Thursday, March 31, 2011

Open Secrets

As a change of pace from the business and church leadership literature, my latest reading for my doctoral program was to be selected from a short list of three possible books.  I selected the memoir of Richard Lischer, who is on the faculty of Duke Divinity school.  In Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, Lischer recounts his experiences in his first congregation back in the Watergate era foment of the early 1970s.  Though he was a lifelong Lutheran and brimming over with theological training, Lischer had never served a church.  He'd never really even had a job to speak of.  Full of book-learning and idealism, he found himself dropped into a small church in rural Illinois.   It's a warm, richly told story of his three tumultuous years at this congregation, both poignant and humorous.

I selected Lischer's book for two primary reasons.

First, his experience of being a cultural alien within his own community resonated significantly with my own experience in my first call.  The church at New Cana which Lischer served was rural, agricultural, and conservative.  It's frame of reference was of the land, and of a community tightly knit by bonds of family.  In the context of that community, Lischer's intellectual ethos and his framing of issues through contemporary and ancient philosophy meant that the way he articulated himself simply did not first...with the farmers to whom he was pastoring.  In chapter seven, he gleefully deconstructs his own initial efforts at preaching.  Quoting Camus and Heidigger and poetry meant that for quite a while he failed to click with the rhythms of agricultural and interpersonal life that ".. lay closest to the soul of the congregation..." (p. 75)  Reflecting on the absurdity of his situation, Lischer writes:  "The church had decreed that henceforth I would be the spiritual guide, public teacher, and beloved sage to people whose lives and work I couldn't possibly understand...what CEO would create a task force in which savvy and self-sufficient farmers subject themselves to the authority of a recent graduate student?"  (pp. 49-50)

Within my own church context, that sense of cultural alienation came as my dying and mostly Anglo church worked towards merger with a Korean-American fellowship.  I began my ministry with a small cadre of older Presbyterians who were highly literate and intellectually engaged, and with whom I strongly resonated, despite a generational gap.  As efforts towards merger proceeded, the congregation became increasingly second-generation Korean-American.  While the new membership was intelligent, vibrant, energetic, and passionate, their frame of reference was radically different.  References to history and philosophy had folks nodding off.  Using literature...even contemporary popular literature...was just not meaningful to a congregation that was functionally and self-admittedly post-literate.  That was magnified by the different frame of reference that comes from being the children of immigrants.  It's challenging being the "leader" of a church that has radically different expectations of church life.

Second, Lischer's congregation was what might be called a "family congregation" from within the Alban Institute typology (  Most members of the church were somehow related, and as is the case in many small rural congregations, most informal leadership rested in the hands of a patriarch and matriarch.  Connections at New Cana were lifelong, intimate, and bore all the hallmarks of extended family, for good and for ill.  My current congregation, though young, suburban, and primarily Asian-American, is structured in much the same way.  Though not biologically so, it is functionally a family, a single cell where most core members grew up together as part of the same tightly-knit Korean youth group.  In the place of a matriarch, there is an unni/noona ("aunt" figure), and the in place of a patriarch, an oppa/hyung ("uncle" figure).  In mission studies I've run with the new young adult leadership of the congregation, they've been repeatedly struck by how deeply their collective character reflects the dynamics of that congregational size.  In my experiences as the formal "leader" of the community, I've similarly been reminded of what formal "leadership" typically looks like in a family church context.

Lischer's time of leadership at New Cana showed some of his weaknesses as a leader, but also some valuable strengths:

Weakness - Inexperience:  Even though Lischer had a significant array of degrees, a good heart, and what seemed like a lifetime of academic training, he really struggled with operationalizing some of the basic mechanics of congregational/spiritual leadership.  His initial awkwardness in negotiating the demands of pastoral life often seemed comical in retrospect (particularly the "oops no bread for hospital communion" story on pp. 56-58), but it was likely not so much so while it was occurring.

Weakness -  Interpersonal Connection:  Coupled with Lischer's inexperience was his significant cultural and personal disconnect with the church. His radically different frame of reference made developing relationships within the community highly challenging.   This was driven home to him towards the end of his time with New Cana, as he visited the congregation that would ultimately call him away.   He and his wife had become so acclimatized to their status as outsiders within the community that they were stunned that in this new church " appeared to take no effort on their part to feel comfortable with us and even to like us as persons." (p. 219)

Strength - Use of Ritual and Formal Authority to Develop Informal Authority:   To overcome the interpersonal challenges he faced, Lischer tapped into the ritual and liturgical expectations he shared with his congregation.  New Cana may have been socioculturally different, but it had the same "faith vocabulary."  Here, Lischer's training in the prayers, sacred rituals, and worship patterns of Lutheran life allowed him to find common ground within his community.  Even if he didn't know personally what to say to an elderly couple as the wife was frightened and desperately ill, the prayers he could offer up from their shared tradition established connection and comfort.   (p. 63)

By repeatedly speaking from that foundation, and by taking on the role that reflected the expectations of the community, Lischer developed bonds within the church that slowly moved him from being viewed as a questionable outsider to being viewed as part of the fabric of congregational life.  That became evident in a disagreement with the patriarch of the church, as during a fierce argument the patriarch declared, "As far as I'm concerned-I mean me, personal-I guess it don't matter...but you are a part of this church." (pp. 100-101)  For all of his difference, at that point, Lischer had been included in.  Yes, there was an argument.  But it was a family argument, drawing it's intensity from a deep desire for connection.

Strength - Love:  Perhaps the clearest strength in Lischer's story of his time at New Cana was the depth of love he felt for the church.  This was not a "tell-all" book, in which the erudite pastor looks back mockingly at the ignorant rabble that failed to grasp his gifts.  Throughout Open Secrets, it is clear that Lischer felt a deep and growing care for the community.   You cannot lead if you do not love, or so the saying goes, and Lischer's love for the souls at New Cana was deeply evident.  Even as he was called away to a community in which he could serve more effectively as an incarnational leader, his clear sense of loss marked the bonds of compassion he had developed. (p. 220)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

D'Var Torah

This morning, the routine was the same as it usually is.  I woke at 6:50 am, said my morning prayer, got out of bed, and tossed on some clothes in preparation for taking the dog for her morning walk.  As the missus showered, I reminded the big guy to stay motivated and moving so he wouldn't miss the bus.  Same as it ever is.

After he was brushed and dressed and ready, he and I and the pup left the house and walked towards his bus stop together.   This is typically the time of day when we talk about a project that is due at school.  Or that he regales me with some profoundly complex bit of Yu Gi Oh arcana, to which I'll listen and nod sagely while realizing just how clueless I am about the kids these days. 

Or we'll walk in silence, and the dog will snuff inquisitively at the wet earth, and I'll marvel at this broad-shouldered shaggy haired kid walking next to me, just twelve and nearly my height already.  Is this really the same tiny chattery boy who first walked the same path to the same bus stop six short years ago?  Wasn't it just yesterday that he was small?

Today, though, we talked about the Torah, because this evening, he meets with the Rabbi to talk about his upcoming Bar Mitzvah.  He'll go over his portion, which he's been...well...semi-diligently studying, as he too often relies on the flexibility and sharpness of his lawyerly mind to loaf along, only to suddenly pour data into his cortex and grasp it as only the young and bright can.  He'll chant in the Hebrew that his Presbyterian father really should know better.  For that, a tutor. 

But for the the D'Var Torah, his interpretation of the portion that has been assigned him, well, there Dad can be of assistance.  Yeah, I'm a goy, but I'm an informed goy who interprets Torah for a living.

His passage is a big clumsy one, and theologically problematic.   How can a Jew interpret the passages that give us the word "scapegoat," and do so in a way that recognizes the terrible history of that word for his people, while finding a way to honor the intent of the text? 

As we walked, I nudged him along, gently, Socratically, teasing out the truths that he knows but does not know he knows.

"Think you know what you'll say to the rabbi," I ask, as he and I parted ways.  "Sure, Dad.  I'm good."

He'll be fine.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Church Leadership

My trundling through the leadership literature for the first of my D.Min classes continues, as does my continuing to subject you to the reflections that will ultimately get cut-and-pasted into the papers I write for the course.  The book I finished yesterday was Church Leadership (Revised Edition), by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Dr. Weems will be teaching the first of the courses I'll be taking in May at Wesley Theological Seminary, and let me preface my reflections by saying that this book was the most brilliant, powerful, and transformative work of radiant genius that I have ever been blessed to read.  I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me.

Seriously, though, and much to my great relief, the book wasn't half bad.  It's a good general survey of leadership concepts, both from the for-profit and nonprofit worlds.  Unlike my recent readings in Heifetz/Linsky and Meyerson, though, there's an intentional...and mostly successful...effort to translate leadership concepts into a congregational context.  That framing, in and of itself, makes the book more overtly relevant to my calling.  In my reflections on this book, several key concepts popped for me.

The Need for Leadership:  The phrase "No organization can function without leadership," (Church Leadership, xix) popped up early in the preface, as Weems laid out what should be the pretty straightforward premise of the book.  That should be straightforward, but these days, nothing is straightforward.

There is, within both academic and related seminary circles, a significant countervailing meme that suggests that leaderless organizations are the wave of the future.  Organizations with leaders are assumed to be hierarchical/patriarchal, inherently oppressive of the generative creativity that occurs in a more "flat" organization.  This is Leadership 2.0.  It is postmodern.  It is emergent.  It's "starfish" organizations rather than "spider" organizations, to use the terminology from Brafman and Beckstrom's influential book.   In a "starfish" organization, the idea is that the whole organization exists in every part, and from every part the whole can reproduce itself.  "Spiders" are hierarchical, rigid, inflexible, and easily crunched.  Or so that idea goes.

In my own experience, though, I've found that the idea of leaderless organizations founders on the shoals of reality.  It jes' don't get 'er done.   Case in point:  Presbymergent.  A few years back, I found myself caught up in emergent conversations within the PC(USA), mostly because I: 1) compulsively blog; 2) am of an essentially progressive and inclusive persuasion; and 3) tend towards owning Apple products, to the point of seeming almost a bit DSM-V certifiable.   As energy levels and enthusiasm rose, a gathering of Mac Using Emergents was planned for Louisville, where the movement was to coalesce and exciting new things were to begin.

Things started out fine.   Though I felt socially on the periphery of the group, folks were cool, and conversation was invigorating, and the glowing Apples on the backs of our MacBooks hummed in a circle of Steve Jobs synergy.

But when it came time to plan, suddenly, we became the starfish.  No-one felt it was appropriate to take on the mantle of leadership, because we were, like, being the starfish, dude.  An "organizational plan" was proposed that started out well enough, but it ended as basically an amorphous blob layered on top of a radiant chaos symbol.  Everyone was the leader.  And when everyone is the is.  With this incoherent decisionmaking structure, I and a few other structurally inclined souls volunteered to try to create legal articles of incorporation so we could get funding.  It wasn't possible.  Not without lying, which is never a good thing to do in legal documents.  Even if we had gotten them past the draft stage...who would have approved them?  No-one knew.

In the absence of clear leadership and the vision and direction that would have provided, the various subgroups spun out into nothing within six months.  What energy was present...and there was energy and real potential...disappated.  It was frustrating.  But not surprising.   Without leadership, groups of like-minded friends can bumble along nicely.  But no organization can function.

Defining the Heroic Model of Leadership:  In exploring congregational leadership, Weems touches on the idea of moving away from the heroic model (Weems, p. 72), which he describes as self-defeating.  (ibid, p. 73)   There is significant truth in that, which he illustrates effectively.  Pastors can make themselves the functional center of an organization, doing everything and deciding everything because only they know how to do it right.   Even if a pastor is truly gifted, this leaves communities radically dependent on their pastors, and fails to equip the church by illuminating the gifts of the laity. (ibid., p.74)  It is a major concern, particularly as well-meaning but overfunctioning pastors steamroll lay leadership into irrelevance.

In defining "heroic leadership" as a style, Weems suggests that it has the following characteristics:  "The leader parcels out work, sets objectives, monitors performance, and fixes whatever is wrong."  (p. 73)   This is certainly controlling and perfectionist, but not "heroic," at least not as I understand heroism.  Heroic leadership is not smotheringly matriarchal.    When I think "hero," I think of unusual strength, unusual integrity, and unusual courage.  I think of an individual whose essential character and grace make them worthy of respect.  If you're the leader, you can't be a schlemiel.  Or a putz.

When I look to individuals for leadership, those characteristics are what I personally seek.  For all of the egalitarian idealism behind the idea that anyone can lead, that truth extends only so far as that individual shows they are worth following.  The final chapter of the book, which asserts that leadership rests first and foremost on values-based integrity, does seem to make this point.  What matters is not training, skills, or formal authority.  What matters is who a leader is as a person.  (p. 109)   If a congregation cannot look to their pastor and feel that they are a credible and profoundly moral person, that pastor cannot lead.  (p. 110-111)

No one is perfect, of course.  But effective leadership requires exceptional integrity, up to and including a willingness to simultaneously admit imperfection in the face of community expectations and defy it inwardly.  It's perhaps the most significant challenge anyone called to lead faces.

Lord knows I feel that weight.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Meaning of War

As American missiles rain down on the outskirts of Tripoli, and French and British jets begin the enforcement of a "no fly zone," I find myself really struggling with what Western leaders are saying.  For all of the protestations of concern for the well-being of the Libyan people coming from the mouths of Western leaders, I just can't bring myself to buy it.

The Libyan rebels are not, as some have misidentified them, freedom fighters.  Best I can tell, they are a random assemblage of folks who don't like Gaddafi.  That includes some liberal and progressive sorts who justifiably felt oppressed by his despotism.  But it also appears to include plenty of people who don't like him because they are from different tribal regions than his base, or who oppose him because he's a basically secular dictator and they are radically fundamentalist.   The rebels are an inchoate mess.  Images of them show functionally zero command and control, and no training.  They seem to be good at milling around in clusters, or firing semi-randomly at things, or running for cover. 

Gaddafi is hardly someone whose grasp on power I would support.  His regime has been kicking around forever.  Gaddafi's Libya doesn't have many friends in the Arab world, where his secular state socialism puts him out of sync with both the monarchists and the theocrats.  He's also almost universally disliked in Europe's social democracies, thanks to his support of some rather unpleasant terror activities.  We don't like him much, either, and for good reason.

But what we're seeing now is not about our concern the liberty of the poor oppressed people of Libya.  We aren't, as one commentator absurdly put it, siding with freedom fighters against a cruel and oppressive tyrant suppressing his people by force.  That is not why we are there, and not why the French are there, and not why the Brits are there.

We are there because of the oil.  There is no other national interest involved.

Of course, we won't hear this from our leaders.  Such a rationale seems too crass and self serving.  It makes us seem ignoble.   But were our noble rhetoric matched with action consistently, we'd have been on the ground in the Sudan for a decade.  The difference is petrochemical.  This is a clear and golden opportunity to replace the quixotic and suddenly vulnerable despot of an oil rich state with someone more beholden to the West for their grasp on power.   That new leadership will, of course, insure that some or all of Libya's significant reserves of oil are in the hands of a friend in this post-peak-oil time of dwindling resources.

So to do this, we have gone to war.  We are at war in Libya.  Now, we deny this.  We're just acting in an international coalition in a tactical and measured operation to protect the civilians of Libya.  But the actuality of it is clearly different.   War is the use of coordinated and intentional lethal and coercive force in a struggle for land or materiel between nation states.  That is what we are doing.  To argue otherwise is absurd.

Let us for a moment imagine that an international coalition...Canada, Belgium, and Costa Rica...had just levelled Andrews and Quantico.  The East Wing was in flames, punctured by a Canadian cruise missile.  The surface to air missile batteries that ring the nation's capital...they do, you know...were in ruins.   Belgian Sopwith Camels buzz ominously overhead.

Would we be at war?  Would we perceive ourselves as being at war?  Of course.  So what we are doing meets every set of criteria for war.  That we haven't taken certain formal constitutional steps is immaterial.  Reality is reality.

And in the reality of war, what a nation says never matches it's actions.  You say you're going to do one thing.  You do another, unanticipated thing.  In Sun Tzu's the Art of War, that ancient guide to the essence of effectively applying coercive power, this is made clear.  Let no one really know what you are doing, not even your own people.  Especially not your own people.

It's for this reason that America's "support role" means that we lob Tomahawk missiles at Libya by the hundreds.   It's for this reason that our "support role" involves British and French jets relying on us for targeting and mission coordination.  It's for this reason that our "support role" has American military power directly involved in striking targets.  It's for that reason that our "no-fly-zone" now somehow includes tanks and trucks and personnel, which only fly...briefly...after we've hit them with a JDAM.  It's for that reason that our "no-fly-zone" includes taking out Gaddafi's command and control, by which we mean taking out Gaddafi himself.

If it looks like a war, and smells like a war, and burns like a war, and kills like a war, it's war.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Amendments for Algernon

I think I is now too stupid to be Prebematerian.  I knoe we get to vote on stuff.  I knoe we chuse.  It is good to be chusing, I think.  It hleps helps us figure what we all thing think 2gether.  Alot of the time we r gud 2gether.  Wen we r bad we fite about the things we think.  But sumthin make my head all hurt and stuff.

Wut iz that thing?  O thank u for asking!  U r nice.  Next month, I get to vote on two things. 

Thing number won they say is ten-ay.  Ten-ay says we shud stop fighting about who is leading.  I like it.  It sez these things:
Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.
I cut them and paste them all by myself 4 u.  It was eesy and I can sho u if u like!  It has alot of big words, and numbers that only Presypaterbeerians know what they meen.   But a fren tol me wat it meens.  It meens peeple we chuse to leed can figyur out who is reely good and who God wants to tellus about Jesus.  We haf to kno they love Jesus, and we can yous the Bible and other good buks we like and that small Voice to kno they will be True.

The uther thing we used to said insted, the Gee-Six-Bee, was not Good.  It was an angry stingy Bee, and pointed fingurs at sum peeple more than uther peeple, just like my friend Paul said was bad to do.  That is not veri gud.  And nobudy can really do it, or reely knoz wat it meens x ept to be angry at sum peeple.  It was jus there to be fighty, sted ov jus finding where everbudy can be 2gether and do Love like what Jesus said we hav to do.

I like ten ay much better.  So I will vote 4 it to shoo away the bad Bee that helps us be crazy and fighty.

But then they say I need to vote on the enFROG.  I do not no y it is a enFROG.   I don kno about even the old FROG.  Is the new FROG more jumpy and green?  I don't no.  But i no there smart peeple who say our old FROG is too big and bumbledy to jump enymor.    I liked the old FROG, beecaws sumtimes I can't sleeep, an it hlep help me alot.   But x ept for the Gee-Six-Bee, the old FROG was OK.  U cud stil figur it out, an it wuz too fat to get away wen u tri 2 pet it.

So now Presbtyrrearinhands ar talking bout the new FROG.   And the Gee-Six-Bee liking peeples are all mad, becuase they say it is YOuneeversalism.  Frum wat they say, that means Jesus hates u unlez u go to curhrh clurch chruch.  I do not no y that is good, but they say it.  So they will vote no.   And many ten ay peeple wil vote yes, beecuz they say enFROG is better and jumpier.  The enFROG seems nice.  Jump, litl froggie!

Here is y my hed hurts.  Ten ay takes the bad Bee out of the old FROG, the bee that stung it inside and made us sick.  So I will vote for it so we can do what Jesus wants.  But then I red the enFROG.  O nO!  Luk wut I c!  The enFROG has all the wurds of the bad angry Bee still inside!  It pretends 2 b a Two-O-One-Bee, but it is really the same Bee!  O no I do not like the Bee!  I do not want to vote for the Bee!  I do not wnat to see the bad B again, b-cuz I am tired of fighty Bees!

Y wud I vote one thing, and then vote 2 go back and make the furst vote not do n-e-thing?  That iz not smart!  But no won seemz to c!  The people hoo say no to ten ay, they do not want the enFROG, even tho it has the Bee wurds they say they like.  And the peeple hoo say yeah to ten ay, they say yeah to the enFROG, even tho it has the Bee wurds they say they do no like.   Ow!

Ow!  My hed reely hurts frum beeng in Presytafearylands!

A fren telz me it is coggytiff dissypants that makes it hurt.  I don't kno wut that iz, or y I wud wear those dissypants on my hed.  That's not wear pants go!  Maybe they r tite on my hed! 

So I think I wil vote for the ten ay, and not the enFROG. 

Ah.  Better!  My hed feels better, tho I am sad about the new froggie.  He might hav been nice.



Even better!  A fren tells me that if the ten ay happens, it happens to old fat FROG, and new happy jumpy FROG too!  I did not no it!  No one said so to me. 

Oh my!  Now i can vote for enFROG and ten ay, and not have to wear dissypants on my hed.

But I still prolly not smart enugh to be Preberearichan.   So hard to figur out all the stuff.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The True Scotsman

At the actually rather enjoyable meeting of National Capital Presbytery Tuesday night, much of the event revolved around the reflections and insights of the inimitable John Bell.  Bell is a minister, a musician, and a member of the Iona community, an intentional community of Reformed Christians.

He is also, without question, a Scotsman.  He was born in Scotland.  His community and work are in Scotland.  His fashion sense was clearly not Continental.  And when that sweet brogue hummed through the air of the church, there was no question.  We were in the presence of a Scot.  It was so obviously so that the Vietnamese-American elder from my congregation who attended with me admitted afterwards that he'd had some real trouble understanding what was being said at first. 

I adapted more easily, either because that brogue hums in the quarter of my blood that remains fiercely MacDougall or because I was exposed to so much of it from the lips of the Rev. Dr. George MacPherson Docherty as a wee laddie in tha kehrrk of ma bairth.

If you have any real knowledge of a thing, you can just tell what a thing is. You know the truth of it.

Which is why I'm amazed at how virally the adolescent everybody-look-at-me self-indulgence of tamtampamela spread in the blogosphere.   Lil' Ms. Pamela was a particularly successful YouTube troll, one of those benighted souls who say horrible things for the sole purpose of getting attention.   The short videos she posted were all faux fundamentalist pronouncements.  She sang little songs about people burning in hell, which she claimed had been taught to her in Sunday School.  In her second to last video, she pretended to celebrate the deaths of all of the Japanese who lost their lives in the earthquake and tsunami, "praising God" for killing them.  The video went viral, and was so beyond the pale that in addition to the usual outrage, she drew the attention of 4Chan, which found her home address and phone number and posted it.  She then put up a short video admitting, unrepentantly, that she was just a troll, she didn't believe a word she said, and that this wasn't fun anymore.  After which she fled.

What gets me, though, is the readiness of folks to believe that she was actually what she said she was.  Having seen the video, it immediately set off troll bells.  First, her attitude was wrong.  Not earnest, if you will, but a bit sly and smiling.  It was just off.  She didn't sound or act like a zealot.   Second, she didn't dress like someone who said what she said.  Leaning into the camera while wearing little spaghetti strap tops is highly anomalous among religious ultraconservatives.

Most important, though, was what she claimed to believe.  That smug, sly, teasing hatred is utterly alien to the Jesus experience.  It was so far beyond the pale of Christian thought and practice as to be clearly Not Christian.

Here, of course, a committed anti-theist might offer up Flew's 1975 No True Scotsman argument.  That line of reasoning suggests that it is a fallacy to suggest that simply because a thing doesn't meet one criteria for inclusion in a group, it can be excluded from that group.  Example:  1) Scotsmen are sky clad under their kilts;  2)  But my Uncle Hamish wears tighty whiteys under his Campbell Tartan; 3)  Well, true Scotsmen would do no such thing.

This argument surfaces often when Christians argue that Westboro Baptist isn't Christian.  When you say, well, they aren't Christian because their actions and beliefs are alien to us, the counter comes: "Hah!  That's the No True Scotsman fallacy!  You're just excluding them because they're inconvenient."   There is, in argumentation, some validity to that. 

But some categories are meaningful, and even worldviews as multivalent as Christianity do have discernable boundaries.  You cannot, for instance, claim to be an atheist and a Christian.  Well, you can claim it.  But doing so is like me claiming that I am a single celled eukaryote.  It requires not just moving outside of species, but of phyla and kingdom.  If enough distinguishing features are missing, then something no longer can be meaningfully categorized as being part of the group that shares those features.

With tamtampamela's trolling, the issue was being able to...from observation of actual Christian behavior...critically assess that her behavior was so anomalous as to be outside of Christianity as a meaningful category.  As Hemant Mehta, the vigorously atheistic blogger over at thefriendlyatheist put it as he expressed skepticism about her motives:  "...I don’t know a single Christian who would agree with what she says."  He's no lover of faith, and he spends much of his energy attempting to debunk faith in active debate with Christians.

But from his ongoing interactions with Christians, he knew a false Christian when he saw one.  It's a pity that more folks weren't able to similarly see past the falseness.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading

As my pre-reading for my D.Min. continues, I find myself finishing up yet another book exploring the dynamics of leadership.  This one is again primarily secular and comes from two Harvard professors, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, and is primarily focused on the risk-taking that is necessary to lead a growing and dynamic organization.  The models of leadership Heifetz and Linsky present are mostly, but not entirely, drawn from the corporate and public sector.  In the great wash of illustrative anecdotes that comprises the bulk of this rich and accessible book, there are many concepts that resonated with my own experience of being in a position of leadership in a faith community.  Three of them follow:

Technical and Adaptive Change:  This concept is drawn from some of Linsky's other work.  There are, according to Linsky, two types of change. (p. 60) Technical change is relatively simple.  It involves straightforward modifications of a routine behavior, or the shift in a pattern of activity.  Adaptive change is much, much harder.  It requires a group to critically reassess a core value in the context of a changed environment, or resolve a conflict between two deeply held values.   As I read it, engaging in technical change is the work of managers.  Adaptive change is the work of leaders.

Let's take an example from my own ministry context.  Over the last several years, as the church has transitioned to being a primarily Asian American young adult ministry, it has struggled with stagnant attendance.  A variety of changes were proposed to increase attendance.  A deeper focus on contemporary praise music was suggested and implemented.  A shift in worship time was suggested to make the service more accessible to young adults.  Both of these changes were well intentioned, and not bad ideas, but both were technical.  Neither had any discernable impact.

As congregational leadership has worked through a critical assessment of both vision and mission, they are coming to realize that the core "block" on growth isn't technical.  It's woven into the culture of the church.  My congregation, while young, is a tightly knit group of old friends, who have known each other for most of their lives.   They are a family.  And like most family churches, they struggle to integrate new people into their fellowship.  The intimacy they share is a powerful bond and blessing.   But it is also a powerful inhibitor, one that stands in the way of becoming the ministry they yearn to be.  That necessary but wrenching change will not come easily. 

The Value of Crisis:  Much of the challenge of transforming a congregation comes from the human tendency towards comfort.  We like to be comfortable, to settle in to the place where we are.  That desire to remain within the familiar leads to an oddly ferocious complacency, as we hold fast to patterns of life and being that both reinforce our collective identity and trap us in a single state of being.  We cling to those patterns even in the face of seemingly obvious decline.  What shatters that complacency, as Heifetz and Linsky note, is crisis (p.151).  When a community is forced to recognize that it is facing an existential threat, that creates a sense of urgency.  That urgency, if effectively tapped, be a source for addressing adaptive change.

When I began my ministry, my church was clearly in crisis.  It was tiny and aging out, and knew it.  Absent something radically different, the congregation had no shot at survival.  From within that inescapable crisis context, it was clear that the community was ready to make the radical changes necessary to give a fighting chance at survival.  That meant really empowering a new group of members.  That meant letting go of some prized elements in worship.  That meant, on a fairly essential level, admitting that the old church was no more, and allowing a new one to take it's place.

As I prepare to move on from my congregation in October, some of the rationale for my departure lies in the need for the new, revitalizing congregation to experience urgency and crisis again.  Things were growing dangerously and falsely comfortable.  Endowments have a way of doing that to churches, even young adult driven churches.   Though I love the folks in my ministry, there was the need to turn up the heat (p. 107-108), and it was clear that in the absence of a major and visible change, stagnation would consume it.  Given the family dynamics of the new community, and my inability to break out of the marginal position too frequently inhabited by formal leadership in family-sized congregations, the only constructive disruption I could offer the church was the opportunity/threat that will come with an intentional transition.

The Importance of Sanctuary and Self Care:  Linsky and Heifetz's central theme is the inherent danger of leadership.  Leaders, particularly those who challenge the norms of a community, are often marginalized, attacked, or subverted.   Things can get deeply and personally unpleasant, and that unpleasantness can compromise the capacity of an individual to effectively discern the needs of a community.  They can fall into depression, or become complacent and coopted in systemic dysfunction, or become enmeshed in destructive factionalization within their community, or let the stressors drive them into self-destructive behaviors.   Much of the last section of the book is dedicated to the need for leaders to maintain a sense of identity outside of their role as leader. (p. 187)   When the inevitable turbulence churns the organizational waters, a leader whose identity is wholly defined by their role and who has no other anchor will be shaken both emotionally and spiritually.  It seems odd to say that a pastor needs a sanctuary (p. 204-205) outside of the church, but if they are to be an effective leader, they do.  If your life is a monoculture, it is far more vulnerable in times of change.

That sanctuary can take many forms (ibid), but in my own experience, much of it has been in my extra-congregational roles as father, and as husband.  I've intentionally set aside space for these vital things.  I read, both to deepen my knowledge, enrich my faith and just plain ol' lose myself in a good story.  I pray on my own, through various forms of meditation, or in silence or in song.  I blog about whatever my muse demands.   I hit the gym regularly, and enjoy feeling strong.   I dominate noobs in Battlefield Bad Company Two.  I sit and listen to music and daydream, and listen to the howl of my bike's inline four when I wind it out.  I enjoy a good IPA and the company of friends both old and new.

Those safe and sanctuary places are essential if a leader is to remain healthily engaged with their community.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Hard Biblical Truths and Japan

One thing has been taking a big chunk of my cortex processing power over the last few days.  I find it hard not to be drawn into the unspeakable scope of the massive quake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis in Japan.  It is, in the annals of human catastrophe, an unusual thing.  Unlike the horrific quake in Haiti, the events in Japan occurred in a technologically sophisticated and globally connected society.  Unlike Katrina, where wind and storm obscured the depth of the horror, the sky was clear.  And the cameras were on.

That means that into our collective subconscious is poured not just the tragic aftermath of an immense disaster, but the realtime event itself, seen through hundreds of different lenses.   We see, from the air, whole towns swept completely from existence.  Towns full of human beings, engulfed in fire and water.   From the ground, we now have video from survivors that shows the tsunami from a human perspective, reinforcing the scope and terrible power of the event.  The reality of it is inescapable.

In the face of that reality, I find my pastor-self listening to the global chatter for something else, something that has so far remained blessedly negligible.

Japan is one of the most secular cultures in the world.  In defense of it's own culture and hold over it's people against outside influence, Japanese imperial leadership vigorously and violently resisted Christian missionary efforts, the essence of which was brilliantly portrayed in Shusaku Endo's taut novel "Silence".  By the mid-20th century, that meant there was only one significant Christian community in Japan.  It was located in the city of Hiroshima, a fact which Christian America clearly didn't take into consideration in it's mid-20th century decisionmaking.

What I have not yet heard, thank the Maker, is the Christian "leader" fool enough to claim that somehow this terrible event is something that the Japanese brought upon themselves for being secular and not following Jesus, or for resisting the spread of the church.  This time around, there's nothing from the 700 Club and Pat Robertson but appeals for prayer and material support for the Japanese people.   I'm sure the Queer Christian Performance Activists over at Westboro Baptist would be saying something, if all of their websites weren't under permanent DDOS attack from the anarchic hacktivist collective Anonymous.   Glenn Beck seemed to imply something like that, but for all his weepy emo yearning for prophet status, no-one takes him for a spiritual leader.  An adolescent atheist attention-troll may have pitched it out there on YouTube, but she's 1) not actually Christian and 2) no longer on YouTube, as the hue and cry got too much for her.    Tim LaHaye of Left Behind fame sees it as a sign of the end times, but then again, everything is a sign of the end times for Tim LaHaye, up to and including the contents of his bowel movement this morning.   Undigested corn kernels!  The fifth seal has been opened!   Whatever you think of LaHaye's theology, he's not graceless enough to blame the Japanese people for this tragedy.

No one, and certainly no-one with the audacity to claim themselves as a true follower of Christ, would have any business doing anything other than desiring to help and feeling a powerful compassion for the people of Japan.

In the context of recent chatter about universalism in the Jesus world, though, I find myself wondering something.

How does fundamentalist Christianity now express the Gospel to the people of Miyagi Prefecture?   How can what passes for Bible-believing faith be good news for Japan?

I know why the Gospel is good.  It's ethics are transformative in the way the world needs.   Being a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth and letting his teachings and Spirit govern your life changes the world for the better.  More than that, I know how potent the emmanuel meme and the old, old story of the cross can be for those crying out in the face of suffering.   That theology was the point of Endo's novel, and it has purchase in even the most terrible corners of the human experience.  God knows and hears and feels the suffering of the people of Japan. 

But if you believe in your heart of hearts that all unbelievers are damned, and this is a front-and-center linchpin of your theology, how do you share that "hard biblical truth" and make it seem like good news to those who have lost non-Christian loved ones?   Just how does that conversation go, when the door-to-door evangelist stops by the temporary shelter in Sendai?
"Hi!  Did you know that if you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you and your family can be saved?  What?  They are?  Gosh, that's too bad.  Pity about God killing your mom and your dad and half of the people you knew.  Tough luck, that.  But heaven must have needed a couple thousand new angels.  What?  Oh my.  They weren't Christian?  Well, they're damned forever.  What?  What does that mean?  Oh, that they'll burn in a lake of fire, eternally in torment.  See this verse right here?  Sorry, but that's just the hard biblical truth.  Pity I didn't come along sooner.  So as I was saying, if you'll just say the Jesus prayer with me right now, you can be sure that at least you...ow!  Why'd you...OW!  Stop that! don't have to...AAAAAH...BY DOZE!  I tink you boke by doze!"
This is not serving the Truth with a capital T.  As with all of God's truths, the truth of Gospel is self-evidently good.   Is Gospel Truth hard?  Yes.  Letting go of power and being utterly transformed by the love of God we know in Jesus Christ is immensely difficult.  I struggle with it myself.

But it is also clearly, obviously, visibly good.  If we're proclaiming it in ways that aren't, and that ring brittle, cold and hateful in the ears of the suffering and the broken, then we can't possibly claim to be doing what Jesus asked us to do.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Misunderstanding Universalism

You keep using that word...
One of the challenges of being in an oldline denomination is that gnawing sense that somehow we're no longer relevant.  Our conversations and the inner life of our community often seems isolated from the rest of the Jesus people around us.  For a community that likes to use the totally made up word "connectionalism," we often don't seem to be connected outside of ourselves.

But sometimes we are connected, despite ourselves.  As I listen in on the chatter both within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and without, I seem to be hearing a common theme playing out.  That theme has to do with the meaning and use of the term "Universalism."

 Among conservative Christians both within my church and without, there's a growing hue and cry about the creeping and pernicious influence of universalism.  Within my denomination the alarm is being sounded around our New Form of Government, a long overdue attempt to streamline our cumbersome Constitution.   That effort is what we Presbyterians are doing to fulfill Christ's mandate to go out into the world and make significant modifications to governing documents.  I think that's in Matthew somewhere.   Whichever way, many conservatives are alarmed that the new text might possibly imply openness to finding truth in other faiths.   Universalism!

Similarly, conservative Christians outside of our fellowship are full of burn-the-hipster-witch fury at the publication of Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins.  They were cranking out the publicist-pleasing controversy before they'd even read it, but now that pre-publication book has been released, they're certain:  Rob Bell is a universalist.  Meaning, he's a heretic who goes past implying that non-Christians might not automatically burn in hell to actually sorta kinda saying it. 

This amazing conjunction of Presbyterian inside-baseball chatter and the rest of the American Christian world is striking not just because we are almost talking about the same things, but because we're all making exactly the same mistake.  If you have any sense of the history of theology, the term universalism does not even come close to meaning what conservative Christianity is now claiming it means.

Universalism is an old concept.  It surfaced early in the life of the church, perhaps most notably in the highly creative thought of Origen, an early Christian theologian from the second and third century who was ultimately declared heretical-ish.  Origen felt that God's love was so irresistable that no being, no matter how evil, could stand against it.  Even the demons, Satan, and Glenn Beck would eventually be reconciled with God.

That concept has resurfaced in Christianity numerous times throughout the two millenia of the faith, and bobbed up most notably in the post-Enlightenment era.   In the intellectual foment and classical liberality of the 17th and 18th centuries, the idea that all peoples would be saved gathered significant steam.  The radical tolerance and acceptance of other faiths that this implies still putters along amiably in Unitarian Universalist fellowships today.

Now, as I've said before, I'm not a universalist.  I just can't reconcile that "I'm OK, You're OK" concept with God's justice.  There are things that defy God's love and grace.  They will not stand in the face of God's all consuming fire.  Our actions are not without ultimate consequence.

But what I also can't reconcile with God's justice is this radically incorrect understanding of fundamentalist Christianity.  Universalism does not mean, as Inigo Montoya might say, what they think it means.

Here, they're not defining universalism as everyone being ultimately OK with God no matter who they are and what they do.  We're not talking about the lion and the lamb sitting down on a mossy, dew-speckled meadow in Thomas Kinkade heaven for an organic vegan picnic with Anne Frank and Hitler.

In the disputes both within and outside my fellowship, universalism is being redefined by fundamentalism as refusing to say "everyone who is not a professing Christian will burn in Hell forever."

It's a "hard biblical truth," they claim.  "We can't step back from proclaiming the Truth, no matter how hard it is to hear," they say, nodding earnestly.  But what is the truth of that truth?

It is a truth that stokes the fires of hell with people whose lives are full of kindness, who are peacemakers, and who manifest the ethic that Jesus lived and taught in their words and deeds.   It's a truth that defies Christ's own proclamation of the nature of the final judgment of all peoples.  It is a "truth" that stands radically opposed to the love of the stranger and the other.  It is a truth that assumes that God is not the font, source, and root of that love. 

That truth is certainly hard.  But it is not hard because it is the Gospel.  It hard because it is the farthest thing from good news.

It's amazing the things folks will say and do when they don't really understand something

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Sixteen Types of People You'll Find In Hell

  • (a repost from my old xanga site, upon request)
    I've always been fond of the Myers-Briggs personality test.  It's got some nice depth to it, and while it isn't a perfect instrument, it does beat astrological signs when you're trying to come to understand a person and their motivations.  That's primarily because it's...well...real.  It interweaves the way we approach the world with our processes of decisionmaking in a way that I find really quite elegant.

    But as I've used and taken the test over the years, I've been struck by something.  The personality descriptions for each of the 16 different types in the Myers Briggs test are all described as basically..well...functional.  Being the Calvinist that I am, I'm bothered by this.  Aren't we all...fallen?  Irredeemable sinners worthy of the fires of heck, no matter what our personality type?

    In an interesting coincidence, I learned from my recent readings in the field of demonology that Satan actually uses the Myers Briggs to sort sinners into the different planes of Hell.  Take the test yourself by following this link, then check below for your Hell Personality Type:

    Hopelessly stern while simultaneously uncommunicative.  Obsessed with order, rules, and obedience.  Can tune others out completely.  Prone to quietly supporting fundamentalism, fascism, or other oppressive systems.  Finds current implementation of death penalty too "namby pamby."  As relentless as an automaton, grinding over the skulls of those who oppose them.  How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?

    Likes doing dangerous things, or whatever makes them feel good in the moment…like, say, meth, but only if heroin and cheap wine are unavailable.  Likes the adrenaline rush they get bungee jumping naked from their hang-glider.  Thinks mostly with their lizard brain. Uses higher brain function mostly to pick locks and/or hack your computer to get at your credit card information.  Will have no qualms popping a cap into you when the need or whim arises. 

    A hopeless patsy.  Does whatever you tell them.  Usually puts the needs of others above their own needs, which makes them prone to working themselves to death just because the boss needs that memo really badly.  Terrified of the unknown or the different or the stranger.   Keeps their surroundings obsessively tidy.  Worries endlessly about what others think, to the point of madness.  Makes an excellent house slave.

    A quivering mass of terror.  Drops into a fetal ball whenever there’s even the slightest whiff that someone might not like them.   Can be like a sad little puppy who follows other people around. Hypersensitive, and prone to mooning over mediocre watercolors or self-indulgently abstract sculpture. Useless in a crisis, as is completely unable to come to a decision and stick with it.  Artsy, but in an annoyingly scattered way.  Completely unprepared for what tomorrow may bring.

    Live only for themselves and their own hopelessly convoluted “understanding” of the world.  Will cling doggedly to lost causes and/or tilt against windmills with a single-mindedness that would embarrass Don Quixote.  Subtle as a serpent and emotionally manipulative.  Approaches the world using arcane standards that only they grasp and that they’re never quite able to articulate. Can appear “wise,” and knows how to work that misconception to their advantage.  A relentless egoist, wrapped up so deeply in their own emo world that you may as well not exist at all.

    Incompetent neer-do-well. Spends all their time thinking about important things to do and writing about important things to do, but never actually ever does anything.  Imagines they’re important.  Has vast array of ideals, all of which they fail to live up to or express in their day to day life. Prone to succumbing to cult leaders and/or following hopeless political causes, ie: Ron Paul/Ralph Nader.  Appears to be easygoing, but will surprise you with the suddenness with which they lash out when you question the basic insanity of their worldview.

    Quietly developing a robot army to conquer and dominate the world, a plan to which they’ve dedicated their entire lives.  Finds the processes of eating and breathing to be irritating distractions.   Does not tolerate lesser mortals, and would go mad if asked to contemplate the light playing across a dew-speckled leaf at sunrise.  What does not kill them makes them stronger…than you.  Will assume that dominance over you is their right, unless you are unusually skilled at martial arts or can beat them at chess.  Would make an excellent Sith.

    Lives utterly within the realm of obsessive, pointless study.   Gloms on to the ethereal and dithering minutia, and couldn’t care less about practical realities.  So wrapped up in their own little world that they may not have showered in several weeks.  They don’t care.  You do not exist for them. Either that, or you are too stupid to be anything other than an annoyance that should go away as soon as possible so that they can retreat back into the world that they’ve created for themselves.  May as well be an inanimate object.

    Wants what they want, and they want it right now.  Yesterday?  They don’t remember it.  Tomorrow?  It doesn’t matter.  Prone to maxing out their credit cards and/or getting venereal diseases. Thinks Adam Sandler movies are the height of cinema.  Gossipy and trivial, they’ll take the money from any wallet they find on the street before returning it…assuming they don’t decide on the spur of the moment just to keep the thing. Ooh!  It’s so pretty!  Will try to sell you all kinds of pointless crap you don’t need.

    Utterly conventional American suburbanite, whose moments of greatness came in high school.  Tends towards jockliness and mindless physicality.  Completely lacks imagination, to the point at which it’s not clear if they’re human or some kind of animatronic device that escaped from Disney World.  Sees the world in simple terms, and if female tends to be the kind of relentless drudge who takes over most local organizations.  If male, will happily give you a swirly/wedgie.

    Endlessly, distractingly chirrupy.  Hopelessly hypersocial, the sort of person with 3,700 Facebook friends they don’t really know.  Easily amused by fart jokes and unembarrassed by the crazy stupid things they do when drinking.  Flit from thing to thing to thing without a care in the world.  Aren’t good at math, and don’t read the news, unless InStyle and/or Maxim count as news.  Volunteered once, but never stuck with it.   Insists on being the center of attention, mostly through their highly loud and annoying laughing at unfunny things.  May overtly worship Oprah.

    Really, really wants everyone to like them.  Unspeakably tedious to be around, as have no ideas of their own. Tend towards reflexive patriotism and the use of flag/doily/feng shui-based decorating.  Faithful reader of PARADE magazine.  Very emotionally needy, and may be prone to repeated bouts of cosmetic surgery or relationships with sociopathic people from whom they hopelessly struggle to get affirmation that will never come.

    Your “fun” uncle who never got around to growing up and makes your mom crazy.  Tend toward medieval reenactment as a hobby/profession.  Utterly unable to get motivated to do their taxes/pay their bills/raise their children.  Remember the story about the busy ant and the grasshopper?  This one is the grasshopper.  Sings all day when the going is good in summer, but when the winter comes, it’s grasshopsicle time.  Will end up living on your sofa.

    Serious drama queen.   No inner life, and thus immune to things like conventional psychoanalysis. Being alone with own thoughts terrifying. Utterly unable to get beyond their own paralyzing hyperemotional responses to a situation.   Can be completely overbearing.  You are unlikely to get in a word edgewise.   High maintenance.   So consumed by their terror at not meeting the perceived needs of others that at times it seems they don’t exist at all.

    That annoying guy on the high school debate team.  Knows it all, and tells you so.  Will never admit that you are right, not even for a second, even if they know you are.  So busy deconstructing everyone and everything around them that they never actually finished high school, and may not ever finish a complete sentence. That doesn’t stop them from talking, though. Oh, how they love to talk.

    Totally, utterly full of themselves.  Take over every group they encounter. Tend to be management consultants.  Great at convincing your boss that they know all the latest business paradigms, and are equally great at spouting off the most potent buzzwords. Will inevitably come to the conclusion that you are dead wood and aren’t adequately motivated and/or educated and/or competent.  Will be sure you’re fired during the next round of downsizing.

Fat Tuesday

For most of the last six or seven years, this would be the night when I would diligently dispose of any of the "fat" remaining in my household prior to the beginning of the Lenten Season.  By "fat," I'd mean "beer."   I've consistently made a point of giving that up, as it is the indulgence that I tend to prefer above most other indulgences.

But this year, well, I just didn't do it.  At the end of February, I finished the last 22 ounce bottle of my brew-your-own, a variant on a simply stunning recipe called "Mountain Beast."  It was the perfect mix of light malt sweetness on the front end, mingled with the subtleties of a grain suffusion, and with a smoothly floral hoppy followthrough.  At 10.49% APV, it was also a singularly potent beer, particularly given it's complex yet accessible nature. 

And with the last few drops ingested, and the knowledge that the Lenten season was a few weeks away, I decided that it was time to start the fast, and simply stop drinking beer and any other form of alcohol.    Honestly, as the supply of beer was whittled down night by night, I found myself actually looking forward to starting Lent early, to setting that fun but midsection-expanding activity aside.  Eager to see what impact it might have on me physically, now that I'm exercising far more regularly.  Eager to see how it might effect my dreaming, as my REM sleep is consistently more vivid when my intake of C2H5OH is eliminated. 

So Lent begins, and I've hit the ground running.

Fat Tuesday always struck me as peculiar.  Great fun, but peculiar.

If you take Jesus folk at their word, the forty days prior to Easter are part of a time of fasting, refocusing, and spiritual discipline.  The only reason to undertake such a thing is if you're excited and eager to refocus and redirect yourself in ways that move you closer to God.  We are, in this event, ritually renacting the Nazarene's trial in the wilderness, that time of purification and preparation and self-cleansing in the desert that Jesus undertook before he embarked on his Kingdom Tour of Galilee.

I just can't seem to recall anywhere in the synoptics hearing that Jesus spent the night before narfing down bacon and finishing all of the wine in the house, or offering Wilderness Beads to any Judean hotties willing to lift their veils.  "Show us your nose!"

Maybe that'll be in the new 2011 NIV.

Whichever way, it's nice to hit this Ash Wednesday not looking Ashen myself.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rocking the Boat: How to Effect Change Without Making Trouble

As I plunge into the reading for my D. Min. program, the first of the books that I'm cranking through is by Debra E. Meyerson, an Associate Professor of Education and Business at Stanford.  This academic but basically readable book revolves around an exploration of what it means to be a change agent within an organization.  This, obviously, has some potential implications for leading a congregation, particularly a congregation that is stuck or needs to transform itself. 

The core concept that acts as the unifying principle of this book is the concept of the "tempered radical" as the primary instigator of change and transformation within an organization.   A "tempered radical" is an individual who, on the one hand, is a radical.  Something about them sets them apart from the core ethos of the group within which they find themselves.  Their thinking and their action stands in marked tension with the expectations around them.  They are a deviant, but not (hopefully) in the "I'm really really really into patent leather undergarments" sort of way.  They deviate from the norm, and from that deviation, they bring with them the potential to effectuate a shift in institutional direction.

This person isn't, however, a bomb-throwy blower-upper of things.  They are "tempered," meaning that inherent deviance from the norm is tempered by a deep commitment to the well-being of the institution in which they are active. That fusion of commitment and a willingness to transgress against organizational boundaries is a key feature of transformational leadership.

As I reflect on how Meyerson's insights manifest themselves within my own ministry, I had a couple of reactions:

1)  Organizational Culture, Difference, and the Tempered Radical.  As Meyerson describes it, the countercultural identity of the tempered radical frequently means they end up facing both explicit and implicit resistance within their organizations.  Because they don't fit within the broader culture of their community, they can often be afflicted with a sense of isolation.  (Meyerson, p. 5)

As a pastor serving a community where I am visibly different from the majority (in my case, second generation Asian-American), I've felt this difference consistently over the last seven years.  The theological and social expectations of my congregation vary in some significant ways from my own.  Theologically, I'm a progressive in a conservative/evangelical milieu.  Where my theological inclinations tend towards justice, service, and classical Christian mysticism, my congregation's expectations are more in line with Korean American evangelicalism.  That would include a "personal relationship" with God, an intense focus on emotional worship, a more literal approach to scripture, and an approach to evangelism that is very focused on converting least in theory.

That theological difference has placed me on the periphery of the community.  That is intensified by cultural factors particular to 2.0 Asian Americans whose faith experience is formed in 1.0 Korean congregations.  Most of my congregation shares a long history of active participation in the same youth group, which defined not just their faith, but their social circle.  It's a tightly knit group of old friends, and the boundaries of social and church life are often difficult to discern.  The set of social expectations that arise out of that relationship radically define the character of the congregation, which resembles a family in large part because it has often served as a family surrogate.  This social intimacy stands in direct tension with the ethos of evangelical conversion, a tension with which my community still struggles.

While these points of difference are considerable, I've found that the core of connection to the community...meaning, our shared faith in Christ...has been a major "tempering" factor.  As often as I've felt out of step with the community, I've felt how the shared passion for the essential grace and goodness of the Gospel provides a bond which transcends that difference. 

2)  The Tempered Radical and Pastoral Leadership.  Here, I struggled with Meyerson's thesis, not because it is an invalid change model, but because it seems mismatched with the reality of pastoral leadership.  In each of the framing anecdotes presented by Meyerson, the essential story of the Tempered Radical is the same.  Within the framework of a large or midsized corporate entity, a tempered radical works in middle management, where they effectuate gradual change by acting upon values that differ from the norm.  That effort is consistently described as primarily sub rosa.  Their efforts are "..less visible, less coordinated, and less vested with formal authority."  (ibid, p.171) 

This works if you are a middle manager, but it does not apply to pastoral leadership.  Pastors are, within the congregations they serve, the most highly visible representatives of the community.  If they are to be successful, they need to articulate and personally embody the highest values and aspirations of their community.  They cannot be invisible or peripheral.  If they are, then they are not providing the leadership a community needs. 

Can they challenge community norms?  Absolutely.  They need to.  Can they be radical?  Yes.   But the organizational context of the tempered radical and the organizational context of the pastor are not the same.   From the organizational location of a pastor, characteristics like personal charisma, the capacity to produce visible success, and being visionary (ibid., p. 171) cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the health of a congregation. 

Pastors are not managers.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Death and Traffic

This morning, after the usual hurly burly of prepping kids to truck off to their respective Saturday activities, the big guy and I rolled the Prius onto the exit ramp leading onto the Beltway.  We were, as always, late, and as that Road of Despair rose into view, it was clear that things were not well.

The ramp and long access lane were clear, but the Beltway itself was locked up solid, a metal mass of bumper to bumper carbon-positive crawling.  I was about to mutter something unpastorly under my breath when I noticed the emergency vehicles, two fire engines and two ambulances, just a half click ahead.  The road was blocked, but our approach to the entrance was clear, and there would be no traffic once we got on the highway.

Which would have been cause for celebration, were it not for the fact that it was clearly a bad, bad accident.  We moved carefully by.

There were two cars.   Once was a silver Honda Civic, with no apparent damage.  Perhaps the first person on the scene.  The second was a Nissan Sentra, late 90s vintage.   It appeared to have gone into the retaining wall head first, and at considerable speed.  Around the  driver's side of the Sentra was a cluster of EMTs and firefighters.  They were talking amongst themselves, and some were looking into the vehicle.  They did not seem hurried.

As we passed, I saw that slumped on the steering wheel of the Sentra was a older man.  He was not moving.

I wondered, for I only glanced for an instant, if my mind had created that image, molding the folds of an airbag and a seat into a feared and expected shape.

"What did you see," I said to my son, who had looked longer.

"I saw a man with his head resting on the wheel, Dad.  He wasn't moving."

"That's because he was dead," I said, because it was clearly so.

After that, we talked, as a father should to his child when they first see death.  We talked about the man, and whether he might have had a family, and whether it was better if he did or he didn't.  We talked about dying, and what it's like to watch someone die.  We talked about how important it is to remember those who have passed, how important it is for the living to both mourn and to celebrate the lives that are forever a part of both us and Creation. 

There are times it is both hard and good to be the dad.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

How To Celebrate Another Westboro Baptist Triumph

Yesterday's decision in the Supreme Court of the United States in the landmark Phelps v. Snyder represented yet another remarkable victory for America's most effective and successful small congregation, one that I think needs to be both honored and publicly recognized.

In most communities, the arrival of Westboro Baptist over the last several years has a consistent result.  There are counterdemonstrations.  There are lines of bikers and folks dressed as angels, placing themselves as a physical boundary between Westboro and whatever high-profile media target their governing committee has identified.  But in the light of this recent victory, we're now assured that Westboro will be able to continue their work, and I think that requires some different thinking in the communities blessed by their presence.

First and foremost, as I have argued before, the time has come for American communities to acknowledge the good work of Fred Phelps and his little family church. 

We all know what they're really up to, but just to be clear, let me enumerate:

1)  Calling Attention to Our Fallen Heroes:  As our long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on mostly outside of the public eye, it would be easy for Americans to forget the loss and suffering of families whose sons and daughters have died.  Only a small fraction of this country serves in the military, and because the military is increasingly a distinct subculture within our society, it grows easier and easier for us to just go about our lives as consumers and forget our duty as citizens to honor our citizen-soldiers.  The Phelpses single minded effort to call our attention back to that loss is truly a gift.

2)  Uniting Our Divided Nation:   We are increasingly a divided people.  Our public discourse too often descends into shouting and posturing, and it's a threat to our Republic.  But when Westboro Baptist comes to town, progressives and conservatives realize, suddenly, that we have common cause together as Americans.  We realize that for all of our shouting at one another, there are certain basic principles that we all share.  At a Westboro event, liberal students and GLBT activists stand side by side with law enforcement and biker veterans.  I've been to these events, and the sense of unity is overwhelming.  Who else has accomplished such an amazing thing?

3)  Challenging the Assumptions of Popular Theology:  Much of the ongoing discord in American society has to do with arguments about same-sex relationships.  Those arguments frequently are grounded in a set of particular theological assumptions about the nature of God.   Fred Phelps and his clan have artfully taken the theological assumptions against homosexuality to their logical conclusion.  In doing so, they have shown us that we do not really for a moment believe that God is a God of hate.  This is not the God to whom we pray on Sunday in church, or on Saturday in synagogue, or on Friday in the mosque.  Westboro makes us realize that the true nature of the Creator who blessed us with liberty is love, even for those with whom we disagree.  They have challenged our assumptions about how our Maker views those whose sexual orientation differs from the norm.  By making us aware of this, they have done more to further the acceptance of gays and lesbians in our culture than any other congregation in America.

4)  Defending the Right to Free Speech:  This is huge.  Absolutely huge.  What makes our Constitutional Republic noble and exceptional is our defense of the rights of unpopular minorities to speak their minds.  Phelps and his congregation have worked to defend this right, in a meticulous and systematic way.  By carefully studying the law, and maintaining a consistently legal and nonviolent posture, Westboro Baptist  yesterday delivered a Supreme Court precedent that will stand as a free speech bulwark for those we might silence in moments of nationalistic or politically correct fervor, for as long as our Republic stands.

Without question, then, Westboro Baptist is the most successful Queer Christian Performance Activist troupe in history.  The time has come for us to celebrate them, and to show them how much we appreciate their tireless work.

Let me share with you my vision of what that might look like. 

When they arrive for an event this year, ready for another performance, they would find not the usual counterdemonstrations.  Instead, there would be signs of welcome. 

They would read: "We Love You, Westboro Baptist!" "Thank You, Westboro Baptist!"  "Our Troops Salute You, Westboro Baptist!"  "GLBT's Thank You, Westboro Baptist."  "Westboro: Champion of GLBT Rights!"  I picture an Army band playing, while the combined voices of four Gay Mens Choruses sing Amazing Grace.

Chairs of honor would be prepared for the adults.  There would be lemonade and cookies for the Phelps kids.  Awards and certificates of thanks would be presented, from representatives of the local VFW and the local PFLAG chapter. 

The Phelpses would resist, of course.  They'd shout and carry on, and kick over the chairs, and throw the awards to the ground, or pretend to look confused.  Staying in character is important to them, and important to their art.  It's why they're so successful.  We must respect their commitment.

But we'd just give them a sly wink and say, "We know what you're up to.  Thank you so much for what you've done for all of us.  You are truly a blessing."

If we did this every time they showed up, perhaps...just perhaps...Westboro would be able to finally rest.   The work the Lord has appointed to them would be done.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hell's Bell

Ah well.  I'd been planning on posting a few more "Your Pastor Is Not..." pieces, but for today, I'm distracted.  Distracted by the gentle flickering flames of Hellfire, as it were.   Outside of the ever-shrinking self-referential bounds of the PC(USA), the chatter in the Christian blogosphere has been spitting out controversy.

And oh, does we Christians love us some controversy.

The theological battle royale that has once again distracted Christians from their primary task of, you know, being Christian has to do with an upcoming book by Rob Bell.  Rob Bell, in the event you do not know of him, is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church.  He's evangelical, thoughtful, hopeful, and passionate about the Gospel.  He approaches the Gospel as good news, and pitches it in a way that neither insults the intelligence nor troubles folks who expect Good News to sound, you know, good.

Rob Bell is not...
Mark Driscoll
Here, it's important that we not confuse Rob Bell with Mark Driscoll, who leads the Mars Hill church in Seattle with testosterone-addled neofundamentalist fury, and whose primary Twitter hash tag is #greatbellowingmeatsock.

They are not even remotely the same guy.

What folks are up in arms about, apparently, is that Bell's latest book...or, rather, what they're inferring from the promo teaser and the book jacket...might possibly imply that Hell is not a central and significant part of Christian doctrine.  It's an outrageous and unbiblical heresy!  Without the burning toasty fires of Divine Fury applied to the toastable tushies of infidels, Jesus has no meaning!

It's just like John 3:16 says: God so hated the world that He had to kill His own kid so that He wouldn't have to stick unbelievers on a spit, boil them in the fondue flames of Gehenna, dip them in a vat of nicely melted aged sharp cheddar, and then munch them down.  Repeatedly.  Forever.

That's what both my fundamentalist and my new atheist friends tell me is the essence of the Gospel, and they know about Jesus better than anybody.

Now, there's no way to know what exactly Rob Bell has said, given that the book isn't out yet.   Looking at the pre-publication uproar, I find myself wondering, for a long instant, whether or not it comes primarily out of Bell just having a really, really good publicist.

I've read and listened and watched Bell, and from that foundation, I'm not sure I totally agree with him on everything.  My takes on Hell and Universalism may differ from Bell's in some nontrivial ways.  I'll know better once I've read the book.  But that Bell consistently chooses to focus on the grace and the goodness of the Gospel, and to place the joy of Christ at the heart of his proclamation,'s commendable.

Hell-based evangelism is and has always been a contradiction in terms.

I think he's well placed as a pastor in a church called Mars Hill, which draws it's name from an important moment in the Apostle Paul's ministry.  You know, Paul, who realized that to spread the Gospel, you can't jabber away at folks with in-group terms of art.  You have to find ways to express it that meaningfully speak it's promise to people who haven't been hermetically sealed away in the AmeriChrist echo chamber for their whole homebirthed/homeschooled/youthgrouped/biblecolleged lives.

 That is, after all, the essence of being an effective proclaimer of the Good News.