Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Once Upon a January

"No system, no matter how godly its goal sounds, that carries within it oppression, silencing, de-humanizing violence, arrogance, abuse and corruption is healthy – spiritually or humanly." - Diane Langberg

Two years ago I was offered a job. I already had a job as a pastor, but it was a temporary job (as an outside contractor) and an easy job: filing. Putting papers in the right folder. I had a whole list of podcasts lined up, prepared to spend a few hours a day for a couple weeks doing some mindless office work. The pay? Ten dollars an hour. On my first day, I expected to be handed a stack of papers and a stack of folders. I was, but I was also given instructions I wasn't expecting: Can you analyze the contents of these files, use your past experience working in this office to determine what's relevant, and purge irrelevant documents while reorganizing what's left? I quickly realized my podcast list was out the window. I took a few "sample" files to identify common documents and began to make a master list with categories to help organize the content of every file. Then I began the work of studying every document in every file to determine its content, date of origin, and relevance. Suddenly, that ten dollars an hour wasn't sounding like very much. So I shared with the person who had contracted the work to me my thoughts on the project and asked for a raise. She agreed but thought she would run it by her supervisor first. That's when things started to go sideways. Over the weekend, I was surprised when my phone notified me of an email from the CFO. I didn't even know him. I'd met him once at a party a few years earlier, but other than that, we had never spoken. I wasn't an employee of his organization; I was working as an independent contractor. What could he have to say to me? Well, A LOT, as it turned out. He told me that a request for a change of pay was unethical. He said I was going back on my word. He told me that I must have no idea how organizations like that were run because if everyone was like me it would lead to bankruptcy. He told me that I had manipulated him into a lose-lose situation. He told me how difficult I was making things for him. In the end, he felt he had no choice but to offer me a two dollar raise. I felt embarrassed, selfish, and ashamed. I responded carefully. I said that I believed that asking for a change in pay was a common practice in most organizations and did not merit a response like his. He responded back and said that if that was the practice in the past, that's too bad, but as long as he was in charge, it would not be a practice anymore. Again, I felt small. I felt embarrassed. Clearly I had misread the company culture. And then I got angry because I realized that's how I was supposed to feel. I was supposed to apologize for asking for a raise and never, ever dream of doing anything like that again. I knew that I was supposed to feel that way because I had read the files! I'd seen his correspondence regarding other employees, the way his derision came through even in print. I also have Facebook. I'd read the stories of other employees whose character he had attacked. I knew that former employees had struggled to defend not only their work performance but their character. And now it was happening to me. I worked there for three days before he decided he knew enough about me, without even having met me, to make judgments about my character, my integrity, and my intelligence. Judgments which he didn't hesitate to share with me in an email that could end up in his file. Except, of course, he didn't have a file. I didn't know what to do. I called the president. We had known each other for years. I thought he would be horrified to know that someone who worked for him would act so unprofessionally and inappropriately. His response, however, was careful, "I don't think I need to get involved here." I realized I was on my own. I took some time to think about my response to the CFO. I finally settled on two points of contention. First, it was extremely unprofessional for him to contact me at all. He sent me email on my personal email, which I'm not even sure how he got. I was not an employee but an outside contractor. The CFO doesn't go out and lecture the HVAC repairman on his character. If he did, you can bet that guy wouldn't be back!

Second, I realized that his response to me was not an anomaly. It was his default response to anyone who questioned anything: control, manipulate, silence. The second point in my response was a carefully considered accusation of abuse. I don't use that word lightly. I researched what I was experiencing to see if it was truly abuse, and I came across the term "gaslighting." Gaslighting is a form of abuse that makes victims "question their sanity, their perception of reality, or their memories, which can result in the victim feeling confused anxious and unable to trust themselves." (medicalnewstoday.com/articles/gaslighting) I had asked myself those kinds of questions. Did I misunderstand the situation? Had I inadvertently put him in an impossible situation? Was I manipulating him? Was I unethical for wanting to change the terms of my agreement? Was I acting selfishly in a way that would undermine the financial viability of the institution? It's worth noting that this is especially common in the church because people like me have spent years going to the altar to confess our sins and we're all highly attuned to any hint of wrongdoing so we can quickly repent and "get right with God." I sent my email and waited for a response. The CFO sent me back a terse email. He didn't appreciate my tone and the conversation was over. I submitted my resignation. It was a temp job for terrible pay! Not really hard to walk away from... But what I didn't know was that the organization had a very strict policy against abuse. And the CFO was obligated to report my accusation, whether he found it baseless or not. I learned this because before the CFO did anything else, he went TO MY HUSBAND. He said, "Did your wife really mean what she wrote to me?" My husband responded wisely and said, "My wife always means what she says." And then the CFO said, "Per our policy, I am obligated to report this to the president, but I would be willing not to if you think it may endanger your relationship with him." I don't know exactly what happened after that because I never heard ANYTHING. No form letter like, "We take accusations of abuse very seriously and will follow up with you if we have further questions regarding your experience." No phone call. Nothing. However, I do know that at some point, the president, the CFO, and the CFO's lawyer had a conversation because they copied in my husband on the follow up email! What?? Over the next year, in casual conversations with the president, he said to me more than once, "You know, as Christians we need to be careful of the words we use to describe people." So apparently, the only follow-up of a very serious accusation was a gentle chastisement of my un-Christlike spirit. I only worked there for one week. I finished the reorganization of the first half of the files and left the other half behind. I walked away heartbroken. This was my alma mater. The president was my friend. For a while, I continued to use the library as a resource. I would go sit in the café and study. And people would talk to me. I heard other stories. Stories of insults, sexism, even racist policies implemented in business relationships with primarily black community partners. I saw people leave, defeated by their experience there. I saw people leave, head held high, knowing that they took the high ground even when their character was ruthlessly attacked again and again. Gradually my husband and I both realized we had to leave. He has his own story, which I won't tell here.

We left everything behind.

I will probably never again talk to the president who I once considered a friend. I will probably never return to my alma mater. The CFO works for multiple organizations in my denomination. I have slowly begun to realize that his behavior is widely known and seemingly accepted. The president is a beloved and widely-respected leader in the denomination. I see the path of broken lives he leaves behind as he moves ever onward and upward, and I really don't even know how to make sense of it. He speaks so well. He prays so well. He sings so well. It has taken a long time for me to realize that speaking, praying, and singing are different from doing. The fallout of this feels like a death to me. It all started over an insignificant request for an insignificant pay raise. But in the process, I saw men in powerful positions taking a considered accusation of abuse, discussing it among themselves, casually dismissing it, and then sending a representative to chastise me for my words. I know that people have horrific stories. I know that people have suffered much, much more than I have at the hands of church leaders. Unfortunately that seems to be a common feature of the world we live in. But I am writing this today because it's January. And somehow my body knows it was January when this all happened. I woke up in the middle of the night, my mind churning. I had dreams of people fighting. Maybe next January when my memories rush back again, they won't be quite as strong or quite as painful. Maybe broken relationships will have faded from memory. My hope is that telling my story will be one more step towards healing, one more step towards truly believing that I did nothing wrong and need not feel ashamed. My hope in sharing is that others will know that abuse comes in many forms, and it doesn't take death for you to feel loss. We all have our stories. We all carry our stories in our minds, hearts, and bodies. They go with us. They make us hesitant to trust again. They make us guarded when someone looks or acts the same as someone from the past. They make us think that we need to be mean first because the mean is sure to come at us sooner or later. It's hard to stay kind and compassionate when it feels like kindness and compassion are weak and easily taken advantage of. It's hard to stay open when it feels like openness is an invitation to betrayal. It's hard to let go of anger when it feels like anger is the only weapon you have left at your disposal. I don't know what the future holds for us. I only know what's behind. But I do know that we have found slow, but sure healing. We have found a life out from under the shadow of abusive behavior. We don't know what's ahead, but we do know we will never go back.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Empty Hands

"Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." - Jesus

We live in a culture that values people for what they contribute. The question, "What do you bring to the table?" is everywhere--job interviews, sports teams, college applications, even friendships and dating relationships.

This question can quickly become distorted, especially when we try to approach God with this attitude. It's easy to start telling God all the ways we can contribute, all the things we bring to the table. This goes great until we find ourselves in the wilderness.

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday is the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. The wilderness is a recurring theme throughout Scripture. It is a place of trial and temptation in both Testaments.

Here's the thing about the wilderness: there's nothing there. No food. No work. No friends or family. Nothing to produce. Nothing to create. Nothing to show off how accomplished we are, no way to contribute anything. To anyone.

If I am loved because of what I contribute, what happens when I can't contribute anything? What happens when I show up at the table empty-handed? Am I still loved? Am I still valuable?

In the season of Lent, we are called to enter a sort of spiritual wilderness, to remember that we are but dust and ashes, coming before God empty-handed, unable to save ourselves. For me, this is both terrifying and life-giving.

As a pastor, I constantly ask myself what I should be doing to care for God's church. Who should I call? Who should I visit? What should I preach? What should I teach? What skills do I need to improve?

My mother-in-law posted a verse just yesterday that speaks directly to these questions: Ephesians 5:29 - "No one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it, just as Christ cares for the church."

The fruit will still ripen on the ground after the branch breaks.
I have a position in the church that comes with expectations that I need to fulfill. But it's not up to me to save anyone or to save the church. In fact, if I lose sight of my proper place and try to do it all myself, maybe the church might flourish for a short time. However, even though a vine cut off from the plant will still produce good-looking fruit for a short time, that fruit will be bitter. And so the fruit of a ministry built on my shoulders may produce a church that looks just fine on the outside but it will be bitter to anyone who comes close enough to taste it.

Recently, I was invited to join a campaign with the slogan: "Zero Zeroes." On the surface, it's just a question of numbers: moving past zero new members, zero baptisms, zero increase in giving, etc. At the end of the year, I will be encouraged to report "zero zeroes" in key areas of growth.

However, in a culture that values production and gives awards to those who produce the most, this is dangerous language. This sounds like:

  • Zero empty hands
  • Zero travelers in the wilderness
  • Zero of the burnt out, the broken-down, the disheartened and discouraged
  • Zero losers
  • Zero who are suffering too much to have anything to offer
  • Zero addicts or people facing the challenges of mental illness

It sounds a lot like, "Losers are not welcome here, only winners."

I will never pastor a church that preaches this gospel. I will never pastor a church that values people solely for their contribution, their productivity. I will never pastor a church that only welcomes winners.

I will never pastor a church that preaches this gospel because it is too much of a temptation for me: I am always concerned about what I have to contribute, what I bring to the table. I am always trying to leverage a skill or a bit of knowledge to find value in someone's eyes. And it leaves me empty. It leaves me feeling worthless and unloved when I can't contribute the way I want to. It turns my relationships into transactions: I will contribute this so that you tell me how much you value me. In the end, it is utterly destructive and absolutely contrary to the good news of the gospel.

During this Lenten season, I have two important messages to share:
1. You are completely loved, even when you are completely lost, broken, discouraged, and hopeless.
2. You are completely welcome to bring all of that mess with you to church. I may be a pastor, but I have a mess too. We'll just bring it to God together and let God sort it all out.

"Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest."

All the zeroes are welcome in the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

David Versus Goliath

"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster." - Friedrich Nietzsche

One of the questions I ask when studying scripture is, "Where can I stand in the text?" If that question goes unasked, the assumed answer is usually Jesus. Or Israel or Paul or whoever the good guy happens to be in that particular story.

When we encounter a story of conflict (whether in the Bible or at the movie theater), we easily find ourselves shaking our fists right along with the hero, shouting, "Get 'em! Get 'em good!"

We identify with the hero fighting for right. Our anger is always righteous. Our violent response is always justified. The story of David and Goliath has all of the elements that produce those feelings:
  • David was hopelessly outmatched by the giant Goliath. He was the underdog.
  • David is perceived as a simple shepherd boy, innocent and righteous, coming to take on a sinful, godless murderer. Good and evil are clearly defined.
  • Goliath insulted not only the Israelites but our God. David was defending not only his people but our God. What cause more justifies a fight?
This narrative is a dangerous one for the church today. We are steeped in what Walter Wink calls "The Myth of Redemptive Violence." He writes that this myth "enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right."*

We tell story after story of heroes battling bad guys. The stories are especially thrilling when the hero is hopelessly outmatched, defeat seems imminent, and the world as we know it is about to end. But then--suddenly, impossibly--victory!

We are so enamored by these stories that we seek ways to embody them in our own lives. We long to be real life heroes. We want to bring justice where injustice is perpetuated. To bring righteousness where evil is winning. To bring hope where all seems lost.

We want to be David.

But there are two problems with this. First, we forget to consider that we may not actually be David. We just might be Goliath--with all of the power on our side.

The echo chamber of social media, curated news feeds, and like-minded groups has undermined our ability to discern who is David and who is Goliath.

It is easy to link arms with our fellow soldiers and go to war against the Goliaths all around us. Our battle cry is borrowed from the narrative of David and Goliath: "We are hopelessly outmatched, but this evil giant must be defeated in the name of our god!"

And with this cry, we go to war, justified in slinging whatever we can find at our giant enemies.

Only here's the problem. Our enemies also think they are David. And so they come slinging their rocks too.

We are outraged! What right does Goliath have to take shots at David? He's a giant; we're mere shepherds. He's evil; we're righteous. He is the enemy of God; we are the defenders of God.

This is dangerous thinking. It is the logic of terrorists: acts of violence against the godless enemy are always justified.

It is all too easy to go from righteous heroism to violent terrorism.

Some examples:

  • Conservatives versus liberals. Conservatives say that liberals are taking over this country. Politically correct speech has made it impossible to say anything. Others' values are being forced upon us. Liberalism is a giant force that we have to take shots at every chance we get.
  • Liberals versus conservatives. Liberals say that conservatives have held power in this country for way too long. They are a giant that controls politics, corporations, and religious institutions. We have to take whatever shots we can get to bring them down.
  • Conservative Christians versus liberal Christians. I see these battles raging on Facebook and Twitter. Conservative Christians say that the church is losing its way. Everything that was important to our parents and grandparents is dismissed as old-fashioned and irrelevant. This liberal Christianity is an unstoppable force sweeping the church, but we must stand and defend the values and beliefs of those who have gone before us by any means possible. If some of those liberal Christians get their feelings hurt in the process, maybe it will help them see the truth.
  • Liberal Christians versus conservative Christians. This is the other side of the Facebook battle. Liberal Christians look at the positions of power and feel completely outmatched. The conservative Christians are the presidents of institutions, denominational leaders, and the most visible local leaders. We are hopelessly outmatched. They hold all the power. We are marginalized, ignored, and blacklisted. Again, we are justified in using any means at our disposal to promote change and bring new life to dying institutions, even if it means hurting the feelings of a few of those institutional defenders along the way.
  • I see it in churches. New people come who represent new ways of thinking, alternative lifestyles, changes in traditional gender roles, different politics. They are perceived as agents of Goliath. If we can defeat them in argument, it is a potshot at Goliath. (Note that this happens to people on both sides of any issue, even in churches.)
  • It happens in work environments. Employers are "the man" and employees are justified in taking little shots here and there--fudging hours on timecards, misusing their work time, taking office supplies. The employer is Goliath and employees are the shepherd David barely able to get off a shot before they are eaten up by the system. On the other hand, employers perceive employees as lazy, apathetic, and incompetent. They are the Goliath of a useless workforce, and employers are justified in taking whatever shots they can get off at their employees before the full force of their laziness and apathy destroys the hard work of employers.
In all of these situations, a larger narrative of a dangerous giant is used to justify violence against individuals. We may not be able to defeat this or that agenda, but we can take down this _____ (fill in the blank: pastor, employer, denominational leader, student, employee, parishioner, stranger on Facebook).

It would be appalling if Goliath was throwing rocks at David, and we would be horrified to see ourselves as a murderous giant picking on a poor, innocent shepherd. But as long as we can convince ourselves that we are the innocent shepherd trying to take down the giant, all of our violent thoughts, words, and deeds are justified. We are just trying to defend our god.

It may come as a shock to many Christians that God isn't actually in need of our defense. Nor is God's church.

We aren't actually saviors.

This is the second problem with our reading of David and Goliath. There is a much larger biblical narrative to consider. The prophet Zechariah put it well: "'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty." It is, in fact, not our responsibility to defeat all evil in the world. Rather, it is our responsibility (in the words of Micah) to "act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God."

The idea that the end justifies the means is a popular ethical foundation. However, the biblical message is God justifies the means and decides the end. We are always called to faithful obedience, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, laying down our life and taking up his cross.

Today, if you encounter Goliath, instead of turning to the words of David in 1 Samuel 17, turn instead to other words of David (or the Sons of Korah) in Psalm 46:

"He makes wars cease
   to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
He says, 'Be still, and know that I am God;
   I will be exalted among the nations,
   I will be exalted in the earth.'

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress."

My own little superhero and his sidekick!

*Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, 1998, p. 42.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Why I Am an Aspiring Charismatic Nazarene, Part 2

For most of my first three years as a pastor, I avoided preaching the Gospels like the plague. Old Testament--fine. Paul--I can do that. Revelation--why not? But when it came to Jesus, I didn't know where to begin. We read a passage from the Gospels every Sunday, so the words of Jesus still made it into our services. But I never expounded on them.


I took Jesus' words too seriously.

"If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also."

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth..."

"Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear..."

"Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father."

"And I will do whatever you ask in my name..."

"Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."

I mean, we're talking about miracles here. Not power of suggestion, psychological manipulation, or some other scientifically understandable action. We're also talking about some pretty radical faith. How do I preach this?

Even John the Baptist: "Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same."

When I read other parts of the Bible that seemed hard to understand or hard to live out, learning about the context helped make obscure statements more clear. But these words are already clear. If you have two shirts, give one away. Simple.

The love is radical, the generosity is unprecedented, and the work of God is miraculous.

I wanted to offer hope to the suffering. I wanted to challenge the complacent. I wanted to proclaim the good news of a radical kingdom where captives are set free, the blind see, the lame walk, and the good news is preached to the poor.

But I had never seen that kind of kingdom in action. I know a lot of devout Christians who love well, and I have been incredibly well-loved by God's church. I also know a lot of defeated Christians, who humbly accept the lot dealt them by life and try their best to get by.

Last September I spent a month traveling with Dan Bohi, Jay and Judy Jellison, Dave and Barb Flack, and Craig Rench. I saw the words of Jesus lived out in a new way. I saw people healed. I saw that physical healing is often the least impressive kind of healing. I saw marriages healed. I saw people openly confess sins they had been hiding for years. I saw people get mad at each other and then take their anger to God instead of lashing out or walking away and then come back together in unity. I saw confidence and fearlessness in the face of opposition, fatigue, and spiritual battles. I saw love that knew no bounds. Love that was not fragile--dependent on sharing the right opinions, looking the right way, or not being too messed up--love that did not fail. I saw Jesus' words put into action: "Freely you have received, freely give."

When I came back, I quit writing. A lot of times, I write when I'm mad. Or when I feel like I have something that needs to be said that no one is hearing. When I came back, I wasn't mad, and I wasn't worried about being heard.

I am no longer an aspiring charismatic Nazarene. I'm all in. I'm preaching the gospels without reservation.

John sent his disciples with a message to Jesus: "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?"

Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me."

When someone asks me what my church is like, this is how I want to respond--with a list of all the ways that the kingdom of God is bursting forth in our midst.

One of my seminary professors said that the most important message pastors can preach is the already/not yet kingdom of God. I've been preaching the "not yet" for a long time. Now I'm preaching the "already."

The kingdom of God has come near.

Thanks be to God!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Why I Am An Aspiring Charismatic Nazarene, Part 1

"He's willing to wait for the miracle. What else is he gonna do?" - Marc Cohn

I am a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene. I pastor a small church in rural Missouri. The wounds in this church are deep. It is a sixty-five year history of church splits, scandal, and a whole bunch of pastors who stayed only a few years before moving onto greener pastures. Someone remarked to me that our list of pastors is a who's who list of Nazarene leaders--because our church served as a stepping stone for seminary graduates taking their first pastorate before being "promoted" to a more "prestigious" assignment.

But the wounds present in this church go beyond the sixty-five year history of the church.

The members of my church are upright, stable, respectable community members--teachers, nurses, farmers, and factory workers.

But they tell stories. Of abuse, addiction, neglect, and poverty. While the members of my church have escaped the pain and dysfunction of their childhoods, we regularly pray for family members--brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews--who did not escape, who are caught in ongoing cycles of abuse, addiction, mental illness, and poverty.

Family Systems
Those are not my story to tell. But as the author of this article so eloquently shares, they ARE our stories. I first encountered Rabbi Edwin Friedman's theory of family systems in seminary. The idea is that one person in the family might express outward signs of dysfunction, but the whole system works together to support that. One sibling might be suicidal and rebellious, while another sibling is the straight-A student who never breaks any rules. But what Friedman argues is that BOTH of them are unhealthy. Both of them hold the system in balance. And in fact, if the outwardly dysfunctional sibling improves, it may have an adverse effect on the straight-A student...until the system rights itself and they both go back to their comfortable functions in the family, reestablishing the balance.

In lots of families, then, there is the churchgoer and the addict. The churchgoer and the rebel. The churchgoer and the one who can't seem to pull themselves together. But according to Friedman, they are both unhealthy. They are both expressing their family's dysfunction but in opposite ways.

The wounds of my people may not be so visible in their lives as in the lives of their family members, but they are still there--like a broken bone that didn't get set straight. On the surface it seems healed, but it is a constant source of pain, easily triggered by a wrong movement or a change in the weather.

Here's the thing about a lot of this trauma and tragedy: a few really good therapy sessions with a gifted therapist would do a lot to bring healing to these broken places. But it's hard to explain to city dwellers just how inaccessible this is to people in rural areas. The time, the money, the right person--it's usually an impossible combination to put in place. Some of my congregants have in fact been to therapists, only to be told that their problems are beyond the scope of the therapist. And so they continue on with this poorly healed broken place that just hurts a lot sometimes.

What's a pastor to do?
I was talking to a pastor friend today who said he had a conversation with a member of his congregation. He was asked, "Why don't we see the same kind of healing in North America that we hear of in other parts of the world?" The pastor's answer: "Because we have Mastercard."

It's a joke but it's also true. When we are in need of physical healing, we put together doctor visits, medications, rest and recovery time--and we get better (sometimes). When our first attempt doesn't work, we look for better doctors, more skilled surgeons, stronger medication--and then we get better (sometimes). We pray for healing in church in case God wants to do that, but we expect healing in hospitals.

In other parts of the world, where people have less access to medical care, they expect healing in church and try hospitals just in case. (I recognize that this is a broad generalization, and I am in no way opposed to giving people more and better access to medical care!) And they find the healing that they are expecting in the church.

In parts of our country where people have access to medical professionals but no access to mental health professionals, we need the same kind of dramatic healing that is happening in churches around the world. We need miracles. We need God to do in a minute what it would take years of therapy to accomplish.

One thing I've learned: I can't do it. No amount of preaching, arguing, or listening can fix these broken places.

A few weeks ago, I preached on the story in Matthew where Jesus takes the five loaves and two fishes that the disciples have and feeds five thousand people. Too often, we try to offer our five loaves and two fishes without first letting Jesus multiply it. And then we get mad when the five thousand come back and tell us that our five loaves and two fishes just aren't enough.

That's exactly what is happening in too many churches. Week after week dysfunctional, broken people show up, and we pastors give them what we have. All five of our loaves and all two fishes. But it's not enough. They're still dysfunctional. They're still mean. They're still broken.

(That's one thing that a lot of stories I hear have in common. One of the greatest sources of pain is the way people have been treated in church. We Christians can be shockingly mean.)

We need miracles! We need healing and transformation. We pastors need Jesus to multiply what we have to offer.

Image credit: melkite.org
Why charismatic?
I may be wading into some murky waters here, but I've attended a lot of churches, and I almost always see healing go hand in hand with charismatic expressions of faith. These people that wave their hankies, run the aisles, fall down, pray in tongues, and prophesy--these people are the ones who tell dramatic stories of God's healing.

A good friend of mind reminded me today that this can all go wildly awry. Pastors can be manipulative and hurtful. They can play mind games with people convincing them that they are healed or that it's their fault that they're not healed.

But it doesn't always have to go that direction. A well-respected leader in the Church of the Nazarene once said, "Wherever the church is exploding, it is living on the edge of chaos."

Paul had a lot to say to the Corinthians about their worship practices, but I think a lot of his message can be summed up with one word: love. Don't let your prejudices get in the way of love, and don't let your practices get in the way of love.

When we become so concerned that our worship services look a certain way that we start to get in the way of God's healing, we have a major problem. Maybe there isn't chaos and disorder. Maybe we've managed to bypass the emotional manipulation. But maybe in the process we've put a lid on the Spirit's work in the church. Maybe we've taken Jesus out of the equation and we spend a lot of time trying to make our five loaves and two fishes somehow be enough.

A Failing Organization
At the Global Leadership Summit last week, one of the speakers said that, "Uniquely better often comes as a solution to a problem that successful organizations are trying to avoid." Almost everyday I hear or read something about how the church is losing its influence, losing its young people, losing its place in American society.

I hear pastors lamenting these losses and contemplating solutions, but for the most part, their churches are still hanging on, still able to go on for a good while longer on the momentum of previous generations.

This is not the case for my church, and it's not the case for this pastor. We are one family leaving away from closing. And maybe even more urgently I can't do this. I can't give my life to maintaining the status quo. I can't watch young people grow up and perpetuate the dysfunction of their parents and grandparents.

We need a solution to a problem that successful organizations are trying to avoid. We don't need better leaders or less dysfunctional people. We need God's miraculous healing in the lives of we who gather week after week.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Living Locally

"A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other's lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves." - Wendell Berry

This is the view out my front door as I write this morning. Watching the sun rise over the horizon as the steam comes off the pond. It is the very picture of peace. 

And yet, over the past few weeks, I've found myself filled with turmoil, anxiety, stress, fear, and even despair. I've often heard people say, "Never read the comments!" Well, I'm the person who reads the comments. I'm just curious. What do other people think? How does this article/YouTube video/Facebook post/blog speak to other people?

It's easy to say, "Never read the comments," but behind every comment is a person. Jesus said, "Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks." These aren't just comments; they are the overflow of people's hearts.

People's hearts are angry. They are fearful. Bitter. Wounded. Anxious. Raging. Antagonistic. Mean. 

I find myself absorbing those emotions. I am a great lover of literature, but I am cautious in what I read because I get so caught up in it. I feel the pain of the characters. I laugh when they laugh and cry when they cry. I despair when they despair. And I rage when they rage.

This happens to me no matter what I'm reading, whether it's an article written by an angry liberal or an angry conservative, a string of warring Facebook comments, or a despairing blog. 

For the season of Lent, I am going to fast this up-and-down, alternately apathetic and raging world that exists "out there" and instead live right here. On winding country roads, watching the sun rise and set over cornfields, listening to the old men in the coffee shop talk about sports and gardening. I will also do the not quite so easy work of listening to my kids fight over who's hitting whom, praying with the members of my church who are sick or worried or sad, and even fighting with my husband. 

I fully recognize that most people in our world don't look out their front door and see the picture of peace that I do. I also hope to spend more time praying for the persecuted church, for victims of war and violence who have been displaced from their homes, for those daily facing hunger and starvation.
My emotions tell me that I need to be informed! I need to know what's happening!

But my faith tells me that I need to turn towards my heavenly Father. I need to intercede on behalf of those who are suffering. And that is enough. I don't need to know all the details. I don't need to hear every story.

I don't need to read every comment.

My prayer for these forty days is that as I turn again and again to God instead of to these sources of constant information, updates, tweets, instas, and emotion that my heart will more fully reflect the peace of God visible in His world, and that out of that place of peace I will be able to know this place--its people and its rhythms.

I pray that anyone who reads this will sense the powerful presence of God over the next forty days as we prepare our hearts for the celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Myth of Certainty

"Doubt is not a pleasant state of mind, but certainty is absurd." - Voltaire

Did you see the movie Moneyball starring Brad Pitt? The movie tells the story of the Oakland A's move from relying on intuition to depending on data when evaluating young baseball players. The A's didn't have the payroll to draw the biggest stars, so they needed a way to find great players that other teams overlooked.

The documentary Linsanity tells the story of NBA player Jeremy Lin, the first Asian-American NBA player. His story was similar to the players in Moneyball: a great player who just didn't look like a great player to scouts because they had no framework for an Asian-American NBA player.

The Undoing Project

In his latest book, The Undoing Project, Moneyball author Michael Lewis explores more deeply why our minds miss obvious evidence of the likely outcome in certain situations. In an interview on CBS This Morning, Lewis summed up his book by saying that one of his discoveries is that often the best person for the job is the person who looks least like our stereotypes. In other words, a doctor who doesn't look anything like we expect a doctor to look has probably had to overcome some major obstacles to get where they are and is most likely to be great at what he or she does. This goes for just about any job--accountant, CEO, NBA player and--I would add--pastor.

The reason for our selective blindness is because of our need to make the world more certain than it is. For years, economists believed that people were basically logical in their choices. Any person would choose the $.69 can of green beans over the $.89 can of green beans. People would not buy lottery tickets once they were informed of their odds of winning.

The Beginning of the End

The work that came out of a partnership between an economist and a psychologist pulled the cornerstone out of the foundation of "utility-based economics," and the edifice has slowly begun to crumble.

People actually will pay more for green beans if they feel like the $.89 can is a better deal--not necessarily for any rational reason. And obviously, quite a few people buy lottery tickets. These two professors (Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky) saw this happening in the world around them and wanted to explore why people make illogical choices and how far their illogical their choices would get.

They devised a series of brilliant scenarios to begin gathering quantitative data to support their theories. I highly recommend the book to read about their theories, experiments, and results, but I want to skip to the theory that prompted the book's title: the human tendency towards "undoing" tragedies.

Scenario: Mr. Blue drives the same route to work everyday. One day he takes a different route and is hit by a truck and killed.

A typical first response: "If only he would have taken his normal route! He may still be alive today!"

Our minds want to find ways to "undo" tragedies. We want to find sources of certainty in an uncertain world, and so we imagine scenarios that might restore certainty. But our imaginations are not limitless. They tend to operate within a finite set of parameters. We might even say, "If only he would have left just a few minutes later!"

But we're much less likely to say:
 - "If only he would have discovered that his gas tank was empty and stopped to fill up on the way."
 - "If only he would have discovered that his car was stolen overnight and not been able to drive."
 - "If only his house would have burned down and he wouldn't have gone to work."
And on and on.

In other words, there are an infinite number of "if onlys," but we focus in on a few possibilities in our attempts to "undo" tragedies.

The Temptation of Intuition

One of the temptations is to think that human intuition can somehow influence the outcome of events, as in "if only, I'd followed my intuition and called Mr. Blue that morning."

To test human intuition, Kahneman and Tversky did an experiment where they showed doctors x-rays of a stomach ulcer and asked them to make a guess as to whether it was cancerous. The doctors identified seven factors that they would consider to make their decision. I can't remember all of them (and I already returned the book to the library), but they were things like size, shape, location, etc.

Kahneman and Tversky developed a simple algorithm based on these seven factors to compare with the doctors' guesses. They theorized that their algorithm may need some tweaking that maybe weighted some factors as more significant than others or took other information into account to compete with the accuracy of the doctors.

They made two sets of the x-rays and without the doctors' knowledge actually showed them duplicates.

They were shocked and dismayed to find that not only did the simple algorithm giving each factor equal weight outperform the doctors, but the doctors didn't even make the same diagnosis on the duplicate x-rays! The intuitive opinion of experts was terrifyingly inaccurate.

This so-called intuition that convinces us that we can take our prior experience and hazard a guess as to future outcomes is shockingly wrong. The A's found some great players that other scouts said would never make it. Jeremy Lin is in his seventh year in the NBA (although apparently out right now due to injury).

Often our intuition is right--often enough that we find it mostly works to make decisions based on our gut feelings about a person or a situation.

But it's not always right, and that's what's on my mind.

Uncertainty in the Church

I've recently been involved in two attempts by the church to outguess the uncertainty of our world.

One is the process of licensing new pastors. The other is training pastors to plant churches.

Both are efforts to find certain answers to very uncertain questions. Will this pastor be a good pastor? A lifelong pastor? Will this pastor succumb to moral failure? Or burnout quickly? Will this church plant succeed? Will it survive only as long as its founding pastor is leading? Will it prove to have deep roots?

Image credit: Tibco Blog
The work of Kahneman and Tversky suggests that an algorithm based on a variety of factors common to successful pastors and successful church planters might actually be more accurate than a system based on biased humans evaluating candidates.

And in fact, I've seen aspiring pastors, missionaries, and church planters who were initially rejected prove to be quite successful.

We've attempted to combine data with intuition to help overcome bias, but what if despite our best efforts we actually can't know for sure which pastors and which church plants will succeed? What if we can't ever get our margin of error down to zero? And when we're talking about people who stand to be deeply wounded by our judgments, we really want that margin of error to be zero!

A Third Way

I'd like to offer a third way. I'm going to call it Presence.

There is a temptation to believe that a group of wise and experienced people can enter briefly into the life of a young pastor or church plant and based on their wisdom and experience know with certainty what the future will hold. But our world is terrifyingly uncertain.

I don't think the answer is to follow the path of Moneyball and quantify vast amounts of characteristics and make charts and graphs and data points.

Photo Credit: Olivia Shelton
I think the answer is for those with wisdom and experience to begin walking side by side those on the path. Not only at some fixed point in time (say an interview), but prior to that point when discernment is needed. And after that point when the decision has been made but an uncertain world leads to unexpected circumstances, actions, and emotions.

In a few weeks, I will sit in a room with four or five pastors and they will ask me lots of personal questions in an attempt to determine my future in ministry. They will think they have a good feel for the kind of person I am, what I'm passionate about, the kind of pastor I will be, etc.

But I won't tell them my doubts and fears. I won't tell them my questions and hesitations. I won't tell them anything that will endanger my hope of passing the test.

And--what's probably even more significant--after leaving that room, if I encounter obstacles that make my success uncertain, I won't call them. I won't ask them for help.

Some candidates will have friends, colleagues, and family members who they will turn to for help. Others will try to face their challenges alone. But I doubt that anyone will find this process of evaluating a candidate as a source of aid in the coming days.

There is a temptation to think that if they would have asked better questions, deeper questions, more penetrating questions, they could have somehow predicted the future with more certainty. But I think we need to stop trying to find the answer to the question, "Is this person more likely to succeed or to fail?" because the world is a lot less certain than we like to think it is.

Instead, I think we need to start asking, "How can my presence in this person's life make their success--however likely or unlikely it was to begin with--more probable going forward?"

A Few Suggestions

Some practical ways to implement this theory:

1. Find ways to educate pastors within the context of their current congregation, rather than relocating them. Vineyard Leadership Institute is a good example of this model. They combine video courses taught by excellent professors with discussion and application in local congregations. In other words, don't take pastors away from the people who know their story and background and are trusted advisors. I recognize, of course, that many pastors don't have that kind of support in their local congregations, but it's still worth considering ways to make this a higher priority.

2. Offer connections. I recognize that not every person being evaluated will connect with every evaluator, but candidates might benefit from a list of pastors/church planters who have said, "Call me, email me, text me, ask me questions, ask for prayer. I'm available."

3. Let data determine probability of success, while people provide wholehearted support. There is a part of me that cringes at this idea, but Kahneman and Tversky's work has shown the power of data in all kinds of fields. The cost of a professional athlete makes gathering this data cost-effective, but I doubt that the resources would be available to gather and analyze the data to determine the viability of pastoral candidates. Without that data, our time is probably more well-spent simply doing everything we can to support those coming after us.

A New Paradigm

What I am suggesting is essentially an entirely new paradigm for approaching the way we evaluate potential pastors and church planters. That's kind of a big deal, I know.

But our current paradigm is a weird hodgepodge of data and intuition that has left many candidates feeling attacked, defensive, and more uncertain of their chances of success after going through the process than when they began. On the other hand, it's resulted in others having an elevated opinion of their qualities, which has led to arrogance and a lack of compassion towards those they have been called to serve.

Kahneman and Tversky's work was dismissed or criticized for a long time because of the paradigm shift that it meant for economists, political leaders, business leaders, and anyone else who tried to build a system based on people's decisions, but it slowly began to enter into the public consciousness.

I think the same conversation needs to happen in the church. How certain are we? And if we can't be certain, what can we do instead?