First full day of “Deep Calls to Deep” preaching conference at Virginia Theological Seminary
I arrived at VTS ready to get my preaching on. Part of the fun comes from meeting fellow clergy both from Texas and Yankee land. I know my Texas crew well, but I am meeting great new clergy from above the Mason Dixon line. I got to know one who works for a small rural Episcopalian congregation. She serves sixty all-American, hard working, mostly Trump boosting, Episcopalians that show up on Sunday to be led by someone who couldn't be more different - a divorced, out, urban dwelling lesbian in AA recovery. The church is kind of “high” (chanty) with an extremely “low” architecture (clapboard and stick-on altar windows).
This priest was telling me how hard it has been for her to lead a congregation with such a different baseline experience from her. She loves them and they love her, but it requires an enormous amount of energy. Maybe priests are supposed to feel this? You know, the difference. Pastors are supposed to be a little different – not the holier-than-thou kind of different- but different in that a pastor is always sniffing the air for how God is opening the church up. That kind of hound dog tracking takes emotional reserves. I wonder if part of a priest's calling is to root around in the Gospel to find new pathways to help people find the Kingdom of God. That opening does not happen without clergy expending emotional capital.
She was wondering if maybe she should have been in a funky, urban, completely LGBTQ friendly congregation. But at the same time it seemed to her that she was really called to be in her bright red farming church. A church naturally wants to feels like one big happy family, where everyone basically agrees, and then a search team messes everything by calling a priest, any priest, to lead a church. Her job, my job, is not to create a mutual admiration society, but to help create a community that admires and worships Christ. Because, as John 14 tells us, Jesus has built a big house for his people so we should consider making room for people who might not have been coming to the same church for last 137 years.
As I think about clergy life (you may think I am wrong), I am finding that it is not my job to check your Christian bona fides at the narthex door or at the Altar rail (I know this is how some churches organize themselves). I think it is my job to point my finger toward Jesus and let you and him work it out. If Jesus is the starting point, he is also our end point. It may be overly obvious, but great fellowship is not the point of Christianity. Perfectly executed worship does not get you there. Blissful agreement, not gonna happen. Standing up for the poor and marginalized, super important - but still not the starting block. Romancing wealthy donors, easy to do - but nope. Just start with Jesus and let him be your captain. We show up and love each other while Jesus works out the rest.
We ain’t neva going to get it completely right, but I know that my ministry is to people for the sake of Christ. My ministry is not for God’s people. Not for rebellious people. Not for fallen people. Not for righteous people. It is for all people. If I am doing the pointing to Jesus thing, God will do the heavy lifting by making all things new at Ascension and everywhere else.
When I think about Ascension, I know that we're a happy family. We love each other. Really – we do. I have been here long enough that if you hate me, you have probably left. Now, you at least tolerate me and love the people you worship with. I wonder, however, what God’s vision for our church is? In case you haven't heard or more likely are sick to death of hearing it - we have been doing great, intentional vision work over the last school year. There is good work for the leaders and people of Ascension still ahead. We are getting really good at becoming the community God wants us to be. In the midst of all this, I have been thinking about my role in supporting you.
Thanksgiving Dinner Church
Maybe I can help our church look a little more like Thanksgiving dinner and less like Sunday brunch. Maybe I can help us move from a mutual admiration society to a community that looks to Jesus, who is an expert when it comes to making strangers part of the family. Wait.... but am I supposed to be your Sunday brunch leader right? You know, take care of those already here. Absolutely. I love the people and enjoy hanging with my peeps, AND the expansive vision for the church is summed up well by William Temple. He says, "The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members."
Making room for others is not papering over the real difference of perspectives. It is also not finding the lowest common denominator. Thanksgiving dinner church is an alternative vision. It is a choosing to be together in the face of difference. Thanksgiving dinner church might have some hurt feelings because we don't always agree, but it is a conscious choice to create a community you can't find anywhere else. Social media is an echo chamber of either yelling or "me too" agreement. The workplace is not a place that allows for highest values of human community. The church is the best social lab we've got, because the mad scientist in charge of it is God. God gives us work. Good work to know and be known. To express love and receive love. It does not happen by accident. I think the Thanksgiving dinner model and all the edgy tension that it implies is also found throughout the Bible; it’s sort of natural and oddly good.
The early church in Acts of the Apostles makes your Thanksgiving dinner shouting match (or stoic silence) look tame by comparison. It was an experiment in radical fellowship. You can see it in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. The leaders decided to break the lock on the door to the cultural barriers that were part of that early Church and larger society. They agreed, “Circumcision, yeah you can shuck that if it gets in the way of you calling yourself a Christian” (BTW Acts 11 – was first time they used the term Christian). The council basically said if you love Jesus and act with integrity, you’re good. They set the grand vision. Despite the good feelings that followed, they quickly went back to squabbling with each over other stuff. But the squabbling never overwhelmed the laboratory for knowing Christ.
Common worship is probably what the Episcopal church does best. We are perfectly situated to be a Thanksgiving dinner church. We practice together, even if we don’t exactly believe the same thing. This might be true even in the same pew. As long as Jesus is the center, then everything else, Pollyanne Todd says, will shake out. We don’t do the Presbyterian Book of Confession thing – not necessarily bad, just not our jam. We don’t expect people to hold to the cultural Episcopalianism of expensive scotch and wingtip oxfords of decades past. We don’t spend our energy checking the “right thinking” of the worshippers.
What we do is common prayer. We pray together. We enjoy each other. And we serve together. Jesus is in charge of the rest.
SNL Adele Thanksgiving
Saturday Night Live did a spoof of Adele’s song “Hello” set at a thanksgiving meal a year before the last presidential election. To me, it is spot on for the tension the church and families have been feeling for a while By the way if you really want to irritate my daughter. Just sing the “Hello..it’s me” in an Adele voice and she will truly hate you. Here is the SNL video if you don’t remember https://youtu.be/e2zyjbH9zzA.
We need more Adele. Worshiping together will help us see each other as fellow pilgrims with prejudices and problems. We won’t demonize or dismiss people because we will actually know them and worship with them side-by-side. I want a church where Jesus is in charge of the spiritual life of his people. In the final analysis, we are just butlers for him anyway. Jesus is in charge of transforming his people. I want to create a place where Jesus can be adored by the whole motley mess of people whatever their starting point.
This profoundly dates me but I love, still love, Ferris Buller’s Day Off. It's amovie about a misbehaving kid, Ferris, who just wants to have a great day without school. He predictably enrages the Principal by evading capture throughout this day off. Grace, the school secretary, when responding to Principal Ed's frustration about Ferris Buller’s shenanigans says, "He's very popular Ed. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, d…heads--they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude.”
I think Jesus is a righteous dude. Anything I can do to bring more people to him….that’s my job. If the church feels a little less like old home week and little more like the Thanksgiving dinner table, that’s OK with me. We are one big, and (most of the time) happy family.
On my last blog entry, I wandered through 80’s politics as a way to understand some of the challenges that we, the privileged,have in understanding a faithful life in Christ. Despite assertions by cable news, we don’t live in an environment in the US of extreme persecution. So how do we live fully when there is not someone waiting to jump us for our faith? I want to splash around into psychology and history for this post as one way to view how we have a role in defining what it means to be a child of God, not born of human decision, but because it made and still makes God happy to create and love his creation.
Constructivism vs Essentialism
I am more of social constructivist than essentialist. I hope to make clear why this is important for following Jesus. But for a moment I want to wade knee-deep in social theory – through Comanche history in Texas, through white women identifying as black while leading the NAACP.
Let me use an example from Texas history to distinguish how identity,religious or otherwise, can either be “constructed” from experience or “essential” to the person. Constructivism is a more nuanced version of the “nurture” side in the nature v nurture old saw.
This is a more important conversation now more than ever to have especially if you are raising a trans kid. When people argue over how to raise their kids, constructivism is counterweighted with essentialism. In the crudest form of essentialism, Popeye says, “I yam what I yam.” Our kids are so much more than they or we know, because they/we are the product of a master crafter who is constantly improving the product.
Natives and Settlers in the wild west had very different perspectives on nature v nurture. Late 19th Century Texas really was a wild place. White people were pouring into Texas to homestead the land; trains were moving people ever westward;and the Native Americans were getting an extremely raw deal in the process. Mexico initially welcomed the settlers whom they hoped would provide welcome relief from the scourge of the horse warriors.
The most feared of the Native raiders were the Comanches. It was the Comanches who rewrote the narrative of western expansion through their continual raids in the Southern part of the Great Plains. If you imagine a map of the US and Canada, the Great Plains covers a territory that resembles a giant thumbthat includes large sections of TX, OK, KS and the Dakotas, on up into Canada, with a sliver of Colorado and New Mexico. This was a short-lived fear as they were thoroughly subdued through sheer numbers of settlers and new sniper rifles that could kill a person from nearly a mile away. At the Battle of Adobe Walls in June 1874, Billy Dixon shot a Sharps rifle from 9/10s of a mile, killing a native warrior. The rifle became infamous and renamed “shoots far,” or “shoot today, kill tomorrow” gun.
One leader, Isatai, believed the writing was not on the Wall for a confederation of native warriors. They were going to drive the white people out of their land once and for all. This belief continued until that 1874 Battle of the Adobe Walls. The devastation these long guns brought to the natives and the spiritual demoralization it brought cannot be overstated. Isatai, who was originally named White Eagle, did not enjoy his new name after this - a derogatory term for a coyote’s private parts. He even blamed the native confederation for the loss because they killed a skunk that ruined the warrior magic.
Texas ain’t about no stinking therapy, but it does helpto understand constructivism
Before the long guns finally took the “art” out of warfare, the Comanche’s were artisans with horse based “up in your grill” warfare. A ten year old could hang off the side of at galloping horse and accurately shoot a target 25 yards away. They were rightly feared throughout Texas. Comanches were unapologetically “constructivist.” They would not have used the term. Their tribe was not based on blood line, but on their horse culture and way of life; anyone they abducted or gave birth to were Comanche by default.
The best example of how radically constructivist they were comes from the life of Peta Nocona, Cynthia Ann Parker and their son Quanah (“Stinky”) Parker. Peta was the terrifying military leader of the Quahada Comanches from the 1830s – 1860’s until his son “Stinky” led the group into a final submission at end of Red River War of 1875.Texas settlers rightly feared these horse warriors’ constant raids. In one raid,ten year old Cynthia Ann Parker was forcibly integrated into the Comanche band after her family was executed on their homestead.
This is where constructivism comes in. She was considered fully Comanche despite starting with them as a 10 year old white girl. As an adult, she gave birth to three kids and “Stinky” Quanah Parker would become the full-fledged leader of the tribe. He wasn’t a half breed; he was Comanche. Cynthia was never a second class Comanche. Her tribe, not blood, was central. When she was “rescued” at 34 by the Texas Rangers, she was completely forlorn. She stopped eating and died ostensibly of heartbreak.
The settlers never reconciled why Cynthia could not get over what we would call “Stockholm syndrome” because they were largely essentialist. That is that white people = settlers | brown people =savages and there is little one can do to change that. Nature over nurture for the settlers. White people of the period, before, and after were obsessed with blood line. This was not only with these “savages” but also how African, African Americans were. If you want to see how bad, how essentialist it was, just look up the differently categories for how black a black person was. Or the work of phrenologists.
If you are reading my mind now, you might be getting uncomfortable. Some of the greatest social change has come from people firmly committed to essentialism. The civil rights movement of the sixties was firmly essential. Malcolm X took the “X” because he could not find his essential name in his African lineage. This essentialism was probably necessary – as no one would have thought you were sane if you said that race was a social construct back then. Most people still think that constructivism around race is crazy talk.
The logical conclusion of constructivism makes me deeply uncomfortable around race. Rachael Dolezal recently changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo. She was a white woman,raised in a Pentecostal house in Montana, who now believes completely that she is African American. She ran a chapter of the NAACP, until a reporter asked her if she was black which led to her stumbling, deer-in-the-head-lights style, off camera. She has now written a book about this experience. I only got through the amazon sample before I wanted to laugh and/or cry because of the delusional perspective she takes.
If you take constructivism theory to its reductive conclusion, then Rachel/Nkechi has every right to claim her blackness. But that seems gross to me. Maybe it is because the cultural power she has also needs to be figured into that equation. I think few African Americans could change their name to Biff McCraken and claim to be a white person without far more serious consequences than just ridicule.
Ah back to the Bible
The Bible is great antidote to this mess. We Christians constantly remind ourselves that we are children born not of natural descent, nor of the human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:13). Jesus got in trouble; Paul got in trouble; Peter got in trouble. The trouble came when they preached constructivism over essentialism. Essentialism saysthat it is not natural for Jews to associate with sinners. Essentialism says it is not natural for Jews to invite Gentilesfully into fellowship. Essentialism says that Jewish disciples of Jesus and Gentile Christians eating together are just gross.
The Bible is a dangerous book
God sees neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female (Gal 3). What then is there that is essential to us except that we are loved by God? I might seem to give humans too much authority, while placing God’s authority in the back seat. But, how free are we really to redefine ourselves as people of faith who have histories and bloodlines? I am not idealizing a reductive color or gender blindness where we can’t acknowledge our racial and gender bias, but what if we obsessed less about what we are, and more about whose we are. Obsessed about being, as Paul oft repeated, “In Christ”? That obsession might actually improve the texture and value of the world we live in. It might just might bless the people we encounter.
I feel like some of my most treasured experiences are not “essential” to me. I have had experiences like zip lining with the rednecks and vatos at Cecil’s swimming hole east of Houston; dancing at a Nigerian wedding reception; reading my bad poetry at an Alpha Phi Alpha poetry slam; being an actor -the clueless white guy – at my college’s India night theater production; sitting in meditation with a Japanese Zen Master; riding the light rail and talking to homeless men on the way to the medical center; hanging with the golfing set on bingo night at the club; learning how to line dance at a gay cowboy bar in OKC; and helping a transgender person express their identity (for the first time in pubic) at a Kroger in Friendswood, TX (we bought a six pack of Dr. Pepper.) These don’t define me, but they definitely add to the texture of my life and a sense that life is far bigger than me.
On a personal front, the only thing essential about me is Jesus – not my gender, race, education, kids, wife, upbringing, culture, or shocking good looks. If I seek him, seek his promises and let his spirit drive the bus, then I cannot go wrong. Jesus had no taste in picking the right people to hang out with. He enjoys you and me, which is surely a sign of bad judgment. Texture and love is what it’s about.
Life is way too rich to insist that people or an experience fit in a box where only “I know” the shape the box should be. If I met my twenty year old self today, I would barely recognize him as me. I wonder if we are merely a collection of experiences that we falsely take as the truth, the whole truth, so help us God. The totality of the truth, however, is about a God who is infinite. It is about a God whose love has no boundary. By God’s very nature, there is so much more for us to discover in relationship with God. In the Bible, the promise of a loving relationship was made for us at the beginning of creation in Genesis, made again through prophets and people of God in the Old Testament, reupped in Jesus, and is still going on today.
The promises are far bigger than the place where we were born, how smart we are, or how much we can quote scripture. If you think you have the eagle’s eye view on truth, read the last few chapters of Job and that should disabuse you of how global your stake on the truth is. God is in charge of the truth. The Bible is the most complete picture of God’s promises, but even it is a mirror reflecting darkly. A book inspired by the Holy Spirit, but still made and read by sinners. It is necessarily incomplete without the Holy Spirit bringing life to the text.
Thank God that we have not seen the fullness of God, because if this is as good as it gets, we are to be pitied for our hope. But Easter is almost here, so my hope is that He risen and will raise us up. Foolish - maybe. Necessary - absolutely.
What does it mean to identify as a Christian? In Adult Sunday school we just finished Acts 11. Acts 11 is the first time Christians were called Christians. These early Jesus freaks were in Antioch, a bustling center of commerce and culture. Christians had to distinguish themselves against the backdrop of a larger culture that was either indifferent to them, or against a portion of Jewish culture that was extremely antagonistic to them. The lions and the colosseums would come later, but not yet. Following Jesus in Antioch was highly personality driven. They had Barnabas, Peter, Paul, James. They had the Old Testament but not anything that resembles the New Testament that we take for granted today. They also had the advantage / disadvantage of being able to define their journey as they navigated in the morally rudderless, economically driven mosaic of Antioch.
I love Houston which has some remarkable similarities to Antioch. In the same-kind-of-different way, following Jesus has similar advantages and challenges today. Houstonians are pragmatic, economically and religiously diverse, and tend to let you figure out your life as you go. The disadvantage is that there is no great enemy to define ourselves against. Some tried to get Anise Parker fitted for her Darth Vader costume but it never quite fit, except in the bathroom.
We should be grateful that we live in a fairly open place, but I get a sense that some of my fellow travelers have nostalgia for the 1980’s and Ruskies when everyone was afraid of being bombed into oblivion. Evil had a name and it was Mikhail Gorbachev, the Commies, and the Reds. As a teenager, I remember reading deadly serious Christian literature explaining verse by verse how the Soviet leader was the bona fide Antichrist. If you did not believe in their interpretation of the Bible all you had to do was behold the birth mark on his head to know that he was the Antichrist with the mark of the beast ushering in Armageddon.
This nostalgia for the bad old days in some parts of American Christianity is alive and well. I have heard people longingly wish we were like the Chinese Christians who have the government driving them underground. Their faith is better. Wishing we were like the romanticized African Christians who have lunatics like Boko Haram stealing their children. Their faith is more real. I even have my own crush on the Sudanese Christians whose faith is alive and well in Houston, even as their countrymen and women die in civil war.
Oklahoma – a peculiar darkness
Growing up in Oklahoma, Christianity was the culture. But we (Tulsans) made it seem like there was a dark brooding anti and un-Christian culture around us. To be Christian was to make a definitive break from the unchristian paganism around us. Upon reflection thirty-five years later there were plenty of bad things to repent of, plenty that needed renewal, but all that sinning and darkness was done by kids and parents who parked their butts in the local pew every Sunday. I did not know any areligious people (except a couple of my family members). I did not meet any Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or even Catholics until I was in my twenties. I met one poser vampire, who was a preacher’s kid. And one wiccan, sort of. She bought a book and then decided she was wiccan.
But to listen to the tele-evangelist and run of the mill preachers of the day it seemed that Tulsa in the 80s, the buckle of the bible belt, was beset by Seal Team Evil destroying the lives of a shrinking minority of true believers. If you thought you didn’t see evil around you, just take a listen to a Beatles or Queen album played backwards and you would have all the evidence you needed that Another One Bites The Dust is a really a true hymn to Satan. Everyone is duped except you and the few who really saw through the veil.
Outside the church, we also had punk rock and the Russians as enemy number one. I still remember my buddies skating over an effigy of Tipper Gore while we listened to the Dead Kennedys in protest to the “stupid” adults telling us what we could and could not listen to through the Parent’s Music Resource Council. The 1986 obscenity trail against Jello Biafra actually makes me nostalgic for the bad ol’ days.
I have decided to follow Jesus
There is made up persecution and then there is the real deal. The legend/story of the hymn “I have decided to follow Jesus” is based on the decisions of an Assamese man who lived in the middle of the nineteenth century in India. Assam is in the eastern finger of India, south of Bhutan and north of Bangladesh. There, this now anonymous man stood up against a village chief and declared “I have decided to follow Jesus…though no one joins me I will still follow.” He and his wife reputedly lost their life while singing the “the cross before me, the world behind me.”
Hagiography, the stories of saints, is always a little fraught with good intentioned embellishment. But what is even harder is what it means to identify as a privileged American Christian.
Flip to the Positive
In the absence of real persecution, how do you mark yourself as a follower of Jesus without a devil to blame? Privileged Christians of any ethnicity in the US have a unique challenge – defining ourselves positively as followers of Jesus I would suggest that our identity in Christ does not necessarily need an enemy to define it. The hijab clad Muslim pharmacist at Randall's doesn’t count. We have a real enemy in the accuser (Satan), but Jesus put him in his place in the desert in Matthew. God continues to check the devil’s power and promises to throw the whole mess of evil into a burning lake in the coming age. There are real battles across the globe with Syria, ISIS, Afghanistan, etc for sure, but what does God want from his people in the suburbs of Houston?
In our day-to-day lives we will probably gain a few true enemies to our faith along the way, but there is a peculiar challenge to letting Jesus be the center of your life when the grass is green and you are not bedeviled by devils. 98.9% of the time your faith is about discerning how Jesus wants to use you to bless others with humility and kindness. No - fighting the war on Christmas does not count. Yelling at your secular relative on Thanksgiving doesn’t count. I personally couldn’t care less if the Ten Commandments are displayed in Houston’s courts.
We don’t have the monolithic evils like the good ol’ days nor tribal leaders who will burn us alive for loving Jesus. Martyrdom maybe alive and well across the globe, but thank God we have a different set of challenges. I am perpetually shocked by how unsafe most of us feel when we live in a bubble of relative paradise and security. People are mad as hell, the country is openly divided, but good Lord we have it good. When I was listening to the Dead Kennedy’s and complaining about Tipper Gore, Charles Taylor was gutting Liberia with his own peculiar brand of child soldiers, unspeakable murders, and drugged up henchmen wearing wedding dresses as amulets against bullets. Then and now, we have it very good indeed.
Regardless of our relative safety (even with home grown terrorism) we worry there is someone in the bushes trying to ruin it all and we spend our time worrying about that. We have devils - success and the appearance of success might be our biggest stumbling block. Molech has a great 401K and Baal’s real estate values are through the roof. And those idols are vying for every pew in country. National leaders very interested in the Joneses and the Benjamins while paying lip service to restoring the churches place in society ain’t gonna get us nowhere. We could attempt to gin up another anti-Christ / public enemy number 1, but I think following Jesus is much better than creating enemies. He will give the strength we need at the time we need when real persecution takes place.
If we skillfully extract ourselves from creating a rigidly dualistic faith of Christ/AntiChrist, sinners and saints then we have a really difficult challenge of knowing whose we are. Knowing whose we are is far more definitive than the stew of experiences we have had. The longer I follow Jesus, the more certain I am of his authority, power and presence. The longer I follow Jesus the less certain I am that anything I have experienced or done effects the truth of who I am in Christ. I am a new creation in Christ and that continues every day.
Back to Antioch
Christianity since Antioch has been about following Jesus and making his life and relationship known. These early Christians were taking God seriously. They believed that the covenant of Abraham was being fulfilled through them. This promise is for us too. For the sake of Christ, we are to continue to reach out to more people than there are grains of sand.
So at this point, especially in my study of Acts of the Apostles, I see this scripture as a radical conversation about what is essentially Christian and what role Jesus’ followers have in constructing a community of love in order to carry the holy story forward. If we center on Jesus and his promises instead of what bloodline we claim, our pedigree, or what culture we “own”, then we can’t go wrong, even if we make mistakes along the way.
Gotta wait for part 2
I was a bit nervous at 9:41am. It was March 12th - time-change-Sunday | the beginning of Spring Break | and cold (cold for Houston). To understand Houston, you need to understand our relationship to the cold. When it gets below 50 degrees, people begin to wrap their pipes because it might, just might hit 32 by midnight and by 7am we might be in a dystopian hellscape of ice unless drastic measures are taken immediately. I remember many years ago our pre-school shut down because the temperature hit 25 the night before. No ice, no rain, just 25 degrees Fahrenheit and the city went into lockdown.
So it was Girl Scout Sunday – the birthday in 1912 of the Girl Scout organization in Savanna Georgia. I knew the scouts were coming but forgot several times before Sunday. You see, I have the attention span of the Dug the Dog from the movie UP https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSUXXzN26zg.
Squirrel based distraction and forgetfulness come to me naturally. So there I was, resigned at 9:43am on Sunday to low attendance, but ready to give thanks for those who came. I was not sure how many scouts were coming. Then I got to meet them - a lot of them. There was troop 20013, 20281, 20238, 20323, and the daisies 149037. It turned into a great Sunday, not just because they were there, but because they actually came to worship and be part of Ascension. The energy was fantastic. The scout families were so gracious to me and Ascension. The girls were great readers, ushers and greeters. By 3pm I was still buzzing and wanted to hold onto to Sunday morning as long as I could.
That is part of the mystery of church to me. We can plan, we can build structures, we can have great committees, but at the end of the day the Holy Spirit is in charge of worship. Episcopalians sometimes have hard time with this; we are super organized and our motto seems to be “a place for everything and everything in its place.” I hate chaos and disorder too, but sometimes I can mistake a checked off to-do-list for the real ministry of the church – point to Jesus, let the Spirit be in charge, and give thanks to the Creator.
I am wondering how we can reimagine the very best parts of our organized selves while being catalysts for the Holy Spirit. You know what a catalyst is right? It is not in charge, it does not change the direction of a chemical reaction, but it is a substance that increases the rate of reaction. The Holy Spirit is always the worship leader, but we can choose to be catalysts or not.
In order to do this, we might consider being a little less like Charelton Heston, who will only let go with his cold dead hands, and be a little more like Jesus who followed where his Father led and was willing to run a little loose with his planner. When the opportunity came up, Jesus changed course. His attentiveness to the Spirit made him a little like a holy Dug the Dog when he saw the Spirit moving. Jesus would drive Episcopalians crazy if he were walking the earth today. He did not care if plans were disrupted when God called. Check out these times when Jesus abruptly changed his mind.
His mother got him to change his timeline in John.
John 2:3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.
The Syro-Phoenician woman changed his mind about when he was going to minister to “those” people.
Matthew 15:22 a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
He was humble enough to trust the Spirit with a redo on one of his miracles.
Mark 8:23 So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village. Then He spit on the man’s eyes and placed His hands on him. “Can you see anything?” He asked. 24The man looked up and said, “I can see the people, but they look like trees walking around.” 25 Once again Jesus placed His hands on the man’s eyes, and when he opened them his sight was restored, and he could see everything clearly.
That’s part of why I love the stories of the bible. They are complex and often confusing, but they invite us to join with Jesus in catalyzing worship and ministry for the glory of God. I'm not really advocating for sloppy, fly- by-the-seat-of-your-pants ministry. However, I/we could loosen up and hope to fulfill the following scripture by doing a little less fidgeting. John 14:12 Truly, truly, I tell you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I am doing. They will do even greater things.
I was not in control of Scout Sunday, but the Spirit of the Lord was present. The community was really blessed, and that was the greater thing. Thanks be to God!
We have worked through our core values and mission in workshops and have compiled survey results; now the real work is around the corner. Our last preparation step before we really get cooking is the Vision Validation Survey. If you are an Ascensionite, please take 5 mins to fill out the survey. This survey gives us crucial feedback that we will use to “knead the dough.” We are going to bake your hopes and dreams for Ascension into all of our ministries.
But I skipped the first survey, you say! Nuu-uh. Much of the results of the first survey are embedded in the Validation Survey. However, I will tell you that there are several layers to the survey. Some of the desires of the community - like improved facilities, will take a long time to produce fruit. It will take collaboration among the property and finance committees and will require the cooperation of the vestry, staff, and volunteers. However, some stuff is easy to implement and is already in play.
You may have noticed something is already different - our kid’s dismissal is sung at 10am instead of being shouted, there are intentional pauses at the prayers and confession, and yes I am trying to slow down my talking pace. The last one is the hardest,because I am an excitable dude.
My wife has a laminated card with the word “slow” on it. She sits in the first or second row, so I doubt you will see it if she attempts to hit the brakes on me. Last week she forgot the card, and at about minute eight she was make the strangest combination of raised eyebrows and flared nostrils. Being dim witted, all I could think about was my imaginary booger.
I can assure you that my speed is not commentary on “wanting to get the service over with.” It is just something have to constantly work on; if am I going to be in the south, I need to continue to pump the brakes. Pray for me, not primarily to slow down, but that my words may give glory to God in a way that is clear, meaningful and soaked in scripture.
Now, I am going to be a bit of snowflake - one who wears their heart too close to their sleeve. A sliver of the feedback was extremely personal and some of it hurt me in a way that seemed unnecessary at best. However, I learned a valuable lesson. Facebook is not your friend. Because some of the criticism was directed at the behaviors of my family, I have decided to create strong privacy restrictions on my Facebook account. I will not be talked out of it and my family is not part of the social media conversation.
So, if you loved seeing my family’s latest adventure, I am sorry that it is no longer available. You can ask me to email you some pictures and I would be happy to do so. As a semi-public figure, I have chosen to leave my family out of the ‘limelight’. I will continue to blog in much the same vein as before and use Facebook as a ministry tool on Ascension’s page. Finally, I received feedback that I overshare on my blog. If I annoy you, I am sorry - it will remain personal at times. If you choose to read, consider this your trigger warning.
Back to the future
I am blown away by your positive feedback about our new Sunday schedule, the changes to worship, and even how much you appreciate my sermons lately. It is all grace and I feel extremely blessed to have the privilege to be your priest.
After we hear from you in the validation survey, we are going to get busy. Your vision team, headed by Mike Black, is diligently at work setting up the framework to implement the vision. We do have one need: Do you like demographic research, geeking out over population trends and neighborhood compositions? We need you to join the team. Part of implementing the vision is really knowing who are our neighbors are and you can empower us to really engage beyond the walls of Ascension. Would you email email@example.com for more info and to say “yes”!
Every year, episcopal clergy and lay leaders gather in their respective dioceses to pray for and deliberate over the future of the church. At nearly 900 people, the Diocese of Texas is one of the largest. I’ll tell you that I often feel a mixture of introvert overwhelm and boredom. This year was really, really excellent. We seemed as a group to put our priorities in the right place.
The church is not here to have cleaner parliamentary procedure or even efficient meetings. We gather to dream about God’s dream for the world. Our chief dreamers were a laundry list of great preachers and teachers. Supported by this group, we still accomplished the business of the church. We left with a sense that the great commission is actually for each of us – now.
Friday, Bishop Doyle started us off by helping us reach across the ditches of our lives to make new neighbors. The Rev. Francene Young - were do I start? My apologies to Bp. Doyle and others, but she delivered the best sermon I have heard from an Episcopalian clergy, ever. I don’t want to sully it with my words, take a Listen. I took me a few minutes to get over my professional jealousy to really let her words sink, but I will never think of the book of Ruth the same way again.
The big surprise for me was the Friday plenary of the wellness ministry of the Diocese. I thought it was going to be a guilt fest for people to do more cardio, but what I saw was clergy and lay people doing super cool work to integrate faith and our bodies. There has been many “canoecharists” in the Diocese already! This is where family lash a bunch of canoes together and literally have Eucharist on a lake. A priest in Austin joked that she had to worry about rocking the boat when she read the gospel out of fear that she would have sunk three canoes.
I am dreaming about this summer for Ascension. How can we just hang out together and celebrate our faith? It will be hot but I can’t wait to sweat like a Body of Christ. We are working on “Summerfest” where after church we get together just to play.
We got down to more business on Saturday and the voting must have been rigged because I did not win election to standing committee! The woman who won, Rev. Hannah, is a gifted clergy with mad skills, so maybe I never had a chance. She is great and will bless the church. Losing stinks no matter how you slice it, but all the people nominated for various positions, bring their own mad skills for helping the diocese live into the great commission.
In other business, we approved the hiring of an assistant bishop; continued the work of updating constitutions and canons; and celebrated new churches and clergy.
Throughout council, last year’s senior warden and I talked for hours about ministry. A nice scotch helped fuel the conversation after leaving the council floor. All of the clergy and delegates, despite the many hours of work left light and airy with a sense of God’s plan growing in each of us.
The Horse Parable
There once was a poor old man who owned a beautiful white horse.
Whenever noblemen passed through the village, they always noticed the horse and offered handsome sums of money for the stallion. But the old man always declined their offers, saying, "This horse is my friend. How can I sell my friend?"
One morning the old man awoke to find the horse was gone. The village people gathered and said, "Old man you were a fool not to sell the horse. You could have been wealthy! Now it has been stolen, and you have nothing. It is a great misfortune!" But the old man replied, "Don't go so far as to say that. Whether the horse was stolen or not, or whether it is a misfortune or a blessing, is unknown. All we know is that the horse is not in the stable."
Some days later the horse returned, bringing with it several beautiful wild mares. Again the village people gathered, and they said, "Old man you were right! The horse was not stolen, and it was not a misfortune. It was a blessing, and now you have many fine horses!" But the old man replied, "Again you go too far. Don't say it's a good thing, don't say it's a bad thing. Just say the horse is back. Whether it is a blessing or a misfortune is unknown."
Some days later the old man's only son began to train the wild mares, but he was thrown and trampled, and one of his legs was badly broken. Again the village people gathered. "Oh old man, you were right! It was not a blessing but a great misfortune, and now your only son is lame! With a sigh the old man replied, "Don't say it's a good thing, don't say it's a bad thing, just say my son has broken his leg. Whether it is a blessing or a misfortune is unknown."
It happened that a few weeks later the country went to war, and all the able bodied young men were forcibly taken for the military. Only the old man's son was passed over, because he was crippled. The whole village was crying and weeping, for they believed their sons would probably be killed and never come home to them. In their grief they came to the old man and said, "You were right old man, your son's injury has proven to be a blessing. Your son may be crippled, but he is with you, while our sons are gone forever! The old man simply shook his head and said, "Will you never learn? Only say that your sons have been forced into the military and my son has not. More than that is not known."
-- attributed to Catherine Marie Heath
I love this parable. It highlights how we create so much misery for ourselves by attaching value to a particular experience. Poor me, I have to go to the doctor. Poor me, my family is in a shambles. Poor me, I didn’t get the promotion. I am so lucky to get that parking spot. Jesus loves me because I got the job, etc.
I think the American church could learn from this parable. We have been up and down, but the only worthwhile thing has always been cultivating the love of God. That may sound trite, but I think it really is the only thing the church has going for it. It is our raison d’être.
Throughout our history we have been pushed and shoved around with no voice in the public square. But at certain points in history we got a bit of power. Once we had a sense of agency we decided to do the pushing around. As far as I can tell the church has the clearest witness in history when it is not entangled with power, money and prestige. That is not a reason to avoid politics. It is a warning not to curry favor from politicians. MLK turned down a government appointment because he knew his ministry would be over on his first day in that office.
Like in the Horse Parable, I don’t know much about the trajectory of my life. I am working to resist labeling an experience as good or bad. I would do well to remember what my kid’s teacher in PreK said, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.“ Back to the horse parable from the beginning - the only issue I would take with it is a theological one. I don’t think stoicism is heroism. The only way I can detach from my judgmental attitude is not through force of will but through remembering, ”Jesus loves me this I know ‘cause the bible tells me so.” My guy, Jesus, is watching my back and that is enough.
Labeling and worrying about the future is literally killing all of us. What will happen, might happen, won’t happen, and should happen are like the four horsemen of the apocalypse against our peace. However; maybe they can also be our friend. Worry reminds us that we need to repent. Freaking out, watching cable news, staring at your newsfeed on your phone at 5am (guilty as charged), pontificating about the decline of Christianity in the marketplace won’t serve the purposes of the Kingdom of God and don’t bring us closer to the lord of life.
In a paradoxical way – I believe worry and freaking out is a form of irresponsibility. We have no “right” to freak out. If we think of ourselves as anything but grateful beggars before Jesus, we start flailing around and pierce ourselves with many sorrows. Worry is the poor relation to responsibility.
Responsibility is different. It is like worry, but it is engaged and non-judgemental. Working to make things better is far different from throwing our hands in the air about the decline of western civilization. The next time you start fretting, or hear someone fretting around the dinner table, I am almost certain they are not taking any actual steps to fix the problem they are bemoaning.
Ascension’s Annual Meeting
We had our annual meeting on February 5. I asked the congregation not to worry about budgets and Sunday attendance. I challenged them to seek the renewal of their minds and the renewal of Ascension as their first priority. If we repent of worry and focus on Christ we are going to be a happier people, a renewed people. I really do think God will help Ascension accomplish more than we can ask or imagine. If we let God be in charge by casting our worries on Her, we’re on the right track. I pray that our community will rediscover our responsibility and privilege to be agents of peace and joy.
Ssh don’t tell anyone, but happy churches grow regardless of their current size. When new people come and see that Ascension is grounded in the joy of Jesus, they will stick. We don’t make a great community by fussing over the funding level of various ministries. We don’t make a great community by scaring newcomers with our grousing. We don’t make a great community even through strategic planning, without the secret sauce of joy.
Joy is so life giving for newcomers and old-timers that it is hard to overstate. Worried churches freak out people and they don’t come back. Joyful churches invite other to join in the work of Jesus. As more people join in the mission of the church, the problems of stewardship and attendance sort of fix themselves.
Maybe I am Pollyanna. We are lucky that we live where we do, and lucky we have Episcopal churches focused on the grace and mercy of Jesus. We are ideally situated at Ascension to get back to the basics - love God and don’t be a jerk. I really have a sense that 2017 is going to be special, because we will choose joy and renewal over worry and decay.
I want to leave you with my favorite band from the college days -The Verve. They are not to be confused with the The Verve Pipe - those guys are bad hombre losers – sad. Not really, both bands are good, but I love the song “Lucky Man” from The Verve. I think it expresses well what I have tried to say over this blog post and last - the sense of joy and wonder that we are alive.
More or less
It's just a change in me
Something in my liberty
But how many corners do I have to turn?
How many times do I have to learn
All the love I have is in my mind?
Well, I'm a lucky man
With fire in my hands
I hope you understand
I hope you understand
Gotta love that'll never die
We are lucky my friends. Who knows what arrangements God has in store for us? Regardless if we are blessed with a life of sweet luxury or brutal grind, we have a love in Christ that will never die. No worries “mon”. Christians - let’s worry a little less about our future, and enjoy the present presence of God. If we get a thriving church thrown on top of all that - great, but it ain’t never been the point
As the man in the horse parable says -Whether it is a blessing or a misfortune is unknown. The only thing we can know for sure is that God has our back.
Last weekend in politics and immigration sort of threw me. It has made me think about what it means to be an American and more importantly a Christian. On both counts I feel lucky. You may already object because you would say that it is grace not luck. And you would be right. It certainly has been grace that has brought me to today, but as I review my life - it often feels a lot like luck.
The luck of grace let me be born in middle America. The luck of grace opened doors for me that are shut to so many others. The luck of grace brought me to a woman far more kind, dedicated and skilled than I have a right to be married to. I remember the lucky grace of my three children who are healthy, when I have a hard privilege to go to a children's hospital.
Sometimes I feel that when we Christians speak about grace, we somehow think we made it happen. It stops feeling like grace, and more like a right. What if we knew that God was in charge, but acted like we are lucky? Maybe then we could walk with Christ in humility? We are lucky that we are children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. John1:13. This is a gift not to be lessened by our pride of place.
Last weekend made me think of all those aren't so lucky. If you're waiting for me to give you my political views in a sound bite, I'm sorry, but I think you can figure it out by reading the following story. It comes from the last half of a podcast called "reply all".
Nazanin Rafsanjani works behind the scenes at a podcast company. And the story picks up with her telling a little bit about her life and her reaction to last week's ban. "Struthi" is the interviewer. I deeply resonanted with Nazanin's sense of patriotism and confusion, even though I have never been driven from country.
The following is part of the transcript from reply all's website. I will leave you with this story, my beloved lucky ones.
--- warning - third to last paragraph drops an fbomb, but I left it because it highlights what I am trying to say----
SRUTHI: ...And I remembered that her (nazanin's) family, she came from Iran when she was young and Iran is on that list of countries that were banned. And I also remember that this other show at Gimlet, Twice Removed, had done this giant story that centered around Nazanin and her family. And i listened and the whole thing just felt so relevant to everything that was happening, and i wanted to ask her about it — but first let me just play you a short clip from that episode.
You’re gonna hear Nazanin’s mom and her sister, … talking about the year they decided to leave Iran, 1979 …
Mina: The year that I got pregnant by Nazanin, was the year that they forbidden everything, alcohol and western movie… and they put the hijab in the woman’s head.
Nilu: my least favorite part which I absolutely hated, was the, um, this thing they called a man na’eh… which is like a lycra almost… fabric that would cover your hair. I hated that… and I just didn’t understand why the boys didn’t have to wear that and I did. And I would get in trouble.
Mina: She would get so mad. And she would, she would argue yeah, yeah And the head covering was just one new requirement under the Ayatollah. There were restrictions on where women could travel, what jobs they could do… The way your mom tells it, Nazanin – it was overwhelming…
Mina: Everything was tighter and tighter and harder to breathe for woman. It was horrible horrible. They take your identity. They take everything. Who you are. What you think. (exhales) It feels like you’re trapped. You’re in a wheel that you just keep – just keep uh screaming and nobody hears you.
And on top of all that, there’s a war between Iran and Iraq. Nazanin’s neigborhood in Tehran is getting regularly bombed.
I had a bunch of questions for Nanzinin like how you know does like how is this different, Syrian refugees who are trying to leave Syria … so I asked her. …
SRUTHI: I don’t even know anything about what it means to apply — how does a refugee become a refugee.
SRUTHI: I only know that the like, you know, student visa, the H-1B visa. Like that whole track, which is totally different.
NAZANIN: Yeah. So the way my family came here they actually applied for asylum, which is a completely different track than a refugee.
A refugee is somebody who they are outside the country–
NAZANIN: And from outside the country they’re making the case that they need to be somewhere else from where they are because their life is in such grave danger. So that’s what the Syrian refugees are facing now. My family, completely, like we lucked out. And we, we got, we got visas.
NAZANIN: So we, we left Iran.
SRUTHI: Like a tra – like a tourist visa?
NAZANIN: A tourist visa.
NAZANIN: We got a tourist visa. And we left Iran-
SRUTHI: Which must have been hard, like was it hard back there?
NAZANIN: It was very hard.
NAZANIN: There was no American embassy in Iran at the time there still is no embassy in Iran.So we went to Turkey.
NAZANIN: We applied for tourist visas. And we got them. And we, it was just, it was literally just, I mean it was just luck. Dumb luck.
SRUTHI: Sorry, you’re just totally blowing my mind right now. Just like, in the 1980s, so I was a kid in India. And I just remember like if you drove by the US embassy you’d just be like, you’d see these lines of people who had spent, you know, people who’d slept there.
SRUTHI: But even to get a tourist visa you have to show you had a lot of money in your bank account, like you had reason to stay in the country that you’re coming from.
NAZANIN: Yeah. Yeah.
SRUTHI: And so, okay. So you, you arrive in the States.
SRUTHI: How do you get asylum status.
NAZANIN: You need a lawyer. …
NAZANIN: No. It definitely wasn’t something I thought about on a daily basis, you know, ever. Or like growing up, or. I only, I only ever felt like everyone else here. Until, honestly, until now. Like, really until now. From last Friday until now. Like I mean it’s like 4 days. That’s how, that’s what I mean.
SRUTHI: Yeah — so i actually wanted to ask you about this one tweet of yours that for me was like totally a punch in the gut was, you had this picture of the Syrian man, I think? Yeah, it was a Syrian refugee holding a boy, of course, it’s like we see these pictures all the time. But you wrote, “Does America feel great again? It’s just a lack of imagination that separates you and your children from these people.”
NAZANIN: Yeah. That, I think that picture and that tweet. It, it just, like for me, it goes back to like, um…I don’t. I don’t know exactly how to answer this question, except that someone responded to that tweet being like, “So, everybody has a, so what you’re saying is like everyone has a right to be, being a US citizen is a human right.”
NAZANIN: And what I was trying to say was that it’s actually the opposite. It’s not actually anyone’s right. So, if you, it’s just like dumb luck. And I think that that’s, I think that that’s all I was trying to say, is that like it’s my dumb luck that I got to move here and it’s like your dumb luck that you were born here. And neither of us really did anything to deserve it. And so, and so like, saying that some people don’t deserve it and others do is…just makes no sense to me?
NAZANIN: And, like, like you, it’s like my most, I think like that kind of patriotism, I guess is the right word for it about the United States, is like, it’s really like my most earnest feeling.
NAZANIN: Like, it’s always been my most earnest feeling. Like I’m embar – I feel like a little embarrassed about it. Like, it’s not, it’s never been cynical. Like, I really have always felt like, yeah. Like it’s [laughs] it’s like you’re lucky if you live here and it’s fuckin’ awesome to live here. And like, and it’s, it’s like just by virtue of being here you’re like one of the luckiest people on earth. I really feel that way.
NAZANIN: And it’s, and I think that that felt and feels like threatened. And that’s why I think I was reacting that way.
SRUTHI: You can follow Nazanin on Twitter @nazraf. And also, definitely check out the episode of, of Twice Removed that features her and her family. It is incredibly moving and the ending … just wait for the ending.
Weird trick for church growth that church gatekeepers hate!!
(part 2 of Gossip and Fake news)
I might get repetitive stress injury from my kvetching, but I want to continue to talk about gossip. This time I will be more specific to the needs of the church - gossip is the antithesis of a growing church. My previous thinking about gossip was to endure and to do well, and it would work out…but a closer reading of scripture tells a different story. The weird trick is that there is no weird trick. It takes work to love each other in community.
I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
It does not matter if you did or didn’t do something. If someone is out to getcha, counterintuitively, you go to them and figure it out. At the same time, if you are the dealer of gossip, it will not go well for your spiritual life. I thought an “open door” policy could fix gossip by just waiting for someone to come and hash it out. You know it is WJWD (notice not WWJD), but it is clearly not.
God is calling me / us to press into hard spots of life, even if gossip is a compelete fabrication. You reach out to those who are talking smack to you, and even then it still may not work out. But you have fulfilled God’s invitation to be an agent of peace. Even if the peace is not received and it still stinks– do it anyway. As they say in the military, “embrace the suck”.
When attacked, we tend to either lash out or clam up, but scripture does not allow for either. It calls us to engage and lean into the sharp edges of human relationship. No one is a superhero, so maybe what I had previously thought - quiet resignation - does not make it better. So, get up, get out, and love those that make you crazy. That is the weird trick that is not really a weird trick; it is the Gospel.
This is the secret to a growing church. We have a great God and a great message. Let’s not punch holes in the church because of gossip. Outside forces are hard enough on the church without us gnawing and biting each other. When someone else is taking potshots, let’s work to peacefully engage the gossip shooter, even if it does not work out. Even better, let’s not keep feeding ammo to them. We can break the chain of gossip that unchecked becomes a prison.
I will leave you with a poem.
My name is Gossip
I have no respect for justice.
I maim without killing.
I break hearts and ruin lives.
I am cunning and malicious and gather strength with age.
The more I am quoted the more I am believed.
I flourish at every level of society.
My victims are helpless.
They cannot protect themselves against me because I have no name and no face.
To track me down is impossible.
The harder you try, the more elusive I become.
I am nobody's friend.
Once I tarnish a reputation, it is never the same.
I topple governments and ruin marriages.
I ruin careers and cause sleepless nights, heartache and indigestion.
I spawn suspicion and generate grief.
I make innocent people cry in their pillows.
Even my name hisses.
I AM CALLED GOSSIP.
Church communities have been doing gossipy fake news for centuries long before fake news had a name as it does today. When I think back to all the high drama points of the last 10 years of my ministry (and the war stories from other clergy, there have been some crucial crises of conscience, but 90% of the time it's much ado about nothing. For example, one of my mentors did a full immersion baptism. He also likes to play tennis. One day he wore a white shirt and white tennis shorts underneath his alb (white robe) on baptism day.
One parishioner decided, that because they couldn't see the priests pants with the wet alb, that he must have done it naked! There must be something sinister about this baptism they thought. Pearl clutching began, and it was weeks before a mini campaign to discredit the clergy finally fizzled out. I don't know how many hours of damage control actually went into this imaginary outrage, but the gossip made it all the way to me in Houston.
You would not believe your clergy if they told you half the gossip they are subject to. You can’t make this stuff up! Episcopal clergy are big girls and boys and we can handle it, but I absolutely believe lay people and clergy have an obligation to short-circuit gossip for the sake of God’s kingdom. Gossip is the dark side of what we do best - church people love and are interested in each other and we have a way in Christ to really listen to each other, but we are easily seduced by made up or half-baked stuff.
Gossip is part of our heritage as humans. We used it to monitor those in our tribe in the way back days, and it is not inherently bad; it is just that we don’t quite know how to turn it off when there is no need, or turn it on as empathy instead of shock.
A TED talker, Elaine Lui, says about gossip –
You can’t consume it without bias. You can’t consume gossip without filtering it through the prism of your own experience. In filtering gossip through the prism of your own experience, what inevitably comes out on the other side, is a pretty definitive declaration about what we believe, what we expect, what we reject and how we process. Gossip allows us to communicate a behavioral code to others. Gossip allows us to set a standard of conduct.
We are a church focused on Christ. When we filter communication and expect everyone to conform to our own idiosyncratic mores, we reject Jesus. Jesus came to make strangers friends and outsiders family. Gossip decreases real communication.
Speaking as a recipient of all sorts of hard hitting-but-helpful feedback. I cherish the times when someone takes the time to approach me and neither yell at me or talk around me. They had to make a choice that they were going to offer their feedback, with the risk I might completely reject what they are saying. That my friends is “ungossip,” but it is hard to practice.
A life changing moment in this regard happened to me years ago. I was doing church work at a location that will remain nameless. I spent hours on a particular floor working with people in great need. I had the privilege of working alongside a social worker I admired, who I also thought was strikingly beautiful (and a gym rat like me). Working next to each other, I thought I was making innocent conversation about the exercise routine she used to keep her in such great shape. Two days later, I was called into my supervisor’s office with a fellow church worker to question my behavior. It sucked. I did not want to hear what they were saying and struggled not to write both of them off as uptight.
I am super grateful for that ministry moment. It made me much, much more aware of my conduct and behavior. You might be thinking that is just too PC, and we don’t need that egg shell sensitivity garbage anymore. But if they had not stepped up I would not have the clarity of boundaries that I do today. If they chose to avoid the situation, that little encounter would have grown to gossip about what an terrible person I was. My life is better, and I treat people better because two people took the time to ungossip me.
The Biblical way for ungossip is this -
Matthew 5: 23 Therefore if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. 25 Reconcile quickly with your adversary, while you are still on the way to court.
My personal wish is that people would hold others accountable for the stuff they actually screwed up and not what they might have screwed up. Furthermore, the thing that makes me insane in the membrane is the moving target of completely imaginary failings, or people ramping themselves up about others shortcomings even as they are smiling at each other.
I think the church of the future will commit to weeding the gossip and fake news out. Shutting down gossip is neither innovative nor a new ministry model, it’s just Matthew 5:23-24. But it is one of the most basic things we can do for the health of the church, and today it is weirdly countercultural.
Now more than ever we need a community committed to Matthew 5. Our culture has gone crazy with gossip. Look at the fake news around the recent election. I still shake my head over pizzagate. Take a listen to “Reply All”, an audio podcast at the top of my list of ear candy. They did an episode on Pizzagate - a fake news story where John Podesta, Hillary Clinton, and other high powered operatives are running a clandestine child sex trafficking out of a pizza shop. Not only is the story completely concocted, it also had real world impact. After the story had been bubbling awhile, a man showed up and fired a loaded weapon in the store to do some “investigative journalism.” The conspiracy minded pizzagaters even dismissed this looney as part of the conspiracy. Take a listen if you want to feel a little crazy (there is intense subject matter and profanity, so consider yourself warned) https://gimletmedia.com/episode/83-voyage-into-pizzagate/ .
Sticks and stones can break bones and words almost always hurt despite the rhyme’s protest to the contrary. The church can and should be a place where we know and hear each other’s stories. If we don’t do it, no one else seems to be doing it. This is our call to real relationship. Chik-Fil-A has to remind us of this https://youtu.be/2v0RhvZ3lvY. The commercial is intended to sell more chicken, but it is also a banner of how people can listen past fake news, gossip, and all the other junk in which we get so easily entangled. We are on a mission to really see Christ in each other, and it requires swimming upstream. Down with gossip and fake news!