Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It Does Not Yet Appear What We Shall Be

I know I'm not the only person who, when we get wrapped up in a novel loaded with suspense, skips ahead to make sure that we know how it turns out. Somehow knowing the end of the story gives us the confidence--the control?-- to be willing to negotiate the 4-G turns that get us there.

The problem with this approach in real life is that life is not a novel; the narrative is not ours; we each just have a bit part in it. But we have become so arrogant in our belief in "spin" that we really believe that we write what is by the way we "package" it.

The other day, when we were out picking up trash, I had my first face-to-face encounter with TV journalism. The reporter showed up in the TV van, and somehow I got appointed to be team spokesperson. I came up to the reporter and told him what we had found: a small homeless encampment in the woods. I asked him if he wanted to see it. Horrified, he exclaimed, "No!"

He had his piece in his head, all he was looking for was pictures and a couple of sound bytes to go with it. I tried to tell him why we were out, what we were trying to accomplish, but he kept shaking his head. He asked some question about the President, I responded, he said, "well, we have our sound byte for the day," and left. He got to talk about President Obama for 1 minute 20 seconds, and we provided the pictures. But the two actually had nothing to do with each other.

So much of the conflict over human sexuality in the church plays out on this same line. Both sides declare victory, work on their narrative story lines, spin results, push for the next step. Perhaps we have made such a hash of the PC(USA) because God keeps refusing to follow our story lines. It does not yet appear what we shall be-- God is working on us.

Maybe it's time to shut up, to start listening to each other and to God, and to see what step God would have us take next. The results can't be worse than our work so far, and they could be a lot better. "Be still, and know that I am God."

Friday, April 24, 2009

Changing the Conversation

In his USA Today editorial (thanks, Jeff Alsup!) Jonathan Merritt speaks for a lot of us who believe that there is a more excellent way through the conflicts of this time. There is too much shouting, and not enough listening to allow any of us to be able to accurately figure out where we are, much less where we are collectively going.

The Big Sort effect of our herding behavior protects us from having to work hard at listening to others, and enables us to simply identify, as small town folks still do, those who "aren't from around here." Human beings seem to have a need to draw small circles, and to be able to identify the stranger as an alien-- a danger.

Christ preaches against this human instinct with real power and devastating force, just as God in the Old Testament rails against Israel for neglecting the stranger and the alien. Both sides of our current bout of culture wars are guilty of this behavior, while claiming to live out Christ's love/justice/ultimate purpose.

What could happen if we could learn to talk, rather than yell? What paths could we see if we stopped living with shark-like eye protection rolled over our eyes and our jaws wide open? I'm not talking namby-pamby kum-ba-ya campfire happy feelings. I'm talking honest and truthful discussion. I don't know where it might lead-- it might lead nowhere. But my point is, nobody who claims the name of Christian seems to be willing to try it. Christ must weep at that.

Enough wrestling; we have thought and fought and manipulated ourselves and Christ's Church into this mess. Maybe loving and obeying Christ might show us Christ's way out. What this means:
  • Choosing to be patient and kind
  • Refusing to allow pride to control us, approaching one another in humility
  • Rejecting rudeness and anger toward those we identify as "them"
  • Refusing to keep a record of wrongs done to us or to those we love
  • Losing ourselves by bearing all things, hoping all things, believing all things

What could happen if we committed to Paul's prescription for the Corinthian church?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Now That the Voting Is Over

What an interesting sense of humor God has. As Amendment 08-B moves to defeat, I was sure that the Puerto-Rican presbyteries would deliver the coup-de-grace. But instead-- it's SAN FRANCISCO?! I think that it's time to examine all the ideas and attitudes that have been slain by this vote.

1) Conservative/Evangelical confidence in inevitability. Walking in, I think most of us assumed that rejection would be a slam dunk-- that the total would go up from 2001, and that we could assume that the PC(USA) had found a form of stasis: General Assemblies go wildly liberal, and the presbyteries stay solidly conservative. We could just wait until the liberals died off, and then it would all be over. WRONG.

2) Liberal/Progressive confidence in inevitability. This is still thrashing around, but it's throat is cut. Hegelian dialectic philosophy notwithstanding, it is impossible to look at this vote without seeing that the PC(USA) is hopelessly divided. Liberal/Progressives read the increased vote as a sign that they have almost achieved their goal of having the PC(USA) to themselves. WRONG. Next time it will not be over, even if the votes change some more. Conservative/Evangelicals will still be here-- and will still be half of this denomination.

3) The Book of Order is the means to a solution. One would think that this would already have been obvious to everyone after at least vote #3, but no. Why this dumb idea won't die is beyond me. Who thinks that we have managed to solve anything by this waste of time, other than to squander dwindling resources of public esteem, and our time, attention and treasure to prove to ourselves that those who disagree with us really do disagree? Does ANYONE actually think that anything has been accomplished, for all the blood spilled?

Let's spend some time outside of our own echo chambers, not acting like this is a football game and we are just "fans" of our side. Instead of figuring out a strategy of beating "them," why don't we find out who "they" are, and what they want? Why don't we act like we are not competing for some prize, but that we are trying to be faithful to Christ? The voting is over-- let the learning begin.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Marketing is No Mission

If you haven't been reading Michael Kruse's analysis of Bill Bishop's book "The Big Sort," click on the link, and this post will make a lot more sense to you. In this post, Kruse reviews the catastrophic error that the leaders of the Church in North America made about 25 years ago.

Only, Bishop and Kruse don't quite get to the heart of the error. Like attracts like is a natural truism in sinful humanity-- using it to bring people together does not necessarily lead to the disastrous spiritual condition of the Church in North America. The statement that "mission morphed into marketing" is closer to the heart of the problem.

Marketing became the last "iron lung" for the paralyzed Christendom Church to be able to exult in its empty gospel of fellowship, numbers, and influence. But like all drugs, its efficacy was short-lived in treating the symptoms of what has been killing the Church. Worse, it not only has not treated the underlying disease, it has metasized it, making it worse by several orders of magnitude.

Christendom had already divided the Church into competing shops, each subgroup with its own "brand;" marketing took this to its logical extreme by enshrining it as gospel. Sam Saddleback and Sally Saddleback are the only icons in Saddleback Church. Before, it felt vaguely wrong to separate from those who were different from us; now, after marketing, it is a commandment to separate. What was once vaguely wrong has been transformed into the ultimate good.

Whoever disagrees with you is now a roadblock--an obstacle. Success, justice, happiness, growth (whatever your word for the ultimate good is) requires that the obstacle disappear. This is the same spirit that breathes through our debates for when we win, "and it will all be over." Those who disagree with us will simply spontaneously combust, or the ground will open underneath them, and all will be well. Marketing took a broken Church and turned it into a childish broken Church, where fear of differences is the actual organizing principle.

But the Church that Christ founded was built on a different principle: "love one another as I have loved you," Jesus said. That love has nothing to do with whether we agree or not, whether we look/dress/act alike or not. Christendom, even hepped up on marketing steroids, is a weak and dying thing. But the Church that loves with Christ's love ("greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends") has transforming power that can change the world with 12 people. Nothing-- not the fall of empires, the death of languages and cultures-- can stop the love of Jesus Christ.

What would that Church look like in this culture at this time? What would happen if we put aside marketing, and our own control-oriented anxieties, and did what Jesus Christ commands us to do? The big mistake is not irrreversible, if we get about our Father's business.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Law AND Love

There's a pastor in Decatur, Illinois who's done more to strengthen and rebirth more congregations in the PC(USA) than anyone else I know, and you've probably never heard of him. His name is Jack Pitzer, and in his congregation's newsletter is a prophetic piece of wisdom that illuminates the way forward. Read it, and it will change the way you think about sitting on the fence.

The Church dies when it settles paradoxes that Christ means to be unsettlable-- and there is no greater paradox than the one of a Holy and Righteous God in relationship with sin-filled, sin-defined, sin-confined humanity. There is no easy way to keep these two opposites in the same place at the same time-- someone's going to have to die. To make the way to hold both, Jesus died; to proclaim and live into the way that Jesus opened, we must die-- die to self, die to pride.

In the conflict over homosexual practice, both sides are standing in path of lightning bolts when we settle on a solution of law or love. Law by itself kills, and has no ability to give life; love by itself rots, and fosters the corruption of the soul. Law AND Love practiced together are the narrow way-- rocks can fly from both sides. But life flows from those who walk the narrow way.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


The tragedy of Hamlet turns on one simple statement: "The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right! " Torment and pain and tears ensue.

We on the evangelical end of things are sure that the time is out of joint; as Noel Anderson puts it, the Barbarians are on the sofa! As Viola Larson reports it, even young children are being dragged into the debate. What then are we to do? Set it right? And exactly how does that work, Hamlet? The Big Sort becomes an even bigger one; the divides already huge just get bigger. Christ weeps.

Noel can say that if others had done what looks clear to us with 20/20 hindsight should have been done 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in this situation. That may be true, but here we are. Viola may feel for the parents who now have to take the point for their faith in a way that we didn't when our children were in 1st grade, but here we are.

We can weep, object, that the time is out of joint-- but remember Who is the keeper and maker of time and history. God is in this somehow. What would happen if we stopped crying out to heaven about how out of joint our times are, and started obeying God into witnessing in the midst of them?

My brother BW can say that it is hopeless-- that the only thing that can come out of these conflicts is more conflict. But it is important to remember that the spiritual powers that be in Birmingham, Alabama and across the South (Black AND White) said the same thing in 1955:THINGS WILL NEVER CHANGE. That's why they pushed a young preacher to the front of the local racial disturbance-- he was sacrificeable. And he knew it; he told all around him that he wouldn't live to see 40 years old. And he didn't.

But because he, and a quiet bookish worker, didn't move when they were required to move, thousands of people found the courage to walk to work rather than ride the bus-- to pray outside their pastor's bombed-out home rather than riot. Martin Luther King, Jr. basically spent his life talking and walking. Rosa Parks only refused to get up. And because they did, we live in a different country.

So, now is our time. We may not enjoy comfort and status. Following Jesus could push us down the socio-economic ladder rather than propel us up it. Perhaps it is unfair that older generations didn't deal with this before we had to; perhaps no one will respond, and this is a fool's errand to stand for Christ in Love and in Truth. What difference does that make? The time is out of joint-- no tolerance for spite. Only Jesus Christ can set it right-- and whatever He tells me to do, I will do. Call me a fool, I don't care.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On Education/Passion, Growth/Decline

Over on Carol Howard Merritt's Blog there is an interesting discussion of the place of education in the spiritual formation of pastors that demonstrates something that Michael Kruse is talking about from another angle. We are rapidly degenerating into separate cultures in this country that do not talk to or understand one another.

The Big Sort that is characterizing this era in our history is a continuation of the conflict set in motion by the upheavals of the 1960's, which shook us loose from almost every steadying anchor in every part of our communal life: Christendom, Victorian morality, Post-War Bipartisanship, rigid family life and sex roles.... One part of America shook loose, and another part of America hung on for dear life to each anchor; other parts did a little of both. Now these fragmented Americas are struggling to find a way to live in the same country together. The preference at the moment seems to be another form of "separate but equal," where we have places that one part of America can live, but other parts are not welcome. My favorite picture from Bill Bishop's work on The Big Sort is a picture of a woman in full angry protest mode holding a sign that says, "I moved here to get away from people like you!"

And we, mainliners but especially we Presbyterians, are caught in the middle. We are being torn by each side. I have a response to Carol and to the not-so-civil discussion in the comment thread: it is our negative responses (fight or flight) to this conflict that have killed mainline churches all these years. Congregations ebb and flow, yes-- but 50 years of ebbing is more than a natural life cycle. We have not come up with a creative response to the conflict that is more and more rapidly balkanizing us into self-affirming echo chambers of cultural, educational, and socio-economic homogeneity.

This is the time to think and act anew. Not everyone will understand or appreciate it, but it is time for the Church to do what Christ did-- not to run! Not to fight! Stand, love, and take the punishment-- open our hearts and hands, and let them be scratched, bitten, nailed, broken. We must speak and live out love into the face of the whirlwind. We must hang on to each other-- whether we think the other lacks passion or that they lack intellect; whether we think that progress is on our side, or that time will prove us right.

What a witness a church that stayed whole while its native culture divided would be!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Death is Dead, and Dying is Bearable

Faith without deeds is non-existent; we prove what we believe by how we live. I had a chance to see Keith Green on Viola Larson's blog and I was reminded of the joy of giving my life away to Jesus Christ, day by day, moment by moment.

We know this joy as children-- when we assume our dependence, and the dependability of those who love us. But knowledge is a dangerous thing-- we learn that we cannot depend on those who love us-- they fail us; they are human, after all. And we retreat into an impossible search for safety-- security-- insurance that somehow this world will not destroy us.

But Jesus says, we must enter into the Kingdom as little children-- assuming our dependence, and the dependability of Him who has proved His love for us. It is in that joyful, expectant letting go that worship finds its passion and power; it is that absolute dependence that keeps our hearts open to Christ and to one another.

It is no accident that so few in this society know what it is to love, and to be loved. We are not mirrors for one another, so that we can regard ourselves in another's eyes. We are not valuable because we can protect, provide, or get the right answer. Our fear of the stranger, our need to surround ourselves with those who agree with us, our never-ending battle with the chaotic consequences of time are all searches for what we most need, and do not know how to find.

Watching Keith Green, I was reminded of what we can be when, like little children, we leap into the abyss, knowing that somewhere in the shadows are the strong arms of Christ, who never fails to catch one of His own. Jesus's invitation is simple, and almost impossible for American ears to hear anymore: "Come and die with me."

You cannot preserve, or even really protect your life. Stop trying. The highest walls you can build do nothing more than leave you alone with the beast that you most fear: death. Die with Christ. Let your life go. If there is any better day to die, I don't know what day that would be. Jesus lives! What do you have to lose? Sinners of the world unite-- all you have to lose is your chains.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Thinking the Unthinkable

Jesus teaches that motivations are the prime source of action, and that action takes a back seat in importance to motivation. In his reinterpretation of the ten commandments in Matthew 5-6, Jesus makes it clear that the sin in breaking the commandments is not the action-- it is the motivation, the intention. Nursing the anger in your heart that motivates one to kill is breaking the commandment not to kill. The danger to the individual is not in exterior action, but interior motivation.

I write this to mention the unmentionable, and think the unthinkable inside the merry-go-round of retribution, anger, fear, and violence that is our current all-too-comfortable home: there is something radically wrong with our motivations on all sides of the current church wars.

We watch the presbytery count, and despair or exult; we lobby and cajole, press and spin to try to manipulate "victory" for our side, longing for the day when "it will all be over." All this action has one central statement that shouts more loudly than the smoothest maneuvering: "THERE IS NO GOD."

All of this debate is about us; even though we all say it's about "us" and "them," it's really all about us. We are the central and most dramatic actors; our actions shake the foundations of the church. We have become so mindlessly, arrogantly self-referential in our dealings with creation and with Christ's new creation that we truly believe we have the power to create or destroy it. Timeframes collapse into the panicked present; history is only useful if you can find a good bat in it to beat "them" with; and the future is nothing more than a confident projection of what we want/hope/expect it to be.

Where is God in all this? Nowhere. Perhaps that is why people are continuing to leave our congregations, drifting into a more sincere form of the atheism or agnosticism that our narcissistic actions of these last 30 years have preached to them.

Is being in Christ's hand more important than proving that I am right? If I truly trusted that I was doing what Christ commanded, and that Christ was leading me to do it, would I be worried about whether it "worked" or not? If Christ is Lord of my life, doesn't He set the standards for my success as a disciple, and not the membership roll/Book of Order/seminary? If Christ is Lord, am I not called away from all these good, but lesser, things?

What would a church that lived out the agony of this disagreement without violence look like? What would happen if I gave up trying to control the present and the future, and actually ACTED on my supposed belief that this is God's world, and that God holds all history-- individuals, denominations, worlds-- in His hand? What if I don't know what's going to happen, and THAT'S OK, because I trust that the plan God has for me is not for my destruction, but for my welfare, to give me--and you!-- a future with hope?

Is it any accident that these "new thoughts" in our control-obsessed "battle for the church" question every action, every overture, every argument that has characterized our life together in the PC(USA) for lo these 30 years? Is it any wonder that those who have read the motivations for our actions have walked away from Christ for these 30 years?

I have no solution for our disagreement-- that's not my job. I have no idea how this is going to end-- that's not my job. I know that no human being or group of human beings can kill the church, anymore than we could kill Christ and keep him in the tomb. I am called to love my brothers and sisters, who sometimes look like Samaritans to me-- whose skin is different-- whose take on life is different-- whose hopes for the future are different than mine. Christ holds me, so I reach out to you. That's all I know-- and brother, sister, that's all you know, too. Why don't we try it, and see what happens?