November 20, 2014

I Don't Listen to Serial


I tried. I did. When the umpty-millionth person gushed about how addictive and compelling the Serial podcast is, I tuned in. I listened to two episodes, and even though Sarah Koenig is a fantastic reporter and engaging narrator, I could not past the horror that this is a thing that really happened. This is, of course, the whole point of True Crime. True Crime is bested only by Horror in the contest of genres I can't handle.

Hae Min Lee was a girl who was murdered. Hae Min Lee was a girl who was murdered and who had parents who grieve her loss. Inasmuch as Serial is investigative reporting, demonstrating the vicissitudes about how crimes are solved and unearthing weaknesses in the criminal justice system, okay. Inasmuch as Serial might actually crack (or re-crack) the case, even better. But inasmuch as Serial is entertainment - addictive and compelling and so loaded with suspense that the listeners can't wait until Thursday - nope. Can't go there.

I was recently called insufferably sanctimonious by an anonymous person on the internet. It was about something else, and I was heartened that plenty of people said that this was not in fact a true assessment of me. But maybe it is. Surely, being a Debbie Downer about Serial doesn't help my defense against the "insufferably sanctimonious" claim. So if you concur with that description, I get it. I only ask that you trust me when I say that it's an insufferable sanctimoniousness borne out of an earnest instinct to honor human life.

November 11, 2014

All the Days of My Life

On Psalm 23 and Ephesians 2:17-22

You know that feeling that happens when you can’t think of the word you want to use? You can almost taste it, on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t for the life of you actually conjure it up. It’s bad enough with a mere word; it’s worse when you’re standing in front of a person you know perfectly well yet can’t recall his name. As a preacher, I experience an unpleasant variation of this phenomenon every so often, when I’m sure there’s a sermon I mean to preach, but I can’t quite fish it out of the depths of - well, from the depths of wherever it is sermons arise.

If you’ll forgive me for the rather deconstructed approach, while I grope around for my point, I’ll share some of the things floating around in my heart.

There’s this.

The other day I stopped to talk to Rich for a moment. He’d been planning the service this afternoon for Betty W., and was marveling at the incredible longevity of her life in this congregation. She passed away recently at the age of ninety-five, and because she grew up in this church, she was a part of this community of faith for decades upon decades upon decades.

And then there’s this.

The last time the children’s choirs sang in worship, one little boy told his mother the night before that he didn’t want to sing. She told him that he could quit the choir if he really wanted to, but reminded him, too, that many hearts are lifted when the children lead the congregation in worship. So, she said, if he wasn’t going to do choir, he’d have to find some other way to contribute to the church - after all, every Christian, by merit of his or her baptism, is called to ministry and service. The mom helpfully suggested that he might consider helping clean up after coffee hour. He decided to stick with choir.

And there’s that article I read last week.

It had a title I couldn’t resist: The Number One Reason Teens Keep the Faith as Young Adults. The author was analyzing the results of a new study about faith formation and long-term religious commitment. One factor far exceeded all the other factors.

It wasn’t youth ministry or clergy or service projects or going to a religious school. The Number One Reason Teens Keep the Faith as Young Adults is having parents who keep the faith. The author writes, “Mothers and fathers who practice what they preach and preach what they practice are far and away the major influence related to adolescents keeping the faith into their 20s... Just 1 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid-to-late 20s.”

And then there’s the results from our recent survey. If you didn’t hear the executive summary a few weeks ago, here’s the nutshell edition. We have many strengths. Our results were measured against 500 mainline Protestant churches of our size. We scored incredibly high in almost every category: hospitality, morale, conflict management, governance, equipping members for ministry, engagement in Christian education, and worship and music. The consultant emphasized that these results were truly remarkable.

But there was one category that gave us pause: spiritual vitality. Unlike the other categories, where we were soaring in the stratospheric 90th percentiles, we ranked in the 1st percentile in comparison to other congregations. Which is to say that ninety-nine percent of congregations surveyed scored higher in spiritual vitality.

Now, before you lament that we flunked spirituality, the strategic vision team that coordinated the survey was quick to point out that some context is needed.

Many of the mainline congregations surveyed were Episcopalian and Lutheran - traditions that have more defined theology and faith practices than we do in the United Church of Christ. We are - and again, this is according to our responses to the survey questions - considered to be theologically progressive and adaptable. So, it’s totally possible that “spiritual vitality” is being defined in a way that doesn’t fully resonate with - and here I borrow a phrase from the late Reverend Robert Kemper - “our kind of faith.”

The statements that informed this particular category included the following.

My spiritual experiences often impact the way I look at life. 
My spirituality is really the basis of my whole approach to life. 
I experience the presence of God in my life. 
I work to connect my faith to all the other aspects of my life.
Although my faith is important to me, I feel there are other things more pressing in my life right now.
It’s not that we didn’t affirm the importance of faith. We didn’t collective say, “naaah!” Plenty of people strongly affirmed the central role of spirituality in their lives. But many others equivocated. Perhaps this is a sign of our Congregational unease with theological overconfidence; we are people who tend to be fairly comfortable with mystery, and who do not equate faith with certainty.

But I think we at least have to consider the possibility that it also could be a sign of something else.

You know, there’s certain things you either are or you aren’t. You can’t be a little bit pregnant or a little bit dead, but perhaps you can be a little bit religious. I recently heard a pastor say that "Churches are filled with people who are just one Sunday brunch away from never coming back."

And then the other things floating around in my head, awaiting proper sermonic treatment, are our scriptures for today. I try to read the scriptures prayerfully, using the method of lectio divina to help me recognize where God is trying to get my attention in the text. And for the past several weeks I can’t get that one line from Psalm 23 out of my head - “all the days of my life.” I thought of it when I heard that story about the little boy who was on the fence about choir. I thought about it when I prayed for Betty Williams.

I thought of it when I read that article and I thought of it when I listened to the strategic vision team present the results of the survey.

I was sure enough that it was the fulcrum on which my reflections would rest that I went ahead and named the message just that - all the days of my life - even though, goodness, we’re halfway through and I’m still trying to conjure that elusive sermon.

I think it has something to do with this.

God is with us through each and every moment of our lives, from our first inhalation to our last exhalation, whether or not we are paying attention. But, I am convinced that it is better to pay attention.

I’m not convinced we’ll be happier if our spiritual experiences impact the way we look at life. Being followed by goodness and mercy doesn’t mean we won’t also experience grief and heartache.

Nor do I think experiencing the presence of God in our lives necessarily makes us better people. We hope that we’ll bear the fruits of the Spirit - you know: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that some of the most Christlike people I’ve ever encountered are not people of faith.

And even though I am about as enthusiastic as a person possibly could be about the profound significance of worship in the lives of Christians, it’s not like I think there aren’t other ways to glorify God on a Sunday morning. It makes me nuts that they schedule all those sports on the Sabbath - but then I think about that Eric Liddell quote from the movie Chariots of Fire. The Olympic runner says this: I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” Why shouldn’t God’s pleasure rest on the shoulders of the kid who plays on a traveling soccer team?

Of course, I could go on about Eric Liddell, and emphasize the part where he refused to run in the 100 meter dash in the 1924 Olympics because the race was on a Sunday. Maybe it was on all the Sabbath days spent not running that the runner learned to identify and revel in God’s pleasure.

Nevertheless, it bears repeating:

God is with us through each and every moment of our lives, from our first inhalation to our last exhalation, whether or not we are paying attention. I am still convinced that it is better to pay attention.

You know, there are plenty of churches that don’t mess around with these equivocations. They operate with a different set of stakes. They offer a specific set of practices and beliefs that each of their members must fulfill in order to be considered faithful Christians. Sometimes they even emphasize the consequences of failing to accept those beliefs or follow those practices.

And plenty of people thrive in such religious contexts. Fire and brimstone is actually pretty comforting if you’re granted the certainty that you’re not going to experience it. And what’s more, fire and brimstone are remarkably effective at generating commitment. If you believe you’re going to go to hell if you don’t think and do what you’re supposed to think and do, well, that’s quite a motivator.

Several years ago I read an article that argued that “the problem with [Mainline congregations such as ours] is the weakening of the spiritual conviction required to generate the enthusiasm and energy needed to sustain a vigorous communal life.”

In other words, it’s not good enough to believe that you’ll be fine no matter what you do. It’s lukewarm Christianity to say that you’ll be fine if you have a rich spiritual life, and you’ll be fine if you don’t.

But maybe there are degrees of fine.

When I first read that article, I rather wanted to call up the author and sing that old Indigo Girls song at the top of my lungs: The less I seek my source for something definitive, the closer I am to fine.

By now it should come as no surprise that I’ve got no proper ending to this sermon. That’s as it should be, because the fact of the matter is that this matter of our individual and congregational spiritual vitality is far too important to get tied up with a bow.

This work of discerning what God is calling us to do and be belongs to all of us. So come to the Congo Cafe, talk to someone on the strategic vision team, write a letter to the pastors.
And, please, please, please: pray. I hope that we can have the boldness to not merely pat ourselves on the back about the good survey results and wring our hands about the not-so-good survey results. I hope that we can have the boldness to pray for spiritual renewal.

I know that might sound a bit Pentecostal, but last time I checked the Pentecostals do not have the corner on the Holy Spirit.

Personally, I’m praying for our community to embody the vision from our Ephesians reading. Hear it again, according to the Message translation:

“Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals.

Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father… You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.”

May this be so today, and may this be so all the days of our lives.




November 7, 2014

On Whataboutery

Recently, I’ve noticed many tsk-tsking posts on social media claiming that it’s shameful to talk about trivial things when there are terrible things happening in the world.

This attitude is related to the belief that matters of lesser urgency are not worth considering. For instance: you shouldn’t bother worrying about, say, art in schools, because it doesn’t really matter anyway on account of climate change.

A friend who has a PhD in Rhetoric tells me that these are examples of the fallacy of relative privation. The Wikipedia entry for this fallacy notes the British neologism whataboutery. I can’t imagine a better word for it.

October 28, 2014

Celebrating Disquiet Time (and Ellen Painter Dollar)

It's my turn to host the blog tour for the fantastic new book, Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels. I'm so pleased and proud to have a chapter in the book. The diverse cast of voices delves into a broad range of thorny biblical passages - often the sort of passages people prefer to avoid. While the contributors are clearly smart people who know their way around a biblical concordance, I love that the anthology isn't academic in nature. Rather, the essays grapple with the profound impact the Bible can have on individual lives - for good and for ill. The book reveals how biblical interpretation - and misinterpretation, as the case may be - is formative in a world in which more than 100 million bibles are sold or otherwise distributed each year. The biblical text isn't dishonored with this book, but is rather given the honor of being taken seriously enough to be spoken of with unsparing honesty. One of the things that is most striking to me is that it lives up to its grand promise of truly divergent perspectives. It's not merely the skeptical and the faithful sharing the same binding; Christians of both conservative and liberal hermeneutics are present and accounted for. You just don't see that happen very often.

Last night, I gathered with seven other contributors - including Cathleen Falsani and Jennifer Grant, our fearless editors - in a packed room at Prairie Path Books in Wheaton to celebrate the book's release. It was a delightful evening - funny, poignant, irreverent, meaningful. When it was my turn to talk I said a few things about my chapter - which, in a nutshell, is about how "apocalyptic gospel" is not an oxymoron - and then made the people sing the refrain to REM's "End of the World as we Know It." Such fun.

So, all of that is to say that you should totally read this book. Good luck getting it at Amazon, because Jericho Books is an imprint of Hachette. But Barnes and Noble, Hearts and Minds, and your local book shop are all great options.

But the other thing I'd like to do with this blog post is draw your attention to the author and blogger Ellen Painter Dollar. There are two main reasons for this.

The first is that I wouldn't have been invited to contribute to Disquiet Time if Ellen hadn't introduced me to Jennifer Grant and the other gifted members of the Ink Collective. Ellen approaches social networking with a spirit of generosity, mutual respect, and collaboration. I try to follow her lead.

The second reason I'm singing the praises of Ellen Painter Dollar is that I just read her chapter in Disquiet Time, "Broken and Bent." It's a three-tissue essay, full of wisdom, beauty, and pain - like much of Ellen's work. When you're done with Disquiet Time, check out Ellen's first book, No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction.







Disqus for any day a beautiful change