Thursday, January 31, 2013

We Are A Mission Church

I walked along a nearby road earlier this week with my bright and earnest young nephew, who with his sister was hanging with me on a teacher workday.  As we were rambling back home from a yummy Mexican lunch at a nearby restaurant, he and I passed by the largest church in our immediate neighborhood.  A good place, it is, a large and healthy Methodist congregation, one that's recently installed a big ol' electronic sign.

On that sign, it said in elegantly multihued letters: "We Are A Mission Church."

My nephew looked at me, and said, in his earnest way, "Uncle Dave?"

"What," I responded.

"I don't know what that sign means," he said.  I asked him what part he didn't understand.  "Any of it.  That sentence doesn't make sense to me."

I told him what I was reasonably sure it meant.  Mission means many things to varying sorts of Christians, but these being suburban Methodists and all, I figured I could speak with confidence.  "They mean they do good work in the community and in the world," I said, "and they do it because what they believe makes them want to do that good work."

"Oh," he said.  "OK.  Then why don't they just say that?"

I told him I didn't know.

Funny, how we church folk find ways to describe our goodness so that the world has no clue what we're talking about.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Emergence, Faith, and the Many Worlds

Over the last month, I've gotten some response from what may potentially be a publisher for The Believer's Guide to the Multiverse.  I've been pitching it for much of the last six months, with the typical form-letter results, and was on the verge of going the self-publishing route.   But now, there's a possible nibble.  It's a fledgling e-book shop, one that focuses on editing and marketing rather than physically producing books that inhabit the cutting edge of faith.

Publication will be contingent on getting the manuscript refined and edited, so it isn't a fait accompli quite yet.  But with an editor now lined up, I'm back into thinking about quantum theory, the Many Worlds interpretation, and the ramifications of that great big bucket of fascinating cosmological crazy for Christian faith.  

My return to the manuscript has played interestingly off a slight stirring in the emergent movement, as folks have wrassled with the state of that conversation.  Emergence is still out there, talking and deconstructing and churning.

It's still a conversation, and one that engages.  Folk move around the edges of the conversation, dancing in and out of the discussion.  Like, say, Rachel Held Evans.   She's everywhere now, and her thoughtful voice resonates with that conversation.  But is she emergent?  I just don't know.   How would one know?   What I've continued to struggle with is the explicit connection of this movement to theology.

I've been able to find that, within my own corner of Christian faith.  Semper reformanda, or always reformed and reforming, as we Presbyterians say, and that works well with the openness to new forms that is a significant part of the emergent ethos.

But my sense of it is that you've got to go deeper than that if you're going to make a meaningful statement about faith to those who don't already inhabit your particular tradition.  You've got to be able to put the essence of your faith into a comprehensible worldview.

So for emergents, the challenge has always been: Why does the emergent take on faith better articulate God's self-expression into creation?  Sure, we can talk about the Spirit, but why is tolerance, openness, and creativity a more powerful articulation of what God is trying to work in us than absolutism?

Fundamentalism also has a story about existence, and a potent one, that casts all of being into a binary and linear narrative.  The literalist view of the cosmos is a heady mix of ancient story and an industrial/enlightenment-era mechanism.  Absurd?  Perhaps.  But what it does for those who hold to it is place their faith into the context of that worldview.  It establishes a clear cosmological foundation for why it is what it is.  That may be flagrantly wrong and a tiny bit insane, but it's there nonetheless.

Emergence, on the other hand...well, what does it have?  How does one say that openness to various paths to truth is reflected in the nature of creation?  I've heard little of that articulated in emergent conversations, and I've hungered for it.  It would take what has often primarily been a critique, and make it into something constructivist.

What's struck me as I've explored the theological implications of the Many Worlds/multiverse interpretation of quantum physics is that it gives deeper ontological ground to theologies of grace, freedom, tolerance, and mutual interconnection.

If this is the nature of the Creation into which our God has etched us, then the ethos of emergence makes a whole bunch more sense.   A faithful emergent soul says, "Be generative!  Be open!  Be creative! Be loving!"  And if underlying the structure of creation is the actualization of all possibility and not simply one linear time and space, then the emergent statement harmonizes with that logos.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Emergence and Purpose

Amongst the folks I blog-feed, there are many who are wrassling now with the state of "emergence," that conversational/relational movement within Christianity that fluttered into being just about a decade ago.

Emergence has been described as many things, and presented in many ways.  It's resistance to the theological rigidity of literalist fundamentalism.  It's a struggle against the strangling formalism of the dying old-line denominations.  It's a wandering away from the bright shiny falseness of marketized Christianity.  It is those things.

But mostly, it has been talking.  Or rather, talking about talking.  Emergence is, in my experience, a fundamentally epistemological movement, to use a big honking incoherent philosophical term that just shows you how very smart I am.  Ahem.  Epistemology means, more or less, the study of knowing how we know.  It is seeking to know how we know.  It is talking about how we talk.  It's very postmodern.  It's very academic, in the pejorative sense of the term.

Epistemology is a sign, pointing to a sign, pointing to a sign.   It goes nowhere, an ouroboros serpent devouring its own tail.   Epistemology has defined philosophy for a hundred years, which is why philosophy as a discipline is now utterly irrelevant.  It is also a defining feature of emergence, which is an ill wind for those who hope it might become something more than it is.

To be a movement, emergence needs to find its ontology.  Meaning, it needs to be articulating something fundamental and transforming about the very nature of being.    Philosophy used to have the ovaries to make such statements.  That's what made it fun.  That's what gave it purpose.  That's what made it relevant.  Not "culturally" relevant.  Bigger than that.  Deeper than that.  Relevant to our existence as beings writ into the fabric of reality.  Relevant to what God hath wrought.

Making those statements...using theology as a way to point to the depth of the creation we one of the things that faith needs to do if it is to be meaningful.  Faith says: this is how the Creator has spoken and shaped the Universe.  This is the Real.  Because of this, I will orient myself towards reality in thus and such a way.  It doesn't dither about, unwilling to commit itself to any statements about anything.

Why is it important for the faithful to be tolerant and open minded?  Why is relationship and transforming conversation so meaningful?  Why should we place such a high value on creativity and dynamism and seeking the joyous New?

And...for Jesus folk... why is this way of understanding faith a more reliable expression of God's Word than the faith claims of fundamentalism?

Emergence needs to be able to claim that it knows something about what is true.  

I think it can, but for that, the conversation will have to change a wee bit.

More on that tomorrow.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Who You Gonna Call?

With my forty-fourth birthday past, I found myself awaiting the arrival of a requested gift.   The order was out, to an Amazon seller going by the moniker "General Electromagnetics," and yesterday, that box arrived.

You see, I've got this plan.

When I arrived at my wee kirk just a tick over a year ago, one of the first things I encountered was an interesting attitude towards the manse.  The manse...meaning the building where a pastor might live...predates the 1847 sanctuary by half a generation.  My office is there, as are classrooms for kids and the copy room.  It's a peculiar space.

It was built in 1827, and feels every one of those years.   A little research has shown that slaves lived in that house, which is a peculiar echo.  Depending on the stories you hear, soldiers may have lost their lives and/or had limbs amputated in that building following the nearby Battle of Ball's Bluff.  It's a building with a long memory, the echoes of war and human suffering woven deep into that old wood.

And buildings with memory are...interesting.

During the day, it's fine, if a bit on the ramshackle side.  But people aren't comfortable there after the sun sets.  Our part-time admin assistant would rather not step foot in it alone at night, not after that time she was sure she heard footsteps upstairs when no-one was in the building.  My Buildings and Grounds elder swears that the light to that old locked hidden room...the slave quarters above the kitchen...was turned off that one evening, but was back on again by morning.  Door was locked.  Light was off.  Most odd.  Soldiers who've done tours in Afghanistan have marveled at my willingness to be in the building by myself after dark.

Thing is, we need that dear old wreck.  It's going to take a sustained multi-year effort to get 'er painted and restored and repaired and insulated, but without those rooms, the church can't yet be what it needs to be.  So we're having a church auction on February 9th, of goods and services, to help with the restoration of this historic part of Poolesville.

To that auction, I'm already contributing Sunday afternoon motorcycle rides around the Ag Reserve, which are certainly worth something come the Spring.  Seriously.  There are few roads in America more beautiful than those around Poolesville for a bit of two-wheeled motoring on a day when the air is warm and sweet.  I've got an extra helmet and gloves, and that is priceless, my friends, priceless.

But I'm also planning on offering one particular service, for the discerning sponsor who sees value in it.  That service?  A bit of ghostbusting.  So for my birthday, I asked for and got some bona fide parapsychological kit.

I now own two electromagnetic field sensors, each targeted to a particular spectrum, for quantifying those moments the hairs on the back of your neck suddenly stand on end.  I now possess motion detectors, for the shades and flutterings of shadow on the periphery of your vision.  I've got an ambient temperature sensor, for those pesky free roaming vapors and their cold spots.

Real stuff, so far as that stuff is real.  And as a U.VA. graduate, well, one never knows what kind of training Mr. Jefferson's University might have provided to the discerning and the curious.

So come Spring, if the funds are raised at auction this expedition, I'll commit to spending a whole night in the manse.  I'll be there from sundown to sunrise, my array of sensors at the ready.  My sons...12 and 14...have sniffed the sweet smell of adventure, and volunteered to assist.

I'll liveblog it.  I'll tweet it.  I'll get the word out about it.

But wait!  If you act now, there's more!  I'll video it.  I'll prep an creepy and authentically amateurish Blair Witch Project-esque video for distribution on YouTube, laying out the history behind the building and chronicling the night's activities.

For the right donor, the right benefactor, the one who bids highest on this vital...VITAL...service to our church, I'll make sure you're mentioned at the very beginning of said YouTube video, in classic Public Television style.

And if we do pick up anything in the manse, well, then it'll be good having the Pastor deal with it.  We'll see if we can't clean it out a bit.  Assuming the liveblogs don't suddenly stop at midnight, that is.
"We had this crazy pastor one time.  Tried to stay in the manse all night, with his kids, see what was really goin' on.  All we found the next day was a shoe.  Don't even know whose, but Lord, it didn't even smell human anymore."
One advantage to having part time supply pastors, I guess.  Easier to replace 'em.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Confirmation, Mitzvah, and Meaning

This last Sunday, with my tech-savvy wee kirk preparing to spool up three Quicktime videos of me welcoming/ preaching/ benedicting, I went with my family to the morning funeral of my kid's Jewish great-grandfather.  Being a pastor married to a Jewish woman and raising Jewish children will have that effect on occasion, as our shabbas observances jostle up against one another.

As we waited for the start of the service, I talked shop with the rabbi for a bit.  Earlier that day, I'd sat in on a family b'nei mitzvah planning class that he'd lead, as my youngest is spooling up for that rite of passage later this year.   I'd been particularly fascinated by his presentation of the history of the bat/bar mitzvah within Judaism, and wanted to talk with him about what I'd heard.

What he'd laid out was the recentness of that ritual in the history of Judaism.  Though it's a huge blowout deal now, it was a relatively trivial event for much of the history of that faith tradition.  It was a coming of age, sure, but at the most basic level.  Even more notably, he talked about the move in the more progressive wings of Judaism to change the whole process back in the late 19th and early 20th century.

As it's impossible to notice, thirteen-year-olds are not always ready to make a meaningful public statement about their faith commitment.  Are they smart?  Sure.  Are they capable of interesting insights and real spiritual engagement?  Yes.  But are they their own adult persons?   Often, no,  not quite, not yet.  Sometimes, yes.

That process of individuation, the transition between childhood and adulthood, that's still very deeply in process.  At thirteen, most of us are still coalescing, still a swirl of the child we were and the adult we will be.

What Reform Judaism had struggled with...and still struggles with...was the meaningfulness of that ritual of transition.  If it's set to a particular age, something one does at a particular time in life no matter where one stands as a person and no matter where you stand in your relationship with your faith, then what does that ritual mean?

And so there was real conversation in American Judaism about pushing that time back, either to sixteen or to the point one desired it.  It was to become more like confirmation...which now is done in some synagogues in addition to the b'nei mitzvah.

That this conversation had been an active one in portions of Judaism is fascinating, because it needs to be an active conversation within those strains of Christianity that do confirmation.  Confirmation, within the Reformed tradition, is often presented as something like the whole mitzvah thing.   They do the bris and the mitzvah, we do the baptism and the confirmation.  For Christian progs, it lets us nod serenely at how our practices both mirror and honor the tradition from which Jesus sprang.

But given the struggles within Judaism about the place and role of the mitzvah, does that make sense?   I am convinced that approaching the affirmation of faith that is at the core of confirmation as something that happens at one age for everyone makes no sense whatsoever.  Now you're in ninth grade!  Time for confirmation!

This feels wrong.  This does not compute.

If you are a people woven together by blood and history, I can see some logic in doing this at thirteen.  If your self-understanding is that you belong to a community because of a shared culture and tradition, then age and volition matters less.  That's certainly far from the only factor in having a strong sense of Jewish identity, but it is there for some.

Within the dynamics of Christian faith, however, a volitional engagement with the faith is absolutely central because the cultural element is not...cannot be...there.  Christianity is not a culture or a people.  If it falls into identifying too strongly with one culture, it betrays itself.  It is a state of being, a freely chosen orientation of the soul.   If the rituals and celebrations of our entry into that state of being do not mirror that reality, then they will be empty things.

And our kids will notice the emptiness of that moment.  And they will not stay to walk the Way with us, because what we have taught them is that that statement of faith does not matter.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"The Second Amendment is From God"

That slogan leapt out at me in from a recent Associated Press article, one chronicling a series of pro-gun demonstrations in state capitals around the country.   It was purportedly emblazoned on a sign, along with other slogans of the gun-rights movement.  "Come and Take It," said one truculently, emblazoned with a farkled up sniper rifle.  "An Armed Society is a Polite Society," said another.  "God, Guns, and Guts," said a third.

But though there were plenty of reiterated claims of that "Second Amendment" phrase, there were no images of the sign bearing that theological assertion.  I just couldn't find it, either in traditional semi-objective media or the propagandist provocateurs of left and right wings.  Huh.

But still.  It was a striking phrase.

Such a statement certainly seems in keeping with the ethos of firearm ownership that has come to define the American conversation on the subject.   Owning a firearm is a "sacred" right, or so the language of that movement tends to go.  It's woven up with theologies of conflict and nation, of struggle against tyranny and the defense of freedom.

All of that might ring bright in the ears of those who want that to be real, who desire that affirmation.

But the Second Amendment is not from God.  That is simply not true, not in any rationally defensible sense of the word.  That reality goes beyond the deep tension between the ethic of violence and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Second Amendment does not arise from the Sacred.  Here, I understand the sacred as that which involves some direct engagement with the Creator of the Universe.  To be sacred, a text must have been drawn and spoken out of a covenant relationship with God.  A sacred text is a signpost to the holy, to the deepest purpose of humankind, revealed from a deep connection to the One who forms and shapes all of being. It endeavors to articulate eternal truths that transcend place and culture and nation, and that speak instead to the deepest purpose of existence.

The Torah, the Prophets, and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as found in the Gospels are sacred texts, for example.  They are explicit articulations of that form of relationship.  Even if you do not view them as sacred, that is their clear purpose and intent.

But the Constitution of the United States is not a sacred document.  It importantly does not presume to be.  The Founders explicitly did not intend it to be.  It is a self-aware product of human reason, founded on the mutual consent of the rational individuals who comprise the citizenry of our republic.  It begins with the assertion that it does not derive itself from revelation, but is instead the creation of human beings.  "We the People" have chosen to be part of this republic, and to create these guidelines for life together.  God is not to be found in the Constitution, not directly.

Our Constitution accepts, within itself, that it is a contingent and modifiable document.  It integrates into itself the particular rules for making changes as reason and mutual consent dictate.  That's the entire purpose of Article V, eh?  Amendments can be added.  Amendments can be repealed.  Again, this is not a quality of a sacred text.

Let it be said that this is a system of governance that I voluntarily support.  As a free individual, I see the Constitution of the United States of America as establishing a form of life together in which I choose to participate.  Were I not American, I would choose to be.

Let it be also said that this is how forms of political governance best express themselves theologically.  No form of government is perfect, and none should be cast in stone.  Always reformed and reforming, eh?

Let it also be said that I hold human reason to be a gift from God.  The capacity to be reasoning beings is one of the highest gifts of sentient life.  As such, a document formed and shaped by reason is a result of God's work in us.  It is not a revealed truth, but there is truth in it.

It's just that this truth is not an absolute, nor does it have the quality of the sacred.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Breath and Blessing

It was one of those moments, peculiarly bright and unusually deep with the Spirit's light.  After a couple of years together, my DMin cohort wrapped up the last of our required coursework.  It's been a good group, comprised of pastors and lay leaders from a wild blend of spiritual backgrounds.

I've flitted about the periphery of the group, as I tend to do in most social settings, connecting here and there but remaining both a part and at a remove.  Something to do with being a foreign service brat, perhaps, but more likely just an aspect of my inward nature.

On that last day, as we closed, we shared a final crowd-sourced worship together, singing and praying in a vague ovoid that was the best circling-up we could manage.

At one point during that closing time, one of the pastors...a tatted-up Methodist Philadephia-Irish pit-brawler with a remarkably gracious and bright spirit...pulled a chair out to the center of the group.   To that chair, he invited the our one Episcopalian, she with her sharp precise liturgically correct mind wrapped about a kind heart.

Surgery was coming for her, and soon, for lungs that were struggling to function.

And so twenty pastors gathered, and laid on hands.   I placed mine on her back, behind her left lung, just above her diaphragm.  Then we prayed, together, out loud.   The holy-pit-brawler led it, but it was a swirl of languages and spiritual traditions, Spanish and Korean, English and that percussive nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh p-puh puhpuhpuh glossolalia that always reminds me of Chevy Chase putting in Caddyshack.

I prayed inwardly for a moment, and then took a deep breath and intoned a word.   Ruach, I said, letting it flow out of me as fully as I could.  I repeated it, not loudly, but with as much breath as I could, an overabundant outpouring of air.

Spirit, it means in Hebrew.  Breath, it means in Hebrew.  It felt like the right thing to speak.

I wasn't sure it was heard, as it blended out with the hum and crackle of a dozen other prayers.  But it was there, breathed out into the air as it sparkled with spoken hopes.

A funny thing, healing prayers.  They are peskily unreliable as direct interventions.  They are not magic.  But that does not mean they are without power.  What they do, without question, is affirm that around you there is a cloud of other beings who desire your wellness.  From the heart of their connectedness with the Source of Being, those beings speak that hope into you.  They manifest it.  They make it real.

They say, we know that it is possible that you might be made whole.  Here we are, affirming that we desire that this possibility be made manifest, that we might celebrate it.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Pretending to be a Hero

We all want to be the hero.  We do.  There's a deep yearning, grounded in human nature and our competitive culture, to be the one who is the most amazing and astonishing person ever.   We want to be the one who is recognized and celebrated, whose story will be told by the firelight for a thousand generations, or at least be the trending hashtag on twitter for a week or so.

The problem we encounter, though, is that most of us won't be.  Yeah, I know, Warhol said we'd get our fifteen minutes, but that's hooey.  There are just too many of us.  Our culture does elevate a few A-listers up there, spinning out their stories to all of us and forming a false sense of communal intimacy in our society.   But the reality of American life is that there are over three hundred million of us.  Most of us, in the entirety of our lives and relationships, will just be part of the background hum.

In the face of that daunting reality, there is always that temptation to misrepresent the actuality of who we are.  In that yearning for public recognition, we tell lies about ourselves and our gifts, sweet bright lies that illuminate us with their synthetic shine.

We are the greatest naturally gifted bicyclist in the history of the world, with a heroic backstory of recovery.  We are a figure woven of the stuff of epic and noble tragedy, motivated by our love for that girl who showed her faith in us with her last breaths.

Does it matter to us that we're pumping ourselves full of chemicals, bullying and deceiving as part of a carefully fabricated reality?  Does it matter that our tragic dying girlfriend never actually existed, no matter how much the press about us runs with it?

Not at that moment.

Because we desperately don't want to be average.  We don't want to be mid-pack.  And so we misrepresent and deceive and spin, driven by that sense of hunger to be the most and the best and the one everyone talks about.  Our story of ourself becomes completely separate from the actuality of ourselves, and not just in that way we all spin it on Facebook.

We're spinning it so hard that the self we present has been torn away from the flesh and matter of our reality.

Churches do that too.  We have that vision of ourselves, of how dynamic we are, of how we're growing like a weed, of how passionate our worship is, of how remarkably welcoming we are, of how warm and loving our community is.  We say these things.  They are how we present ourselves to the world, part of the story we spin out to those we encounter.

But if they are not real, if we are not actually that thing we claim to be, then all that the world will encounter when they try to grasp us will be the cutting shards of that shattered mask in their hands.  That falseness is what shatters trust, what drives away the disenchanted and the disappointed.

It's better to be what you genuinely are.  If that's flawed, then being truthful about your intentional moving away from that flaw is essential.   Speak the hope.   Lean into the vision of that hope.  But be the truth, and don't hide the truth.

If that truth is that you're humble, then be humble.   It's OK to be a human being like every other human being.

That's kind of what it's all about. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Faith of Sandy Hook "Truthers"

Human beings are great at coming up with reasons why things are.  We see patterns in things, connections and linkages and interweavings, and in some ways, that's our strength as beings.  Creation is a fabulously knit thing, and the insights of both faith and science show that those threads bind us up with each other and all of being in marvelous and inscrutable ways.

But sometimes, that ability is our curse.  Out of that same mystic inclination, we create false connections that do not deepen, but that tear apart.  We imagine connections that rise out of our pride or our desire for power, casting a web of dark and hateful fantasy over our perception.  

Those things allow us to see others not as they are, but as projections of our own shadow selves.  We see political opponents through these lenses, imputing intentionality that isn't there.  We see estranged lovers and friends through those eyes, assuming their actions to be governed by malices that are simply the hissing of our own unresolved anger and bitterness.

The latest burst of conspiracist whispering about Sandy Hook is a perfect illustration of this form of human hubris.  A certain wing of paleolibertarian thought works under the assumption that any and every event that speaks against libertarian assumptions about firearms and weaponry must have been planned and plotted.  This was true in Aurora, and after the shooting of Gabby Giffords, and it's been doubly and deeply true after Sandy Hook.    Bombings?  Mass shootings?  They can't be what they are.  What they must be instead is part of some vast dark plot to take away the killing implements that are the foundation of human coercive power over others.   Odd, that those who fetishize freedom understand so poorly the real foundation of our liberty.

And so the complex reality of this horrible tragedy is swept aside.   All data that disconfirms an existing understanding is ignored.  Every possible interpretation and carefully spun datapoint that can be found to reinforce what is believed is found, and then woven into an impenetrable veil.

It's important to name this phenomenon.  

This is not faith.  Faith is that which allows us to see connections that bind us closer to our neighbor.  Faith breaks down the existential barriers we'd build around our souls, and calls us deeper into an ever growing and loving relationship with both creation and Creator.  It is the transformative aspect of the Deep Real.  We know it by its fruit, or so a dear friend once told me.

This is idolatry, which is the the shadow of faith.   Idolatry comes when we worship the creation of our own hands and minds.  Idols can be little hunks of wood or stone, but they are now more often culture or tribe or nation or political ideology.  These idolatrous patterns of thought are the totems worshipped by our demons, those dark and gibbering semi-beings that live and grow in the shadows of our selfishness and isolation.

And that is the source and heart of all human brokenness.   It is the root of Evil, assuming that we're allowed to use that word these days.

A Loner and a Rebel

I rolled into class yesterday morning, my Roadcrafter riding gear was damp from the hard solid rain of a dank and cold January morning.

As I unzipped and unsnapped and unbuckled the various and sundry layers of protection between myself and the elements, my fellow pastor classmates commented on my having ridden in.

In this rain?  On this sort of  day?  Through the steel and asphalt blender of Washington rush hour traffic?

Yup, I say.

Similarly, my sealing myself back up into my armored riding gear at the far end of the day seems to stir response.  You're riding in this?  Wow.  Our prayers go with you.  You're nuts.

Which, of course, I am.

But as my motorcycle thrums away from campus, the loner and the rebel, leaving my colleagues behind to socialize and interact, I find myself enjoying the peculiar irony of my Brando-esque departure.   Yeah, I'm getting my motor running, and I'm heading out on the highway.  But am I looking for adventure or whatever comes my way?  

Nah.  I'm just going home to take my son to drums, or to pick my other son up from swimming, or to go see a school play, or to get back early so that I can do the laundry.

Such a rebel.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Does Your Church Have a Small But?

As I work towards my proposal for my D.Min. program, I'm finding myself thinking more and more about healthy small faith communities.  And so the other day as I was looking over the web presence of my own little church, I found myself encountering a sentence I've read dozens of times with slightly different eyes.

We are, or so the little blurb that pops up on Google informs you, "small but growing."    And I found myself suddenly wondering, "small but?"   Huh.   I'd never really thought about that before.  Does any church really need to have a "small but?"  Is small something that churches need to apologize for?

Oh, sure, there are plenty of things of which I could see a church needing to repent.  There are plenty of entirely justifiable "buts."
"We're emotionally manipulative and judgmental sometimes, but at least we've learned to recognize it." 
"We're a giant warehouse of a church indistinguishable from a Best Buy, but we try to build relationships in the midst of this faceless crowd." 
"We're a giant corporate church with a worship as carefully choreographed as a Cirque de Soleil show in Vegas, but we work hard to still have a human touch." 
"We're a social clique, but we've been trying to figure out how to be more welcoming." 
"We're drab, dull, and boring, but we're willing to change, or at least laugh every once in a while."
"We're as mean as a rattlesnake, but you don't have to come here."
Those things, I'd get.  Some are certainly spiritual afflictions of small faith communities.  And some churches really do stay little primarily because they have no good news to offer.

But small itself?  I'm not sure that's a thing we need to qualify.

We are small and vibrant.  We're scrappy and hardworking.  We are intimate and spiritual.  We are cute and cuddly.  Shawdey got moves!  We are a place where you can make a difference.  We are a place of belonging.

Whatever we say, it needs to be:  "We know who we are, and from that place of authenticity, we speak the Gospel into the world."

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Emergent Conversation

In a post over at Pomomusings, Adam Walker Cleveland finds himself wondering about the state of the emergent/ emergence/ emerging thing.  That, in the event you've not been attending to it, was the brand spankling new churchy trend circa 2003 and 2004.  It was postmodern and relational, a simultaneous critique of the bureaucratic staleness of the oldline and the shiny consumer falseness of Big JesusPlex religion.

It seemed to have promise, back then.   Reflexive conservatism resisted it, as it does most things.  The liberal wing of the church gave it a big hug, as it does most things.  A community of like-minded souls formed.  Drums were played.  Incense was lit.  Polyvalent liturgies that explored the semiotics of meaning were earnestly explored in respectful dialogue, as participants liveblogged and tweeted earnestly, the bright apples glowing on the backs of their laptops.

And a community formed, woven together from shared interest and experience.   Their conversation continues, with a recent annual gathering.

Emergence, like Occupy, spoke into a deep and very widespread reaction to a troubling reality.  It rose in response to a gut-truth felt in the souls of many Jesus-folk, the truth that few of the current forms and the structures of the church were effectively articulating the reality of the Reign of God we're supposed to be manifesting.  It's why I got into it, why that little banner ad thing still sits for the time being on the right of this blog.

But like Occupy, what Emergence did not become was a movement.   It hasn't moved.  It has sustained, and maintained.  It remains, after ten years, essentially the same thing that it was when it began.

The "why" of this is a tick hard to nail down, but I think a substantial portion of that "why" lies in the intentional formlessness of emergence.

What is emergence?  No-one is quite sure, even after ten years of talking.  It seems to defy definition, at least in any meaningful way.

It has a hundred different definitions, all of which are equally valid.  The postmodern character of the conversation precludes the expression of a clear vision or direction, because articulating a clear vision would by necessity crowd out other possible visions.  The essential ethos of emergence is the open, non-judgmental sharing of theological perspective...and there's some real value in that.  There's also a significant focus on deconstruction and analysis.

But perhaps it is the conversational, deconstructive, and relational character  of emergence itself that prevents it from becoming a movement.

Movements arise when energies are directed towards a common purpose.  Movements rise up when human beings encounter something that offers to shape and give meaning to their existence.  And and wonderful and life-giving as those intentionally open-ended relational conversations are, what they do not seem to provide is the framework for channeling those conversational energies into a movement.

If you're intentionally eschewing norms and structures, a framework is unlikely to arise.

That may change, or shift.  But for now, it is what it is.  A continuing conversation.  So it goes.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Another Book I'll Never Write

The idea popped into my head the other morning, as things often do when I'm out walking the dog.  It's a potent time of day, that morning walk.  During the week, the boys have been gently or not-so-gently cajoled into getting themselves off to the bus, and I've got the little snuffler-pup wandering around on the far-edge of the extendo-leash as I give her the opportunity to stretch her legs her bowels.

But in my quest to fulfill that rather basic function, the morning remains the morning.

The sky is shot through with color, or grey with rain.  The air is bright and sharp and crisp in winter, or cool and moist in the summer.  And every day is different, even though the arc of my walk is almost always one of two routes.  It's a potent time, each deep breath of cool air mixing with the taste of coffee in my mouth, the brisk pace of my walk stirring my dream-rested mind.

Almost every day, something pops into my head.  It's the reason I'm sure to walk the dog early on Sunday morning, for example.  When I return, that paragraph that just wasn't working or that concept in the second-to-final draft of the sermon that seemed unformed suddenly becomes clear.

The ideas come every day.  And as I walked the other morning, I suddenly found myself thinking...gosh...what if I wrote these thoughts down every day for a hundred days?  What if I wove every one of these mornings into a series of three-to-five hundred-word reflections about dogs and faith, about creativity and morning light?  People love those books of daily reflection, don't they?  And it almost writes itself.

But then my muse giggled to herself, and struggling to stifle a laugh, whispered the inescapable title of the book-thought into my ear: "A Hundred Bags of Crap."

Hmm.   Not quite sure that'd ever find it's way to any Christian bookstore shelves.

Ah well.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Introvert's Rabbit Hole

As my Doctor of Ministry class moves eagerly towards the last week of official coursework, we've been cranking our way through a series of books on leadership dynamics, organizational dynamics, what it means to be an authentic person in that role, and good stuff like that.

During the class discussions, I find myself doing what I typically do in mid-sized groups.  I lay low, and I absorb.  Every once in a while, I'll pitch in, but my natural stance as an introvert is to sit back and let the flow of the room and the group move around me.

Part of that is a result of my introversion's tendency towards quiet and reserve, and another is a result of my inward tendency to take a particular concept the group is discussing and to follow it down a rabbit hole.  As the group ebbs and flows around me, I'll find myself drifting off into a related but very different place.

It's a riff on what is being said, sure.  But as I wander afield, I often find that where I end up is so far separate from where the collective lies that when I pop back into group awareness, what I'd have to offer is so far away from the group discussion that to utter it would be an act of self-indulgent non-sequitur.  There lies introversion's tendency to act as its own force magnifier.

Like, say, in our conversation about a book by Margaret Wheatley this week.  It was an exploration of non-Newtonian principles and the new quantum science and their potential implications for organizational leadership.   It was all about the importance of integrating chaos into organizations as a way of being creative and open to the new.  I'd been groovin' on it, dude, given my interest in that thread of physics and cosmology.   As a little soup├žon to flavor our discussion, we watched a short video that was made when Wheatley put out the first edition of her book.  From the women's hair and shoulderpads, and the big round glasses, this would have been the late 1980s or possibly the early 1990s.

But listening to the pastel shoulderpadded folk talk about freedom and creativity and the new quantum organizational paradigm, I found myself suddenly struck by *when* this was being said.  All this talk of the joy of entropy in organizations and the need to be utterly open to new and nonconstrictive forms of generative creativity was coming right on the cusp of globalization.

And from what I know about the dynamics of production that have arisen since the 1990s, at places like Foxconn factories overseas or in the vast distribution warehouses that serve our online retailers in this country, all this talk of creativity and freedom and generative chaos is just a fantasy.  There, the rigid process and structure of industrial systems remains unchanged.  Human beings remain cogs in the machine of production, which is no less inhuman and rigid than it was at the darkest hour of the industrial revolution.

That Apple or Microsoft or Google engineers and designers are freed to create does not mean those who labor to build their magical devices are free.  It does not mean that the scrambling workers in distribution warehouses are given an instant to think or be creative.  This is the ethos permitted to the elite.  We who are at liberty to dream about free and open workplaces are so often oblivious to that reality that our imagining of it almost feels indulgent.

And then I pop my head out of the rabbit hole of my contemplation, and look around at the class eagerly conversing about quantum hoohah, and realize that sharing that would fall flatter than a flatus.

Pesky, pesky introversion.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Atheist Storytelling and the Sublime

Over the winter break, I read.  First, my first full novel on my new Kindle.  Then, the excellent new book by the former pastor of my church, followed by a second novel on Kindle.   Although only one of the books approached spirituality intentionally, I got some spiritual food out of all of my reading.

It's an observer effect, perhaps, representative of the universe I inhabit.   The waveform of almost any narrative I encounter collapses into some rumination on faith and meaning.   Both of the other novels I read were hard sci-fi, a favorite genre, in which the imaginings of the author are shaped by projections of future realities that are grounded in actual science.  The second of the books was an interesting rumination on the meaning of human identity in a world where the capacity to store a full neural map and transfer it to another body.  What does self mean if divorced from a single body?  Altered Carbon...a fusion of hard sci fi and pulp-noire...was well written and crafted, but ended up being a bit too sexual and ultra-violent for my tastes.

But the first was The Hydrogen Sonata, the latest novel by one of my longstanding favorite sci fi authors: Ian M. Banks.  My physicist father-in-law introduced me to him years ago, and it's been a good acquaintance.  His hard-sci-fi is delightful hoo-hah space opera goodness, all rooted in a pan-galactic society called the Culture.  He tells ripping good yarns that include both finely wrought characters and impossibly vast scopes, set firmly into the kind of plausible universe that doesn't make physicists cringe.   In that storytelling, Banks is a consistent critic of religion, as faith within the boundaries of the Culture is consistently represented as the realm of the manipulative, the weak-witted and the primitive.

But hey...a good story is a good story.  I can cut him some slack.

And yet, with all of his critiques, there's a peculiar religiosity within his books.  That goes beyond the machina ex machina endings that he's very fond of, as some astoundingly advanced species/entity suddenly brandishes a heretofore unanticipated Clarke's Third Law technology to plot-resolving effect.

Banks also integrates the concept of transcendence into his novels, as societies and individuals of particularly advanced tech or knowledge abandon our time and space for a realm of being called "The Sublime," in which the limitations of four-dimensional reality are removed.  "Subliming" was a concept explored at great length in this latest novel...and as that concept was explored, it felt more like reading the meditations of a mystic or a lama.  It was all mystery and paradox, described in terms that were more the stuff of faith.

Perhaps, just as any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from religion.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Boundaries of Preaching

In a recent conversation about how to speak in worship with a member of my congregation, I found myself suddenly realizing something about my own preaching.  I have a pattern of sorts, one that has formed over the years.  

My sermons typically begin with a framing image or story, something that establishes a mood or a ground or evokes common ground.  In terms of classical rhetoric, it establishes a common ethos...but it's also an opportunity for plain ol' storytelling.   From that, I move towards the scripture for the day, calling out both details about the content and the central theological point.  Then, the movement is towards the implications for our response to that encounter.  What does the theology and the spirit we've just engaged with tell us about how we are to live, and how we are to act?

It's a fairly consistent pattern.  But I'd never really thought about where that pattern came from.  It was just there.   But then I realized, in the middle of a conversation about how to be creative and yet maintain form, that the pattern of my preaching had a familiar movement.

It was the classical Reformed pattern of worship.  In that, we prepare for the Word, receive the Word, and respond to the Word.  Huh, thought I, as I mused on this.  Go figure.  Somehow, the structure of worship outside of the sermon had moved into the sermon, acting as the strange attractor that gave form and shape to the energies of my preaching.

This recent realization played interestingly against a recent blog @landonwhittsit about the varying approaches to preaching.  Do we go with texts or go with presentation software?  Do we preach rocking hard against the pulpit, or wander wild and free amongst our congregants?  There were a range of responses...but as I mused over my own techniques, I began to wonder where exactly the boundaries of preaching are for me.  

I work from a manuscript, more or less, for a range of reasons.  But the message embedded in that sermon doesn't begin and end when I start and stop talking.  The whole worship resonates with it, by design and intent.  It's an organic part of a greater whole.  The prayers harmonize with it, the readings ground it, and the hymns sing it out.  I'm not really done preaching until I've finished the benediction.  Just as the worship presses its way into the preaching, so too does the preaching radiate out into the rest of the worship.  

Thursday, January 3, 2013

First Church of Lovelyloveville

Loving film as I do, I always find myself rolling into the new year reflecting on those cinematic moments that have defined the year that has passed.  That means not just the Academy Award high points, but also those moments in the history of film that are...errr...perhaps more equivalent to the cinematic valley of the shadow of death.

In the last day or so, I've read about one such epic moment, a bizarre fumble of a movie entitled The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure.   It has something to do with a trio of Krofft Superstars-meet-Barneyesque puppety things who live in Lovelyloveville.  Their talking pillow loses some magic balloons, and they must find them.  Highjinks ensue, unwatchable saccharine hijinks which somehow end up including a singing Chazz Palmintieri.   I vaguely remember seeing the trailer for this peculiar film at some point last year, and wondering to myself just who in the world would go see such a movie.

As it turns out, just about no-one.  Though total production costs were close to $60 million, and the film played in over 2,000 theaters, the Oogielove's opening weekend was the worst in major release history. The average yield per screen that first weekend was just over $200, which translates into nine people per theatre...per day.   Total gross?  Around a million.

In terms of ROI, it makes John Carter look like Avatar.

But perhaps the most fascinating detail of this whole debacle was the degree to which the director/writer/producer...previously known as the person responsible for marketing (not creating, marketing) the Teletubbies...just can't let go of it.    In interviews, he remains convinced that his vision for the Oogieloves was just under-appreciated, and equally convinced that somehow the complete failure of the movie somehow validated it as an idea ahead of it's time.  Or even, given the press the epic failure has received, that being the least successful movie of all time will breathe new life into what he envisions as a franchise.

Churches do this, too.  Sometimes we're so wrapped up in our vision of ourselves that the reality of our life together becomes lost.  We see empty pews and waning energies, and we don't for a moment question our approach.  It's not that we've ossified worship, turning it into little more than an involuntary liturgical spasm.  It's not that we've "redefined worship" to the point that all that is left is formless chaos.  It's not that our vision of God is so sharp and cold that it hurts to touch it, or so diffuse that it is invisible to the naked eye.  It's not that we are organizationally incompetent, or that we strangle growth with layers of bureaucratic folderol.

It's that people just don't understand.  They're not ready for our genius or our passion.  Or they're lazy and inadequately rigorous in their faith.  There are a thousand reasons, none of which have to do with us or our vision of life together.

When our relationship with the reality of God's creation is broken, we can no longer realize what we have become.  And Lovelyloveville becomes not quite so lovely.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Traditions and Comfort

Funny, how the repetition of a thing, even a seemingly banal thing, can suffuse it with memory.

Like, say, something as simple as a DVD you pop into the player to vid-trank the kids.   Years ago, maybe ten years ago, we were trying to pack and prepare for our departure from my in-laws house in Western Maryland.  After doing Christmas with my folks, we travel up there for a week of sledding and skiing.   The microclimate in that area of Garrett County usually serves up snow.  Or rather, it did.  We've had a lot of misses in the last five years, to the point where the ski resort nearby was forced into a bankruptcy-driven reorganization.

And on that last day, we were trying to pack up to return, and our five year old and our three year old were bopping around getting into things.  So into the DVD player went Hayao Miyazaki's light-filled and gently magical "My Neighbor Totoro," and the kids were still.

We did the same thing the next year, having brought the DVD and all.  By the next year, it felt like...well...they should watch it.

So a tradition formed, a place-marker affirming a particular moment in time, memories layered upon memories.

This year, I looked towards the sofa at our old-souled twelve year old and our six-foot, 195 pound fourteen year old.  Not children, not really, not as they once were.  They'd brought their stuff downstairs to the Dad-Loading-The-Van Staging Area.  In the crate of media and chargers was that same DVD, dropped in by habit.

So, said I, with a grin.  Want to watch Totoro?

And of course, they did.