Monday, September 24, 2012


 I have been meaning to post about our trip last month to the Chautauqua Institution, and I must admit that it has taken me some time to process the experience.

Chautauqua is an ecumenical 750-acre community on lake Chautauqua outside Buffalo, NY. It describes itself as "dedicated to the exploration of the best in human values and the enrichment of life through a program that explores the important religious, social and political issues of our times." I would echo this description by simply adding that Chautauqua is a religious, cultural, and educational Disneyland. Stacey and I had the honor of being fellows in the New Clergy Program at Chautauqua.

In essence, here is how Chautauqua works.

Each weekday morning at Chautauqua, there is a large platform lecture in the large outdoor amphitheater. These lectures are attended (on purpose) by a couple of thousand people who come to Chautauqua to engage in life-long learning and hear perspectives on the issues of the day. Each week of the nine-week summer season has its own theme; during our time together, the theme was radicalism. Each morning speaker offered a perspective on this topic. The speakers ranged from Dame Stella Remington, former head of MI-5, to Juliane Malveaux, former President of Bennett College (whom Cornell West called the most iconoclastic public intellectual in the United States, which is like being called the world's best painter by Picasso), to David Rohde, the Reuters columnist who spent several months as a prisoner of the Taliban. These are not fly-by-night lecturers. Chautauqua does it right.

Each afternoon, in a smaller amphitheater, Chautauqua presents a series of Interfaith lectures from a number of different traditions. We were presented with lectures from Rabbis David Gordis and Arthur Waskow, Eboo Patel (founder of the Interfaith Youth Corps) and Philip Clayton (dean of Claremont School of Theology).

Throughout the week, a chaplain guides the community life, preaching during Sunday morning worship services and morning worship each day. Our chaplain was the Very Rev. Tracey Lind, the dean of Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland. Other events fill the rest of the week's available hours. We had the opportunity, for instance, to participate in a Shabbat servive and share a Shabbat meal with Rabbi Sam Stahl, witness Jooma midday prayers led by Muslim students, attend a hymn sing (and then share a meal with!) renowned hymn writer Brian Wren, and hear the Chautauqua Orchestra play the music of John Williams on the occasion of his 80th birthday (I was good and did not pump my fist during the Imperial March). Vince Gill even showed up to play a concert during our last day at Chautauqua.

One unique feature of Chautauqua is the presence of denominational houses. Each mainline denomination has its own house (we stayed, of course, at the beautiful United Methodist House) where volunteers staff the place, providing hospitality and serving those who are present for the week. Our hosts were incredibly kind.

Because we were fellows of the New Clergy Program, we also had the opportunity to interact in small group conversation with many of the speakers, hearing their insights on ministry, interfaith work, and radicalism. This small group time was invaluable, and a real gift. I don't know many clergy (new or established) who have this kind of opportunity, to sit at the feet of leading thinkers and engage them on difficult issues.

And so we spent the week together, listening, listening, engaging, and it was a lot. I thought at the time that I needed more time to process--I still think this, in many ways--but I am thankful for the packed week, for the opportunities for learning were pretty incredible, and I did have the chance to process everything once I got home. I am not sure when I will get back up to Chautauqua (the New Clergy Program paid our considerable expenses), so this was a special time.

I'm left with many thoughts, but there are three I want to share.

1. So much more is possible. As I sat through mind-blowing lecture after mind-blowing lecture, I kept thinking, "why am I doing such small work?" There is a temptation in ministry to simply manage, to step out every now and again. But it is also the case that I am similarly tempted to get back into line once my hand is slapped or I receive the slightest whiff of criticism. But the Gospel is so much bigger than I am allowing it to be! I am convicted that if I am to take the Gospel seriously (and this is certainly my call as a pastor!), I must also take seriously its power. I must do what I can do to justice to its power. I do not mean to suggest that I plan to stand on the street corner with a poster and a megaphone. But I do mean that I refuse to cower. There is too much at stake. Besides, it is possible to take the Gospel seriously and be successful! I have seen this dynamic at work. The notion that one must stay within one's small box is a fiction created by those who do not care to change.

Christ came offering change, and the Holy Spirit promises us that the work is not ours alone. I am convicted that I ought to take the Spirit at its word.

2. Living in community, even "enlightened" community, is not all peaches and cream. At Chautauqua, where there is this utopian notion that since we are listening to lectures on purpose, we must have it together, there are still problems. There are pockets of homophobia. There are those who have trouble thinking outside themselves. I am thinking of a woman who identified as a Jew and who spoke favorably of John Hagee, praising his work in Israel despite the fact that he would see her damned to Hell.

The most difficult moment of the week for me, and one I continue to process, occurred at one of the morning lectures. Behind the place where some colleagues and I were sitting, a man with developmental disabilities entered the amphitheater. I later saw him with a woman who I assume was his mother; I understand that they were both present at the lecture that morning. The man began to softly speak to himself, repeating words spoken by the lecture and adding his own commentary. He was not especially loud, and I doubt anyone outside our section would have been able to hear him. And as he continued, people began to turn around to stare at him with disgusted looks on their faces. Eventually, one by one, they started to turn around and shush the man, such that eventually half the section was turned around, staring and shushing. The man and his mother eventually got up and left, shooed away by the community.

I'm still processing this incident for a couple of reasons. For one, I am reminded that even "open-minded" people can be incredibly cruel. But I am also wondering what my job in that situation should have been. I certainly did not get up and defend the man. I didn't get up and leave. I just sat and steamed.

3. Ecumenical and interfaith work is incredibly important. I am United Methodist to my core, and I tend to run in United Methodist circles. But Stacey and I were the only United Methodists in the New Clergy program during the week we attended, so we were forced outside our comfort zones a bit. We lived and learned with really folks: Lutherans (my God, so many Lutherans!), Baptists, UCC, Disciples, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians. Making friends with clergy outside my own tradition was refreshing and helpful, as we learned that there is much more that unites us than divides us, and as we shared our different perspectives in such a way that a fuller picture of the Gospel and ministry emerged.

One feature of Chautauqua, though, is its intentional interfaith emphasis.  Though the new clergy present with us were all from mainline Christian denominations, Chautauqua has decided that in the 21st century, it is important to understand the world as a multifaith arena, so the Department of Religion at Chautauqua has undertaken an initiative to figure out (at a very basic level) how the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) can talk to one another. We had the opportunity to meet with representatives of all these religions, and I am finding myself convicted that as a religious leader, I ought to have more relationships across faith lines. What does it mean that though I have friends who are Jewish, I have no friends who are Muslim? What does it mean that I do not frequently interact with religious leaders of other faiths? There is certainly a particularity to my own religion, and I am not trying to do some kind of blending of faiths. I am a Christian, and I worship Christ without reservation. But the Abrahamic faiths share so much, and I ought to be more engaged in building these relationships. I have things to learn from other religions, and I hope they have things to learn from me. I serve in a very religiously diverse area of Georgia. I can do better.

As you can see, it was quite a week. It does my heart good to know that there is a place like Chautauqua, and when I am mired in the details of ministry, I am reminded that meaningful conversation exists. One of these days, I hope to go back and recharge those batteries, to be reminded again of what is possible.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Beauty and the purposed life

As I have spent more time living intentionally--planning my day, paying attention to discipline--I have noticed a shift in the focus of my theology. This is not to say that my theology has dramatically changed, but that I seem to be focusing on what I do in relation to God rather than what God does in relation to me. Does that make sense? By spending more tine in prayer and study and spiritual discipline, I am focusing more on my own role in God's work: the ways in which God relies upon me.

There are two dangers in this theological focus. First, you can start to think it is all up to you, that God has nothing to do with any of this business of living a life. There is a fine line between partnering with God and just taking over. I suspect this fine line is one reason why we do not often think of our role in God's plans. It is much easier to leave us out of the equation, and let God handle things.

The second danger is that you can lose beauty. If faith errs too much on the side of what you are called to do, you can miss out on being surprised by beauty, because you are so focused on the ground on which you are about to step. It is not often the case that the step in front of me is all that beautiful, though it is frequently the case that I am surrounded by beauty.

As an example: there is a park near our home where I walk each morning. It is a typical park, with baseball and soccer fields, a rec center, some woods, a paved two-mile path around the whole thing. On mornings where I am simply focused on getting my steps, I find myself focusing on the small patch of asphalt in front of me, just trying to finish walking by the appointed time so I am not late for work.

This kind of narrow focus will get you through life. You will get your steps in. It works.

But on mornings when I am not in such a hurry, I find that I focus more on my surroundings, on the woods, the children playing soccer on the weekends, the sounds of squirrels and chipmunks rousing for the day. The sun comes up, slowly, and the world comes, again, to life.

For as much as I have a role to play in God's story, there is a mystery beyond my own understanding and work. There is something which calls me outside of myself. I must be careful not to lose beauty, for without beauty, we might as well be dead.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Upside-Down Triangle: a model for the 21st century church

(friends, let me offer a disclaimer that this post is deeply wonky. If church systems talk is what you want, read on. Otherwise, I'll be back to your regularly scheduled programming soon).

With increasing demographic evidence that the church is in transition, it has become quite popular in recent months to wonder aloud about how the church is going to survive in the twenty-first century.

I seem to get asked a lot just what I think the church is going to look like in twenty, thirty, forty years. I can only guess that I am asked this question because I am a unique specimen: a twenty-nine year-old systems-driven mainline Protestant minister. The median age of my colleagues is 55. It is clear that the church is going to look different in the coming years, if only because over half of the active clergy in the United Methodist Church will be forced into retirement in less than 17 years.

We're entering a season of unknown unknowns, and it is certainly anxiety producing. And if change within the church were not enough, the world outside the walls of the sanctuary is changing, too. There is a massive upheaval in the ways in which we interact with one another, and while I have no idea what the world will look like in ten years, I'm quite convinced that the digital revolution--and the societal implications that stem from it--is not going anywhere.

So we are left with the difficult business of figuring out how to be the church during a time in which a) the current structures within the church are not working, and b) the current structures outside the walls of the church are changing faster than they ever have. It is enough to render you useless with anxious indecision.

This brings me to that which I think will be the most important shape for the church in the coming years:

This is, of course, an upside-down triangle. I have been thinking about the upside-down triangle ever since several of my North Georgia colleagues and I spent some time with Mike Slaughter a couple of weeks ago. Slaughter talked about his model for leadership at Ginghamsburg Church. Rather than the traditional top-down model, with committees at the bottom and the pastor on top, Slaughter thinks of his leadership in the church as being at the bottom of the triangle, pushing ideas and encouraging servants up and through the top of the triangle, so that the witness of the church is multiplied rather than being filtered down (and filtered out) through committees.

This model of leadership is vastly different than most churches I have witnessed. So many pastors, (legitimately) fearing lack of control, cling to the model with the pastor on top. After all, in the United Methodist Church, we call senior pastors "pastors-in-charge," and everybody knows that the person in charge sits at the top and peers down.

The traditional model seems to have worked great in an old paradigm of church where corporate hierarchy reigned supreme, but it does not match a culture that is more and more decentralized. The digital revolution has changed power dynamics so much that rather than some orderly, streamlined system of power, we are dealing now with something that looks more like this:

I like clear lines of responsibility more than most, but clear lines are not the hallmark of human interactions any longer. We are dealing with networks now, and while networks have their own challenges, the good news (as anybody who has used the internet knows) is that networks harness energy and use it far more efficiently than top-down leadership.

While lines of authority are not as clear in this model, by no means does it remove hierarchy altogether. One reason I'm proud to be a United Methodist is that responsibility and authority are important to me. I have great respect, for instance, for the authority of the Bishop; I find supervision to be vital. The upside-down triangle does not replace authority, however. Rather, the model inverts authority to maximize its power! After all, the triangle still has, at one end, a singular point, an authority. The challenge in our modern context is figuring out how to leverage that authority.

The place that pastoral authority is most clearly leveraged, of course, is in the sermon. The sermon is the one time during the week that there is only one voice speaking, at least aloud, and it gives the pastor a unique opportunity to drive the vision of the church through the proclamation of the Word.

The old model of the sermon was certainly used in this way, in that the preacher began the sermon by offering a point, and then expanding that point to offer applications. Basically, the preacher told people what the Bible said and then told them what to do with it. This model of sermon looked something like this:

and it worked in a context that understood top-down authority, as the model is predicated upon being told what Truth looks like (the "point") and what ought to be done about it. But modern contexts and networks being what they are, it is no longer the case that something is deemed true just because it is spoken. Something is true because, for better or worse, the hearer hears truth within it. The congregation needs to be convinced. I am reminded of Howard Thurman's notion that "something is not true because it is in religion. Something is in religion because it is true."

Fred Craddock takes the traditional model and turns it upside down, so that it looks like this:
where the preacher begins at the top with stories ("particular applications," he calls them) and then narrows until he leaves the congregation with the point. There are several benefits to this model. First, as as been noted, the model has the benefit of "convincing" the congregation of the particular truth, or at least offering examples that show its authenticity, before driving the point home. This upside-down ("inductive") method of preaching recognizes the unique value of networks and the inherent authority of the listener, empowering the listener to "go along" with the preacher as the preacher journeys from particular applications to a specific truth.

Even more than this, this inductive method recognizes that the world is decentralized: that while authority comes from God, it is not centered solely on the preacher, and it does not come without the difficult work of demonstrating authenticity.

The world is lived in multiplicity: a multiplicity of opinions, a multiplicity of truths, a multiplicity of options. Authenticity is especially important in a world where anyone with a blog (even me) is a pundit. I can find anyone who espouses any opinion, and quick.

We live in a world of multiplicity, and the preacher's job is to leverage the upside-down triangle by moving from multiplicity (the top of the triangle), slowly narrowing until he or she reaches the point of the sermon. The point, of the sermon, of course, is God.

The two upside-down triangles work in tandem. In leadership, you start from the bottom (the leader), pushing up through the ranks until the vision is multiplied and expanded. In the sermon, you start from the top (the multiplicity of places where the ranks already are) and narrow and scrape until only the authentic is left.

New societal norms dictate new church models. This does not mean that the church must bend to every whim of the world. But it does mean that the church must take seriously the ways in which humans interact, lest it become even more irrelevant. This is not a low-stakes game, after all.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

God Grant Us Peace, a hymn

God grant us peace where war is never-ending
And give us hope when all ‘round is despair.
For though it seems as if the world is broken
And mem’ry gives the only veil of care,
You once again remind us of your mercy
And call us to repentant humble prayer.

Thy will be done on earth as in Heaven.
Forgive our debts, and help us to forgive.
Give us this day our daily bread and spur us
To share that bread so all may truly live.
May others see your image deep within us
And may we see your face when e’er we give.

O God of peace, division overwhelms us
And violence points us towards an angry place.
Instead of using anger as a weapon
You turn the unjust table on its face.
Remind us still, that in the resurrection,
No one can steal the vict’ry of your grace.


Friday, September 7, 2012

Coffee, church, and religious baggage

I found myself at a coffee shop yesterday with some friends I hadn't seen in a while. I am not much of a coffee shop person (perhaps I am simply too introverted), but I don't have anything against coffee shops, persay. I am grateful for shared space to visit or work. I'm just not ingrained in that culture.

So I was not entirely surprised when, having asked the barrista for a tall iced decaf, he rolled his eyes at me, looked around to see if anybody had heard what he thought to a request ridiculous on its face, looked back at me and said, with a hint of derision, "You want regular?! We don't serve regular iced decaf here."


Here I thought I came in to get a coffee, and now I'm getting a lecture on acceptable coffee orders, as if my request clearly had too few adjectives to be a legitimate order. I didn't want a double non-fat extra-hot whatever whatever. I just wanted a coffee that wasn't hot (as we were sitting outside) and that wouldn't keep me up all night (because I am like an infant when it comes to afternoon caffeine consumption).

I fully admit that perhaps the moment was not quite as dramatic as I am making it sound. Perhaps the barrista was not actually judging me for a coffee order he found totally pedestrian. Maybe, just maybe, I have some coffee shop baggage that makes me assume that everybody behind the counter thinks he is better than I am.

All of this has me thinking about that other great shared space, the church. Unlike coffee shops, church is a culture in which I am ingrained, a language I do speak. I can walk up to the altar rail and know exactly what to say to the guy behind it. Heck, I am the guy behind the altar rail, and I have to wonder how people who are not used to church view me. I am well aware that people have church baggage--don't assume your pastor doesn't have some, too--but the challenge for the welcoming church is to welcome people AND their bags. The congregation should be full of porters, people who welcome and who offer to help carry those bags, because they are heavy and many of us have been carrying them for a long, long time.

This kind of hospitality is not exactly an easy sell, for those of us who are doing the welcoming are stuck in a system we already know how to navigate. We push back at the idea that we need to bend over backwards to accept those outside our walls, because it is so much work! It is enough to try to keep the doors open and the lights on, but doing anything else? It just seems too much.

But doing the difficult work of welcome to those who have religious baggage is even more important, for if we neglect this duty, we neglect our responsibility to those outside our doors. I would even go so far as to say that people with religious baggage are exactly the kind of people who need the church, the kind of people Jesus described as "weary and heavy-laden," the people Christ offered rest. These folks won't come to Christ unless we go to them, unless we offer a hospitable place where it is acknowledged that everyone has baggage--here, let me carry that for you--and all people, regardless of whatever culture it is in which they are ingrained, all people are welcomed and invited to take part in God's story.

This is work, but it is holy work, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it is the most important work in the whole world.

As for me, I'm not planning on going back to that coffee shop. The guy behind the counter made it pretty clear that I don't belong there.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

An election hymn

God of grace who binds the broken,
Heal us til division ends.
In this season of election,
When we’re strangers more than friends,
Be our comfort, be our healer,
As we seek to do thy will
In our politics and all things
Thy commandment to fulfill.

Though it seems so never-ending,
And designed that we ignore
Your command to greet the stranger,
Heal the sick and feed the poor.
Give us strength to be your people
And to see the ways you call
In our lives and, yes, our voting,
To show charity to all.

Help us see past this election
And remember we are yours,
For allegiance is much larger
than a flag or human wars.
O, in all things God of wisdom,
grant that we might truly see,
the face of Christ in every person
even when we disagree.

87.87 D
Nettleton (alt tunes Hyfrydol, Promise)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

God and the Fantastic

I have been reading Ezekiel for the last couple of days, as part of a Bible-in-a-year program, and I am trying to imagine a four-headed beast with faces like an eagle, a human, a lion, and an ox. I can't even imagine a wheel in a wheel, so you can imagine how I do with the four-headed beast.

There are plenty of scriptural images that make little sense. The four horsemen. The transfiguration. The burning bush that does not extinguish. One reason scripture can be difficult to wrestle with is that there are things within it that just seem to make no sense. So you have three options.

First, you can just give up and say, "this is ridiculous," and put the book down. Plenty of people make this choice, though I am not convinced that those who complain about the fantastic in the Bible have actually done enough reading to have an idea of what is actually contained in scripture. So one issue with these fantastic images is that they give ammunition to those who wish to shoot down faith as something based in fantasy, as if the whole point of the Christian faith is to destroy the one ring to rule them all.

Second, you can just accept the fantastic as literal and move on, as if God is in the habit of sending crazy things down to earth just for fun. You ought not be surprised to learn that this way of looking at some of the more difficult images in scripture is insufficient for me. Accepting these images as literal and simply moving on does not do justice to the glory of God, for when you just read through the description with a blase "hmm" before moving on to something else, you miss the ways in which something so seemingly crazy breaks up the human words that make up scripture.

I choose a third way of understanding these fantastic images, which is that I look at them as a scalpel that cuts through our human words and shows us a glimpse--however brief--of the majesty of God. It as if for just a moment (for this is all we can take!), the page opens up and God's glory breaks through, reminding us that though words are important, God is beyond words.

I hope you don't hear me questioning the authority of scripture. Far from it. In fact, I believe so in the authority of scripture that I am willing to let it point past my own understanding and towards the heart of God. The fantastic reminds me that the Christian life, in the final analysis, is not about understanding or knowing the right answers. The life of faith, made manifest in Christ (who turned dazzlingly white, whatever that means) is a life that can be described in words but must be lived beyond words. Faith must be larger than itself, for the Being to which it points is larger than our attempts to describe it.

Words are important, for they point to Truth. But they do not contain it.