Thursday, April 28, 2011

Birthers and Faith

Yesterday's news was chock full of crazy, but perhaps the craziest event of all was the release of the President's birth certificate.  Not the short form legal document, which has been out there for a while, but the original full length long form.

The reason for this is simple:  there's a significant sub-set of the American right wing that just can't bring itself to believe that Barack Hussein Obama is actually a citizen.  They're called the "Birthers," because they're utterly convinced that Obama was born in Kenya.  It's the name, of course, coupled the fact that he's kinda not Caucasian, which just doesn't process.

After years of suffering through these accusations, most recently stirred by potential Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump...gah...did I really say that...yes, I did, God help us all...the "long form" that has been demanded as proof of Obama's citizenship was finally released by the state of Hawaii.

Which, of course, isn't going to do a single thing to change the minds of Birthers.   Not a thing.  Why would it?  In this era of choose-your-own-reality, those who fervently believe Obama is not American will find places that affirm that belief.  Nothing, not no way, not no-how, is going to get the folks over at WorldNetDaily to admit that Obama has the right to be president.  Ever.

There's no amount of evidence you can produce, no carefully supported tack of argumentation, no appeal to reason, nothing that will change their perspective.  Honestly, these folks will still be going on about this issue well after Obama has finished his second term...just like the leftist "Truthers" can't seem to just freakin' let Occam's Razor deal with 9/11 already, or how some folks still can't bring themselves to believe that human beings on the moon, no matter how hard you hit 'em.

Why?  Because that belief...odd though it may be...defines them.  It provides them with their sense of identity.  It's not peripheral to their sense of self, but is, instead, central.  They orient and structure their lives around it.  And as such, it is akin to faith.

Which leads, conceptually, to something every person of faith needs to think honestly about.   My faith in God, and in the life/teachings/death/resurrection of Jesus, and in the transforming power of the Spirit, that faith is a bulwark.  It's a backstop when all other defining features are dashed against the unpleasant realities of being.  It's a defining and central characteristic of my adult identity.  It is, as existentialist theologian Paul Tillich would put it, my "ultimate concern," meaning that which defines the entirety of my being.  It is the narrative lens through which I understand existence, and from which I derive my purpose and sense of self.

But what faith isn't is negotiable.  Real and robust faith shifts, lives, and breathes, and integrates new concepts into itself.  It grows, and changes, but the essence, purpose, and direction of it does not.

Which is why having faith in things that are not...well...ultimate...leads to a delusional and/or destructive sense of self.  And a delusional and destructive sense of what is real, true, and meaningful.  But really, that's not faith at all.  It's idolatry.

And idolatry is perhaps the most robust and pernicious of human failings.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

White Like Me

As I dig into the reading for the second of my upcoming doctoral classes, I find myself doing so with a tiny bit of trepidation.  The course I'll be taking is on Leadership and Diversity, and to be frank, I'm a tick concerned.  Not with the relevance or importance of diversity within the church.  Not at all.  Congregations that are monocultures tend to be drab and authoritarian, and poor reflections of Christ's command to really love those who aren't you.  I'm both tolerant of and can enjoy difference, in both form, organizational culture and theology, so long as that difference doesn't include fundamental violations of the Great Commandment.  That tends to trouble me.

What makes me a bit leery is my fear that this course will make me...once again...feel like a conservative.  I'm not, of course.  Open and inclusive?  Yup.  Affirming of women?  Eco-friendly?  Uh huh.  But there are strains of academic leftism that leave me gnashing my teeth.  Things can get so monomanaically focused on race and gender that the central message of the Gospel...and of theology itself...seems to fade away into nothing.  This bugs me, for some reason.

So diving into this class, I hit the book that I could tell would annoy me the most first.  Just to get it out the way, if you will.  The book is White Like Me, by antiracism activist Tim Wise.  As a Honkey-American, I could just smell how difficult it would be to read, and I wasn't mistaken.

The entire book is a screed against white privilege, by which Wise means the inherent advantage that individuals of European background have in the United States.  It's not an imaginary thing, of course.  Being "white" often means being materially advantaged, particularly in the American South.  It also means that you pretty much never need to work against the specter of racism in day-to-day life.  There is no such thing as Driving While White, for instance.    We are not yet a truly post-racial culture.

But for all of the ways in which race needs to be challenged as a way in which we value one another, I found Wise's critique off.

His tendency to see race as primarily black and white was understandable given his life in New Orleans...but that is no longer the reality of race in America.  Racial dynamics in this country now include growing Latino and Asian communities, as well as communities of African, Afro-Caribbean, and Middle Eastern immigrants.  He sorta kinda gets at the multivalent character of ethnicity in 21st century America, but only sorta kinda.  It feels dated.

Wise also seems so focused on race that he's oblivious to class.  "Privilege" in our culture is often mediated by race, but it is also profoundly mediated by socioeconomic status.  While my WASPiness has certainly conferred advantage, what's more significant is that 1) I come from a stable extended family unit, 2) both of my parents have graduate degrees, 3) both parents were engaged and interested in my education and upbringing, and 4) money was never a significant worry for my family when I was growing up.  For all of our proclamations about social mobility, class divisions are self-perpetuating, creating cultures that reinforce status and privilege.  There is often a magnifying interplay between ethnicity and socioeconomics...but Wise just doesn't seem to get it, or glosses over it.

But my biggest struggle reading Wise is that he comes across as profoundly graceless.  Maybe it was that the last book I read was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s reflections on the bus boycott in Montgomery.  Dr. King's measured, intelligent, gracious, and faith-centered tone was nowhere to be found in White Like Me.  Wise is all leftist truculence, snarky, personal, and bitter.  He's all rage, all the time.  The world is full of idiots, none of whom see how racist they all are.  Conservatives and moderates and liberals who don't share his rage are all equally useless.

As, frankly, are the ethical teachings of Christianity.  In one of the few sections where he overtly mentions faith, he describes a fight he's picked with some Christians over the depiction of Jesus as white.  When they try to say that color doesn't matter, he lays into them...and then lays into their assertion that faith leads people to try to transcend race.   "I mean, the Golden Rule has been around for like, forever, and hasn't done much of anything to get rid of racism," he snarks.

Having just read...from the profoundly Dr. King's Christian faith and the faith of the African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement influenced their actions, and how that very ethic was the foundation of King's understanding of what he did, it's clear that Wise doesn't have a clue what he's talking about when it comes to Jesus and race.

It's good to have him out of the way, then.  The other books look considerably more relevant.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Doing Nothing Special for Easter

As I prepare to transition out of my little congregation, and it tries to figure out what the next stage of it's life will look like, certain things in the life of the church are notably and visibly changing.  As the last of the old stalwarts begin to detach themselves from the congregation they've attended for decades, attendance has dipped a bit.  The transition over to a wholly Christian Contemporary style means that the old beloved hymns are just no longer sung, and the old prayers aren't being said, and the fellowship life is young and mostly monogenerational.  There is no place for the old guard in the life of the new church, something that in moments of unpastorly irritation makes me think of the new church in the same way I think of that boy in Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree."

But then I remember, shoot, this is what folks wanted.  They were exhausted.  They were ready to move on.  It was what they hoped for and needed.  So I smack down that grumpy little meme.

Still, with things in this in-between place, and the relationship with the dying 1.0 Korean church functionally nonexistent, Easter this year will be different. 

In previous years, in fact, every year, Easter worship has been a Big Deal.  But the church is, now, just a seed of what will come.  So there'll be no riotous multilingual smorgasbord of skits and songs and choirs and bell choirs.  There simply aren't enough people.  There will be no lilies, or bright white on the parament, because the folks who are here now really couldn't care less about those things.  No-one even knows what a parament is...which is fine, because honestly, I'm not sure Jesus would have known if you asked him.

For this Sunday, what we're doing liturgically is pretty much exactly what we do every Sunday.

There will be some difference, of course.  The music will be Easter-themed.  The sermon will focus on resurrection.  There will be a scaled-back Easter egg hunt for the handful of little ones, because not to do that would be such a serious bummer.  There will be a potluck.  More folks will be wearing ties.

But it's not going to be a particularly unusual day in the worship life of the church.  And perhaps, as the former moderator of the PCUSA recently suggested on his blog, this might not be a bad thing.   Perhaps having folks show up, and telling them, you know...this is what we do every week...well, it might not be a bad thing. Why raise people's expectations?

Then again, I like the extra effort that goes into the special events in the life of the church.  I like the festivals.  There is a spiritual point, I think, in marking certain days as more significant, and in cranking up the rejoicing a notch.

Which is why there's one more thing we're doing this Sunday, oh, about 15 minutes from now. 

It could happen any day of the year, but we're doing it today.  A half-dozen new members are joining, all young, making their commitment and profession of faith before the church.  There's not a bunch of hoopla.  Just hope, and the promise of new life and new gifts and new things in the ministry.

So I guess we are doing something special.  It's hard not to, on a day like today.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Being Presbyterian...Or Not

Whenever I teach my way through a new members class, the questions about the various different flavors of Christianity always surface.  What makes Presbyterians Presbyterian?  What's the difference?  What about Baptists/ Methodists/ Pentecostals/ Catholics/ Non-Denominationals?

I tend to answer the questions pretty much in the same way.  For some folks, these divisions become something to fight over.  Human beings are great at that.  But viewed as I tend to view it, the richness and variety of traditions within the broad umbrella of Christian faith just means the message of the Gospel has reaches more people.  It's a remarkably robust and dynamic thing, this message Jesus bore into the world.  It can articulate itself in a hundred tongues and cultures and through all manner of communities.  Authentic Christian faith looks amazingly diverse, from contemplative and monastic to big stadium revival, from little country churches to Jesus Megaplexes, from service and justice work to all-neurons-firin'-floppin'-on-the-floor-for-Jesus-ecstasy.

So long as the Most Excellent Way is the rule for our walk, Christ walks with us.

So yesterday, on a gorgeous Maundy Thursday morning, I hopped on the bike and motored to downtown DC for a meeting. The meeting was with the Bishop of the local synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the pastor who assists him.

At the recommendation of a wise denominational official, I'd asked for a sit down with them to talk through whether there might be opportunities within the ELCA for a PCUSA pastor...'cause there just isn't anything available in the DC area within the Presbyterian church.  Things surface, sure.  But the glut of pastors in the PCUSA, the tendency of those pastors to seek calls in metropolitan areas, and my locational's the perfect vocational storm.  Ten years of religious education, ten years of secular experience in the nonprofit world, and seven years of experience as a pastor mean squat if you're just one of several hundred forms being trudged through by a committee. 

There are always possibilities, sure.  There are some wonderful churches out there that are looking...or will be soon.  God tends to work in ways you'd never expect.  One never knows.  But I am also deeply aware of the reality of things.  I may be a fool for Christ, but I am not an idiot.

So now I find myself contemplating the possibility of a shift.  The chat with the Lutherans was really quite pleasant.  But the question the bishop posed was honestly challenging.  They might be able to make me an interim, but I was up front about not being strongly called to that  form of ministry.  They also suggested that they could put me on the roster of candidates, but to do that, I'd have to go into the Lutheran call process.  Which I'm up for conceptually and totally open to theologically.  Luther is cool.  Whenever I teach the book of Romans, I reference that as the foundation of his faith.  Whenever I teach the Reformation, his story is front and center.  And the ELCA is sympatico.

As a "cradle Presbyterian," though, it's a bit daunting personally.  Not be Presbyterian?  It's not just the "baptized/confirmed/left the church/returned as an adult/been basically Presbyterian my whole life" thing.  It's not just all those years of preparation, all that process and committee work and testing and requirements and more testing and more committee work.  It's that for all the flaws and clumsiness and squabblyness of the church, I still like it.   The prospect of being elsewhere is disorienting.

But that it makes me uncomfortable may not be a bad thing.  New things are never comfortable.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wandering Away

The church office doorbell rang at 11:25 am, just as I was getting ready to go off to meet someone for a working lunch.  After a few moments, the office manager popped her head in.  "It's someone wanting to see the pastor," she said.  For the next six months, that's still me, and I knew exactly what that meant.  I asked her to print out a copy of the local food and emergency assistance resources, and went out to talk.

He was short and rumpled and round of belly, looking for all the world like a Salvadoran Bilbo Baggins.  I introduced myself, and shook his hand, which was soft and slightly moist.  The story came out haltingly, though his English seemed perfectly serviceable.  He was out of work.  Work was hard to come by.  He needed money for food and money for rent and money because he was low on gas, and could we help?  I said sure, but that we didn't have food here and didn't give out money.   I was, however, happy to go with him to the nearby gas station and fill up his tank.  It meets a need, and given where gas prices are, particularly in Bethesda, that ain't nuthin' these days.  

He said sure, OK, that'd be good.  He smiled.  I gave him the number of a nonprofit that works with emergency needs in the Latino community in our county.  He looked at it.  Oh, said he, I went there, they can't do anything for me.

Ah, thought I.   I've heard that line before.  But it matters not.  We don't give just to thems that are deservin', after all.  You give to those who ask.  Period.  

We chatted for a moment about how tough times are, and then I told him to follow me to the gas station, and he nodded his assent.  We take a right, go down this street, and then take a left, and I'll get you gas, I said.  He nodded.  Thank you, he said.  

I hopped into my van, and watched him get into his aging Civic.  I pulled to the street, and waited for him to follow.  He did.  I signaled right, and pulled out down the street slowly so he could follow.  A moment passed.  Then another.

Then he pulled out, going in the opposite direction.  Not in any particular hurry.  Just not following me.  Going the other way, away from twenty or thirty bucks worth of free gas.  I slowed down, and muttered bemused wonderment under my breath.  I did a slow U turn, and watched as his car disappeared around the bend.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How We Can Save Three. Hundred. Billion. Dollars.

As our current POTUS starts spooling up a semi-serious response to dealing with the issue that has been kicking around since I was a child...I find myself preparing to be unsurprised by one nearly inevitable outcome.

Cutbacks will be proposed, of course.  Some tax hits for the richest of the rich and major corporations will be pitched out there, right on cue for the 2012 election cycle.  But one particular thing is unlikely to be brought to the table.  Obama is unlikely to address our out of control military spending.

Yes, we all Support Our Troops (tm).  We all love America, and want her to be safe and secure.

But there is simply no sane argument for our current level of military spending.  None whatsoever.  Where we are, as 2009, is in a place where we spend $687 Billion dollars every year for our military.

As context, in 2009, number two in the military spending race was China.  The People's Republic of Selling Us Stuff That We Used Make Ourselves devoted $114 Billion dollars to their various military branches in Oh Nine.  Next up was France, at $61 Billion, and then Great Britain, at $57 billion and change.

Using a little second grade math, we see that...hmm...we spend...ahh...hold it!  We spend almost exactly six times as much on our military as China.   Assuming that spending equals military competence on the field of battle (dubious, I know, but let's run with it), America might be taxed in a military exchange in which we found ourselves faced by a hostile coalition comprised of China, France, the UK, Russia, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Italy, India, Brazil, South Korea, Canada, Australia, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Israel, the Netherlands, Greece, Columbia, Taiwan, and Poland.   Those militaries, combined, are roughly a match for ours on a dollars-spent basis.

Is that the future for which we are preparing?

'Cause if it ain't, what in the Sam Hill do we think we're doing?

There is no reason for a Constitutional Republic to be so inordinately overarmed.  Were we an imperial power, or an expansionist fascist state, I could see the rationale.  It would be an evil rationale, but at least it would jibe with the broader story we tell ourselves about the values of our nation.  Now, though...we've got a coherence problem.

John Boehner's basement...and he's still afraid...
Yeah, yeah, we all like to feel secure and strong.  But at a certain point, feeling insecure stops being about reality, and starts indicating that there's some real mental problems going on.  We are, as a nation, just a little crazy.  Those who argue that our current level of spending is necessary for our defense are like that highly twitchy neighbor down the street who has a wall-full of AR-15s, a man-portable M-134, and 15,000 rounds of assorted ammunition in his basement because he's sure someone is out to get him.

We do not want to be that guy, no matter what John Boehner says.

What would make the most sense from a budgetary standpoint...not that it will happen, of standing down our imperial army.  But to what level?

Let's imagine, for a moment, that our warfighters aren't the best in the world.  Blasphemy, I know, but it's just a thought exercise.  We can say forty Hail Pattons when we're through to make amends.

Let's say that the Chinese...the number two world power...could defeat America if we spent the same amount on our military as they do.  Yeah, we're not at war, or even formally enemies, but no-one wants America to be defeated.

So what if we spend twice as much as the People's Republic of China?  Would we feel secure being twice as armed as they are?

No?  Really?  Their command of kung fu coupled with their ability to put on some really amazingly coordinated Olympic opening events has you a little freaked out?   Alright, you wuss.  How about we spend three times as much as China?  For every one gun they have, we have three.   For every tank, we have three...or one that is three times as good.

And remember, our soldiers are the Best In The World.  Right?  Right?  Don't tell me you don't think so!  Given three times the resources, the men and women of the United States Military couldn't prevail?  You aren't going there, are you, my friend?

I thought not.

That would mean savings, on an annual basis, of nearly $300 Billion dollars that our government currently spends...and doesn't have. 

Sigh.  I really wish America wasn't so totally insane.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Take the Next Step

As I continue the journey through my reading for the first of the two courses I'll be taking in May, next up in the rotation is Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church.  This is the second of the two books I'll be reading written by the professor who'll be teaching this course, and...thankfully...this one proved to be both informative and eminently readable.  In Take the Next Step, Weems leads his readers through the concepts and practical steps required to help a congregation explore it's purpose for being, and to determine what vision it is called towards.  It's a solid and practical journey through the visioning process, one that provides the tools any change-agent-leader might need as they help a congregation move towards a new state of being.

As I reflected on how the straightforward concepts and processes laid out by Weems have interfaced with my own ministry work, two key concepts popped for me as being particularly relevant:

Relationships and Trust:  In order to lead effectively and to influence change within an organizational system, a leader must be trusted.  (p. 27-28)  Developing trust is absolutely essential, and Weems lays out three interlocking ways in which trust is built.  First, individuals must manifest character in such a way that they are seen as a person of their word.  Second, they must demonstrate clear and sustained competence in necessary areas of expertise.  Third, they need to be a personal presence, someone who is there in times of crisis, and with whom key decision makers within the organization have a chance to develop a sense of connection.  (p. 32)  Once trust is established across those three interlocking spheres, an individual can leverage that trust towards building an organizational vision.

Within my own ministry, I've seen the necessity of developing trust across all three of these areas.  When I was initially called to serve my congregation, which was struggling, aging, and highly conflicted, my judicatory saw how desperately complex the situation was and turned down the call.  From a pastoral care standpoint, it was a perfectly reasonable decision.  But call is call, and so within the bounds of what was permissible, decent and orderly, I chose to remain.  I simply wouldn't leave.   Even in the full knowledge that the merger my congregation hoped to undertake as it revitalized was an outside shot, I was perfectly willing to make a principled stand to remain even if it meant taking a significant risk.  

The net effect of this choice, as I experienced it, was to radically develop trust within the congregation.  I was their pastor.  I would stand with them as they worked towards joining with the Korean Presbyterian church with which we shared a building.

As the congregation began taking the gradual steps towards merger, however, that dynamic changed.  A large infusion of second generation Korean Americans joined the church all at once, but as they fused, two things occurred that changed the trust dynamics.  First, the new arrivals brought with them a culturally distinct set of expectations about what constituted pastoral competence.   Secondly and more significantly, the new cadre of young adults also brought with them their own pastor, a lay youth pastor with whom they all had a longstanding relationship and who was a central part of their tightly knit social circle. 

He was and is a decent and good hearted Christian soul, but the structural implications of that longstanding and ongoing relationship meant that providing pastoral care and relational presence...essential to building relationships of trust...was simply not part of the new congregation's expectation of me.  If one of the new members of the congregation required pastoral care, it rarely made it past the filter of that pre-existing pastoral relation, which was an organic part of the community.  Efforts to establish one-on-one relationships simply didn't change that dynamic.

With a shifting expectation of competence and dynamics that precluded my ability to forge interpersonal relationships, it became clear that I didn't have the social capital to effectuate the change necessary to establish a vital ministry.

Vision is not Made, but Discerned:   The insight that new congregational vision exists implicitly in the unspoken places of the church (p. 83-84) was another insight that strongly resonated with my own experience.  In the recognition that my ability to lead effectively was structurally compromised, and with the collapse of our partner congregation, I began working with the new young adult group to help them develop a sense of the purpose of the congregation that would lead them after I'd moved on.

We went through a series of visioning exercises, and what struck me powerfully during those sessions was the degree to which the new leadership shared a vision of the congregation.  The community they envisioned was not static, and did not resemble the ethnic community culture in which they'd grown up.  A vision of the community as a "multi-church," meaning "multi-ethnic," "multicultural," and "multigenerational" had not been formally articulated before, but rose out of the group almost unbidden.

This "vision" was not a product of the exercises, but something that the visioning work revealed. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Dual Career Households and the 21st Century Pastor

Ozzie and Harriet were, in reality, a Dual Career Couple.
As the months tick by, and the necessary preparations for my departing my congregation continue, I'm keeping my radar crankin' to see where the calling might lead next.  Reality has so far served up some clear signals.    There are wonderful churches looking for pastors, sure.  There are churches where I'd be able to serve effectively.   But with a glut of pastors seeking calls in the DC area, it's looking more and more like things are trending towards a void.

When a supportive, insightful and good hearted Presbyterian official suggests that...given my locational limitations and the competitive's time to be looking at being Lutheran, things aren't trending well for the continued union of calling and gainful employment.

My set answer to folks who ask what I'll be doing after October 30, 2011 now tends to be either 1) I'll be the Associate Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Nowhere, or if I'm feeling less whimsical, 2) I'll be working on my studies, taking time to write, and "spending time with my family" or, if I'm feeling blunter, 3) I'll be unemployed.

One never knows, of course.  The Lord doth work in ways motht inthcrutable.  Still, my shamanic reading of the dripping entrails of the Presbyterian call system points in a very challenging direction, at least in the short term.

Most of my challenge comes, I think, from being in a 21st century relationship.  Were this 1957, I'd be the sole breadwinner, the one with the career in the institutional church.  With things wrapping up at my church, my poor-as-church-mice family would be preparing to follow me from my little country church to a bigger church in a larger town, living the semi-itinerant life of the parson.

But this is not 1957.  I'm not the only one who works.

Ours is, as is the case in so many American households, a dual income household.  Well, for the moment.  My wife's career...which is here.  When I entered the ministry, her income became the primary income.  Following a recent job change, followed by a raise, followed by a major promotion and another raise, she now makes more than triple what I make in my part-time Presbytery minimum pastorate, and more than enough to sustain our household even in the complete absence of my income.

More importantly, she's good at what she does, and she likes what she does...most days.  It's her vocation.  Which leads to the challenge facing pastors of a moderate-to-progressive bent in this era.  How do we balance our vocation with the vocations of our wives/husbands/life partners?

Do we just assume that they'll be nice and submissive and follow us around from church to church to church, because we are Called By God (tm) and they "just have a job?"
"Yes, I know you like what you do, honey, but if you don't quit, you'll be impeding the will of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who has told me that I must now go serve a slightly larger church for slightly more salary three states away, just like He always does after I get into a fight with the Session."
I've got a Proverbs 31 problem with that, not to mention the fact that this way of thinking flies completely in the face of the Reformed and Protestant understanding of vocation.

Pastoring is not the only calling, eh?

Problem is, we've structured our church life under the assumption that it is, and that assumption prangs up against the reality of how most families look these days.