Uncategorized

Reflections On The Church, My Life, and My Vocation Post Renewal Leave

I’ve been working professionally in churches since 1997. In that time, other than a six month period of unemployment (which is hardly restful), I’ve never had more than two weeks away from church business. About half way through 2019, burnout was setting in big time, and my District Superintendent and I began talking about a renewal leave for me in the Summer of 2020. Then 2020 happened. By the time the Summer of 2021 rolled around, a leave was no longer a question. It had to happen and soon. Then we were struck with a family crisis, and my DS really went to bat for me and got me 8 weeks away.

The question became, what will I do while on leave? Well, first and foremost I needed to tend to my family. But after that settled a bit, I found myself so burnt out that all I could do was… nothing. My days were mostly spent reading the New York Times and doing some minor house projects, and by not busying myself, I actually had time to reflect. A favorite song of mine sings, “If you slow down long enough, you’ll come present to your pain” (Joel Hanson, “Peace of God”). What is all this burnout about? What in it is my due to my own habits, control issues, and murky boundaries? What in it is due to external forces? Those questions led to the most crucial question for me in this leave which was whether I even wanted to be a pastor anymore or not. Coming out of my leave, the answer was “Yes”. But also “No”. Here’s what happened:

As soon as Advent rolled around, I found myself yearning to lead a community in lighting the candles and praying the prayers (like Ricky Bobby, I like the baby Jesus the best). This yearning told me that at some level this what I am indeed tuned to do. But it must be done differently. And as I reflected, I discerned that doing it differently is not just for me. Yes, I have my own “stuff” in this (which I don’t feel a need to disclose here, but let’s be clear that I indeed have my own work to do), but I also believe there is something really wrong in 21st Century American Christianity in general. I believe that what’s wrong with it is something that culture has been warning us about since the late 20th Century, is the reason churches are struggling, and is at the core of a mental health crisis among clergy nationwide. What I believe is wrong with the 21st Century American Church is that we’ve been consumed by the Capitalist system to which we belong.

Though they may define it in radically different terms and theologies, every church I’ve been a part of- from the very conservative, to the centrist, and the progressive- believes that it is working to fulfill The Great Commission to “…make disciples of all nations… (Matthew 28:16-20). We all believe that all we do is centered around this and The Greatest Commandment, which is to “love God, self, and neighbor”. And a lot of our work is centered around and motivated by these. But at the end of the day, the very real and present problem is that the benchmarks are still the proverbial “nickels and noses”. That is, are we financially sustainable and are we getting more people into our pews and programs? We can talk about all kinds of other metrics, like “stories of transformation” and such, but when it’s all said and done, the metrics by which we measure our success, vitality, and viability is financial sustainability and attendance. And the problem is that it can’t not be.

The problem isn’t that those are the metrics we use. The problem is that we have to use those metrics. Without them our churches can’t survive. Why? Because our entire system is not actually built on “going” and walking with people in nurturing a Jesus shaped spirituality driven by acts of worship, devotion, compassion, and justice; but it is, quite frankly, built on convincing people to show up at our buildings and give us money. In exchange for that, there is a lot of good and honest spirituality offered out there, but that’s just it: It’s an exchange. It’s a business. We have been consumed by consumerism.

In the Gospel of John, the story of Jesus turning over the tables in the temple is markedly different than it is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (stay with me here). First, it comes very early in the Gospel (chapter 2), which means it is not the trigger for the religious elite to get him arrested and crucified. But 2nd, in John Jesus does not refer to the temple system as a “den of robbers” as he does in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but he refers to it as a “marketplace”. Karoline Lewis points out in her fantastic commentary on John that what this says is, “Instead of a concern for temple malpractices (“den of robbers”), Jesus orders that his Father’s house not be made a marketplace. Yet, for the temple system to survive, the ordered transactions of a marketplace were essential. The temple had to function as a place of exchange for maintaining and supporting the sacrificial structures required for preserving a relationship with God. Jesus is not quibbling about maleficence or mismanagement but calls for a complete dismantling of the entire system” (pp. 41-42, emphasis added).

Friends, I believe that if Jesus walked into our churches today, he would say nearly the exact same thing: “Stop making the temple of God into a marketplace”. And in fact, I believe Jesus has been saying this for decades, evidenced by the steady decline in our churches, and even more clearly by the Barna Group study done about 20 years ago (which I cannot find, so as to verify this data), which said that one of the top 3 critiques of The Church in America by non-church goers was that we are “always asking for money”. They’re right. We are. Because we have to. Because we’ve turned The Church into a marketplace. And we’ve done so because we’ve failed to do what the Prophet Jeremiah called upon the people to do while in exile in Babylon, which is to settle into the culture by making families, building homes, planting gardens, and working and praying for the welfare of your city, while also maintaining a distinct identity as God’s people (Jeremiah 29:4-9) not consumed by the culture around us.

When Jesus called us to “go”, there is a way in which he called us to a permanent exile. He called us to go, to be out there, mobile, and not tied down to a location. But what have we done? We’ve built massive expensive buildings, which once were full of people, but which over the last at least three decades have required massive amounts of branding, marketing, and production to convince people to come to and give money so that we can stay afloat. It’s time dismantle the system.

As I lay on my couch for weeks on end, reading the New York Times and reflecting on my life and vocation, I discerned that what burns me out is not the Church. I love the Church. Which is to say, I love the people. It’s church business that’s driving me out of ministry. The business of the Church is- in all my reflection, therapy, and wise council- the source my burnout, anxiety, and depression, and I am convinced that not only am I not alone, I am the norm. I am thankful for the wellness and resiliency efforts the Church is making for clergy, but while it is helpful, it is not enough. We need to stop running the system that is generating the burnout.

As I came back from leave, I vowed to myself, as a pastor and leader of a spiritual community to find a way to do it differently. I don’t know what it all means just yet. But I know I was left with one of two choices: Do it differently (and by that I mean not just my own leadership but how the church is actually structured and ordered), or find a new career. I know I can’t single handedly go in and dismantle the system. But what I can do is work to the best of my ability to liberate the church to which I am appointed from the bonds of capitalism. I can’t do it entirely. No one can, because we are always at the mercy of the economic system in which we exist. But we can, and should, structure our churches in such a way, that we are not consumed by, and therefore dependent on, the “marketplace”.

The hard part is that what this means is counterintuitive to everything we’ve been trying to do for decades. In order to liberate ourself from the bonds of capitalism, we need to structure everything simply enough that it means smaller, not bigger. It means simpler, smaller buildings, which means more ministry happening away from church property than on and in it. It means no longer being dependent on nickels and noses so that our programs can be actual authentic discipleship where we all hold responsibility for our spiritual growth, rather than farming it out to attractional, produced, staff-led programs and worship experiences. It means that the job of the pastor still includes the ordering of the church, but that this order is done such that we are not CEOs, COOs, and CFOs, who spend time in spread sheets, databases and on fundraising efforts masked in “stewardship” for the purpose of closing financial deficits and increasing spending. It means that the job of the pastor is that we spend our time nurturing spirituality, not running a nonprofit, non-prophet organizations. It means that things are small enough and simple enough that the job of pastor may not even be a full time gig.

This is what I walked away with from my leave. I don’t know exactly what it means for me, my current church, my place in the United Methodist Church, and my future in general. But I do know that even just naming it is liberating. If I’m honest, I’ll just say it: I’m done trying to grow the church. It’s a losing battle and it’s the wrong battle. I just want to lead a spiritual community in a Jesus-shaped spirituality. Nothing sexy. Nothing super attractive beyond authentic, intimate community trying to live Jesus-shaped lives in the world. And if that means the church is small enough that I need to be bi-vocational, so be it. After all, if it’s a call, since when does the call of God come with a full time salary, health insurance, and pension (though the irony is not lost on me that it is that marketplace dependent system that allowed me the benefit of taking the leave!). I need those things, but the hard scary word for all of us professional clergy out there is that if it must come with that, then we’ve necessarily made the temple of God into a marketplace.

My Melancholy Spirit: Reflecting on a Pandemic

It’s July, 2021, and we (at least for the moment and the foreseeable future) seem to be climbing out of the world changing COVID-19 pandemic. But as we climb out I’ve had a strange spirit of melancholy about me, which I cannot seem to name, articulate, or even understand. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to be able to see people in the flesh again, order a Sticker Fight from my friends at Steel Toe Brewery, and hear the sound of a congregation mumbling the Lord’s Prayer along with my worship leader and I. The vaccination in the US may be the best example I’ve ever seen of when science, government, and industry come together for the common good.

But as we climb out I still have this melancholy spirit about me. It’s been quite a year. We’ve all been through what I believe is a truly traumatic 15-18 months. It started with very real anxiety, bordering on panic, as the virus began to spread. Then we realized this was going to be much more than just a couple of weeks, and a whole other kind of fear and anxiety settled in- a slower one- one where all we could do was, well, bake sourdough bread and start binge watching Schitt’s Creek. Then the pandemic got political in the middle of a presidential election year, all of which was exponentially compounded by a racial justice uprising after the murder of George Floyd, just a mile and half from where I grew up and went to high school. And then, as if enough wasn’t enough, we had to deal with an presidential candidate refusing to conceded an election for the first time in American history, turning up the heat on socio/political polarization beyond what I knew was possible, which hit a tipping point with an actual insurrection attempt on our government. All of that happened in an 11 month span. 11 months.

Put it all together, friends, and it only makes sense that we all might be feeling a bit melancholy at best. We’ve all been through a lot and lost a lot.

In the midst of COVID-19, I stumbled on a book for my congregation called “Acts: Catching up with the Spirit”. It was published in March of 2020, which means it was written before COVID, which makes it quite remarkable, if not prophetic, that Matthew Skinner wrote about the “church in uncertain times” when he did. This book and study is all about how the work and formation of the early church in its uncertain times has a lot to teach us in ours. And as I am now preaching a sermon series based off of this book, I had a startling revelation in preparation for this Sunday’s message that I think speaks to why I feel so melancholy these days:

How can I catch up with the Spirit when I’m so busy trying to keep pace with the world?

The world keeps on spinning, no matter what. But do we need to? When COVID hit, there had to be a shift in our values system to manage through it. We had to slow down, evaluate what is essential, and make personal sacrifices for the common good. I would never wish a pandemic on the world again, nor do I believe some cosmic force brought it upon us this team to teach us lessons, but I do believe there are lessons to be learned.

I don’t want to go back to pre-COVID pace and values, but it seems we are. I long for a simpler society, where a care for the common good rises above a drive for personal gain; where the world is a singular connected whole rather than a collection of independent teams racing against each other for the top; where spiritual connection matters more than religious affiliation; where a family can easily live with one car and the earth can more easily breathe; where we make time to love rather than hurry to make time.

Yes, the world keeps spinning, and if there’s one thing we learned in COVID times, it’s that it doesn’t need us to do so. I want to catch up with the spirit, but I fear that as we climb out of COVID, the demands to keep pace with the world again will be unavoidable. I feel them taking over already. And maybe that’s what my melancholy spirit is about. Do I dare rebel against it? What does that look like? I’m not sure. But I’m sure has hell gonna try and find out. If you’d like to join me on the journey, I welcome fellow travelers, but just know, it will be slow, will not have measurable goals, and if there is a destination, I have no idea what it is, nor am I concerned with it.

Jesus Has Left the Building

I didn’t grow up going to church much. I did early, but the majority of my upbringing did not involve church, even on Christmas and Easter. But as I grew older, began thinking for myself more, and searching for meaning and connection, I guess you could say I found religion. The connection I found through a community seeking to live out the Jesus story was real and it stuck, so much so that I’ve basically been working in full time ministry my whole post-college life. In all of it, I’ve sought to give to others what was given to me: Space to explore their spirituality in the Christian narrative and to find abundant life in it. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the gist. 

But there’s been an issue since day one in my work, going all the way back to being a Senior High Youth Director to today being the solo pastor of a congregation. And that problem is pretty simply defined: Getting people to show up. My entrance into ministry was at a time when the American Church was at beginning of its steep and steady decline. There is no one reason for this, but the more I work in this industry, the more I believe there is one singular issue that cannot be ignored (ehem, White Supremacy, but that’s a whole other blog post), and which we have a mountain to climb to get over. That is issue is our buildings and grounds.

For the first few hundred years of the Christian Church, there were no buildings, outside of some very small, simple structures. People gathered in spaces, but there was no centralized building, which meant that wherever the people were, that’s where the church was. But a strange thing happened in the early part of the 4th Century. A guy named Constantine rose to power, and he became the first Emperor to embrace Christianity. With it came the opportunity for Christians to own property, and out of all this rose what are essentially our first true church buildings, and so much more. As Justo Gonzalez puts it, “Christian worship began to be influenced by imperial protocol”. Gonzalez describes how incense became part of worship, which had been used as a sign of respect for the emperor; ministers moved from simple clothing to more luxurious garments; the communion table became an “altar”. 

And it worked. Or “worked”, I guess you could say. People began flocking to these buildings, seeking to be baptized into the community. The priests were overwhelmed to the degree that Gonzalez says, “…there was little time to prepare for them baptism, and even less to guide them in the Christian life” (p. 144). It’s hard to know the merits of this influx of new converts, perhaps all or most of it was genuine. Perhaps it stuck for many like it did for me in 1991. But suffice it say, Christianity was changing, and began what some scholars describe as the Constantinian Era. About this era Gonzalez says, “even now, in the twenty-first century, we are going through crises connected with the end of that long era.” (p.131). The most stark of those consequences for me comes from these words in Gonzalez’s account of Church History: “On occasion, local residents were ordered to contribute to the building of churches with labor and materials” (p.145). 

The Church was no longer building a people but became about peopling a building.

And it’s been that way ever since. Now, this does not mean no good has come from it, but what it does mean is there are two real problems embedded in big, elaborate church buildings (and by big, I even mean the relatively humble building in which my congregation currently worships), which I believe are at the root of 21st Century American Church crisis. 

The first is a missional problem: Once we began building and peopling these structures, the mission of the church stopped being about “going” and became about “coming”. The Church was no longer going to the people, but the people were coming to the church. The mission to which Christ called his original disciples was one of going, moving through the world to immerse people in the character and nature of God and calling them to live in the sacrificial, fearless love incarnated in Christ’s life and teachings. With our buildings we stopped going, we stopped moving, outside of Imperialized “missions”, which at worst led to the Crusades and at best led to attempts to deconstruct and assimilate peoples to Western ways and ideologies. 

The second is an institutional problem: When you start building big elaborate buildings, you gotta pay for them. As we’ve already seen, even in the early days, when the buildings were full, people were forced to contribute to the buildings. Fast-forward about 1,200 years and you have a Church offering what were called “indulgences”, which essentially was someone paying a priest off to ensure that they or their loved one would go to heaven. And what was the money used for? Helping the poor? No. It’s what funded St. Peters Cathedral in Rome. Ever been there? It’s beautiful. It’s incredible. And it’s the fruit of religious extortion. 

The kind of people Jesus called us to be was a mobile one, was a homeless one. Like he was. Yet look what we’ve done: From the glorious, beautiful Cathedrals of Europe, to the massive campuses of evangelicalism, we’ve built a system that is no longer mobile but residential. As one preacher once put it, “we’ve domesticated Jesus”. We claim to be a people “going”, but the vast majority of resources and work revolves around an address. As long as we have these buildings and grounds, we will be forced to revolve ministry around filling them up. We cannot truly reimagine “church”, so long as “church” is defined by an address. And without flocks of people showing up to our buildings, we’re now uncertain of how to survive. Churches are all on different spots of the decline timeline, but by every metric we’re all in the same struggle, and without massive reform, it will catch up to us all.

Yes, we need somewhere to gather, but if we are truly a “going” people, where our gatherings happen should’t matter. It shouldn’t need to be a “prime location”; it shouldn’t have to be so nice and kept up that it “draws people”; it shouldn’t be a part of our identity beyond where its exits signs send us. Our gathering spaces should not be places that draw in, but should be places that send out. Yes, Jesus told us to go and make disciples, but nowhere in Jesus’ ministry does disciple making look anything like what we in the Western Church do. A disciple was effectively a homeless person, moving through communities, bringing healing, hope, and life. It was never about joining anything other than a movement of just that: healing, hope, and life. “The harvest is plentiful”, Jesus said, but guess what? Unlike his day, so are the laborers. We just need to stop dressing up the farm house and get out into the field of bringing healing, hope, and life to people, especially those our socio/political/religious systems overlook. 

The Seemingly Uncrossable Chasm

It’s the day after the attack on the Capitol and my anger hasn’t gone away, it’s only now accompanied by sadness. I’m angry because we’ve known since Nov. 9, 2016, the morning after the election, when light of the morning revealed hate crimes in Trump’s name peppered throughout the nation. We knew then that Trump does not condemn violence in his name in any meaningful way, if it all. We watched his angry mobs during his campaign rallies get fueled toward violence by his words. We’ve known for decades that he doesn’t play fair and the only name to which he bows and which he adores is his own. We’ve known all along that something like this could happen, and as his rage over losing the 2020 election increased, we had all the indicators that this could happen, not just someday, but on January 6, 2021. 

Donald Trump did not create nor generate the seemingly uncrossable chasm of polarization that has come to make up our socio-political climate (lots of theories about when, where, and how that began), but he did monopolize on it and exploit it to increase his power and influence. Trump supporters will claim that he is only the way he is because “no president in history has endured opposition from the opposing party and the media like he has” without naming that no president or presidential candidate in history as perpetrated and fomented so much anger, vitriol, and even verbal abuse to anyone who challenges and opposes him. 

What happened yesterday was shocking, but not surprising. This is why I’m angry. 

President Donald Trump is at best a failed American experiment, and it’s time to end it. Not in two weeks. Right now. Since the election all he has done is ignore his duties as President while working to tear down the mechanisms of democracy by which we elect our leaders. He his dangerous to the health and safety of this nation by both what he is doing and what he is not. He needs to be removed from office now, and we need to welcome in Vice President Pence to assume the duties of the Presidency and lead us toward repairing the shredded history of the peaceful transfer of power, something I believe he can and would do. 

So why am I saying all this. I’m just a pastor of a little church in Minnesota. Who am I, why do I feel so emboldened to say such things?

Well that touches on why I’m sad. I’m sad today because I’m not sure how it is we can bridge this gap. But I also say all of this, because I believe there is a way, and I believe that bridging this seemingly uncrossable chasm of polarization is going to take leaders in every corner of our communities doing our part, clergy included. And you might question how in the world what I’ve written above could be work toward a bridge. That’s a fair question. I say what I said above not increase the gap, but to name that the bridge we build cannot be one toward Trumpism. That needs to be named. But that doesn’t mean we can’t build bridges toward any or all Trump supporters. 

We need to first recognize that we’re all Americans. I believe that Trumpism (however we may define that) is not concerned with what is best for America, but I do believe that the vast majority of Trump voters and supporters are concerned with what is best for America. I believe many of them have been conned by America’s greatest conman (that is one thing he is truly great at), and in so doing have believed they’ve been aligning themselves with America’s best interests. I want to build bridges, but if you’re asking me to build a bridge toward Trumpism… well… that’s even half a bridge that is just a bridge too far. 

But if you want to build a bridge toward a greater good for America that puts the needs of the nation ahead of any candidate or political or party, then let’s start building. And as we do so, I recognize that there are some “isms” of my own that I am going to need to leave behind as well. We cannot compromise on justice and equity, but we on the left will have to make some compromises on the path to it. Remember a “justice delayed is a justice denied” but I am willing to lay aside the form of liberalism that says we’re the only ones who know how to get there. If we progressives think all we need to do is get tough, dig our heels in and cram justice down their throats because the Democrats will hold The White House and Congress, we’re delusional. That may make us feel good for a while, but it won’t heal us nor will it bring about justice.

Yet, the status quo is untenable, friends. If the only way out is war, count me out. Violence and destruction just aren’t in me. But if mere peace-keeping is the way, you can also count me out. We have hard work to do and hard words to say that will make us all uncomfortable at times. We need to be about peace-making, not peace-keeping. So how do we do it? How do we do the truly courageous work of arguing out the path to justice and equity? What are the visions that will compel us, the values that will guide us and the strategies that will drive us? How can we be peace-makers together? I don’t know the answers, but for my corner of the world, I think it’s our guiding question. 

As far now, I lament. 

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.”  (Psalm 130:1-2)

White Friends: It’s June 20th. Now What?

IMG_3510Yesterday was Junteenth, and I felt weird. And still do. In the weeks since the murder of George Floyd at 38th and Chicago, we’ve seen a national uprising calling for justice. It’s been beautiful, especially as I’ve seen a lot of white folx like me turning to learn more about systemic racism, and in so doing finding ways to live out our learning by doing things like celebrate Juneteenth.

I don’t know when I first learned about Junteenth. I feel like I may have learned about it in elementary school, where February was always loaded with learning about Black History. Although I suppose I shouldn’t say I learned about Juneteenth as much as maybe I was taught it, because I have this rhythm in my life where every now and then a Junteenth rolls around and I think “oh yeah, It’s Juneteenth: That’s to celebrate to the end of slavery.” Then I forget about it again.

When President Trump planned his rally on this Junteenth, it happened again: “Oh yeah, That’s Juneteenth: that’s to celebrate the end of slavery. Interesting choice, Sir.” At risk of fueling President Trump’s fire, I really have no place critiquing his date of choice, because I was reminded of Juneteenth coming up only because of the news reports about the president’s originally scheduled rally Tulsa, OK. So, yeah, that’s where I’m at.

I think that’s why I feel weird. White friends all over my social media feed are posting about Juneteenth and even showing ways to celebrate, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s worth celebrating. But I feel like a fraud. It’s one thing that a lot of white people are learning about Juneteenth just now. It’s a whole other thing that white people like me keep forgetting about it year after year. Just learning about it now may be a failure in our education systems to teach it. Forgetting about it every year? That’s on my own racist, privileged self, my own junk to deal with.

And so I’m troubled today. I am deeply pleased to see such an awakening on matters of racial justice, but I’m also troubled. And I need to be. Because maybe it’s not that I forget about Juneteenth as much as it is that (to borrow from Ta Nehisi Coates’ running metaphor in Between the World and Me) I’ve never really even gotten out of bed, and I just keep rolling over and going back to sleep where I can exist in “the dream”.

The dream is safe. The dream is comfortable, and drives you into a deep, deep slumber. The dream is one from which you don’t want to wake. But it is just that: a dream. What is the dream? Well that’s the problem. As with any dream, while it’s nice, it’s also hazy, murky, hard to put into words, and, well, not real. It’s a dream.

This dream is evidenced by the way in which White America has largely been absent at best, but mostly not even aware of Juneteenth. We all know about the Civil War, what it was about, and that it ended slavery. We all (well, most anyway) agree that the system of slavery which the Civil War ended was bad and needed to end. Most people I know (which is a lot of white people) would agree that the liberating of the slaves is worth celebrating. I mean, isn’t America better because of it? So why don’t we celebrate it? Why are we only collectively interested now, 155 years later?

Some may say that we’re learning, and therefore we shouldn’t criticize this, because you shouldn’t criticize progress. But this is one of the most significant moments in all of American History, and it’s taken us 155 years to wake up to celebrating it? That’s not progress. Calling that progress would be like me resorting to dumping a two-gallon bucket of water on my daughter to wake her up and her get her out of bed when it’s 3:30 in the afternoon. That’s not progress. It’s a refusal to wake up.

It seems, though, that much of a White America may be actually be waking up. But I don’t know that it’s cause for celebration. At least it’s not for me. 155 years of silence is not moving me to celebration, but to wondering about repentance. Real repentance- the kind which is not about statements, billboards, and Twitter trends, but is about forging a new path, a entirely new way of being. I’m uneasy. It sounds good, but the implications are daunting. Necessary, but daunting. The bed is comfortable.

Repentance is not a momentary act or ritual. Those can be a helpful step toward repentance, but they are not repentance. They are apologies and an asking for forgiveness, but repentance is not proved in a momentary event, a public display of pageantry and litany, led by bishops. Nor is it proved in a blog post. No, that’s the kind of thing that the Prophet Amos tells us that God hates when it is not paired with justice rolling down like waters (Amos 5:21-25). No, repentance is proved through an ongoing sustained change in direction.

So here I am on another Juneteenth saying “oh yeah, that’s to celebrate the end of slavery.” Maybe I keep forgetting about it, because the truth is we white folx have never forged the new path, and we know it. We just keep paving over the old path so it looks nicer, but it’s still headed in the same direction. And so yesterday, I woke up a little bit, remembered, and named it, but if my history repeats itself today, I will roll over and go back to sleep. Back to the dream. The dream that works so well for me, but has been for indigenous people and people a color a long dark living nightmare.

White friends, I think it’s great for us to imagine appropriate ways to name and celebrate Juneteenth. But it’s June 20th now: We’ve work to do. Work not out there, but work within ourselves and within our own communities. Hard work. Unsexy work. How will we actually wake from our dream, get out of bed, recognize that we have overslept by a century and half, and begin the hard work of actually forging a new path, the hard work of repentance? Let’s start talking and wondering about that. And may it trouble us. May it, well, uh… keep us up at night.

No One & Yet Everyone Knows What to Do

alin-luna-VwpvVCIExUE-unsplashI haven’t written here since March 3rd. I’ve been trying to avoid polarizing stuff, but it’s hard, and the COVID-19 Pandemic has begun to take its toll on me. In early to mid February I was hanging with a friend and he asked me if I was worried about it. I wasn’t. Everything I had heard from US officials was that I didn’t need to be, and we had seen scares like this before that turned out to be serious but not the crisis many feared and which we are experiencing today. By early March I began to be a little concerned. By about March 13th I had cancelled our Church’s annual Spring musical and in-person worship for at least two weeks. It didn’t take long to realize we were in this for the long haul. The adaptive changes were kind of energizing at first as I and our leadership began to shift our way of being a community. Shortly after that, Easter loomed and that bred a whole other kind of energy, as we sought to find ways to make QuarantEaster a meaningful experience. But since then things have changed. 

First of all leadership at the highest levels of government has seemed to do nothing but breed confusion and anxiety nationwide. The crisis continues but now cries to open grow increasingly louder. We are in unprecedented space, with the stakes higher than anything I’ve experienced in my life, and it seems that both no one and everyone knows what the real story is. All I know is this: We’ve taken the most severe efforts to stop/slow the spread of a virus in 100 years and we still have 70,000+ dead in two months, with numbers on the rise in many parts of the nation. 

But what’s really starting to wear on me is this: There is a massive disconnect and degree of confusion about what the next few months should hold. I’m being told that I should be working on a re-open plan for our church building, while numbers rise and guidelines seem to change daily. I’m being told by some that we may be in this to some degree for another year, and I’m hearing that it may be just until June. Minnesota righties are rallying for Minnesota to open and to be liberated from a tyrannical Governor, while Minnesota lefties are now critiquing Gov. Walz for moving too fast on “turning the dials up”. While I’m being told I should work on a re-open plan, I feel like I should be working on a long range online community plan. What the right thing to do seems as invisible and elusive as the virus itself. 

All the while 70,000+ Americans are dead, and here’s where I hit my breaking point: Of those 70,000 a significant portion are from long term care facilities, and for some reason people seem to be taking comfort in that, as it’s often followed with “we can protect our nursing homes”. Friends, with all due respect, we already didn’t protect our long term congregant care facilities! And how do we think the virus got there in the first place? Was grandma out clubbing or spring breaking on Florida beaches? No, the virus was brought there from an outside source. The only way to open and “protect” our nursing homes is to put their staff on full quarantine, which brings a hole other host of problems. It’s one thing to be held at home, it’s quite another to be forced to be held elsewhere. Our elders are highly at risk here. Highly. At. Risk. No one seems to deny this, but (and I do not see this as hyperbole) we still seem to be willing to offer them up on the altar of freedom and economic growth. I, for one, am not.

I am not claiming to know what the answer is. I have no idea. I am confused. But what seems to be true is the most sure thing in protecting lives right now is to continue to “Stay At Home”. But of course this does bring with it dire economic consequences. And that issue, to me, exposes just how dangerously fragile and flawed our economic system is. I’ve said this before and it’s never been more clear to me than it is now: We have the resources to house, feed, clothe, care for, and educate everybody. We just choose not to. The housing exists. The food is there. The systems to keep the supply chain moving are there. The doctors and nurses are there, even furloughed. We have what we need. We just lack a system and the vision to deploy the resources fairly and equitably, and in order to save this fragile and flawed and inequitable economy, we are willing to sacrifice our elders and most vulnerable. Again, I do not think this is hyperbole. I have thought long and hard about this, over many a sleepless and weeping night. 

I’m at my wits end with it. I don’t want to go back to normal anymore. I just want people to stop suffering and dying. I want there to be clear and unified, not muddied and contradictory, messages from the top about what to do. I don’t even want this to hurry up and be over. The hurry only breeds more anxiety in me. I want us to slow down and breath, and simply watch out for one another. If we could just die to the idols of economic growth and political power, we could slow down and really see one another and do what we need to do to care for one another and protect lives. We could. We have what we need. We just need to slow down, breathe, and trust that though the storm may be fierce and long, if we huddle together we can weather it. And, well, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. 

With that, I’m going to shut it all off for a bit at watch the LG Twins game out of Seoul South Korea. You see, South Korea and the US had their first reported cases on the same day, but South Korea responded quickly and boldy, and they’re playing baseball now. Go Twins. 

Mark 10:32-34 |To Jerusalem

Finally, after 10+ chapters they are heading to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the religious center of the day, so, as ones starting a religious movement, it’s pretty amazing that they have not yet been there. This alone says something about the nature of this kingdom of God movement. Normally when some one wants to impact and affect change upon an established institution, they head to the center of that institution. If you want to influence the US government, you go to Washington DC.

But the kingdom of God is not like any kingdom of this world. It is something radically different. It happens not by saddling up with the seats of power, but by being yoked with the powerless and disenfranchised. Jesus has spent his time building this movement on the fringes, on the outside. But at some point he will have to deal with the institutional center, and that journey begins here: “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem.” And as they were doing so, Jesus is as clear as ever as to how this will go: “…the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him”.

Sounds like defeat. But, remember, this kingdom is not of this world. This kingdom will find victory not in the power of the sword, but in the power of sacrificial, fearless love.

Mark 10:17-31 | Bad News for the Rich?

This is one of those texts that we in affluent American suburbia tend to either avoid or finesse. In Christian circles there is often a lot of talk about heaven and hell, and how to get to heaven. In the end, that’s all up to God, so it’s largely as wasted effort, if you ask me. But in our conversations on heaven and hell, it’s funny how rarely we cite this story,
yet is Jesus is ever more clear than here? In order to “inherit eternal life” you must “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”. If that’s true, most of us are in deep doo-doo.

So what is Jesus getting at here. There is a LOT in this passage, and I don’t want to finesse it, because I do believe we have real affluent/wealth problems in American Christianity, but I think it comes down to this: We don’t necessarily need to sell all we have and give it to the poor. That’s what this man needed to do. Jesus is speaking to a specific person whose heart seems to be wrapped up in himself: “I have kept all the commandments… what else must I do so that I can have eternal life?”

This story is not about wealth as much as it is about the posture of our hearts. It matches up with Jesus’ words in Matthew when he says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. That is, whatever it is you value is what your heart wants. And for this man Jesus has identified that what he values is his wealth and his own well being. So in order to value God’s kingdom, you must give up valuing your wealth and your worry about “inheriting eternal life”. And this man couldn’t do it. The reason Jesus says, “how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” is not that God is opposed to wealth. It is that God is opposed to valuing wealth, protecting wealth, and sustaining wealth at all costs. God is opposed to my security and my being ok with me being rooted in my possessions and my effort.

It is simply human nature that the more we have, the more we trust what we have and how we got it. And conversely, the less we have, the easier it is to trust in something else. The more we have, the more we have to lose, and Jesus has already established that this kingdom is a kingdom about losing our very selves, not protecting and sustaining them. Remember, God wants our hearts, the whole heart (and a heart that is whole). But if our hearts are aligned with our own wellbeing such that we’re implementing systems to protect our wealth, then Jesus may have some harsh words for us.

May we all hold the things of this earth loosely, and may we move to the liberating space of letting go.

Mark 10:13-16 | Do Not Hinder Them

We love this passage, don’t we? It makes us feel really good. But are we really willing to embrace what Jesus is saying here? Do our actions, our policies, our polity, our structures, our strategies and our systems really reflect the Kingdom of God belonging to little children? Jesus says, “let the little children come to me; do not stop them”. Some annie-spratt-gq5PECP8pHE-unsplashtranslations will read “do not hinder them”. These three verses should give us great pause.

The disciples were hindering, were getting in the way of, were preventing little children from coming into Jesus’ presence, and it made Jesus “indignant”. Do we ever really wonder how we, the Church (that is, Christ’s disciples) still today prevent children from coming into Jesus’ presence. We certainly value children today to a higher degree than they did in Jesus’ day, but might we still have a long way to go? When a child gets squirrelly in worship our initial reaction is “that child is distracting me from worshiping”. Or to put it another way, “that child is hindering me from coming into Jesus’ presence”. Do we ever think that the squirrelly child might be squirrelly because we are hindering him or her from coming to Jesus? And, based on what we read here, with whom would Jesus side?

This passage is obviously talking about bigger and deeper things than squirrelly children in worship, but I believe he is also not not talking about that. With an entire generation largely giving up on church, we the Church must wonder about the ways in which we systematically hindered them. As followers of Jesus, may we never stop wondering about such things, and may we be willing to do whatever it takes to make sure our children have a clear path to Jesus.

Mark 10:1-12 | On Marriage and Divorce

In many Christian circles this passage (and its parallels in Matthew 19 and Luke 16) is the guiding passage for marriage. The institution of Marriage a topic of great interest in our culture, as its definitions have been (thankfully) challenged and expanded. So as we look to the scriptures for guidance, we have to pay attention to this passage. But another shannon-mcinnes-FOvVKp7IA68-unsplashreason we have to is that quite honestly the Bible simply does not talk specifically about marriage very much. And when it does, it is highly contextual. So the challenge for us today is trying to get to the heart of such passages, not the letter.

The way marriage (and divorce) worked in 1st Century Israel was so radically different than it does here today, that to stick to these teachings to the letter is like trying to use traffic “laws” from the horse and buggy days here and now. That is not so say that we are (or are not) “more evolved” today, but simply to say that we are dealing with a whole different “machine”. That being said, the important question to ask with a teaching like this is “what is the heart of what Jesus is getting at here?” And while he does refer back to “God made them male and female” and “for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife” (Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 respectively), Jesus isn’t talking about gender in marriage here (for more on my thoughts on how this passage has wrongly been twisted and perverted to work against sam sex marriage, go here). The heart of Jesus’ teaching here is the oneness in marriage. He is talking about the beautiful union that happens when two people join together.

This passage is not about who can get married and who can’t, and it is not about when it’s okay to get divorced and when it’s not. This passage is about what much of the Gospel of Mark has already been about, and about which Jesus has been talking very clearly for the last the two chapters: Dying to yourself. I believe the heart of Jesus’ teaching here is “forget about the nuances of when you’re allowed to get divorced and the repercussions therein, and remember what marriage is all about in the first place- becoming one”. In our culture today we like to boldly claim our individuality. It’s a good thing. But I think the hard message in this passage here for our world today is that when it comes to marriage, you must die to your individuality and become one flesh with the person with whom you’re joining, and begin a journey of becoming new creations together. This does not mean that we lose our identity as a person. It means that our identity changes. And I think one of the big problems we have in marriage in our culture today is an unwillingness to die to the self and let a knew person arise out of this most intimate of bonds to another person.

I am still me and have an identity as a individual person and so does my wife. But I also believe that much of who we both are today is a result of a journey of dying to who we were 22+ years ago and entering a lifelong journey of becoming one flesh. “One flesh” is hard work, but it’s beautiful work. It requires laying who we are down into the hands of the Spirit and into the life of the other. Much of the Gospel of Mark is about laying one’s self down and being willing to die to yourself, and this marriage talk of “one flesh” is no exception. That, I believe, is what Jesus is getting at here in Mark 10. He’s saying “stop worrying about what is lawful, because the reality is that if that’s what you’re looking at, then you’re missing the point of what marriage is all about”.

That being said, let me clear: There does come a times when separation is the best or even only option. From the more obvious times where abuse in any and all forms is present, to the less obvious where the relationship has simply cracked beyond repair, separation can be necessary. We need to get honest and real about those times and cast no shame or guilt upon others or ourselves in them. It’s hard, it’s sad, and in many cases it is also the right thing to do. There are no formulas here. This is hard stuff, which needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis. The ideas we glean from the Biblical narratives must never become more important than the narrative immediately before us. By that I mean, if the letter of Jesus’ words here in Mark 10 become more important that the reality of the struggling couple in my office, then I think I’m missing something crucial. These words did not come, and do not work, outside of a specific context, and therefore must be understood and used out of and within specific contexts. Marriage is deeply intimate, deeply personal, and has at its core the highest of stakes. May we all deal with it and one another gently, carefully, gracefully and compassionately.