Dust in the Wind

It’s Pastoral Ministry Tuesday, so that means it’s time for another post about my life as a pastor and this story I find myself in.

Hey.

It’s been a while.

To be honest, I’ve been living somewhere between exhausted and disoriented which has opened the door to some depression over the last little while.

I’m settling into some healthy rhythms now. Getting started back with a spiritual director. I’m finding my tribe. Making space to just be again.

But still, the situations around me, the stuff going on in the world and in the lives of my friends, family and church family, it still has me disoriented. It’s like I have been bombarded with stuff and now, in the stillness, what I find myself focusing on is listening for the next bomb that will go off, the next disaster that will land, the next tornado that will touch down in my neighborhood (literally AND metaphorically).

Tonight, because the Presidential debate is on, I’m thinking about all the political turmoil that is on the go and how thoroughly disappointed I am in how the Church (big C) has responded in this season.

Deeply disappointed.

As in, “what have I been doing with my life for the last 35 years” kind of disappointed.

And I feel like I can’t even express my feelings without being offensive to people and sharing your feelings shouldn’t be something that offends people. It’s hard to have relationship when you can’t talk about your feelings.

There’s a moment where Pilate points to Jesus during his deliberations about what to do with him and says (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Look! Here’s your king!” and the Jewish leaders reply, “We have no king but Caesar!”

If ever there was a blasphemous statement, that one qualifies. The intent of that line in the Gospels is to take our breath away. To elicit a collective gasp from the people of faith.

The answer for people of faith is that we have no king but YHWH, we have no king but God, no king but Jesus.

One allegiance. Just the one. Everything else has to line up way behind that one. Even our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters don’t share the same loyalty as the one we give to God. Our allegiance to God is supposed to be so intense, so determined, so focused that it makes our love for our family look like hate.

There’s this funny word in the Old Testament, ‘shibboleth.’ It became a word that divided the in people from the out people by the way they pronounced the word. You recognized your tribe by their “sh” or their “s” sound. They might be jerks or scoundrels or reprobates or bullies but as long as they hit the right note (right being the one that corresponded to your group) they were in and I’d stand with them in a fight with someone from the other group even if they were kind, gentle and patient people.

Today if feels like we’ve come up with our own shibboleth in the 21st century United States. And we’ve made a particular political affiliation equivalent with being authentic followers of Jesus. This is how hell works. This is the work that the anti-christs are up to.

When Paul described the fight we find ourselves in he told us that it wasn’t about the person you could see but about the powers and principalities, authorities, that operated on people. Paul was explicitly talking about things like government and economics and politics when he talked about these powers. No doubt there is demonic influence in these areas but he wasn’t talking about devils and demons.

We are the kingdom of God, set up and in conflict with EVERY political power and solution that mankind will come up with. There is NO political party, by the nature of political parties, that is a friend to the Church and the people of faith.

But don’t take my word for it.

Daniel drops an interpretation of his pagan king’s dream in Daniel 2. Here’s how he broke it down.

31 “In your vision, Your Majesty, you saw standing before you a huge, shining statue of a man. It was a frightening sight. 32 The head of the statue was made of fine gold. Its chest and arms were silver, its belly and thighs were bronze, 33 its legs were iron, and its feet were a combination of iron and baked clay. 34 As you watched, a rock was cut from a mountain, but not by human hands. It struck the feet of iron and clay, smashing them to bits. 35 The whole statue was crushed into small pieces of iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold. Then the wind blew them away without a trace, like chaff on a threshing floor. But the rock that knocked the statue down became a great mountain that covered the whole earth.”

The statue is the government, political powers of humankind. The stone, not made nor cut by human hands, not looking like a man at all, is the kingdom of God. The kingdom doesn’t come to support or empower or advise or guide human government.

Because they are incompatible.

The kingdom comes and crushes all the human systems, replaces them and covers the whole earth. The powers are turned to dust in the wind.

The great temptation of the last 1500 years has been for the Church to allow (or even pursue) the powers and principalities to coop the kingdom for their own ends so that we might have influence and a sense of legitimacy.

That’s why, when Jesus describes the people who are the people of God, he uses descriptors that will be despised and rejected by the governments of mankind.

The poor, those who mourn, the humble, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, those who desire only one thing, those who work for peace and do right, even when they get bullied for doing it.

Can you see how incompatible those people are with the powers and principalities of human government and power?

You can easily argue that one form of government or system of government is better than another for the people who are under that system. But the story we are in leaves no room for us to argue that any of these systems are blessed by God. Daniel makes it clear, God has cursed them all. Their end is dust. All of them.

So as the people of God, it’s very important that we not lose sight of where we have pledged our one and only allegiance. It’s vital that we keep in front of ourselves the truth that every single system of man is opposed to the kingdom of God and what we must not find ourselves fighting against, hating with words or actions, demeaning, doing violence to or living with disregard towards is our neighbor – you know, our neighbor in the biblical sense.

Tomorrow, if you haven’t unfriended me, my facebook feed will be full of ugly things people are saying that, like the ‘shibboleth,’ will draw lines that the blood of Jesus was shed to erase. Tomorrow, my facebook feed will be filled with Christians crowing that their candidate won the debate and the other candidate sucked ass. Tomorrrow, my facebook feed will demonstrate that many of my Christian friends still think that other people are our enemy, despite what the Gospel says. Many of my Jesus following friends who have sworn their allegiance to him as their king will still imply their trust for a better tomorrow is in a person, a party and a power that God has already told us through Daniel is just dust in the wind.

And tomorrow, when I scroll through my newsfeed, I will face some big questions about how effective I have been as a pastor and how effective I have been in helping people enter into the story of Jesus and how effective I have been in guiding people to invest their one allegiance into Jesus and the kingdom of God.

Centered Set, take 4 the finale

(On Credo Friday I mean to post about the things that make me what I am, the things I value and believe. Hopefully it shows by how I live.)

This is the post that will sound like I am negating everything that I’ve just said about Centered Set and Bounded Set and Fuzzy Set. It will sound like I am advocating for a Bounded Set and just trying to slap a Centered Set logo onto it. And perhaps that is exactly what I am doing but I don’t think so. The truth is that for a Centered Set to live and function and be healthy, you have to keep some people out of it.

I don’t mean to say that a person would be kept out forever but that certain types of people or personalities need to be kept out for a Centered Set to do life together in a way that allows for them to flourish.

In the New Testament, Titus 3:10 says, “If people are causing divisions among you, give a first and second warning. After that, have nothing more to do with them.”

There are some people who are just poisonous to community. That doesn’t mean you could not have a relationship with them or maintain some level of contact that allows you to love them and share the way of Jesus with them. But you can’t let them be part of the Beloved Community.

Jesus said, “Watch out! …Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Mt 16:6) The yeast turns out to be deceptive teaching but before you fill in that blank with what you think that means, have a good look at what those two groups were teaching. Despite what you’ve been told, you’ll find that Jesus was not talking about a “works based righteousness.” They had competing visions of the kingdom of God and neither of them lined up with the kingdom Jesus was bringing to the earth.

When Paul was on the road and he was doing a “final tour” of sorts, he stopped by his friends at Ephesus and met with the leaders there. He had a strong warning for them. And in Acts 20, Luke tells us Paul said, “I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. Watch out!” There are always going to be some dudes that are up to no good. We cannot look after the Beloved Community if we are not committed to recognizing the wolves and driving them away from the sheep. These are not characters who come in teaching everyone to smoke, drink, play cards and listen to rock n roll – as I have been told in my younger days – these are people who are bent on perverting the way of Jesus for their own ends or some ideology to which they adhere.

But please note the wisdom from the movie, Broadcast News. Two characters, best of friends, Aaron and Jane, are discussing Jane’s attraction to the new “golden boy,” Tom, at their news studio. Aaron attempts to warn Jane about who he really is:

Aaron Altman: I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone, so please don’t get me wrong when I tell you that Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the Devil.
Jane Craig: This isn’t friendship. You’re crazy, you know that?
Aaron Altman: What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around?

Aaron Altman: Come on! Nobody is going to be taken in by a guy with a long, red, pointy tail! What’s he gonna sound like?
[hisses]
Aaron Altman: No. I’m semi-serious here.
Jane Craig: You’re seriously…
Aaron Altman: He will be attractive! He’ll be nice and helpful. He’ll get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing! He’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing… he will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit. And he’ll talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.

The villains in our story don’t twirl their long, black moustaches or come in howling at the moon. And leaders of the Church need to practice discernment in Jesusy ways, not the traditional moralistic, holier than thou, we stand on the truth of the Word of God – kind of ways. Because the people who kill community will whisper in your ear, not shout, they’ll suggest and not tell and they will be full of sweetness and light, until they consolidate enough power to extinguish the light of the Beloved Community. The church may continue to meet, to be sure, but it will a husk, a zombie, a golem and the life and light of Christ will be gone.

My point is, and I do have one, that the flourishing of the Centered Set requires us to keep some people from joining it and gaining influence in or over it. Especially over it. We have to watch out for divisive people. People who use the best words but don’t look or smell like a shepherd. We have to decline entrance to the group to individuals who have a wonderful plan for everyone’s life. The responsibility of leadership in particular but the whole Beloved Community in general is to deny a place to those who don’t act like Jesus, who don’t set an example in the way they talk and act and love. Especially the way they love.

John, the epistle writer, makes a really big deal about this in 1 John. And there are theological beliefs or doctrinal beliefs he asserts are vital but the distinguishing characteristic is love for the church over and against divisiveness.

Divisive people, factional people, “better than you” people, tend to be black and white, binary thinking types who see things as right or wrong, in or out. They seldom can accept or acknowledge that life is full of nuance and following Jesus is more art than science, more narrative than rule book. They tend to be people who love to draw lines and sort people by the lines they’ve drawn. Jesus ended up on a Cross because he didn’t measure up for these types of people. Beware the Narcissist, the Sociopath and the Church Lady. When you smell a Pharisee or a Sadducee type, be kind, be loving, but be determined that they will never, never ever, never ever ever, be part of the Centered Set Beloved Community until you can see Jesus in their eyes.

Momentum

(It’s Pastoral Ministry Tuesday on June 30, 2020. On these PMTs I try to make some notes about this pastoral life and the lessons I’ve learned in the midst of my story. I’m still deluded enough to think these notes might be helpful to others. Don’t dispossess me of that notion!)

In local church ministry there’s this thing, this indefinable vibe that you recognize when it’s present and you know it when it’s not.

If I were to give it a name it would be “momentum.” Good things tend to compound with other good things happening in ministry and a string of these good things establishes a momentum that produces better health, growth, progress, and generally causes people in the church to feel good about their own participation with their local church. When pastors are working with the momentum, everything just feels easier and it feels like you can get a lot more done and you can observe a lot more happening without exerting a lot more effort.

If you’ve ever played with a band, it’s like finding the ministry groove.

The sweet spot.

When it’s not there ministry in the local church can feel like plowing through six foot snowdrifts. You can still be doing all the right things and doing them the right way and still it feels like you are moving in slow motion. This is generally the time people tell you that the Holy Spirit has left the building or it’s time for a building program or the senior pastor needs to move on and make room for some “fresh vision.” While I believe that it’s good to discern all those things, more likely it’s just a season between the waves.

In my failed attempts to surf, my instructors taught me about picking the right wave and how waves would come in sets and if I could learn to read the sets I’d be able to pick the right wave. I managed to stay up for about a second and a half, that’s my best time, but I had a lot of fun trying and failing at surfing. But I think there is a correlation to ministry momentum and sometimes, when the momentum wanes, it’s just a time to wait, prepare, discern and read the sets. And I’ve been surfing these ministry waves a lot longer than I’ve been able to stand upright on a board on the waves in the ocean.

With the pandemic hitting, everyone in pastoral ministry has had their momentum disrupted. Our rhythm is off. And it is going to take us time to get our momentum back.

And for me, as a pastor, that’s scary. The momentum can be elusive in the best of times.

I was pastoring a local church once, we had the momentum, we were in the groove, and then an individual with serious but untreated mental health issues melted down all over the lives of other church members. Disruptive does not begin to describe the impact of the events surrounding this person’s ongoing episodes among a small community of faith that was unfamiliar with people experiencing such a profound but untreated illness. The ensuing chaos was collective and in subtle and overt ways, our momentum was disrupted. Stopped in its tracks. The waters were stilled.

Another time, we had momentum, and then a couple who my wife and I had invested a great deal in personally and as a congregation, suddenly announced that they were “out” and would be happy to have anyone follow them who wanted to “go where God was.” I’d failed to applaud the latest charismatic “kairos moment.” Nothing had changed at our local church, we were doing what we had been doing with the momentum but this announcement was like a kick in the tender bits and you could see the momentum leave the room, the hearts, the lives.

And sometimes it’s a pandemic. Sometimes you find yourself in a pandemic of one kind or another and momentum is gone like a fart in the wind.

For charismatics, of which I would say I am one, our first impulse is to look around for the big tent and move. “Where is God moving?” is the way we often ask it. Where are there waves we can catch? For others, this is exactly the time we’re taught that you need to start a big capital campaign and start raising funds for a mission or a building program, something that can artificially create a sense of purpose and energy and excitement that everyone is working towards.

Because the simple truth is that the kingdom of God comes mostly through a long obedience in the same direction. And when you maintain that long obedience in the same direction, you’ll see the set of waves coming again and you’ll be in the right place with the right preparation to make the absolute most of the wave when it comes. Doing things Jesus’ way means that momentum will come in waves but the waves are NOT the kingdom coming – the kingdom is ALWAYS coming on the wave and in the valley between the waves. We’re not called to generate the waves and call them Hagar and our new momentum, Ishmael. We are called to something harder.

Faithfulness.

Because the truth is we discover who we are in between the waves more than when the energy of the wave transfers to our board and we feel the momentum grab us and we feel weightless and unstoppable. Right now, we’re all looking for the wind, waiting on the momentum or trying to gin up something that feels like Spirit and progress. The momentum will come back as we keep making the faithful little choices that we need to make every day. As we re-focus ourselves on what God is saying and doing during this season and embrace that rather than fight for what we WANT God to be doing in this season.

In the blizzard of a million voices telling me what we need to be doing right now, I’m trying to slow down and listen to that One voice, be still and to wait because in my experience, faithfulness always leads to better days ahead.

Centered Set, take 3

(CREDO FRIDAY is the day I post something about the way my faith has developed over my lifetime and where I’ve come to because of the things I believe on the day on which I post these thoughts. I am a work in progress, a candidate for change, I have not arrived and I am not fully formed but I am being made new, more and more as the Day draws closer.)

Over the last two posts about the Centered Set, I’ve tried to unpack this way of illustrating an approach to doing life together. I’ve attempted to give some foundation for using this approach to ecclesiology in general and what I’ve come to believe about the Jesus way of doing life together as the Church specifically. You can read part one HERE and part two HERE.

If you want to go back and re-read those quickly, I’ll wait here for you and then we can carry on.

Right, so with the foundation of those two posts, let’s look at how in the world this would look in real life.

First, it means that we are going to have an emphasis on what we will call “spiritual formation” rather than the current emphasis on what we will call “discipleship.” Immediately every good evangelical begins to clench their sphincter muscle but please stay with me. In many cases, definitely not all, we have reduced “discipleship” to a series of classes one takes and completes. You may have seen this illustrated with a baseball diamond where a person starts at home plate and proceeds to “round the bases” with classes 1-3, levelling up with each class until you’ve taken all the classes and – what – graduate with a certificate of completion?

Anyone who has followed Jesus for a lifetime knows that discipleship can’t be contained to 3 classes and a certificate. So when I am use the word “discipleship” in this context, I am not talking about Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all the nations but rather the form of “discipleship” we have created that best serves the system that we have already built. As a pastor, I regularly engage in conversation with other pastors who are looking for a discipleship system that actually works. And almost every year a new program comes out that promises to be THE program – and may God make it be – but what this clearly indicates is that we have not been successful in a wholistic and satisfying way of making disciples through our contemporary “discipleship” programs.

Spiritual formation, on the other hand, looks to me a whole lot more like the practices of discipleship that the early church engaged in. I’m not suggesting that the practice of spiritual formation is offering guaranteed outcomes but I am saying that in my experience, people engaged in spiritual formation make greater progress in becoming more and more like Jesus than I have seen form “discipleship” programs over my lifetime.

The spiritual formation approach recognizes we are in process our whole lives. It is a process that we must engage in for it to make progress. It is relational and incarnational by nature and relies on ancient practices being utilized by those engaged to make progress towards our TELOS of becoming more and more like Jesus. Spiritual formation recognizes that God is forming us to be more like Jesus even when we don’t know it and perhaps even when we don’t particularly want it or like it. It focuses on the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives both affectively and effectively with help from following the story we are in and proximity and even messy relationship with the people with whom we share this journey towards the Center.

Now, let’s take a specific instance or we may never get to one.

I am a pacifist. I didn’t start out following Jesus as a pacifist but over time and through relationship with Jesus and becoming more and more familiar with the story we are in, studying the Scriptures and being re-formed by the Holy Spirit, I’ve come to believe that anyone who follows Jesus must come to the practice of pacifism as an expression of their submission to the Lordship of Christ.

And let’s be honest, if we read the Bible and take it at face value, pacifism has all the receipts.

I realize not everyone who reads this will believe that – about the receipts. I realize that, in part, because I once didn’t see it that way either. But now I do. I see it as an essential element of following Jesus and being faithful to this story. And I have to admit, I’m mostly a theoretical pacifist – I’ve never had to make the choice of taking someone’s life or not or getting into a fight to save another person. The most I’ve ever had to do was walk away. But nevertheless, this is my conviction and I believe, a central teaching of Jesus for all of his followers.

So, how do I do life together with people who aren’t pacifists?

I can make that the line for my bounded set. If you’re a pacifist, you’re in. I don’t have to know you or try to understand any of the subtle nuances that make you who you are as a follower of Jesus. As long as you share this conviction with me you are practicing the Scriptures correctly as I understand them and though I may never really know you, you are in and I am in. And if not, if you believe killing another person created in the image of God is ever acceptable, if you feel we can pick and choose how and when to apply the “clear teachings” of Jesus in the sermon on the mount and across the New Testament, you’re out.

And we’ll just tweet our farewell.

In the Centered Set model, I have to first discover your orientation to the Center by getting to know you as a person. Terribly inconvenient for dismissing people but shouldn’t dismissing people be terribly inconvenient for followers of Jesus? What makes you read the Scriptures differently than I do? How is the Holy Spirit or is the Holy Spirit working in your life in ways that the story we are in predicts and identifies as signs of God’s redemptive, re-creative work in your life?

I can’t separate myself from you simply because you have not come to the same conclusion I have about a very clear teaching of the Scriptures. You still believe in Augustine’s non-biblical, theological construct of the “just war” theory? You still believe that an eye for an eye achieves something positive? You still believe that supporting the killing of an adult on death row can still somehow make you “pro-life”? I don’t get that but I can still love you and I can still identify the work of the Holy Spirit in your life and when you tell me about the kickass MMA fight your discipleship group just hung out to watch together, I can love you like a Vegan child loves their steak eating parents even while I cringe a little.

Because my focus is not on where you are but on where you are oriented.

That doesn’t mean I won’t ask you some questions or suggest you need to read your Bible or maybe even cry in front of you when you talk about one man beating another man into bloody and barbaric submission, but I will keep on loving you on your journey towards Jesus.

As Rich Mullins once sang, “My friends ain’t the way I wish they were – They are just the way they are.”

So, I believe that we can share life together: those who practice simplicity sitting beside those who live in opulence, those who are pacifists breaking bread with those who believe in a just war, those who wear hats in worship sitting alongside those who go without their biblical head covering, same sex couples singing worship right next to hetero-normative couples, people who never tithe passing the offering basket to people who have never not tithed, the guy who smokes praying at the front for the guy who believes his body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and would never pollute it, the rage-aholic can minister beside the food-aholic and the intermittent faster.

IF our orientation is to the Center of our set and the Center is named, Jesus.

It is the grace, mercy and forgiveness of such a sacramental community that allows us the space and safety to unpack our stuff over time and become more and more like Jesus.

And one day, we may even discover that quite by accident and without intending to, you’ve become a pacifist too in your pursuit of being more like Jesus.

NEXT WEEK – God willing – I will reverse everything I’ve just said in a post we will call, “The Exceptions.”   

Pastoring and Pandemics

To meet or not to meet. That seems to be the big question.

Pastoring and Pandemics

In all my years of education and pastoral conferences, workshops and seminars, we never once covered “What to do in a Pandemic.” And while there are suddenly heaps of resources I can buy right now and online seminars I can pay to attend, the answers continue to be elusive. Information continues to be contradictory.

As I try to tune in to my colleagues, listen to what others are thinking, feeling and doing, it seems that pastoral ministry world is as divided over what to do in a pandemic as we are about nearly every other issues that comes along. It doesn’t seem to be influenced – necessarily – by the COVID numbers in their local area, County or State. It seems to follow more ideological or philosophical lines when my pastor friends are deciding what to do next.

Here are some of the categories of response I’ve observed so far:

1) We’re Christians. God told us to meet every Sunday. It’s what we do and we’ll keep doing it.

There are two sub-categories of faith here:

a) God will magically protect us from the COVID as he does all who are true believers.

AND

b) We may die but at least we will die being faithful to Jesus.

2) We’re Americans. Nobody gets to tell us we can’t meet, especially not the government. Are you going to bow to Babel or Jesus. Your true colors are showing.

3) We can’t afford to not meet anymore. No “in person” meetings are translating into no “in the bank” deposits. We need the money to cometh because the bills always do.

4) We’re fed up with not being able to be together and even if the infection numbers are going up we’re going to meet for those willing to risk it and stream to those who aren’t.

5) We will meet outside, keep our distance, encourage people to use masks, hand sanitizer and take all the precautions recommended by the CDC.

6) Not being with our friends is wearing us down but we feel like the infection numbers make it too risky for us to meet face to face – especially for our most vulnerable members. We’d be devastated if even one person became infected as a result of our meeting together.

Try to imagine that between every one of these ‘types’ you can also find 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, etc. For some, this has been an easy decision from the start, for a lot, it has been an agonizing decision and it continues to be one.

A question that I see posted pretty regularly on pastor forums on Facebook is, “Does anyone actually know anybody who has tested positive for COVID?” You can read between the words on that question. In the early days there were a lot of replies that indicated “no” but here in the middle of June, more often than not, people are reporting knowing people who have been directly impacted by COVID, many even knowing people who have died.

I get my flu shot every year. Not so much because I’ve been worried about the flu (but I probably should consider it) but mostly because I don’t want to become a potential carrier or infection point for the people I’m sharing life with in our local church. Theologically, I believe God heals. Practically, I think he still expects me to do my best to take practical measures to protect those I love from communicable diseases. So my bias, the older I get, is that my friends who are older than me and have various health issues, need me to love them by getting a shot every year that reduces in some small way their risk of being infected.

So for now I’m trying to discern with my friends when we should come back together for our worship. Right now we “gather in place” via digital medium and occasional small groups that observe physical distancing, masks, and sanitizer. Lots of sanitizer.

I have a chart that rates activities by their level of danger of spreading infection. Our normal church activities are all in the high numbers on the chart. I’ve had to decide whether or not to have church service when a winter storm had hit and we had to dig out. I’ve had to decide whether or not to have church service when a hurricane had blown through. I’ve had to decide whether to keep a church service going when a winter storm started to howl outside and roads were becoming dangerous. I’ve never had to decide whether or not to meet because of a pandemic that had already claimed over 100,000 lives in just a few short months.

And in all the storms I’ve cancelled service for I never had to deal with people saying the storm was just a partisan ploy to harm the re-election chances of a political candidate.

There’s an amazing video where a man is being asked about getting things back to normal during the COVID pandemic. The interviewer is asking a man some questions about how much risk is acceptable. They stand together in an empty street as he asks him – like the conversation between Abraham and God – how many losses are acceptable losses. He settles on a percentage – something relatively small. Then the interviewer works out with him how many people that would be based on the population in their location.  I think they decide it would be 40 people. The man says that seems like an acceptable loss to get things back to “normal.”

The interviewer then says something like, “Now I’d like to introduce you to 40 people.” Ouch. The man braces himself and you can see the anticipated pain cross his face. But he prepares himself. He can handle it.

Suddenly 40 people come around the corner and onto the street the man and the interviewer stand on. The interviewer asks, “Do you know any of those 40 people?” The man’s hand covers his mouth as the crowd comes closer and closer, waving, faces smiling, “I know them all,” the man says, “they are all my family.”

Centered Set, take two

(Credo Friday is about posting reflections on my beliefs and the ways in which they shape me. These posts represent the things I believe at the time that I wrote them and the ways in which they are being worked out in my everyday life.)

“We live in a world of evaluations, assessments, and measurements, but Jesus turns his gaze deeper because he knows that what is measurable can be faked.”
― Scot McKnight, Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount

Last week I started a post about doing life together as a Centered Set. You can read that post HERE. It would be helpful to read that before reading this.

an illustration of the two set models

This is may end up feeling like preamble part two. The more I write about this the more I feel needs to be unpacked to give the broader context in which a Centered Set can flourish. I believe that the Centered Set is an illustration of how we can most do life together that looks most like Jesus.

Centered Set is not an easy way to live. It is especially difficult when we are used to drawing lines and living in a Bounded Set culture. In both instances, there is an us and a them. In Centered Set, those distinctions are determined by a person’s relationship to the Center. In Bounded Set, the distinction is determined by a list or metric of some kind, it could be behaviors or beliefs or economic status or the shibboleth of the day, or it could be a combination of all the above.

In Church world, marked by a plethora (I love that word) of denominations, it’s easy to see our tendency to draw lines and exclude. I would argue that Jesus primarily erased line but not all lines. In the early days of the Church a lot of conversation took place before someone was on the other side of the line, today we draw lines over breakfast and tweet out our farewells over lunch. In a system that relies on ascribing to the right beliefs to be in God’s Bounded Set, our tendency is to demonstrate that we are more right in our beliefs than others and thus more “in” with God than others.

The non-denominational denomination I was a part of when I went to Bible College started in Scotland from a group of Presbyterian churches that were weary of sectarianism. They were identifying as Old Light Anti-Burgher Seceder Presbyterians. Not to be confused with the New Light, Pro-Burgher, Anti-Seceders or the Old Light, Pro-Burgher, Anti-Seceders or the…you can see how they got weary. We love our lines. We especially love them when we’ve drawn them or at least are on the side of the lines that prove we’re in or are somehow related to those in power who determine where the lines will be drawn.

Centered Set runs counter to our dominant culture on many levels and that’s what makes the practice of Centered Set so difficult. This approach to life together is very difficult for Type A leaders, driven people, people who like reportable metrics and for people who like things tidy. It is a very difficult way to live for people who are not willing to make relationship their top priority and who have a conscious or unconscious fear of the other that they are unwilling to address.

The approach to leadership in the Centered Set is problematic. It requires leadership that is not about a single individual but held loosely by a group of people who are looking a lot like Jesus. If Paul could say, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” We can too. We can tell when someone looks like Jesus. These are the people who should be brought together to provide leadership to a Centered Set. The temptation is always to a centralization of power and the critical work of leadership is to constantly resist this gravity and to divest themselves of power, distributing power to the body of Christ. In this way, the community will accede to them the authority to lead based on their self-sacrificial love and their resistance of power over in favor of loving influence.

The Centered Set analogy is also a hard way to explain what this way of life looks like because ultimately analogies all break down. It is still a useful picture as a way of helping us talk about a way of living.  It’s like an icon – a picture that stands for something greater and more substantial than just the image itself, it’s not a perfect representation but it can orient us in the direction of a way of living that is so different from “normal” that we will otherwise struggle to hold on to it. I make this point simply because we are tempted to reduce this concept to a simple drawing with which we can take exception which is like taking exception with the way an artist depicts a person in portrait and not dealing with the reality of the person it attempts to represent.

My favorite work of Bonhoeffer, no surprise, is his small book, Life Together. He sets out to give us a primer for doing life together as followers of Jesus. It includes one of my favorite admonitions for doing life together – the wish dream. Bonhoeffer says that your dream of your community will kill the community you are part of if you insist on your vision of that community rather than embracing the reality of what it is. As a friend puts it, no relationship can flourish in an atmosphere of disapproval. If I know you fundamentally disapprove of me, I’m not quite how you’d like me to be, our relationship will never be able to flourish.

It won’t be what it is, let alone what it could be.

Centered Set requires us to invest ourselves in relationship. I have to get to know you and observe your way of being and look for signs of the Holy Spirit operating in and through you. This can take time. We can all have bad moments, days, weeks and months. Relationship is so much harder because it means I have to deal with flesh and blood, I have to open myself up to let you know me if I want to be able to say I really know you. And frankly, we abhor the more difficult way. We’re busy people. But it is still the better way and to draw a line that makes someone an “outsider” simply because we are too busy to spend time really getting to know them, misses the point of an incarnational gospel.

Finally, here’s something I’ve learned – people in power tend to use their power to stay in power. Centered Set is an absolute threat to the reign of those who want power over others – even if their goal is for the good of others. When the Set has agreed that power over rests exclusively with the Center – Father, Son and Holy Ghost – it is difficult for an individual to define themselves by establishing themselves as someone more “in” than another person. When being “in” is determined by your proximity or orientation to the Center (Jesus), everyone can be equal and everyone can be “in” and the power to exclude (which gives people power over) is eliminated. And let’s be honest, wouldn’t we all prefer to be the one who gets to decide who is in and who is out?

So ends part two of part one. Or something like that. Next time I will attempt to give you an example of how a Centered Set operates in a real life example. If you have read this far and have a real life example or question about how this could possibly work or some other specific question, hit me up.

Camino Diary, Day 12

Today was Friday the 13th.

Pre-sunrise light show.

We started before sunrise today. We went to bed early enough that we felt rested and ready. Walking in the dark means you miss some of the beauty along the way but you also miss some of the heat of the day. There’s an energy to an early morning that makes it feel like you are moving faster than you really are. The trouble is that in the dark it’s much easier to miss markers and to take a wrong turn.

We walked for a time with our new friends and roommate from Australia and talked less about bed bugs and more about life.  I still felt itchy.

And then…

Sunrise.

It was spectacular. Again.

Today I was struck by the diversity of the landscape along the way. We were only walking but already we were coming across different plant life, different crops being grown, different types of rock and different types of construction materials being used. This morning we walked through potato fields and finally by large potato warehouses and thought of my friends back on Prince Edward Island and wondered if they were digging potatoes yet and prayed for their safe keeping.

up the steps to breakfast

As we entered Granόn there was a pop-up café where we stopped and enjoyed a delicious breakfast and café con leche in a beautiful little spot. As we paid for our food we also got our passport stamped. I could have sat a long time there, not because I was exhausted but because it was such a beautiful spot. Pilgrims were coming and going and there was an excited buzz in the air. Eventually Bill and I did get up and we made our way to our destination for the night.

thin places abound

Walking along we came across a couple of very old churches where we prayed but found no one at either to stamp our pilgrim’s passport. This was a day on which I noted that I got a lot of praying done. I had come to the Camino with a lot of questions and between seeking answers and praying for my friend in the U.K. who was having a very serious health crisis, my prayer life was getting intense. I was so involved in my prayers that I thought we had 3 kilometers left to go when we saw the sign that we had actually reached our destination, including our albergue for the night.

If the night before had been a strange, almost surreal experience, this night in this albergue was almost a mystical experience. The place we stayed was small but warm and friendly. Our host offered to wash clothes for 5€ a load and a fire was going on the hearth – and it was a legit hearth. The community meal was a true experience of community and the food was delicious. The people around the table offered conversation as warm and welcoming as the fire. Bill amazed me at his ability to get to know people and create meaningful conversation out of thin air.

Bill’s bed that night was, well, springy. It creaked and groaned under him and poked him in the back much of the night but it was such an amazing place that I remember it still as one of our best nights on the Camino.

There’s a lot about this day that I won’t tell you about. 2 pages from my diary record an important time of contemplation and listening prayer. I might write about it some day but it still feels too personal to share. I will only say this, because it will be important for what comes next – I felt some clarity that I was supposed to ask God for a sign. One of the questions I had been contemplating had to do with writing and investing more of myself in writing. The answer I felt God gave me was that I would see a white feather tomorrow on my walk and it would be a sign God was saying, “yes.” To write.

That night I as Bill slept on his bed of nails, I discovered that sleeping next to the bathroom has its advantages and distinct disadvantages. Still, I slept, full of anticipation for the sign God would give me the following day.

Weary

(Welcome to Pastoral Ministry Tuesday. On Tuesdays I try to post a glimpse behind the curtain, a look at what life in pastoral ministry is like for some of us and for me in particular. Pastors aren’t a monolithic group and some of us are having very different experiences than others – which is why this is a pastor’s story and not THE pastor’s story.)

This is one of the most challenging seasons in which I have pastored.

I have been through church splits and been called a heretic. I’ve had groups of people leave church and never talk to me about why or what. People have left when I didn’t speak up against the actions and speech of President Trump and I’ve had people leave because I spoke up against the actions and speech of President Trump. I’ve pastored when everyone had revival fever and chased an experience of God to the exclusion of truth and ethics and I’ve pastored when it seemed like all anyone wanted was to chase down the false teachers and burn them at the stake.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more weary than right now.

And it’s not the learning curve and the new skills I’ve had to pick up, the adjustments I’ve had to make or the hours working from home that blur all my lines and make most days seem like 12 hour (or more) days. Truthfully, it has been a challenge I have enjoyed.

My weariness in this pastoral life is coming from the daily experience of followers of Jesus saying hateful and hurtful things to and about each other and to and about people they don’t know but who share a different view of life from their own. I am weary because it feels like the message I have given my life to and the kingdom from which that message comes gets very little consideration from significant portions of those who, like me, say they follow Jesus. My weariness comes from discovering that saying that black lives matter is a controversial statement. It comes from finding out that saying black lives matter around my white friends or my white facebook friends, will get challenged.

Last night, during a time of silent prayer, I felt the Spirit of God speak to me. Some of the heaviness I feel right now is coming from an internal belief I’ll live my 70 years (or whatever I’m given) and the impact of my life will be like the rain that falls on the windshield of my car during a North Carolina downburst. Loud, frustrating, inconvenient but ultimately over quickly and wiped away without getting through.

And then I had to finish the prayer time.

I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want to be anyone’s expert. I don’t want to be guru or a “go to.” I’m not looking for followers or fans. But at my core, as a pastor, is a desire that what I’m doing here matters. That my life has been a light for someone. That my life has been salt to season or preserve life for someone. And right now, I think I’m personalizing things that are happening around me but I’m not sure how to stop doing that because it all feels very personal.

I’ve been reflecting on some of the stories of Jesus. Like the story he told about the good shepherd who left the 99 to find the one. Demonstrating a different way of doing math than the culture I am a part of seems to. A willingness to value the one in danger at the risk of looking like he values them more than those safe in numbers. Or the story Jesus tells about the two sons, both who run away from home – one physically, the other in his heart. One returns and the father celebrates but the other resents that the party wasn’t ever thrown for him. Jesus told so many stories that make God’s love and attention look like something other than fair.

I’ve been reflecting on the painful experiences of my friends, people of color, who have experienced racism, profiling and discrimination and then the commentary of both black and white people, many of whom claim to follow Jesus who deny the experiences my friends have had are having, who deny those things even exist, who say those things are a thing of the past. And they deny my experience as a white person in the South who has seen with his own eyes my friends being treated differently, have seen black people being followed in retail stores simply because they were shopping while being black. I’ve watched countless hours of video of the experiences of people of color being stopped by police for being black and fitting a “description.” And while I feel it is a privilege to have these stories shared with me and to be trusted by my friends to hear their stories of pain, I am weighed down – NOT by their sacred stories but by other pastors and followers of Jesus who insist it never happens any more. Or who suggest the “Christian response” is to pray it away.

Or if people just do as they are told there won’t be a problem.

As a pastor, there is often a gap between the things you believe and live for and the particularity of the people among whom you shepherd. And you can’t spend all your time and conversations with people trying to get them beyond some of the immature places they’ve camped on their way to becoming more and more like Jesus. You have to pastor for the long haul, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. But where is the line and how do we walk it when the sheep are biting and devouring the sheep? Honestly, it becomes clearer and clearer why we have black churches and we have white churches.

It’s easier.

No one has to empathize or care or think about what they say or surrender their political affiliation in order to be a brother or sister to those who are hurt and dying. But it doesn’t look like the kingdom.

Put all this into the context of a pandemic and life in a State in which the numbers of infected and hospitalized has continued to go up and people continue to die at an alarming rate. And find, even here, political persuasion is the dominant filter for how we respond to this information. Some churches are already meeting together and have resisted all along the authority of anyone telling them not to meet for health and safety. And then there are others who resist meeting in person yet because the numbers keep going up and they don’t want to put people at risk. They want to protect our most vulnerable.

They want to protect the most vulnerable.

What if we all just decided that the best way forward was to protect the most vulnerable among us all the time? What if that was the filter through which we viewed people and processed our decisions?

This is my story. I am privileged and life is easy.

And my heart is breaking every day.

Addressing Candace Owen’s ‘Brave’ Rant

Dear White Friends

Screen capture of Candace Owen in mid-rant

It’s only my white friends so far who have shared the Facebook posted “Candace Owen rant” (her word) with me. Every time it has happened so far it comes with a note about balance or fairness or the whole picture. I had never heard of Candace before so I watched the video. As I watched it I went through a spectrum of emotions from “this is crazy” to “this is sad” to “what the…?” I’m not going to post or link the video here because I find it so offensive INTELLECTUALLY and SPIRITUALLY.

But I will share some quotes from the 18 minute rant (her word) and some reflection on those quotes.

First though, let’s all make sure we are on the same page about Candace Owen. Who is Candace Owen? I had no idea. Do you? Am I the only person in America who has never heard of this young woman? Thankfully, Google is amazing at satisfying questions like this one. I encourage you to check her out. Let me say straight up that if you find Fox News “fair and balanced,” then you will definitely find Candace fair and balanced. She is a conservative pundit. She has recently written a book called, Blackout, in which she seeks to persuade African American Democrats to abandon that party in what she calls, Blexit, and join the Republican Party.

Wikipedia tells us that “She is known for her pro-Trump activism that began around 2016 after being initially very critical of Trump and the Republican Party, and her criticism of Black Lives Matter and of the Democratic Party. She worked for the conservative advocacy group Turning Point USA between 2017 and 2019 as their communications director.” According to the US-Sun, she is married to “George Farmer…the son of a baron, Lord Farmer, a former Conservative Party treasurer in the UK. The couple became smitten after meeting at the Royal Automobile Club in London, and he proposed to Owen just two weeks later…The pair married at Trump’s Winery in Virginia in 2019, with their guests wearing “Make America Great Again” headwear.” https://www.the-sun.com/news/936564/who-candace-owens-what-say-george-floyd/

It’s helpful to know what kind of bias people might have when they rant and start selectively offering facts and statistics all mixed into an opinion salad.

Just like this blog post.

So what did she say?

She begins by saying she feels a lot of pressure to jump on the bandwagon to declare George Floyd a martyr according to the popular narrative.

I haven’t heard ANYONE call George Floyd a martyr. She may be confusing “martyr” with “victim of lynching” but they aren’t the same thing. I turned to the Googler and I couldn’t find anyone there but Candace claiming Mr. Floyd as a martyr. It could be out there somewhere but it isn’t the popular narrative. Second, it’s disingenuous of her to suggest she is facing pressure to accept this narrative. Anyone who knows who she is, and I do now, would expect her to do exactly what she does in this rant. This is her m.o., her brand, her schtick, her thing. If she felt pressure from her base it would be to get a rant like this out and promote her brand. This video isn’t going against the flow, this is precisely the very message she has been promoting for – literally – years. In other words, she isn’t brave, she’s giving her fans what they want.

Sadly, Mr. George Floyd’s death just became an opportunity to say what she has already said but generate a lot more clicks from people who…well, honestly this is still a mystery to me, I’m not sure what would motivate people to pass along this self-described rant. Mr. Floyd, killed, unarmed on the street in Minneapolis by police can’t be allowed to rest in peace. She feels compelled to make sure we all know that Mr. Floyd is far from the perfect person everyone is making him out to be. She insists that he is being made out to be a hero – but I can’t find those articles or posts. I can find people who actually knew Mr. Floyd say positive things about him – is that equivalent to saying he lived “a heroic lifestyle?”

Having followed this story and now having Googled about it, I can’t find any instances of posts claiming he was a perfect person. I can find stories from people who knew Mr. Floyd personally at various points in his life who had some very nice things to say about him, about his faith in Jesus, about the positive influence he tried to exert in the lives of others, but I never found any articles that ascribed perfection to him. But is perfection or even near perfection what it takes to prove your life had enough value it didn’t deserved to be choked out of you?

But I’m getting ahead of Candace.

Candace sets up the Straw Man argument: You say he was a martyr, I will show you he was no martyr, he was a scoundrel! And then she starts taking apart the Straw Man. Candace calls him a martyr and seems to define ‘martyr’ as a person of character who dies on behalf of a people group. From there she spends most of the rest of the video making sure we all know about Mr. Floyd’s past transgressions and his violent crime.

But friends, no one but Candace is calling him a martyr. And NO ONE is saying he was without sin, without issues, without a criminal past or present. NO ONE. People who personally knew him, which Candace did not, have said lovely things about him and had some beautiful things to say about how he had made a positive impact on the lives of others. Can both things be true? Can a person have a criminal past, done various stints of time in prison, had a change and lived clean and out of trouble for a time and then had a slip and gone back into his or her addiction? I’ve met a lot through AA for whom both parts of this story were true.

One of my best friends died of a heroin overdose. He was part of our church. He’d done some really horrible things in his life. He had also done some very beautiful things, helped people and cared about the well being of others. Some months he was clean and sober and worshipped right beside me in church. Some months his old dealer stopped by offering free samples and he just couldn’t resist. Finally, after his dealer dropped by with another free sample after a few months of clean and sober living, my friend taste tested and in 48 hours he was dead.

When I stood up to conduct the funeral for my friend and I eulogized him, I didn’t pretend he lived or died as a perfect person. But when I shared some of my favorite memories of my friend at his funeral I didn’t feel compelled to balance the picture by telling people about his rap sheet, the wrongs he had done, even dying in his addiction, because they did not change who my friend was or the love he had given or received during his life.

But if you watch Candace’s rant, she’s building the case that George Floyd was a bad dude: lived that way, died that way.  So…so what? So don’t mourn him? Don’t lament the loss of his life? Don’t cry out for the opportunity to get clean and sober again that he never got? Is the moral of our story really, once a criminal always a criminal? Not for Christians. It isn’t supposed to be.

But Candace Owen herself insists, “I want to be very clear what I am saying is not any defense for Derek Chauvin. I hope Derek Chauvin, gets the justice that he deserves to be implemented upon him and that the family of George Floyd deserves justice for the way that he that he died.” See how fair she is? Candace wants justice for Mr. Floyd, Yay, Candace! But she doesn’t want us to celebrate Mr. Floyd because he was a criminal through and through. Floyd was an addict. He was bad. He tried to use a fake bill to pay for something. “In my opinion,” she say, “he was a criminal.”

Whew! Thank you for clearing that up Candace. We can disregard all the positive things about Mr. Floyd now because drugs. We can ignore all the statements by people who actually knew him about his kindness and his character because he had a violent past. Why is this important? Because Candace wants to make sure we know that this person no one but her is claiming is a martyr and no one ever claimed was perfect had done some bad stuff and was high on something when his life was choked out of him.  Because that makes us all feel better cause addicts and criminals don’t deserve better. She doesn’t have to say that, all she has to do is create that impression – which she does – and now we feel…better.

As she states at the end of her video, “I’m a big believer that no matter what color you are you do stupid things you win stupid prizes.” This is her BAZINGA! It’s her catchphrase and it resonates with her core.

Jesus’ catchphrase was “as I have loved you, so you also ought to love one another.” Even the addicts, and criminals, and jerks, and people who rant about the rap sheet of the recently deceased on Facebook.

But as she gets us all whipped up with her rapid fire delivery of the character defects of George Floyd, let’s take a breath and be real for a second. There are no white hats and black hats. People are complicated. King David had Bathsheba brought up to his place for a little adultery and had her husband murdered to cover it all up. People are complicated and a scoundrel can also be a man after God’s own heart. If you’re a Christian and her portrayal of Mr. Floyd’s character makes any difference to you at all then you have completely missed the plot of the story we say we believe. Pick one – Peter, violent racist. Abraham, where should we start on his character defects? Paul, executioner of followers of Jesus. The one thing we have in common, being created as the image of God. It’s the one thing that we have going for us – my addictions might not be yours, my issues might not be shared by you but friends, everyone you know knows you got issues. Me too. Please, dear God, don’t have any of my children stand up at my funeral and list all the ways I failed them as a parent and a human being. I’ve seen the list. I wrote it.

The only other point she makes then is a rather big one which she attempts to use statistics to support. Her other big thesis: “so here are some numbers for you people that are still believing that police brutality is a real racially motivated police brutality is a real thing…” She insists racially motivated police brutality is not a real thing.

She offers statistics to prove her point.

Let’s see if we can do that too.

US News and World Report, June 3, 2020 headline read, “Deaths From Police Harm Disproportionately Affect People of Color.” The article states, “In fact, people of color were more likely to be the victims of this harm in 2019 than they were in 2014. In 2019, 54% of those who died as a result of harm from police and whose race was identified were people of color – including Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native American and Pacific Islander individuals – compared to 50% in 2014.” It concludes with this observation, “Despite the increased attention, only about 1% of police officers involved with these deaths are charged with a crime and even less are convicted, according to Mapping Police Violence.”

And you’re like, but you can find a statistic to support anything.  And I’m like, right?

How about this one? Black Americans 2.5X More Likely Than Whites to Be Killed By Police. Headline on staista.com for June 2, 2020. Or maybe this one? Minneapolis Police Use Force Against Black People at 7 Times the Rate of Whites from the New York Times, June 3, 2020. That article, from the city Mr. Floyd was choked to death in, says, “About 20 percent of Minneapolis’s population of 430,000 is black. But when the police get physical — with kicks, neck holds, punches, shoves, takedowns, Mace, Tasers or other forms of muscle — nearly 60 percent of the time the person subject to that force is black. And that is according to the city’s own figures.”

I think Myth Busters would call this one CONFIRMED.

It’s funny what we can do with facts and statistics isn’t it?

So, to wrap this, what have I been trying to say? 1) We need to find out who is selling us and what they usually try to sell. Candace Owen’s rant appears to be coming from some young black woman with a “fresh” perspective. But this is her brand and it’s not new. 2) No one deserves to be choked to death, including George Floyd according to Candace Owen – and no one deserves to have their failures and addictions and criminal record trotted out after they’ve died when they will have no chance to explain, defend or express their remorse or repentance for what they did – says anyone with a heart and a brain. And more importantly, anyone who has sinned and fallen short like me. Finally 3) Statistics seem so real and factual but we really have to be careful when we hear people roll them out quickly without offering any counter statistics that might round out the picture of the situation we are trying to understand or references to where theses statistics come from.

And that is all I have to say about that.