Monday Morning Quarterback

Stuff I learned on Sunday

We sang a hymn in worship yesterday with this verse:

Proudly rise our modern cities,
stately buildings, row on row;
yet their windows, blank, unfeeling,
stare on canyoned streets below,
where the lonely drift unnoticed
in the city’s ebb and flow,
lost to purpose and to meaning,
scarcely caring where they go.

I’ve sung this hymn at least half a dozen times, but I didn’t notice until yesterday how far off its depiction of modern city life is from my experience. “Blank, unfeeling?” “Lost to purpose and to meaning?” “Scarcely caring where they go?”

Is there anything to be gained for our witness to the gospel by characterizing our neighbors like this? I don’t think so.

I decided early in my adulthood that the happiness of people who aren’t Christians did not pose a threat to my Christian faith. The stock portrayal I was fed in the conservative evangelical church of my childhood was of non-believers who were depressed or depraved. If they were happy, it was surely because they were doing drugs of having premarital sex and would be duly punished in the fires of Hell.

Yet lots of my adolescent peers were neither churchgoers nor oversexed druggies (some were–both), and yet were nonetheless happy. Then my Aunt married a jolly little Irish-Catholic-turned-honest-to-God-Buddhist, and I knew the Miserable Heathen was a fiction for sure.

The vast majority of people I interact with lead lives full of purpose and meaning, and only a few of them claim any kind of religious faith. And I know a lot of miserable Christians. Neither the former’s happiness nor the latter’s misery affect my trust in God, as if faith has happiness as its object. It doesn’t.

I Want Seth Godin on My Presbytery’s Nominating Committee

Our presbytery’s Committee on Representation and Nominations has a hunch that the work we’re doing is not the work the presbytery needs us to be doing if it is to have a vital future.

The work we’re doing now: filling slots on committees with names we already know well–people who are already involved in leadership.

The work that needs done: inviting church members to exercise leadership in the presbytery in ways they feel called, connecting them to other leaders, and empowering and equipping them to succeed.

As we talked around the gulf between these two bodies of work, I had in mind an invitation Seth Godin put on his blog earlier in the day: a 2 day seminar with him with to “create a posture of forward motion, a platform you can use to elevate your work, your company and your team.”

That’s what a presbytery’s nominating work could be about, right? Forward motion for its church’s leaders? A platform for leaders to elevate their work, their church’s work, and the work they feel called to do with others in the presbytery?

What kind of work goes on in your presbytery that cultivates and builds up leadership? Conferences? Retreats? Small groups?

We’re kicking around the idea of a leadership development cohort like this.

Maybe Preparation Is Insurance

Maybe having a plan is insurance against having to use it.

Maybe if we study conscientiously for the exam, there will be a snow day and the exam will get postponed. Maybe if we solicit informed counsel the issue will go away on its own. Maybe if we clean the house from top to bottom the company will unexpectedly cancel.

Maybe.

God might wink at us, and we might be rewarded for diligent preparation by the challenge being taken away. Awesome if that’s true.

If it’s not, though, the worst thing to say is that we have a plan where we didn’t before. We know something we didn’t. We possess wisdom we lacked. And we live in a clean house.

We’ve learned, and we’re better.

R-A-C-E

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I spent 90 minutes with a congregant yesterday plotting an adult education unit on race. We’re pretty sure what we don’t want.

We don’t want people to say, “Ugh. Are we still talking about this?”

We don’t want white self-flagellation (my congregant is African-American).

We don’t want abstract theorizing about problems “out there.”

Instead, we want candid conversation about who we are as a congregation that both acknowledges the barriers to racial diversity our worship and fellowship erect but that also is grounded in the reality of who, really, is likely to participate in a Presbyterian church in a community that is 3/4 white.

We want a space where stories are shared: stories of struggle, stories of endurance, stories of faithfulness.

We want to raise awareness about the discrepancy between the racial composition of our community and the ones to our south and east.

We want to be transformed by the gospel:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

And we want all that in three 45 minute increments.

As thought bait, watch this Vox video on race and tell me what you think.

I Don’t Care What You Won’t Do

I came of age to a line-in-the-sand piety of resistance. Being a person of faith meant maintaining clear boundaries about the things one would and wouldn’t do, praying for the strength, and constructing mechanisms of accountability, to keep oneself unstained. In college this resistance had mostly to do with alcohol and making out, and it was accompanied by well-rehearsed rituals of guilt, absolution, and recommittment when–not if–one failed.

Faith is resistance.

I’m tying to resist different things now.

But I’m also more attuned to the element of faith that demands embrace, not resistance. It is a stilted faith that exhausts itself in line drawing and boundary building. There is a world of hurt and love and redemption humming beyond where we now are, and the life of faith requires following Jesus into that mess and saying “yes” at least as often as we say “no.”

Monday Morning Quarterback: Saturday Night Edition

Stuff I learned on Sunday Saturday

“We were expecting you.”

A smiling woman with an “Usher” name tag is beaming at me and handing me a Visitor Information card and one of her church’s pens. She is warm and welcoming and all the things you want a church usher to be, and she tells me they were expecting me, which kind of delights me and kind of makes me nervous.

I’m at this Saturday night church service at a new worshiping community with an Elder from my church and my family because the Pastor is a friend and colleague who I have recruited to speak at a national conference I’m working on and who I interviewed for a magazine column I’m writing. During that interview I mentioned I would be coming to worship. Clearly, she took note.

“We were expecting you” is a rich thing to tell a guest. More than that you are welcome, “We were expecting you” says that you are anticipated. It’s gratifying and humbling, comforting and intensifying. “We were expecting you” says that we’re happy you’re here and also that we have invested something in your being here. It’s a greeting fit for a participant, not a spectator.

Suddenly “We were expecting you” is what I want everyone at my church to hear. I have a friend visiting on Sunday morning, and so I describe him to the Usher beforehand and ask her to make him feel welcome. “Tell him we were expecting him.”

A Little Bit of Light

A dropped a little coin on a new Chromebook last week and offset the cost by selling my old one. I got it on Monday.

Five minutes with it in my dusty, cluttered office was more than I could stand. I could feel lit judging me. So I spent big blocks of time on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday making the office suitable for my shiny new tool. Four boxes full of books I want for mostly for the name on the spine are gone. The place smells like lemony Clorox wipes.

The impetus for change can come from just a taste, right? A little sip of purpose or direction, a nibble on a corner of control, and the status quo doesn’t work anymore. Everything must reorient to be like the new thing.

I’m not talking about icon packs to match your cell phone’s wallpaper.

Just a little bit of light under the door can compel us to throw open every window in the house.

Pizza And Pop

The Diamond Dogs won their 6:30 semifinal game last night and set themselves up to play in the championship game at 9:00. 90 minutes between games. Some went home for a brief recovery, but most stayed at the field watching the other semifinal game. Some had the common sense to wear jackets or sweatshirts against the January chill. Others did not.

They stood around, sat around, laid around, and the game in progress quickly became a laugher. Someone said they secretly wished for a loss earlier so they could be home by now. Someone else checked their watch and groaned for the 4:15 alarm already set for the next morning.

Then the Dogs’ manager appeared with two hot pizzas. Someone retrieved a Pepsi 12 pack from their car, and a grown up pizza party materialized on the top row of cold metal bleachers. Conversations quickened and limbs loosened up. On the field, the winning team was running up the score and threatening a championship game fight, but the Dogs weren’t worried. They had pizza and pop. They’d already won.

*Note: second place in the bottom rung league is nothing to laugh about

ICON: Resolve

Last night I attended a delegates’ assembly of the Inland Communities Organizing Network (ICON), the community organizing group that my congregation has been helping to launch since early 2011. Four years in, and the “Founders Convention” is later this year. This is slow work.

Last night, ICON leaders shared stories of what we’ve done so far: built a high-skilled jobs training program; significantly altered plans for a proposed waste transfer station; agitated for thousands of street lights. The stories were full of frank admissions of failure, because the high-skilled jobs still don’t pay enough to live on and the waste transfer station was supposed to be blocked. This is community organizing work. It’s takes a long time and you often lose.

But the assembly was a joyful one, because the leaders of ICON aren’t motivated by bitterness or anger but rather a resolve to make things better where we live. That’s the word that keeps coming back to me about what ICON is building: resolve. Now we have a task force pushing for a moratorium on recycling and waste management facilities in the city with a win already under its belt.

Resolve: I’ll take all I can get.

Needs Help

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specialofferings1_medium250The Presbyterian Church (USA) is taking a beating this week over the marketing materials it published for its campaign of special denominational offerings. Two images in particular have drawn widespread condemnation on social media and in statements by groups like the National Hispanic/Latino Caucus of the PC(USA).

The ads are being condemned as racist and insensitive to the struggles of addicts. They are being denounced as flashy and edgy attempts at relevance that achieve gross insensitivity instead.

More informed people than I can speak on the decision making that led to these ads, because I honestly don’t know any of the people involved and I don’t have any reason to doubt their integrity. But here’s what I’m tucking up under my own hat from this episode: as compelling as the justification may be for doing something unconventional and perhaps out of bounds–you’re trying to save lives; you’re trying to save souls–, if the product can’t pass the nose-crinkle test it isn’t worth doing.

We have a copy of this poster in our office. It came in the mail last week and has been sitting atop the office counter untouched for days. After spending the morning reading angry screeds on Facebook, I grabbed the above image and showed it to our church’s Office Manager, the sweetest conservative evangelical middle-aged white woman you’d ever want to meet who’s not even a member of our church.

specialofferings2_medium250“What do you think of that?” I asked her. She studied it for a moment and then–as if involuntarily–her nose crinkled up into an uncomfortable stance and she said, “Hmmm. That’s interesting.” Confident there was more there, I pressed her: “Say more.”

“It gives me a bad feeling.”

Not “offensive.” Not “insensitive.” Not “racist.”

“It gives me a bad feeling.”

Nose-crinkle test: failed. Done. Scrap the campaign. Go in another direction.

Perhaps these images were shown to focus groups before they were published and distributed. I don’t know. But “It gives me a bad feeling” is precisely the kind of thing a focus group will tell you. And that’s more than enough to guarantee that whatever kind of motivation or inspiration or compassion you’re trying to elicit is going to be harpooned by the icky feeling people get first and that the damage to your mission isn’t worth it.

The denomination has issued a statement to the effect that the campaign will be redone. Unfortunately, the bad feelings it has already created won’t go away as easily as paper.

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