Church

Tests

” . . . one of them . . . asked him a question, to test him.” (Matthew 22:35)

There’s nothing wrong with testing someone (where my teachers at?!). Testing a student is a gesture or care, sounding out what she has learned and still needs to master. Even testing an adversary can be virtuous. How else do we measure our own skill and knowledge against our peers? Indeed, we should welcome our opponent’s challenge as a chance to get better.

Testing a person isn’t the problem. Testing him for some other purpose is, like to embarrass him or to elevate yourself. When a candidate in a debate tests her opponent’s facility with the names of foreign leaders, she’s not doing it for the opponent’s improvement, but rather to expose what she knows already to be a flaw.

Ask this about the tests you give and the tests you take on: who is this really for?

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Church

Judge

This week I completed the four online training modules required to serve as an election judge with the Chicago Board of Elections. Some of the material in the training is basic good sense about treating people courteously, dressing professionally, and not influencing peoples’ votes (!), but lots of it is quite technical and detailed, and I’m relatively certain I’m going to forget, for example, the precise responsibilities of a judge at station 1 versus a judge at station 2.

But I’m trained and I have the certificate to prove it.

Is this the foundation on which free and fair democratic elections rest, a wide-eyed citizenry with peel off name badges and a few hours of online training? Throughout the training I kept thinking, “Surely there’s someone else, some experienced election professional with a phone and a clipboard who knows how to reboot the touchscreen voting booth turn away politicos inside the 100 foot no-campaigning zone.” I kept waiting to learn about the team of experts who diffuse polling place chicanery and administer technical support. I’m still waiting.

Perhaps the real foundation of free and fair elections is a mature and patient citizenry that resists such chicanery and can endure a certain level of technical disruption.

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Church

Meter

Last week two of my magazine subscriptions sent new issues to my Kindle while a third delivered its latest to my mailbox. I’ve barely looked at them. I’m not busier than the week or the month before. I woke up and went to bed at roughly the same time throughout the week. But by Wednesday my concentration was shot, and it was all I could do to meet the minimum demands of my job, not to mention function as an adult for my family. Every time I tried to tuck in to an article, I got distracted before I could finish.

There is a cumulative load being placed on all of our consciousness day-by-day. The pandemic and the election, not to mention any particulars we may each be dealing with. We are all taking on this load without really noticing it, until something happens that loosens our grip on the whole thing. It’s no coincidence that Wednesday is when I hit a wall last week; I watched all of Tuesday night’s debate, then I spent Wednesday morning listening to commentary about it. By noon Wednesday, my attention and emotional energy were depleted.

I want to pay attention and stay engaged, but I also want to make my family dinner and contribute to what my colleagues and I are working on. I need a meter.

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Church

Can’t

Blessing of The Animals over Zoom? Who knew?

Communion via livestream? Okay.

Congregational meeting to elect a new pastor using online polling? You can do that?

Ordination of Elders and Deacons? Examination of new members? The leadership retreat? The Church can carry out all of these functions of its life together while not being together?

Is that our preference? Certainly not. But can we do it under these conditions. It seems we can. The tools are there, the leadership is gifted, and the congregation is committed.

If nothing else, this season is going to change what we mean as church when we say something “can’t” be done.

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Church

Transformer

Laura was up past 10:00, and the episode of the West Wing I was watching to wind down was hopelessly paused. Laura made herself a mug of warm milk and whisked it into a frothy state, then sat opposite me on the couch and recited for me the insights about harassment, consent, and assault she absorbed earlier by watching YouTube videos.

She is maturing. Almost every day she expands into an acute concern based on YouTube videos. Google’s algorithm has clearly pegged her with the “social justice” tag and is feeding her indignation about race, feminism, and LGBTQ issues. She works these concerns out in conversation with me, often past bedtime, where she stutters through assertions dotted with more “You know what I mean?”s than I can endure. But I listen. I am trying to affirm her emerging social conscience, so I sometimes insert a carefully phrased and strategically placed clarifying question, which she, in the most encouraging sign of maturity of all, receives without umbrage.

She is maturing, and the spectacle fills me with a cocktail of pride, relief, dread, and sadness. But as it approached 11:00 the lights flickered and then a massive crash like lightning erupted behind us. The place went pitch dark and Laura leapt from her seat into my lap, shrieking “What was that?!” Instincts I’d forgotten for comforting a child came back in the moment and I cooed, “Lightning, it’s just lightning.” She recovered in an instant, sliding nonchalantly onto the adjacent seat and breaking into laughter. We both turned to press our faces against the window and determined quickly that there was no lightning. A transformer in the alley across the street had blown while electrical crews worked on it. He face scrunched up at the explanation; she doesn’t know “transformer” as anything but a fictional human/robot hybrid.

No doubt, though, she is maturing.

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Church

Disruption

Remember when disruption was a virtue?

All these services that upset existing industries like taxis and tv networks, helmed by unrestrained visionaries, established a cultural appreciation for disruption, for the rattling of the status quo to capitalize on its inefficiencies and blind spots. It was kind of exhilarating, even if it meant we occasionally had to deal with an abusive CEO or a decimated workforce (or a workforce transformed overnight into contract laborers). Disruption was fun.

What a privileged position we must have been in as citizens and leaders to admire disruption as a way of working in the world. Now, disruption is our daily bread, and the trailblazers who grabbed the reins don’t seem to know the first thing about stability or calm or reassurance. Now, the country is pinning its hopes on a near- octogenarian whose entire career was to maintain the leadership infrastructure that was disrupted so dramatically in 2016 and has been neglected and abused daily since. We seem to have remembered the virtue of normal.

The moment for disruption as a strategy has passed. Today brings its own havoc. We need to be about focus and constructive engagement for the public good now. Actually, that’s always been what we’ve needed to be about. We just got distracted by a costume party there for a minute. Well the party’s over and it’s time for the grown ups to get to work.

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Church

Constraints

That the conditions are challenging and the constraints formidable is a defensible reason to not attempt that experiment you’ve been mulling. It may indeed be prudent to wait until things stabilize before you pilot a podcast or overhaul the order of service.

But another way to think of it may be that pressing circumstances present the perfect opportunity to leap. There are a host of things true about this very moment that may not remain true for long. More importantly, if you can find some traction with your idea now, when everything seems so unpredictable, what’s going to stop you short of armageddon?

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Church

Label

It may not matter whether we call it a committee or a team, a treatise or a manifesto, an experiment or an iteration. These are all labels, and as labels we only exercise some of the control over what they mean to the people who interact with them. What matters far more is the part of ourselves we put into the thing behind the label. The care and attention we give we give whatever we’re working on outstrips the name we give it exponentially.

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Church

Change?

The truly troubling thing about an enabler is that, should they suddenly see the light and reverse course, committing themselves instead to curbing the behavior they’ve previously encouraged, it’s too late. It’s a hard pivot to make, enabler to enforcer.

Another way to put it: if you choose to befriend a bully, prepare yourself for the day she fixes you in her cross hairs. Think now what you’ll do on that day, and don’t count on any of the bully’s other victims, the ones you let get pummeled, to help you.

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Church

Limits

It’s important to say no to things. It’s probably equally important to allow things to say no to us. Inviting limitations on our freedom may be the freest thing we can do.

A marriage is an invitation for another person to limit your freedom. So is parenthhood. A job limits what you can say and do, where you can go and when. So does a mortgage, or even a pet. International agreements don’t work if the participating countries lack the political will to permit other countries to curb their behavior.

The pursuit of unrestrained freedom is a prison, and one that everybody else pays for.

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