Are You Interested?

The communities we want to nurture are based on hospitality, a welcome of strangers to reflect God’s welcome of everyone. Vitality of worship, depth of spirituality, community impact: all of these, I think, can flow from earnest hospitality exhaustively practiced.

A starting point for hospitality is an honest interest in the one being welcomed. This is so little practiced in the world. When was the last time you experienced the eager interest of someone who wasn’t selling something? Where are the spaces that are interested in you for you? Church communities should be those spaces.

Directions to the restrooms and easy-to-understand worship bulletins are prerequisites for hospitality, but the substance of the thing itself can be a curiosity about one another that leads us to mutual learning and growth. This involves observations as much as questions. “You seem to know a lot about X”; “Your work sounds fascinating”; “You just moved here? I’ll be that was an adventure.”

I just don’t think we experience the honest interest of our fellow human beings very much, and when we do it can wake us up to the movement of God in our life. When other people take an interest in some part of our story, we’re allowed to as well.

Churches should be the most interested places people encounter. Not, like, trying to act interest for the sake of appearing “nice”–no, actually interested, which will take some adjusting on our part and a willingness to receive what we’re inviting people to share.

Stop Quoting The Bible And Just Listen

If you’re trying to tell me about your experience and I’m offering theological precepts or Bible verses in response, then I’m not really hearing you. It is so much harder to receive another’s testimony than it is to give our own moral guidance.

When it comes to disputed questions and the complex issues of faith, I have been converted by testimony. Bible quotations and theological constructs like “natural order” and “general revelation” tucked cogently inside arguments, on the other hand, move me to defensiveness. They’re informative but not persuasive.

Informing your testimony with Scripture and theology is one thing. Using those things to hide from your experience and–worse–to avoid mine is another.

Trigger Warning

If you call me “arrogant” I will almost certainly shrivel up and melt away. It’s my trigger for self doubt and even shame. I’m not sure why, but nothing throws a wrench in my spokes the way that particular criticism does.

I know that now, which puts me in a much better position to do effective, meaningful work than when I didn’t know it and was only controlled by it. Now I undertake certain kinds of work prepared for that charge, and, if it comes, it doesn’t stop me the way it used to.

What criticism shuts you down? Be ready for it, and do the work you need to do.

This Is Not A Post About The Supreme Court Decision Legalizing Same Gender Marriage

It’s a post about persuasion and how to make friends in a disputed intellectual and moral landscape. And it is brief.

Something clicked for me on Friday as I took in all of the reactions to the decision, everybody’s Facebook profile pic turning rainbow, the angry posts from The Gospel Coalition shared by family members, liberal ridicule and conservative fury all scrolling along together, and what clicked was this:

I’m happy with the decision mostly because my friends are happy with it, and that posture finally feels like it contains as much integrity as a posture of dispassionate analysis, legal, Biblical, or otherwise.

My mind has rotated 180 degrees on these questions over the past decade, I now can see, because countless people pushing for normalization of same gender romantic relationships have warmly reached out to me and shared with me the virtue and character that constitutes their relationships and their argument, and they have invested in me as a person, generously, without I should profess allegiance to their cause.

I finally did profess allegiance to their cause, years after that allegiance had actually gone into effect.

On the other hand, so much of the opposition to recognizing same gender romantic relationships proceeds from a place of fear that must resist, resist, resist, and that has no energy left for hospitality, much less affection. It must characterize opponents in demeaning terms (somebody called the court’s decision a “puff piece”–a hundreds-of-pages-long product of legal argumentation a “puff piece?”). Listening to them, your first thought is not, “I’d like to hang out with those people.”

I’ve been hanging out with supporters of marriage equality for a little while now. The truth of my friends’ argument on this question stands up to theological and legal scrutiny without a doubt. It always has. And yet it is not their arguments alone that have so drastically shifted the public’s opinion on this question, but rather their character–their openness to others and their hospitality toward disputants.

It’s hard not to want to celebrate with them.

Why Godly Play Is So Worth What You Pay For It

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It’s been five years now since my colleague and I spent a chunk of our professional capital (and a fair amount of the church’s money) on Godly Play, the Montessori-esque program of Biblical and liturgical education for children that uses hand-crafted materials made in Kansas and that requires the complete re-purposing of an entire room of the church and a demanding routine of teacher training.

It was so worth it.

Seriously, all of the fretting over how to pay for it and how to train teachers for it seems silly after all this time of routinely using it. Because now we have a network of people in our church who know it and can tell most of the stories. We have at least two generations of preschool students and a whole elementary school cycle of Sunday school kids who have been shaped by the Great Family and The Good Shepherd.

Godly Play story vocabulary has invaded my preaching. Godly Play teaching techniques have informed my youth ministry.

Seriously, it has got to be one of the most valuable church resources out there. It is so much better than almost everything else you could use to teach the Bible to children. So much better.

Twice during VBS this week I pinch hit Godly Play stories for the activities provided by our curriculum. Rather than teach about the cross by making young children write down a sin, then giving a bloody rendition of the crucifixion before instructing them to place their sins at the foot of the cross, I decided to tell the Mystery of Easter. Then I told the Good Shepherd and World Communion story to explore how it is that Jesus is with us (“He is in the bread. He is in the cup”) rather than have kids make imaginary drawings of Heaven.

So. Much. Better.

I adapted them pretty heavily. But I’ve told them a bunch, so I found that quite easy.

It was a bit of a risk five years ago to propose taking over an entire room and committing so much of our Christian Education budget for one year to Godly Play materials and training. Without a doubt, though, it is the best risk I’ve taken in ministry.

Routine vs. Project

Beyond weekly Lord’s Day worship, can anything in congregational life be a routine anymore? Weekly Bible studies, the annual retreat, even monthly session meetings–all of the routine activities that made up congregational life in North America for generations feel like they have run out of gas.

Come to think of it, worship repeated in a routine way week after week isn’t exactly speeding along.

Is it time to start thinking of everything people in a church might do together as a project, something that aims to address a particular body of learning or a specific need in the community and that has a clear end date and that engages a defined community of people who are interested in it? Has the chapter ended wherein the world needed from the church a habitual way of routine life together, and are we in a time in which the world now needs a church whose life is marked by direct, effective projects that address concrete problems?

Here’s the trippy thing, though: social isolation is a major problem, and I don’t see how that gets better without some routines of people connecting with one another to build positive, trusting, reciprocal relationships.

So how do you make relationship building a project?

I Need To Stop Evaluating Everything All The Time

Somebody asked if there is anything I’m working on that I enjoy completely and don’t feel compelled to analyze and critique and dissect. He observed the weirdness of writing tortured blog posts about VBS, for example, while working on VBS.

The short answer is no. If I’m working on it, I’m picking it apart, doubting it, and looking for ways to improve it.

The shortcoming there of course is that constant real time analysis is a convenient escape from the demands of whatever it is we’re working on, especially if what we’re working on isn’t going all that well. If only two teens are showing up for youth group, it’s comforting to mentally shift into analytical gear instead of engaging, 100 percent, with the less-than-amazing project you actually have.

Let’s evaluate our work and ask the hard questions in order to make it more effective. But let’s not jump to evaluation before the work is done. Maybe we can only do one thing at a time.

You Lost Me at “Totally True”: Some VBS Hand Wringing

My job at VBS this week is to tell kids some of the “amazing, incredible, and totally true adventures” found in the Bible.

Actually, I’m leaving off the “totally true” part. What better way to ruin an adventure than to insist on its veracity? I don’t believe all of the Bible to be “totally true,” at least not in the sense that this curriculum wants kids to understand that term. Besides, what does “totally true” mean to children who are being treated to dramatized gimmicks like trying to create an iPad out of thin air (you know, the same way God created the world)?

My little editorial decision points up a quandry: progressive churches that run this summer programming staple must either invest scads of time and energy writing their own curriculum or else purchase one from an evangelical publisher like Group or Lifeway or Standard that almost certainly will need to be edited for both theological and pedagogical reasons (see iPad example above).

Don’t even ask about the denominational curriculum.

My church has chosen the latter. There is real value in a themed package with a narrative arc that incorporates music, crafts, games, and Bible stories, even if we never buy any of the little trinkets that go with it. And we don’t take the thing so seriously as to lose sleep over things kids will hardly notice, especially if we take the little time required to adapt it.

But we do wonder about alternatives. There’s a church nearby that runs a Peace Camp for kids in the summer, which they state clearly is not VBS. I’m intrigued.

Does your church do VBS? How are you negotiating the theology of most VBS curricula with your church’s posture?

The Right Way To Do Children’s Time

Yesterday I watched a skilled pastor tell the story of Jesus calming the storm to children, and I learned something new after telling that very story to children more times than I can remember.

I should say here that I was trained to tell Bible stories to children in a very particular way, and I’ve been doing it this way with almost no variation for a decade: get in, tell the story, then get out. No introductory questions. No illustrations. No props. And for Heaven’s sake, no the-moral-of-the-story-is type summaries. Just tell the story.

All of this is because young children are concrete thinkers. Metaphors are confusing, and that prop you thought would really bring the point home to them won’t. They’ll remember the prop, but not what it signified. Biblical stories are more than sufficient material of themselves without the added garb of meaning-making toys.

Back to yesterday. The pastor told the story with a winsome paraphrase, and then simply added, “This story is showing me that Jesus takes care of us.” That simple sentence made me sit up in my pew, because it located the authority of the story’s meaning in the teller’s present tense experience as a learner, and not, as I’ve always done, in the privileged domain of adulthood or, worse, the pastor’s office.

Since we don’t have time for exploration and conversation about the story, I think Children’s Times in worship services really have to include some kind of the-moral-of-the-story-is conclusion, and I think this is the right way to do it. How many times have I told kids that a story meant something, though, and missed the opportunity that this pastor perfectly seized, the opportunity to position myself as a learner among them and thus normalize for them a dynamic kind of relationship to Bible stories rather than a static one, a relationship that grows and changes over the course of your whole life, rather than one in which you learn once and for all and then finish?

This is how to tell Bible stories to kids, then: get in, tell the story, share what it’s teaching YOU, then get out.

Blogging for Posterity

The reason to put yourself out there today goes beyond today.

Maybe what you have to say is timely and will resonate with lots of people in the moment.

But more likely than not, what you have to say today will occur to people days, weeks, even months from now, and it will help them. That’s why you should say it before it gets away, now, today.

And then again tomorrow.

(With thanks to Jan Edminson)

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