Archive for the ‘Vocation’ Category

Book Review: Just Open the Door

June 11, 2018

Just Open the Door: How One Invitation Can Change a Generation

by Jen Schmidt

This is another entry in my unofficial doctorate program.  Amazon suggested it to me when I bought three other books on the topic of Christian hospitality.  I should have looked a bit closer and perhaps I might not have purchased it.  It isn’t that the book isn’t helpful to some degree, but it’s very much written for women (the author says so!).  So I had to deal with a writing style that, while very good, was not always easy for me to listen to.

That being said, the book is helpful in and of itself.  She provides a lot of encouragement along the lines of you can do this sort of stuff.  And she provides lots of personal stories and experiences to highlight what she means.  At times, this can make it sound like bragging, though I am pretty sure that isn’t her intent.  The difficulty is that hospitality is going to look slightly different based on who is practicing it.  Sometimes stories are relevant and help me envision what I could be doing.  Other times they are not, and then have the capacity to take on a lecturing tone.  As with many things, you have to figure out how to discern what is practical given your personal gifts and situation, and let the other stuff go, at least for now.  She has some practical tips in the chapter Who Are My Neighbors on how to be intentional in getting to know your immediate neighbors.

At times her suggestions seem a bit naive or unhelpful, most noticeably in dealing with the cost that hospitality can rack up.  This chapter (The Elephant in the Room) could have been an excellent place to talk about the role of Christian church community in facilitating and extending hospitality through those in its midst who are so gifted.  But that wasn’t really talked about at all.  What resulted was basically a trust-God-to-get-you-through combined with a isn’t-this-more-important-than-money mantra.  Both these things are true, but in a book dealing with community and hospitality, it seems reasonable  to point out that you don’t have to do it on your own all the time, and that creating a network of others who help out – either with hands or donations – not only makes being hospitable easier, it involves the larger Christian community in the effort.

If you’re a fan of chick-oriented writing, this is probably a pleasant, light read for you to help stimulate some thinking in terms of how to be more intentionally hospitable to others.  Schmidt is a successful (or at least persistent?) blogger and undoubtedly has a notable following there as well.  She does a good job of introducing the topic, offering encouragement along with some practical tips, and shares a lot of personal stories along the way.

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Book Review: The Simplest Way to Change the World

June 4, 2018

The Simplest Way to Change the World: Biblical Hospitality as a Way of Life

By Dustin Willis & Brandon Clements

I have to admit I’m rather surprised.  I had expected the last book I read to be the gem and figured this would be a pretty light and fluffy follow-up.  The previous book was much more theoretical and academic, but not nearly enough so – if that makes any sense.  It wasn’t a practical hands-on guide, but neither was it a very meaty academic or theological treatment of the issue of hospitality.  This book is very much a hands-on book.  Light on theory and theology and heavy on practicality, and for that reason it’s a very helpful book.

The light language style is not my favorite, and I find it confusing how they switch back and forth between themselves, both writing in the first person and identifying changes in voice with their names in parentheses.  But since I don’t know either of them, it was easy enough to just morph them into essentially a single voice.  While I’m sure  this is a disappointment to them, it really doesn’t alter the effectiveness of the book much.

Whereas the last book was practically devoid of personal accounts of hospitality, this one utilized them far more often which made it both more real to read and more helpful.  Clearly the intent of the authors is to not just encourage but actually help equip people (Christians) to be more hospitable.  Towards  this end they provide a plethora of practical tips from the mundane to the more creative.  Clearly the key is making connections with people intentionally and then allowing the Holy Spirit  to guide and lead those connections into relationships where the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be shared.

I only have two real criticisms.  The first is that they utilize early on the metaphor of a weapon.  The hospitable Christian household is a weapon for the Gospel.  This really seems like a counter-intuitive metaphor.  If we want people to feel safe and valued in their relationships with us and their time in our homes, the metaphor of a weapon seems out of place.  I know, I know – it’s likely picking up on themes of spiritual warfare and things like that.  All well and good (though fleshing out the theology of choosing such a metaphor would have at least been more helpful!).  The Holy Spirit is undoubtedly waging spiritual warfare as I host someone for dinner or invite them to live in our home with us for a few weeks.  But it isn’t helpful to me to have that metaphor in the back of my mind.  My job is to love this person to the best of my ability and trust the Holy Spirit will utilize my home and family, both in terms of our words and interactions, to lead that person to Christ.

My second criticism is that their chapter How Do You Get to the Gospel? takes a fairly typical evangelical approach towards sharing the Gospel.  And while there’s nothing wrong with that, and we pray that it will be something we have the chance to do, it’s good to remind hospitality beginners that the act of opening your home and lives is a powerful witness to the Holy Spirit within you.  In other words, in being counter-cultural in this respect, people are automatically going to be wondering and looking for why you are the way you are and why you do what you do.  This will provide inroads for sharing the Gospel later on more naturally.  Don’t be afraid to just be with people.  It may not be that you’re supposed to share the Gospel with them the first few weeks or months you know them, or the first few times they are in your home.  But the fact that they keep coming back is a reminder that in loving them you are laying groundwork for more specific and explicit sharing of the Gospel later on.  Or, you may be making that person more receptive to someone else the Holy Spirit intends to use to share the Gospel with them.  You are  not to take upon yourself the burden of assuming you are the only person God can and will use in this person’s life!  Don’t, on the flip side, assume that you aren’t going to be used that way!  Remain open to it and responsive when opportunities arise.  But don’t take on more of a burden than you were intended to.  Remember who is in charge (Hint: It isn’t you.).

This would make for a great small group study resource, and I may use it that way in the future.  Figuring out how to talk more about Christian hospitality is a good thing, and this is a good resource if you’re interested in that or already doing it and wanting to give others some ideas about how they could get involved also.

Book Review: Making Room

June 1, 2018

Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine D. Pohl.

I chose to start my unofficial doctoral research on Christian hospitality with this book thinking that it would provide a good theological base for further reading.  After all, it has a cool mosaic on the front cover.  How much more legit can a book get, right?  Doesn’t it just ooze geeky wonder?

hospitality.jpg

 

Unfortunately, the cover was one of the better parts of this book.  There are several issues that I found pervasively problematic.

First of all, the author writes in a very general way.  She doesn’t provide many specific examples for the things she’s talking about.  This leads to both repetition as well as vagueness.  For instance, she mentions in several places through the book (repetitive) that because hospitality is draining both in terms of material resources as well as emotional and physical energy, it is crucial to establish healthy and fixed patterns of personal renewal – opportunities to recharge the batteries, so to speak.

All well and good and true and duly noted.  What would have been helpful would have been some specific examples of how specific hospitality-oriented groups accomplish this.  What does it look like?  She was in contact with a variety of hospitality groups (another, future part of my unofficial doctorate program) but doesn’t cite any tangible examples of how they replenish themselves.

Secondly, while she wants to extol hospitality and encourage others to engage in it, the only two personal situations  she briefly mentions both demonstrate her unwillingness to do so herself.  In particular, she wants to extol the virtue of providing hospitality to marginalized individuals – the poor, the ill, the homeless, etc.  But she is quick to say this isn’t something that she’s personally comfortable with.  I can understand this, for certain, but it undermines her credibility even while it does offer a very brief breath of personality and authenticity into an otherwise flat book.

Thirdly, she treats hospitality in the academic terms of our day.  Hospitality for her seems mostly about dealing with marginalized groups and not just being kind to the people in our lives.  There is certainly a place for hospitality to marginalized people and there needs be more groups to do so.  But at  least from a Biblical standing, this is much different than simply being available to the people who happen to cross your path, a la Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18.  The author turns hospitality into an act with a political or social agenda which, while definitely part of the historic Christian practice of hospitality, is certainly not the exclusive focus of such hospitality.  If the author wants to encourage individuals to consider opening their homes to people, burdening them with a social and political agenda seems onerous and unnecessary.  Certain institutions that deal with these issues on a larger scale might consider the larger political and social implications, but the individual host may not need to.

Finally, the author thwarts her own purposes in encouraging hospitality by constantly stating the dangers and problems with it.  Certainly, they exist and need to be treated, but it seemed that on almost every page was a caveat every bit as powerful as the exhortation to hospitality preceding it.  Frankly, the caveats eclipsed the exhortations for me.  I can’t handle being hospitable if I’m constantly worried about whether I’m disempowering or otherwise marginalizing further the person that I’m hosting.  Hospitality is an openness of self to others.  There undoubtedly can be offense given in such an openness, but barring a devious or otherwise manipulative host, this is more an issue with the recipient than the host, and frankly a larger commentary on how our fractious insistence on personal rights turns even acts of kindness into opportunities for suspicion and inferring ill-intentions.

The book has a good bibliography that I  will use as a launch point for  further reading.  The author also includes a short list of hospitality oriented organizations or groups at the end of the book that will also be helpful for further research.

Perhaps this book is better suited to people considering a somewhat institutionalized for of hospitality.  I would have very much enjoyed hearing more of the author’s personal experiences in providing hospitality even in such a setting.  However most of the time the politicized language in this book was more off-putting than helpful.

 

Shepherds & Sheep

May 25, 2018

Jesus picks up on the Biblical metaphor of shepherds and sheep for the leaders of God’s people and God’s people.  It’s a rich metaphor for its time, but one that struggles I think to be understood clearly in a modern, non-agrarian context.  I think the struggle is there for both pastors/shepherds and parishioners/sheep.

But at the heart of this metaphor is the idea that shepherds and sheep are not the same in some important regards.  Like any metaphor it breaks down at one level or another, because shepherds are also sheep.  But they aren’t supposed to sheep alongside their parishioners.  Somehow, without ever forgetting their own sheep-ness, shepherds are called to remain separate and distinct.

Of course this is difficult and can be done badly.  Some shepherds interpret this as license to impose their will on the sheep, and that can lead to bad situations and lost or damaged sheep.  Modern sheep, who are far less likely to identify with this metaphor, may object to the idea of a shepherd who exercises real and actual authority that is different and distinct from all other forms of authority they encounter.  This is not the voice of the policeman or the judge or the supervisor at work.  This is the voice – hopefully – of Christ, guiding and leading and watching over the sheep.  I tend to think that sheep in Jesus’ day had just as much difficulty accepting that this is the shepherd’s job as modern sheep do.  I imagine just as much offense was taken back then as is apt to be today.  But perhaps not.

The fact that shepherds and their flock spend a lot of time together can lead a shepherd to forgetting that he’s a shepherd, and thus may begin to think of himself as just another one of the sheep.  The sheep that preaches, but no more than this.  And as a sheep the shepherd wants to get along and be liked by the other sheep, and so the concerns of the sheep gradually become the concerns of the shepherd, and it is easy to just go about the days and years nibbling on the grass with the other sheep, basking happily in the good graces of a loving Father who provides so richly for us.

Shepherds, unlike most sheep, should spend some of their time in the company of other shepherds.  Trading stories and information.  Sometimes the stories are humorous at the expense of the sheep, but in my experience sheep have a few favorite humorous stories they like to tell each other about their shepherds as well.  But mostly the shepherds should be talking about what they see.  A pack of wolves that has moved into a certain area and will require diligence for.  Rockslides that have rendered certain passes now inaccessible.  Predictions of harsh weather that could harm the sheep as well as the shepherds.  Hopefully shepherds are spending time with other shepherds – some older and wiser and some younger and less experienced – so that all benefit from the shared wisdom and perspective.

Because the concerns of the sheep and the shepherd are two different things.  The sheep are concerned with eating.  Mating.  Caring for their young.  The shepherd is there to lead and guide and protect.  To be scanning the horizon rather than grazing on the grass and seeing nothing more than the few inches in front of his face.  The shepherd should know that there are predators about, eager for an easy lunch.  He has to be on watch and on guard against these threats to the sheep, as the sheep may not see or recognize them.  The shepherd is to watch for the sheep that wanders off and risks getting themselves into trouble.  This can be exasperating work as some  sheep naturally prefer to be off on their own, left to their own devices, and are not terribly thrilled about the shepherd’s visit or staff that seeks to draw them back in to the flock.  And the shepherd also needs to watch the pasture, to ensure that the sheep are not grazing it too completely and thoroughly, so that the grass won’t grow back in a few weeks or next season.  His job is to move the flock along as necessary to ensure health and safety in the long term as well as the short term.

Again, this is sometimes difficult work.  Sheep by nature tend towards inertia, staying where they are and nibbling in a small area.  Why quit nibbling the grass here that has been so delicious and nutritious for so  long?  Why push us to stretch our muscles and walk and climb?  What if the next pasture isn’t as good as this one?  Why can’t we just stay here?

The shepherd can’t explain himself to the sheep.  He simply calls.  Seeks to prod as necessary.  And because shepherds (unless he is The Good Shepherd) are by nature of limited capacity, when sheep set their minds to bolt and stray, sometimes there’s nothing that can be done about it without endangering the entire flock.  If there is time and ability the shepherd  can and should pursue, but some sheep are going to get away, and the shepherd can only hope and pray that they will find their way safely back to the flock, or perhaps to another shepherd.

At times it is necessary for the shepherd to say and do things that the sheep don’t understand or appreciate.  There are of course times when this is a genuinely bad course of action by a misguided or even malicious shepherd.  But most of the time, it should be the necessary calling and prodding and reigning in of the sheep for their own good, as well as for the good of the pasture and the area as a whole.  That’s the job of the shepherd, to the best of his ability.  When the shepherd and sheep can work together, that’s the best possible situation, as the sheep need a shepherd and the shepherd needs sheep.

Gotchu, Dude

May 24, 2018

The story of the man suing to stay in his parents’ home at 30 years of age, with apparently no job and no skills and no motivation, has gotten a lot of ink.  The sad thing to me is that this is undoubtedly the tip of a very big iceberg.  I’m willing to bet there are plenty more 30-somethings living at home without much prospect of independence.  While some of those are undoubtedly due to tragic circumstances and are hopefully only temporary, I’m betting there are far more very similar to this case, with the exception that the relationship hasn’t frayed to the point of going to court.

The latest wrinkle in the story is that he’s been offered a job by a chain that is sympathetic to millennials and also understands a marketing opportunity when they see one.  They’re offering a signing bonus $1 higher than the offer of financial assistance from his own parents to leave.  They understand that “it’s tough out there….we gotchu, dude.”  Frankly, beyond the marketing opportunity,  I can’t imagine any company in their right minds offering this guy a job.  But I don’t anticipate he’ll take it, and if he does, after the media blitz dies down I’m sure he won’t be working there long.

I could (and do) imagine how things turned out this way.  My assumption is that he hasn’t been working for a long time.  Perhaps never.  His parents maybe supported him through his undergraduate studies and then he graduated but never moved into the workforce.  Maybe he didn’t major in a marketable area.  Maybe he just didn’t know what to do once he was out of the care of school systems of one sort or another.  Decisions were undoubtedly made all along the way by both sides that neither side thought would end up this way, but just happened to.  It’s unfortunate for all concerned.  I wonder if different choices earlier in his life might have avoided this situation.  But that’s easy and cheap speculation on somebody elses’ dime, when I have my own skin in the game, so to speak.

This weekend my oldest child turns 16.  One of the things we’ve talked about is the need for him to get a job.  He’s fine with this, excited by this even.  But I find myself struggling.  I started working literally at 15 and a half.  As early as I could in Arizona in the the ancient past.  A few hours a week bagging groceries.  I enjoyed it, by and large.  I’ve had a lot of different jobs since then, but I’ve only been completely unemployed for a period of about two months in late 1999 as the dot-com bust was churning up.  Even then, I was technically working – driving cabs on a lark as fuel for potential writing projects.  But since I didn’t really make any money, I don’t consider that gig to be working.

So it isn’t that I don’t want my boy to get a job.  That’s not what I’m struggling with.  But I’m struggling perhaps with what this other guy’s parents struggled with when he was 16, and what many other parents seem to struggle with around me.  Wanting to give their children good things, good experiences, good preparation for life, but taking gainful employment out of that equation.  I begin to understand some of the economics and decision-making that might produce an unemployable 30-year old who won’t leave home.   My son doesn’t *have* to get a job.  The income isn’t necessary to contribute towards family expenses.  If he wants to drive, he must get a job.  But that’s not too big a priority for him at this point.  And there are other things he’s prepared to do this summer – a junior lifeguard program for three weeks in late July that is fantastic. A possible conference here in town in August on politics and culture.

They’re good things.  Not just resume builders but person-builders.  Providing him with experiences and opportunities to broaden his scope physically and intellectually.  What parent wouldn’t want those things for their cchild?  And I want him to be able to do those things.  But I also know he needs a job.  Not for the money, but for the person-building as well.  He has several friends who are roughly his age or a year or so older.  Jobs aren’t on the horizon for  them.  They’re busy doing other things to prepare for college and other stuff.  Some of them have big ambitions for the future, and their parents have big ambitions for them for the future.  It’s an exciting time.

But I can’t help but  feel that part of those ambitions are best aimed for through getting a crappy part-time job.  Even if it’s just for the summer.  I learned a lot through working.  I’m sure my parents would have preferred me to learn these things earlier and from them, but sometimes we hear best from those a little more distanced from us.  I learned responsibility for my actions.  I learned accountability for my choices and performance.  I learned to make sure I could get myself where I needed to be on time.  I learned how to deal with different sorts of people.  Not all of them raised the way I was, not all of them living the way I felt it was right to live.  Not all of them with the same kinds of aspirations I had.  But different people.  Some funnier and smarter and some less so.  Some harder workers than myself and others less so.  But I had to figure out how to deal with them.

I also had to learn how to stand my ground, to act on the principles I had been brought up with at home and heard in church all my life.  Was I going to stick with those or adopt the looser terms of the wider world of Burger King or Revco?  I met plenty of people who were making different choices, and seemed to be enjoying life a lot more than I was.  Part of working is shaping yourself, hardening yourself after being molded and shaped by others.  In the fires of temptation and opportunity, would that molding hold or shift?

I suppose I learned some rudimentary money management, although the much older me would rather that the much younger me had saved more.  But that’s the privilege of the much older, we always want to ride on the energy of our younger selves.  I had fun.  I was responsible.  I put myself through college.  I tithed.  Skills I still carry to this day, just as, to this day, I probably don’t save as much as an older me will wish I had.  C’est la vie.

I have to overcome the desire to see my son doing fun stuff in order to ensure that he does necessary stuff.  That he learns some of the things I learned, chief of which is that you must work to eat and that you don’t always enjoy what you do which is a good incentive to figure out a way to do something that you do enjoy.  I don’t really care what kind of job he gets, but I think it’s important for a 16-year old to have the experience of earning a paycheck and getting to figure out what to do with it, and establishing practices and principles that will hopefully last a lifetime and for the basis for how he works with his children.  I want him to be able to do these other things as well, and I hope he can.  But when push comes to shove, I hope I’m strong enough to push him towards work first.

I’m grateful my parents wanted me to work and showed me ample examples of what that looked like.  I’m grateful I needed to work.  Now I have to make sure that my son starts working even if he doesn’t really need to just yet.  Because someday he will, or he might end up in the national news.

He’s certainly not living at home for the rest of his life!  I gotchu, dude.

Original Hospitality

May 22, 2018

As I’ve noted several times over the past few months, it’s been a challenging year.  It continues to be challenging, but either I’m getting used to that or they’re becoming easier to deal with.  Much is still yet unknown, but then that’s life for you.

One of the outcomes of these five months is  a very good reconnecting with my wife about the visions we once held for ministry and life together.  Visions that have never gone away completely, but in the starting and raising of a family and vocational changes and moving hither and yon across the country are easy to put on the back burner.  Visions that we have lived out in some ways all along, but that are larger than what we’ve been able to do so far.

Those visions center around a singular aspect of the Christian life, one that I argue is easily the most overlooked and neglected, and that is the gift/discipline/tradition of hospitality.  I still remember one of  my seminary professors, while explicating 1 Timothy 3:1-7 explained the requirement of being hospitable to mean basically being open and friendly.  While friendliness is certainly helpful in being hospitable, it showed me just how little – or how little valued – this aspect of Christian faith has become in our culture.

So I’m beginning some theological reading on the topic.  My wife beat me to the punch in starting the book I’m most curious about, Rosaria Butterfield’s The Gospel Comes with a House Key.  We were both very impressed with her earlier book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.  This book demonstrated the powerful role Christian hospitality can have.

So while she reads, I’m working on Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine D. Pohl.  So far I’m not overly impressed with her treatment of Biblical or early Christian sources on the topic, but I’ll wait till the end of the book for a final review.  She comes at it from the idea of hospitality having to do with providing for the needs of the less fortunate, ie. the poor, refugees, etc.  I dislike the way this frames hospitality in terms of the haves and the have nots.  Certainly in Butterfield’s case, she would not have considered herself marginalized or needy in any way when she accepted a pastor’s hospitality.  I don’t plan on coming at hospitality from Pohl’s angle (at least as I understand or see her angle thus far), but of course it is one aspect or facet of hospitality.

The Biblical text that gets the ball rolling in terms of hospitality for many scholars is Abraham’s hospitality to three strangers in Genesis 18.  But it strikes me that really, hospitality begins literally at the beginning in Genesis 1 & 2.  In creating the universe and humankind, God instantiates the first instance of hospitality known to us.  He provides us with food and lodging in terms of creation itself, with himself as the host and Adam and Eve as the honored and beloved guests.  The entire parameter of existence in the Biblical tradition is one in which we extend hospitality to others because of this primal hospitality that we exist in, as well as the later formulations and witnesses to God’s graciousness in human history.

We can see an instance of hospitality gone awry in Genesis 3, as Eve extends to Adam what ought to be the hospitable gift of food, but which instead is the essence of disobedience.  Eve as host here, and Adam in his willing complicity to disobedience, demonstrate failed hospitality as they seek to mimic God’s hospitality to them, as well as the primal example of the bad and ungracious guest who seeks to take advantage of the host’s generosity and openness.

How do we model hospitality in a culture where it is no longer valued other than as a means for demonstrating one’s abilities or material wealth, or as a means of providing for the needy?  How do we not only model hospitality but teach it to others as a means of creating relationships wherein the Gospel can be shared and the Holy Spirit at work?  How do we engage in hospitality as a means of honoring the command to love our neighbor as ourselves?  How  do we learn to love and honor others even if they don’t think or act like us?

These are all themes that my family has been working with in various ways ever since my wife and I got married.  Some episodes were more memorable than others, but I can honestly say that this is one area we’ve been dealing with consistently all our lives together.  It’s the area we want to continue dealing with for however long God grants us together.  And it’s the area we want to continue to draw others into for experience, discussion, and the celebration of God’s great hospitality to all of us.  I look forward to seeing what that will look like!

Leading Change

May 10, 2018

I’m not a big proponent of change.  I’ll be the first to admit it these days, something that is hard after considering myself an outsider and out-of-the-box-thinker earlier in my life.  Part of working in an institution of any kind is that you become part of it, and to one extent or another it becomes a part  of you, so that change becomes increasingly difficult to envision or push for the longer you’re part of the institution.  Probably why successful change-makers tend to be folks (at least in my conception of them) who come in quickly, make changes quickly, and probably leave again just as quickly.  There’s no chance for attachment to processes or people, because attachment makes change harder.

But I also like to consider myself a realist, which means that there are times when change is inevitable, and it’s only a matter of how you approach it.  Are you proactive and engaged and involved when change is something you have the ability to influence or direct?  Or are you bitter and angry when change is beyond your control and you’re merely forced to react to the realities you never thought were going to become real?  To me there’s a world of difference in those two positions, and part of the difference lies in whether or not you’ll be able to weather the change and continue on in a different form, or whether the change kills you, the institution, or both.

My institution is a historic denominational congregation that is part of a historic denominational polity that sees itself very much in the same stream of Christian worshipers and churches going all the way back to the Apostles.  Which means change is hard.  In part because the attachment is pretty darn huge, and in part because change has to be weighed and measured against a very long history of Christian belief and practice.  Change is not done in a vacuum (ideally), but rather is contextualized and shaped by everything that has come before whether static or dynamic.

It also means that my congregation (as well as myself to a lesser extent) are used to congregational life looking a certain way.  Worship on Sunday mornings.  Maybe even Bible study or Sunday School on Sunday mornings.  Maybe an additional service the same day or through the week.  Programs for the various demographics of the congregation.  A great deal of activity focused and centered not only on the life of the church but at the physical church itself.  So for over a century, my congregation has conceived of itself as a people of a place.  Four different places over the last century, but places all the same.  The only reason one place was let go of was to expand to a larger place that would better accommodate the needs of the congregation.  By American standards, that’s a good change.  Bigger and better is always good – often physically but other times just in terms of capacity.  But there was always a place because you needed a place for all those people to do all the things that they wanted to do or the church wanted them to do.

As Americans we equate places – ownership of places – with a lot of things.  Respectability.  Legitimacy.  Permanency.  In a country where people can come from a lot of different places and say and claim a lot of different things, traditionally the ownership of a building has distinguished (perhaps psychologically if not overtly) the real McCoys from charlatans; community members from passers-through.  And also as Americans, the bigger the place, the better or more legitimate.  You weren’t just hanging on, you had arrived.  You were established.  You only left your place for something bigger and better.  Choosing to leave for another reason was suspect, rare, and by-and-large unnecessary.

Is that still the case?  In the business world it isn’t.  Brick and mortar shops are closing all over the place.  Venerable chains like Sears or Montgomery Ward struggle to stay alive or don’t exist at all any more.  Shopping malls that were the social and commercial hub for communities and teen-agers now sit derelict and empty.  People found a new way to get what they wanted.  Or their needs have changed.  The commercial landscape is littered with the derelict remains of the behemoths of a bygone age.

In Europe we see the same thing with the cathedrals.  A few dozen people at most gather for worship in this monumental artistic accomplishments.  The congregations can’t care for them any more because there are too few members and therefore not enough money being tithed.  The Catholic Church struggles to maintain them as well.  Alternate uses are being sought for some of these properties.  More than just a new delivery system has brought about this change.  More and more people are saying they don’t need God, or they don’t need the Church.  Some find new religions or philosophies.  Many drift into apathy.

We’re seeing the same thing here in the US.  Despite a majority of Americans claiming to believe in God, fewer and fewer of them are showing up at church on Sunday morning.  The beatniks and hippies of the 50’s and 60’s have given rise to multiple generations that are even less churched and less familiar with the Bible even as a cultural phenomenon.  Congregations worry about how to let people know they’re there.  They build new signs or new buildings to attract people.  But it isn’t a matter of not knowing where churches are – Google can provide that information in a heartbeat.  The problem is that fewer and fewer people care.  The idea of Sunday worship seems anachronistic to many folks in a digital age.  Efforts to become more attractive by changing how we worship have by and large failed to result in any resurgence of interest in all but a few places.

How do you respond in this kind of a ‘market shift’?  You  find a way to adapt or you go out of business.  Just like Sears or JC Penny’s.  If people are shopping in an entirely new way you can’t simply hope that better advertising will win them back over to driving to your store.  You can talk about how it used to be, once upon a time.  You can hope to draw them back in with lower prices or sales or other events, but after some period of time you have to realize this isn’t working.  You have to find a better or different way to connect with your customers in ways and places that are relevant to them.  Or you declare bankruptcy and auction off your assets.

There are good ways to adapt and bad.  There are half-hearted changes and real changes.  There are faithful changes and unfaithful changes.  There’s a danger in change that you lose who you are, that you sacrifice or erase or muddle your uniqueness, the quintessential aspects of yourself.  But there are ways to bring who you are out in new ways, in new contexts.  To introduce yourself or what you represent to people in a different setting where they’re better able to receive it and appreciate it.

But those changes are hard, as the business world will attest to.  Just because you have a good product doesn’t mean that your model for  delivering it will be sustainable.  Brand loyalty is hard to measure when there are myriads of brands from all over the world instantly accessible through Amazon or Google.  And like many businesses, it seems many congregations can’t make that fundamental shift from what was and is to something different.  It’s not a fault, per se.  We aren’t naturally equipped for these sorts of decisions.  And many – perhaps most – congregations don’t.  They slip gradually in membership until there are too few left to keep things going.  Bitter and angry or perhaps relieved, they hand the keys over to someone else, or sell the assets off and distribute legacy gifts to others who are still operational.  These are good ways of blessing others, but most people in my experience would rather figure out a way not to have to give away these kinds of blessings.

Sometimes change is inevitable.  In which case you better really give some serious thought to what that might mean or deal with the likely results of insisting on keeping things the same.  There’s a world of difference between those two end-points.  God the Holy Spirit is alive and at work in both of them, to be sure.  But it’s a lot more exciting when a congregation is able to make a big change proactively rather than gradually react to a changing environment.  We sing the praises of those folks even as we acknowledge and marvel at what hard work or great faithfulness enabled such a switch.  Nobody wants to be in the other category.  We pray with them and for them and take solace in the comfort of our Lord and pray and resolve not to be in their shoes someday.

As long as it doesn’t require us to change.

Book Review – Being Dad

April 17, 2018

Being Dad:  Father as a Picture of God’s Grace by Scott Keith

I purchased this book on a whim a few weeks ago at a conference.  I’ve met Scott a few times and was interested to hear what he has to say.

This book is encouraging in several ways.  Firstly, it stands rather starkly against the mainstream insistence that mothers and fathers are interchangeable and optional.  For those who are used to this steady stream of nonsense, and have perhaps begun to buy into it, this book will be a cold splash of water to the face.  Unexpected and perhaps unpleasant initially, but I argue ultimately refreshing.

As such, it is encouraging to both fathers and mothers.  To mothers, because they have to (get to?  should?) be partnering with their spouse and father of their children, but may be perplexed or frustrated by differences in subconscious parenting styles.  To fathers it should be encouraging because it is also a challenge to the notion that dad’s ultimate authority derives only from his strength and ability to enforce the Law.  Rather, Scott argues, father is a role of Gospel rather than Law.  He utilizes (loosely) the Prodigal Son parable (Luke 15).  But the book is far less a theological treatise than both a paean to an influential mentor and a celebration of the joy of fatherhood.  Towards these ends Scott enlists perspectives and inputs from moms and dads who also happen to be colleagues and friends.

This wasn’t the book I was expecting, but I think perhaps it is a book that I needed.  Knowing Scott’s interest in catechesis and faith transmission, I’m hoping that this first book (second edition) will serve as a launching pad for more in-depth study and struggle to regain the dignity and value of fatherhood in the Church as well as the larger culture.

 

 

Don’t Get Cute

December 21, 2017

Someone – someone I’m not sure I even know – sent me a hard copy of this missive today.   What a great Christmas present.

Because of course pastors are stressed out about Christmas Eve service.  As my buddy notes, there is an added pressure to this service, perhaps more so than any other service the entire year.  Additional people present.  And not just extended family of current members, but others as well.  Perhaps estranged former members of the congregation.  People that had a falling out with a pastor some years ago – or perhaps with me! – might show up for some reason they can’t even define well themselves.  People injured by the Church in the past, stepping their toes back in the water after years or decades away.

To have the perfect message – witty, sparkling, engaging – could mean so much for these people and my congregation!  Old faces returning and new faces showing up on Sunday mornings.  Is there a better feeling as a pastor to be told that you’re the reason that someone has decided to return or come to church or the faith?  The monstrous pride that lurks within many preachers and pastors, sometimes masquerading as pious humility – that monster gorges itself on those sorts of comments.  It’s not that the comments are bad, or shouldn’t be shared.  It’s just that the sin within me wants to lead me down dangerous, dark roads of self-congratulatory ego-caressing.

But the perfect message isn’t mine, it’s God the Holy Spirit’s.  And while the Holy Spirit deigns to work through imperfect pastors that fall out in different places on a dizzyingly broad spectrum of speaking skills and writing mastery, the message that counts is the message of salvation in Jesus Christ.  The baby in the manger and the God on the cross.  I should care about delivery and about making it enjoyable for the people festively attired in the candlelit pews, but only towards the end that the Holy Spirit’s Word might penetrate the heart, might strike the lethal blow that leads to the death of the old Adam within us, and raises up a new creation in Jesus Christ.  I can’t do that, only the Holy Spirit can.

So I will endeavor, as I like to think I always do, not to be cute.  To make sure the full message is delivered, and that the results of that are to God’s glory not mine.  On Christmas Eve and during every other worship service of the year.

True Worship

December 20, 2017

Since this is the time of year when many Christians take up the familiar lamentation about how our culture is forgetting the real meaning of Christmas, I read this article the other day arguing that it isn’t secular cultural we should be mad at for being, well, secular.  Rather it’s Christians we should be mad at because they don’t prioritize Church for Christmas.

Which of course, got me thinking.

Growing up, our family tradition was to go to a late-night Christmas Eve worship.  Probably not technically midnight, but maybe 10pm or 11pm.  It was great as kids because we’d get to stay up late and sing some cool Advent and Christmas hymns.  Then we’d get a paper bag with some peanuts and an orange and a candy cane in it on our way out of church.  We had no idea why this combination of things was supposed to be in some way valued, but we’d at least eat the candy cane.

I serve a congregation with a tradition of worship on Christmas morning.  I don’t have any problem with this tradition and am happy to continue it and foster it.  But if I served a congregation who didn’t have a tradition of meeting for worship on Christmas morning, I wouldn’t be inclined to start one.

Some might say this just reveals my lazy, self-centered nature.  I’m guilty of what the article author blames as the demise of Christmas in Christian culture.  But my wife and I have intentionally set up ground rules to buying into (heheh – that’s a pun, get it?) the consumer mentality that does tend to overwhelm all other aspects of the Advent and Christmas season.  The author sets up an either or without an in between and without necessarily questioning the validity of the one pole while presuming the other pole is of course evil.

But here’s my radical thought.  You don’t need to go to church on Christmas morning in order to have a Christ-filled Christmas.  You may not have the technical Christ Mass which the author likes to emphasize, but this is, after all, not a Biblical mandate either.  It’s a tradition, to be sure, and a tradition that had great value perhaps in an age when persecution was rampant.  Perhaps as our culture becomes less Christian on the surface, Christians will once again see value in gathering communally to celebrate the birth of Christ.

I’d argue that while it’s fine to go to Church on Jesus’ birthday, if that’s how you define putting Christ back in Christmas, you’re woefully missing the point and settling for the very surface-level sort of lip service that the author tries to decry.  In other words, the Church should be in the business of teaching people how to celebrate the birth of Christ in their families.  Before church.  After church.  For the whole season of Advent and Christmas and Epiphany (gasp!).  Heck, every day of the year, every day of our lives.  If putting the Christ back in Christmas consists simply of attending the literal Christ’s Mass, we’re actually no better off.  And perhaps, this is actually the reason we’re at this point of apparent Christian decay in our culture.

There is no glory or benefit per se in Church in and of itself.  Yes, we are to continue gathering together as the faithful, to be certain (Hebrews 10:25).  But why do we do this?  Because there is intrinsic merit in this?  No.  But rather because of what Christian community can and should do.  It enables us to hear the Word of God – but this should be something we are doing in daily prayer and devotion.  We receive the gifts of God in his Sacrament, and to be sure this is something that traditionally only happens in Church as believers gather together.  Church should be equipping people to live out their faith in their daily lives, as parents, siblings, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, employees, employers, citizens, etc.  Church is supposed to help connect our faith to all the aspects of our life.

Simply equating church with having a Christ-filled Christmas is oversimplification.  And I could conceivably see myself saying to people wondering whether or not they should start a Christmas Day service – No problem, as long as you’re going to sing or listen to the Christmas hymns at home as well.  As long as you’re going to pray together at home as well to give thanks to God for sending his Son into the world.  As long as you’re going to read the Christmas story to your kids and talk about what it means to you so they can learn what a life of faith looks and sounds like by watching and listening to you.  So long as you’re not going to spend the rest of the day focused only on football or food or drinks or whatever other good gifts and creations of God may really fire you up.

In other words, Sure, let’s gather together to praise God for sending his Son, so long as you don’t think you’ve fulfilled your ‘Christian duty’ in this act alone, and the rest of the day is yours to spend without a second thought for God.  Sure, let’s celebrate together, as long as you’re celebrating with your family at home as well.  Because Church is NOT supposed to be a substitute for that most primal and critical congregation of faith, the family.  The Church should strengthen that smaller congregation.  Equip it.  Minister to and with it.  But never set itself up as the replacement for it or to it.

Just like the family should never, under ideal circumstances, be the substitute for Church.  Just like those folks who insist on worshiping alone in their family or in front of their television instead of plunging themselves into the messy world of congregational relationships are in error.  Just like those who insist that they can worship alone better than they can worship with others are waving a massive red flag about something in their heart or past that the Holy Spirit should be working through to resolve, not reinforce.  Circumstances may dictate that Christians worship in hiding or only as families, but this is the exception to the rule.  The healthiest life of faith consists of a strong grounding at home reinforced with regular involvement in the larger community of faith, where forgiveness of sins, the Sacraments, and as necessary even private or – God-forbid, public – rebuke is possible for serious misunderstandings or misappropriations of the life of faith.

The author is dead on – Christians need to keep Christ at the center of Christmas as well as every day of their life.  The Church should help them do it.  But let’s not oversimplify things to the point where Church becomes the definition of a Christ-centered Christmas.  If you have the ability to gather with other Christians to celebrate Christ this Christmas, by all means do so!  Do it week after week, frankly.  Maybe even do it on Christmas Day at church!  But by all means, make sure that in your private life of faith, in your family life of faith you’re doing it as well.  Don’t assume that just going to Church puts Christ back at the center of Christmas for your heart or your family.  Don’t separate or confuse Church and everyday life.  Keep them both together and in proper relationship.

Thoughts?