Thursday, March 28, 2013

Good Friday

Here's a way to meditate your way into Good Friday.  Below is a thumbnail of Christ Carrying The Cross by Hieronymous Bosch, a painter from the time of Martin Luther.  (I highly recommend that you click on the image for a larger version.)  Like most of Bosch's work, the painting gets more disturbing the more you plunge into it.  This piece is a powerful way to enter into Jesus' journey to the cross and to consider not only the world's reaction to it, but your own response.

May you know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, sharing in his sufferings, and so become like him in his death.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Love conquers all?

"Love conquers all!"  It's what the corpulent Ms. Cluck shouts in the Disney cartoon "Robin Hood."  It's also the cry that dominates the current cultural fracas about marriage, same sex marriage, and all the rest.  The signs outside the U.S. Supreme Court are filled with this thought, proclaiming that one should be allowed to marry whomever one wants, that marriage is a right, that "marriage equality" is somehow enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, etc., etc., etc.

I'm not going to take on same-gender marriage in this post.  I've addressed that issue adequately in the past (here, for example).

What has me more than disturbed these days is the cultural ignorance about what, exactly, marriage is, and why it may or may not be advantageous to extend marriage as a covenant relationship to same-gender couples.  We're not thinking very well about marriage these days.  While "equality" is dominating the avalanche of icons on social media sites like Facebook, few people seem to understand that there is more at stake in this debate than simply a question of people being free to express their love.

As part of this drama, many people have begun to say that the state has no business telling anyone who they can marry.

I beg to differ.

The government is that collective will designated and empowered by our Constitution to accomplish six purposes.  Those purposes, laid out in the preamble to the Constitution, are:

1. To form a more perfect union.
2. To establish justice.
3. To ensure domestic tranquility.
4. To provide for the common defense.
5. To promote the general welfare.
6. To secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.

These purposes are precisely why government has a vested interest in marriage.

Fact is, marriage has only a little bit to do with love, and we make marriage merely about love at our peril, as evidenced by this fact:

Ideas have consequences.

In my lifetime, this idea that you should marry whoever you love has grown in breadth and depth, and the consequences of this idea are all around us.  We have gone through a progression into the belief that romantic love is at the core of marriage, and these days into the odd idea that marriage is purely, only about love.  Shortly after this idea swept the country in the mid-20th century, divorce rates skyrocketed for the simple reason that romantic love ebbs and flows.  Starry-eyed couples that enter into a lifetime commitment on a wave of romantic love find themselves in divorce court a year or two later because they've lost that loving feeling.  (As a pastor, I have officiated at dozens and dozens of weddings, and I've walked through both the establishment and the dissolution of marriage with many couples.  It's heartbreaking.)  The first consequence of the idea that you should marry whoever you love is that suddenly we find ourselves in a place where far too many marriages end in divorce court.  They end up in divorce court because the couple enters into the marriage with the idea that their bond is based on love, and by love they mean the feelings they have for one another.  Marriages built in this way don't last, statistically speaking.

The second consequence to the idea that you should marry whoever you love is this: People fall in love with a wide variety of individuals who may or may not be able to responsibly partner with them in a marriage relationship.  In other words, a young woman might fall for that flashy young man playing video games, and suddenly she is blinded (by her love, we think) to the fact that he is immature, irresponsible, unable to get or hold a job, and sneaking a few recreational drugs on the side.  She loves him.  She believes it will all work out, that he will change, that he will become her Prince Charming.  Fact is, she's not really seeing him, she's seeing her preferred illusion superimposed on him.  (We also say "love is blind," remember?)  By the time she sees him as he really is, she might have a child or two and be co-signed on a mortgage that is more than the two of them together can really afford.  When he quits his job and walks away from her and the kids, what happens to all of them?

So consequence 2, part a, is this: marriage is designed to be a social contract that creates a stable household where two adults work together economically, emotionally, socially, relationally, and physically.  Society -- this means all of us -- has a vested interest in stable households headed by working adults who cooperate to make society better.  If we believe "you should marry whoever you love," we undermine the stability of married households and we jeopardize the wider health of society in every way -- economically, morally, emotionally, and more.

Consequence 2, part b, comes when children enter the picture.  You should marry whoever you love, and if you love them you should have sex, and more often than not the wedding -- the initiation of the legal and contractual part of the marriage -- comes after a lengthy pattern of having sex together, which occasionally results in pregnancy.  I know of few things that diminish the experience of romantic love faster than a month-old baby.  Add a little emotional immaturity or post-partum depression into the mix and things get really ugly, really fast.  The sensation of romantic love is gone, and we find ourselves in divorce court.  So more and more children, through no fault of their own, end up being raised in single parent households, doing the every-Wednesday-and-every-other-weekend thing with one parent or the other, serving as unwilling liaisons between ex-husband and ex-wife.  Instead of growing up with a sense of being protected and nurtured, children are forced into the role of helping to manage the household, carrying a large share of the worry about inadequate finances, and more.  I'm all for children taking on responsibilities, but those responsibilities should be given to children in a measured way by parents who are primarily teachers and equippers, not over-stressed and overwhelmed, desperately turning to their children for help.

Consequence 2, part c, comes when single parents realize that the divorce that seemed like an easy way out of an intolerable marriage has now left them in single-parenthood and now they find themselves in a trap with no way out.  As single parents, statistically speaking, they are far more likely to become a drain on society's resources rather than a contributor to social stability.

Please understand: I know and have a deep respect for many, many single parents.  They work amazingly hard to care for their children, secure an income, and contribute to society.  I stand in awe of what many of them do as a matter of course.  But that's exactly my point -- these single parents shouldn't have to do these amazing things in order simply to provide security for their children and maintain some level of contribution to the greater good.  Single parents are victimized by the consequences of the idea that you should marry whoever you love.  If we understood marriage and its importance, we would understand that these single parents should have a partner who is there through better and worse, who will not leave just because the feeling of love is temporarily gone.  The idea of "marry whoever you love" has put these single parents in a nearly impossible situation.

Consequence 2, part d, comes when over the long haul, single parent households are unable to provide for themselves or their children or the wider society at the same level as married households.  Check out the statistics (this article is a good place to start) on the relative levels of poverty in single parent households.   Track the statistics on poverty, next, to see where that leads us as a society.  Everything from the incredible drain on limited government resources due to increasing dependence on government healthcare and food assistance, down to statistics on increased mental illness and crime, to the much harder to calculate void left by all these households who are so consumed with their own lack that they have a hard time giving to any cause beyond their own needs.  These statistics rapidly become a tragic downward spiral, and the single parent households (especially the children) become the primary victims.  (Anecdote:  I know a man who was leading a discussion group for twenty-two inmates in a local prison a few years ago.  When he asked the twenty-two men what one thing they would have changed about their upbringing, twenty-one of them said, "I wish I would have had a father in my life."  The twenty-second man said, "I wish I would have had a family.")

The third consequence is that as a culture, we recognize all these other negative side-effects.  Rather than take out our assumptions and definitions of marriage and reexamine them, we have more or less ditched the institution of marriage itself.  Marriage seems like an antiquated ideal, sort of like the neighborhood butcher shop or a telephone that is attached to the wall with a cord.  It was fine for my parents, but not for me.  So basically, it looks like this:  If the idea is to marry whoever I love, and that's the only benefit to me getting married, why get married at all?  Why not just set up housekeeping together, share space, share bed, share kids, share life, without all the institutional garbage?  As a pastor helping couples prepare for their wedding, it is a rarity for me to meet a couple that has decided to live separately until they're married.  More often than not they have stretched their finances and bought a house together and often they have a kid or two before the question of marriage ever comes up.

This third consequence doesn't seem like a big deal until you start to see the consequences.  I know couples that have established a household together, but whenever anything goes wrong, he threatens to move out.  There's zero emotional security.  I know households where the romance between -- what do we call them, boyfriend and girlfriend? -- has ended, they've separated, but both their names are on a mortgage and they have to figure out how to sell the house together and split the profits (or the leftover debt) when they can't stand to be in the same room, and maybe she's got a restraining order against him.  I know families where mom and dad have separated, each have a new boyfriend or girlfriend moving in, and because of the ugly divorce one parent or the other can only have supervised visits with the children.  Restraining orders become the solution to a host of ugly problems.  Do you doubt that these situations are unstable and potentially violent?  Ask any cop what the most dangerous, most unpredictable kind of calls are -- and you'll hear a host of horror stories about what they call "domestics."

Fact is, our society set up expectations for marriage a century or two ago, slowly, over a long time of considering ideas and their consequences.  Divorce laws came onto the books over time as marriages began to dissolve more rapidly, and these laws were primarily intended to protect children -- the most vulnerable and least culpable in the dissolving family -- as well as wives, who tended to be more vulnerable than husbands and more dedicated to children.  Now most families facing dissolution don't have the protection of divorce court, partly because they thought marriage was an outmoded, unnecessary idea.

Our society is reaping the whirlwind of an idea -- the idea that you should marry whoever you love.  If we were smart, we would begin to explore what it means for marriage to function as a social contract that benefits society.  Government has a vested interest in stable marriages.  Our states, our nation -- we the people -- have a vested interest in marriages that are viewed not just as a context for romantic love, but as the foundational building block of a healthy human society.

Love conquers all?  Marriage as a vehicle for personal expression?  Marry whoever you love?

I thoroughly enjoy those times when my wife and I get to enjoy the delights of romantic love.  But if that was all that held us together, we wouldn't have nearly enough to go on.  No way on earth our marriage would have survived for more than twenty-three years.  We'd have joined the parade of statistics long ago.  I am so thankful that we know marriage to be about so much more than our love conquering all.  I pray that our society can begin to dig deeper -- much deeper -- into these questions.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Discontinuous Change in action

People who study change like to distinguish between "continuous change" -- change that happens little by little with one phase moving smoothly into another -- and "discontinuous change," where you move from one phase into a radically different one.  I've written previously about discontinuous change here.

Lately I've been thinking about some of the changes we've made recently (in the last 2-3 years) at Central.  Many of these are changes that push us toward a new paradigm, toward a major disconnection from the way we've done church in the past.  In a couple words, "discontinuous change."

Traditional church practice centers on programs.  Now, programs are not bad -- they're actually very necessary.  Even Sunday morning worship is, in a sense, a program.  It's a routinized way of doing things with common elements repeated over and over with relatively consistent leadership.  Why do I say that Sunday morning worship is a "program"?  Because -- and this is critical -- the primary focus of Sunday morning worship (and almost every other program in the church) is on the events themselves, rather than on the people participating.

So for years churches have run programs like Sunday School or small group Bible studies or Alpha or youth group.  The focus of these programs is generally a prescribed curriculum run by relatively consistent leadership who focus primarily on their own roles and their own responsibilities.  The goal of these programs, of course, is that people who participate in the program should be involved, engaged, and even transformed.  But the focus of the leaders' energy is different than the goal.  Pastors prepare sermons by focusing on the sermon, not by focusing on the growth of an individual.  Sunday School teachers tend to focus on preparing a lesson more than on their students.  Alpha leaders, depending on their area of responsibility, focus on the talk or the meal or the worship or the set-up.  Like it or not, when the church is doing programmatic ministry, people are secondary.  It's a little weird to think about it in these terms, and may be a little uncomfortable.

What would it look for a church to do ministry by focusing on people?  What would it look like to make disciples by focusing on those disciples?

Radical thought.

Trouble is, a church will never get to this different way of doing things by tweaking their Sunday School ministry.  You can't gradually change your way into this different paradigm.  This kind of a shift requires discontinuous change.  If a church decided that the best way to make disciples was to focus intentionally on people rather than on programs, it would require a radically different way of doing church.

This is the change we've started to enact at Central.  It's tricky, and it takes time and intentionality.  But these days, as a pastor at Central, I am trying to focus a larger and larger percentage of my time and energy on people.  So I do a lot of going out for coffee and a lot of visiting in people's homes.  I focus my efforts on key leaders who will be able to invest in the lives of others through pastorates, through D4D (Designed For Discipleship) groups, and through their own networks of relationships.  I find myself worrying more about individuals and where they're at in their own spiritual formation than I do about the next program or the next sermon.

It's a radically different way of doing church, and I'm not sure we're there yet.  No, scratch that.  I know we're not there yet.  But we are intentionally starting to move in that direction.  Our ministry leaders are learning about coaching individuals.  We're modeling relational leadership that focuses more on the relationship than the leadership.

This way of being church flies in the face of so much I've been trained to do over the years.  But in many ways, I love it.  I love hearing others -- people I've invested in -- succeed in leadership.  I love when a conversation over coffee opens the doors of possibility in another person's soul.

Programs will come and go, even at Central.  We'll bring back various programs, and we'll continue some that we have in place currently.  But I hope we never go back to focusing mostly on programs and secondarily on people.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Insight into the situation

This is an insightful news blog this morning on CNN.  On the surface it's just about the challenges facing Pope Francis but if you read carefully, you'll realize that it's much more about the challenges facing Christianity as a whole.  Lots to think about.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Living history

Let me first say that I'm a dyed in the wool Lutheran.  My sympathies extend not toward high church liturgies but toward a biblical evangelicalism.  I don't have any desire to see protestant churches reunite with the Roman Catholic Church.  I think the Spirit today is working in our diversity and bringing to death the church's dreams of worldly power.  (Boy, could I go to town on that theme.  Maybe another time.)  But I recognize that the Roman Catholic Church holds enormous sway in the lives of over a billion people who look to the pope as their leader, and so I think the election of a new pope is an important event.  Plus, I love people both inside and outside Christianity -- and I want to see the Church of Rome living up to its potential to lift up Jesus in the lives of people so that the world might come to know him.

So how does it feel?  Have you even thought about it?

You lived this week in the midst of history that people will be talking about in five hundred or a thousand years.  A little weird, huh?

I'm talking about the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis I, of course.  If you know even a smidgen of church history, you realize that looking at the various popes in the Roman Catholic Church is one important way to gauge church history and to track the various movements within it.

You can't really understand Martin Luther without having at least a passing familiarity with Pope Leo X who was desperately authorizing the sale of indulgences to finance his building projects.  In fact, you probably can't get a grip on why the Protestant Reformation was such a big deal without going back to 1390 and realizing that at that time there were three separate popes, all claiming to be chosen by God to lead the Church, all marauding around Europe with their independent armies trying to grab the papal office by force.  The people of Europe saw this going on and said, "Something's wrong!"  People became deeply disillusioned with the Catholic Church but there were really no alternatives for the people of northern Europe until Luther stepped up and tried to reform things.

So today, I am a little awestruck by all the firsts.  These have been getting lots of press, but I think it's worth taking another look.  Pope Francis is:

  • The first pope in centuries -- probably twelve or thirteen hundred years -- elected from outside Europe.
  • The first pope elected from the western hemisphere.
  • The first pope elected from the southern hemisphere.
  • The first pope from Latin America.
  • The first pope to take the name Francis.
In addition, Francis has shown an obvious willingness to break with tradition in small but significant ways.  Some of what's been reported thus far seem like just little cute affectations that the man has taken on, but added together it seems Francis intends to use his platform to call the church to humility and responsibility.  For example, in the last few days we've heard about how Francis refused to stand on the customary elevated platform when he greeted the other cardinals.  He simply said, "I'll stay down here," and met his colleagues on their own level.  One of the descriptors that was used early on in the history of the papacy that seems to have gotten lost over the years is that the pope was the "first among equals."  Francis seems to be reasserting that level of collegiality.

Another "cute" story about the new pope is that after the ceremonies on the day of his election, he refused to ride the popemobile back to the elaborate quarters prepared for him and rather rode the bus with the others.  He then directed that he should be dropped off at the quarters where he had been staying so he could pay his bill.  When asked why he was doing this, he responded, "I stayed in the room, the bill is my responsibility."  He seems willing to set an example for the church.

Part of the intriguing possibility is that though Bergoglio has been a traditionalist, theologically speaking, and a conservative -- this has been hashed out in the press over and over again -- he also has deep roots in Latin American Catholicism.  The gift that the global south is bringing to the wider church (and I'm not just talking about the Catholic Church here) is primarily twofold:  First, a deep sense of the necessity and benefit of Christian community.  None of us comes to clarity or courage alone, as a mentor of mine likes to say.  The Latin American church in the last few decades has developed a deep sense of the need for community, the need for us to be interdependent.  Francis seems to be bringing this along to the Vatican, and it will be fun to see it play out.

The second gift of the Latin American church is a deep identification with the poor and dispossessed.  Since the days of Bartolome de Las Casas in the 1500's, who rejected ownership of a plantation complete with native slaves supplied by the Church to provide for his financial needs, voices from Latin America have risen up to defend the peripheral, powerless, and poor against the hierarchies of wealth and power both inside and outside the Church.  (If you want a reminder of this tradition, go watch the old movie "The Mission" with Robert DeNiro.  It's a powerful, heartbreaking story of the struggles within the church in Latin America.)  Francis also brings this identification with the poor to Rome with him.  It's one of the things that got him elected by his fellow Cardinals.  In an interview today with reporters, he talked of this identification with the poor and explained that his choice of the name "Francis" has a great deal to do with Francis of Assisi, who turned from wealth and power to a life of simplicity and poverty in order to reform the church and to serve as an advocate for the poor and powerless.

One of the most intriguing things I've seen in Francis' actions so far is that in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, he points back to some of the reforms of Vatican 2 in the 1960's.  Vatican 2 more than any Roman Catholic statement before or since gave an increasing amount of credence to other forms of Christianity and other churches.  Vatican 2 also opened the door to more diverse expressions of language and culture within the church, especially opening up the way for the Catholic Mass to be celebrated in the language of the people rather than in Latin.  

In that meeting with reporters today Francis acknowledged that many of them are not Catholic, but said that he would like to bless them because they are all "children of God."  He has already appealed to one of the leading Jewish rabbis in Rome to open talks.  (Bergoglio has a history of close relationships with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires.  Not to mention that he is considered a close friend by some of the leading evangelicals in South America, including Argentinian Luis Palau.)  He seems to be eager for the Church of Rome to be in dialogue with other religious expressions from a position of humility.

The other intriguing thing Francis did is that in his very first appearance, he (again) broke with tradition when he was first presented to the crowds waiting at the Vatican.  Instead of coming out to bless them immediately, he asked them to bless him by praying for him, and then took a moment of silence for that prayer.  In this direct but simple way he acknowledged his dependence on the people and on God, and only after that moment for silent prayer did he pronounce a blessing on the crowds.

Yet another reform coming out of Vatican 2 was an appeal for Catholics to read their Bibles, an activity that has been viewed with some suspicion in the Roman Catholic Church over the centuries, as Catholics believe that the Bible must be correctly interpreted by the traditions of the church.  But stories are emerging of Bergoglio as a man who loves to sit and read his Bible, even doing so together with evangelical Christians, sharing fellowship in God's Word together.  Powerful stuff, and I hope he brings it to Rome with him.

I don't believe a lot of the hype the Catholic Church has built up around the papacy over the years.  I'm certainly no "go home to Rome" Lutheran.  But I am excited by the possibility that the man who is in the head office of the Roman Church knows Jesus, reads his Bible, and comes out of a Christian tradition that is currently leading the church toward simplicity and community.  These are heady days for our Catholic brothers and sisters, and we would do well to pray for them as Francis navigates the waters of these first days of his papacy.  May God bless and direct him and provide him with faithful, able coworkers in the task of following the Spirit's guidance in his leadership.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Dollar signs

I've been thinking a lot lately about money.

Central, my church, is going through a bit of a financial crisis.  We've been here before, a few times, in the almost-decade I've been a pastor here.  For a variety of reasons, giving fluctuates up and down, and spending fluctuates up and down.  If giving hits a down, as it has for the last four or five months, and spending hits an up, which it has for the last few months as well, then things get out of hand.

In household management, you would anticipate this.  You would know the pink slip came, or the cutbacks at work, or the temporary layoffs, or whatever, were a reality, and you'd plan for it.  Central's budget is complex enough that it's hard to anticipate, and you never know what people are going to give until a couple days later when the offering gets counted.

So partly this is just the reality of church work.  Sometimes you get caught short.

That's not really the part of this I've been thinking about.  No, I'm thinking about how much Jesus talked about money.  He didn't offer a short course for the disciples on church budget management.  In fact, I can't think of a single time Jesus talked about the community budget, except maybe when he told Judas to go and do quickly what he had to do -- and some of the Twelve misunderstood, and thought he was talking about giving something out of the common purse to the poor.

When Jesus talked about money, he was usually -- almost always -- using it like a canary in the coal mine, watching the money to see what the state of your heart is.  (Read Matthew 6 for a really good example of how Jesus does this.)  Jesus says flat out that where you spend your money, that's where your priorities are.

So more than anything, the last few months at Central say we still have a lot to do to change people's hearts, engage people with Jesus, encourage people to get in the game and really surrender themselves to him.  Dollars are the surest way to see if that's happening.

In some ways, I suppose what's going on now is a failure on the part of our three preachers.  We haven't talked a lot about money specifically for a couple years.  Instead we've preached a high commitment message and have figured that people would figure it out.  I guess we need to spell it out a little more clearly.

Lent is not a bad time for this kind of reflection, by the way.  Jesus is going to the cross to bleed and die for us.  How will we respond?  Good stuff to be thinking about.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Kids leaving the church?

Why are young people leaving the church in droves and only a few trickle back in a decade or two later?   This blog makes some convincing arguments.  What strikes me about this blogger's view is that it connects in so, so many ways to the class I'm teaching this week at the Canadian Lutheran Bible Institute on Christian History over the last 500 years.   Well worth your time to click on the link and read!