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Not Saying My Gig Has Been Anything Like Jeremiah’s, But….

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“Now look, I have just released you today from the fetters on your hands. If you wish to come with me to Babylon, come, and I will take good care of you; but if you do not wish to come with me to Babylon, you need not come. See, the whole land is before you; go wherever you think it good and right to go.”   Jeremiah 40:4

I’m beginning to wonder if some version of Nebuchadnezzar’s captain of the guard has been offering me a deal similar to Jeremiah’s.

Perhaps it is so, and I’m like those people you hear about who spend years in captivity, are suddenly set free, but hesitate to walk outside the prison because they’ve been conditioned not to see any other possibilities or are frightened by the sudden expanse of freedom.

 

Jail-cell-open-web

We’ll see.

 

No Date for the Prom, May Go Stag

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Last week I got an email from an East Coast synod staff person that made me smile as I read it.  “You  have been identified through our ELCA database as a possible candidate for  **** Church…”   It has been just about three years exactly since this same staff person first contacted me with an opportunity to serve a congregation and put my name in their call process.  The candidate profile I’d developed at the time had a link to this blog.  A few weeks later, she emailed to tell me the call committee decided to pass on me, in large part because they read my blog and decided I was too liberal for them.  She wrote that she too read the blog and also had some serious reservations about my fitness for ministry based on a couple of guest posts made by Wylie4Stroke.  It was Wylie’s description of hanging out with me at a bar in Denver that caused her the most problems.  But the liberal bent of the blog also caused concern.

I blew the piety test AND the political test.

What she failed to consider, however, was the way in which I was being quite honest and open about those occasions when I’d swap the clerical garb for jeans and a Hawaiian shirt to go have a few beers with some regular, blue-collar working folks—and how I’d willingly share my vocation and my Christian faith with those folks if the subject ever came up.

That’s how Wylie came to be a blog contributor.  He is a character who would NEVER set foot in a church, but is someone who is smart and curious in his own rough and homespun way.  I grew up with guys like Wylie, went through high school with them, worked on cars with them, and yes—shudder—even tapped a keg with them.  Guys like Wylie didn’t so much lose the faith of their childhood as much as they got bored with or stopped believing in the church as a viable group worth joining.

The larger church needs to learn that it’s OK to step outside the insular, pietistic bubble from time to time, and that it’s also OK to be honest about having a few beers in a bar.  In fact, it’s being dishonest about these things that can get a clergy person in trouble.   I strongly suspect you can find a very tragic Exhibit A right here.   People like Wylie are suspicious of piety, and in my experience so much of it has become the equivalent of the shields deployed by Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise.   It’s something to get you through the minefields and meteor storms of life.  So what happens to a group of pious church folks–dare I say clergy– who go away on a church-sponsored spiritual retreat or conference, where they can count on being safe in a closed group outside the fishbowl?  The cigars, beer and booze come out, as does this sort of cute, rebellious attitude.  Someone gets a deck of cards, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a group of folks acting like they’re at that bar in Denver, drinking, smoking and playing poker until the wee hours of the morning.  Not all of them, mind you, but a surprising number.

Me, I always try to make the most of the spiritual opportunities presented by a spiritual retreat, especially if that retreat is at a monastery.  There’s ample time and opportunity to practice a key spiritual discipline—perhaps the most vital one—by entering meaningful, restorative SILENCE.  I was tempted to say “simply entering,”  but as I’ve discovered, there’s nothing simple about being silent, inside and out.   Try it for just 5 ninutes.  Shut off all the noise around you.  Then, shut off all the noise within you.  No inside chatter.  No music in your head.  Turn it all off.  It’s not so simple, is it?

Anyway, back to the situation of the email that  began this whole post.  I read it over, thought for a moment, then sent the East Coast staff person a reply stating that my wife and I are on the opposite coast now and don’t see ourselves making such a dramatic relocation.

Over the past year I’ve interviewed with several churches and have taken trips to Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Texas to meet with search committees. But each time they have chosen to go another way with someone else, and as I contemplate these events, I have to say that they probably made the right choices.   It’s not that I’m not qualified or not good at the pastoral vocation.  In fact, I hold the opposite to be true, that after some 10+ years of church ministry, I’m seasoned in a way that opens the door to what I think would be the best years of my ministry. And in the first 10+ years, I was pretty good.

But there has to be a good fit between congregation and pastor, otherwise there is simply too much time and effort expended in one trying to change the other and too much emotion spent resenting the relationship.   Life is far too short for such things.  I went into each situation with a desire to receive a call at each place.  At each place I found myself excited at the prospect of being pastor at such a church.  But in retrospect, I was also coming from what I perceived to be a desperate place, a place I was eager to escape, and I saw these places as great potential escape routes.  They were—and are—good, strong congregations on the whole, and I also found I was hungry to have a chance to lead one of them.  While each proved to be a disappointment, I look back and see that in fact there was some wisdom in their decisions to look elsewhere.  At each place there were red flags I chose not to see, some big and some small, which foretold some difficulties in the relationship had they called me.

In thinking back to the Wisconsin visit, I remember my host being as hospitable as possible, and doing everything she could do to make my visit comfortable.  Yet on our way to the church for the official interview with the call committee I saw a Scott Walker yard sign in the car’s back seat.  In the interview she became a suspicious and relentless interrogator, wanting me to explain my involvement in The Colorado Confession.   That was an out-of-the-blue line of questioning, since that document was developed back in ’05 and ’06, and I just attended a couple of information meetings and then signed on to it.  I’d forgotten much of the language of the document, but I wouldn’t back away from its significance or my approval of it.  I think that was the main sticking point for them, though one of the members of the call committee later thanked me for sharing my thoughts on the relationship of the church to our polarized culture.

In Oklahoma, a telling moment came in an end-of-evening conversation with the call committee chair.  He told me he liked what I’d done in arranging a special Muslim-Christian dialogue at my previous church and then told me a story that sounded all too familiar.  One of the church matriarchs was talking politics with him before the ’08 election and warned that if Obama was elected it wouldn’t be long before women would be forced to wear veils and that he would try to place the whole country under Sharia law.  While I was touring the area I got to see all the tornado-sensing equipment arrayed for advanced warning, and also saw a few buildings, trees and fences knocked down by a twister that had touched down a week before I got there.  Despite the exciting opportunities to combine parish ministry with campus ministry, in hindsight, it wouldn’t have been a good fit due to the ultra-conservative climate of the culture and the ultra-dangerous climate of the area.

The Texas church offered the most initial excitement.  It wasn’t too far from Austin, a place I still think of as home.  I’d have been an associate with a guy I had gotten to know and respect while I was in seminary.  They had an active, multi-generational membership and had added a huge gym and rec center on to one end of the church, while maintaining the historic church cemetery at the other end.  Quite literally it had become a cradle-to-grave church and they seemed to be doing a good job of opening their facilities to the surrounding community.  While I was there visiting with the youth director, a community league basketball game was in progress in the gym behind us.  But that conversation stuck with me.  The youth director talked about the difficulty in getting financial support for some creative youth-0riented projects and then noted that it didn’t take any time at all to raise about 65K to add sidewalks and landscaping for the cemetery.   Not a good sign.  Nevertheless, I was stoked to have an opportunity to come in and do ministry in a place where there was such a broad cross-section of young and old, and where they had expanded their worship services to include a contemporary, albeit praise band, worship.  We enjoyed that service, held in the gym, and then went upstairs to experience the traditional liturgy with full choir.  A couple of things stuck out, though I didn’t pay much mind to them at the time.  The first was the rinky-dink and difficult-to-manage elevator they had installed for disabled people.  It was set up more like a miniature freight elevator and one had to make sure everything was buttoned up just right before the elevator would work.  Then you had to turn a key, press a button and hopefully head up or down.  I say hopefully, because getting everything closed and ready was a chore in itself.  A disabled person would have a very tough time using the elevator by themselves, and it was barely big enough to hold a couple of people if there was a wheelchair involved.  I noticed that the traditional service had its fair share of people using wheelchairs and walkers.  On the one hand, I thought this was a good thing, since my wife often needs a wheelchair to get around.  On the other hand, if this is all they could come up with to make the church accessible to disabled folks, it showed that they didn’t care all that much about them.

The handicapped parking in the parking lot was also minimal and not clearly defined.  Someone told me that members needing close-in parking just knew to take one of the parking spots marked “Reserved.”  But what about visitors?  And as big as the place was, I figure that not everyone there actually knows about the ability to take a “Reserved” space.

I think I’m sharing the most about this church because this one is the one that excited me the most and gave me the most hope that I’d get called to a place that could make the best use of my skill sets.  But it goes even further than that.  These “call processes” as we Lutherans term them, are much like dating processes.  It’s more than resumes and interviews; it’s meeting people, seeing how you like one another, envisioning how it might be if you became the pastor at a church where you’d visit people, be with them in many of the joys and sorrows that mark our lives, and guide them as best you could into the future.  In a way, I found myself falling in love with this place.  It was conservative, but also had that very forward-looking, can-do attitude that reflects all the best you can find in my home state.  I could see some challenges, but I could also see myself being happy there for the next ten to twelve years and doing some of my best work in the process.   I thought we hit it off well, and all my instincts told me that they liked me as well.

So I was really surprised to get back home, to Northern California, check my e-mail and find they’d already decided to pass.  The language was official and offered some encouragement about it not relating to the quality of my pastoral skills, they just wanted a different style of leadership.  But I was severely bummed out.     Again it’s a lot like the dating process.  In a weird sort of way it’s like trying to find a date to the prom, finding someone you really, really like, and having that someone shoot you down because they want to find someone they like better.

At this point, I’m not sure I can endure being part of another call process.  It may not matter, since one can stay on the active clergy roster for three years before being automatically removed if there isn’t a call to a church or other recognized church organization.  Here in the small mountain village of Northern California, this doesn’t seem likely to happen.   But you never know.  There may yet be a church out there somewhere that might have a place for liberal pastor who prefers a Hawaiian shirt to wearing some hollow sense of piety on his sleeve.

Scattershooting Thursday

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Spring blooms beautifully here, and unlike other places I’ve lived, you get the full season instead of an extended winter that hangs around far too long until Summer serves it eviction papers.

The daffodils kicked things off a couple of weeks before Easter.

Daffodils 2

Cherry blossoms, the western redbuds, and Calfornia’s version of bluebonnets have followed suit.  The poppies have been blooming on the other side of the mountain for the past 3 weeks and now their orange-yellow flowers are opening here.    In a few weeks, we’ll have the plants going crazy and it’ll look about like this:

Poppies and flowers

We’ve got some birds popping in, a few of them with beaks full of nest-building material.  Here’s one of them after he evidently dropped off his load:

DSCN0571

Watching these little birds go about their nest-making has me considering our own nest here.  It appears we are going to be here for a while.   This past year has seen mostly struggle and frustration–the hope and the dreams that brought us out here have been mostly unfulfilled.  I’ve accomplished some very small things in my time here, and for the moment  it’s nice to see that the spiraling tragedy of self-destruction has taken a break and we’re back to dealing with a functional alcoholic who is making some pretty good decisions.  But sink or swim, the bottom line is it is his business, and the best I can hope for is to help him out part-time for minimum wage.   That just isn’t going to cut it.  The employment options out here are somewhere between slim and none, but I’m in the hunt for one part-time job that may potentially open a door to full-time employment.

There is still the church, which I continue to love and hope to serve.  But recent experience tells me the church may not be as interested in me as I am in it.  I’ll say more about this later.  But for now, I look at the ongoing unfolding Spring here in the Trinity Alps and begin to see that we’re going to be in this area for the foreseeable future.   As I continue to make plans, develop contacts and explore my own business options, I’m thinking that the way to extricate myself from this situation is roughly the same as getting your finger out of one of these:

chinese-finger-puzzle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Writer Wylie4Stroke is Back!

(Editor’s note:  Recently, an amazing turn of events brought Wylie back into the picture.  I’d not seen him since Colorado, about two and a half years ago.  He wrote a few posts here for me then, and a couple of them still get a lot of interest.  But life took us in different directions and a lot of water has passed under the bridge for both of us.  I didn’t think I’d ever see him again after I relocated to Northern California.   But life does offer some strange twists and turns from time to time; and it was during a particular twist and turn that I bumped into him again–in Texas, of all places!  It’s an interesting story, and I think I’ll let Wylie tell it as only he can.)  

Who woulda ever thought that I’d show up here again.  It just goes to show you never can tell what’s going to happen or when, or who you’ll bump into right after you get out of jail.

I had moseyed on down to Texas about a year ago to see if anything was shakin’ as far as work goes. Thought there might be some bike mechanic jobs down around Austin, since they’re now attracting this big crowd of rich and famous folks, and those are the folks that like to get themselves a big ol’ expensive bike.

Well I landed myself a gig at a place in East Austin that worked on the bikes of mostly hardcore riders that could afford to bring their bikes in for work.  Things went OK there for a while, until I noticed little pieces missing from my paychecks.  Turns out the owner of the shop had a little problem with rock candy of the Breaking Bad variety.  His woman, who handled all the books, was in it so bad she just about crackled when she walked.  My situation worsened when I walked into the back office one day and caught her hitting the pipe.  Normally, I let folks just do what they want–live and let live.  Crash and burn.  It don’t matter.  Except when it’s the gal who’s siphoning off some of my hard-earned money so she can snap-crackle-pop her limp little brain on a limitless supply of meth.  I had a word to say about that, and as you might imagine it didn’t sit all that well.

Next thing I know she started shrieking some crazy crap about me trying to kill her while she reached into her purse and pulled out a gun.  I could tell right then that this would likely be my last day at this job.  I just wanted to make sure I walked out, as opposed to being carried out.  She was higher than a squirrel on a power line, and it wasn’t all that hard to get the gun away from her.  I reckon my mistake was pointing the thing at her to get her to calm down.  That’s when the boss walked in, probably to take a hit off the pipe with his old lady.  He saw me, saw the gun, saw his old lady rocking back and forth and shaking like an old, worn out washing machine on its last spin cycle.  He lunged at me, but was so dumb-ass slow about it I had absolutely no trouble turning the gun around so I could smack him a good one with the butt end of the pistol grip, right above the forehead.  He staggered around some, then fell forward.  Now he’s one of those fellas who isn’t all that tall, but as big around as a redwood tree.  He blotted out the coffee table, which crunched to smithereens underneath him.  Good thing it wasn’t glass, but one of those cheap, fake wood things you get at the superstore, or at Goodwill if you ain’t got the money.  I high-tailed it out of there, not even stopping to pick up the few tools I had at my bench.  I figured it was good riddance to the whole mess I was leaving behind in my rear-view mirror.  Or so I thought.

I shoulda figured Mr. Bike Shop Owner would have a cop buddy on the force who got a lot of free work done on his bike in exchange for some protection.  If I’d just gone to the Greyhound station like my Spidey sense was telling me to do.

But, no.  Somehow or another I made my way to the Poodle Dog Lounge over on Burnet Rd in the north part of town.  It was happy hour and I was starting to feel happy.  I’d gotten myself through a pretty bad scrape and thought it was worth celebrating–and sharing.  I struck up a conversation with this guy, bought him a round, let him reciprocate, and kept that deal going for a good hour or two.  I shared my adventure of making it out of the meth-head bike shop and it looked for all the world like he was duly impressed.  He excused himself to go take a whiz, and about 5 minutes later I discovered that I’d been talking to an off-duty cop who–you guessed it–happened to be buddies with the buddy cop at the meth-head bike shop.   Small world, isn’t it?

Before I knew what hit me, about four uniforms walk in, head straight for me, and BOOM.  I’m on the ground with a knee in my back and my hands in cuffs.

I forgot to mention the other thing my Spidey sense had been telling me:  “Get rid of the gun, stupid!”   Once they found it, those cops got even more serious.

There’s a lot more to this story, but y’all are just going to have to wait till I get around to posting here again.

When The Trusted System Fails You, Seek and Take the Alternatives

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Ironically, I learned this lesson during travel to a Midwest congregation that wanted to meet and interview me.

It was one of those all-day flying affairs.   I was up and out the door in the wee hours of the morning to make the 1-hour drive into the small city where I’d catch a pre-dawn flight to San Francisco.   After a two-hour layover I took another flight to Chicago-O’Hare, where I’d connect with a commuter flight to Midwest City, where a member of the church would be waiting to pick me up and drive me to the small Midwest town about an hour away.   I’d be having dinner with my hosts before sunset.  That was the plan.

There were no incidents until we descended into Chicago’s O’Hare airport, which is becoming my own experiential version of the Bermuda Triangle.        Our descent took us through a huge thunderhead cloud, where we were knocked around a little bit by wind and rain.  The ride wasn’t too rough, however, and the landing went smoothly.  As we taxied down the runway, the pilot informed us that the storm had caused enough havoc to suspend all planing and de-planing operations at the airport and that we’d have to wait a few minutes to find a new gate where we could deplane.

The few minutes became 30, then became an hour, as we taxied around and around the tarmac with so many other planes and passengers, now trapped by the threat of another approaching major storm system.

We spent 2-1/2 hours stuck on the tarmac, and when we finally deplaned, we walked up the ramp and became part of the general chaos that had overtaken O’Hare.  The arrival/departure boards were blinking cancellations and re-schedules for numerous flights.  Frustrated, angry and overwhelmed people began forming long lines that snaked about 50 to 75 yards, as customer service desks suddenly found themselves about as overmatched as a group of  kindergartners taking a high school chemistry final.  Most of us figured we’d missed our connecting flights; what we hadn’t yet realized was that the airline had lost the ability to re-establish some sort of schedule that would allow people to continue their journeys.  I looked on the big board to see that the next flight out to Midwest City had been moved back from 6:51 pm to a little after 8 pm.  I communicated with the guy waiting for me at the Midwest City airport.   He would wait.  As the clock moved closer to 8, I saw the red cancellation notice pop up next to this flight.  Great.  Well, when was the next flight?  I called the airline’s customer service line (rather than join the serpentine line of frustration immediately behind me) and was told that I’d get the last seat on the plane scheduled to depart at 10 pm.  Sheesh.  I called my ride over at Midwest City and could tell he was getting a little exasperated as well, but he would wait.  I found a place to sit near the gate, surrounded by other frustrated travelers who shared their feelings of stuck-ness in mostly good-natured banter.   The guy on my right was a frequent flyer as part of his job with a multi-national corporation.  He’d been stuck at O’Hare quite a few times.  He was the one who told me about the bus that ran from O’Hare to Midwest City.   “Hmmm,” I thought, “interesting option, but I hope I don’t have to take it.”  After all, this was a major airline servicing one of this country’s major airports.  They’d get things settled down and get us out of here.  I kept a watch on the departure board, continually looking to see that we were still on-schedule for the 10pm departure.  At 9:45 the status box next to the flight number blinked.  Delayed.  Then came an announcement that the 10pm flight had been bumped back to 12:04; it had been bumped just like the other flights before it, flights that had stayed on the board until about 30 minutes prior to their scheduled departure, flights that were then suddenly announced as cancelled.

I sat there for a little bit, then checked my watch.  10:05.  I turned to my new friend and asked when he thought the last bus to Midwest City might leave.  He thought it ran every half-hour or three-quarter hour and that the last one left between 10 and 11.  I looked once more at the board and at all the flickering lights that informed me this major airline had lost about all its ability to manage its business at this major airport.  Then I got my bag and took the elevator down to the bus station area of the airport.  My new friend joined me and we indeed caught the last bus of the evening out of Chicago-O’Hare.  Instead of sitting on a hard, plastic seat near the gate, not knowing whether the last flight would actually come in, not knowing whether or not I’d be sleeping a fitful sleep in the terminal , I was sitting in a plush, comfortable seat in a tour bus headed for Midwest City.  I got there about the time the plane had been scheduled to leave O’Hare–if in fact it ever came or left.

I tell you, it felt good to make that call, to abandon all the frustration at the airport, to abandon all dependence on this airline and this airport to seek out and take another way to my destination.  I had found this other path, through the help of another, and taking it was an empowering experience.

As I write this I am still awaiting word on the outcome of the interview in the little town about an hour away from Midwest City.  I thought it went very well and that there seemed to be a good match between us.  But I also thought that about the interview with the South Plains people a while back.  My current situation is not too dissimilar from the situation at the airport, looking at the large board with diminishing hope, rising frustration and growing awareness that the system is broken in such a way that you can no longer depend on it to help you get to your destination.  Maybe it’s time to start looking for a bus.

Tumbleweed Likely to Tumble Down Different Road Soon

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Happy 2012 y’all!  How was your Christmas?  Your Hanukkah?   Your Festivus?  Your New Year’s?

To my colleagues and church friends, how are those annual congregational meetings going?

It’s been quite the break between posts and there’s a part of me that feels badly about not posting the last couple of months.

Yet the hiatus is also a necessary outcome of all the doin’s and not-doin’s that have caused a fair amount of upheaval and general consternation.

Specifically, I’m getting the message that there’s not likely going to be any further opportunities to serve as pastor in the denomination I’ve served for the past ten years.  Maybe it’s just the geography I’m in, maybe it’s the current state affairs with both congregations and synod offices, maybe it’s just a long dry spell that is lasting much longer than I could anticipate.

But the reality of the situation is that for almost two years now, there hasn’t been a congregation that has been interested in extending a call my way.  The other reality is that for reasons that go as yet unexplained, the few interim assignments I’ve been offered have been increasingly  marginal in hours and compensation.   Meanwhile, I’ve needed to be working and my mailbox keeps bringing me news that I have bills to pay.   Without friends and family, this past Christmas would have been a bit too Dickensian.

I’ve loved doing the valuable work of ministry among people for ten years, and I’ve been blessed to do it in three different states.    A pastor wears a lot of hats:  worship leader, chaplain, teacher, student, administrator,  fellow-seeker, friend, and of course, ambassador for the renewing grace and acceptance of Christ.   I’ve been honored and blessed to wear those hats in my ministry.  It’s been a blast when I’ve found that one of my classes or sermons has sparked something in a person, and it’s been amazing when a few people in the church have sparked something in me as well.  I’ve been most privileged to have people invite me into the most intimate and crucial points of their lives so that I might walk a bit of their roads with them to share in the pain and pleasure of those moments.  I’m really glad that my career in ministry began with the chance to officiate 3 weddings in two months.   It’s interesting that my last pastorate ended with a bunch a funerals that culminated in the final funeral for a closing congregation.

These are tough, tough times for the church, especially those expressions of church that were built in the 20th century–the mid-twentieth century, to be more specific.  Congregations across the country are shriveling and dying at an ever increasing rate.  And the ones that aren’t can begin to see some ominous storm clouds on their horizon.  I was out on the front end of that curve; normally I wouldn’t mind being considered as being out on the cutting edge, but when that edge does its cutting this close to home, well………………………

I’m aware that it may not be such a bad thing that nobody wants to punch my ticket and let me climb on board a ship that is taking on water faster than it can be bailed.  It’s just that I spent about 5 years of my life preparing for that boat ride, and spent another ten out sailing.   But massive quakes are hitting the church now, and unless one can find a place with a group that is equipped to roll with those tremors, it’s maybe better to be outside the building while it threatens to collapse on those who continue in their denial with all the stubborness of someone who refuses to accept their own mortality.

What is happening is nothing short of a New Reformation in the 21st century.  Christianity is being renewed and reformed in ways that must just scare the daylights out of those folks who’d planned to just stay the course until they could retire and cash in on their pensions.    And unfortunately, much of the church’s financial woes can be traced to those folks who are in that very process of moving up this suddenly burdensome salary ladder; they may be offering great experience and talented ministry, but they are also part of the reason the church is being hollowed out from the inside.  They can come up with some pretty dynamic program ideas and offer the church some great charismatic leadership, but these things won’t forestall the changes already shifting the ground beneath their feet.   Only a committment to the essentials of life you find revealed in the gospels can be of some help.  There is much to argue about when it comes to those essentials, but for me they’ve  meant an openness to God’s Spirit and a real, honest dedication to the exploration of scripture that is combined with an ongoing pattern of prayer; and these things are fed by worship that connects us to these things and to one another.

Ah, I digress.  The point of this post was to say that it appears one door is being shut.  But in the roiling process of figuring out What’s Next, another door appears to be opening, one I’d never have considered.    If I walk through that door I’ll be finding new homes for all my books, clothes and other pastor-related things I’ll no longer use.   I figure that if God still wants to use my talents in some church-related way, it’ll be in a totally different place than where  I’ve been.  In fact, I’m wondering if this is in fact my calling and my version of Reformation.

The bottom line is that I’ve mostly enjoyed being the one to proclaim God’s grace to folks for the past ten years.  Now maybe it’s time to start living in that grace, and letting it take me through the next door and on to the next chapter.

I’ll be saying more about this, but I can’t say when I’ll be saying it.  So there.  ‘Nuff said.

Relevant Expressions of Church for the 21st Century

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This process of dreaming and imagining and applying some careful thought to the notion of churches that will best navigate life in the 20’s, this process has reminded me that it’s a lot easier to look back at what went wrong, and what is going wrong now, than it is to look for the new solutions and possibilities.  I’m reminded of a synod-sponsored meeting in which all the participants were invited to fill out index cards stating issues impacting their churches.  Two categories in particular were, “What Gives Life to Your Congregation?” and “What Takes Life Away?”   The cards were then arranged on a wall according to their category.  Guess which category had the most cards?  Yep, the second one.  So I guess it’s now time to take a stab at category number one and kick around a few visions of church that might leave a good footprint or two in the 21st century.

The expressions of church that will likely survive  in this new century are the expressions of church that bring spiritual meaning, connection and purpose to people who no longer find meaning in simply signing up.   Rituals will connect with people where they’re at–and yes, we’re including liturgical rituals in this imagination.  Denominational-ism, while currently devalued, will retain a place in 21st century Christianity, but without much of the pride and exclusivity that have so poorly defined its character.  As one of my colleagues, Pastor Tim, says, it’s likely though that the mainline Protestants will merge together under a big umbrella.  And like the many sub-identities of the Roman Catholic Church–from the Jesuits to the Franciscans to the charismatics–the 21st century merged Protestant churches will maintain the familiar sub-identities we call Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Church of Christ, Episcopalian.

The churches that seem to “get it,” like the historic peace churches that got out in front to lead the rest of us on the Iraq War– these churches may do quite well indeed.  This past decade, their people and leaders have modeled  Christian integrity as they have called us all, time and time again, to the principles of non-violence, reconciliation  and forgiveness that define the Good News in Christ.  Meanwhile, too many of us have been mired in church cultures where Christan belief has long been welded to American Exceptionalism, so much so that too many of us adopted a “tiptoe through the minefield” strategy in order to survive.  A lot of us Lutherans ducked behind the Augsburg Confession’s stated position that the affairs of state are best left to the state, and that we should spend more time tending to the spiritual realm.  So we kept quiet, prayed for the troops, and officiated some funerals for the unfortunate young folks who came home in a box from that damned war.   (It isn’t profanity when you call a thing what it is.)  But, I digress…………

Churches that make plenty of room for doubt, for questions and for uncertainty, will serve people who are starving for such communities.  These churches stand the best chance of becoming strong faith communities, since the primary opponent of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty.

I believe the Church’s best gift to this emerging 21st century culture is found in the ancient heritage that rises above the limitations of creed and doctrine, yet it’s also a heritage that  also paradoxically claims these things as the identity markers that hold different, even disagreeable people, together in community.  Like many folks, I’m drawn to the legacy bequeathed to us by the earliest Christian churches that left their mark on the New Testament.  These were different faith communities, radically different in some cases, and some communities brought radical differences together around a common table.  The New Testament witness reveals there were problems–oh boy (Oy!), were there problems!  Yet these folks continued to live together in these communities, and they ultimately gave the larger Greco-Roman culture some priceless gifts; first and foremost being the value of every person–slave, child, female, or free citizen–in the sight of a loving God.

Today we live in a culture where folks pursue their ambitions with strategies that often include de-humanizing and demonizing anyone they perceive to be in their way.   This has been going on so long that the society hasn’t been rended, it’s been “chasmed.”    That chasm seems un-bridgeable at the moment.  If the Church could see and seize this opportunity, it could become the place where people who disagree could gather together and model the behavior that can heal us and make us whole.  There is a balm in Gilead, and it’s the gift of life St. Paul lifted up to the Galatian churches as the life they could find in the Spirit:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (today we might add “divisions”). If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

(Galatians 5:23-26)

This won’t be a perfect model; it never was.  But it’s a model that can bring tangible healing and salvation to a world torn asunder by all those things Paul would ascribe to the life lived only in the acceptance of a physical reality.  And this church can call us all to a higher standard of behavior toward those we find disagreeable.  This church can remind all of us that the divine spark of God flickers in both friend and enemy.

There is another expression of church that will find good footing in these times.  The church with an organic gospel, the good news that God is part and parcel with every aspect of the material world–our planet as well as the universe–this church can guide people down a healthy path that folks like Emerson and Whitman thought possible only through humanism.   It’s true that the ancient gnosticism pitting noble, incorruptible spirit against the evil materialism of nature, this has gotten far too entrenched in Christianity.   Most folks know that it’s just not right to knock down mountains, poison rivers and destroy habitat merely for the sake of extracting its resources for our own gain.  Most folks know that such behavior is contributing to much of the death-dealing activity that threatens the earth and all its species.  Organic gospel churches that stand against this ongoing devastation might do very well.

But we must know that we can no longer define “well” by membership numbers.  Instead, “well” should refer to the integrity of the church and its faithfulness to its essential, historic message of a life to be lived in the love of God .   That’s the historic message carried by a diversity of historic folks, including the Ignacii from both Antioch and Loyola; the Martins of Tours, Wittenberg and Birmingham; both Billys, Billy Graham and Billy, the long-haired Jesus Freak toting around a dog-eared copy of Good News for Modern Man.

I expect the Church as we’ve known it, will continue to decline during my lifetime.  But resurrection cannot happen without death.  Even now, the 21st century expressions of church are emerging.   These expressions defy labels and categories through their newness and adaptability to the changing present.  We shouldn’t be too surprised or feel too threatened, since it all goes back to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the profound changes these events brought into the life of the world.

Meanwhile, in all we do, as we live day after day in this uncertain, sometimes fearsome, new century, maybe the best advice on how to conduct our daily business comes from one of the ancient leaders of the second century Church, Irenaeus of Lyons.  In turbulent and uncertain times, he wrote, “The business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death.”  As I read him, there’s not one snitch of fatalism to be found in that statement, only the paradox that we find in Christ, that to die is to live, and live abundantly.  So we live, working to make the world a suitable inheritance for those who follow us.  We live, knowing that All Things Must Pass (to borrow from George Harrison), and those things include our thoughts and dreams and everything else you and I grasp on to as a way to comfortably frame our sense of reality.  We live, believing that Life and Love continue to grow and to blossom in the new realities that exist beyond our framework.

To wrap up, here’s a version of “All Things Must Pass” performed by the Friends of George at his memorial concert, held in the dawning years of this new century.  Try watching the entire DVD of the Concert for George, especially the part where East meets West, and I think you might find some of the touchstones that are even now defining new expressions of spirituality and community in the 21st century.