This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregation or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Blessed Are the Meek.

I have recently heard some comments about the necessity to have a “meek heart” in the spiritual life, and it reminded me of Jesus’ beatitude: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  This has always been kind of problematic for us, mainly because meekness is not considered a positive thing in our culture.  We think it means cowardly and pathetic; a proverbial “doormat.”  Frankly, meek people make us sick.  

That’s why I usually use “gentle” instead.  The Greek word (praeis) means something more like humble, easy-going, patient, unflappable, accepting, and equable.  I suggest that the word has to do with approaching and receiving the world with an open-hearted wonder at the way things are and a willingness to leave them that way.  It is to live non-violently, without imposing our agenda of using, changing, knowing, or taking.  It is close to what Eckhart has in mind with the German term, Gelassenheit, which means letting things be.    

This is really important.  Once we get past the negative connotations of “meek,” we must embrace towards all of creation an attitude of wonder, love, and non-interference.  We could also call it gratitude.  Paul talks somewhere about being thankful in all circumstances.  I suspect it is this kind of acceptance and appreciation that Jesus means when he says “blessed are the meek.”  He’s not saying blessed are the doormats; rather, he means blessed are those who accept others as they are, and who even identify with, respect, cherish, celebrate, and give thanks for others in all their difference.  Without judging or much less condemning; without trying to define, change, use, or otherwise objectify another.

A long time ago I was in a philosophy class and the professor made a very simple observation: In order to dissect something we have to kill it.  Then what we know is this dead thing; but the cost is that we do not know the living thing.  In order to know a living thing we have to live with it, letting it be itself, listening to it, and letting it touch us.  In other words, real knowledge is non-violence, openness, wonder, and gratitude.  

Truth is not known objectively but relationally.  

When the Lord talks about the “meek,” I think he means those who enter into mutual, reciprocal, even and equal relationships with others.  He means people who living together in community without domination or manipulation, without some imposed purpose or arbitrary order.  

This is clearly the way Jesus himself acted.  He saw, loved, and accepted people as they were.  He ministered to human needs without judgment.  He received and welcomed all, from the rejects and outcasts, to his own enemies and critics.  He did not attempt to convert, change, use, or even cater to anyone.  

The irony here is that this kind of acceptance and welcome and gratitude are actually far more powerful and effective means of transformation than are coercion, threats, or violence.  Just coming into meaningful contact with Jesus changed people; he drew out people’s best selves.  The many stories of healing bear witness to this.  In the same way, I wonder if our own attitudes of openness and receptivity, welcome and thanksgiving can serve to bring about changes in others.  These would not be according to our self-serving agendas, of course; but helping people become more of their true selves in God’s sight.

Our culture, which is based on the violent and manipulative way of knowing by domination and dissection, has filled with world with technically useful but actually dead things and people.  We all know what it is like to be used, manipulated, abused, taken-apart, and treated like an object or a number.  We are busy turning the whole planet into a wasted, depleted, degraded rock, and exhausting human labor, all so a few powerful people can be more comfortable, for a time.

Maybe we would have a better understanding of how life really works if we were to stop grabbing and extracting what we want, and began leaving things as God made them and saying thank you.  That was Jesus’ whole lifestyle.

Now, violence is just a part of our existence.  Just cutting, cooking, chewing, and digesting a piece of broccoli involves a certain amount of violence.  It is practically unavoidable.  But we can live with circumspection and gratitude all the time, even giving thanks and asking forgiveness for the violence in which we must participate simply to live.  And doing no more than absolutely necessary.

What Jesus teaches here is that when we are born into God’s creation we emerge into an infinite network of relationships.  And when everyone is respected, welcomed, listened to, loved, and served, we all benefit.  That is a brief description of the Kingdom of God.  Those who live this way, Jesus promises, inherit the earth.

Friday, July 24, 2015


A few years ago I discovered the 19th century Japanese Christian teacher Uchimura Kanzo.  Uchimura had a vision of an indigenous Japanese Christianity.  He wanted to separate the faith from its Western/European packaging and make it relevant to his own context.  He was way ahead of his time on this; even today a non-Western incarnation of Christianity is inconceivable to many.
He founded a movement called Mukyokai, which literally means “no church.”  In this mode of Christianity believers meet together in simple zendo-like settings to study Scripture and cultivate the life of discipleship without sacraments or clergy.  The movement has always had a strong social justice focus.  There are about 65,000 Mukyokai Christians today, mainly in Japan and Korea.
Uchimura’s movement fascinates me for several reasons.  I am always on the lookout for exits off the deteriorating highway of conventional, Western Christianity.  In some ways Uchimura’s movement reminds me of what the early church might have been like.  They too were incarnating the good news in terms of received cultural forms.  Plus I am drawn to models of Christian community that are simple gatherings around the Word, shorn of many of the trappings of “religion” and institutionalization.  
I recently had a conversation with a friend fluent in Japanese.  He informed me of an even more literal translation of “mu kyokai.”  “Mu” means “no.”  But he suggested that “kyokai,” which is the word used for “church,” more broadly refers to boundary, enclosure, corral, or fenced-in area.  Thus the term mukyokai could also mean living without borders, separation, distinctions, and differences.  I find that to be a good way to talk about the emerging church as we make our way through the 21st century.   
Mukyokai expresses the same openness and equality, the same breaking down of barriers and hierarchies, the same willingness to see differences and social distinctions dissolved, as Paul’s remarkable affirmation in Galatians 3:28.  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  It is a verse that has been largely opaque to the church for 2000 years, but which now emerges as perhaps the core of Paul’s insight into what Jesus is all about.

I suspect that the church of the future will have a strong element of openness and a dissolution of differences and boundaries separating the “in” people from the excluded or marginalized.  At least in that sense, Mukyokai may describe what is emerging.  I also wonder if, in our time when there is widespread frustration, disillusionment, and rejection of many of the characteristics of institutional religion, Uchimura’s movement doesn’t give us an example and model to learn from.  Maybe he was actually doing several decades ahead of time what Bonhoeffer famously and cryptically imagined as the “religionless Christianity” of a world come of age.    

Monday, June 15, 2015

Staff Infection.

Many presbyteries and churches have chosen to structure themselves along military/corporate lines, with things like a “Head of Staff,” and “Personnel Committee.”  Neither of these categories appears in the Book of Order and they are as foreign to our polity as they are to Scripture.  
Now, I have known many good and responsible Heads of Staff and Personnel Committee members.  I was a Head of Staff myself in several churches I served as Interim Pastor.  It is possible to take on such a role and perform it with openness, sensitivity, humility, and faithfulness.  Working with a good Head of Staff and/or Personnel Committee is a joy.
But structurally, these positions are stacked against that.  They are a vestige of the extreme inequality of the imperialist/colonialist/slavery regime which spawned the predatory economic order which now dominates the world.  Relationships based on this order continue to manifest through most of our culture.  We see it in a class/caste system which inherently lodges power with a privileged few, and puts other people into the subordinate position of supplicants, subjects, employees, etc.  
In this system, the subordinate people tend always to be under suspicion.  They are thought to need constant supervision and direction (even though they do most of the work).  They are considered hopelessly biased and self-interested, while the appointed leaders are supposedly objective, generous, and wise.  And of course we compensate the leaders way better than the subordinates.  Often absurdly so.
Power corrupts.  And when we develop systems with inherent inequalities and imbalances of power, people tend to abuse that power.  This happens with parents all the time.  Or with low-grade bureaucrats who seem to revel in lording what little power they have over others.  And of course anyone being groomed as a “leader” has to think of themselves as better, above, and more gifted than others.  I am reminded of Lord of the Flies.  Even people who are normally subordinates, give them a little power and they can start morphing into Stalin.  
The Presbyterian system is particularly prone to this sort of thing, with power given to elders meeting in councils.  And that’s without adding foreign, potentially noxious categories like Head of Staff and Personnel Committee to the mix, with all the baggage they bring from secular existence.  That sort of turbo-boosts our liabilities into something that can do real damage.  At least with elders we can remind them of Jesus and talk about servant leadership.  Heads of Staff have only Pontius Pilate or a string of miserable kings of Israel and Judah for Scriptural role models.  And the idea of a Personnel Committee wasn’t concocted for centuries after that.
I have seen beloved, dedicated, faithful, and chronically overfunctioning members of  presbytery and church staffs suddenly and viciously turned on by a Head of Staff and/or Personnel Committee.  Not for any misconduct or poor performance, but simply because the Head of Staff and Personnel Committee have decided to “move in a different direction.”  Often this happens without any consultation with anyone else in the system, mind you, least of all with the subordinates themselves.  God forbid!  That would be a conflict of interest!  (Subordinates always have conflicts of interest.  Heads of Staff almost never do, it seems.)  Personnel Committees generally work in secret, which is the whole point of their existence in the first place — though they like to call it “maintaining confidentiality” or “boundary keeping”.  Whatever it is called, it is a self-serving hoarding of information which is necessary to maintain the group’s privilege, and protect the larger leader class from having to face its own corruption. 
I have seen Personnel Committees attempt to fire associate pastors without even consulting session, let alone the congregation and presbytery!  I have seen highly paid Heads of Staff protect their large salaries during financial crises by reducing salaries and benefits, or even eliminating the positions, of subordinate employees.  
But if a subordinate complains about bad treatment the system will frequently immediately identify them as the problem!  It’s a form of domestic violence, really.  If the victim points out abuse, especially of themselves, the system wants to comfort the abuser for the indignity of having to endure such an accusation.  It’s like when the courts side with the cop instead the unarmed person he murdered.  Because the abuser is part of the dominant group, they are golden and assumed to be acting responsibly.
Finally, there is a symbiotic, to put it nicely, relationship between Heads of Staff and Personnel Committees.  I think Heads of Staff learn in Head-of-Staff-School the imperative of packing Personnel Committees with their friends and supporters.  No conflict-of-interest there, eh?  Influencing the appointment of the committee that is supposed to oversee their work?    
In any case, our system only works with trust and love.  If we are not vigilant, these two institutions mitigate against those virtues. There is only One Head of the Church.  The rest of us are all equals.  Power in the church is decentralized and distributed, the structure is flat, the conversation is open-source, the mode is humility and listening, the values are inclusion and fairness.  Even for Presbyterians.  Some of us may be more literate in this or that area, from setting up folding tables to understanding the Hebrew Bible.  Some may be further along on the journey than others.  But in God’s sight no one is subordinate, and no one gets to dominate.  There are in fact no authentic leaders in the church, only disciples.  And when advancing to deacon or elder, it should mean an increase in the humility of the disciple.  We are after all servants of the Servant of God, Jesus Christ.
I urge churches and presbyteries to be aware of these potential problems, and, if it remains desirable to have these things, institute structures that mitigate against the tendency towards abuse.  For instance, build collegiality and partnership into the staff model, mandating principles of fundamental fairness like notice and inclusion.  Avoid obscenely large differences in compensation between superiors and subordinates.  Replace military and business language with biblical and ecclesiastical terms.  Adopt rules of inclusivity for, and diminish the influence of staff people in the selection of any committee to oversee their work.  Make the workings of the Personnel Committee more transparent and accountable to the session; define their work more in terms of coordination, feedback, communication, and support.