Thursday, September 27, 2007

Reverse Polarity

In a recent posting in his blog, David Bard commented on his experience surrounding a peace protest. One of the things that really struck me was his struggle with his own position relative the speakers. As I understood it he wanted a far more nuanced and complex conversation than the simple rhetoric that was being expressed. I think the dialogue we need on such an issue does not work in the arena of sound bits and monologues that is todays political world. On isues such as the war in Iraq it seems the country has been lead to believe there are really only two answers "with us" and "against us" all that changes is who the "us" is. I do not think this is really limited to this incident, or even this topic as I will explain.
In preparation for my sermon this week I wanted to explore some of the arguments of atheists to better understand why it is that people do not believe. I do this not in a hope of proving atheists wrong, but because I believe that Christians are likely struggling with the same issues and barriers to our beliefs, and so I want to find the people who can safely express their doubts and problems so I can better understand my own. I trolled the Internet for a bit and was quickly rewarded with a wonderfully heated debate between an apologetic for Christianity and several atheists posting on a blog. The argument basically consisted of both sides trying to lay out their own intellectual credentials and supremacy and at the same time assail the position of the other. As I read through the postings I found my self nodding in agreement at times with both sides on the issue. I felt that the Christian apologeticist did a much better job of accurately interpreting both Scripture and Christian history. At the same time I felt the atheists raised some wonderful questions and issues to be considered. The tragedy in all of this was that neither side was willing or able to give an inch. At no point would anyone concede the other person had made a legitimate point. Some of that is probably the nature of blogs, and Internet posting, but I also think there is something deeper to it.
As I was driving to church the other day I found the final piece of the puzzle. I was listening to MPR, Midmorning, where Kerri Miller was interviewing former Mideast Envoy Dennis Ross. In the part that I caught Ross shared his experiences negotiating with a belief the then-ruler of Syria. He talked about the art of negotiating and how it was seen, especially by this ruler, as an war of attrition, gradually wearing down the other persons defenses until their were forced to concede. He talked about part f what was needed was an iron will, the ability to outlast the other person physically and mentally. I can imagine Plato rolling over in his grave.
This is the heart of the issue however, the point is not reaching what is the Good, as Plato would say, allowing the Turth to come out, but instead wearing down the opponent until they concede to your side, whether or not it is the correct one. If it were possible for us to have absolute Truth, then there is no need to hold a conversation, and a monologue of facts will suffice. But I think we know that no one really has this absolute truth. What is needed then is a way to create more spaces for dialogue and conversation. We need to stop making debate a war of attrition and more of a joint seeking of what is best.
I do not know the source of this, but in my mind there is an alarming trend in the culture as i see it today, to push even harder for polarity, for this idea that there is a right and a wrong, a good and a bad (evil), a with us and against us. I want to see us change that culture. I want to see us find new ways to work with each other, so that the goal is not submission of the other, but a betterment of all. There will be a place for public speeches, rhetoric, and apologetic debate, but I want the norm to be more a climate of dialogue, not simply about asserting who each of us is, but instead looking for who we want to become.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Building and Remodeling the Church

Churches get lots of extraneous phone calls from companies seek our business. In fact I think churches get more junk mail and "junk" calls than individual households do. It is for that reason that I am always wary when the phone rings. It seems that about 1 time in 10 the call is actually something connected to what the church does, the rest are calls offering satellite dishes or to help us with our nonexistent credit card. Occasionally we also get calls from various search sites, phone books, or other public listings that want to update their records. These can sometimes be the worst because the caller does not always have the best grasp of English and so I often find myself repeating what I have said. This last week I had a call that clearly fit into the last category. As I answered all their questions about our address, the name of the pastor, and so on, they came to a question that was intriguing to me, "is you church planning on building or remodeling?" The question caught me by surprise and so I quickly answered "no" since we are not really doing either or those at this moment. The call ended and I began to realized that not only was the answer "yes" for my church, since we were in the middle of several minor projects around the church, but also the church really did have a plan for building on a sanctuary space as the church grew in size, so even if the plans were not set in stone, the church was definitely planning on growing and needing to build on and expand its space. The more I thought about it the more I realized that I want "yes" to be the answer for every church. I know there is a lot of stress that comes with building and remodeling, and I don't mean that every church should be constantly do some sort of project, but I believe every church should be "planning" on building or remodeling. Every church should have as part of its plan for the future the understanding that as the years go by, the ministry needs of the area and the church are going to change, and with those changes, whatever the cause, there will be a need for the church to adapt. Part of that adaption might involve building or remodeling. I love the phrase "moving on to perfection" but I also do not thing that "perfection" is ever something that can be attained by a church. I am willing to concede that a church can be "perfect" for a time and a place, but to remain perfect requires the church to change, because time will pass and what was perfect for on instance is not going to remain so. The challenge for all of us as part of the church is to help to make sure the church is continuing to look at what the needs are around us and consider how me need to build and remodel to be effect in ministry, to "move on towards perfection." It requires sacrifice and the challenge of constantly being ready for change, but I believe that in the end it has value for us. In the end it helps us to be ready and waiting when the Holy Spirit moves through our community and calls us in a new direction, because like it or not, the Holy Spirit is constantly working to remodel both us and the church, we just need to be ready to move along with it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Decentralized leadership

I just finished reading a fascinating article in the current issue of Christian Century. The article talked about the difference between starfish and spiders, mainly that spiders, like humans function by using a centralized place for commands and leadership. Starfish, on the other hand function more as a group, without the same core leadership, but instead in a flexible network. The article then goes on to illustrate how this flexibility in fact helps starfish.

One of the key parts of the article in my mind was the suggestion that a similar style of leadership could help most denominations. The observation was that the more decentralized model, rather than creating chaos and disorder actually allows a system the flexibility to deal with the world. The brain functions in a similar way, not just having one way of doing things that is the same for all brains, but instead has the ability to map out all sorts of different pathways so that each person finds a their own way of thinking, of sorting through all the complex things that happen in a brain.

I am not sure I completely understand the science, either behind the starfish or the brain, but the idea of a more decentralized method seems appealing to me. As the article I read states, the flexibility of such a system increases creativity. The real strength I see is that in the context of the church it frees people to do ministry. Rather than focusing just on one way of doing things, or following a set procedure, individuals are empowered to do ministry in the way that works best for them. This does not mean we need to surrender all centralized leadership. Vision setting as well as holding up a standard of quality for ministry are still important aspects of a system, both at a local and denominational level, but at the same time freedom should be given to let new ministry take form in whatever the ways that they do. In the Gospels there is a great example of this when the disciples are complaining because someone not in their group is casting out demons in Jesus' name. Jesus however understands that what is important is the ministry that is being done, not the exact method of how, or by who, it is happening.

I am not sure the exact way to implement these ideas in my own context and ministry, but I really like the idea of working to empower ministry where the energy is, rather than trying to legislate a path for that energy to move along. I think part of being a pastor is finding ways to help everyone else do ministry, to empower the rest of the system to respond to the needs around them and to take their passion for God and share it. It may not work for everyone, but I like the idea of being more like a starfish.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Spirituality and Biking

On Monday I took advantage of a little time off from work and some beautiful early fall weather to take a bike ride along the Paul Bunyan trail. The trail starts in Baxter and goes all the way up to Bemedji. Normally my biking is limited to trips to church or on the stationary bike in my apartment complex. This was quite a different experience, now I had a road to travel free from the distractions of traffic, surrounded by gorgeous scenery, and easily channeled to allow for an enjoyable ride with good exercise value. When I ride a stationary bike the challenge is setting a goal and continuing until that goal is met. If I just go until I am tired I stop after about six minutes, well, perhaps slightly longer than that, but I start to think about stopping pretty early on. In order to get a good work out I need a goal that can keep me going on the bike. My ride along the trial was nice because I had plenty to think about, plenty of time to think in, and also the nice fact that the entire time I was biking away from home, this meant that once I finally decided to to turn around I would still get more exercise getting back home, instead of just being able to stop when I got tired.
So how does this connect to spirituality. I think the struggle with my spiritual life right now is that it is too much like going on a stationary bike, I don't have a good destination or a goal, and so I go for a bit, get tired and stop. it would be a lot easier to maintain healthy habits and move towards spiritual growth if I had something to guide me, like a definite trail, and a clear goal or way of pushing me beyond my comfort level. I am not sure that spirituality ever be like that. I think that part of what makes spiritual growth hard is that it is not measured as easily as other things. These is not an easy test score to determine spirituality that you can check your growth against and see progress. We need to set some goals and motivate ourselves, not towards growth but just towards action. How do we make sure we are taking the time to do the work, pushing us not towards a concrete goal, but just towards a more concrete action of seeking. It is not a perfect metaphor, but it fits with the struggles I am having right now, how do I get my spiritual exercise when i so hard to track my progress. What struggles do others have in making progress spiritually? What are other ways of looking at this challenge? I am sure I will muse more later, but any thoughts are welcome

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Musings on Faith

Bishop Sally posted in her blog this week about the faith of Mother Teresa and how it was not this absolute thing but something that was at times filled with doubt. Her posting also caused me to look up Christopher Hitchens and read some of his thoughts around the psychological need for faith in God, something I believe he hopes can be overcome at some level. All of this has caused me to reflect on faith. I find the fact that Mother Teresa did not have a perfect unwavering faith to be a comforting one. I hold strongly to the idea that faith is meant to be questioned, tested and challenged as a way of affirming it. It would be foolish to think we get our faith right the first time we believe, it needs to be open to change. Descartes suggested the idea of questioning one's reality and deconstructing it, I believe he suggested once a year, but not more. The idea is to examine once again what it is we believe and to reaffirm it, or change it. Certainly our doubts around faith can happen more regularly and not as deliberately, but I think it all points to a need to reflect on what we hold to be true.
Since the start of the "modern" thinking, so again basically Descartes and on, there has been a desire to understand faith and a tendancy by some some to look for rational explanations for it. Philosophers and psychologists have offered theories about how faith is part of the brain's need to make sense of the world. Some people would offer this as further proof that God is simply a creation of our intellect, one more way we attempt to make sense of that which we cannot yet understand. I prefer to think of it in a different way, one that is influenced by the fact that I believe that God is the one in control and not us. The same information could be used to say that we are wired, created, shaped, with an affinity towards belief and faith. That seems much more powerful for me.
The power of faith to me is that it works not on concrete things that we prove but instead is an expression of our understanding and beliefs around things we cannot prove. I may be wrong, faith may all be part of my desire to cope, but my experiences tell me otherwise. We can try and rationally destroy faith, but I think in the end we are forced to replace it with something else, because it is a part of who we are. Scientists place a great deal of faith in data, that their perceptions of the world are in fact accurate. Hume and Descartes both observed that such perceptions are in fact quite fallible. Faith is not meant as the perfect answer, it is the imperfect answer which grows and expands with us, and when the time comes, the imperfect will pass away, as Paul says, and then just the perfect will remain, a real knowledge and a love of God.