Saturday, December 31, 2011

Shepherd Leadership: Wisdom for Leaders from Psalm 23

As I come to the conclusion of my reading for my upcoming D.Min. Coursework, the last book in the rotation is Shepherd Leadership, a slender tome dedicated to squeezing every last little bit of leadershippyness out of the six verses of the 23rd Psalm.  It's put together by two professors, neither of whom is a bible scholar or a theologian.  One is from the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor and the other a professor of public policy and law at Pepperdine.

I'll be honest.  In reading this book, it was a little difficult retaining an entirely open mind.  It just product.  Leadership books are sellers, and the 23rd Psalm is one of the few bits of the Psalter that are still well known in our culture.  The agent's elevator pitch to the folks at Jossey Bass is just too easy to hear.  "We take the 23rd Psalm, you know, the Lord is My Shepherd, yadda yadda, then we mix in some movie references, a few anecdotes about leaders, a Max Lucado endorsement on back, and bam, I'm telling you, we'll nail the 30-40 Christian business demographic with this baby."

This feeling, unfortunately, was coupled with the fact that the 23rd Psalm is not, at its core, about leadership.   Not human leadership, anyway.

Pretty much the entire book, all 126 pages of it, are keying off off of the image of "shepherd."  This felt forced, in the way that one of those late 90's Saturday Night Live skit-movies felt forced.  Five minutes building off of one premise can be funny.  An hour and a half with one premise?  Not so much.   Adam Sandler still does not get this, unfortunately.  I reached the point in the book when I actually found myself laughing at the sheer absurdity of it.  Take this passage, where we hear about the affection a shepherd has for sheep:
"...shepherding was a high touch activity, and the good shepherd had a name for every one of his sheep...some names, like "Big Boy" or "Little One" referred to the size of the sheep.  Other names like "Hop-Along" or "One Ear" were rooted in something abnormal about the sheep.  Still others, like "Scruffy" or "Feisty" were rooted in the unique personality traits of the sheep."
Beyond the silliness of the whole thing, I found myself wondering how this might work as a means of showing care for a congregation.  I'm sure members of a church would feel the love behind being called "Scruffy" and "Hop-Along."  It was at this point that I started getting the giggles imagining various different names one might also use.   Those giggles were magnified a few pages later by the following graphic:

The idea behind it was not so terrible--view every business-attired being as an immortal soul--but I found myself having difficulty taking the book seriously.

So I set it down, got a nice night's sleep, and started up again.

I realized, after having a chance to reflect on it further, that the primary problem I was having with the book was that I was mistakenly assuming it was a work of theology.  It is not.  It is a work of general management advice, loosely framed by this familiar Psalm.  Within the framework of those limitations, I unclenched a little bit, and tried to encounter it with a more open heart and mind.
As I read deeper into the book, some of the essential wisdom being presented by McCormick and Davenport came more to the forefront.  The section on transforming conflict, particularly what they term “destructive interpersonal conflict,” (p. 72) was valuable as it laid out a series of conceptual tools and practical approaches to managing conflict.   While the use of the term “shepherd” was more metaphorical and less theological, it was nonetheless sound advice that could be used in any organizational context.   Having recently come out of a deeply conflicted congregation, I found myself strongly resonating with the ways in which they laid out some of the essential principles to managing conflict.  While negotiating such a conflict and delimiting it’s impact would require more tools than provided in this short work, the basic principles presented were sound.
The discussion of the core purposes of congregational vision work on pages 101-103 was similarly helpful.  The future-oriented/positive/simple principles for vision development established as a baseline for creating a vision were not bad as baselines, and mirrored some of the intent behind the visioning work I had the pleasure of undertaking with my prior community.  Again, while there wasn't enough detail to really guide a pastor through a visioning process, the principles were sound.
Ultimately, I think the limitations of this work theologically and the somewhat simplistic manner in which the material was presented were simply too great for me to find strong personal resonance with it.  That said, it wasn’t terrible or organizationally inaccurate.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Passionate Visionary: Leadership Lessons from the Apostle Paul

Having worked through books about David, Saul, and Moses as models for organizational leadership, I find myself now chugging my way through an assessment of the leadership style and approach of the Apostle Paul.  The book, entitled Passionate Visionary: Leadership Lessons from the Apostle Paul, was written by Dr. Richard Ascough and Dr. Charles Cotton, respectively a Professor of New Testament and a leadership consultant hailing from Canada's Royal Military College.
Entering into the book, the concern puttering about in the recesses of my subconscious was that it would shoehorn Paul into a box of current leadership literature, or misrepresent the core of authentic Pauline theology.  Neither of those fears proved justified.  With the input of both authors, the book moved seamlessly between the world of contemporary organizational dynamics and Paul's teaching and sociocultural context.

I particularly appreciated the decision of the authors to focus on the seven undisputed letters of Paul, and to leave the pastorals and the other deutero-Pauline letters out of the assessment of Paul's impact on the Jesus movement.  In doing so, Ascough and Cotton present a more accurately nuanced picture of Paul in all his bright, ferocious complexity.

In reading through this well-structured and conceptualized book, a few key features leapt out.

The end of chapter "questions for reflection" were actually rather engaging.  This is not always the case in  but I found myself consistently meditating on how and in what ways my own experience of leadership were reflected in the themes from the chapter.  In chapter fifteen, for instance, the reflections on the honor/shame dynamics that can stifle authentic conversation in communities resonated strongly.  Having recently left a ministry that was deeply influenced by the honor/shame dynamics of Korean culture, I found the assessment of those influences (standing in opposition to the Christ-centered freedom encouraged by Paul) to be accurate.

I found myself powerfully resonating to the chapter on the "bottom line" for Paul.  Keying off of the soaring hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13, and echoing off of other core Pauline texts, the authors accurately present love of other as absolutely central to Pauline theology.  By extension, this is also the bottom line in Paul's approach to leadership, and the core measure by which anyone in leadership needs to be assessed.  As Ascough and Cotton put it:
Vision counts for nothing without compassion, charisma fades without it, and all the spin doctors in the world produce meaningless words if the leader does not connect with followers in a caring, compassionate way. (p.146)
This measure, I think, gets to the core of what is most vital and life-giving in organizational leadership, whether it be in a congregational context or, quite frankly, in any gathering of human beings.

Finally, the emphasis on Pauline "chaordic" leadership...meaning leadership that embraces, directs, and empowers the generative character of human communities...was also resonant, although it was not clear as I was reading it whether or not this was simply because I grok to this approach.

Ultimately, this was a solid, well-developed, and readable work, rooted strongly in both organizational literature and the theology of one of the most influential individuals in the Christian faith tradition.  It's a fine read, both for pastors and for any Jesus folk struggling to see how they might apply some of the core principles of our faith to their life out there in the world.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Moses and the Journey to Leadership

The second in the sequence of books for my D.Min. program is Moses and the Journey to Leadership:  Timeless Lessons of Effective Management from the Bible and Today's Leaders, by Dr. Norman J. Cohen.  Dr. Cohen is a Professor of Midrash at Hebrew Union College, and it shows.

The book is layered through with tellings and retellings of Torah, both from the primary narrative and from the secondary/legendary traditions of Midrash.  Dr. Cohen continually drops into a patois of blended Hebrew and English, peppering transliterated words into the flow of the narrative both for flavor and to engage in impromptu word-study.  It's a pretty standard rabbinic schtick, one that made reading through the book reminiscent of listening to the rabbi expound on Torah at my family's synagogue during the High Holy Days.

In reacting to the text, I had several challenges as I schlepped my way through the reading.

The first was that it seemed somewhat removed from the actual practice of leadership.  Given the scholarly/rabbinic character of the work, this is perhaps not surprising.  In an effort to relate the leadership of Moses to leadership dynamics in government and business, the text is smattered with pull-out boxes that describe semi-related leadership approaches in both government and business.  This was intended to give context, but after about the tenth pullout telling us, again, that Ernest Shackleton was a collaborative and positive leader, we get it already.   The general points were an inclusive leader, be sure of yourself, don't overfunction, involve and empower others...but they felt generic, underdeveloped, and cribbed from another primary source.

The style and dynamics of rabbinic explication also ended up feeling like a distraction.  The extensive and repeated explorations of the root meanings of words were fine in and of themselves, but felt a bit aimless in that meandering academic way.  In explaining the significance of the word rephidim, for instance, we are on page 79 told that it derives from the Hebrew term rafeh yadayim, meaning "weak hands."  Because the people squabble with God, their hands are weak.  But five pages later, we're told that rephidim derives from raphad, meaning "chair" or "support," because Moses needed the support of Aaron and Hur.  Recognizing that the rabbinic tradition is filled with such etymological exploration, and that the Hebrew language lends itself to polyvalent word-root speculation, it feels distractingly inconsistent.  Or perhaps just like an entertaining late night bull session at yeshiva.

I also stumbled over some of the interpretive work, particularly the efforts to reclaim and validate the Biblical injunction against being an Amalekite.  Or a breathing one, at least.  Where Cohen suggests that we should just understand Amalekites as symbolic representations of all that is evil in the world (p. 87), I just can't get there.  It's just an ugly bit of unpleasantness, if we're honest about it.   Not being a literalist, I see no need to read those passages as anything other than an unpleasant historical echo of ethnic tension that has been theologically spun.

Certain sections were more resonant, like the chapter exploring the need to empower individuals who support the vision laid out by the leader (ch. 9) and the last chapter, which dealt with the need for leaders to manage the inevitable transition to another leader.

The call and leadership struggles of Moses are a particularly powerful and resonant narrative for those who've been called to lead the church, and Cohen's exploration of that dynamic did have potential.  Ultimately, though, it felt disconnected from both a foundation in organizational praxis and in tenuous relationship with secular research on leadership effectiveness.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ducking Spears, Dancing Madly

Having been asked to reflect on four books for my upcoming D.Min. coursework, the first I'll be reviewing here was written by two folks at Wesley Theological Seminary, one the Director of the D.Min. Program and the other a recently retired professor of Old Testament.

Ducking Spears, Dancing Madly explores the dynamics of leadership, and particularly church leadership, through the lenses of the stories to be found in 1 and 2 Samuel.  Those two books of the bible, in the event you aren't familiar with them, explore the history and theology of the rise of the monarchy in Israel. They lay out the narrative arc of transition from the time of "judges," those leaders of necessity who rose up out of the tribes in times of crisis, to the more structural, institutional, and centralized power structures of the Davidic/Solomonic royal lineage.

The book gets its title from two visual images from the rise of David in Israel.  The first is David dodging the spears that Saul would chuck at him when he was in one of his, you know, moods.  The second is the image of David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, right after Indy got it back from the Nazis.  No.  Wait.

As I read through this generally engaging book, I found myself having a series of reactions.

First, Birch and Parks make a point of resisting business-leadership hagiography.  1 and 2 Samuel are a realistic and clear eyed account of the struggles and foibles of the first kings of Israel.  Unlike the rose-colored theological glasses worn by the author of the books of Chronicles, these books include a "prophetic criticism of institutional forms." (p. 25)  What gives them value is that they do not present leaders as flawless paragons, but serve up the stories of Saul and David that portray them in nuanced human beings.  It's a useful reminder that leadership in any institutional structure isn't populated by perfect  souls.  This is particularly useful in the church, where charismatic leadership is often assumed to be without flaw.  That assumption is dangerous both for congregations and for the leadership, as it traps both in a nonconstructive, delusional expectation.

Second, the book makes an aggressive point of exploring the theology of call.   Oldline denominations are great at establishing "gatekeeping" structures, the hoops and requirements and committees that stand between those seeking ministry and congregations.  But call itself is a more dynamic and unpredictable thing, one that has almost nothing to do with the self-sustaining demands of institutions.  It is less about establishing protocols, and more about listening for God's voice in unexpected circumstances.  (p. 43)

Third, the book spends the entirety of the fourth chapter dealing with "call-envy," using the fierce/psychopathic jealousy of Saul as a framing narrative.  Call envy is that tendency of pastors to look at their vocation not in terms of God's claim on their lives, but in terms of whether they're in a more prestigious/larger/better paying "call" than their cohorts.   This is placed in terms of the story of Saul's relationship to David in 1 Samuel 18.  While most pastors don't lob pointy objects at those whose worldly attainment exceeds their own, there is plenty of bitterness and grumbling out there.  Just spend a moment or two on the Presbytery floor during the meeting when the comparative salary report is released...

Finally, I did find myself occasionally wishing that Ducking Spears, Dancing Madly had gone beyond the Saul/David narrative.  As rich a story as it is, and as full of characters as it is, the story of call and leadership in Israel and Judah is continued through 1 and 2 Kings.  That arc of the rise and fall of the Hebrew monarchy includes a great array of similarly illustrative leadership teachings, and might have added some additional depth and richness to this exploration of Biblical leadership.  Perhaps in their next book...

As it was, though, Ducking Spears, Dancing Madly is a tight little book, and worthy reading for anyone who has been called to congregational leadership.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Going to Church on Christmas Morning

This morning, I awoke early, as the earliest light of dawn was just beginning to crowd the stars from the sky.   After starting the coffee, I snapped the leash on the dog, and stepped out into the crunchy crispness of the day.   With the pup snuffing and meandering along with me, I walked the sidewalks of the very quiet neighborhood.

The lighted electronic diodes that shone from every other house were bright in the silence, but what caught my eye more was the subtle sparkle from the grass.  With the streetlights playing across the morning's frost fall, the little suburban lawns of my neighborhood glistened like windblown tinsel.   It was rather lovely, if you were lucky enough to be awake to see it.

Then it was homeward, to breakfast, and to tweak the Christmas Day sermon.   After cereal, then coffee, and then some more coffee, I began getting dressed to go to church.  The layers went on, one after another.  The socks.  Then another pair of socks.  Then long johns.  Then corduroy pants and my clerical shirt and collar.  Then armored boots.  Then my Kanetsu wind blocking electrically heated jacket.  Then my Roadcrafter viscoelastic-armored riding suit.  Then armored gloves.  Then over-gloves.  Then a wind-triangle to protect my neck from the subfreezing winds.  Funny, given how I used to hate having to get "dressed up" for church as a kid.

Then, having conveyed Christmas wishes to wife and lads, the helmet.

And I was off, motoring out of our neighborhood, on to a warm and cozy service on Christmas morning.

I was glad of it, and remembered to be thankful as I prepped.

Last year, I did not know yet what this day would be like.  Would I be preaching or leading worship?  Or just job-seeking?  Or just sitting in my basement frittering away meaningless hours on my PS3?

It was a void.  All of the traditions and expectations of the prior seven years were coming to an end, and there was no certainty.   In 2010, the where and the how of Christmas 2011 were hidden from me, still shrouded in the creative potential of our Maker.

I could not have anticipated where I am now.  Looking back across the span of my memory, I know I did not.

To the anxieties that would occasionally rise in that former self, I wish I could whisper a quiet word of encouragement.  It's going to be fine.  You'll like it.

Hope is such a good thing to remember, particularly this time of year.  As much as it can be obscured by consumerism and "Christmas Wars," that is kind of the point of the season, after all.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmastime with the Cultists

Yesterday, with friends and family in tow, we went a-wandering over to a restaurant that's been opened up in my parent's neighborhood.  For decades, the place was my families' primary haunt for pizza, a little place run by a couple of Greeks.  

The day I went to see the first Star Wars movie with my parents, we ate out at Prima Pizza.  We were regulars.  My folks got to know the owners and the waitresses.  It was pleasant.

But then it closed, as businesses do.  It sat empty for years.

A year or two ago, a little vegan place opened up there.   It's a Loving Hut, one of several hundred franchises around the world run by...well...a cult.  It's the Cult of Supreme Master Ching Hai, who is apparently always referred to as SupremeMasterChingHai, all one word.  She's a bleached-blonde Vietnamese lady who is really into enlightenment, animals, and a vegan diet, and who apparently has gathered quite the following.

In order to run one of the franchises, you need to be a member in good standing of suprememasterchinghai-ism, or whatever it is they call it.

But vegetarian food is vegetarian food, so we went to check it out.   Prima Pizzeria was once again a restaurant, basically, although a bit different.  The decor was spare, and there was a big screen TV on one wall presenting Supreme Master Television, a chirrupy 24 hour channel of positive thinking, happy animals, vegetarian boosterism, and teaching of Supreme Master Ching Hai.

Outside of that, it was surprisingly innocuous.  And the food was really rather tasty.

Most striking to me, though, was what the cultists were playing in the background.

It wasn't a droning, barely audible repetition of the words "Ching Hai is your master, you love Ching Hai, you love vegetables and puppies and kittens, Ching Hai is the Supreme Master..."

It was a medley of Christmas music.   O Holy Night, in particular, seemed to be a favorite.

There really is no escaping Christmas music this time of year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Parable of the Bad Job Creators

Once upon a time, there was a couple who ran a mid-sized business in a small town.   They just couldn't get along, and spent their days arguing about anything and everything.  Business was not good, as their workforce was dispirited and their clients were drifting away.

One day, after a particularly heated argument, one of their managers came to them and let them know that the morale had gotten so bad that most of the employees were likely going to quit.  "Our salaries have been stagnant for five years," said the manager.  "And we all hate working here.  The whole town knows how crappy it is to work here.  If you don't do something, we'll walk."

The couple went back into their office, realizing that if they didn't act, they'd lose all of their employees, and would have trouble finding new ones.  They argued quietly but productively, and then came up with a solution.

They needed to give their employees a raise.   But how?   They didn't have enough liquidity in their bank accounts, and their credit was nearly tapped out.   Suddenly, each of them had a solution.

We could take money they've contributed into the company-managed retirement fund, said she.  It's struggling anyway.

Sure, said he!

And we could also take money they've put into the charitable fund, the one we use to do giving to those two local nonprofits that provide care to the indigent elderly and the disabled and the orphans.

So long as people were getting a raise, what did it matter where it came from?  The employees would be happy.  The couple agreed.

Then, of course, they began to argue about how large the "raise" should be.  Their voices grew louder.

When the employees heard the arguing, they were angrier, and argued among themselves.

How dare they argue about the size of the raise!  It should be as big as possible!

And the couple heard them, and smiled.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Creche Wars: A Pax on Both Your Houses

In my neck of the woods, there's a bit of disagreement about seasonal displays going on.  Deep in the Virginia exurbs, the mighty metropolis of Leesburg sits in all its strip-mall, big box glory.   But before Leesburg was an exurb, it was a modestly-sized town, one that had a long-standing tradition of having a Christmas tree and displaying Nativity scenes on the courthouse lawn celebrating the Christmas season.

Back in 2009, following concerns that this might violate the separation of church and state, the tradition was shut down.   Both the Christian Nativity and solstice display...were removed.   There was outcry, of course, and much concern in the community that a beloved symbol had disappeared.

So the tradition was reinstated last year, with a caveat: anyone could display whatever they wanted, on a first come, first served basis.

And so there were displays put up.  Some were creches and nativities.  Others, though?   The Pastafarians came out with a repurposed creche image, in which the Infant Flying Spaghetti Monster was featured prominently, along with garden gnomes and other absurdist miscellany.   There was a Luke Skywalker display, put up by those who celebrate Life Day, I guess.  Atheists put up their own tree, upon which affirmations of vigorous godlessness and condemnations of the general stupidity of the faithful were placed.

This year, the conflict continued.  There was a display by a local artist, of a crucified skeleton Santa--a symbol of the way in which consumerism has consumed the season, or so the artist declared.  Many locals were troubled by these things, to the point that the skeleton Santa was pulled down a few times by Angry People.

Hearing about this squabbling, I find myself wishing that the Christians were being more Christian, and the atheists were being more rational.
For the Jesus folk, Brothers and Sisters, take a deep breath.   Particularly with the Skywalker stuff and the Pastafarians.  I mean, c'mon.  Some folks are just silly, and struggle with the hyper-seriousness that can pervade this season.  Christianity is a powerful, robust, and millennia-old faith, and is not going to be undone by some goofballs being random.  The most gracious response to this is...grace.  Smile.  Show that you aren't spiritually shallow and easily aggrieved.  Those are not the marks of one who is governed by the Spirit of the Living God.  Show that we can handle it.

And the artist guy with the Skeleton Santa?  Ask him what he means.  Be open to listening.  If his beef is with the consumerism that has sunk its undead fangs into the joy of this season, then maybe he's not a bad guy.  And he might be under the impression that Christians are angry, bitter people.  

Disabuse him of that notion.  We best teach Christ by living Christ, after all.

For the atheists?  I know, I'm not on the Team, but consider the season.   This is the time to open up the critical thinking skills, and show that you understand context and perception.  It's the time to show that you grasp the spirit of the season.  You don't have to sing Silent Night if you don't want to, and you have every right to present your opinion in the public square.

But if you want that opinion to be heard, consider presenting the following slogans:   "Just Love People.  How Hard is That?"   "Be Kind, Because It is the Way To Be."  "Care for Everyone."  "Every Human Being Has Value."   Slap your atheist logo under those, and maybe folks will be a little bit more willing to listen to the rest of what you have to say.  They may not be persuaded, but they'll be more willing to listen.

As stressed as we all can be this season, and as easily as tempers can fray, that's not the point of this time of year.  So...give it a go, y'all.  Get along, eh?

It's both the Christian and reasonable thing to do.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Finding Your Best True Self

Over the last few days, I've punched down two more of the eight books I've got to read by the end of the month for my D.Min. program.  They were pretty radically different, on the surface of it.  One was called Primal Leadership.  Despite the title, this did not recommend whacking folks over the head with wildebeest femurs, although I do find that gets folks more quickly to consensus.  It was sustained argument for social/emotional awareness in leadership, written by some Harvard Business School types.   The other, entitled Open Hearted Ministry, was an exploration of reclaiming a sense of play in ministry.  It was written by the professor who'll be teaching the course.

That second one?  By my...ahem...professor?  Um.    It was better than Cats.  I will read it again and again.

One theme that was shared between the two books was the concept of seeking your "Best Self" or your "True Self."  For the Harvard Guys, this was something that leaders of organizations should accomplish as a way of finding their identity as a visionary leader.   They had a multi-step process and exercises for true-self identification, which included things like visualizing where you'd most like to be in 15 years.   I did some of that, although I still hang up a bit when it comes to figuring out where I'll get that robot army.

For the play-theory professor, your true self is found...surprise surprise...through play.  I'm pleased to hear this, although I'm a bit surprised to discover that my true self is currently a level 18 Orc, who aimlessly wanders the land of Skyrim with his common-law witch wife, crunching bandits with a massive enchanted warhammer.

The "seek your true self" concept is a familiar one.   In the writings of Scottish mystic George MacDonald, the idea of being defined by the pursuit of that optimally joyous aspect of your own identity is a strong and recurring theme.  He describes it as seeking the White Stone, upon which is written the "name" that God has given you.  The pursuit of that name and the ordering of your life around living into that identity is the purpose of faith.

The challenge in this concept, as I see it, is in how we get around to defining "Best."  Who is that person that we direct ourselves towards?   How do we get to that sense of identity?

For the well meaning soul bent on Being The Best They Can Be, there are real pitfalls in orienting yourself towards who you think you should be.   The first and most obvious lies in the external forces that can shape who we think we should be.   Our vision of our "best self" can be defined by all manner of cultural inputs, which place higher value on certain vocations/identities/careers.   We're convinced we need to be Lil' Wayne, or that we need to be the best in the world at the sport of our choosing, or that we're meant to aspire to being one of the countless lights in the reality television universe.  This makes for a rather sad life for countless thousands, who overlook who they are in favor of what they are told they should be.

Our image of our best self is so colored by the values of our culture....but is that "best?"   When we're told to live our best life now, does that necessarily mean that we're making the choices that will shower us with material wealth and the acclaim and adulation of others?

There are, after all, competing sets of values that claim to establish purpose and value in our lives.

Best can mean pursuing whatever is most gratifying in the right now, whatever activates our lizard brain to give the most pleasure in this very instant.  That ends badly.  You don't always find yourself toothless in the fleshpots of Bangkok, but it does always end badly.

According to Joel Osteen, our Best Life Now involves getting what we want, because faith is the thing that brings us big houses and gets us choice parking spaces at the mall during the Getmas Season.  Our best self is our shiniest golden consumer self, by the marketized metric of the Name-It-And-Claim-It Gospel.

"Best" can mean most ferociously nationalistic, or most rigorously devoted to an absolutist understanding of a religious tradition.  Or, as in the case of Michelle Bachmann/Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, both at the same time.  Those two need to just get a room already.

If we step back, though, allowing ourselves to transcend our personal and collective hungers for power, the shine falls off these values.   The pursuit of me-oriented competitive consumption leads to a world out of balance and impoverished, best for a tiny minority, and a grasping, struggling hell for the rest.  Nationalism and fundamentalism?  They lead to the same place they have always lead over the thousands of years of human history.   To war and hatred, as they blind us to the Other.

Which is why faith and the core teachings of our Rabbi guide us to a place where "best" is not defined by individual selfishness, or the selfishness of collectives, but by the selfless love that burns like a fire at the heart of all things.

That is, without question, what is best in life.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Defending Marriage

A letter came acros't me pastoral desk the other day, one from a group of well-meaning local Presbyterian folk who are deeply struggling with the transitions in our culture.  They are eager to set themselves as a bulwark against the gradual unravelling of the social bonds that keep our life together from descending into total gnawing entropic madness.

They are doing so by affirming what they view as the central tenets of our faith, and are making a point of highlighting one of the central teachings of our ancient tradition: marriage between one man and one woman.   This is just as Jesus taught it, and Paul taught it.  Right?

I think, rather obviously, that both their diagnosis and methodology are a wee bit off, but I am willing to agree on one significant point.  Those social bonds are increasingly frayed, and that's not a good thing.  In particular, the bonds of sustained, committed, lifelong relationships...marriage...are reaching the tipping point.   

A recent study by the Pew Research Center shows that marriage is right on the cusp of being a minority position among American adults.   It's a growing and deepening trend, and one that is entirely comprehensible from a sociological/psychological standpoint.  

Psychologically, it's understandable that the last several generations, who have watched divorce rend apart marriage after marriage, might not view it as quite the bedrock foundation of our culture.

Sociologically, there are several factors driving the fading of marriage as an institution.  First, there's the unwillingness to shun those who have experienced divorce, or to belittle and devalue those who aren't married.   This, quite frankly, is a Good Thing.  Yeah, sure, there are plenty of Pastor Mark Q. JudgeyPants out there still, willing to tell you how pathetic you are if you're not married or if you're struggling with challenges in relationships.  But there've always been Pharisees with well-weighted stones in hand, and diminishing the power of their voices in culture is welcome.

Second, and this is Not A Good Thing, there are powerful social pressures coming from our culture that tend to break apart relationships.  There's increasing social isolation and fragmentation, which makes commitment more and more challenging.  There's the radical cult of the self, driven by consumerism, which makes life about the Me and the lizard-brain-immediate, and not about the Us and grace-filled relationship.  We're taught to believe that our value as persons can be measured independently of the way we relate to others, to Creation, and to our Maker.  This is not true.  It leads us to very unpleasant places, personally, socially, and spiritually.

Ultimately, the faithful response is to counterculturally resist those powers.  Where folks of a more progressive bent can find commonality with our more conservative brethren and sistren is in affirming that there is, in fact, value in sustained, committed human relationships.  

Loving relationships and caring, connected communities are blessings from our Creator, and they are well worth encouraging, supporting, and defending.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gay Marriage and Skyrim: Conservatism Takes an Arrow in the Knee

Imagine, for a moment, that a fantasy novel had recently been released.  The book gets tremendous praise in popular media, and is driven by a successful ad campaign...some paid and in the mass media, the rest generated by an eager fan base.   It was a barnstorming, raging success, selling three-and-a-half million copies in its first two months.  It was such a success, in fact, that it was spawning internet memes and fan videos.   Not only that, but it's the kind of book that trickles down to kids, so that many tweens and teens are reading it.

Now think, for a moment, about the reaction of certain elements in American conservatism once they discovered that in this book, same-sex marriage was tacitly endorsed.

One would expect the usual response, the sort of silliness that was leveled against the really-actually-very-Christian Harry Potter books.    Some blogger, somewhere, would get mad about it.  Pat Robertson would say something.  I mean, Pat never misses an opportunity, right?  The Family Research Council would surely issue a stern missive.

But there's been nothing.   Nothing at all.

That's been the response, best I can tell it, to the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the recent multi-million-dollar blockbuster game from Bethesda Softworks.   It's a great, great game, exactly what I'd expect from the folks at Bethesda.  It is deep and complex and beautiful, and after forty hours in, I'm still marveling at how wonderfully and fully realized their vision of this land is.

As part of creating an immersive realistic world, you can, if you so choose, get married.

If you do, you get all sorts of pleasant little perks, none of which are even remotely R rated.  Your spouse will  cook for you if you ask nicely, making meals that restore your health and stamina.   They'll come live with you, assuming you've got a house of your own.  They'll sleep in the same bed you, which accrues bonuses to your well being and ability to learn new things.  It's not called the Cozy Spooning Bonus, but I'm familiar with that effect in the real world.

And you can marry someone of the same gender.

As Bethesda Softworks sees it, this is not a big deal.   This is, after all, a world in which you could also marry an Orc.  Or one of the catlike Khajit, or...although this seems non-conducive to connubial spooning bonuses...a horned, reptilian Argonian.  Not to mention that marrying a lizard would represent a significant escalation in the spousal thermostat wars.

Perhaps the lack of response is because it's not a big deal.

That there are same-sex marriages in Tamriel has no impact on my marriage.   I know they're virtually happening, sure.  But my relationship with my wife is utterly unaffected by hearing about unions outside of our own.  There are work stress and kid stress and financial stress and the siren song of self-indulgence that pours from our me-centered culture...that can have an impact.  Those need to be called out and resisted, because they do pose real threats to marriage and the deep, covenant relationships that are a blessing from our Creator.

But hearing stories about virtual unions?  It has no effect on my heterosexuality, or on that of my wife.  It does not effect us, or our relationship.  Or on yours.

If you're defending marriage, there are better things to do than worry about what Bosmer and Altmer choose to do.  It just doesn't really change anything.  So I guess folks have just decided to let this one slide. 

A pity those same folks don't realize that's the case outside of the virtual world, too.

Why Vultures Gather

In between the second service and the Christmas Potluck this last Sunday, I found myself in need of pickin' some stuff up for the evening event.   One of the disadvantages of riding a motorcycle wherever you go is that it makes bringing along a casserole somewhat challenging.  Bungee cords and casseroles aren't the best mix.  Particularly when it's 24 degrees out, or negative 18 when you factor in the windchill at highway speeds.

I'm not sure "frozen casserole hunks" makes the best potluck offering.  

So as the afternoon wore on, I wandered through the little town to the grocery store to buy some bread for the meal.  This is the only place to buy affordable groceries and produce in all of Poolesville.   It's been a long-standing institution, run by a local family, but the arrival of Walmart and Costco and a Harris Teeter in the larger towns nearby has bitten deep into their business.  The life-pattern of soccer moms and commuters lends itself to driving distance to buy in bulk, which bodes ill for the small town grocer.

They aren't going to make it through the next year, as humming rumor and their increasingly empty shelves tell it.  It'll be a loss for the community.

So I made a point of getting my bread there.  I walked, of course, because it's good for human beings to use their legs for something other than pressing pedals.   As I walked, and the cold gentle breeze of the December day nibbled at my face, I noticed a gathering off just to the north-east of the store, on the other side of the One Oh Seven.

At the top of several trees was a large mixed committee of turkey vultures and black vultures.  These are the same critters that can be seen regularly prowling the skies around Poolesville in search of roadkill and children who haven't been good this year.  It was impressive, as the setting sun of the winter day cast their great dark figures into stark relief against the dimming blue sky.

It reminded me, as things so often do, of a passage from the Bible.   It's a little popular saying from the first century, offered up by Jesus as a way of explaining how we'll know the Kingdom is near at hand:  

Anyone who sees a batch of vultures circling knows what that means.  Something is dead.  The saying tells the listener:  you'll know.  You'll see the signs.  You'll be able to tell.

But gathered buzzards can mean other things.  

On a cold winter day, that mass of ominous figures peering down from the treetops at sunfall does not mean they're waiting to swoop down and snap up that nearby retail property.   It means they're catching the last little trickle of star-heat coming over the edge of the world, to warm their bodies at the end of the day.   

And other times, when they circle upward in great spiraling columns, it means that they've found one of the thermals that rise at the end of a day as the earth cools, hitching a free ride skyward.

If you know vultures, you'll know these things.   But if we're unprepared, or serially inattentive, or unwilling to learn, any sign...even the most seemingly obvious...can be misinterpreted.  We Jesus folk have proven remarkably good at that over the last two millennia.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Crisis of Expectations

What We're Looking for Often Doesn't Look the Way We'd Expect
In a recent post on her Christian Century blog, Carol Howard Merritt raised some interesting questions about the significant challenges facing younger clergy seeking congregations in our denomination.

Long and short of it?

You come out of undergrad, all bright eyed and bushy-tailed for Jesus.  You crank your way through seminary, eagerly sopping up the latest and most cutting edge scholarship while racking up three more years worth of student debt.   You heave your way through countless Committee for Preparation for Ministry meetings, take those dagflabbing Ords, retake them, and then then drop your PIF out there into the world.

You're not asking for much...just a salary sufficient to support a new small family.  Oh, and a diverse, urban congregation that reflects your passion for liberation theology and/or LBGTQ justice.  And it should be near public transportation.  And willing to try exciting new emergent-ish worship.  And able to get you a new super fast 3G smartphone as part of your reimbursables.

There are a few wonderful, perfectly-primed for seminarian-dreams churches like this.  Seminarians have no hope of getting them.  Ain't gonna happen, kids.  That church will go to someone with fifteen years of experience and a doctorate.  Ninety-nine-point-nine-seven-five percent of the time, your PIF won't even make the B pile.

Instead, you'll be tracked into Youth Ministry, because that's the place the Good Lord calls everyone under 40.  What?  Not called to Youth Ministry?  Not under 40?   Hmmm.   That could be problematic. 

It isn't that there aren't plenty of churches out there that could use a pastor.  There are plenty of vacant pulpits, churches that would be happy to have you.  But they are, for the most part, in rural and small town churches that often can't afford to support a full-time pastor.

Sort of like mine.

My church is an awesome little congregation.  It's welcoming, multigenerational, and warm.  It laughs, is supportive, and loves music.  But what it isn't is large and well-off.  We're the fifth largest church in our modest town, and our town has five churches.  Size matters not in matters of Force and the Spirit, of course, but there are implications.

It does what it can with what it has, and knows how to make do.   But I see the giving figures, which are great given the size of the community and the real impacts of our sustained economic downturn.  Even with people committing amounts that reflect their deep care for the church, a full-timer just isn't an option.  It doesn't reflect the reality on the ground. 

There are thousands of churches like this, in all of the oldline denominations.  They are not bad churches. Some are amazing.  But from the demand side, they just can't meet the expectations of most seminary graduates.   Many could support a single person, living a neomonastic life.  But a family?  No, not unless you teach the kids to photosynthesize. 

If that is the reality, scope and actuality of things, then what must change?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Payroll Tax Holiday

I am, once again, completely unable to process the goings on in my own home town.   Here in Washington, there's sustained conversation about how to continue what has been called the "payroll tax holiday."   Americans, after all, don't like taxes.  Taxes are bad.  And we like holidays!  Holidays are good!  And if it's a tax holiday...well, golly!  We can take that money, which should be ours anyway, and use it to buy stuff to create jobs and get our economy moving and yadda yadda yadda.     No tax?  A holiday?  Buy stuff?  What's not to like?

Hmmm.  Let's see.

What is the "payroll tax?"  If it's a tax, it must be bad, right?   Well, let's break it down.

The payroll tax is better known as the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, or FICA.  It exists for a particular purpose.  Well, several, actually. Let's break 'em down, why don't we?

The first purpose is Social Security.   Yeah, I know, Social Security is doomed, or so we've been carefully taught.  But what Social Security actually does is pretty straightforward.    It supports those who are elderly, or unable to work, and in need of basic income to insure their survival.

I encounter those folks a couple of times a month, as I go to a nearby Baptist church, and then drive from home to home in my community delivering food for Meals on Wheels.  These are not the millionaires and scammers that Fox News will drop meaningless and unrepresentative anecdotes about.  They are people who need that check to survive.  It is light and heat for them.  It keeps them in their homes.

Social Security also supports families who have lost a wage earner.  When your husband or wife dies, leaving you without income?   It insures that your kids will have food, and you'll have a roof over your head.   It won't bring your loved one back, but it will make sure that widows and orphans are not forgotten and destitute.   If you're injured, and unable to work?   It does the same thing.  I've had friends who have lost spouses, and who've relied on Social Security to make ends meet for their kids.   It's a real thing.

The second purpose?  Medicaid.  Yeah, I know, Medicaid is terrible and we all hate it because the care is lousy and there's all this waste/fraud/abuse that, again, the media of the right wing is happy to share with us.  But when those who have nothing fall ill, it helps keep them from being frozen corpses by the roadside.   It helps get them care.   That is what it does.  As a pastor, I've seen it at work.  Could it be better?  It could be a whole lot better.  But it's something.

So here we are.  It's Advent.   It's the season before Christmas.  What are both political parties and the president talking about?

They aren't talking about insuring that those who are vulnerable are cared for and protected, the hallmark of justice in a nation since nations were first invented.

Instead, they're engaged in a political dance to see who can take the most money from our Treasury.  Specifically, they want to take it from the part set aside for widows, orphans, cripples, the elderly, and the desperately poor, so that Americans can go shopping.

Happy Holiday.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


My house is chock full of books.

There are cookbooks in the kitchen.  There's a bookshelf...but no our living room.   Every one of the bedrooms has a shelf or three laden with books.  Our rec-room?

That 56" television gets plenty of use, but it isn't the dominant visual presence in room.  Instead, it's hardbacks and paperbacks, graphic novels and manga, neatly linear, row upon row, against three of the four walls.

My study?  There's an entire wall of commentaries and works of philosophy and history and poetry and theology.

Yet things are shifting.   Though my latest round of reading for my doctoral program arrived in paperback form on my doorstep today, I can feel the era of print waning all about me.

I read my first full book on Kindle recently, cranking my way through George MacDonald's Lilith on my wife's iPad.

It was still the same strangely compelling story it would have been had it been on processed wood pulp.   The words still had power.  It still messed with my dreams in interesting ways, as MacDonald always does.   And yet that tactile presence is not in our home, not now that I'm done.

My older son encountered the spreading death of print this week when he got this month's Shonen Jump, the grand dame of all manga.  They're discontinuing their magazine, and going entirely electronic.  And he's bummed.  Sure, he can now get the instant gratification of the instant download.  But a significant part of the joy of Shonen Jump has been its arrival, thickening the mailbox with bold ink and adolescent emotion.

I I want to imagine a house without books, shelves full of books lining the walls with silent knowledge?   Will there come a time when the only time you take a book off of a shelf to read is in some virtual world that reimagines a mythic place when people did such things?

English, Dragonish, and the Problem with Fundamentalism

Yesterday, as I bumbled my way through a reasonably productive Monday, I encountered two things that got me thinking about faith and language.   The first of those two things was the video below, which was pitched out onto Facebook by the former head of the religious school at my family's synagogue.   It's a pleasant little bit of history, the history of the English language, presented by the inimitable Open University.   The Open University, in the event you haven't heard of it, is a British institution, one that allows easy access to quality, college-level coursework to anyone who has the desire to partake of it.   Back then I lived there in the late 70s, much British daytime programming during the day on one of the three television channels was dedicated to Open University lectures and course preparation.   Those wacky socialists and their educations!  Anyhoo, here it is, ready to sop up 10 minutes of your life.  It's a bit naughty in that wry British way, so thou art forewarned:

After this little excursus into the organic evolution of the English language, I took a break from FB and blogging, did a few chores, and then settled in for a bit of day-off gaming.  I'm playing my way through Skyrim on the PS3, and it's a remarkably entertaining, deep, and well-constructed game.  One of the elements that Bethesda Softworks has really nailed in both this game and others is a well-crafted soundtrack.  It's a contextual soundtrack, meaning the music shifts and varies depending on location, time of day, and whether or not you're blowing up zombies with balls of magical fire.

As I settled in with my controller yesterday, though, something caught my attention.  At the beginning of the game, during the initial load screen, there's a song.  It's a big bellowy hoo-hah song, all pomp and bombast, the sort of music that stirs the small Viking fragment of my genetic heritage.   In the midst of drums and blaring brass, a big male voice choir grunts and vocalizes, and then starts yarping gibberish in an MMA-meets-Glee testosterama.

When the yarping began, I realized, suddenly, that they weren't singing nonsense words at all.  For the purposes of verisimilitude, the game has a language that was made for it, a language spoken by dragons.  The words in that tongue are spoken throughout the game, and in a moment of geekish epiphany, I recognized dovakiin, the Dragonish word for "dragon-born."  And then the word Anduin, the name of the great dragon who brings about the end of time.  It was a bit like that time I first attended a synagogue service after learning Hebrew.  Only geekier.

I went online, and found the...cough...English "translation," which goes like this:

So here's a language, or the framework of one, that exists solely in-game.   I'm not sure there's enough there there for the American Bible Society to attempt a translation into Dragonish, but I figure if you can translate the Bible into Klingon, anything is fair game.

Twice in one day, then, there came the reminder of the ephemeral character of human language.  It's one of the reasons I find fundamentalist literalism so completely bizarre.

Sure, the nature of God is unchanging, and the nature of the Being that God speaks is boundlessly, deeply real.  But words?   As much as I love 'em, words in human tongues aren't the thing itself.  They can evoke.  They can suggest.  They can point to, and lead to, the Holy.  But they are not the Real that rises from our Maker.

Perhaps that's why we find it so easy to fight over them.   As MacDonald puts it:
God has not cared that we should anywhere have assurance of His very words; and that not merely perhaps, because of the tendency in His children to word-worship, false logic, and corruption of the truth, but because He would not have them oppressed by words...even He must depend for being understood upon the spirit of His disciple.
Viva la Neoreformacion!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Door To Door

I've never been comfortable with door-to-door sales.   Years and years ago, back when my hair was long and my belly was concave, I spent a couple of days doing the door-knockin' thing as a canvasser for Greenpeace.  It was one in a series of attempts to get a job that summer, and it was profoundly disappointing.  Instead of rallying interest in environmentalism, or stirring the passions of a movement, we were taught a sales pitch.  The goal: money for the organization, from which we could take a wee percentage.   That lasted not long at all.  Nothing sucks idealism out of the young like working on commission.

Perhaps even lower on the karmic totem pole are the folks who show up at your door seeking to convert you.  Despite what Ray Comfort pitches out there, fewer things are less welcome than someone coming at you with a prepackaged conversion script.

I've never minded, of course.  Most days, I'm perfectly happy to chat with the pairs of earnest fresh-faced young Mormons who arrive with books and name tags.  I don't mind the Jehovah's Witnesses either, though if they push too hard, they'll get themselves a theological whuppin'.  Nothing like referencing the Cappadocian Fathers to make a Witness flee in terror.  Then again, referencing the Cappadocian Fathers has the same effect on most people.

So it was with some surprise that I found myself yesterday walking about the neighborhoods of the little town in which my little church is located, church-literature in hand.  This is, quite frankly, not something that Presbyterians tend to do.  The arrival of Presbyterians at your doorstep bearing tracts is, some scholars argue, one of the sure signs of the end times.

That's the key to the Sixth Seal, I think, the one right before the Final Seal, the one that can only be unlocked by the words:  "I, Newt Gingrich, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States..."

What surprised me even more was how pleasant it was.  That the afternoon was clear and crisp and gorgeous was a plus.  I and the congregation's evangelism elder spent most of the time walking and chatting about anything and everything, which was actually kind of fun.  I'm not sure how many Jehovah's Witnesses get into sub-conversations about whether or not droids are connected to the Force as they walk.

As for the door-to-door part, well, it was fine.  Surprisingly fine.  This is, in part, because we rolled it Presbyterian style.

Our entire "pitch," such as it was, was to tell people that we were from the little historic country church up the road.  We then shared our names, handed over a postcard telling folks where we were and what's up for our Advent Season, and welcomed them to join us if they'd like...and that was that.  Oh, and we'd wish them a good afternoon.

For most, that was as far as it went.  Sunday afternoon is loaf-around-in-comfypants time for most Americans, and we don't want to mess with that.

At about a half-dozen houses, conversation went a bit further.   Like, say, at the house where the resident opened the door quickly, a wad of bills in her hand, thinking we were the pizza guy.  This, we all found amusing.   Or the houses where we knew someone, or where the person clearly wanted to have a conversation.  There, we chatted, for as long as the other person felt like it.  In at least one instance, we were invited in, and things did get theological, which was cool.  I'm always up for that.

As we walked, there were a few things we made a point of doing.  Governing principle number one of our reaching out was to respect the integrity of the person we were speaking with, while letting them know that we were there.  Getting all up into folks bidness?   That's actively counterproductive.  Way I figure it, this isn't the first century.  Ain't nobody in the You Ess of Ay not heard tell of this guy named Jesus.  As the Apostle Paul put it, you got to be cool, bro.

Governing principle number two was related.  For the folks we encountered who let us know they already had an affiliation with a faith community, our response was, "Well, great!  Good for you!   Say hi to [insert name of pastor/spiritual leader here] for me."  This seemed somewhat surprising to folks, but again, our task is not to wrest Catholics and Methodists from their congregations so that they can be Presbyterian just the way the Good Lord wants them to be.  We're just letting y'all know we're here.

The other governing principle was, of course, that communities of Jesus folk are and will always be responsible for letting people know they exist.  We can't be hunkered down, hidden away behind the walls of our buildings and meetings and polity and the tightly-knit circles of the Us.  A healthy church exists outwardly, connected to and engaged with the community full of human beings around it.  That needs to be particularly and especially true for congregations that are open-minded and open-hearted.

So, amazement of amazement, I actually find myself looking forward to the next time I get to go door to door.  Particularly if it's a sweet spring day.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Competing Ads, Washington Style

DC, as I've noted numerous times in the past, is a rather idiosyncratic little town.

That particular truth was reinforced to me this last week in a couple of advertising circulars that came inserted into our Washington Post.

Yeah, we got the half-ton of Getmas sale catalogs, reminding us to be about our Sweet Lord Mammon's bidness.   Most of the ads are in flagrant competition with one another.   Best Buy or H.H. Gregg? Giant or Safeway?   Each trumpets its superiority over the other.

But y'all get those no matter where you are.  In Dee See, we do things differently.

What was different this week was a great big ol' advertising section...formatted like a newspaper...from the China Daily, the official English language mouthpiece of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China.   It trumpeted, in language produced by Chinese Communist writers and then massaged out of Chinglish by well paid expatriate editorial staff, the vital importance of China to the business community.

Without China, the global economy would suffer!  China, the key to recovery and prosperity!

There's a reason for this appearing.   In the midst of our being distracted by all manner of silly things in this silly political season, America is semi-quietly pre-positioning itself in the Pacific Theatre.  We're putting bases in Australia, for the first time ever.  We're making overtures to Burma, whose military dictatorship is suddenly compliant.  Why?  Because as China grows in strength and flexes its muscles, its neighbors are getting skittish.  Suddenly, being allied with the predominant military power in the world seems, well, prudent.

And so we get a "look how nice and important and business-friendly we are" insert from the world's dominant Communist nation.  Right there in the Washington Post, where lawmakers and lobbyists can read it.

The next day, the insert was from the competition.

It was an equally glossy, equally pretending-to-be-news advertising insert.  This one was produced, apparently, by a coalition of military-industrial corporations.   It pitched the necessity of maintaining naval power at current levels, and of simultaneously investing in new drone technology for seaborne operations.  We can't cut our force-projection capacity in these uncertain times!  There were big patriotic shots of F-18 Hornets flying in tight formation over aircraft carriers, advertising the wares of Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and several major naval shipyards.

The threat?  The reason for maintaining dominance?  To insure that we remain ahead of a resurgent China.

I'm going to guess that if you're not a DC Denizen, you didn't get these competing ads.

Mine is an odd little town.