Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Evangelism and Relationship

As my little church works through an adult education series on evangelism, I find myself this week reflecting on the dynamics of human relationship.

So much of what passes for "evangelism" in 'Murika these days is structured like a programming language.  It's prepackaged, preformed, and scripted to the point of absurdity.

Take, for instance, this painfully representative sample of a "soul-winning" script from an evangelical ministry. There are countless such scripts out there, each one as strangely, industrially joyless as the next.  

They all follow a particular pattern.  Start up a conversation with [NAME].  Ask [NAME] if [NAME] wants to go to Heaven.  IF "Yes." THEN JESUSPRAYER; IF "No": THEN PROCEED WITH SCRIPT.

Do not be distracted by the questions asked by [NAME].  PROCEED WITH SCRIPT.

It's a form of relating that's as impersonal as an automaton, utterly devoid of humanity.  It's as dead and formulaic as the talking points prepared for a politician, which don't vary no matter what you say to them.

"Senator, your hair is on fire!"   "Thanks, Bob, for that.  That speaks to my concern for liberty, and the constitutional freedom of every American to yadda blah blah yadda blah."

This approach to evangelism is, to be blunt, not the Gospel at all.

Why not?  Because it does not manifest God's love.  Love, after all, cares about people.  Love doesn't rush to decision.  Love takes its time. Love doesn't objectify.  Love engages.  Love doesn't trample over questions and conversation.  Love listens and connects.  It is not scripted, not rehearsed.  It's alive and organic and real.

To express the love of God, the love of God must be present.  Not just as a far off goal, to be achieved by any means necessary, but in every action.

The Gospel must both the goal and the method.

You cannot share what Jesus did and taught unless you are, in that sharing, doing what Jesus taught.  Meaning being authentically, fully, completely yourself, in all your flawed, redeemed mess.  Meaning sitting and listening to questions when they're asked, and answering not from a script, but from a truth you know because dagnabbit, you're living that reality out.

But how do you teach that?  It's too squishy, too amorphous, too ephemeral.  It defies the dynamics of the checklist, refuses to be quantified by the spreadsheet that tallies souls won.  It is not programmatic.  It is not institutional.

Perhaps the best way I have encountered, much as it pains my Presbyterian pride to admit it, is the Method of Methodism.  Not the organizational structure of Methodism, which is perhaps the most bizarre oddity I've ever encountered, the institutional equivalent of one of those dear-Lord-is-that-an-alien invertebrates you encounter in the deep dark of the Mariana Trench.  I went to a Methodist seminary for thirteen years, and I still can't quite wrap my head around how the heck Methodism actually works.

Instead, it's the fundamental genius of John Wesley's Method itself:  gather intimate groups of human beings.  Have them share honestly and openly with one another about their lives and their faith.  In that practice of organic connection, living and real and vital, souls learn what it means to really connect with other souls.  They learn what it means to love and care for one another, to encourage and build each other up.  They learn what Beloved Community means, because they are being that community.

And you cannot tell people about the Reign of God unless you're being it.

It's a longer, more challenging path.  But it's real.  And it's how good things grow.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Doubling Down

One of the most striking features of our degraded public dialogue is our tendency to "double down."  When confronted with a failing, or challenged because our assertions seem to have no connection with reality, we don't pause to consider whether we might need to modify our position.  That would be a sign of weakness, or so we're told.

Instead, we double down.  We counterpunch.  We find reasons...any justify continuing what we were doing.  Every countervailing source of information is incorrect.  Every criticism is invalid, because the person offering it is obviously an ignorant moron.

It's satisfying, in that it means we're never wrong, and were never wrong.  It's affirming of our self esteem.  It makes us feel fierce, and right, and vindicated.

There is also no surer sign of being a fool.

It's biblical, really, it is.  Proverbs 26:11 lays it out, clear and clean and uncompromising as reality itself.

"As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool returns to his folly."

Or Proverbs 9:8, which reminds us of the anger of those who'd rather fight than abandon their ego-path.  Or Proverbs 12:15.  Or 13:1.  Or 13:18.  Or 15:32.

It's a theme in Wisdom literature, a strong and intentional thread, not just a single verse, but part of an integrated whole.

It doesn't matter if a course of action has failed, and failed, and failed again.  It doesn't matter if that approach has caused us stress and suffering, or if it looks like that course of action is leading to calamity.

The fool is utterly, fiercely, totally committed to their path.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Narcissist's Pivot

There is a dynamic that consistently manifests itself in many abusive, manipulative relationships, one that might seem counter-intuitive at first.

We have a clear image of the abusive narcissist, the controlling egoist.  They threaten, they induce fear, through blows or hateful language.  They traumatize and belittle their partner, as a way of maintaining control.

But that's only part of the equation of gaining power over another soul.

Many abusers do not always abuse.  Because at a certain point in a significant proportion of abusive relationships, the abuse stops.  Suddenly, the raised voice and the clenched fist are gone.

The monster fades from view. There are apologies.  They offer up sweet promises.  It was all a terrible misunderstanding. They seem to have become a different person.

For the abused partner in the relationship, this is the hook.

"Oh, thank God, it's over."  "You know, maybe they're not so bad after all."

There is relief, such addictive relief, that maybe things weren't as bad as they seemed.

And so, despite the tears and the bruises, people stay in those relationships, clinging to the hope that it might be OK.

But the compulsive narcissist remains a narcissist, and what appears to be a respite is just another tool in the toolbox of the one who wants to control you.

Remember this, my friends, in this political season, as suddenly someone changes their tune.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Happy Stresster

I feel faintly embarrassed every year at this time of year, out of sync, and like I'm doing something wrong.

Here we are, just a stone's throw away from Holy Week, and I'm not even faintly stressed out at the prospect.  Oh, sure, it's a little busier.  I'm at church a little more.

We have a little meal on Maundy Thursday, one where we sing and pray, bread bread and share the cup.  And we share table together.  But it's not particularly complicated.   You pick up some loaves of tasty challah, and some Trader Joe's soup.  You sing a capella.  That's about that.

There's a wonderful lay-led event at my little church for Good Friday, as the story of the Passion is retold.  I show up, and I worship, and I let others lead because that's just what we do.

On Easter, I get up at 4 AM so I can get to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain in time to join with other pastors to lead the multi-church sunrise service.  That's early, sure, but that's why the Good Lord made coffee plants.  It's beautiful, valuable, and significant.  And then there's a brunch, and kids scamper around.  Then we worship and it's awesome.

It's busier.  But it's entirely manageable.  I kind of look forward to it, theologically, personally, and spiritually.

That is not what I hear from my colleagues.  It's red alert panic mode for many, as sixty to seventy hour church weeks and overpacked family lives collide with a blinding flurry of additional Holy Week demands.  It's the liturgical perfect storm.

When I hear the war stories, I'm abashed.  I can't contribute.  I feel I can't even speak.  "Oh, yeah, I'm totally chill.  Looking forward to it!  Not a big deal."

It feels...invalidating.  A little subversive.  Perhaps a little annoying.

But then again, perhaps it's worth saying.   Because as much as work-stress might feel like you're being flogged, crucified, and dying, an organizational reenactment of the Passion, I'm reasonably certain that's not a healthy spiritual place for pastors.  Or for Beloved Communities.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


As a Presbyterian pastor, I know the value of studying history.  We Presbyterians view ourselves as part of an intellectual lineage going back thousands of years, and as such, immerse ourselves in the stories and teachings of peoples and cultures that pre-date our own by hundreds of generations.

And as a student of history, I want to introduce you to this guy I know pretty well.

He was a child of power, born into wealth.  At no point in his life did he ever not have everything he ever wanted.   He went to all the best schools, knew all the most important people, had advantages and resources that put him among the elite of the elite.  He grew up near the heart of power, in a dog-eat-dog city where he was groomed from the get-go to be the top dog.

But for all of his grooming and social position, he was wildly unpredictable, in everything he did.  His family life was a complete mess, as he worked his way through wife after wife.  He was all ego, all libido and appetite and self-promotion.  He built a ton of things, lots of things.  They were the best things, big and shiny monuments to just how great he was.  He was surrounded by gold and glitter and shine.

This guy, he grew up to be kind of an entertainer, both a one-percenter and a big name brand.  He loved the adulation of the masses, loved to perform for them, to work them up into a wild frenzy.  He had a carny showman's way about him that resonated with the anger and anxiety of the poor and the hopeless, as he was sometimes clownish, sometimes violent, and willfully crude.  

His willingness to perform for the adulation of the hoi polloi was an embarrassment to the elites, who found him rough and brutal and undisciplined.  He violated everything they found noble and valuable, all of the higher principles of their culture.

But he didn't care.  He did whatever amused the throngs.  In particular, he played off of their fear and suspicion of a strange religion from the Middle East, blaming them and their faith for all kinds of horrible things.  He turned the anger of the mobs against them.

We all know who this guy was, we who know the story of my faith.

What, you thought I was talking about someone else?

Monday, March 14, 2016

Why Social Justice is Not Christian

Justice matters.

Justice matters, deeply and significantly, for anyone who cares about what Jesus taught or about the explicitly stated intent of Torah.

It's just justice does not provide the teleological framework that integrates me existentially. Or to put that a less willfully obfuscatory way, it is not my purpose.  It is not my goal.  It just isn't.

As a Christian who grew up in a progressive, justice-oriented faith that I still love, and that still does wonderful work in the world...that realization has come slowly and with difficulty.  I've resisted it, on many levels, because the injustices of our culture are so deep and insidious.

The lie of race and the ever deepening concentration of power in the hands of an isolated, privileged elite are very real and a blight on the soul of our culture.  Our willingness to trample on the disenfranchised and our abuse of creation is demonic, and must be resisted.  Oppression is not something to be tolerated.  The God who calls me is fiercely, terrifyingly, relentlessly just, and our failure to embrace that truth has...well...consequences.

And yet social justice as a governing purpose would misrepresent the primary commitment of my faith, if I am honest with myself.

This is Augustine's fault, of course.  I don't always agree with his anthropology or his lingering Manichean view of the cause of human brokenness, but The City of God left a mark.  And it's Reinhold Niebuhr's fault.  Moral Man and Immoral Society was just too formative, too rational, too dead on about the moral limitations of collectives and interest groups.  I blame Gandhi's satyagraha and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s soul force.  I blame Tolstoy.  

And I blame Jesus.  And Paul.  And James.

Because justice is the fruit of grace, not the other way around.  Social justice is about rights, both individual and collective, within a broader entity.  It is about the balance of competing interests in a society.  It's a matter of legality, of the application of coercive power towards the maintenance of social order.  Justice, meaning social, secular justice, rests on the sword.  Social justice is about power dynamics.

That doesn't mean, not for a moment, that both noting and resisting oppressive structures is wrong.

Because systemic injustice is fundamentally devoid of grace, the abnegation of grace, a repudiation of grace.  Grace recoils at hatred and oppression.  Grace shudders at our gleeful embrace of violence.  Grace finds wealth in the face of another's poverty an embarrassment.  Grace does not stand idly by.  Grace is the enemy of both individual and collective self-seeking.

As such, it is the both the ground of justice and the method by which justice is created.

And it goes deeper than that.  In the absence of a grounding orientation towards grace, the pursuit of justice will either shatter or calcify a soul.  It will shatter a soul because the competing demands of justice are too damnably complicated.  Pay for migrant laborers is The Issue.  #Blacklivesmatter is The Issue.  Transphobia is The Issue.  Environmental degradation is The Issue.  The impact of globalization is The Issue.  It's an endless series of fractally complex cries, each one calling for the fullness of your attention, a chaotic din, an ocean's roar of human suffering.

No normal human can take that in.

It creates popcorn soul, attention deficit justice disorder, as the well meaning warrior frets and chases after whatever buzzes loudest and most impatiently on their #twitterfeed that day.  And because everything must get done, and everything must be perfect, nothing gets done.

It calcifies a soul.  The anxiety that arises from the immensity of human brokenness creates within those who resist it a shadow of that brokenness.  The perpetrators of injustice become the Other.  We cease to see the soul blight that curses them as fully as it curses those who suffer.  They are Commies and Fascists, racists and mooching parasites.  It hardens us to them, and to the possibility of their being called and convicted to be part of the change.  We would rather fight and mock and attack.

Without a vision of grace to guide us, we would take up the sword.  We would wear that ring of power.

And when we do, we might imagine we are fighting the good fight.

But it is a fantasy.  Because without grace as both our intent and our method, all we're doing is fighting.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Quick, Productive Labor

"It's all about the process," I hear, over and over again, from my oldline comrades.

This is a familiar refrain amongst we Presbyterians in particular, from pretty much every corner of the fading denominational churches.  We gather to discuss.  We meet to talk.  We convene and review and analyze and evaluate.  We make process our goal.  And we assume, as we take forever to do anything, that this is all well and good, because it's the process that counts.

This just ain't right.

Because process does not exist for the purposes of process.  It exists to serve a purpose.  And as such, endless process is a sign that something's wrong.

I offer into evidence the last meeting at my little church.  After conversation and prayer, one of our members had indicated she was ready to serve as an Elder, and we needed a formal Congregational Meeting to elect her.

The Session called the meeting, and we announced it well ahead of time.  There's a particular pattern to these things, specific protocols that must be pursued, and we diligently followed said protocols.  We began with prayer, held a vote to appoint a clerk for the meeting, and read the call of the meeting.  We declared an official quorum.  The agenda for the meeting was presented and approved.  We received a motion to elect, which was seconded and then voted on.  We received a second motion, this one to adjourn, which was approved by consensus.  And we closed with prayer.

The whole event took two minutes and twenty four seconds, badda boom, badda bing, which may or may not be a record for a Presbyterian Congregational Meeting.

Because most meetings are like labor.  They are a point of decision, a point of crisis, when something is decided and a new reality is born.  Sure, we could have drawn it out.  Most opening prayers last longer than that meeting.

But a long meeting was not necessary.

We oldliners often confuse our points of decision with gestation, the time during which a new thing is growing to fruition.  That happens in conversations, as new things grow from the seed of a dream or a vision.  That's the time to be patient, to attend to doing things in their own time.  Similarly, overcoming conflict or trauma requires time and sustained relationship.  Mutual change requires trust.  It is not procedural.  It is the long conversation, the prayerful study, the shared worship.

When we gather to decide, it must be when the decision-time is ready.

This is why no-one ever, ever tells a pregnant woman: "I really hope you have a long, complicated, multi-stage labor.  It's so important to attend to the process."

Because if you confuse the fierce purposeful immediacy of labor with the organic patience of gestation, and stretch out the process of birthing endlessly, you are misplacing your energies.  You put both mother and child at risk.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Our Lovely, Lovely Violence

So here's a thought exercise, one that arises from my complete lack of interest in seeing the recent Marvel film Deadpool.

Deadpool has done rather well in theaters, bringing in well over $300 million.  Such a take pretty much guarantees that it will be added to the rotation of the Superhero Industrial Complex.  The schtick: your protagonist isn't just some hero, or even really a hero with emotional complexity or dark side.  He's a full throttle antihero, who thoroughly enjoys killing people in creative ways whilst making witty quips in an insouciant sort of way.  

I watched the five minute preview/trailer, and it was enough to convince me that I had no interest at all in seeing the movie.  The brutal not-really-a-hero thing's been done already, and I had no interest in seeing Kickass, either.   

But it got me to thinking a little about Deadpool.  I mean, here you've got a guy who's basically a nihilist, Alex DeLarge in spandex.  He thoroughly enjoys violence, which we allow ourselves to enjoy right along with him because we know the people he's killing--brutally, horrifically--are bad people.  

They deserve it, and so we roll along gleefully.

To which I found myself imagining that there's a clip left on the cutting room floor, or the Avid Media Composer equivalent.

Imagine, if you will, that amongst the many terrible human beings Deadpool kills there is a woman.  She is horrible, which we know because she's a dark mercenary ninja or something like that.  Hey, you saw the movie, not me.

Anyhoo, in the midst of the mayhem, as he's killing terrible people right and left, Deadpool gets into a fight with the aforementioned evil ninja mercenary.  He beats the crap out of her, joking as he goes, and then...because he's a nihilist...briefly rapes her.  And then shoots her in the head, with some off the cuff quip.

Why would that make the film any different ethically?  I mean, rape is entirely about violence, power, and control.  

And she'd be a bad person, not an innocent at all.  So she'd have it coming.  Given the moral calculus of the film she'd be an entirely legitimate target for violence, correct?  Why would sexual assault be worse than slowly grinding another human being to death with a zamboni?   Violence is violence is violence.

Given how much positive spin the pansexuality of our wisecracking brutalist was given, I suppose one could have him rape another man instead.  That'd be funnier, right, in the way that prison rape is just such a funny thing?


It'd be nice if, just once, it didn't feel like I was a bit-part extra in a dystopian movie.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Fire that Melts Us Together

Among the Christian progressives with whom I make fellowship, there's a common refrain:  America is not a melting pot.  I hear this online.  I heard it, again and again, in my very progressive seminary.

You remember the melting pot.  It was, in its day, a profoundly progressive vision, one set against the fixed and demonic boundaries of modern-era racism that had defined our life together for centuries.  Against that lie of segregationist racism was placed the image of the melting pot.  Here in America, every culture blends and merges and blurs.  The flavors all blend together, and from that comes a richer and more complex flavor.

We can, or so the Melting Pot image goes, have families and communities that are rich and fluid admixtures of culture and color and language.  The boundaries are meaningless and everchanging, as the culture changes and grows.  The flavors of salsa and sriracha are stronger now than they were when I was a kid, and that's really...yummy.

But now?  Now apparently that's a bad thing.

It is the enemy of diversity, we are told, and there is truth in that.  You can't be segregated out by category in a melting pot.

Better to have everything neatly separated out.  Like, say, as one earnest and well-meaning soul recently put it, in a salad.  In a salad, where the croutons and the spinach and the organic kale and the tofucheez and the vegetarian bacobits and the tomatoes and the carrot slivers are all neatly distinct from one another.  There, everything is together, but separate and clearly itself.

Of course, you can't put any dressing on that salad.  That would ruin the metaphor of separateness.  Nor can you eat it, because the chewing would blend the flavors.

But you can look at the salad, and talk about the salad, and contemplate how healthy it would be for you if you actually ate the salad, which you won't, because you can't.  It is the Platonic Recipe for Salad, whose purpose has nothing to do with nourishment.

I obviously have beef with the boho academic left socio-politically on this.

But I have a deeper beef spiritually.

Because love destroys categories.  Love shatters boundaries.  Love, the consuming fire love that every mystic of every faith tradition knows God to be?   Love is the fire that melts us all together.

If I love you, I am changed by that love.  The boundaries between you and I are blurred.   And if you love me, you are changed by that relation.  We are still separate, and still ourselves.  But the lines between us are not neat and clean and categorical.

That is the essence of the faith my Teacher taught, the fundamental nature of God, and the highest gift of the Way.

In love, our flavors blend.  They become fluid and alive in the warmth of love's transforming fire.

Either that, or we do not love.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Bad Churches that We Love To Love

As my sweet little church joins me in a Lenten journey through the history, meaning, and purpose of evangelism, I found myself with a peculiar thought in my head.

Being a part of a church is a relationship, much like the kind of relationship you have with another soul.  A community has a strange sort of spirit to it, one that's not quite as clear and distinct as the personalities of the human beings that comprise it, but a spirit nonetheless.

The goal, for any community of the Way, is for that spirit to be fundamentally healthy.  That doesn't mean "big" and it doesn't mean "rich," any more than the message of our Teacher is about bigness or richness.  It means manifesting grace, service, mercy, and kindness.  It's not measured by organizational metrics and institutional measures and leadership dashboards.  It's qualitative, like a poem or a story or a song.  Like the Good itself, spiritual health is a quality, not a quantity.

Yet I wonder at this, because the goal of the church is not just to be healthy, but to be virally healthy.  Meaning, to be a place of strength and support and respite to those whose souls have been broken and fragmented.  Healthy churches aren't just healthy for themselves.  They're places of healing for those not yet within their bounds.

To be that healthy churches need to be attractional.  Or, to use a less-obnoxiously-made-up-word, folks have to want to be there.  There needs to be a draw.

Here's the rub, though.  Broken souls aren't typically drawn to healthy relationships.  They're drawn, more often than not, into relationships that reflect their brokenness.

Those who feel a lack of control, or who are threatened by change?  They're drawn to demagogues, who control them with that yearning for power, who turn their anger into the seething tribalism of the mob.

Those who suffer with shattered self-image and self-hatred?  They're drawn to the abusers and the manipulative, to the one who beats you down with fear, to the one who keeps you in your place.

Those who struggle with material poverty and the anxieties it creates?  They're drawn to the con artist and the charlatan and the huckster, pitching out prosperity while they sparkle and shine on your last dime.

Wounded souls are drawn to institutions whose broken souls plug into their own, like the protein nubbin on a virus plugs in to a cell.  This is not news.

Neither is it good.

Which means that while there are churches that grow like gangbusters, their growth has nothing to do with the Euaggelion of the Way.

They grow because our broken souls love things that are bad for us.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

When Bernie Loses

Today is the day of reckoning for American progressives, because, hard as it is for me to say, it'll be the day that Bernie Sanders loses.

I'm going to get out there and vote in the Virginia primary, and Bernie Sanders has my vote.  Why?  Because his vision of the best possible future for America most closely aligns with my own.  His domestic agenda would make the United States a little more like our genial friends to the North, and that'd be a good thing, eh?  America could use a little less anger and anxiety, and a little more politeness and integrity.

His foreign policy agenda is remarkably measured and realistic, with positions that make him...ironically enough...the most authentic foreign policy conservative candidate running for office.

But he isn't going to win, and today will be the day that reality is driven home.

There's just no meaningful path to the nomination, not if you pay attention to the real.  The polling and metapolling shows a probabilistically insurmountable lead for Clinton.  She has the carefully cultivated support of her party leadership, those much maligned "superdelegates" that make it hard for a charismatic leader from outside the party to take it over.

 The GOP is wishing it had more superdelegates lately, I'll wager.

But Clinton is also winning on the ground, throughout the Southern states that will vote en mass today and in the big Democratic states that will follow.  Sanders does not have the brilliant Southern and caucus state ground game that Senator Obama used to wrest those delegates from Clinton.

No amount of idealism will change that reality now.  It just isn't going to happen.

None of that changes my commitment to vote my conscience.  None of that changes my profound respect for Sanders as both a person and a candidate.

But it means I'm looking past today, to the very real battle that will follow.

Approaching this constructively is going to be a challenge for the apocalyptic left.

Because within the echo chamber of the far left, the campaign demonization and Othering of Hillary Clinton has been intense.  She is despised as corrupt and calculating, a machine politician in the camp of the one percent, an agent of an oppressive establishment.  She is a creature of Davos and Aspen and Martha's Vineyard, of the networks of a liberal power elite whose failure to both serve and mobilize the used-to-be-working class is written in the Trumpian yarp of the abandoned masses.

Sure, some of that sticks.  But much of it is just good ol' fashioned political demonization, the sort of propaganda that motivates through anger and fear and resentment.  The left is just as prone to that as the right.

And it leads to a question: how much does ideological purity matter?  When the nomination is done, and the dust has settled, and it's a egomaniacal reality television charlatan demagogue versus Clinton?

"Maybe he should win," the thought whispers.  "Maybe that's what we need."

The temptation to let it all blow up, to smash and destroy so you can start afresh in the ruins is strong.  Let things go to heck in a handbasket, and then and only then will everyone realize just how right you were all along.

That is a Ralph Nader delusion, a hallucination born of an ideological isolation chamber, and it does damage.

Life in the ruins is far harder than our imaginings.  Just ask a Syrian, or a Libyan.

Absolutism and binary thinking never work in the real world  They just never do.  Neither do they transform reality for the better.  Because reality is non-binary.

And this is the only reality we get.