Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Church Information Forms, Websites, Lipstick, and Pigs

Having recently pitched out the crazy idea that there might be a way for Presbyterian churches to find a pastor in less than two years, some of the comments on that article in the Presbyterian Outlook got me to thinking.

One of the underlying assumptions of the Presbyterian "interim period" is that this is a time when congregations take stock of who they are, rediscovering their mission and vision.  As a part of that process of finding their identity, the Pastoral Nominating Committee goes through discernment exercises, and creates the Church Information Form, the See Eye Eff which will let potential pastors know 1) who the church is and 2) what they expect from a Teaching Elder.  Writing that CIF can be a major undertaking, and it's not without value.

Here's da ting, tho.  

Having recently been through the process of seeking a ministry myself, I can say that while CIF review was an important part of the process of my assessing a congregation and considering an approach to that community, it was not the only part.   

Of equal and in some ways greater importance was the congregational web-presence.

Where the CIF is the face of the church made up all purty-like for potential suitors, the website is the face that the congregation shows the rest of the world.   Sometimes, of course, that's just putting HTMLipstick on a pig.  But more often than not, a quality website indicates a solid congregation.

And so I'd look at the sites with a careful eye.    How recent and dynamic was the content?  I know that 2008 seems like just yesterday, but it isn't.  If there's nothing that indicates activity in the last three months (and here, I'm being nice), if there are stale links and stagnant content, then you really don't care.  You just don't.

There are other questions I'd ask myself.  How well-structured was the site for potential visitors and newcomers to the community?   Did the site connect to or integrate social media?  If it did connect to social media, was there any evidence that the community actually did anything with that media?

I'd go deeper still.   Did the web presence mesh with what I was seeing in the CIF?   Were the hopes, visions, and particular identity of that Christ-community something that you could see clearly on the site?   How warm and grace-filled was the content presented for public consumption?   

Perhaps most importantly, because this is the primary metric by which Teaching Elders should assess their connect with a community, could I see myself being a member of that church?   Not just the church that pitched itself to me on an in-house datasheet, but the church as it presents itself to the world.

When I went a-looking for a new congregation, what I found in web-assessing my current church was not the biggest and most slickety website in the world.  But it was updated regularly enough to show care.  It was filled with pictures of actual human beings, souls who were part of the worship and life of the community.  Perfect and super-mega-shiny?  No.  This was not the work of a big-parking-lot church with a  IT budget in the mid-six figures.  But it felt true and reflective of a small community that was both warm and web-savvy.   The web spoke who they were, and that was, well, terrific.

Long and short of it?   In this era, a congregation that doesn't have a web presence that tells the truth of who they are won't go far.  Pastors...ones worth their salt...know this.  

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Agreeing With Rick Santorum

I don't, not really.   But as we're exposed more and more to the wit and wisdom of someone who actually has a conceivable shot at the nomination of the GOP, his vigorous...and I believe genuine...courting of the far right "base" of the Republican party has gotten him in a bit of trouble.   Two recent statements in particular have gotten him in hot water.   In the first, he suggested that when President Obama encouraged young people to go to college, that was a snobby thing to do.   In the second, he took issue with the idea of the separation of church and state.

Both of these statements haven't been received well, for reasons that are relatively obvious.   They should scare the bejabbers out of anyone who wants America not to emulate the dynamics of Afghan culture.

And yet there's truth in both of them.   Not the truth Mr. Santorum thinks is in them, but truth nonetheless.

Let's look at college education.  For Candidate Santorum, the issue with going to college is makes you less likely to believe the way he believes.  The more you engage with the great thoughts of humankind, the more you study physics and biology, heck, the more you study religion and how it came to be, well, the less likely you are to share Santorum's belief system.   It doesn't mean you can't be deeply faithful, mind you.  But it does diminish the odds of you being radically, rigidly ultraconservative.

He's totally wrong about the value of education.  And yet, hidden under all the crazy, he's right.  He may not know it, but he's right.

As I've suggested before, that college is increasingly the only goal of our secondary education system is a problem.  Why?  A variety of reasons.   College just isn't for everyone.  Not everyone's vocation requires the engagement with the sorts of things you get as part of a liberal arts degree.   I've known some bright, successful, capable human beings who didn't go to college, and chose instead to focus on developing their skills in their chosen field.  Like, say, a guy I know who is a highly competent mechanic.  He was as driven and as called to that field as any teacher or lawyer.  A four year degree for him just would not have made a lick of sense.

If it was something you could do without incurring a huge debt?  Then, sure.  Give it a go.  But that is not where we are.  It would be pointless, if you are a young adult with a clear sense of what you want to do in life, to start your adult life tens of thousands of dollars in debt for an education that didn't prepare you for that life.  

And the idea that such a human being has less value?  Preposterous.  Offensive.  Absurd.  And though I'd like to say it isn't, assuming that an absence of higher education means less valuable is a real feature of our society.

And as for religion in the public sphere?   Well, Candidate Santorum shows here that he has no clue, none, why the separation of faith and state is so vital.   If the integrity of our republic is to stand, no one belief system can ever be permitted to use the power of the state to enforce its doctrines or teachings.  That would, rather obviously, impinge on the Constitutional liberties of all those who do not share that particular tradition.  It would also betray the essence of Christian faith.  

Santorum does not get this.   Nor, frankly, does he understand that when you step into the public sphere as a person of faith, you need to be able to articulate your faith in ways that resonate with those who do not share it.  This was the one great truth coming out of Richard Neuhaus and his classic work The Naked Public Square.  Neuhaus was Catholic, and conservative, but he understood the necessity of recognizing the dynamics of faith in a democratic culture.

But Rick may not have read that one, because, you know, it says the word "Naked."

And yet, again, there's truth buried under the crazy.  People of faith who are not hypocrites bring their faith into every action they undertake.   If we are citizens of a democratic republic and Christian, then the teachings of Jesus will inform our actions as citizens.  It will govern how we vote, how we speak, and our positions on social issues.   In so far as that is true, we are full participants in the public square.   We may also publicly declare that foundation, should we so choose.

But if our intent is to persuade others who do not share our faith of the validity of our position, then we must do so in ways that step outside of the language of our faith.   This is something that fundamentalists and ideologues do rather badly.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Thieves, Dust, and Ashes

Today was supposed to be the day I started back in again on my book.  Having been distracted by doctoral work for the last three months, I've been eager to get back into my half-finished manuscript on multiverse cosmology and theology.

Excited, even.

But this weekend, as I ran a quick errand, someone broke into my van.  The bag they took contained not only the laptop I'd been using to write, but also...because I was intending to work that morning...the backup drive I'd been using to back up the manuscript.  And the almost-finished last paper for my D. Min. program.  And my sermon.

The sermon was rewritten.  The hardware can be replaced.   But six months and 25,000 words vanish.   They're still out there somewhere, on the laptop that's likely now being reformatted for sale on Craigslist, or on the $8 USB flash drive that was undoubtedly tossed away as basically worthless, along with my study bible, my notes from the D.Min. classes, and my Book of Common Worship.  

But functionally, they're gone.

What strikes me, in reflecting on it, is how utterly they're gone.  I remember what I wrote, more or less.  Yet those words as they were can now be shared with no-one.   The images, the reflections, the concepts?  They simply no longer exist.  That book will not come to be, not even on Kindle and Nook.  It has flown forgotten as a dream, as the old hymn goes.   Like tears in rain, as the Apostle Roy Batty put it.  

And so, like Sisyphus on a day the gods were in a hurry, I stand only halfway up the mountain, the ashes of my labors crumbling chaos-blasted in my hands.   But as I trudge back down to the base of that familiar hill,  I find myself surprised at how not-upset I am.   Shouldn't I be gnashing my teeth, storming around, weeping and rending my clothing?  

Nah.  I'd spent the whole first week of Lent reflecting on the need to be prepared for the reality of our mortal existence, and so it just...well...let's just say it worked really neatly into the sermon I'd already conceptualized.   My dear little church was most supportive, and I appreciated that.   

If our faith provides anything, though, it is the understanding that while as mortal beings we cannot control what happens beyond the span of our own flesh, we can choose how we respond to what we face.   I'll just begin again, once I've re-written that paper.  

And it was fun to write the first time, so...well...I'll just find joy the process of writing it again.

Poolesville Presbyterian Church Creation Story

As part of my Doctor of Ministry program, one of the post-course requirements was addition to producing about 25 pages worth of followup papers...I also needed to craft a "Creation Story" for my current congregation.  Given the long and interesting history of Poolesville Presbyterian, this looked to be a fun exercise.

And so into the written histories of the church I dove.  I talked with long term members of the church.  Here's a wee kirk that still inhabits its wee sanctuary after 150 years, with a short hiatus to catch its breath.  The Civil War rumbled through, as did the rise of industrial agriculture (which strangled the local economy) and the spread of nearby Washington DC (which both grew and changed it).    It's a good story.

But when I looked to the model for the Creation Story, I found that it was just a chronology.  The church started on such-and-such a date.  It had X number of members.  Then it did this.  Then it did that.  Fine for a web site's "About" page, I guess.  It just didn't seem particularly like a Creation Story as I understand it.

Creation stories are myth and poetry.  They don't just describe an event.  They speak meaning into the telling of that event.   The language they use isn't that of the boardroom or the annual report, or the church history.   It's the language of the camp fireside, as the warmth of the fire crackles and flickers across the faces of those gathered, and the blarney-kissed lips of the raconteur start spilling out a tale.    It's how we passed the time in that era before little glowing Retina Displays sucked out our souls.

And so I got it in to my head to take a swing at writing just such a myth.   It came out easy enough.   "How Poolesville Presbyterian Came To Be" was a fun story to write.   But then, because the language I was using was a, I felt it needed a bit more.  I visualized it as a children's book, or a short video.

For several days, I took a swing at producing that video, using GarageBand and iMovie, the tools at my disposal.   It felt good creating it, but then I stepped back and perused it.   It was not a great feeling.   Sometimes, when you create something, it isn't quite the thing you hoped it would be, like seeing a video of you delivering that sermon that you thought was so awesome and discovering...well...perhaps you should have gotten that big blob of spinach out of your teeth first.

Oh, I like the text well enough, even if it does sound a bit like something you'd have encountered in a 1970s second grade classroom, as the long-haired boyfriend of your pretty young not-quite-ex-hippie teacher was brought in with his guitar to do some folk songs and fable-telling.  That was kind of my goal.

But the video?   Meh.  The voiceover reflects the limitations of my mike.   And I couldn't quite find a "voice" that worked.   My own didn't fly.  I tried a deeper variant of the voice used in the intro to the Monkey Magic videos, but that just came across as vaguely racist.   And so I lapsed into a very slightly exaggerated drawl, which worked...ish.

And after futzing around with music for a while, I mistakenly assumed that something pseudo-Native American would sound appropriate.  Instead, it just pours New Age melted queso all over the first minute and a half or so.  I should have gone all bluegrass.

But as the perfect is the enemy of the good, I figure this is where it is for now.

And the best stories are embellished over time, right?


How Poolesville Presbyterian Church Came to Be, 
Why the Little Church turned Red

A Fable for Children of All Ages

In the morning of the dawn of all things, rain fell on the green Western mountains.   It danced down and snaked to the east, seeking the sea.   At one place, it turned for a moment, confused, then turned again and moved towards the smell of far off sea.
In that one place, that crook in the river, ages passed, and trees rose and fell and rose again.  The footprints of men and deer speckled the ground in the wooded places, but the woods were silent except for the cry of the hawks, the nattering of the squirrels, and the soft talk of men on the hunt.
Then other folk came, louder folk, and the trees fell, and the loud folk cast seeds upon the ground.  Up sprouted wheat and tobacco and corn.   
One of those seeds was different, and that seed grew into a church.   It wasn’t a big church, and the shadows of the tall corn fell dark across it.  It wasn’t a loud church, and liked to sit and think.  The loud folk didn’t notice it much, so little there in the shade.
And so it sat there thinking, small and peaceful-like, in that place in the crook of the river.  It sang a thoughtful little Jesus song, and got to laughing to itself now and again at the stuff it thought up.
Soon after the little church had sprung from the earth, the Great Harvester rose and walked the land.  It was the season of the harvest of men, and men rose like wheat from the earth, row upon row by the tens of thousands.  All was mud and fear and noise.   Some sought quiet in the little church, and it opened to them, and welcomed them, and sang them its sweet quiet little song.   
But the Great Harvester reached in and took them, and the brick of the church grew red with shame that its song could not protect them.  Then the Great Harvester walked to the fields of men, and took a rich harvest.   Those all broken up by his trampling were brought into the little church, and it grew redder still with the stain of their life.
And then with baskets full and the shadows growing long on the earth, the Great Harvester walked on south.  The place in the crook of the river grew all quiet again.  
The little red church kept singing its sweet thoughtful little Jesus song.  Years piled on top of years, each one just exactly the same as the other, and the little church grew tired.  Its voice grew weak, and its song grew so quiet it could barely hear it itself.  So it decided it was maybe time to rest a while.  It closed its eyes, and went to sleep.
But down the snake of the river, halfway to the sea, the loud folk had grown till there wasn’t any more room to grow.  So they came a walking back up to the crook of the river, and cast down their seeds again upon the ground.  Up sprouted shiny cars and blacksnake roads and big houses, and the shadows of the big houses fell dark across the little sleeping church.
The sound of all those loud goings-on woke the little red church up again, and it opened its eyes.  It gave a yawn, and shook the cobwebs out of its head, and started thinking and humming and singing that sweet song again, just a little bit louder now so folks might hear over all the noise.
And to this day, that’s where that little church sits, singing its song in the shadow of the big houses, nestled in the crook of the river, in between the sea and the green Western mountains.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Mercredi Des Cendres

On Wednesday, as the day waned, I found myself preparing to lead a service that I've never actually attended myself.   My home church hadn't made a habit of Ash Wednesday practice when I was a laddie. The congregation I interned in didn't do it, either, not when I was there.  

And for the last eight years, I was part of a church that was moving away from seasons of liturgical awareness.  There were no holy days, because every day was the same, and every worship the same.  By the time I left, the will of the collective had rendered even Easter almost indistinguishable from any other Sunday.

It worked for them, I suppose, and that I sometimes found the absence a bit spiritually dreary was just my own bias.   Those who observe one day as holier than another and those who say all are the same need to just be chill about it, bro, as the Apostle Paul once said.

When I started up in my current ministry, I discovered in that they hadn't observed Ash Wednesday for decades.  But...perhaps in response to my craving for a counterbalance to years of growing sameness...I found that I was sort of up for it.  As were they.

So I went about figuring out how to do it.  I favor brevity in worship, and quiet, and so I ditched the idea of an extended homily and decided simply to do a bit of semi-Socratic question-and-answer about the purpose of the event at the beginning.  The music was a pair of songs from the Taize community, simple, spare, and gentle.   The prayers were right straight out of the Book of Common Worship, gracious and solid and accessible.  The reading?  Just one, right from the lectionary.

Coming up with ashes posed something of a conundrum, as the traditional Palm fronds from the prior year were nowhere to be found.  Where to come up with ashes that bore some sacred meaning?   Just torching a few newspapers seemed too functional.   Fortunately, my recent ritual disposal of a well-loved Bible providentially supplied that need.

That day, I found a metal bowl, and mixed the bible-ash with olive oil.  With light fading, the little sanctuary was prepared.   Candles were lit.  The lights were dimmed.   It wasn't packed, not at all, but my initial assumption of only a dozen souls proved well off.   It was a healthy gathering, at least thirty strong.   It was also widely mixed, drawn from all generations, young and old, children and youth and parents and grandparents.

When it came time for the imposition of ashes, I was one of those moments.  It felt different.  Sacred.  Special.   Here I am, touching my forefinger to the forehead of all these people I've come to know.  It is an intimate action, touching another being.  We who live sealed in cars and across the mediating distance of cyberspace can forget this.

And so as they came forward singing, I began marking them, slowly, no hurry, with the sign of the mortality of our Teacher.  To each face, I spoke the same words, drawn from our ancient tradition.   "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."

But with each different face, I found that the same words rang both true and unique.  I spoke it to the soldiers, returned from serving in a war zone.  I spoke it to the widow.  I spoke it to the mother.   I spoke it into the bright eyes of the young.  I spoke it into the smiling upturned face of a child.  All different, yet all sharing that same nature and destiny.

I felt deeply aware, in that moment, of my own mortal life, shared with every pair of eyes that met my own.   I also felt, in that connectedness, the imperative of living into the grace we've been taught.  It felt, for lack of a better word, holy.

It only lasted twenty minutes, and then we all moved out into the peculiar warmth of that February night.   But if a time is set aside as sacred, duration means less than the moment of Presence.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Holy Books, Fire, and Tolerance

Just about a month has passed since I reverently burned my old Bible.  Today, that simple action feels a bit different, particularly in the light of the rioting and killings under way yet again in Afghanistan over the inadvertent burning of some Korans.

The official response of the United States military and the U.S. government has been one of apology, repeatedly affirming the need for us to be culturally sensitive and formally stating a respect for the faith and culture of the Afghan people.   I understand this, and I understand the strategic dynamics that make such statements necessary.

But though I'm progressive, perhaps because I'm progressive, I have a great deal of difficulty finding respect for Afghan culture, and particularly for the form of faith that is manifested in the rioting and killing we've seen.  Yes, I know, some would say it's all our fault that things in Afghanistan are the way they are today.  No one likes an occupier.  There's some truth in that.  I also know that people who struggle in hopeless poverty and under societal oppression often are a tick more...volatile.

And I have no difficulty respecting Islam, with its virtues of charity, mercy and hospitality.  There are plenty of gracious, kind, and peaceful Muslims in this world who find foundation for their graciousness in their faith.

Still and all, I struggle with the idea that the sociocultural and theocratic dynamics of Afghanistan merit acceptance.  There are Afghans who are perfectly decent people, but the culture itself just isn't a positive thing.    It is a train wreck, a mess, oppressive, corrupt, violent, and willfully ignorant.   So I have sensitivity, sure, but in the way you are "sensitive" to that volatile neighbor who likes to get drunk and sit in his front yard with a shotgun, or the way you're "sensitive" to the presence of a nearby piece of unexploded ordnance.

But how can I bring myself to respect a culture that would...if I were Muslim and had burned an old Koran as a respectful way of disposing of it...drag me into the streets and beat me to death?  Or threaten me with violence for associating with someone who had accidentally burned a Koran?  When I burned that Bible and put the video up on YouTube as background for a blog post, I got a tiny speck of fundamentalist trollery on the video...but that's what you'd expect.   It is a far cry from feeling like your life is in danger.  But ours is, for the time being, still a free and open society.

Within the boundaries of my own faith, I have tremendous difficulty with those who take our sacred narratives and turn them into idols.  I see the rigidity of literalism and the idolatrous worship of texts as antithetical to faith, and particularly antithetical to the faith taught by Jesus and spread by Paul.   "..For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life," as the Apostle might say.

If tolerance and acceptance of the other are central values, it is hard to see where to connect with a culture in which those values are essentially rejected.

Pastors and Evangelists

In a semi-recent post, the thought-provoking Vice Moderator of our denomination suggested in a "letter" to God that perhaps it was time for the Numinous Font of All Being to stop calling people to be pastors.  With fewer and fewer congregations, the folks who come a-boppin' bright-eyed and bushy tailed out of seminary have a problem.  Here you are, all afire for Jesus and filled with the latest and greatest ideas, and...there's nowhere to go.   Our shrinking congregational ecosystem is already supersaturated with folks who can take your M.Div., and raise you a Doctorate, 25 years of experience, a well-received book, and a deep and broad network of social connections within the denomination.

When it comes to finding a call, you're up [polity] creek without a paddle.

Sure, a few churches will have the boldness to look beyond the siren song of expansive resumes and credentials and publications.  Some will take that risk on a promising new pastor.  But most won't.  We're Presbyterians, after all.  Risk is something we manage, not take on.

The Good Rev. Whitsitt then suggested that perhaps the Great Cloud of Unknowing should call some evangelists instead, and this suggestion was well taken.  But evangelism is not a strength of our system, truth be told.   Take a look at our Ordination Exams, and you get a good sense of what we care about.  We care about Polity, and Worship, and Bible writ both broad and deep.  But ain't no Evangelism Exam for hopeful pastors.

Not that I'm saying there should be.  The last thing we need is yet another Good Idea to stack up on top of our camel's long-broken back.  Lord have mercy.

Still, it's evidently not a priority.  We're oriented towards not what might be, but towards what is and was.

And there, I wonder about how willing we'd be structurally to prioritize calling folks as evangelists.   It does sound great, mind you.  We like talking that talk.  But in practice, how would a system that is already in retreat respond to that call?   As I was personally preparing to transition out of my prior ministry last year, I found myself musing about the possibility of starting something up.  The idea of creating an a-locational gathering was particularly exciting.  

When I did the personal SWOT analysis of weaknesses and threats, though, I looked out at my community...and at the prospect of doing something like that locally...I just couldn't fail to notice that there was already a set of PC(USA) congregations in place.  Most of them are healthy churches.  I know the pastors leading them, and know their aspirations and hopes for growing their communities.

Within the dynamics of the existing Presbyterian landscape, where was there the space to plant?  How could you do something, even something that bore no resemblance to existing congregational structures and expectations, without being perceived as "threatening the system?"  And if you "threaten the system," the odds of getting support from that same system are as likely as Ron Paul becoming the GOP nominee.

But it went deeper.  Knowing those communities of faith and their efforts, I had no desire to compete with them, or to take any actions that might mess with them.   When you conceptualize those in surrounding congregations not as 1) folks who just don't get Jesus in the special magical fashion-forward way you do or 2) competitors in the AmeriChrist marketplace, things get different.   When you see them as brothers, sisters, and fellow walkers of the Way, the task of evangelizing becomes more...complex.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Brick Testament, Atheism, and Fundamentalism

In sermon researching and exploring this week, I found myself again digging through the online presence of the Brick Testament dude.   This fellow, in the event you haven't encountered him, has made something of a name for himself by recreating stories from the Bible using Lego and Lego figurines.   Years back, I was gifted one of his books...the story of a family member, and it was worth a grin or two.   That same book now sits on the mantel of the abandonware fireplace in my 1827 church office.    It's cool and creative.

On the receipt of an Amazon gift card last year, I found myself thinking I might want some more of his stuff.   And so to BrickTestament.Com I went to peruse his wares.  It was not what I had hoped.  What I discovered there was interesting.   I first noticed something of a subversive edge when it came to presenting the Bible stories from the Tanakh.   There wasn't any talk of justice or care for the widow, orphan, and stranger.  There was no prophetic challenge to the structures of social and economic power.  Instead the editorial choices included stereotypical hellfire and brimstone, Bathsheba-schtupping, and bronze age ultra-violence.   When I wandered into the teachings of Jesus, the interpretive bias of the creator of these works became even more clear.

A significant super-majority of the images and recreations used to describe Jesus were deeply negative.  Jesus, or so the testament of brick pitches it, was a hypocrite, a delusional, sadistic zealot, who calls us to abuse ourselves and hate others.   Even his teachings about nonviolence are spun with images that interpret them nothing more than the babblings of an idiot, calling us not to stand up against bullies and criminals.   The Lego-crafted retellings were not neutral, or objective.

More importantly, they aren't playful.  They're just kind of mean.  Their splenetic and willfully negative view of the Nazarene bears no resemblance to what a disinterested observer would say he actually lived and taught.  We all pick and choose, of course.  But if you go looking for reasons to hate, it says more about your own desires than the text itself.   They read like simplistic atheist plastic brick political oppo-research.

Two further things caught my eye.  

First, as the Brick Testament guy interpreted his way through the teachings of Jesus, his approach to exegesis was exactly the same as that of fundamentalists.   To tell a story, he takes verses from different Gospel traditions and knits them together, often not even in chronological order.   Given the Frankenstein's monster character of the storytelling, it was clear that the context and intent of narrative were less important than the point he'd already decided to make.   This is a consistently shared interpretive technique of atheism and fundamentalism.

Second, almost every banner ad on Brick Testament guy's website was for a fundamentalist or evangelical ministry.  Big evangelical conferences?  Right there.  Ads suggesting that you enroll in Liberty University?  Sure 'nuff.   It was just another reminder of the peculiar symbiosis between atheist and fundamentalist literalists.

Some of the tableaux are still cool, and he's obviously a creative guy.   I'm keeping that book of Genesis on my mantle.  I'll probably snag some of the images off of the Net for illustrations now and again.    But the books were the familiar spin of the anti-theist, and as awesome as the Lego/Bible combination has the potential be, I'm not going to be doing any buying of them.

I just really never enjoyed playing with kids who go out of their way to be mean.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cherry Pickin'

One of the most common charges leveled against progressive Christians is that we're the smorgasbord faithful.

We progs stand accused of wandering up to the Jesus buffet line and only taking those things that look yummy to us, while pointedly ignoring the stuff we don't like.  We serve ourselves a heapin' helpin' of Sermon on the Mount Roast, and a pour a big mess of 1 Corinthians 13 Gravy on our 1 John Mashed Potatoes.

The Revelation Hellfire Lentil Loaf doesn't even get a second glance, and we make a funny face at Ol' Uncle Paul's Obedient Slaveberry Pie.

For our pickiness, we're assailed from both sides.  Fundamentalists and atheists both assail us for...lets say it together..."cherry pickin'."  You only take what you like?  Cheaters!  Outrageous!  All or nothing!

So now, boys and girls, let's use the imaginations God gave us, and see ourselves standing in a garden.  Before us, there's a cherry tree hanging heavy with thousands of plump red morsels, the fruit ripe and delicious and in season.  We're hungry, and the smell is sweet.

Behind us and to our left, we've got the atheist, who looks at the entire tree with its leaves and branches and fruit.  I'm not going to eat that whole thing, he snorts.  Much of it is completely inedible!  And the fruit has pits!  How do I know I might not be allergic to it?!  He sits down in a snit, and with his best pinchy defiant two-year old pout, insists he'd rather starve.

Kneeling at the base of the tree, we have the fundamentalist, her mouth full of bark and twigs and leaves.  She gnaws vigorously at the indigestible hardwood near the bottom of the trunk.  Bits of masticated wood mingled with fragments of tooth enamel and dark green leaf juice drip from her lips.  It's absolutely, presuppositionally delicious, she insists.  By definition, it couldn't possibly taste any better.  And as an added benefit, she says with a slightly broken smile, I'm so much more regular now!

Cherry pickin'?  I suppose so.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Wrapped in Plastic

Monday had been my pastoral day off for many years.  Though many pastorly types take off Friday, I never quite understood that.  On Friday, the sermon still gnaws at your brain, and Sunday's busyness looms.   On Monday, you're spent from Sunday, particularly if you're an introvert and every last social synapse has overheated and is in system shutdown.

Now that I'm a part-timer, though, Mondays are often busy as I spread my sabbath through the week.  Today includes not just the ever inescapable Tribble-like piles of laundry, but also a Presbytery committee meeting, orthodontist appointments for both boys, and a drum lesson.

Once the boys were fed and watered and off to school, this morning also involved service on a recall for my aging Honda minivan, so that the airbag impeller in the steering wheel would not send shards of metal into my head when it went off.  While that might be useful in stopping zombie carjackers, it's otherwise not one of those features you want in a family vehicle.

The dealership is nine minutes and three point one miles away by car, but as the morning was free-ish and I needed the exercise, I decided to walk back.   And so I hoofed it, the bright sharpness of a February morning on my face, the half-moon still hanging in the brightening morning sky.  Whenever I walk, I'm reminded of the inhuman scale of the 'burbs, how structured they are for car and van and 'ute, but not for the creatures that actually live in them.

Part of that reminder is the near total absence of other human beings.  There are plenty of metal boxes whizzing by on the road, but almost no bipedal hominids in evidence.  My return walk...two point seven miles and forty five minutes, as I cut through neighborhoods and through a park...involved encountering exactly two other human beings.

One was an elderly Asian gentleman moving slowly along the sidewalk, slightly rough around the edges.  As I approached him, he let out a percussive belch, and my greeting only stirred a sidelong glance as he shuffled past.

The other was Plastic Man.  He's homeless, and a recurring feature in the area where I live.  I've passed him dozens of times as I've driven the roads around Falls Church and Annandale.  He wears an outfit that is wholly made of plastic bags.  Coat.  Jacket.  Hat.  Pants.  All garbage bags and duct tape.

He moved in the direction that I moved, as we both walked by the stores in a decaying, half-abandoned strip mall.  He walked slowly, uncertainly, with the self-doubting, ever-pausing drift that comes with mental illness.   Coming near, I saw how neatly the bags were taped together, and that even the pack on his back was entirely made of Hefty-sourced plastic.  It was incongruously precise, every seam sealed, evidently created with care and a peculiar sort of survival craftmanship.

I passed him walking briskly, and as I passed, I wished him a good morning.

From within the plastic, a grizzled half-shaven face showed surprise, and as I made eye contact, his struggled to focus from behind thick glasses, momentarily blinded by the bright morning sun behind me.   He made a gutteral sound, as if trying out a voice that didn't see much use and finding it wasn't working well, and then looked away.

When the time came to return to pick up the hopefully less-lethal van, I returned on my ancient, rusted, much battered and well-used mountain bike.  It was a far swifter ride back, just a tick over 10 minutes.   With the cold reddening my face, I cycled through the seedy strip mall.

Plastic Man still stood just a dozen yards from where I'd passed him.

He watched me approach, and I met his eyes, smiled, and gave him a nod.   He nodded in recognition, and smiled back as I passed.

It really is good to get out of the car now and again.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Entertaining Preaching

I am not the world's best preacher.  A reasonable appraisal of my own abilities, measured against those I've heard preach, leads me to figure I'm above average.  Not stellar, but not half bad.  Not earth-shaking, though enough Sundays lately seem to resonate with folks to keep me encouraged.

Here, I find myself musing over an article...a few years old...that recently wended my way through the Facebookery of the Vice Moderator of the denomination.  In an opinion piece from the New York Times, a Congregationalist pastor lamented the tendency for pastors to burn out, and gave his thesis as to why that is such a frequent occurrence.  His appraisal?  

According to that pastor, the problem is that congregations don't want to be taught.  They want to be entertained.  Rather than seeking the clear moral instruction that they should be seeking, they're looking to be affirmed in what they already know.  And they want a couple of jokes thrown in.  Oh, and it can't run more than 10 minutes.  Here we are now, entertain us!  Does this smell like church spirit to you

There is some truth in this, of course.  But I've known many pastors, and have heard their laments about their personal and spiritual exhaustion.   What I haven't ever heard is "entertaining sermons" presented as the problem.  Leaders of congregations burn out when they're overburdened with administrative requirements, when church is all about facility and carpets and task force meetings about liability exposure.

What burns out pastors are the seemingly endless interpersonal dramas that groups of human beings generate.  What fries pastors are the flames they have to stomp out, particularly the heat rising from the smoldering whisperings of those apparently inextinguishable human tire-fires in your community.

But entertaining preaching?  I'm not sure about that.  Neither am I sure that it's a bad thing.

Because good preaching is entertaining.  It's funny.  It's moving.  It's delightful.  It's challenging.

A good sermon does not feel long, even if it goes for 45 minutes.  A good sermon can run five minutes, and still convey one concept potently.  A good sermon involves rapport, as preacher and congregation connect.  It doesn't have to get all call-and-responsey, but a little bit of that is a good thing.

The challenge facing most overeducated Presbyterian pastors is that our task is not simply to give instruction.  Preaching is not the conveying of data.  It is not a board room presentation, or an academic lecture.  It bears no resemblance to the presentation of research results at a scholarly conference, or the oral presentation of a particularly hard-hitting article.   Even the most potent ethical or theological insight will transform no lives if it is smothered under mumbled bullet-point droning.

It needs to inspire, and to interest, and to stir the minds and hearts of the listeners, even...and particularly...if they don't totally agree with the pastor's interpretation.

If all you're doing is entertaining, that's a problem.  If it's all canned anecdotes and in-jokes smattered with a generic scripture here and there, all fluff and treacle signifying nothing, then you're not teaching.  You're just pretending to preach.

But if everyone's asleep, you're not teaching either.  If a congregation asks...please...try to make it interesting....that's well within their right to expect.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Adoption, Discrimination and Conscience

As the Virginia State government moved vigorously to the right following the mid-term elections, it is perhaps no surprise that it has chosen to move aggressively.  For years, it was constrained by the counterbalancing force of a moderate Democrat in the State House, or a moderate majority in the Senate.

This is no longer the case.  Absent that counterweight, things in Richmond have gone precisely the way you'd expect.  Folks on the right are releasing all that pent-up paleoconservative tension, as drunk with freedom as the child of helicopter parents in those first few blurry weeks of college.   And Lord have mercy, have they gone on a legislative bender.

They're pitching out new laws right and left.  Or right and further right, to be more accurate.

They would permit multiple simultaneous handgun purchases, much to the great delight of our friends in the Zetas drug cartel.   They would mandate medically unnecessary ultrasounds for any woman considering an abortion, because health care mandates are what American Conservatism is all about.

And now, there's a bill...likely to pass...that would explicitly allow private faith-based adoption services agencies to refuse to work with couples who don't meet the standards of their faith tradition.  This would include agencies who receive funding from the state.

This is being described as a bill that would protect the consciences of faith-based providers, and is generally understood as being a Trojan Horse for keeping children away from gay couples.  If you believe that homosexuality is inherently sinful, or so the not-really-spoken argument goes, then you shouldn't be required to place children with same-sex couples.  That is, rationalizations about preserving freedom notwithstanding, the sole, entire, and only purpose of this bill.

Understand that this has nothing to do with protecting the child from abuse or neglect.  Under federal law, adoption agencies are required to do significant background checks on parents and individuals who seek to adoption a child.  The effect of this bill is to permit discrimination against individuals whose beliefs do not mesh with the agency.  Federal law forbids racial discrimination in adoption, but is silent on the subject of religious discrimination.

Having known gay couples who have adopted kids, and who are wonderful parents, this bill bothers the bejabbers out of me on that level.  It is woefully wrong on that front.  But my issues with it go deeper.

Sure, it's meant to be anti-gay, but in being coy about it and couching itself in what it imagines is the language of freedom, it's more than that.  Reading the text of the bill as written, it is also potentially anti-Muslim.  Or antisemitic.  Or anti-mainline Protestant.  Or anti-atheist.  Or anti-Christian.  

Let's imagine for a moment that the state-licensed and funded agency in question is run by a literalist Christian group.  As far as they are concerned, failure to believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God is a sure path to Aitch-EE-Double-Toothpicks.  

Now imagine for a moment that a Bible-believing woman is married to a Christian-ish man who's not quite so sure about what he believes, and they find a child through this group.  The state-funded agency in question would now be perfectly within its legal rights to stop the adoption process mid-cycle if they feel that such a family might not raise a child in keeping with its values.  "It's your husband.  We just can't risk little Tyler going to hell, Ma'am."  

Again, it's not that they'd be bad parents.  Just that they'd be the wrong sort of people.  What of a conservative Catholic agency that receives state funds and licensing?  Could such a group refuse a child to a nondenominational couple on the basic of their beliefs?  Under this law, the answer is yes.  

Given that conscience, at its heart, means "knowing together," the internalization of a shared ethos, does such a bill really represent conscience across the entirety of the state?  Does it represent our shared statewide understanding of what is in the best interest of children?  Does it even represent what the Apostle Paul would have described as "doing what is right in the eyes of all?" 

No.  The answer to those rhetorical questions is of course not.   But that's the way Richmond rolls these days.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Romney, Government, and the Very Poor

Last week, Mitt Romney continued to roll inescapably towards the Republican nomination, much to no-one's surprise and the consternation of social conservatives everywhere.  Romney's a well oiled machine, capable as a speaker, smart and difficult to ruffle in a debate.  He presents the competent, distant benevolence of an early 1960s sitcom dad, arriving at 5:15 sharp from The Place Where Grownups Live, ready to sit down with Wally and the Beav to offer the final and definitive word on whatever sepia-toned hijinks have ensued.

It's unusual for him to slip, allowing that identity...not a facade, I'm convinced it goes deeper than that with be dinged.   Last week's wanderings into whether a president should be concerned about the very poor were such a slip.   Romney's statement in its entirety can be found here, and read in completeness, it is more nuanced than blood-in-the-water punditry would have you believe.   It is also utterly comprehensible in the calculus of politics in a democracy.  The key to winning an election in a democratic society is the same key you use to win a game of chess.  If you take the center of the board, you are likely to win.

Romney is money and a patrician.  What is he is not is stupid.  He understands that dynamic.  And so when he says that his concern is not with the very rich (who can take care of themselves) or the very poor (who have a "safety net"), but with everyday folks like you and me, he's speaking from the strategic heart of consumer politics.

There is a difference, though, between what is politically advantageous and what constitutes good governance.  The validity of a state rests on the ability of that state to protect the interests of its constituent citizens.  The provision of infrastructure, both physical and regulatory, is a significant part of that validity.

But when you get down to the bone and gristle of the thing, states provide protection.  It's what they do.

States protect against attack from "outside."  If rapacious hordes of flannel-clad Quebecois came pouring across the border to menace us with their strange twangy French, it would be the responsibility of our state to defend us.

But states also stand as protection against uncertainty from within.  The measure of a good state is that within its borders, you will not go cold or starve or die abandoned in the dirt by the side of the road.  If the harvest fails, the good state has reserves.  If you are disabled or abandoned or orphaned or widowed, the good state will insure you are cared for.  If a powerful man decides he wants your home, the state will prevent it.  If the storm rises or the earth shakes and all is lost, the state will be there to rebuild.   It's an essential part of the social contract.

That isn't just true for our Constitutional Republic, which in its ideal provides for the common defense, promotes the general welfare, and secures the blessings of liberty.  It has always been true.  The protection of the rights of the "very poor" rests at the foundation of even our most ancient systems of governance.

Within the legal codes of the Torah, care for the last and the least is absolutely fundamental.  If you fall into debt and bondslavery, it promises eventual release.  If you are a stranger in the land, you are promised hospitality and protection.  If you lose parents or find yourself unable to provide for your own care, it promises the protection of the community.   Torah is not alone on this front.  The Code of Hammurabi, equally ancient, makes a similar point of asserting care for the widow and the orphan...the "very poor" the mark of a good king.

It would be tempting to here note that the Book of Mormon contains no such legal code.  It's a book of narratives and visions, with scant and tangential reference to the concept of justice as presented in Torah.  But for all of my many struggles with the LDS conceptually, I know that concern for the "very poor" is a potent and vital part of what that community does.  One look at the church-produced food in the larders of a struggling Mormon family will disabuse you of any notion that Mormons aren't aware of that need.

Where Romney slipped is in not recognizing that to seek the interests of the "center," you have to assure them that should ill befall them, that safety net will be strong.  He did attempt to do this, in all fairness.  But as the "center" is often just one job-loss and one major illness away from being "very poor," his efforts aren't adequate.

For a Republican running in a time of lingering economic trauma, when all of us have seen friends and family struggling, this is a particular concern.  If you're the candidate of the party that sees the "safety net" as the problem, telling people to trust the safety net may not be the wisest course.

It cuts at the heart of our most fundamental expectations of good government.  And that is not good politics.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Dreams of a Snow Church

I miss winter.  I do.

This Sunday, as I motored down beautiful country roads on my way to P-ville, I could tell that winter had tried.  She'd sprinkled a dusting of powdered-sugar snow on the fields, some of which still drifted down to spatter against the faceshield of my helmet.   Some of those wet spots in the hollows seemed dark and hungry as a shark's eye with the sheen of black ice.  I tiptoed the motorcycle over them, and hummed on.

But it's been a warm one here on the East coast of the United States, barely a winter at all.

Perhaps that's why these pictures of that church in Bavaria made almost entirely of snow appeal to me.  The idea of it delights, and on so many levels.

What better place for the Frozen Chosen to gather to meta-snicker at our reputation?

And it's so simple.  So essential.  So gentle and elegant in the soft blue of shadows and moonlight.  So devoid of frippery and folderol, pricey paraments or their 21st century projection-screen equivalents.

John Calvin's heart would go pit-a-pat at the sight of it, or at least stir enough to either write a scholarly treatise or organize a task force, which is what typically passes for arousal in the Reformed world.

And best of all, in the snow church there would be no struggling for funds to maintain the aging HVAC system, no anxiety about the condition of the roof.  Come spring, when the eidelweiss blooms, the physical church will simply melt away, to rise again when the season is right.

There's just no point in fighting, fretting or getting too anxious about something that will only be here for a season.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Eddie Long, Torah, and Religious Freedom

This little bit of strangeness worked its way to me yesterday, forwarded by a friend who has an eye for the absurd in the faith.   The video depicts the "coronation" of Eddie Long by New Birth Missionary Baptist church, his Atlanta-area megachurch, and honestly, it's difficult for me to watch.  It's hard to even look at it.

It's hard because Eddie Long is, well, a charlatan.  He's a strong proponent of the prosperity gospel, making him of those pastors who manage to skip over Jesus telling us about the spiritual dangers of wealth and head straight for a million-dollar-a-year compensation package, up to and including a church-funded Bentley.  He's clearly a person who has trouble reining in his appetite for acquiring things, but no trouble whatsoever in making other people think that his appetites are nothing to worry about.

It's hard because such displays of ego and the worship of a single personality are utterly antithetical to the call to be a pastor.  The pastoral call is to be the servus servorum dei, the servant of the servants of God.  If we understand the teachings of our Rabbi, Christian leaders realize that our task is the giving of ourselves and the humbling of ourselves, even to the point of cleaning the dirt off of the feet of others.  Self-promotion is not part of that.  It just ain't.

It's hard because Eddie is a serial sexual predator, whose preaching against "the gays" didn't prevent him from indulging his other appetites, which included a string of young men in the church.  Unlike a congregation where the pastor is beholden to a denomination or at least an empowered lay leadership team, New Birth exists because of Long.  He is the brand.  Faced with charges, he knew he could ride them out.  So he just stood his ground, claimed "human weakness," and paid off accusers.  This ceremony is part of his humble reclaiming of the mantle of ministry after that little mess.  

But mostly, it's hard because as a pastor with a Jewish wife and kids, it's hard to watch someone who claims to be Christian misusing and desecrating a Torah.  

As part of the ceremony of coronation, the master of ceremonies for the event brings out a Torah scroll, which he insisted had survived the Nazi depredations at Auschwitz and "Birkendahl."  After spewing some highly dubious information about the connection between Hebrew and genetic codes, the guy leading the event then led the stage hands through the process of wrapping Eddie in the scroll.  "He's covered in the word," crowed the Emcee, as the crowd shrieked with glee at the sight of their Eddie, wrapped up in a Torah like a sweaty, well-oiled burrito.

Then, of course, they slap a prayer shawl on him, lift him up on a throne and parade His Nibs around the stage.  It reminded me of a Bar Mitzvah party in hell, only without Gilbert Gottfried singing Hava Nagila.

Touching a Torah scroll, as anyone with more than twelve seconds of exposure to synagogue worship knows, is viewed by observant Jews as a serious no no.  When reading from Torah you take care not to be in contact with the text itself, out of concern for damaging it and out of respect for the holiness of the text.  When my older son was reading Torah during his mitzvah last year, he tracked his position in the Hebrew with a yad, a silver finger at the end of a short wand.  This object exists for the sole purpose of preventing contact with the text.  If it happens, it happens, but it is something you don't do intentionally.

For Long's congregation, those twelve seconds are entirely lacking, of course.  There's no exposure to anything other than the "teachings" of their Eddie.  They know what they've been taught, and what they've been taught is to give their money and their faith to Eddie.  They are oblivious to the fact that for some observant Jews, this is the equivalent of watching a Koran burning for a Muslim, the equivalent of an Army mom watching Westboro Baptist protest a soldier's funeral.

And yet, within the boundaries of our hard won religious freedom, this is their right.  

Sure, it bothers the sane and the ethical and the aware.  It's maddening.  It's tempting to want such things banned, to be able to storm in with the Homeland Theology Department's SWAT team, rescue the scroll, tase the fool, extradite him, and deposit him in a neighborhood of Haredim.  That could make for an entertaining Youtube.

But...and here I knowingly depart from Calvin...the role of the state cannot be to police belief.  The most difficult thing about freedom is our propensity to misuse it.  If we want to organize our lives around a charming, utterly self-confident idiot, we may do so.  We are free to give our worldly possessions to a manipulative egomaniacal predator if we so choose.  We are free to give our lives over to cults.  We are free to organize our lives around demonizing other faiths, or insulting and belittling and misrepresenting the beliefs of others.  

And if we weren't, then we wouldn't be free.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Family Values and DRM

Over the last few days, as I've downloaded music using the handful of iTunes gift cards that were left over from Christmas, Hanukkah, and my birthday, I've found myself wondering something.

I enjoy music, of all kinds.  But something else I enjoy is sharing said music with my kids.  Their nanos and Touches are filled with music that belongs to me.   I've purchased it, and if it is cool/appropriate, shared it with them.  If I encounter something that I appreciate, I want to pass appreciation for that thing to my kids.  When I download the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack for my own listening pleasure, it immediately populates their players.   It's the fun part of parenting teens and tweens, the part that involves you rocking out together in the van while on the way to drums/swimming/tutoring.

They do the same thing in return, connecting Dad with those things that the younglings are thinking and/or watching.  How else would I have learned of Nyancat, or watched the Epic Rap Battles of History?

Yet I am aware, as my older son grows even taller and high school looms on the horizon, that my boys are growing up.  Soon, Lord willing, they'll be leaving the nest.  That's just how life goes.

And when they do, what then happens to my ability to share with them?   I have no intent of stopping, of course.  But if most of the music is on the family account...hmmm.  I suppose, as things go to Cloud, that they could just continue to snag what they want from wherever they may end up.   This was less of an issue back when I was a lad, and the physical media I owned was the physical media I owned.  It was utterly distinct, physically different, from the collection of music that still rests on silent vinyl in my parent's house.

Everything I own also belongs to my children, and to the grandchildren that will eventually hopefully come.  And to their children, to the thousandth generation, as they say.  But as we go a generation deep into the digital era, I find myself wondering whether DRM and copyright will be used by corporations to trump genetics and inheritance.

I wonder if we'll reach a point where that becomes an issue, when corporations will look at fathers and sons who share a love for the same music, and attempt to prevent us from sharing music and joy across generations.  Will I be able to pass music to my grandchildren, the flesh of my flesh?  Will I be able to have them access my library, without fearing that the RIAA will come knocking at my door, lawyers snarling?

Interesting times, as they say.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

First Presbyterian Church of QWOP

The other day, as a part of his effort to share all good things he encounters with his dad just as I share them with him, my little guy presented me with what he described as the most confoundedly impossible flash game of all time.

The game, a 2008 release entitled "QWOP," is deceptively simple.   It involves trying to get a runner to move down a track using those four keys.  Two control his calves.  Two control his thighs.

But nothing, nothing controls the laughter that comes from the repeated, helpless flailing that ensues when you try to coordinate the whole mess.  My wife and I were both driven to fits of nearly unmanageable giggling at the absurdity of the game.  I had to stop playing, things got so hysterical.  There's a good reason QWOP has become an internet meme in it's own right.  

As simple as it seems, it's an exercise in total floundering incompetence.  Nothing works together the way it should.  Nothing meshes.  What appears on the surface of it to be the most remarkably easy thing is just utterly impossible.   The whole time you play, you find yourself thinking, "My gosh (or words to that effect), I should be able to get this!"  

That breakthrough seems as close to the tips of your fingers as the touch of grapeskin was to the fingers of Tantalus.   And then down again you fall. 

It reminds me, unsurprisingly, of trying to be Christian, and particularly of the efforts Christians put in to being church together.  

Just love one another!  It's so very simple.  L.O.V.E.  How hard could that be?   

And yet Jesus folk have floundered haplessly at the starting gate for two millennia, pounding haplessly at their keyboards, the Body of Christ hopping and stumbling and crashing.  

There are a few tricks to beating QWOP, in my experience.

First, be light of heart.  The more easily you are angered by failure, or get frustrated when things get in your way, the more likely you are to fail.   You're not ever going to get there if you get angry.  Laugh a bit.

Second, be patient.  Keep at it.  If you give up the seventy seventh time you faceplant, you're not going to make the finish line.  It's at One Hundred Meters, by the way.

Third, don't be afraid to look a bit stupid.  If you reach the finish line hopping on one bent knee, waggling one foot in the air as a counterbalance and dragging along a hurdle, hey, you still finished.  Well done, good and faithful QWOPPER, saith the Son of Man, as he stifleth a giggle.  

With those three things, you can beat the game.