s all about the individual rather than the congregation as an entity.  This is where the focus needs to be, frankly – on how the individual Christian responds to the grace of God in his or her life.  I just wish that he had arrived there sooner in the book, and had taken fewer pot shots along the way.  
What function can the book serve then?  I think firstly it can serve as a reminder to Christians (and everyone else) that it is possible to survive very different circumstances than what we are used to.  It is possible to see opportunities in the midst of adversity, and faith is more than just a full stomach and a roof over our heads.  I suspect there are many Christians that could use that reminder.
Secondly, it serves as a tool for introducing the reader to the homeless as creations of God the Father.  Beneath the dirt and smell and addictions beats a heart that Christ died for, and we are well-reminded that ministering to the least of these is an important, recurring definition of God-pleasing
faith throughout both the Old and New Testaments.  If we find ourselves unable to look at a homeless person, unable to make eye contact, unwilling to share a smile, and steadfastly unmoved by the opportunity to provide a cup of water or a bite of food, there’s a problem in our hearts that we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to work on.  If we are capable of not seeing people as people, and if we think we are completely justified in doing so (justified even by our faith), we are mistaken.
We get a few glimpses of real people in this book.  Addicted, broken, suffering, real.  We get to see that these people are sometimes (oftentimes?) truly grateful for the kindness of a free bite of food.  Not everyone on the streets is only after a beer or a joint, and even the people who are looking for their next fix still need to eat, to be reminded that they are human beings. 
Thirdly, this book should challenge members of congregations to think hard and deep about what their church is about and how it is going about it.  
Fourthly, it should inspire people of all ages to step outside of the box from time to time and allow themselves to be stretched and molded through their discomfort.  There’s nothing wrong with awkwardness.  We learn a lot about ourselves in and through our discomfort.   
The book could be an excellent opportunity for discussion in small group studies.  Where does the author really nail the Christian life on the head, and where does he seem to be firing randomly? How does a congregation seek to reach people of diverse backgrounds and experiences?  What does a congregation gain when it stops focusing on ‘growth’ as a means of survival, rather than on proclaiming the Gospel regardless of how it does or doesn’t materially benefit the congregation?  
The book will naturally be appealing to a younger demographic, to teens and 20-somethings in particular who are searching for meaning and purpose and authenticity.  With proper guidance, hopefully they’ll realize that authenticity comes in a lot of shapes and sizes.  This book provides one such shape and size.  It certainly isn’t the only one.
I still struggle with what happened 20+ years ago between my pastor and the drunk man.  I can say that I far better empathize with and understand why my pastor chose to act the way he did.  I’m inclined to say that he was in the right, given the circumstances.  But there is still a nagging voice of doubt, all these years later.  I think that a constant, vague discomfort is a good thing for Christians.  It prevents us from slipping into the apathy of thinking we have everything figured out perfectly, and it constantly prods us to keep thinking, keep praying, keep experimenting.  And I think it’s there that the people of God are the most potent agents of good in the world around us.  Uncomfortable and seeking for better answers.

Doing Time

May 22, 2012

Since November of last year, I’ve been spending every Friday morning at the county jail.  Voluntarily.  When I began, the jail chaplain indicated that sometimes he brought donuts as an incentive to get the guys interested in coming to something he offers.  So I told him I’d take care of bringing the donuts.  I proceeded (and continue) to bring them every week.  Once every couple of months I bring extra for the guards as a thank you for their help in announcing the class each week and doing the necessary paperwork and double-checks to get the guys to the classroom and back.   

I was told that the guys who are in there for substance abuse issues – which many of them are – typically are developmentally delayed.  In other words, whenever they started using & abusing their substance(s) of choice, that’s when their intellectual, emotional, and psychological development stopped.  I was encouraged to bring videos and other materials that would help keep their interest.
I have a hard time popping in a video and kicking back.  And it would have required me finding videos that I surmised would be appropriate and interesting.  
Being lazy, I didn’t do that.  I just talk.  And listen.  And talk some more.  Not exactly a stretch for a pastor, to be true.  It started with eight or nine men and has grown to 18.  I developed a 7-week curriculum that just loops over and over again.  There are a mix of guys each week, so that some are familiar while others are first time attendees.  Some of the guys I see pretty regularly during their stay at the jail.  Others appear and disappear quickly, sort of like the donuts.  My goal in starting this was to build relationships.  To spend enough time with whatever guys were willing to share their time with me, so that there might be a relationship of trust developed whereby they might clearly hear the Gospel.  
A few months into it, the chaplain chuckled that I was still at it.  I discovered that donuts in the jail are rather an anomaly.  I never intended to set a precedent, I just was trying to take his advice!  I also found out that there weren’t any other chaplains doing this sort of thing.  The jail website indicates that they work with 60-some chaplains from the area providing a host of services to the inmates.  But I was the first (and only one) to begin teaching a class like this. 
Sometimes it pays to be ignorant.  
And since I count ignorance as one of my spiritual gifts, I suggested to the jail chaplain recently that I’d like to bring in copies of Luther’s Small Catechism to give to some of the guys looking for more focused Christian teaching.  And because the Holy Spirit was working strong through my ignorance, I also suggested offering a second class at the jail emphasizing Christian practice and basic theology, utilizing Luther’s Catechism as the text.  
I assumed it wouldn’t fly.  I was suggesting to offer an even more academic course than the one I was already teaching.  I assumed they would balk at the use of a resource so closely associated with a specific denomination.  I expected to be told that my idea really wouldn’t work and that they couldn’t support it even if it might.
Instead, on Friday I met with the jail chaplain and the person responsible for all of the inmate programming (coursework, classes, presentations, etc.).  Instead of shooting down my idea as implausible, they want to move ahead with it.  Instead of telling me I couldn’t use the Catechism, they’re happy to have me use it.  While I had hinted at my hope that the men who opted to take this coursework would do reading, writing, and memorization between class meetings, the chaplain and the programming director encouraged me to push the men to do so, to set the bar high.   They mused about how they might coordinate getting men from different parts of the facility into an appropriate venue for the class, rather than limiting the offering to just the men considered lower-risk.  
Over the next few weeks & months I’ll be developing the curriculum – first in broad brushstrokes and then in more detail.  Hopefully I’ll be able to begin in the fall.  It’s going to be work, but it’s exciting to have the opportunity.
California law is resulting in state prison inmates being pushed back to local city and county jails to relieve overcrowding issues.  Of course, this results in overcrowding at the local level.  And it results in more guys in tighter quarters, creating a quandry for prison officials as to how to keep them calm and occupied.  It creates the perfect opportunity for congregations interested in establishing jail ministries.  Of course, a great deal depends on the officials in charge of the jails.  I try not to make any assumptions about how long I’ll be allowed to do this sort of thing.  Nor do I try to maintain any illusions that I’m owed this opportunity.  
I’m just glad that I have the chance to put something together that shares the gospel of Jesus Christ with men who need to hear it, and are willing and able to hear it perhaps for the first time.   I’m glad that I get to share the good news with them that the love of Jesus isn’t dependent on them kicking their addictions or shaping their lives up or making amends or doing any number of other highly desirable and good things.  He died for them right where they sit.  
I’m grateful for a parishioner who’s passion for jail ministry and connections with the jail chaplain enabled me to get started.  I’m grateful to the seminary program that placed me in prison ministry for a semester back in St. Louis and opened me up to that type of ministry.  I’m grateful to experiences earlier in life organizing Christian retreats for youth in the juvenile detention center back in Phoenix.  I’m grateful that the Holy Spirit pushes me (and you) into places where we aren’t comfortable and are certain there’s nothing we could possibly contribute or gain, and that oftentimes we’re proved wrong on both counts.  
As stated earlier, I do this to share the Gospel.  Period.  I told my congregational leadership when I began this that this was my goal.  I don’t expect that our congregation will grow through this ministry.  There is no greater purpose than sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with some guys who are aware that they need some Good News.  But I want them to know that I will welcome them gladly if they don’t have another faith community to return to.   In seven months of doing this, I’ve handed out a lot of my business cards to guys, inviting them to look me up when they get out.  I’ve had a lot of guys say they would.  But I’ve never seen one.
Until this past Sunday.   This past Sunday I had the opportunity to shake hands with a guy who was wearing civilian clothes instead of the prison-issue jumpsuit that I had seen him in for several months.  The irony is that the past few weeks the readings have really highlighted the importance of inclusiveness, of recognizing that there is nobody that the body of Christ has the right to reject or ignore.  His presence on Sunday was like a giant exclamation point on months worth of teaching and preaching in a musty prison classroom, as well as recent efforts on several sermons.  Like an undeserved donut, an extra dollop of grace and joy.  
Another reminder of how much I love what I do, and who I do it with and for.  

Say It Isn’t So!

May 18, 2012

I know this is going to come as a shock to most of you, so you may want to sit down.

There is a bias in the way media reports the news.
There, I’ve said it.  I’m sorry you had to hear it from me.  But best to hear it here rather than not at all.
Different media outlets have a tendency to report based on an agenda governed by their core values.  While certain, not-to-be-named conservative outlets are routinely chastised for this, the simple fact is that it happens on the liberal side of the fence, too.  
I like listening to NPR and I appreciate their news reporting.  But if you listen to it discerningly for any length of time, you ought to come to the realization that they are not objective, and that this lack of objectivity is primarily expressed in how much air time is allocated to one side of an issue or the other (as well as the actual language used to report on issues).  
Just a reminder that we need to be wise and discerning about things.  


May 17, 2012

Community is a topic much on my brain, as it has been for years now.  What does it mean?  What does it look like?  How does it function?  Not easy questions that can be statistically analyzed and answered.  Community is a fluid thing at the intersection of human sinfulness and divine mercy.

Most recently, I’ve been wondering about Christian community in terms of congregations, which is how many people tend to define Christian community.  The people at church on Sunday morning.  The people in mid-week Bible study.  But Christian community should be a continually evolving mix of different folks all along the spectrum of Christian understanding, maturity, and faith.  Mature Christians anchored in the faith are to be brushing up with young Christians (regardless of their age) who are still trying to figure out what all of this means.
But we have a hard time with that.  In a culture increasingly polarized and unable as well as unwilling to dialogue, this idea of Christian community becomes even harder.  Our expectations are even more firmly cemented that people in our community have to look and act like us when they arrive, which means before they arrive.  The work of discipling, of modeling Christian life and working with others to help them in that process has been lost, outside of the bounds of children and youth ministry (where frankly it often seems to flounder).  
I alluded to this somewhat last week in a blog post.  I found this blog to also be interesting, though it stimulates more questions than it solves.  My work in the jail each week prompts me to examine closely my own struggles on the issue of how to integrate people who profess the faith but may have significant, public moral failures into the congregation.  What do we teach about forgiveness and grace, and what does that look like on Sunday morning?
There is a classic distinction in these two facets of our life in Christ.  The first is traditionally called justification – what is it that makes us right with God?  Being brought to faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, being brought to the point of acknowledging  and accepting Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnate Son of God whose death and resurrection provides forgiveness of sins and new life here and now as well as eternally – that’s all justification stuff.  Justification stuff is what saves us – and the only thing that saves us is faith in Jesus Christ.  
The issue of Christian community and who we sometime must ask to leave our midst is part of a different facet – although they are related to be sure.  This second facet is traditionally called sanctification – the ongoing, lifelong work of the Holy Spirit in leading us day by day, step by step, into a life that better emulates that of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We are all works in process, or as the bumper sticker says, “Be patient with me – God isn’t finished with me yet.”  
The quick assumption that I think many Christians make is that sanctification has some very strong baselines.  That you can’t truly profess faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior without almost simultaneously being convicted of whatever major elements of sin are in your life.  The assumption, I think, is that it is the recognition of these major sins in your life that prompts thanksgiving to Jesus Christ for forgiveness, is actually part of the cause of faith.  In other words, justification happens once sanctification is already started.  We place our faith in Jesus once we realize exactly how screwed up we are.  Under this assumption, justification should lead to a pretty immediate rejection of public, pervasive sin, whether that means ceasing to live with your boyfriend/girlfriend, terminating sexual relations if you aren’t married to that other person, rejecting your homosexual tendencies or practices, giving up your substance addictions, and any number of other hot button issues.  
I find this a problematic assumption.  
It could easily be that someone is brought to saving faith in Jesus Christ on a broad and rather vague understanding of their sinfulness, as opposed to an acute and specific awareness of particular habits and practices that are contrary to the will of God as revealed in the Bible.  That person could show up to church on Sunday morning because they know by cultural osmosis (though this is becoming less and less influential) that this is what believers in Jesus Christ generally do on Sunday mornings.  
They might choose to bring their same-sex partner with them.  They may be groggy from another hard Saturday night with their substance of choice.  They may be excited at this first step in a new life, yet completely unaware of exactly where this road calls them.  They might be completely shocked to learn that they are not welcome in a given congregation because of their relationship or behavior with the person they brought with them, or the person they’re going home to, or some other behavior that is unacceptable.  
It isn’t that what they’re doing is pleasing to God.  I want to be clear that sin remains sin – always.  But it’s possible that someone doesn’t realize that something is sin, or doesn’t realize just how seriously their new faith is going to require them to take their sinful condition.  By rejecting that person immediately because they haven’t come up to the assumed baseline required for worship, aren’t we doing a grave disservice to the people that most Christians acknowledge they’re supposed to be sharing the Gospel with?
If an inmate shows up at church on Sunday morning, shouldn’t they be welcomed with the rejoicing that the angels are said to give when one lost sheep is brought home?  If a homosexual couple or a couple living together without being married show up at church, isn’t this an opportunity to celebrate?  That these people will hear the Gospel proclaimed to them, and, (if they come to a good Lutheran church) be given the law as well that reveals and convicts and shatters so that the Gospel can begin rebuilding on a firm foundation?
This involves a fundamentally altered understanding of Christian community, from a place where everyone is expected to fully adhere to some basic guidelines, to a place where people come to learn what those guidelines are and learn to adhere to them.  Christian community moves from being a finished product to a work in process – always.  While most any Christian will assert that this is really true already (and they are right to acknowledge this!), more often in practice we act like a finished product that newcomers have to blend harmoniously and completely with in order to be accepted.  Christian community is assumed too often to be neat and tidy, rather than messy.
It is the responsibility of the Christian community not to redefine sinfulness soas to accommodate every belief and behavior, but to pray with and worship with that person who has been justified through faith in Jesus Christ, so that the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit might proceed.  What determines whether someone is welcome in Christian community is not specifically their behaviors, but rather their attitude and heart towards those behaviors.  I’ve worked with people living with their girl/boy friend, and my goal has always been that they understand that what they’re doing is problematic, and that they commit themselves to making necessary changes.  That’s something that can take
some time.  Not an indefinitely long time, but time.  I want to see them taking their faith seriously enough that they are actively seeking to live the way God calls them to.  
However at some point, if the person refuses to acknowledge a behavior as sinful despite the teaching of the Bible and that congregation, then there will need to be a discussion where that person is confronted again (in love, but firmly), presented with the Biblical and church teachings on the issue, and asked to repent and begin changing their behavior (with the help of that congregation!).  At that point if the person continues to refuse to acknowledge their guilt, then the person has essentially removed themselves from that community of faith by rejecting the teaching of that community.  The only thing that can be done at that point is to call a spade a spade, rather than trying to cover it up and pretend that it’s something it isn’t.  If a person has rejected the teachings of Scripture and the congregation, they have placed themselves deliberately at odds with that congregation.  Then we get to 1 Corinthians 5 stuff.
1 Corinthians 5 assumes:
  • the presence of sinful people in the church
  • an engagement with people regarding the nature of sin and the need to repent of it
  • a refusal of a given person to acknowledge their sin and repent of it
  • the necessity of the community of faith to be honest and forthright about this serious difference of belief
It doesn’t (as near as I can tell) provide a litmus test for who we welcome into our community.  It highlights one possibly necessary course of action once someone who has joined the community of faith by profession of faith.  The purpose of this course of action is two-fold – to avoid confusion in the community of faith in regards to what is proper behavior (thereby potentially leading others to begin or continue sinning), and to speak as clearly as possible to the person in question regarding the gravity of their sinful choices.  The goal is always the reincorporation of that person into the fellowship of the Christian community, not the avoidance of the difficult work of discipling and praying and being bound together in true Christian community.  And I have to believe that this process of handling these potentially challenging situations is beneficial not just for the individuals, but for the community as a whole.

Don’t Know Much About History?

May 16, 2012

Then this little video might be a big help.

It’s a time lapse summary of the border changes in Europe from 1000 AD to 2003.  Kind of cool if you’re bored.  The link above is to a slowed down version that indicates what year (upper left hand corner) and provides brief comments about major events (bottom left hand corner).