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!
Fun is hallmark of spiritual growth - I hope. Years ago someone came to me deeply upset because we weren’t going to use incense on [insert special day]. I invisibly scratched my head and nodded and said “I’m sorry” wondering if they were serious. Yes - deadly serious. I laughed an uncomfortable, sardonic laugh and said that we have not had incense at Ascension, since like ever. They were gone two weeks later. Now, I think I would probably just effect a stage cough and tell them how sad I am that I don’t smell like covered up bong smoke too. They would probably still leave, but church is too important to take so seriously. Maybe we all can be a half millimeter less uptight - the world of hair-trigger offences is not the church’s best rodeo.
Yoga - a personal mission
If you've talked to me for more than 10 minutes, you know that I am a gym rat. I practice yoga all the time, and it is a centerpiece of my spirituality. No, I am not into Ganesh, Shiva, or Shakti, but I do know that hips don’t lie. After a decade of consistent yoga practice, and Shakira aside, the barrier between body and soul grows thinner and thinner for me. I am still truculent, petty, emotional, grumpy, etc. It is just that now I see the emotion train coming down the track far earlier than I used to, and have the skills to recover faster after the train has hit me square in the stomach.
Maybe yoga is so personally important because quietly praying with a devotional bores me senseless. I love scripture; it guides everything I do and it supports insight, but eureka moments are almost always filtered through my body and not my noggin. Unfortunately my brain is far too scattered to focus, so I have to stalk insight like a cat.
You can blame Ana Forrest and her book Fierce Medicine if the next two paragraphs are too weird. She writes about stalking, tracking and hunting her fear. I have learned that insight needs to be stalked, tracked and hunted in the same way. When you are hunting, you need lots of patience and attentiveness.
Cats bring this out in me. They don't lumber up to you like a dog, and a cat's affection is not rewarded to the impatient. You put out your hand, but you don’t approach the cat directly unless you want it to bolt. Sometimes the cat bolts anyway. I have learned to patiently wait for insight by showing up in prayer and study. I have rarely found the word-of-the-Lord when, as if by force of will, I think I can force God to bless me. If, however, I commit to being available, Jesus in his own good time comes up and licks my hand with his sand paper tongue to reveal himself. When I don’t insist that God speak to me or insist that my body open up – both happen along the way.
Back to the Mission
The Church has a mission given by Jesus. At the end of Matthew, he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” Despite how awesome I may or may not be, the authority, the authorship, for the church belongs to Jesus. I know we can follow his lead and all will be well.
Mission Statement workshop
A few weeks ago, we had our “Mission Statement Workshop” with 16 key leaders to help us think about our mission. Here is what we came up with:
Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. With our shoes on, we can live into Jesus’ promises that the gates of Hell, apathetic teenagers, or Sunday brunch won’t prevail over the church.
Our vision consultant reminded us that a mission statement is not about us, but about what God wants to do through us for the world. Our job as disciples of Christ here at Ascension is not to save the institution, but to renew the church and strengthen the Kingdom of Jesus.