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

Monday, May 26, 2014

Letter to The Christian Century.

Dear Christian Century,

In his attack (in your May 14 issue) on the Zionism Unsettled study guide, Christopher M. Leighton advocates a more fair and balanced approach to the Israel-Palestine question.  Your own editorial as well buys into the idea that both sides are equally responsible for the current situation.  “Recognizing the legitimacy of both narratives” and pleading for both sides to “weep together” sounds all gracious and even-handed and everything, but it belies the actual facts on the ground in the lives of real people.  Your refusal to acknowledge gross inequalities of wealth and power makes your opinion on this matter little more than a rationalization for an intolerable status quo.

Having just returned from the area, I have witnessed a dominant, sophisticated, Modern military State systematically oppressing an indigenous population.  The Palestinians are subject to daily indignities and inconveniences, often flaring into one-sided violence by heavily armed soldiers.  Land is routinely stolen, homes are bulldozed over legal technicalities, people – including many children – are arrested and held indefinitely without charge, a precious resource like water is hoarded and even wasted by a privileged few while rationed out to the majority of the population, and the heart of a city like Hebron is placed under perpetual lock-down to protect a handful of settlers who appear to be immune from any kind of legal responsibility for their own bad behavior.  And so on.

Equating some strident rhetoric and sporadic violence of feeble and largely ineffective resistance with a massive military assault and occupation is ridiculous.  One can observe the absurd one-sidedness of the situation by simply looking at who ends up with the land and who ends up dying.  You also neglect to mention that the Palestinians have largely recognized the futility of armed resistance and embraced non-violence.

Rev. Leighton is remarkably breezy in dismissing Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their stolen property, comparing their claim to that of Native Americans.  (His analogy might make more sense if Cherokees were the majority of the population in Tennessee.)  And yet somehow Zionists have a right to claim as their homeland territory that has belonged to other people for two millennia?  Hello?

We Americans have been subject to an onslaught of one-sided propaganda about this issue for several generations.  The Zionism Unsettled document is a welcome antidote.  Where were the calls for balance and fairness from Rev. Leighton and his friends for the past six decades?

Finally, using the horrors of the Shoah (“disaster”in Hebrew) as a rationalization for oppressing a people who had nothing to do with centuries of European anti-semitism is irrational.  It’s not like the Zionists are retributively oppressing Germans here.  No one is asking the Israelis to “get over” Auschwitz; some are simply questioning whether that experience gives them the right to inflict a Nakbah (“disaster” in Arabic) on another people.

The real issue in Israel-Palestine has to do with human rights and democracy.  One people with wealth, power, and privilege should not be permitted to invade, conquer, and systematically oppress another people.  It’s as simple as that.  (Even Abraham did not appropriate the land for Sarah’s tomb; he insisted on fairly purchasing it.  (Genesis 23))  When Zionism Unsettled rejects a “Jewish State,” it does not mean driving the Israelis into the sea or denying them self-governance, as Rev. Leighton implies.  It simply means not privileging one class, race, or religion, and reducing all others to second- or third-class status.  In the 21st Century, no country should get to do that.

Like it or not, these two peoples are going to have to learn to live side-by-side in the same territory.  With their extensive illegal settlements (connected by a network of private highways and protected by a ubiquitous, serpentine wall), the Israelis have all but foreclosed on the two-State-solution.  Some kind of federal/constitutional arrangement where the rights of all, especially minorities, are protected is probably the only answer.

Both sides need to renounce violence and agree on a legal framework based on human rights for all.  But that’s not going to happen unless we get over our delusion that one side doesn’t have a lot more on-going, daily, systemic, and often subtle violence to renounce.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Money and Talent.

                  There is a prevalent lie at work in our culture that has also managed to weasel its way into the church.  This is the assumption that money attracts talent.  In other words, the higher package and salary and benefits an employer offers, the higher the quality of candidates will apply and eventually be chosen for the position.  More money = higher quality.
                  We see all over the place that this doesn’t work.  Yet we still proclaim the truth of this proposition with religious zeal.  It is even in direct contradiction with our theology and our understanding of vocation.  Yet even in the church I have to listen to this nonsense.
                  And it has burrowed its way into our consciousness so profoundly that many members of large, rich churches appear naturally to assume that since they have the highest paid ministers they must therefore also have the highest quality ministers.  According to this reasoning, lower paid ministers whom God has called to smaller, poorer churches are obviously inferior.  This is sometimes stated explicitly as if it were some universally accepted fact.  We use the same rationale when hiring presbytery executives, by whatever title they seem to be going these days.    
                  But anyone looking at the situation without these ideological blinders, using metrics having more to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the actual mission of the church, will clearly see that some of our most effective and faithful pastors serve small, poor churches.  And it is certainly no secret that there is a remarkable level of breathtaking incompetence – not to mention misconduct – on the part of highly paid ministers serving large, rich churches.
                  Furthermore, it is apparent and logical that offering more money will attract candidates motivated by – not the gospel, the needs of the ministry, or the gifts of the minister, but – … well, money.  Duh.  So what you are really guaranteeing is that the person hired because a higher salary and benefits package is offered will not necessarily be a high quality pastor, but almost certainly will be an ego-centric mercenary.  I believe the Lord refers to some folks like this as “hired hands”  (John 10:12-13).
                  I wonder if the people really making a difference in the church are not the pastors serving small, poor, even marginal churches where they are forced by nearly catastrophic economic circumstances to be creative, innovative, and imaginative.  This is where we see actual pastoral leadership.  And while small churches are not necessarily growing, many large rich churches are positively hemorrhaging members and money… but it goes unnoticed because they have so much left over, replenished by the Stock Market.
                  What if we looked for people who would come to a position because of their ministry gifts and their call from God, regardless of the money?  What if we called people to different ministry positions because they were excited about the actual work?  How many competent pastors is God calling to serve in important positions, but who can’t afford it because the pay is so low?     
                   In reality maybe salaries have nothing to do with it.  Maybe it’s really about what kind of exciting ministries can attract the best – as in most committed, called, gifted, faithful, and non-mercenary – talent.  We have seen the consequences of assuming that God calls the better pastors to the higher-paid positions.  Maybe someday we will see a fairer, more equitable call system.  In the meantime it is hard to see the upside of a system that wildly overpays mediocrity and critically underfunds the pastors and situations that may show the most promise.   

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Sheila Moment.

                  A small church I know cherishes a particular legend about how they began to turn around.  The church had been struggling and hemorrhaging members for several years.  They had attempted many of the usual conventional fixes, to no avail.  With little money left, and membership diving under 30, the future looked bleak.  The session went on a retreat to sort things out.  Part of the agenda for the retreat was to decide whether the church should close.
                  After a thorough and rather depressing review of the declining numbers in every category, an elder named Sheila broke the gloomy silence.  “I’m just going to call it,” she said.  “We’re done.  We are never going to be the conventional church we once were.  What if we just decided to be a small group of people following Jesus?”
                  I call that “the Sheila moment.”  It is a crossroads of promise most distressed and marginal churches never get to.  The majority of churches, if they ever do come to the realization that they are not going to be the institution they once were, proceed forthwith to a decision to close.  They don’t have any vision of what it means to be a church other than the memory of their institutional past.
                  In other words, marginal congregations have to realize that they are never going to be a “church” again, if by “church” we mean the conventional, pretty building full of young, ethnically homogeneous, well-dressed, well-behaved, intact families, with-a-full-time-pastor (with a wife and children), and a bustling Sunday School and lots of programs, where they worship on Sunday mornings for exactly one hour, sing traditional hymns, and hear uplifting sermons that never mention politics or economics.  And too many churches would rather not be anything if they can’t live up to that fantasy/memory.
                  It is the rare church that, when they hit the wall of viability, punch through it to a recognition of what a church really is in the first place: a small group of people following Jesus.  That vision is foreign to many Modern Americans on every level.                 
                  First, we have a problem with anything “small.”  It grates against our cultural prejudice that equates big with successful.
                  Second, we are suspicious of the word “group,” which inherently questions our individualistic bias.  Yet the movement Jesus begins is inherently communal and collective.
                  Thirdly, the idea that we are “followers” militates against our self-perception as independent, self-sufficient leaders. 
                  Finally, even “Jesus” can be a problem.  Too many Christians are ignorant of the Jesus who appears in the New Testament.  Instead, they seem to maintain a fantasy “Jesus” who is mainly a cipher for a particularly disturbed subset American culture.  That “Jesus” is a white, flag-waving, gun-owning, gay-hating, Capitalist.
                  Even if that overstates the case a bit, few churches think of themselves as small groups of Jesus followers.  Few can comprehend that it is possible to be a small group of Jesus-followers without the expensive and weighty institutional superstructure of buildings, clergy, budgets, membership, denominations, etc.  Few understand that this is precisely the kind of movement Jesus initiates.    
                  But I contend that churches have to do just this.  They have to clean out the centuries of clutter, grime, dust, and habits that have accrued to the church, and to the minds of individual disciples.  They have to get down to the bottom, to the essence of the church, which is simply… a small group of people following Jesus.
                  And it is the churches that are hitting the wall of viability that may be most likely to have this realization.  “Successful” churches have no incentive to change.  But it is our “failing” churches, the churches that have nothing to lose, that have amazing potential for actually becoming vibrant gatherings of Jesus-followers.  Because “failing” churches are the ones God cares enough about to bless with a vision of the simple, beautiful truth of the church.  It is these churches God visits and restores to integrity.
                  When I was a kid my parents were cleaning out our house.  Among the things chosen for the trash-heap was a small bookshelf.  It had been painted numerous times.  It was dirty.  The veneer was dried-out and cracked.  And it wobbled.  So my dad placed it at the curb in a pile of other junk for the trash collector to pick up.  The truck went by; the pile disappeared; we completely forgot about the bookshelf.  Until several months later, when our neighbor across the street showed up at the front door, offering us what appeared to be a beautiful new little bookshelf.  It was made of polished maple that glowed a warm brown.  It was sturdy and strong.  My dad recognized it immediately as the piece we had discarded.  He was flabbergasted!  Not just that the piece was salvageable, but at what the neighbor had done.  He rescued it from the trash.  He took it to his basement where he stripped off the layers of old paint, sanded varnished the wood, and reconnected the pieces with new, brass hardware.  Somehow he was able to recognize that, beneath the failed and rejected piece of furniture, was good, solid wood.
                  Then, amazingly, he returned it to us!  He refused to take money for his work!  He just smiled and went back across the street.
                  One of Jesus’ favorite Scripture passages is from Psalm 118.  “The stone rejected by the builders has become the chief cornerstone.”  It is the failing, rejected, marginalized, “unviable,” dying, even “ghost” churches that have the most potential.  But they have the vision and courage to get to a “Sheila moment.”  They have to let go of any expectation or desire to be big or successful by secular standards.  They have to not even want to be important, big, a leader, substantial, popular, influential, or wealthy.  They have to positively flee from even the possibility of becoming any of these things.  They have to let go of all that, and simply listen to Jesus and follow him.
                  I know, “let go” sounds pretty easy.  In reality it is often a matter of having all that old paint and grime soaked, burned, scraped, and sanded off, which is a very painful process.  The point is to get down to the heart of the matter: the pure and strong wood – maple, oak, mahogany, pine, walnut – that we are.  It is to gather around the Word in the power of the Spirit, to learn, to pray, and to share the Body and Blood – the life – of the living God.