Judge Not

Afternoon tea at the Drake Hotel is a Chicago experience that has been on our to-do list since we began our move here nearly two years ago, and yesterday we did it.

What a scene. Carolers in Victorian threads circle the dining room expelling “Fa la la’s” at every table. A harpist plucks away at “In The Bleak Midwinter.” Children gulp hot chocolate and make quick work of a three-tiered tray of finger sandwiches and macaroons while parents in dresses and ties clutch cocktails and tell each other with a little too much effort to be believable, “This is nice.”

There was a party of mothers and daughters seated near us, the girls all under 10 and in darling dresses, running around the dining room and the hotel lobby like Junior Ninja Warriors. Each time one of them sprinted past our table I slid my water glass closer to the middle. I noted with mounting judgment that the girls’ mothers were enjoying a wholly unperturbed time to themselves, and I congratulated my wife and I that our daughter was not given to such inappropriate antics in a setting as elegant as this.

That’s when my daughter’s water glass slipped from her hand and shattered on the table, sending ice and spiky shards across the carpet and issuing a bloody spectacle for teagoers’ viewing. Not to worry: the cut was minor and was easily plugged by a band aid supplied by hotel management. The cleanup was quick and inconspicuous. Daughter held herself together admirably.

It’s not just that the afternoon’s blood and glass came from my kid and not the out-of-control urchins zig-zagging the dining room whom I had only moments before audibly condemned. It’s also that, in daughter’s telling, she only dropped her glass because I bumped the table while leaning in to issue said condemnation so as not to be heard by the condemned.

Judge not, people. No joke.

 

 

 

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Faithfulness And Compromise Are Not Static Categories

Assessing a church or a denomination or a culture as one or the other says volumes more about you than the thing you’re assessing. In order to declare that a church has “compromised the gospel,” you have to reduce the gospel down to something simple enough to be compromised by a whole group of people all at once. That’s pretty tough.

I went in for a lot of this as a seminary student in the early 00’s, when I, along with a wide swath of my progressive classmates, denounced conservative evangelicals in America as having made a lethal compromise of the gospel for the sake of political power. There were troubling trends, for sure (George W. Bush equating the “light” of John 1 with America was one), but my determination that an entire swath of American Christianity has compromised the gospel really only meant that it was diverging from the values I was growing into as a young liberal in a mainline protestant seminary on the east coast. I wasn’t spending any time with any of them.

We call people compromised only when they’re not us, only when we don’t share the value to which they are trying to be faithful.

So why not ask that instead? What is the value here? How is the present course an attempt at faithfulness to the gospel?

Compromising About Compromise

“Every single congregation in America must ask itself if it has compromised so much with the world that it has been compromised in its faithfulness.”*

No, this is not a question every church in America (or anywhere) should ask itself. Its assumptions are simplistic and its perspective is one of someone who cannot ever have had responsibility for congregational decision making.

Compromise is not the enemy. Jesus fiercest opponents loathed his compromise more than anything. “Pay taxes to the emperor or no, Jesus?”

“Sure. But don’t forget to give God everything else.”

Compromise.

Viewing congregational decisions as either compromises with the world or exercises in faithfulness seems really fruitless. In the contemporary obstacle course of work, school, family, church, and every other important and beneficial thing people want to do, the church ought to be the thing that backs down, the one activity that does not demand 100% compromise-free commitment. Because it is a living community whose calling extends beyond the time its members spend with one another.

My ministry is up to its neck in compromise–with family vacation, with school entrance exams, with band, with theater, with soccer and football and softball and volleyball. If my congregation didn’t compromise about the use of its’ members time, it would be denying participation to about half the people who want the church to have a role in their life.

We’re all compromising all the time. The church was born of compromise. People forget this when they denounce the contemporary church as hopelessly compromised in comparison to the early church. They forget that the early church was led disciples who abandoned or denied Jesus and who fought amongst themselves to keep gentiles out of their ranks. Even the stories the early church told about its founder and savior were compromises–approximations and adaptations shot through in every telling with failures of memory, the constraints of their genre, and the muddled context of their hearers.

The cry of “No compromise!” is the cry of the zealot who strives to build a rigorous moral gymnasium walled off from the corrupting influences of the city and the state. It leaves no room for God to act through the compromised motives and abilities of disciples, for Jesus’ “Feed my sheep” to the Peter who’d denied him or for the Council of Jerusalem.

Instead of “Are we compromised or faithful?”, a better question for the church to ask is “are we growing in faithfulness?”

More on that tomorrow.

*Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option

I Thought We Understood Consent

The thing I am struggling to grasp about the present revalatory avalanche of sexual harassment and assault allegations is the timing. I mean the timing in terms of decades, not days.

I was in high school in the early 90’s. Bill Clinton was Exhibit A at school and at home about what not to do as a man with respect to women. Talk of harassment in the workplace, terms like “consent” and the phrase “No means no” were not just part of my family norms (which they certainly were), they were in my public school curriculum.

I got a terrific sex education at public school. It was thorough about anatomy and contraception, but also about consent. My teachers were just as worried about coercion and abuse as they were about teen pregnancy. I remember it clearly.

I know. This behavior is not a problem of education. It’s about power. My public school sex ed teachers taught me that too. I guess I am baffled in the present moment because I have assumed for 25 years now that men my age and younger at least were on the same page about boundaries and no meaning no.

That assumption is another disappointing revelation.

What If People Want Deeper Instead of More?

The curriculum is fine. It might even be good. The calendar is ambitious. The program is solid or on its way to solid. There are options, there is diversity, there is clarity.

But if people want deeper instead of more, do I have a way for them to ask for it? Are we positioned to add something a participant wants to try, to experiment with them on something small and new and different that responds to some stirring in their soul?

The best program you can design is flawed if it doesn’t have any room to maneuver.

“Leave room for the Holy Spirit.”

Don’t Apologize To My Kid For Your Trump Vote

Nobody who voted for Donald Trump owes my kid an apology.

Her mother and I might even owe you a debt of gratitude. Since last November, our daughter has heard more and seen more of what her parents believe and value than ever before. The impact of that will be far greater than any damage the President of The United States, whoever that may be, can do to her.

Don’t apologize to Laura for your vote. Only watch out when she and her classmates are old enough to vote; these years with this President will not be lost on them.

 

 

A Clique Is Almost Good

A clique is so close to a good thing:

“A small group of people, with shared interests or other features in common, who spend time together . . . ”

It’s a recipe for connection, for power, for transformation. Except:

“. . . and do not readily allow others to join them.”

A clique is a community whose connections are, at their most innocuous, misapplied. Malicious cliques can be brutal.

I don’t think you can rid your youth group or your church of cliques, so don’t try. Don’t try to shame them out of existence, either; shared judgment only reinforces unhealthy connection. Instead, what if we taught cliques that critical skill they’re missing? What if we taught cliques how to invite others in?

I’m not stupid, so I know it’s not simply a matter of learning. Cliques refuse to allow outsiders in not because they don’t know how to but because they don’t want to. It’s a problem of will, not education.

But are will and education so far apart?

Hamster, Cat, Cat, Dog

Certain decisions feel like a trade off between order and life. Pets are a good case in point.

When my daughter was three, my wife suggested we get a hamster. We had no pets, and pets are good for kids. I did not want a hamster. All I could conceive of was mess and smell and noise, and for two years that’s exactly what we got.

Then it was a cat. In the pet store one day when daughter was five, the cat adoption lady placed this six week old kitten in her lap, and that was that. Daughter’s lap is still where that cat spends most of its time. Meanwhile, cat litter, hairballs, vomit, urine, hair, scratched furniture . . .

Adding a second cat didn’t help.

And now a dog. He’s been her since September, and he was all my doing. House training is proving challenging, though. It’s a mess.

Living things make mess and disrupt order. I’ve reached the limit of the order I can sacrifice to those things.

Where’s yours limit?

Stop Ignoring Positive Feedback

I’m into evaluation. At the end of my Confirmation talks and the related discussion guides I’m designing, I make sure to leave time for two questions:

  1. What about this was helpful for you?
  2. What about this could have been more helpful?

It helps to hear affirmation, not only for the dopamine boost but also to know that, yes, we can do that again next time. It works.

Of course, it also helps to hear critique. “Don’t leave us in the large group the whole time. It’s easier for us to interact when we’re in smaller groups.” Got it. Next time I’ll design that part differently.

The thing is, I’m a junkie for negative feedback. I want to tinker and fix, and I begin, proceed, and end with the presumption that my work is flawed and needs revision. I will dedicate hours to addressing one piece of critical feedback while ignoring two or three positive assessments. You do this too. We’re afraid that accepting the “good job” without some qualification will make us complacent, or, worse, arrogant.

That’s probably not a good long term learning strategy, because the positive feedback teaches us just as much as the negative. If persisting in error is stupid, so is altering success.

Ask if it works. If “yes,” trust the user, the student, the reader. She’s not lying. He’s not being “nice.” Accept that you did something well and do it again.