Monday, December 12, 2011

Brand Identity

A friend of mine posted a link to a NY Times article and took issue with the author's comments at the end ..
We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.
My friend observed that most if not all United Church of Christ congregations would fit this criteria.  From my experience serving a joint UCC/UMC congregation and having worked with other UCC churches in my ministry I would have to agree.  The United Methodist Chuch has also struggled with brand recognition.  For the last ten years the UMC has been trying to increase people's favorable views of our denomination through marketing campaigns and local church efforts.  The results have been favorable as our "positive" recognition continues to rise.

Is this all enough?  I personally believe that both the UCC and the UMC have a lot to offer people looking for a community of faith.  I believe that both of these denominations have churches that fit the requirements from the NYT article.  But I think that we miss the point if we simply shout back that we are here, that we are doing that already.  The genius, in my opinion, of Jobs was not creating something new, it was creating it/marketing it/packaging it in a way people who needed it could get it.  Where our churches often struggle is that we forget that not everyone recognizes how amazing our communities of faith are.  Yes, I really do think they are amazing.  We do not make our opportunities accessible to those on the outside, those who really need it.  Our churches become like archaic mainframes or desktops, failing to realize that the world has moved on to different devices, even though we can provide the same services, if people just knew how to access us.  I think we should see the sentiments of this article as a challenge.  If we really believe we have something great to offer, how do we change so that people can take advantage of it.  How do we adapt to the shifting needs of those who are lacking a spiritual community, who need a life-changing presence?  How do we "think different" and make faith simple to access?  How do we tell people we are here?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Working Hard or Hardly Working

I recently read an article on that talked about how we overly malign the infamous 1% of the OWS protests. The op/ed talks about how instead we should be respecting these 1 percenters and seeing them as positive role-models. The point that seemed to come across strongest was that we did not respect how hard working these people were. "1 percenters generally have the nerve, drive and self-assurance that the rest of us could only dream of. We see where they are or were, but what the envious among us never consider is what they did to get there." This is perhaps the most frustrating line of the piece. I am not trying to say that the top 1 % does not work hard, I am sure they do. I object to the idea that they make more money than me because they work harder than me.

Now I will be the first to admit that I am not the hardest worker in the world. I did not study hard in high school, continued that tradition into college, and only marginally changed my habits in seminary. I certainly admit to lacking self-assurance, and I have no idea how much drive or nerve I have, relative to the average person or 1 percenter. I would question however how much of my lack of drive is a product of my current financial status. I think it actually has more to do with my motivations. I could have worked much harder in college and seminary and the only difference might be how much debt I came out of school with. The churches I serve would not have been able to pay me any more money, and even if they could pay more it would not move me any closer to being a 1 percenter. Even a bishop in The United Methodist Church does not make enough to be in the top 1% of income, so not matter how great my drive and ambition, I cannot be a 1 percenter if I continue in my current line of work. So really my failing is not just not working hard enough it is not working hard enough in the right profession.

The real reason most of the 1% make more than me is not about hard work, it is about what work we value.  In our society labor is not valued, capital is.  This is clearly expressed in the article
Considering the myriad business owners that dot the American landscape, as owners they’re often demonized for their possession of the means of production. What’s left out is the grand deal they’re offering the 99 percenters who work for them.
Basically the owners provide the capital, conceive the business plan, and then if the plan fails, as owners they stand to lose all that they ventured. As for the allegedly exploited laborers, they get paid no matter what. Not a bad deal.
The real risk is not to the laborers but to the owners who might lose all their money.  Now, obviously no one wants to lose their money but I think we forget that this is a lot easier to replace than say the health of the workers.  There is a reason that many professions have 30 and out clauses allowing for early retirement, because the physical stress of the job causes lasting damage to the body.  I even suspect most NFL players, proud members of the 1 percenters would rather lose the money they make while in the NFL than suffer the debilitating and often fatal effects of concussions and other work related injuries.  Instead our society tends to reward those who risk the capital and lead the company much higher than we reward the workers who are doing the "less important" jobs of making the products to be sold.

Do I want us to enter into some sort of socialist/communist state?  Probably not, but I do want us to have a better appreciation for the role that everyone plays in our society.  I think there is a real danger, and this articles seems to back that up, that we forget about the contributions of the many because of the work of the few.  Aaron Rodgers is celebrated for how hard he worked, and paid accordingly, but no mention is made of how hard his high school coach might have also worked with Rodgers to improve him.  In fact the HS coach probably worked just as hard with the next QB after Rodgers graduated who never became a star.

I think my frustration with the entire OWS conversation is it feels like in the end it gets reduced to those who have and those do not have.  I think this is a false dichotomy.  Its not really about who makes money and my problem is that society seems to have forgotten that.  Its really about what each of us is doing to make ourselves, our communities, and our world better; whether that is through invention and running a company or it is through working for that company; whether that is preaching or playing football.  In the end we all need to do our best ... and then we can all be a part of the 1% and the 100%.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Can We All Get Along?

I recently came across an argument about whether or not Catholics should ordain women as priests.  One point raised was that men and women have different roles/abilities and that the inability of women to be priests did not diminish them because they have other roles.  Now I am not an expert in Catholicism and so I have no intention to try and sort out what it is about a priest that makes them need to be male.  I also would agree that a call to ordained ministry does not make one more important or more loved by God than a call to any other form of ministry (teaching, cleaning, child-raising, farming, etc).

The question I want to ponder is whether different views on a topic like ordination can actually be hurtful and incompatible.  The relativist in me would love to say that if the Catholics or Baptists are all happy not ordaining women then that is fine and that is something we can respectfully disagree on.  But does it really end there.  It is one thing to disagree on something like Communion ... does it really become the Body and Blood of Christ.  I believe it does not literally transubstantiate but the Catholics do.  For that reason out of respect for them I do not take Communion in a Catholic church and I would understand if they did not feel that elements blessed by me were not the same as those done in a Catholic mass.  But the ordination of women seems to point to something deeper.  By refusing to ordain women, some denominations are saying that they do not believe women can adequately perform these roles OR are not called by God to do so.

Obviously the ordination of women is important to me ... after all I was baptized, confirmed, married, and ordained by women.  If they are not really called by God then I have a serious problem.  Maybe I am over-reacting and it does not bother women but it does seem like differing views on the ordination of women are not something that is easy to just respectfully disagree on.  I like to try and see things from other people's viewpoints but I am struggling to see how such a view of ordination does not diminish women ... or at least say that we how believe women can be ordain are wrong about God's call in their life.

Ordination of women is just a simple lens for larger issues.  One might raise the same questions about the roles of women (or other minorities) in other parts of society.  If I am right and there is a lack of compatibility, does that make it our obligation to seek to change things?  We push for fair treatment of children in other countries, the rights of women in general, is it the place for Methodists and Lutherans to be pushing for Catholics and other denominations to ordain women?  This feels like a murky issue to me and one that it is hard for me to totally sort because I am neither a women nor one who does not think they should be ordained, so in some ways I am an outsider to the questions I pose.  Still it is one that I am struggling with ... any thoughts?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Church and Sexuality

Over the last couple of weeks, issues around sex and sexuality keeping coming to my attention.  Some of it may be that I have been reading through Leviticus with its chapters on sexuality.  A recent program on MPR talked about the sex and teens, and a Glee episode recently highlight three of the characters losing their virginity.  Through it all what became clear to me is that the church has lost its voice when it comes to sex.  I do not believe this is simply because society has passed us by or that we no longer hold a position of power in culture.  Both of these are true but I think they are actually effects, not causes.  I think the cause is the fact that we have not tried to say anything.  Okay, maybe we have tried to say something but it basically seems to amount to saying "NO" really loudly and then sticking our fingers in our ears.  I am young, so I do not feel I am in a position to make generalizations about older generations BUT I do know that lots of people my age have had sex and most did not wait until they were married.  It could be the case that this was true of older generations but while it happened in older generations I suspect it was flipped around, most waited until after marriage and a few did not.

So what can we do in the church about this?  I think we need to do some serious thinking about how sex fits into our theology.  As I have been reading Leviticus I am reminded that there are two really strong concerns there 1) incest is bad ... even without a modern understanding of DNA, the Israelites knew that it was bad to sleep with close relatives 2) knowing the father is important ... again, without the benefit of DNA the best way to determine paternity in a child (and thus inheritance) was to have there be only one option for who the father was, the husband.  If everyone had multiple partners it could quickly become hard to decide who was the child of who and therefore who inherited what.

So what can we learn from this?  One response could be to simply maintain the prohibitions as put forward in scripture.  Unfortunately for many, myself included these seems unsatisfying.  There are lots of aspects of scriptures that we disregard today, like the purity laws.  Some of these can be said to have been modified in the New Testament (Peter is told that no animal is unclean to eat) but others are never really addressed (don't where a shirt made of two fibers).  I do not do well with senseless prohibitions, I want to understand the rule so that I can whole-heartedly follow it.  This is where I believe the church fails.  We do not do a good job of explaining why we think it is spirituality better to wait until marriage to have sex.  Too often we reduce things simply to God/Bible says so.  I think it is our task as theologians to look for more.

It is clear that more and more people are not waiting to have sex.  More and more people are having sex earlier and earlier.  If this is a bad thing, and I am inclined to think it is, then I think we need to a better job of talking about it.  It is not easy, for many it is awkward, but I think our silence on the issue has its own effects.  Too many young people believe the primary concerns about sex before marriage are based around issues of safety (STDs) and pregnancy.  If we believe there is something more to the issue, a value in having a single partner for example, then we need to find a way to talk about that and express it.  For some people the simple understanding that it is wrong to have sex before marriage will work.  But increasingly for both those within and outside the church it seems to be failing.  If we want to maintain our stance I think we need to do some serious thinking and theologizing about why if we ever expect society to listen to what we have to say on the matter.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Taxes and Tithes

So I have been watching the ongoing debate around solutions to our current "debt crisis" and amidst the frustrating rhetoric and political machinations it has occurred to me that maybe Washington DC is not really the source of all our problems.  I am wondering if instead maybe we are.  What are our criticism of those in DC?  Usually we complain that they are self-motivated, out for themselves, not thinking of the greater good, etc.  Washington is full of corrupt individuals who have lost touch with the rest of us.  Is that the case, or do they actually more accurately reflect us? 

In 2008 Mike Huckabee made a big deal about a fund he had set up as governor.  Without be totally sure of the details it was basically a chance for people to pay more in taxes than required if they wanted to.  He used this to illustrate the fact that no one wants to pay more in taxes, since the fund only got a few thousand dollars in it.  While I think he used it for political showmanship, I think there is actually something more to this.  Why was no one willing to put a few extra dollars in their annual envelop to the government?  When things are tough financial at church we ask people to give a little more and usually people find ways to help out, whether it is for unexpected building repairs, to help out with a need in the community, or even just to deal with a church's "budget deficit problem."  I think there are two reasons for this; we don't feel like our contribution would make a difference towards a tax problem and also we are not convinced others would do their part as well.  There is a third reason, which is that we are not convinced that the government would spend the money responsibly, but while there is some truth to that, I feel like it is also something of an excuse.

In the end I think many, if not all of us, act with our own self-interests when it comes to taxes.  We don't want to pay more than we have to and we want others to pay their fair share.  There were two main arguments against raising taxes on the wealthy in Minnesota.  One was that it was an example of "class warfare" ... making others pay instead of us.  The second reason was that the rich would simply leave the state if we taxed them more.  So excuse number one was we were being selfish in just wanting to tax the rich and not ourselves.  The second excuse was that the rich were selfish and would look for a cheaper state to live in.  So is it just the politicians in Washington who are greedy and self-motivated, or is it really all of us?

If taxes were like giving in the church, how much would you give?  What value do you place in your government?  Would taxes end up being like the tithe is today ... we all know we should give 10% but on average most church goers give far less.  Would we end up doing the same with taxes, giving a fraction of what each of us really needs to give to have our government do what we need/want/hope for it to do.  Maybe government has gotten too big.  Not in the traditional sense that people mean when they say that, but so big that we lose track of it.  We dehumanize it, thinking of those involved as mindless or selfish, forgetting what it is that government does to help each of us.  What if we started thinking of our taxes as what we give to make our nation great, to help it truly be the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Would that help us each April when it comes time to right the check?  Maybe not, but I think it is worth thinking about.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How Do You Tip? (and why?)

I have been doing several different pre-marital session in the last couple of weeks as I prepare for some fall weddings.  One of the handouts I use talks about the different ways that we value money.  These are money as security, money as prestige, money as enjoyment, and money as control.  While I can respect why it is that people value money for the first three, the last one, money as control, strikes me as a bad thing.  Using wealth as a way to exert influence over someone just feels wrong to me.  It goes against that fundamental notion that we are meant to have free will.  Once we start seeking to control others, we remove some of that freedom.

I ran into an interesting experience of this today as I was dining out for lunch.  I had finished my meal and was waiting to pay for it.  The server had dropped of the bill and then disappeared.  I quickly got out my card and waited to give it back.  Several minutes later I was still waiting.  As the time passed and my server clearly remained busy with other tables, I became more frustrated.  One of my first thoughts was to tip less because of the lack of service.  In a very small way (a dollar difference) I was planning to use my money to influence the behavior, to reward, or in this case punish behavior.  As I wrestled with my emotions it cause me to wonder if it was a good thing or a bad thing to see money as a form of control, and whether any control could really be a good means to an end.

What are we trying to accomplish when we tip?  Are we seeking to reward good service? (A way of thanking the server for a good meal/experience) Are we giving money in hopes of influencing future good actions?  (We tip well now hoping to get even better service the next time.)  Are we simply tipping out of social necessity?  (Since in general restaurants do not pay their servers enough to really survive with out tips.)  Is tipping just another way we use our money to exercise power and control?  As my brain tries to work this one out I come out with unsatisfactory answers on either side.  Using money to control actions seems wrong, but at the same time, isn't that exactly what we do every day when we buy food, pay our bills, and participate in any other part of the service based economy?  Is the real issue with money that how each of us has is so imbalanced, so that a server at a restaurant has to work hard for each dollar that others of us have to give away at our leisure?  Though maybe the real question is why I still cannot type restaurant correctly? (thank you spell checking)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Thoughts on Compromise

As someone living in Minnesota who likes football I am confronted daily with three great examples of the challenges of compromise, the NFL Lock-out, a shutdown state government, and a national government heading towards a self-created show-down.  Personally I find the last one the most frustrating because the only reason we have the problem is the same people who cannot decide on whether to raise our debt limit already voted to spend the money.  The state government can blame conflicting messages from voters and the NFL is doing the time honored thing of fighting as hard as possible to get as much as possible.  Regardless they all are great examples of the challenges of compromise.

As the "peace-maker" second child I think I am partially wired towards finding compromise. (as a note to my family who might be reading this, I am not claiming I actually am good at making peace, just that studies tend to say that the second child often falls into that role, I probably also create my own share of conflict as well)  The question comes however, when is compromise a good thing and when is it not.  Are there times that it is better for there to be some conflict, some struggle, in order to work out a solution?  Are there things you simply cannot compromise on?  At least on the national level there seems to be a race to stake out clear uncompromising positions on various issues such as taxes and entitlements before any negotiating actually occurs.  This seems to go against the ideas of compromise.  If you sit down convinced you cannot change your mind, what is the point of negotiation?

Where I get stuck in all of this is between what I think are two equally compelling realities.  As a Christian I have strong opinions informed by my faith.  For example I believe we are called to help the marginalized, the poor, the sick, those in prison, etc and that this call is made quite clear as a key part of what Christ wants us to do.  So I would personally be prone to calling that an uncompromising position.  I would also consider equal treatment for everyone to be a similar position.  So what happens if I were to have to negotiate with someone who did not share my values?  Should I simply refuse to budge, trusting in my reading of scripture and my faith in what God's call for the world is?  Or should I be willing to give up on some of my principles so long as they are giving up on theirs as well?

I think the danger comes when we see everything as zero sum, win or lose, yes or no.  True compromise comes when we see each others' points of view, when we understand where the other person is coming from.  Then it stops being about who wins and loses but how we all succeed, how we all win.  Personally I found the best way to do this is through patience and through prayer.  I have been in numerous tense situations in meeting where people of different opinions fought unyielding over issues.  Things worked out better when we were able to pray together, to break bread together, to worship together, to be reminded that in spite of our differences we really are all the same.  Will that really solve all our problems, maybe, but even if it doesn't it seems like a necessary step to reaching a compromise, something which is good for all of us.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

More Musings on Words

I know that this is not the first time I have spent some time musing on language and the important of words.  I blame my education for that ... but I came upon an interesting article the other day that once again got me pondering.  The article is about the importance of how we talk to young girls and a reminder that our language matters and shapes how we think about things.  I noticed this again on Sunday when I caught myself referring to God as "he."  It was not a deliberate choice but something that just slipped out as a side reference.  It was probably as much an issue with the lack of a good third person, neutral pronoun as it was with how I imagine God.  Even if I do not mean to be gendering God (if that is the right way to describe it) by referring to God with male language, it can be an unintended effect, just as talking to girls about how pretty they are (and what little girl, or boy is not cute in our eyes) incidentally reinforces the notion that beauty is something the child should desire and seek to obtain.

Language is amazingly powerful ... how we speak about kids can change how they perceive themselves ... so what if we used it in a positive way, encouraging them to be desperately seeking to be better learners, more creative thinkers, better stewards of the earth?  Why don't we use peer pressure to teach them to value all these good things instead of beauty and popularity and these other things that seem so destructive to our society.  At the same time why don't we spend more time talking about God in variety of ways.  The Hebrew scriptures alone have so many names for God.  I know I tend to think in very limited terms, loving God, gracious God, wondrous God, all of them are basic adjectives combined with God.  Instead maybe I need to use a greater variety.  In doing so I will begin to expand how I see God, how I experience God, and in turn how those around me see and experience God.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Musings on Memorial Day

So I was doing some research this week on the origins of Memorial Day using the infallible source of all knowledge, Wikipedia.  From there I gleaned two fascinating bits of knowledge that I wanted to spend a little time musing over.

1) According to my source, you are supposed to start the day by raising your flag and then lowering it to half staff as a salute to the dead.  At noon however you then raise it again as a sign that we are lifting up their memory and are rising up to not let their fight be in vain but instead are carrying it on ourselves.

2) Memorial Day was originally a day to remember those who has died in the Civil War and was later expanded to include those who had fallen in other wars.

The second point works well for me because it is easier to gloss over all the other reasons that people go to war and remember the Civil War as this "fight to set other men free."  Obviously that is a very pro-North viewpoint and simplifies the war only to an issue of freeing the slaves.  But freeing those in slavery is a cause most people can get behind, so it is a great place to start.

So if Memorial Day really is about honoring those who have died in the cause of freedom and justice for all, what does it mean for those of us doing the honoring?  How are we picking up the cause and advancing it forward?  Slavery was abolished in the United States legally years ago, but it still exists in other countries, as well as perhaps in covert ways here (and even the NFL and college football according to some).  Sex-trafficking is a prime example of this but certainly not the only one.  Where is our outrage about this?  What are we doing to shame those who engage in it, to bring them to justice, to fight to set these people free.  Are there other forms of slavery (economic, political, social) we should be fighting against?  What other threats to freedom and justice exist.  I am not advocating yet another war for our soldier to be involved in, but maybe something that each of us can work to end.

Memorial Day does not have to simply be a salute to those who died in bloody wars and by extension glorify those sorts of conflicts.  Instead it can be a lament of those who have died that others can be free, and a dedication that we will work as hard as possible to make sure that more do not have to die in this struggle.  What are we memorializing this weekend?  Is it war?  Is it freedom?  Is it a fight against evil?  I am sure our answers are all different, but I love the reminder we have in the raising of the flag.  We remember those who have gone before us and are called to make sure that in our lives we make their deaths not be in vain

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas

Last night I attended a bachelor party for a friend of mine.  While the group of us were hanging out there was talks of taking embarrassing pictures of the bachelor throughout the night and posting them to Facebook.  To my knowledge this was never done (though I did leave early since I had a 2 hour drive to get home).  Still the thought of sharing what goes on at a bachelor party seems almost antithetical to the event.  Bachelor parties are one of those "sacred" events that seems to have an aura of secrecy around them.  What happens at the party stays at the party.  Just like what happens in Vegas, or on the mission trip, or whatever, stays with that group of people

On the other end of the spectrum is the "over-sharing" that occurs through things like Facebook.  Suddenly the whole world can know what we had for breakfast, how much we drank last night, or that we are off in the Bahamas.  Some of the information is mundane and some can be potentially damaging, giving people a view into a part of your life you might want to keep private (like your drinking habits) or letting people know when you are not around ... which is valuable information for burglars.

All of this raises the question to me ... do we keep too much secret or not enough.  Secrets are great, they give us a feeling of power, control, and of being in the know.  We have something that others do not.  The flip side of that same idea is that it creates separations between in the in group and the out group.  Between the haves and the have-nots.  All of this leads me to wonder what the best course to follow is.  I worry what it says that there are parts of our lives we hide from other parts of our lives. 

As a pastor I am constantly confronted with the merging of the public and the private, those things that I share with my parishioners and those things that I keep separate.  While perhaps harder than other jobs it is not necessarily any different.  An NBA team executive recently came out about his sexuality, something he had kept private from his work life for years.  We all probably have those things we worry about the people who write our paychecks knowing about.  In the end however I worry the secrets are bad.  That we encourage a notion that somethings are just for a select group of people and in doing so we create barriers between ourselves and the world.  The barriers may keep us safe, but they also keep people away.  If I don't share things about my life with my parishioners, is it fair to expect them to do the same?

Maybe the real question to ponder is whether or not we have reasonable expectations for secrets.  Do our expectations meet the categorical imperative ... that we would want others to live by the same things as us.  So do we want to know about others the things we keep secret about ourselves OR are we comfortable with others keeping from us the same information we keep from them?  That might be a question for another day

Thursday, May 12, 2011

I Like Winning!

So this may not be a shock to people who know me, but I like winning.  I like games and competitions and chances to test myself, to prove myself.  And while the trill of the competition itself is nice, in the end I like to win.  For that reason I find it much more enjoyable to play games I think I can win and especially nice to feel like I have some "ace in the hole" solution to pull out when things get tough.  Almost like a parent running gamely alongside their kid, knowing that if they wanted to they could put on the extra burst of speed and make it to the finish line first.  Or the tortoise, plodding along but knowing in the end that slow and steady will win the race, no matter how fast the hare goes at first.

On Saturday I ran in the Lake Minnewaska Half Marathon.  Having run the Twin Cities Marathon twice, the mere 13.1 miles seemed like a nice obtainable goal and a great way to get involved in something in my new community.  I did most the suggested training for it and entered the race feel at least somewhat confident in my ability to run and finish the race.  I started towards the back of the pack, figuring that like in the Twin Cities Marathon I would have a chance to slow pass a number of people through the race.  Instead I watched as the main pack of races continued to move further and further a head, and while there were always a few races behind me, there was not much chance of moving up at the pace I was going.  As the miles went by it became more and more clear that this was not going to change.  At one point I began to wonder if I would be able to finish at all.  I did not have an "ace in the hole" ... there was not some trick I could do.  Not only was I not going to really beat anyone in the race, I was also not sure I would finish at all.  In the end I did finish, I "dug deep" and kept plodding along, finishing 55th out of 77 and 11th out of 12 in the 18-30 male division.  Not terrible but certainly not great either.

We have lots of great expressions like "winning isn't everything" that certainly apply here.  I did a get a sense of satisfaction for finishing the race.  And despite the rain and the pain in my legs, it was mostly an enjoyable experience while I did it.  But during the race there was a nagging temptation to not make it about winning.  "I am just doing it for fun" or "I am just a casual runner."  Both of those were true, I had no illusions about winning or placing well, and I am certainly a casual runner.  At the same time it bugged me I could not do better.  At the same time I really did want to succeed.  Is it helpful to try and turn off our competitive drive when we think we cannot win?  Is it helpful to try and move the goal posts so no matter what we can make them?  What do we lose in the process?  What do we give up on when we are not trying our best?  What do we lose when we do just focus on winning instead?

I do want a spend a moment connecting this to the church, cause that is part of why I blog ... but I hope the thoughts above stand on their own and so if you stopped reading now it would be fine ...

I think we are at a time in the church when we do not know what winning looks like (though we are probably sure we are not doing it) and we are at a time where it is tempting to look quickly for some goal posts we can make it to, we can succeed at.  Certainly the desire to win is dangerous, especially if it starts to be our raison d'etre instead of serving God.  On the other hand, not competing, not trying to "win" seems antithetical to our call as well, especially if we defining winning in terms of the great commission and bringing about the Kingdom of God ... do we really have a choice but to seek after these things, to run this race that is before us.  The nice thing about a race is that the goal is defined by someone else ... you will run 13.1 miles or 5k or 26.2 or whatever the distance is.  We need to find a similar goal for the church, so that those of us who want to dig deep and compete have something to aim for, something to push us forward and hopefully move us all in the same direction.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Tragedy of Death

Like many others I have been listening, watching and reading all the coverage there has been of the recent death of Bin Laden.  I have been overcome with a wave of different emotions as I contemplate all that has occurred and what it means.  In the end I am left with sorrow.  I remember 9/11 and what that day was like.  What I remember most about 9/11 was one of the professors at Beloit College, sitting on the steps, crying, weeping that this would undo all the work that had been for peace, for tolerance, for justice.  Now, almost 10 years later can we really say that things are over?  Did the death of Bin Laden really change things, or is it just the next domino in the tragic chain that has been rippling through our lives since those towers came down, since those airplanes were transformed from methods of transportation into methods of destruction and death?

On April 30th, Hitler committed suicide rather than risk capture by the oncoming forces, on May 1st, Bin Laden is killed by US forces and if we enter the realm of fantasy, on May 2nd, Lord Voldemort dies in the Battle of Hogwarts.  Three people who would often be attributed with evil.  Three people who ordered the deaths of hundreds and even thousands.  And yet today as I prepare for Mother's Day on Sunday I came upon these words, written to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  "We shall not commit injustice in the name of justice done ... we shall not seek honor in the death of any mother's son ... Christ's peace shall reign on earth"

All three of these individuals, terrible though their actions may be are someone's son.  If we forget that, we become like them, able to see death as nothing more than a means to achieve our ends.  If we are to recover from 9/11 we must find a way to reverse this, to undo this cycle of violence that only spirals onwards.  Now we live in fear of reprisals for our actions, counterattacks by followers of Bin Laden seeking to avenge his death which will only cause us to need to avenge more deaths.  Is death totally avoidable?  Can we truly live nonviolently?  I would like to believe so, but whether or not it is possible, I know this, even in the death of someone like Bid Laden, there is cause for sorrow, here is someone's son ... here is a child of God ... what can we do to make sure that other sons and daughters do to not end up the same.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Onward" a better Call to Action?

While I do not plan to blog each week about the book I am reading, the latest book I have read, "Onward" by Howard Schultz feels particularly fitting for the church.  The book is written, with help of course, by the CEO of Starbucks who talks about how he came back as CEO as Starbucks and the economy were in the midst of a downward spiral and eventually managed to turn Starbucks around even as the economy continued to languish.

Obviously the recession was not good for Starbucks, but Schultz's feeling is that Starbucks was hurting even before then and the economic downturn only magnified or perhaps revealed flaws that were already present.  In fact he really seems to feel that the past success of Starbucks and its rapid growth became a barrier to its further healthy growth as a company.  In the midst of massive store openings and rampant success Starbucks began to lose focus on its innovation and even its core value of providing great coffee and a community environment, a "third space."

Starbucks was able to turn itself around in part because it stopped resting on its past success, it stopped allowing pressure for further such growth to distract it and instead returned to its core purpose as a company.  Could we in the church learn something from this?  One of the challenges is that denominationally and even at a local church level we lack someone with that same level of power that a CEO tends to have.  We also lack the same focus on a few core things.  While we have powerful statements like "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" they lack the concreteness that would actually help us know what we as a church are supposed to be doing.  Are we meant to be a "third space" in the community like Starbucks?  Can we even compete with companies in that realm?  How do we know when we have made a disciple or transformed the world?  While Jesus gave us really big goals to shoot for, I think to turn the church around we need to hone in on what we are really trying to do.

For the last 40 years mainline churches have been declining in worship attendance and in membership.  Why this is happening is the subject of numerous books, but perhaps just as telling is I am not sure we could actually say why this matters.  Can we actually point to the fact that our decline numbers MEAN we are failing to make disciples or transform the world.  Thanks to our obsession with reporting in the UMC we can say that we have fewer professions of faith, one measure of discipleship and we could also look at our churchwide giving to various missions, one way of transforming the world.  Do these actually tell the whole story?  Maybe we as a church need some concrete sense of what we are going to try and do, what difference we are seeking to make in people's lives, then we would know what to be focused on, what we can look at cutting, and maybe be able in the future to see how things begin to turn around.

Monday, April 18, 2011

"The Dangerous Act of Worship"

As part of my goal to read more books I have been trying to work through the large stash of books I have acquired but not read over the years.  I just finished a book called "The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God's Call to Justice" by Mark Labberton.  In it he talks about how the church, by in large is asleep, that we are failing to respond to the call of the Gospel on us and failing to live out our full potential.  In particular he names the fact that we tend to seek worship services that are comforting rather than disturbing.  He advocates that worship should in fact be something that awakens us to the need to do God's work in the world.

On the one hand I certainly have been guilty of what he has said.  Like most people I want to be liked and so like most people I respond to positive affirmations and shy away from negative ones.  I know that no one wants to hear that they are not giving enough, not doing enough or failing to love their neighbor as much as they should.  Instead we want to hear that we have already done more than enough, that we are well on our way to earning a gold star.  Preaching sermons that challenge us or worship services that raise questions about how much, or maybe how little we are doing runs counter to these tendencies.  At the same time, my reaction is to wonder how often we need "wake-up calls" do we really need to be reminded each week of the work we have to do in the world?  In fact if we emphasized it every week wouldn't we dilute the effect and desensitize ourselves to such a message?

The more I think about this though the more I think that being reminded regularly, even weekly about the need to be doing God's work in the world is exactly why we encourage worship on regular basis.  We need to constantly have this put before us or it gets lost amidst everything else we are doing.  We might have occasional moments of awakening, but generally we become lax if we are not constantly spiritually prodded towards action.  It may be hard to accomplish on a weekly basis, but I think we need to try and make sure our worship does push us out into the week, out into the work we need to do.  Spiritual rest is important.  Sabbath is necessary, but so to is a constant call to action, a constant reminder that justice is what our work is about, loving the least, the last the lost, that is all of us, and bring God's good news into the world.  It is a regular action that needs us, something we must constantly place before us, otherwise we lose sight of it in the midst of all the less-pressing but more present distractions in our lives.

Monday, April 11, 2011

What does it mean to be in a "rebuilding year"

Bishop Sally recently raised an interesting idea in her column for the Minnesota UMC website,, she raises the question about whether like many sports teams the UMC is in a rebuilding year.  While I would certainly agree that by comparison it does not seem we are positioned for a championship run, nor are we really in a perennial contender category if our continued decline in membership and worship attendance are any indicators.

What does it mean for us to be in a rebuilding year?  In sports that can mean one of several things, it can simply be an excuse to fans while you try and sell tickets in the midst of a slump or it can be a dedicated attempt to try and build up a team from the ground up.  Usually a team that is rebuilding does not look for the quick fix of the free agent hire but instead works on building through drafting good young players and honing their skills through careful coaching and development.  In a rebuilding year the concern is less about attendance numbers, wins and lose, and instead is about growing that new base of players.  Older, popular players are often traded to acquire young talent, more draft picks, or simply to free up salary and save money since their effectiveness will be diminished down the road when the team is ready to move into a contender role.

So what does that mean for the church?  If we are really in a rebuilding time, what are the "young draft picks" we are developing?  Are these new churches? New lay leaders?  New clergy?  New ideas and practices?  What are the old standbys that we need to trade or let go in order to leave room for the new players AND reduce our costs during this phase?

I see two dangerous paths ahead for the church if we are to play this analogy out further ... we risk becoming like the Cubs, a team with an incredibly long drought of not winning 102+ years and counting.  In the last 10 years the Cubs have seemed desperate for a winning season, to take the team to the next level.  They often have signed big name players and gambled their future in hopes of finally winning a World Series title.  This does not seem unlike the UMC, at least as I experience it, prone to jumping after quick fixes and new ideas in a hope of quickly turning things around, afraid to face a long process of rebuilding and more years of loss members and diminishing numbers.  Perhaps a worse fate than being the Cubs is being the Browns, a football team known for losing, whose fans almost seem to relish the loss of hope in their franchise (I may be exaggerating here).  When a team loses so often for so long you almost become numb to the losing, numb to the defeat and truly despairing that any change will make a difference.  I hope this is not where we are at.

If we really are in a "rebuilding year" do we have the patience to see it through?  The willingness to face more loses in hopes of a greater gain?  Are we willing to trade away our current star players and favorites to have a real hope of making disciples and transforming the world?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Growing for Growth's Sake

A month or two ago I did a funeral service for someone without any strong church connection.  For that reason they chose to have the funeral service at the local Eagle Club or Aerie as I believe they call them.  Now I knew about service clubs like the lions, and I was familiar with the Elk and Moose Clubs we had in town but I had never heard of the Eagles.  While I waited for the time of the service I spent some time wandering around looking at the walls.  They had lots of posters extolling the virtues of things like Fraternity and Loyalty.  In addition there was a whole string of awards.  Every award was for growth.  Basically if you club grew in a given year, or decade you got another award for your wall, another patch for your banner.

Now, I know that clubs need to grow, that bring in new people is a healthy thing and all of that, but I walking around and just looking at things I could not figure out what the point of the Eagle Club was expect growing ... well and gathering together to share a few drinks.  I college one of my excuses for not joining a fraternity was that I did not need to pay for my friends.  This seemed a lot like that.  I realize that fraternities are about much more than just paying to have friends ... and I suspect the Eagle Club is the same way, but the message I got was that the point of the club was to grow.

My question is ... are in the church any different?  I am as guilty as the next person of wanting the church to grow just to grow.  As a member of a liberal, mainline denomination I get tired of hearing about how we are dying out, dwindling away.  I would love to be able to have some proof of growth that I could shove back at those who argue this is because of our values, our seminary education, the way we worship, or really anything about us.  I would love to have some scientific proof that our church is not in decline.  But should we be growing for those reasons?  The mission of The United Methodist Church in Minnesota is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Now disciple making implies some growth, whether it is growth in numbers or just the development of the people who are already a part of the church could be debated.  Transforming the world does not require growth.  Growth might stem from such action and growth would certainly help such action, but growth is not sufficient or even a necessary condition for transformation to occur.

If we were going to have banners and celebrations each year, maybe they should be around transforming the world ... harder to measure than growth, but ultimately what I believe we are called to do.