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

Friday, March 28, 2014

If It Ain't Broke... Break It.

     Recently I was able to take my first trip to Palestine and Israel.  Touring the holy places, now commemorated by monuments and big, old churches, it is easy to forget that in the time of Jesus this land was the nasty backwater of the Roman Empire, and that Jesus associates with the dregs of this society.  He is present among the most broken people in the most broken place. 
     When he enters Jerusalem, the first thing he does is go to the one place that worked, the only international tourist attraction in Judea: the spectacular, gleaming Temple.  Rather than praise its success and glory, he predicts its destruction, and puts a down-payment on that wreckage by disrupting its business and nearly causing a riot.  The Temple wasn’t broken, far from it; but Jesus’ approach is to break it.
     The book, Rebel Music, begins with the author meeting some of the young people who now come from all over the world to absorb the vibe of the place where hip-hop was born: the South Bronx.  I remember when the South Bronx was dismissed as the prime example of burned-out, crime-ridden, cataclysmic, unmitigated urban failure.  It was in those years, the late-1970’s, that young, poor people began fooling around with turntables and rhyming, rhythmic, spoken poetry.  Hip-hop is now the lingua franca of young people all over the planet.    
     Real growth, and an authentic future, comes in and through the broken places of this world.  Often, it is only after some kind of shock or disruption, even total collapse, that new things can emerge into a system.  Sometimes I am more worried when things are going well.  Not because I am expecting catastrophe to strike, but because I am not.   And nothing good is going to happen until some kind of disaster clears the landscape of our grandiose, successful projects.
     Maybe it is the church that is in decline, losing members, poor, struggling, and by all accounts broken, that actually has the most promise and potential as far as real discipleship is concerned.  The church that has nothing-to-lose and nowhere-to- go-but-up may be perfectly positioned to take the necessary risks, and step up and show some real trust in God.  That’s the church more likely to be open to the new things the Spirit is doing, and to create innovative, edgy, and out-of-the-box ministries.
     But they have to take the risks.  As the vast majority have found and are finding, such broken churches are not in a position to resuscitate the old, familiar, comfortable, and “successful” ecclesiastical model.  If they keep trying to do that, that is, to “fix” the church, and restore it to some fantasy or rosy memory, it will fail.
     Indeed, the choice for many churches is either fail and then die, or die now… and start living!  A declining church has to die in the sense of let go of its old identity and narrative, its former dreams and hopes based on popular models of success.  There is no going backward; there is only going through… and emerging on the other side.  It has to give up any notion of being restored to the glory and status of a conventional, traditional church.  In many cases this means divesting itself of the One Big Thing that keeps the church nailed down to that view of itself: the building.
     A baby bird is not going to get out of her shell without breaking it.  If she is under the impression that she can have new life while remaining in the old shell, she is mistaken.  We have a lot of “shells” constricting us these days.  Not just our expensive buildings, but our doctrines, practices, habits, traditions, and worldviews are walling us in and apart from a broken world.  New wine bursts tired, old wineskins, says Jesus. 
     Jesus doesn’t quite write off successful people and institutions, but he knows it is unwise to invest too much of his time on them.  He is far more interested in the unsuccessful people, the broken, the losers and failures, the rejects, and those branded as sinners.      
     Jesus knows what it takes to “get ahead.”  He knows what it means to be “successful.”  And he knows that those who have taken this path have necessarily had to compromise, if not completely reject, their trust in God.  They have had to adopt beliefs and practices of their economic and social overlords which are frequently completely at a variance with God’s will.
     I wonder about the degree of compromise and accommodation that is normally necessary for a church to thrive in this society.  I fear that many churches that are successful according to the standards and values of our culture have achieved that success by, well, selling out.  They present a rendition of the good news that is domesticated and watered-down, drained of all offense and discomfort, serving only to bless, affirm, and even sanctify a fundamentally corrupt order. 
     A church like this, that looks like 1956 – that idealized (and idolized) era when churches were full of well-dressed, prosperous, suburban, white people in tidy and intact nuclear families – may very well carry with it all the other qualities of that age too.  In other words, it may tolerate segregation, ignore lynchings, and excuse the violence of the establishment, like the police.  It may be soaked in blind, self-righteous patriotism and a corrosive glorification of war.  It may rationalize and deny economic injustices and inequalities, while enthusiastically advocating the interests of business and the wealthy.  It may care nothing about creation, and actively participate in its destruction and degradation.  It may conveniently reduce discipleship to mere verbal assent to some arbitrary cognitive propositions.  It may imagine that the Kingdom of God is where you go when you die if you have led a “moral” life, usually reduced to barely more than a few sexual categories.  It may think “mission” is defined as bringing the “American Way of Life” to people in Africa.  It may assume that colonialism is part of this and therefore a good thing.  And so on.  That’s all the dark side of the church of 1956.  Is that really what we want to aspire to?
     This kind of church, one that by our human judgment is not broken but rich, influential, exemplary, and successful, may need to be broken.  Maybe God is working on that right now.  How many formerly big and glorious churches are now scrounging around the bottom of their endowments to pay the heating-oil bill?
     How many churches are looking at their broken situation and concluding that because they can’t live up to that 1956 vision and memory, they have no future, and have no choice but to close?  The tragedy is that if they could get that fantasy of what-a-church-is-supposed-to-be out of their heads, they may find themselves perfectly positioned to move into God’s future.  The tragedy is that nowhere in the New Testament do we hear Jesus talk about establishing churches that are successful according to the usual, quantitative measurements: bricks, butts, and bucks (buildings, attendance, and money).  The tragedy is that they never looked around to see the brokenness in their own communities, to which Jesus sends them with a mission of service and redemption.
     How does a church that “ain’t broke” get broken?  It starts following Jesus.  The more a gathering of disciples seriously follows Jesus, the more it will lose all the trappings of success.  And – listen – the more a congregation follows Jesus, the more members it will lose, at least for a while.  The more we imitate and live like Jesus – in terms of simplicity, gentleness, healing, and blessing… and explicitly in terms of identification with and empowerment of the poor, outcast, disenfranchised, losers, needy, unpopular, sick, imprisoned, and bereft – the more it will be judged and dismissed as he was: a failure.
     But as he says, it is the broken and the failures who are the blessed by God.  It is these “stones rejected by the builders” who become the foundation of his church and bear it into the future.  Jesus’ message and ministry, the mission we are given to carry forward, is profoundly revolutionary and disruptive… and also hopeful.  For it is about the Holy Spirit knitting together a community of love that expresses and embodies the new life of resurrection.  The point is not breaking the pavement, but the sprouts of new life that are allowed to emerge in the cracks.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A "Dying Denomination"?

            With the departure of some big church in California, and the near departure of another big church in Texas, some Presbyterians have taken to describing ourselves as a "dying denomination."  Maybe.
            First of all, I would not necessarily call a patient who is having malignant cells removed from their body “dying”.  The patient may not survive the operation, but their chances are greatly improved if they are not pinned down by fighting a grueling interior battle for survival. 
            Secondly, denominations are dying all over the place.  They are dinosaurs.  They are adapting too slowly if at all to changes in their environment.  Whatever emerges as the new, standard layout of Christianity, it will not be the same arrangement we inherited in the middle of the last century.  Denominations will certainly continue in some form, but most will be smaller, leaner, more decentralized, and more fluid than the corporate behemoths of 50 years ago.
            Those departing sisters and brothers, giddy and triumphant as they may feel today, may discover that their growth was not being hindered simply by their connection to those  “apostate liberals”.  They may discover that their approach to the Christian faith doesn’t gain as much traction with people, especially young people, in 21st century America as they hoped.  In fact, the idea of creating a new denomination in today’s world may be roughly analogous to trying to set up a new and exciting chain of video rental stores.
            On the other hand, those of us who remain in the beleagured PCUSA, the “sinking ship” that churches seem to be climbing over themselves to abandon, may wake up and discover that, without being so paralyzed by inner conflict, we may actually have energy to be more effective witnesses to Jesus Christ.
            The dangers are three-fold:
            1.  We could, in an attempt to “stop the bleeding”, bend over even further backwards in appeasement of the remaining conservatives… and allow ourselves to continue in debilitating arguments over the same crap, caving to the threats of an ever smaller minority, for the foreseeable future.  That would not be good.
            2.  We could retrench into the battlements of some imaginary “true Presbyterianism,” reasserting as the hallowed “Reformed Tradition” every obsolete ecclesiastical model we can remember, basically hamstringing ourselves in procedural superstructures that effectively exclude, dismiss, and condemn every innovation or new insight as not sufficiently Reformed or Presbyterian to pass muster with us.  Some words to beware of: “covenant,” if it means some kind of enforced uniformity, “sustainable,” if it means that it’s all about the money, and “flexible,” if it means the tyranny of the majority.
            3.   We could, not having much of a right wing anymore to fight with, simply commence to fighting among ourselves, with the previous center becoming the new right, and so on.  At long last we may be on the verge of a new consensus, something we haven’t had for at least two generations.  Let’s not blow it.
            One way forward would be to listen carefully to some of the concerns and proposals of the disgruntled conservatives.  They have some interesting and workable ideas… once we get beyond the hot-button, polarizing stuff.  Not being necessarily included in the “in” group of the denomination, they have been more free to think outside the denominational box.  I have written about some of these ideas in this space recently, in particular on non-geographicality and relaxing the grip of the Trust Clause.
            The new consensus will be broad, maybe even an anti-consensus, that sets congregations and presbyteries free to explore different ways of doing mission and expressing the good news of God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus Christ.  But we’re going to have to do this without worrying about what is “orthodox,” “Reformed,” or “Presbyterian.”  I see this in the spirit of the Reformers themselves (not to mention the apostles), who were not trying to define a limited new sect but to express the catholic faith in their time and place. 
            Finally, each unit of mission – which means congregation – will have to be free both to find its own missional vocabulary, and, frankly, to fail.  We learn at least as much from our failures as we do from our successes.  Which is a good thing, and means that we should be freaking brilliant by now.  

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


            I have been an advocate for the new Presbyterian Form of Government since before its inception.  I agree that it is time for us to move beyond the more regulatory polity of the past, and allow presbyteries and churches considerably more flexibility in carrying out their mission.  Our post-Modern context requires it.  The Emergence Christianity of the future will be considerably more open-source, decentralized, and less regulated; it will be more distributed, non-hierarchical, local, fluid, and network-based.  Christians will be bound together in trust and love, rather than law and coercion. 
            But there is a dark side to this flexibility.  Some of the social justice folks warned me about it in the debate over the new Form of Government.  They feared that, without sufficient regulation, ecclesiastical polity would degenerate into a libertarian nightmare where the strong habitually oppress the weak.  We would be kicking away the egalitarian, communitarian, regulatory Torah/law, and moving to the exploitation of a regime like that of Pharaoh.
            In the name of this new “flexibility,” free of regulatory restraint, powerful forces in a presbytery can easily steamroll over the rights of congregations, especially small and poor ones.  We have to realize that flexibility is only creative when presbyteries are able really to witness to the trust and love without which Presbyterian polity simply does not work.
            That means that we have to lose several bad, but central, habits in the way we live together.  Within a framework that still includes these characteristics, what we espouse as a positive flexibility can easily become oppressive and destructive of God’s mission.
            1. We have to lose our addiction to corporate-style hierarchies.  Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s our denomination had a catastrophic infatuation with models based on those of a business corporation.  It must have seemed like the thing to do at the time. 
            But such a structure was wildly unbiblical, and it crippled our ability to move forward once it became obvious how idiotic it was.  It has taken us 30 years to pry out of our minds the ideas that having “executives” is a good thing, and that congregations exist to serve the denominational brand and bureaucracy.  To the degree that there remains any shred of this top-down mentality in the church, any move in the direction of “flexibility” is toxic. 
            2.  We have to get over our adversarial style of decision-making.  Robert’s Rules has its place in deliberative bodies where business has to get done, decisions have to be made, and a group has to act as a unity.  (It’s use would greatly improve the workings of the United Stated Congress, for instance.) 
            But Robert’s Rules assumes an organization bereft of trust and love.  Perhaps it worked very well for the Christendom church, which was more about patriotism, social and economic stability, moral conformity, and maintaining the status quo, than discipleship of Jesus Christ.  For Presbyterians, our devotion to Robert’s Rules is right up there with predestination as our stereotype in the popular mind.  As long as our mindset remains centered on success, institutional preservation, and cultural relevance, we’d better keep using tools like Robert’s.  For under a more flexible system, I have grave fears about where the majority would take us.
            3.  We must jettison our loyalty to Capitalist economic values.  When money, “sustainability,” investments, and what is called “responsible stewardship” are our main concerns, or concerns at all, the church is disregarding its mission.  When the church is an apologist for Capitalism, or living off the dead or off other people’s work (ie. through endowments), or when an interest in what amounts to profitability determines the character of our mission, then we may be successful by some measure… but we are surely not disciples of Jesus Christ.
            The Form of Government pushes mission as the priority, and touches upon finances barely at all.  When we have that backwards, then we are met with the specter of presbyteries closing churches doing vital mission just because they are poor, and praising churches doing unsubstantial, counter-missional, but flashy and profitable, things just because they can afford it.
            4.  We must correct our chronic inequalities in the distribution of power and money.  With the gap widening between rich and poor in and among our churches, flexibility actually diminishes our interdependence, and encourages an attitude of every-person/church-for-themselves.  Big, rich churches do what they want, and small, poor churches get closed.  Some ministers live in mansions, while others put up with dilapidated manses that sessions can’t afford to keep up.
            Until we achieve some kind of parity and balance whereby the ones with the resources willingly support the ones doing the most effective mission, increased flexibility will mainly mean increased short-sightedness and selfishness.
            I still enthusiastically favor the new Form of Government.  But at the same time we have to do more to cultivate the trust and love that is necessary to make it work.  As a Stated Clerk, I understand that it can take a lot of very specific regulation to create and maintain flexibility.  Unless a jazz musician – even the most “free” – has a thorough grasp both of technique and the chordal structure of a piece, and trusts and respects the other players, improvisation becomes chaos.
            The foundation of the new Form of Government remains our commitment to the inclusiveness, justice, and love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  That is the rather inflexible ruler that guides our flexibility.  He is about things like being the slave of all, losing one’s self, taking up a cross, loving enemies, releasing anxiety, and acquiring a different way of thinking. 
            In other words, when the Form of Government talks about trust and love, it means radical discipleship of Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit.  Until we care more about discipleship than institutional preservation, our flexibility is always liable to sour into tyranny.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Desert Solitaire.

     Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, the 40 days of which are based on Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness between his baptism and the commencement of his ministry.  The key word here is “wilderness”.  God formed the Israelites into a people in the wilderness of Sinai.  Here, Jesus himself validates his own call in the wilderness of Judah.  The case may be made that the ascetics who followed St. Anthony out to the caves of the Egyptian wilderness in the 3rd and 4th centuries saved the church from its own success.  Clearly, there is something about wilderness that is inherent and foundational to Christian faith and discipleship.
     I have been listening to the audiobook of Edward Abbey’s ecological classic, Desert Solitaire.  Written in the late 1960’s, the book is an account of the author’s service as a semi-ranger in a National Park in Utah called The Arches.  The book mostly narrates his experiences; but it is augmented by sometimes lengthy rants against the forces of modernity and progress which threaten the wildness, purity, and beauty of desert places like The Arches.
     Near the end of the book, he goes into one of these screeds where he mimics the most crass attitudes of those who favor opening up the parks, making them super-accessible, convenient, comfortable, inviting, profitable, and entertaining.  The proposals include putting in paved roads to every corner of the parks, using advertising to get more people in, charging higher admission, replacing the boring and drab rangers with pretty girls, and bathing the features of the park in spectacular light shows at night.  I find it alarming that some (thankfully not all) of these have actually come to pass in the decades since Abbey wrote his book.
     But what struck me upon hearing this is how much it sounds like the advice of church growth consultants, at least in spirit if not every detail.  He reminds me of why I am somewhat suspicious of anything advocating “progress,” including “progressive” forms of Christianity (believe it or not).  And I am led to consider the parallels between wilderness and what the church is about.
     After 2000 years of rigorous domestication, most Christians have completely lost any consciousness of God’s wildness.  We have long ago tamed, developed, caged, processed, and made super-accessible, convenient, comfortable, inviting, profitable, and entertaining what is originally and essentially an encounter with the living God.
     Can anything be more wild, dangerous, unpredictable, threatening, and transforming than an encounter with the living God?  (It’s a rhetorical question.)  Of course not!  Can God be contained in books, doctrines, buildings, rituals, rules, matter, energy, or the human mind?  No.
     When church growth experts recommend churches “add value” to their message through entertaining gimmicks, fancy buildings, and attractive advertising, or when traditionalists want the church to stay comforting and familiar to them, isn’t that kind of like subjecting Devil’s Tower to a light show, or putting pretty bows in the mane of a lion in the zoo?  Aren’t these just “improvements,” domestications, and attempts to control a wild and unknowable Creator?
     After his baptism, God did not send Jesus on a cruise or to a spa.  The Lord went into the desert.
     To what degree does the church need to in some sense be a desert, or provide desert experiences for people?  What would happen if we stripped away all the comforts and shelved our endemic niceness?  I am not saying we need to become nasty and unwelcoming, of course.  I am suggesting finding ways of realizing in our own experience and gatherings the challenging wildness and raw beauty of the Lord.
     Jesus emerges from the wilderness, after weathering the three temptations of Satan, a wild and free figure.  What he said and did in his ministry was and remains fundamentally outside of all religious and political boxes.  He was an equal opportunity offender of all agendas: conservative and liberal (to the extent that analogs of these approaches existed in his time), Jews and Gentiles, establishment apologists and revolutionary reformers, imperialists and nationalists.  He identified with the poor, sick, and powerless… which is to say those who were always living like desert-dwellers, having little or nothing, who were always on the edge, the margins, and conscious of their own mortality.  He repeatedly insists that these people are closer to God than the successful and the religious.
     In Lent we don’t necessarily transport our bodies to the desert.  But Christians have historically sought to bring some of the desert into their lives through fasting, abstinence, deprivation, introspection, and prayer.  It’s not supposed to be self-hating or masochistic.  Pain is never a good thing.
     But, like the Irish monks who worshiped outdoors in all kinds of weather and recited the Psalter while chest-deep in cold streams, contact with the wildness of nature can help to wake us out of our unconsciousness and deliver us to the living, unadulterated, wild present.
     In the end, like Abbey – and like Moses, Jesus, and Anthony – we in some sense “go to the wilderness” not for entertainment, recreation (in the conventional sense), or vacation.  We come not as tourists, but as pilgrims seeking an encounter with the real, the basic, the true, and the wild.  We come to awaken to the freedom and wildness in our own selves. 
     In short, I hope we emerge as fearless and feral followers of Jesus, guided by the Spirit, the breath of God, that blows wherever it wants.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Benny Goodman Story.

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,
and go to the grave with their song still in them.

     There is a scene in the movie, The Benny Goodman Story, where the band is on tour, and it is not going well.  They had been playing in New York, on the radio, the exciting new swing music they loved.  But on tour the club owners, not conscious of radio at all, insisted they play tried-and-true, old-style, conventional dance numbers.  People were coming to hear the new music, and leaving disappointed.
     Finally, out of frustration, Goodman, played by Steve Allen, decides he has nothing to lose.  He decides to offend the club owner and just play what the band loves to play.  At first, the reaction is confusing.  No one is dancing.  Young people are gathering around the stage and just watching.  The club owner is going ballistic and about to stop the show.  Even the band can’t understand what is going on, but they play on.  Finally, the first song ends… and the audience erupts in thunderous cheers and applause!
     The club owner is mollified.  The band is relieved.  The audience is delighted.  And no one asks the band to play the safe oldies anymore.  The tour becomes a triumph.
     Maybe sometimes you have to stop doing what everyone wants you to do. Maybe sometimes you have to ditch the conventional, and the tried-and-true.  Maybe sometimes you have to go with your heart.
     Now, we’re not all Benny Goodman, one of the most creative musicians of the 20th century.  But we all have something we are given to say and do.  The great teacher of mythology, Joseph Campbell, would famously advise his students to “follow their bliss”.  Have the courage to do what you love, what God has seeded in your soul.  Don’t worry about what others think, or what will pay the bills.  That is serving the cowardice of the owners of whatever venue you find yourself in.  That is only keeping them in control.
     Go for broke!  Do the offensive thing!  Let your heart sing!