“A Pandemic is a Terrible Thing to Waste”

I attribute my title to Pat Keifert, who has said this in my presence time and again the past few years. He could stop at “a pandemic is a terrible thing.” And it is. Think of all the ways it has disrupted our lives. I am particularly mindful of those who had family members die alone in hospitals, unable to receive visits from family members. But the toll goes far beyond death and illness. Businesses were destroyed and jobs lost. School children learned in isolation, separated from friends and teachers, and more susceptible to anxiety and depression. Our country’s already fragile compact was further strained over masks and vaccines. The pandemic is a terrible thing.

A terrible thing to waste? I know few congregations who aren’t reporting a decline in membership since the pandemic began. It is tempting to blame the pandemic for this state of affairs, but I think it’s less the case that the pandemic caused decline in our churches, and more revealed the fragility that already existed. The fact is, congregations of all persuasions were already leaking members before the pandemic hit. The losses were more gradual and less universal, disguising the fact that our churches face uncertain futures. What I think Pat is pointing to is that the pandemic pulled back the curtain on our pain, revealing the true state of congregations in North America. Faced with the truth of our situation, our options become clearer. We can live in denial and rush back to the familiar ways through which we were experiencing a slow but sure demise, or we could seek a new way of being and doing. We could shake off the lethargy of the “way we always do it,” and find new possibilities for a new future. Congregations that rush back to the way things were before, according to Pat, are wasting the opportunity presented by a pandemic, by a crisis.

Scott Hagley, in his book, Eat What is Set Before You, suggests that mission is always the product of crisis. This is perhaps a corollary to the oft cited line, “mission is the mother of theology.” The uncertainties of a given situation give rise to new ways of being and doing, which in turn give way to new ways of conceiving of God’s presence in the world. Hagley does a wonderful job of tracing biblical stories in which crisis and uncertainty led to new ways of being and doing, particularly his narration of the book of Acts. Crisis breeds mission to those open to what the Spirit of God might be up to. Hagley will be at our Fall conference, Streaming, Oct 6-8, to make the connections and implications clear. rochesteru.edu/streaming.

Were that the pandemic comprised our only crisis. Wars, refugees, racial tensions, democratic institutions at risk, climate changes and disasters, and mass shootings are but the beginning of the long list of crises that confront both our neighbors and ourselves. They are all terrible things. Are they terrible things that could lead to a new participation in the mission of God? We have no choice but to explore together the possibilities.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Mission in an Age of Crisis: Call the Midwife

In our graduate program, we are careful about the metaphors for leadership we use. I believe that definitions of power and authority, which are not bad words in and of themselves, may be the thing that distinguishes Christian life and practice from other ways of being in the world. And, in large measure, Christians not only fail to distinguish themselves in the regard, but represent the worst of abusive forms of power and authority. We do our best to challenge the “leader as hero” metaphor, with all of its iterations (leader as visionary, leader as strategic planner, leader as guru). There may be aspects of these perspectives that are a part of being a leader in the mission of God, but when they rise to the level of an organizing metaphor, they become problematic.

There are several reasons for this, the main one being that the Triune God is a living God, and is always calling communities into a new future in God’s mission. The Triune God, therefore, calls and leads the church, not the heroic pastor. And because God exists in community, our discernment of the call of God also comes in community. We have for years used the metaphor of ecologist to describe the work of the leader. The ecologist is concerned with healthy environments that produce certain kinds of life. The pastor as ecologist keeps the congregational environment healthy so that the Word, or call, of God can continue to be spoken and heard, and so that the mission of God can be discerned and joined.

I think ecologist is a good metaphor. It corresponds to the notion of a living God. But good leadership metaphors should also reflect the moment we are in. And we are doing ministry in an age of crisis and dislocation. Metaphors, in other words, should also mark the pain we experience in liminality where we don’t know if we’re dying or finding new life. Shawna Songer Gaines is teaching me that “midwife” might be just the right metaphor. Her DMin thesis explored the work of actual midwives and pastors, bringing them together for conversation and reflection. What she learned will be what she presents at this year’s Streaming conference. rochesteru.edu/streaming.

In the opening of her thesis, she makes a very interesting observation. She was taught in seminary that the pastor “was the shepherd of the congregational flock. My role was to guide the sheep in and out of the pen, lead them into green pastures and beside still waters, and to protect them from the wolves and robbers.” Sounds familiar and right. But then she adds, “This metaphor seems to work in a church where congregations are full, pastors have a clear sense of where they are headed, pain is avoidable, and our innocence–like sheep–is unquestioned in the society at large.” She has set us up for a big turn. “But we find ourselves in a very different social moment.” We do indeed, one of pain and loss. For Songer Gaines, the metaphor of midwife is apt for a moment like this. It recognizes the pain we are in, but also suggests that the pain might be leading to the birth of something new. Our pain might be the necessary prerequisite for the new thing to be born. The difference between death and new life might be the capacity of the pastor to function as a midwife.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

Giving up Snark for Lent

I’m not good at Lent. I have no great Lent advice and I always have a hard time thinking of something to give up. This is not because I lack possibilities, but because I have too many. Where do I start in becoming a better person? Those of you who know me likely have several very specific suggestions.

But this year, I’ve decided to give up snark as a way of making room for gratitude and generosity of spirit. I’m aware that the previous sentences run along the boundary of snarkiness. I know how much of my sense of self is tied to being clever. Public cleverness, with an edge, is a way to show others how smart I am. “Look at me, don’t I have a way of turning a phrase, of making you admire me?” I think at times snarkiness says, “I’m smarter than most of you.” Whether or not that’s it’s intention, that’s the way snark often functions rhetorically. It can be a form of self-promotion. And it’s often offered at someone else’s expense, the dumb ones, the ones that don’t get, the ones that don’t have a clue. In its worst forms, it promotes the self and diminishes the other.

Look, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. It’s not what I think I’m doing in the moment, but it’s often the practical effect. So, this year, I’m thinking of Lent as an opportunity to emphasize a more generous way of being with others. I easily slide into cynicism, into assigning less than the best motives to others. When it becomes pronounced in my life, I feel it like an illness.

The path to getting better, I think, is twofold. First, just practicing gratitude is a path to healing. Expressing gratitude, I once heard Randy Harris say, is the chief Christian virtue. It opens the heart to the world. It replaces complaining with appreciation. It helps me see my life as something given to me, a gift, and not something I have constructed out of my own ingenuity. This is a perspective I lose from time-to-time, and suggests that gratitude is not an attitude as much as it is a practice.

Second, I’ve come to think of generosity of spirit as a way to love those who are difficult for me to love. By love, I don’t mean have affection for, but to the extent that I can, to do what’s best for them. I need frequent reminders that people don’t wake up each day thinking, “Who can I screw over today? How can I make Mark’s life difficult today?” We’re pushed to assholeness by a variety of factors. There are evil, malicious people in the world, but most of us are just a bundle of contradictions who find ourselves playing roles that if given the chance would do something different. It’s just good to remember that. Again, this is a practice more than it is maintaining an attitude. I find Jesus’s advice on loving enemies in Luke a good way to practice generosity of spirit. Do something good for others. Be kind. Bless them. Pray for them. These are ways perhaps to embody Paul’s advice in Romans 12 to associate with lowly, not to think of yourself better than you should, but rather to consider others better than yourself.

This is hard work. It’s not in my spirit to do these things. It takes a holy Spirit. God have mercy on me, a sinner.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Backward Hermeneutics of Paul

I’ve been reading posts from my students in their missional hermeneutics course. They are currently responding to Richard Hays’ book, Echoes of Scripture in Paul. I’ve read these posts alongside participation in a conference on hermeneutics I attended the last few days, and it’s got me thinking about a few things.

Hays suggests that Paul’s hermeneutical approach “seeks to overcome the estrangement between past and present by positing a diachronic resolution of the intertextual tension” (179). In other words, Paul allows older texts to speak in the present tense, overcoming the historical distance, and he does this not with methodological rules, but through certain theological commitments. These commitments allow him a certain creative liberty in using older texts in ways different from their initial usage. Hays suggests that “Paul provides us with a model of hermeneutical freedom.”

I have a former colleague who taught exegesis who claims Paul would have flunked his classes. I think he’s being somewhat sarcastic–somewhat, but I’m also convinced that if he wouldn’t flunk Paul, he would flunk his contemporary students for anything approaching the words “creative” and “freedom” in interpretation. I was taught that the text couldn’t mean anything it didn’t originally mean. In other words, there was one timeless meaning that could be uncovered through use of the right method. To this way of thinking, Paul is not a model for us in terms of the interpretation of Scripture. Do what he says, but don’t practice what he practices.

At the recent conference I attended, no one was holding on to this “one meaning around authorial intention” approach, which in my estimation was a step or two or three forward. Texts have a surplus of meaning, especially sacred texts. They don’t just represent meanings, they continue to produce meaning.

Instead, interesting proposals for theological readings of the text were offered. One call was to read them through the narrative of God’s redemptive work in Christ through the power of the Spirit. Narrative and Trinitarian! Cha-ching! Another proposal was more specifically christological, Christ becoming the key to interpreting the whole of Scripture. You know, it’s hard to argue against anything when the answer is Jesus! The first approach was similar to the approach taken by others (McKnight, Wright, both Tom and Chris, Goheen, to name a few). This narrative approach moves from beginning to end, or forward. The christological approach is less narrative and more thematic, arguing for a center, one ring that controls them all.

While these approaches have their merits, they are not Paul’s. At least, not according to Hays. Paul, Hays contends, has two theological commitments that inform his interpretative approach–ecclesial, and eschatological. These are related for Paul. What God is doing toward the day of Lord is creating communities that are no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. The proof of the truth of his gospel is that Jew and Gentile praise God with one voice. This is the mystery hidden for ages, and now revealed through Christ, that Jew and Gentile are being built into a new spiritual dwelling for the Spirit of God, that Christ is the first born of a large, new family, and that all of creation is eagerly anticipating the eschatological revealing of the children of God.

For Hays, then, Paul is not moving christologically, but ecclesiologically. His organizing theme is the eschatologial identity of the people of God. You might quibble with Hays at this point. James Dunn has argued that there is no single theological center to Paul’s thought. Rather, there are multiple theological trajectories that move in and out, forward and backward, to inform Paul’s pastoral responses from situation to situation.

What there is more agreement on is that there is a narrative structure to Paul’s thought, but that it doesn’t move from beginning to end. Rather, it moves backwards from the end (Dunn, Hultgren, Beker, Hays, P Achtemeier, Sampley, Gorman, Brownson, to name a few). Paul thinks apocalyptically, that the future of God has broken into the present, judging the powers of this present evil age, which is perishing, and inaugurating, not a continuation or improvement on the old age, but an alternative to it–a new thing, a new creation with a new family(“The old is passing away, behold everything has become new!” 2 Cor 5).

I think that this “backward” reading is most responsible for Paul’s hermeneutical freedom. If the future is the horizon of interpretation for what God is up to, the past becomes less of a precedent than if you’re reading from beginning to end. If you’re reading from beginning to end, previous practices or positions possess more authoritative inertia. Issues like slavery, gender, and sexuality take on a more normative force. As Moltmann has pointed out, reading from beginning to end tends to honor the status quo, the future (futurum) being the outcome of the past, or the way things are. But an apocalyptic imagination (adventus), assumes a new thing is coming, a reversal of fortunes that provide hope to those on the underside of current arrangements.

There are other hermeneutical approaches in the NT, simply because there are multiple theological perspectives among biblical authors and their communities (another argument against a meta approach). Paul’s approach is important to consider, however, as a theological model for our own readings. His apocalyptic framework makes him valuable at the level or process and not just results.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Continuing Presence of Jesus in the World

I read today a quotation emphasizing that Jesus has taken up residence in the human heart. I get it and I don’t think it’s wrong. The language of abiding in the gospel of John would indicate that Jesus continues to be present to his followers through a mutual indwelling. The problem, though, with the “Jesus in my heart” language is that we can internalize the saving work of God in the world. This turns salvation into a “Jesus and me” thing, and misses the larger social and material significance of the kingdom of God.

So, Jesus goes from being the marginal peasant who walked the dusty of roads of first century Palestine, embodying the kingdom of God, proclaiming a way of non-violence, creating new social arrangements by welcoming the unclean and sinners and tax collectors, providing space for women and children in the welcome of God, to living in the hearts of individuals. Jesus in the heart, in an age of expressive individualism, becomes a therapeutic presence, inspiring peace and tranquility, and personal, moral improvement. These are hardly things to put anyone to death over.

I guess if I were to play the other side, defend the “Jesus in my heart” expression of much of contemporary Christianity, I would have so say that God’s plan is to make the world better one heart at a time. But then I would have to explain how this expression of Christianity carries little of the radical social and material nature of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed. I think at many churches you’re more likely to hear a sermon extolling the virtues of personal responsibility than you are to hear one on sharing possessions or turning the other cheek.

While I think I have something of Jesus in my heart, I think it is more in keeping with the incarnation, with the life that Jesus actually lived in the world, to think of his continuing presence as being with the prisoner, the hungry, the naked, the abandoned, the overlooked, the refugee, the poor and marginal, all those excluded in other realms of significance and power.

I was asked by a student a few years ago why incarnation isn’t a bigger theological warrant in our program. That seemed to him to be a pretty big oversight for a program emphasizing God’s mission. But our program does emphasize incarnation plenty if what counts is the life Jesus actually lived and the kingdom he actually proclaimed.

I know this is a grumpy old man kind of post. I have mounted a blatantly obvious soapbox. I’m not asking anyone to ask Jesus to please vacate their heart. If he’s there, that’s great. What I’m trying to suggest is that Jesus’ actual, ongoing presence in the world is bigger than your heart. In fact, you might want to see if the Jesus in your heart looks like the one who continues to be present in the world.

Ok, next post will have less snark.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Some Observations

Twice in Matthew’s gospel, nearly complete verbatim agreement with Mark’s account is expanded to include a line from the prophets: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (9:13, 12:7). In the first instance, Jesus invites the Pharisees to “go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” I heard Andre Resner once refer to this as the first great commission in Matthew, which I have come to accept as gospel. In the second, the phrase points to the different approaches taken by Jesus and the Pharisees to the disciples plucking grain on the sabbath. In this instance, Jesus says, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”

I won’t take the time here to trace the enormously important theme of mercy in Matthew, but will just make the observation that this line from the prophet seems to serve as an interpretative approach to the law taken by Jesus in Matthew. This is not only how Jesus interprets Scripture, but how he interprets situations, and who he believes God to be. I think it is the clarion call of Jesus in Matthew to learn what it means to desire mercy, and not sacrifice.

So, what does it mean? Clearly in its original settings (Hosea with similar sentiments in Micah and Amos), it has some reference to the offering of sacrifices in the temple. The prophets indicate that God is not pleased with “thousands of rams or 10,000 rivers of oil.” Rather, the Lord requires justice, mercy, and humility (Micah 6:6-9). So at one level the saying has to do with not expecting favor with God through religious performance, but through a life that honors what God values.

In Matthew, the Pharisees have little or no interest in what is happening in the temple. They agree with Jesus that temple practice has been corrupted, and they view keeping favor with God as a matter of Torah observance. They share this value with Jesus who proclaims, “think not that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 6:17). So, Jesus and the Pharisees share an emphasis on the proper performance of the law and the prophets, but they differ in approach. That difference in approach is encapsulated in the line, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

So, if sacrifice is the interpretative path the Pharisees take in Matthew, and temple observance is not in view, what is being indicated? I think the word that typifies this approach is the word “purity.” Matthew’s Pharisees are interested in observable aspects of the law that keep them pure or clean (sabbath, circumcision, diet, etc), not contaminated or unclean. It’s not hard to imagine that maintaining a reality through an appeal to purity would run headlong into conflict with an appeal to mercy. It’s not that purity is unimportant to Jesus, but if it becomes the primary way you understand God’s presence in the world, then you’ve misunderstood God. Mercy is the big umbrella category for understanding the way of the “kingdom of heaven.” And if there’s a conflict between mercy and purity, mercy wins.

I’ve had occasion to think about this more of late, especially as it comes to relationships. I’ve run afoul of this principle myself thinking that if certain things can be avoided, that if somehow purity or rightness can be achieved through strict observance, then the outcomes will be good. When we do this, we’re setting up everyone involved for failure, for resentment and shame.

I know Christians who are brutally hard on themselves and highly anxious because they have high standards of performance and I wonder if this isn’t evidence that purity, and not mercy, is piping the tune. In my students, I know some feel pressure to perform in systems that are high on demand and low on tolerance. I wonder if this isn’t evidence of valuing sacrifice, not mercy.

I know churches who are clearly more interested in keeping their precincts pure, whether morally or doctrinally, than they are modeling the way of mercy.

Here’s the rub, I think Jesus actually thinks you get more out of people through mercy, not sacrifice. I think Jesus is serious when he says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matt 5:20). I think that valuing mercy over sacrifice produces this exceeding righteousness. Mercy is an expansive way of being in the world. It often requires more of us in living it out than the quick drawing of lines enabled by the way of sacrifice. It can be a more rigorous “yoke.” But it is also the light burden. It is rest for the soul. Mercy creates possibility and it mitigates the debilitating effects of scolding and shaming. It recognizes our limitations and refuses to assess value in light of those. Mercy creates environments for flourishing and ultimately produces better, more productive people. Most importantly, mercy frees us toward God. Freed from guilt and shame, we can pursue God without fear.

I hope you can see that just as sacrifice is more than what you do in the temple, so mercy is more than just overlooking wrongdoing. It is a large organizing perspective on life. There are certainly times to establish boundaries and expectations. To use Miroslav Volf’s language, there are times to exclude and not embrace. But these should take place under the overall desire for mercy. In light of this, I’m mindful of Ubuntu, an African perspective on life that understands the self only in its relatedness to others. “I am, because we are.” Built into this way of being are empathy and trust. I’ve been told that Ubuntu is manifest in ways of dealing with people who have violated community standards. Instead of retribution, the way of sacrifice, offenders are surrounded by the community and reminded of all the positive things that person contributes to their collective life. Justice here is restorative, not retributive. The way of mercy. I wonder which produces better outcomes.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Dave Grohl’s Rock Calling

I did the pilgrimage to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this week. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long given the fact that it’s only a three hour drive from where I’ve lived the past twelve years. It was a great experience, marred only slightly by the lack of attention given to Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. I mean, c’mon.

The main exhibit area is on the first floor where you find storytelling by memorabilia, large display windows with items like John Lennon’s guitar played in the Get Back documentary, or Mick Jagger’s football pants that he performed in one tour, or Little Richard’s sequined jumpsuit. The higher floors featured smaller exhibits, with the fourth floor displaying hall of fame inductees including the class of 2021. In one corner of a large display were instruments from the band, Foo Fighters. I had seen the HBO airing of the 2021 induction ceremony and loved the Foo Fighters part of the evening. They were inducted by Paul McCartney and played a Beatles’ song with him at the conclusion of the festivities.

That night, as with other times I’ve witnessed him, I’ve been impressed with Dave Grohl, the former Nirvana drummer, and now guitarist and frontman for Foo Fighters. He’s thoughtful about what he does. He seems grounded in family, and he is clearly loved by his bandmates. My middle daughter gave me, Dave Grohl the Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, for Christmas this year, and I’ve been savoring the reading.

I was struck by one of the opening chapters in which Grohl talks about the inevitability of his becoming a musician. “I was blessed with a genetic symphony,” he says, something in his DNA that needed only a “spark” to kindle it into existence. It was something given, less a decision or outcome of a series of decisions and more of a genetic destiny.

Two floors above the Foo Fighters’ exhibit was a small room with video pieces on rock guitar legends. One of them featured Keith Richards, the leather faced guitarist for the Rolling Stones. He began by saying that he had attended art school to be a painter, but came out a guitar player. This was not a choice, Richards says. It was given to him. The guitar chose him.

Nearly the exact same thing was conveyed by Tom Morello, guitar player for Rage Against the Machine. He took up the guitar at the age of 17, later than most accomplished musicians. Yet, once he had one in his hands, he knew this would become his way of life. The guitar chose him.

As someone who teaches theology at a Christian university, I recognize these as “calling” stories. As a university, we spend hours helping students explore their developing sense of vocation, or calling. While we attribute calling to God, at its most basic element calling has an external source and involves a pull into something greater than yourself, a pull into some purpose that makes your life meaningful. Grohl, Richards, and Morello all have a profound sense of this.

I’ve read similar things from and about other musicians. Willie Nelson claims no real gifts on his part as a songwriter, but something of a divine inspiration. Songs just come to him, fully formed. Anyone who has seen the documentary by Peter Jackson, Get Back, on the Beatles, is stunned by how things come to McCartney in particular. He’ll leave for the day and come back the next day with a song that he heard in a dream that night. This kind of genius seems otherworldly, mysterious both to us mere Muggles, and to the artists themselves.

Grohl is something of an exception here. He claims no divine source for his gift, but neither is it merely science, a set of genetic factors that produced a music making machine. He acknowledges that, genetics aside, it also requires a spark of some sort, something that ignites latent possibilities and fans them into flame.

Todd Schultz (my cousin’s husband), a respected and well published psychologist, has devoted his career to studying the “mind of the artist.” In his recent book, The Mind of the Artist: Personality and the Drive to Create, he suggests that artistry may be complex, but it is not mysterious. It is largely attributable to personality, and specifically to one personality trait among five identified by psychologists: the trait of openness. The other personality traits might vary among artists, but openness is nearly always determinative. These traits are largely inherited, part of Grohl’s “genetic symphony.”

I’m also reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, and his observation that genius typically requires 10,000 hours of “practice,” or performance. The Beatles we see in Get Back are not the Beatles who performed in the Cavern in 1960. By the time we find them in the documentary (1969), they had played thousands of hours in a strip club in Hamburg, and then years after that as a band writing and recording their own music. McCartney’s dreams were fueled by hours of playing other people’s songs, and by hours of collaboration with John, George, and Ringo. He was manifesting, among other things, his broad experience with a tradition and a community of collaborators.

Surely, Dave Grohl’s “genetic symphony” is part of his “rock calling,” but he was also consciously traditioned by his mother into the world of music and found an amazing community of collaborator’s along the way. He undoubtedly has an artist’s personality, but he also has an account of his being in the world that provides meaning. He has stories.

Back to Schultz. The “top floor of the personality system” consists of stories. “The function of the story,” he writes, “is to explain yourself to yourself and to others.” Importantly, Schultz suggests “we don’t introspect and locate traits.” They are abstract, not internally evident. We see the “visible manifestations” of these traits through our participation in the world, and through the subsequent weaving of a sense-making narrative. The title of Grohl’s book is telling: The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music. He conveys to us his sense of calling as a musician in a series of tales. He tells not so much a chronological narrative from beginning to end, but a series of stories that tie his past and present together.

I can’t imagine a world without the music of Dave Grohl, or Keith Richards and Tom Morello. I have no doubt that they found what they were meant to do, what they were called to do and to be. And to them, at the user end of calling, lies a sense of wonderment, or forgetfulness, even of mystery as to how the rock gods deposited all of this in one place. But this mystery is also the alchemy of personality, tradition, and community, the elements of all callings. I am agnostic concerning calling by lightning bolt, where the threads of community, tradition, and personality are bypassed completely. Calling by lightning bolt has great appeal to many who need to believe in God’s agency in the world. I do believe that there are catalytic moments, “sparks” to use Grohl’s term, that make things more or less clear. I have greater belief, however, that God must be involved in all these seemingly mundane aspects of our being in the world (community, tradition, personality), making God all the more present and mysterious.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How not to pick a church fight

I spent time recently with a fried who leads a Church of Christ as a minister. He told me that the elders of his congregation had hired a consulting group to come in and help them determine a strategic direction for their church. This process included a congregational survey with a follow-up consultation Zoom meeting and subsequent visit to the congregation.

I’m a big fan of having someone from the outside come in and help congregations gain perspective on their direction. I also know that elders in Churches of Christ have a near impossible role. They feel uber responsibility for the wellbeing of the congregation, while at the same time feeling underprepared to lead. So, the offer of help in setting direction is tantalizing. I’m all for giving them help.

But I’m afraid the experience of this congregation offers little in the way of real help for the issues that confront them. First, the survey measured congregational satisfaction across a broad spectrum of congregational activities or services. Worship, preaching, youth and children’s ministry, etc. The problems with this approach are manifold. First, you’re raising congregational expectations for improvement in these areas, expectations which are often disappointed. You’re setting people up for resentment, or worse cynicism regarding the ability of leadership to move them in positive directions.

Second, when you’re inquiring into preferences over the direction of the congregation, you’re picking a fight. As soon as you ask five persons how to improve worship, you will have five different opinions. Now leadership finds themselves in the task of being a referee for competing visions of church life. There are simply better ways for getting at God’s preferred future for their shared life. Instead of inquiring around satisfaction, I find it far more productive to inquire around people’s perceptions of God’s involvement in their lives. The answers may not be terribly sophisticated, but at least you’re drawing the focus related to the future of the congregation around participation in the life of God.

Third, the short time frame for determining possible future pathways implies that the change needed is already in present in congregational capacity. It assumes technical change, that is a change that is in keeping within the capacities already present in the congregation. But for my money, the problems faced by most congregations are not primarily technical, but adaptive. Adaptive challenges require new skills and practices which lead to a new imagination about what it means to be a church in the first place.

Adaptive work is not fast work. It can’t be done around a survey and follow-up consultation or two. It is patient work which requires experimentation and deep reflection. Even if the insight gained by the survey and consultation lead to improvements in the congregation’s life, the congregation is only a slightly better version of what it already was. File cabinet drawers in congregations are full of plans that didn’t deliver on the hopeful outcomes they promised. Patient processes that take into account the complexity of congregational cultures typically promise less and deliver more.

Obviously, I have a dog in this hunt. I work as a consultant for Church Innovations and lead groups of congregations through a three year journey of spiritual discernment around the question of God’s preferred future for their collective life. This process is called Partnership for Missional Church, and obviously I’d be happy to tell you more about it. The point of this blog, however, is more to create awareness around some of the drawbacks of quicker, more technical approaches to the issues facing congregations today.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The church as a public companion in grief

A few months ago, a group hosted by Church Innovations, gathered in Yellowstone for a little fly fishing and theology. Well, a lot of fly fishing and some theology. In the evenings, we would turn our attention to the past two years and ask, “What if anything is God calling us to be or to do?” We learned a lot.

The big thing we learned is that we were angry. Very angry. And this surprised me. Of course we were disappointed and had suffered real losses and would be impacted by all of that. But we were more than sad or disappointed. We were angry. We were angry about George Floyd, we were angry about about Jan 6, we were angry about masks and vaccines. We were just plain angry. This struck me because I always thought of the other side as the angry ones. I wasn’t angry, they were angry. I was thoughtful and reasonable, not reactionary and ill-tempered. But here we all were, both sides on all of these issues, angry.

And while anger can be fuel for some short term gains, anger only serves to make the lines that divide us sharper and clearer. It deepens the “us and them.” And I think some of that work might be necessary, to make the stakes clear, but ultimately there’s no way forward around anger. 

But is also became clear to me that we were angry around what we’d lost, and that others were also angry about what they were experiencing as loss. And loss is the occasion for grief.

Grief is hard work. We’d rather try to win back what we’ve lost than grieve the loss. And we’re conditioned to deny death, to minimize our losses and pretend everything is ok. Grief makes us face reality, to name our pain and even admit things will never be again what they once were.

But grief also allows things that anger can’t. Anger puffs us up, makes us big, pretends to invulnerability. Grief brings us low and makes us vulnerable to others, and subsequently to a new future. Anger pits us against things or others, it divides us. Grief, in contrast, is a leveler. We’re all on the same side of loss, even if those losses are different or experienced differently. Grief marks our common humanity in a way that anger doesn’t or can’t. Anger and grief are obviously not mutually exclusive. Anger is a part of grief. But grief is larger than anger. And grief allows the possibility of vulnerability and mutual understanding in ways that anger doesn’t.

Through our discussions at Yellowstone, it also became obvious to me that we don’t grieve well publicly. There is no room in our shared political life to grieve, and fundraising in politics is dependent on keeping the base angry. Politicians have an incentive to stoke our sense of grievance. We do have people who can help us grieve our private losses, but we have little capacity for public grief. We lack spaces in which that work can occur.

And so we were wondering whether or not this might be something Church Innovations can help churches with. To discover as part of their missional vocation providing space for us to grieve collectively. I’m currently working with a church who is pursuing that very question,

Here’s the reason we need help. We’re not generally speaking good at this. We no how to praise, but not lament. We don’t provide much space for listening and storytelling. We lack some of the key capacities we would need to take up this work. For years, the church has imagined her work as supporting the private aspirations of members, and anything as public as grief for things like George Floyd or the Jan 6 assault on the capitol are deemed too controversial for church work. As a result we have little experience and have developed few practices or habits that would enable public grief.

But we can learn these practices and habits. The primary skill necessary for leaders is creating safe spaces in which persons can express their loss. Heifetz and Linski, in Leadership on the Line, refer to this as creating holding spaces which allow people to take up painful or conflicted work without flying apart. Holding spaces are created by things like naming our shared values, creating guidelines for discussion, strengthening “lateral bonds of affection,” to name just a few.

Church Innovations often hosts “timeline” events in which persons can post sticky notes to a congregational timeline that names members’ experience of joy, pain, and hope. This is “public” work in the sense that everyone’s experience is considered. But it is also anonymous work in that no one’s name is attached to a memory. “Narration events” like these help us express things, name our grief publicly in the presence of others, and give us a picture of where we are as a group.

I am convinced that during the pandemic too many lives have gone unobserved, making our losses largely unnoticed. I am also observing that many churches are rushing back to business as usual without marking the depth of congregational loss, without listening, and without asking the question anew, “What might God be calling us to do or to be?”

The truly difficult thing here will be the capacity of a congregation to hear all experiences of grief. Some churches are angry about their perceived loss of religious liberty, their sense of an America built on personal responsibility and not on systemic injustice. Others, clearly are angry about what they deem as systemic racial violence, or the lack of concern to take measures that would mitigate the impact of the pandemic. These are not neutral issues, things about which we can simply hold private opinions. And part of being a public companion will require that the church speak to matters of justice and Christian commitments within a shared public life. These are matters of legitimate conflict about which the church should not be neutral.

I am convinced, however, that churches can create spaces that allow for both assertion and dissent, spaces in which all voices are respected and heard. I am also convinced that within these spaces the goal of mutual understanding will narrow the gap between groups and will change persons more than yelling at each other will. And given the increasing polarization within our shared public life, the church may have no more public vocation than being companions in grief.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Baby Dinosaurs on the Ark? A Review

In the late 80’s, I was part of a quartet who began the journal, Leaven. One of the co-founders was a brilliant theologian who taught at Rice University, Lynn “Butch” Mitchell. Lynn had been my favorite writer for Mission Journal, which preceded Leaven, and I interviewed way back in the day for the Youth Minister position at Bering Drive Church of Christ in Houston where Lynn was an elder. During the interview, I was asked what I thought of a class Lynn taught the teens on God and science. They had Lynn teach the class because most Bering students went to public universities and they wanted their kids to be open to science. I thought it was one of the coolest things I had ever heard.

At the time, I had just finished an MA at Abilene Christian University, where I had also attended as an undergraduate. One of my undergraduate classmates was Janet Kellog Ray whose uncle, unbeknownst to me, was Lynn Mitchell. It is fitting that Ray has written a book on faith and science that her uncle would be proud of. Baby Dinosaurs on the Ark? The Bible and Modern Science and the Trouble of Making it all Fit, is a most helpful and delightful read. Janet is a first rate scientist and storyteller. She makes the biology and geology around evolution understandable for a non-scientist like me. And she takes seriously the claims of people she disagrees with, creationists like Ken Hamm, and Intelligent Design theorists like Michael Behe. While she treats them with respect, fairly representing their positions, she is also convincing as she challenges their work piece by piece. It would be hard to be as fair-minded as Ray is and not be convinced by her evidence.

She makes a compelling case for evolution, and along the way for science, while maintaining her faith. The burden here is to account for faith, which she does more fully at the end of the book. She focuses more on what to do with Genesis 1-2, as these passages are the battle ground over which origins are fought. I like her metaphor of science talking about the house, but Genesis being more interested in the home. Still, more could have been done with this section. The issue, as I see it, is less with Genesis per se, and more with faulty views of the Bible. The issue is even less about faith and science, and more about faith and the bible.

I think Uncle Lynn might have pointed more to the bible as an anthology of diverse literary genres, each genre to be interpreted according to the type of literature it represents. Moreover, beyond genre, the bible represents great diversity in themes and theological perspectives. The bible feels no need to apologize for this variety, and in fact, one might argue that this diversity is necessary for God to remain holy, i.e. not captured by a single perspective, always avoiding a complete identification of God with our ideas about God. This diversity also wreaks havoc on fundamentalist notions of Scripture that insist on literal readings and no errors of any kind.

The irony here is that the type of inerrantist positions taken by many creationists is the opposite side of the modernist coin that accepts as truth only what is factual. It makes the bible play according to rules it could never satisfy. And there are simply better options that are truer to the phenomenon of Scripture. Ray likely has a sense of all of this, but has chosen to stay in her lane, which is the beginning of wisdom.

I was also struck at a few places that she grew up in a very different Church of Christ than I did. Again, there is an irony here. While we were in the main, culturally conservative and biblicists, we were not technically fundamentalists. In fact, we were so sectarian that we pretty much sat out the Scopes trial and had no dog in the modernist/fundamentalist controversy. Alexander Campbell was a man of science, reading the bible according to Baconian inductive method. He founded Bethany College as a liberal arts institution, a practice which continued beyond Campbell, both in the north and the south. This rich tradition of liberal arts education has continued and stands in contrast to the Bible colleges founded by Independent Christian Churches and their evangelical counterparts. While there were certainly fundamentalists in Churches of Christ and in Ray’s childhood church, there weren’t in mine. Ray’s book falls in line with the best lights of our tradition.

So, Ray’s book needed to be written. And it is done beautifully so. It will help us not only with evolution, but will challenge the pervasive anti-science bent among some evangelicals. Climate science, vaccines, masks, and the like are fights that weaken public Christian witness. Creation care and love of neighbor are denied right along with the science. This need not be the case. Uncle Lynn would be proud.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment