Saturday, December 31, 2011

Conservatives, Aspergers and the New York Times

If folks have been following me, you know that my political viewpoints tend to skew conservative/libertarian.  So, at times I like to read things from conservative writers like Heather MacDonald.  That said, what she wrote recently regarding a New York Times article on two autistic young adults trying to learn to be in a relationship is totally off the mark. I personally thought it was a great piece about these two persons who have communication issues learn to...communicate.  For some reason, Ms. MacDonald could only see it was sloppy writings about sex that didn't warrant a front page article.  Here's a little of her venom:


The feminization of journalism reached a new low this week with the New York Times’ front-page story on a sexual relationship between two teenagers with Asperger’s Syndrome. The article began:

The first night they slept entwined on his futon, Jack Robison, 19, who had since childhood thought of himself as “not like the other humans,” regarded Kirsten Lindsmith with undisguised tenderness.

. . .

So far they had only cuddled; Jack, who had dropped out of high school but was acing organic chemistry in continuing education classes, had hopes for something more. Yet when she smiled at him the next morning, her lips seeking his, he turned away.

“I don’t really like kissing,” he said.

Kirsten, 18, a college freshman, drew back. If he knew she was disappointed, he showed no sign.

It gets worse. Next up: the couple’s erotic proclivities, recounted in excruciating detail.

From the beginning, their physical relationship was governed by the peculiar ways their respective brains processed sensory messages. Like many people with autism, each had uncomfortable sensitivities to types of touch or texture, and they came in different combinations.

Jack recoiled when Kirsten tried to give him a back massage, pushing deeply with her palms.

“Pet me,” he said, showing her, his fingers grazing her skin. But Kirsten, who had always hated the feeling of light touch, shrank from his caress.

“Only deep pressure,” she showed him, hugging herself.

He tried to kiss her, but it was hard for her to enjoy it, so obvious was his aversion. To him, kissing felt like what it was, he told her: mashing your face against someone else’s. Neither did he like the sweaty feeling of hand-holding, a sensation that seemed to dominate all others whenever they tried it.

“I’m sorry,” he said helplessly.

They found ways to negotiate sex, none of them perfect. They kept trying.

Inexplicably, the Times fails to give us Jack and Kirsten’s favorite coital positions, or the details of their foreplay; such matters await in another article, no doubt. 

The first thing that's wrong about this is Ms. MacDonald making this out to be an article about two persons with autism having sex.  That's not what it's about.  Where there is talk about sex its pretty brief, but MacDonald acts as if this was some kind of bawdy romance in the middle of the Times.  When I read some of this, I was thinking about how different kinds of touch can bother me.  That doesn't immediately mean I'm talking about me being naked with my partner.  Persons, with autism have sensory issues and those happen when we are in love and when we are not, when we are clothed and when we are not.

My guess is that Ms. MacDonald doesn't really care about the intricacies of being an adult with autism.  Reading the rest of her diabtribe, this article is simply the launching point for "what wrong with the world" which in her case is the "feminization of the New York Times."  Whatever.

The Times is not always my favorite thing to read because it leans too far to the left in my view.  But I also think they can do good stories and this is one of them.  There are a lot of people like Jack and Kirsten, and myself who try to stumble through the complexities of dating on top of being autistic.  That makes dating (and I'm not talking about knocking boots here) a challenge.  Most people know how to "be" in a relationship, but for persons with autism this is not easy.  That's what this article was trying to show, not what was someone's favorite coital position.

I can't say whether or not it was right for the Times to place the article on the front page.  I can say bravo for writing it and publishing it.  I only wish Ms. MacDonald would have spent more time getting to know those of us with autism instead of brushing us off. 


Love, Autism and Me

The New York Times has a great post in its ongoing series about young adults with autism about a young couple where both partners have Aspergers. The article focuses on Jack Robison and his girlfriend Kirsten Lindsmith as they try to navigate the ups and downs of having a relationship and being autistic. Jack is the son of John Elder Robison, who has written two great books on being a person with Aspergers. (To keep the name association going, Jack's uncle is one of my favorite writers, Augusten Burroughs.) The article is interesting because of the thoughts and feelings it brought up in me when it comes to dating and now, marriage. Part of my issues with dating were because I never really dated much before my late 20s. A lot of that was dealing with my own sexuality which slowed things down. When I finally came out in my late 20s I then started dating regularly, and that's when the fireworks began. A few years ago, as I was trying to determine if I had Aspergers, I asked my friend Erik to write something about it. Erik was my first boyfriend and this is part of what he wrote:

Dennis and I dated for two years and I found it both enjoyable and frustrating. Enjoyable because he is a good person; frustrating because he didn’t seem to “read signals” very well, if at all. For a while I thought this was because I am the youngest child in my family and therefore had gotten used to everyone figuring out what I wanted and liked. Looking back now, though, “reading” me was apparently not difficult for the others I had dated before Dennis and those I’ve dated since. There were times when Dennis would be absorbed for hours in his computer screen as I sat across the room thinking that at some point he would come sit by me—that did not happen unless I verbally asked for it. There were times when Dennis would put a CD on and it would play three times through, and would have gone more times had I not objected.

And it got better after that. The worst was dealing with flirting. I didn't get it. I still don't. I could see how others did it with ease. But it never made sense to me to make small talk, let alone talk that is all about puffing up the other person. Add to that, I could never really "read" folks at all. I didn't know that people were communicating to me in ways that didn't involve talking. I stayed in my little world, not knowing how to really talk to people. I seemed to stumble along and finally in 2005 met a guy who seemed to like me in all my strangeness. Not that it has been a cakewalk there. Daniel is still at times amazed by my oddball behavior, but it seems to be working for now. What I do know is that even with all the problems, I'm glad for dating and being a relationship. It's from these encounters with others that I learn a little bit better what it means to be human.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Inclusion and Discipleship

A post by Methodist blogger Alan Bevere has stayed with me since it was originally published back in June of this year.  The post, "So, Just How Inclusive Was Jesus?" muses on the modern value of inclusion and how it does and doesn't square with Jesus. 

I agree with Tom Wright that modern notions of inclusiveness are too broad and too shallow. Of course there is an inclusive aspect of the Gospel; it is, after all, offered to everyone. But one cannot avoid that along with the inclusive nature of the Gospel in the New Testament, there is also an exclusive character as well. One simply cannot read Jesus or Paul and conclude otherwise.

The fact that many Christians in the twenty-first century church do not understand this is revealed in the recent hoopla over Rob Bell's book, Love Wins. Bell rightly believes that the question "Is Gandhi in hell?" should not necessarily be answered in the affirmative, and those who confidently think otherwise need to remember that God is quite unconcerned over what they think about the eternal destiny of others. At the same time, those who have been so quick to hop on the universalism bandwagon need to remember that there is another question that should be asked as well: "Is Hitler in heaven?"

But the purpose of this post is not to focus only on the hereafter, but to highlight what Bockmuehl and Michael are rightly saying about our present situation. Current accounts of inclusiveness are indebted much more to modernity than they are to the New Testament. Richard Hays words need to be heard: Jesus is not only the friend of sinners but he is the nemesis of the wicked. The issue is not the truly inclusive nature of the Gospel, but the imposition of a broad and shallow modern inclusivism that does indeed come at a high moral price. Bishop William Willimon reminds us that during his ministry Jesus drove away more people than he attracted.

The issue of inclusiveness is one that is near and dear to my heart.  As a gay man, I know that the church has at times been too exclusive, keeping folks like myself out of the church.  I've worked towards helping churches become more welcoming of LGBT persons.

But I wonder at times is if being welcoming is enough for Christians.  Yes, it's good to be inclusive, but as Bevere notes, Jesus also tended to drive people away from him as much as he drew people to him.  Jesus called people to a life of discipleship, which is not always well recieved by people. 

My fear more often than not is that our talk of inclusion is as Alan says, too shallow.  It's an inclusion that doesn't talk about sin or confession, let alone discipleship.  When it comes to the inclusion of LGBT persons, the talk is one of grace, a message that we need to hear.  But a grace that doesn't change the person or asks nothing of that person is a cheap grace indeed.  Here's what I wrote in response to Alan's post:

Alan, thanks for the post. As usual, it was thought-provoking and something I've been thinking about for a while.

That said, I want to put some flesh and bone on the issue of inclusiveness.

As a gay man, I do understand and appreciate the call to be inclusive and welcoming. There are a lot of folks who have felt left out of the church because of their sexuality. But as someone who is also an ordained minister (in the Disciples of Christ), heck as a Christian, I know that we are called to be more than simply inclusive. As much as I find some parts of Christianity too quick to draw boundaries that I believe is up to God, I tend to find the drive towards inclusion at all costs kind of shallow. I mean, inclusion is a wonderful thing, but if there is no talk of the cross, or faith, or sin or forgiveness, then what you have is a very thin theology indeed.

What I long for is something you said in a previous comment, a balance between inclusion and repentance. People need to know that they are loved by God, but they also need to have room for repentance as well.

Inclusion alone works in the wider society.  It's valuable and needed.  But in the life of the church, we are also called to repentance.  I know that's a scary word for LGBT folks because it's been used to call our sexuality sin.  But even though it has been used in less than ideal ways, the message is still there: we are called to repent.  Not of being gay, but of the ways we hurt each other, the whole of creation and God.  If all we have is just inclusion, what we have done is nothing more than bolster someone's self esteem.  That's not a bad thing, but it's not what following Jesus is all about.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Remember the Aged

Carol Howard Merritt has another thoughful post on young adults and the church.  There's a lot to be mined from this article that will probably be another post, but for right now I want to share what I wrote in the comments.  One of the things that I felt was a running undercurrent in post and in the comment was this anger concerning older generations.  Read the post and the comments to judge for yourself, but here's what I shared (I'm responding to a comment by Presbyterian pastor Shawn Coons:

I would agree that we need to be willing to use more technology in church and that most churches have been way too slow to use it.  Before I came to my current call, the church had a horrible website and nothing much else.  And we should consider using multi-media in worship as well.   But I also suggest a bit of caution.  There was a time when I would have said some of the same things here about how the old generation holds on to power and all that.  There is a lot of truth in this.  But I worry that we start to see our older folks as the enemy or as an embarrasment that best be kept off to the side.  My knock against some of the more growing evangelical churches that do use multi-media and other forms of technology is that it's so geared towards youth, that older folks have been written out of the picture entirely. I want our churches to appeal to youth, but not if it means ignoring our elders.

A lot of my experience of late has come from working with older folks at First Christian and the fact that at my tentmaker job with a Presbytery, the stated clerk is 78 years old.  As the communications/techonolgy guy, I have to balance being high-tech with the fact that one member of our staff doesn't pick all this new stuff so easily.  She's not a luddite, but it is hard to teach a old dog new tricks.  I think she tries the best she can to keep up.

You are correct, Shawn, that we can't please everyone and we shouldn't try.  If our churches are going to live we as pastors have to be more agressive in placing young folks in positions of leadership.  But we have to do it in a way that honors the elderly in our midst as faithful servants and doesn't simply push them aside to make way for the new.

Of course, I think mainline churches have to be more open to change, especially when it comes to technology.  I also think that churches need to be more proactive in placing young folks in leadership positions.  Being part of a church that is declining, I get that and live that.  But I worry that we are so worried about trying to get that target demographic that we will overlook the older folk in our midst. 

It's really easy to look at the "blue hairs" sitting in our churches and view them as dead weight, the thing that's keeping our churches from advancing.  Sometimes they are stuck in the past.  Sometimes they are the ones that keep the church from moving forward.

But sometimes, they can also be wonderful assets to ministry.  They can remind a congregation who they were and give clues to what that congregation is now.  Sometimes they have an outlook on life that we younger folks just don't have. 

Earlier this month, Ryan Harper wrote a piece on how churches in America use young adults as mascots and push the elderly aside.  He explains:

Let me say at the outset that the idealization of my demographic is due to more than age. Class, race, educational level and gender are pertinent, too. In some of the largest and loudest quadrants of American Christianity, I would be a less-likely candidate for mascot were I not straight, male, white, well-educated and middle-class. But the changes afoot in American Christianity portend at least some hope for individuals outside these demographics. It is increasingly fashionable for white Christians to put ourselves in safe proximity to brown faces. As American Christianity becomes increasingly brown -- and as safe proximity accidentally produces real encounters -- the whiteness will become less normative. It is even fashionable for white middle-class Christians to put ourselves in safe, beneficent proximity to poor people of all colors. If eventually our objects of charity assert their subjectivity without assimilating the values of their putative wardens, perhaps middle-class values will become less normative.

But it is not fashionable for churches to put themselves in proximity to old people. Seniors as such are not fashionable. They are not wanted -- as mascots or as citizens. Even the sentimental softness of the real or imagined kindly grandmother -- the avatar of the truly feminine in some Christian circles -- is severely qualified by the dogmatic hardness of the real or imagined "old church lady" -- the symbol of a stodgy religiosity that even most conservative evangelicals reject. Recently I came upon the website of an evangelical church that lampooned those moribund churches in which "everyone looks like your grandma," the implication being I would not be forced to pause over such post-menopausal specters were I to attend their worship service.

He goes on to say that the quest for being "relevant" might mean accepting a few wrinkled faces:

American churches like advertising themselves as "relevant to the culture." But we must push for specifics. To whom and for whom is our church relevant? Doubtless, the answer varies. But judging by their programming and congregational demographics, most churches that self-consciously adopt the discourse of relevance seem to have in mind people like me. Relevance to "the culture" usually means relevance to my culture -- to people who look like me, who spend money like me, who are reading this post on a sleek, colorless i-Device like the one on which I compose it, who soon and very soon might father a child who will inherit his father's uncritical consumptive habits and with this inheritance uncritically consume his father's aging, inconsequential body: teeth set on edge, the protestant patricide on the communion table of the free market.

This version of me, like the version of "the culture" of which it is representative and by which it is constituted, is largely lifeless -- inattentive, inorganic, juvenile, hypermaterialistic, ossified in its addiction to youth. Sure, I hope there is another version of my culture and myself that has more redeeming qualities -- and that sees that it needs to be led toward fuller redemption. But a community that claims a tradition that regards the marginal (the poor, the eunuch, the alien, the orphan, and ... the elderly widow) as supremely relevant should think twice before it seeks to build on such shifting sand as me -- the young, heterosexual, white male with disposable income and functioning genitals. It may turn out that it is irrelevant for the church to be relevant to such an irrelevant population.

There may be more relevant criteria for relevance. Some possibilities: A church with no wrinkles is irrelevant. A church that has not buried a member in the last two years or so is irrelevant. A church that advertises itself as "not your grandma's church" is irrelevant. A church that is staffed exclusively by guys who look they were pulled out of a Decemberists audience is irrelevant. A church that claims it must grow or die is irrelevant. Such a church is more irrelevant than poor, "dying" churches that cannot perpetuate themselves through time by birthing new members. After all, the ageless local congregation existing in earthly perpetuity is no less an illusion than is the ageless individual existing in earthly perpetuity. Imminent institutional mortality may better equip people to deal with eventual personal mortality. No robust Christianity can exist where death is absent. It is time for American churches to learn how to die.

Please don't take this as me wanting to forestall needed change in the church or that we should ignore the young.  What I am getting at is that we don't try to stuff old folks in the closet as some kind of embarrasment.  That, and young adults are not all that they are cracked up to be for all the reasons Ryan talked about.

Mainline churches have to find ways to renew themselves.  We need to plant new churches that can speak to younger generations.  But we should never do that at the expense of the faithful folks who make up the bulk of our existing congregations. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

So, What's Homophobic?

I've been noticing a meme going around social media lately about the Salvation Army.  Most of us know the group for it's thrift stores and the red kettle campaign during the holiday season. 

The new push is for people to boycott those red kettles this year because of the organization's position on homosexuality. 

Here's how the policy reads:

The Salvation Army believes that homosexuality can be properly considered only in the broader context of a biblical understanding of human sexuality in general. The creation account set out in the opening chapters of Genesis reveals the following truths: <random bible quotes. go to the page directly to see all of them>

The Bible thus teaches that God’s intention for mankind is that society should be ordered on the basis of lifelong, legally sanctioned, heterosexual unions. Such unions (marriages) lead to the formation of social units (families) which are essential to human personal development and therefore to the stability of the community.

Scripture opposes homosexual practices by direct comment (Leviticus 18:22, 23; 20:13; Romans 1:26, 27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10) and also by clearly implied disapproval (Genesis 19:1-29; Judges 19:1-30; 2 Peter 2:1-22; Jude 3-23). The Bible treats such practices as self-evidently abnormal. They reject both the obvious implications of human physiology and the potential for procreation. Romans 1 sees homosexual acts as a symptom of a deeper refusal to accept the organising scheme of God for the created order (Romans 1:23-25).

The Army recognises that same-sex friendships can be enriching, Christ-honouring relationships, bringing joy through mutual companionship and sharing. However, same-sex relationships which are genitally expressed are unacceptable according to the teaching of Scripture. Attempts to establish or promote such relationships as viable alternatives to heterosexually-based family life do not conform to God’s will for society.

Now, I'm not crazy with that viewpoint, but does it cross the threshold of being virulently homophobic? 

My own view (you knew I was going there) is that there's homophobic and then there's homophobic.  The Sal Army's view is not favorable to someone like me, but I'm wary of branding it with the broad homophobic brush that many others are.  For one thing, it might be fashionable to ignore those folks ringing the bells in front of stores, it's not such an easy thing for me.  The Army is a group that is involved heavily in the Twin Cities in helping folks find shelter.  They happen to run one of the largest homeless shelters in the area.  In my role as an Associate Pastor, I'm on a coalition of faith communities dealing with homelessness in Minneapolis.  The coalition is pretty diverse, with Christians, Jews and Muslims working together.  The Army is the newest member of that group.  A number of our congregations are very gay friendly.  So, should we not work with the Salvation Army because of their stance?

I know that for a lot of folk, the gay rights movement is similar to the civil rights movement.  We tend to view those that might disagree with us on gay rights as tantamount to a modern day Klansman.

But I don't feel comfortable with that viewpoint.  A conservative Christian that might think homosexual acts are sinful, might also have gay friends.  Yeah, I know, that doesn't make sense, but the fact is it happens.  Not every person that hues to what has been the traditional view on what the Bible says about homosexuality is a full-on bigot.  The Sal Army might not agree with me, but unless they are leading anti-gay campaigns, I'm not going to boycott them.

Also, I don't know what good a boycott will do.  Since a lot of the money raised will go to, you know, help poor people, a boycott means less money for the poor, and less for homeless folk here in Minneapolis, which happens to get cold every so often.

So, I'm not going to boycott the Army.  I'm going to live out and proud and be a witness to them- and work with them to help the "least of these."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Repost: Why Church Planting Matters

Jim, left and my partner, Daniel, right.
From August 2010.

As First Christian plans its future, a constant among the plans is to leave some money aside for to plant new churches. Both the Senior Pastor and I have made this a priority in what ever decisions are made.

That has been met with some resistance. One person wondered why we weren't spending some of the money on mission. Others have thought the same thing. (It's funny that people all of the sudden care about mission when it comes to using money for church planting.) I'm always a bit angry at the resistance to planting churches. As someone whose position involves mission, I get wanting to support mission, but church planting is part of that mission.

Of course, I have a strong belief in planting new churches, because I planted one. Yes, it failed but it also made a difference in the life of one man, my dear friend Jim.

Jim came from a Catholic and Anglican background, but because he was gay, he never felt welcomed in those churches. When Community of Grace came online, he was able to reconnect with God in a way that continues today.

I don't know if Jim would have come back to the church if it was an existing church. But because there was a new church that welcomed him regardless of his sexuality, he could come on in and meet Jesus.

I know that at First part of the resistance is that many of churches planted by the congregation have since closed. But just because a congregation is no longer in existence that doesn't mean that planting it was in vain. Countless people were able to learn the stories of old, feast at the table, make a baptismal covenant and meet Christ. That matters.

I wonder at times if part of the resistance to new planting new churches comes from what has happened to mainline Protestant churches over the last 50 years. Walter Russell Mead writes that as the fundamentalists/evangelicals split from the modernists in the early 20th century, it was the modernists that ended up much poorer:
In a sense, the mainline churches today suffer because they never took stock of the costs of modernism in quite the same way that evangelicals came to terms with some of the shortcomings and one-sided characteristics of the fundamentalist movement. Beginning really with Billy Graham’s pilgrimage, for two generations evangelicals have been working to free themselves of cultural detritus (culturally determined views on race and on the place of women in society, for example) while holding on to the vital principles of the fundamentalist core — doctrines like original sin, the atonement, and a strong belief that God, however mysteriously, acts in history.

The heirs of the modernists, I fear, have not really had this ‘second stage’ movement. If anything, the most noticeable trend in many mainline denominations has been to go farther down the road of the modernists. Reinhold Niebuhr, a figure who in many ways came closer than any other to the kind of review and renewal that mainline Protestantism needs, would be politically and theologically isolated in the mainline churches today. His stance suggested a rigorous and critical approach to the limits of liberal theology, but that side of his legacy has been largely ignored.

Niebuhr in a sense has had no heirs. His effort to synthesize the core vision of historic Protestantism with a contemporary sensibility did not capture the imagination of subsequent generations of mainline church leaders. The mainline churches seemed to feel that little of value was really lost when the fundamentalists left. The modernists won the fight with the fundamentalists, after all. They ended up with the big buildings, the prestigious and academically well respected theological schools, the patronage of the social elite, the bully pulpits that commanded attention and respect, the control of the denominational machinery. Why look for anything more?

In truth, the split impoverished the mainline churches as much as it did the fundamentalists. Modernity in religion became progressively unglued from the foundations of Protestant faith; the mainline churches lacked the kind of compelling, burning message of faith that would have kept new generations of educated, thoughtful believers engaged in the church. For too many mainline congregations, faith faded into a habit, and the habit faded away.

While many people in the mainline churches continue to live rich and intense spiritual lives, the mainline churches as a group seem to have lost both the urge and the ability to communicate a message of urgency about the need to people to, as the old spirituals put it, “get right with God.” They have lost the ability to make the Christian life and a Christian commitment the vital center of community and family life — even for many of their own members.

Mainline churches have always been good when it comes to social justice, but when it comes to what drives us, the passion of Christian committment, well, not so much. I think part of the reason there seems to be little urgency when it came to church planting is because it seems so old fashioned. We mainliners don't want to look like those fundamentalists, trying to shove their faith down people's throats.

And of course, please have done that. But our approach hasn't been a whole lot better. At times it seems like we have no passion, that we are going through the motions.

This isn't what I'm used to. I grew up in the African American church and I can tell you that they had a lot of passion. And yet, that bothers white mainline Protestants. Yes, the will try to enjoy a black church service, but the urgency, the passion is just not there.

I came accross this post a few weeks ago by Presbyterian pastor John Vest explaining his experience at Presbyterian Youth Triennium:
For the most part, I really enjoyed Triennium. I found a lot of it very inspiring and energizing. I enjoyed meeting and reconnecting with youth ministry friends. It was a great opportunity for me to feel the pulse of Presbyterian youth ministry around the country. Yet, some of it just didn’t connect for me. Though I approached this experience with an open heart and an open mind, I have to say that some of it was just not my cup of tea—and it wasn’t always a great fit for the youth I brought from Chicago.

Part of this is a cultural thing that I think is more regional than anything else. By and large, Chicago Presbyterians are not accustomed to this kind of flashy, semi-evangelical youth conference. I think this is why we have (in my opinion) a hard time putting on Presbytery youth conferences back home: we use this same model but it doesn’t connect with the youth group experiences of most of our churches.

But part of it is also a theological difference, or at least a difference of emphasis—which is probably connected to these regional cultural differences as well. Our kids have not had a lot of exposure to youth that wear Christian t-shirts, listen to Christian music, and “talk the talk” of (semi-)evangelical youth culture. They were a little weirded out by all the screaming and shouting about Jesus. In general, the constant emphasis on Jesus in worship, music, and small groups was more than they are used to.

As a recovering Southern Baptist who used to very much inhabit this culture and who left it for many good reasons, it was all a little more than I was interested in as well. I was most troubled by the music during daily worship. The rock band was excellent. And overall, worship was very creative and was quite inclusive and in some (sometimes subtle) ways progressive. But the music and the music leaders used pretty much exclusively male language to talk about God. Most of the songs were more christocentric than theocentric, and usually really christocentric. There was a whole lot of what I began thinking of as “Jesus, bloody Jesus”: a high christology that was almost exclusively informed by a theology of bloody, sacrificial atonement. This kind of christology was so thick that when Tony Campolo preached about a radical, earthy Jesus (you know, the one we read about in the synoptic gospels) during our final worship service, it almost seemed to me like a different Jesus than the one we had been singing about all week. (You can guess which Jesus I found more compelling.)

All of this stirred within me thoughts I have been having for a while about what I think is an idolatrous attitude toward the worship of Jesus in most circles of the church today. I’ll write more about this later, but here is the tension I felt at Triennium: there seems to be a huge disconnect between the Jewish peasant that preached humility, servanthood, and a paradoxical embrace of power through weakness and 5000 youth in an auditorium using flashy rock music, t-shirts, and signs to worship and exalt a Christ that reigns in power and is somehow involved in every aspect of creation. Would Jesus point to himself in this way, or would he instead point us to God? This, of course, is a sticky question of christology, a question I fully intend to return to. But for now, I have to confess that this kind of Jesus worship just doesn’t seem to me like the kind of thing Jesus lived and died for. If Jesus wanted this kind of worship, he could have asked for it while he was with us.

Now, I get and appreciate the "earthy Jesus" he is talking about. I think it is incredibly important to understand the life of Jesus, not just his death.

But I also understand the "Jesus, bloody Jesus" as well. The life of Jesus tells us how we should live. But it is the death of Jesus that allows us to follow Jesus. Following the earthy, Jewish peasant is something we can do, kinda like I can choose to become a vegetarian. Both are good, but they aren't necessarily passionate. But there's a reason the crucifixion and death of Jesus is called "The Passion." There was emotion involved. It affected people, it changed them. It still does today.

In the African American church, we sing songs that talk a lot about blood, the blood of Jesus. It might seem goulish, but we realize that it was this blood that saved us, that saved us all to be servants to each other. I don't know, but maybe the experience of slavery made us less squeamish about blood and make Christ seem more urgent.

So, what does this little theological trip have to do with church planting? Well, if Jesus is just the earthy prophet, then I don't really see the need to plant churches. Hell, I don't even need a church. I can just give money to an agency and spend time at a soup kitchen. But if Jesus is the One who came and lived among us, cared for the poor, healed the sick, made the blind see and also died for us and rose up to defeat the powers of death, well that sounds a lot more exciting, doesn't it? Kinda like you want to be in church.

Church planting matters because Jesus matters. Jesus changes lives. He brought my friend Jim back to a church. Jesus matters. Let's plant churches.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Repost: Are Mainline Churches Like Detroit?

From April 2009.  The Big Three have made some changes for the better (the city of Detroit itself is a whole other story).  Have Mainline Churches made any changes?  Should they?


I've been wondering lately if there is anything in common with Mainline Protestant Churches and the American Auto Industry.

Having been ordained in a mainline denomination, working for a church going through change and having two parents who spent years working for General Motors has made me thing there are similarities in the two.

With the onset of the financial crisis, Detroit is having to face its problems in a big way. The Big Three had their heyday in the 50s and 60s, building large cars that Americans purchased like crazy. Gas was cheap and the foreign automakers were not as present on the road.

All that changed in the 70s. The gas crises of that era caught Detroit flatfooted. People started looking for more fuel efficient cars. Japan started showing its muscle as people looked to Toyota and Honda for cheap and efficient cars.

Detroit decided to make changes. But in some cases the changes were small and not major. People complained about the quality of the cars and started abandoning domestic automakers. Detroit kept making small changes, a badge engineering here, a plant closing there, but never made the big costly changes.

The late 90s brought the SUV craze and Detroit went big guns over it. The Big Three were now flushed with cash and the good times were rolling in. The Asian automakers, no joined by the Korean upstarts like Huyndai, also built SUVs, but they also kept selling small cars to people who wanted them.

The gas started getting more expensive. First $2, then $3, then $4 per gallon. It got too crazy to spend so much in gas for an SUV that got 12 miles to the gallon. People started to look to small cars. Again, Detroit came up short. It had spent years neglecting its cars, so when people came looking for more efficient cars, Detroit had few.

Finally, the credit crisis hit. Banks weren't lending which meant, people couldn't buy cars. Two of the Big Three stand on the edge of oblivion.

Like Detroit, the heyday for Mainline churches was in the 50s and 60s. Christianity had a big place in American culture. People went to church, and the sancutaries were full. But things changed in the 60s. Other religions came to the fore. Also, all those "blue laws" that closed stores on Sunday, vanished. Going to church was only one option of many.

Like Detroit, the mainline churches made some small changes, a renewal movement here, a new youth program there, but they weren't willing to see how the times had changed around them.

The mainline churches as a whole aren't at the point where Detroit is, yet. But I think the problems are similiar: we are trying to pretend it's still 1958. We think that if we make a few changes, then everything will be as it was. But the problem is that we can't go back to 1958- not for cars or for churches. America is not the place it was 50 years ago. We have changed as nation and both institutions have to learn to change.

But that change is hard. It means giving up things that have been tried and true. For a company like GM, it means letting go of some storied brands like Buick (where my Dad worked). For churches it means things like giving up the way we've done worship, or learning to welcome gays and lesbians when that was even on the radar years ago.

But the thing is, for both the auto companies and the churches, you either have to make meaningful change, or die. I think for both we are way past the point of small change.

Change requires a leap of faith, a belief that in the end, God there with open arms waiting to catch us. For the church, we have to be willing to trust, not in practices and memories of the past, but in God; knowing that God is always with us.

Who would ever have thought my love of cars and love of the church and God would ever combine. :)

Repost: I Think I Can, I Think I Can...

From October 2009:


I've recently noticed something about myself in relation to my having Aspergers. I tend to be someone that can be doggedly persistent about something. Where as others can be focused on something for a while and then give up, I tend to persist...and persist.

For example, whenever I've been without work, I've been dillegent in looking for work. I'm basically running like clockwork.

At church, I've noticed that others don't tend to have much hope the church will continue. Even though there are those that I think want change, because others tend to not be that interested in changing there is a sense that there is no hope and that we should just learn to die well.

Now, they could just be realistic. However, in my view, I tend to think that if there are some people that want change, then you just keep at it and ignore those who don't want to change.

In the whole conversation, I've been the one that seems to be the one that wants to damn all the naysayers and keep trying. I want to believe that God is not done with First Christian and that if we are just open to what God is saying, a miracle will happen. Even the Senior Pastor based on the evidence is not hopeful the church will survive.

Maybe they are all correct and I'm all wet.

When I was leading Community of Grace, I held on to that project with all my stregnth. I did finally give up and closed the ministry, but I still look back and think I didn't try hard enough.

I'm hardly an Pollyana. But I think because my Aspie brain is so focused, I can't really see other options. Of course that can be a bad thing. Sometimes you have to see other options and understand that what we want and hope for might not come true.

But I also think it has a good side. As I journey within mainline Protestantism, I tend to see a lot of what I would call defeatism. We look backward at the past and long for the "good 'ol days" when the pews were full. We look at our small flock and think there is no hope.

But what if the church saw things like someone with Aspergers? What if we were single-focused on doing God's will in our particular setting? What if we believed all those stories told to us about how God took all those "uncool" people like Gideon and performed a mighty deed?

My brain is wired in a way that I'm a doer. I might not be the best person socially, but I can do the work required. I really do believe with faith in God and hard work, there are still good days ahead for First Christian.

Maybe I'm an idiot, but I don't think God is done with First Christian in Minneapolis. I have to believe that God is just waiting for us to know that we still have much to give to the service of God's kingdom.

I think we can, I think we can...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

More About Young Clergy

Fifty-something Presbyterian pastor, Jan Edmiston chimes in on the young vs. old clergy smackdown:
Several pastors seeking paid positions in the church are over age 65. Maybe they still have mortgages, or maybe they’ve used their savings to help their children, or maybe they’ve depleted their savings to pay medical bills. Several of those who come through my door have sick spouses who haven’t been earning a paycheck themselves for many years and things have been tight for a long time.

Christmas Sunday Sermons: Phoning It In

Alan Bevere is really indignant about the attitude some pastors have about Christmas this year since it falls on a Sunday:
I have had conversations with a few pastors in the past few weeks who basically admitted that since worship attendance on Christmas Day and New Year's Day will likely be sparse, they are simply going to recycle old sermons and preach them.
Seriously? Do they have so little regard for their calling that they are going to use reduced numbers for worship as an excuse to be lazy? Do they have so little regard for the faithful who will show up on Christmas Day and New Year's Sunday that they have decided that these folks are not worthy to hear a fresh word from the Lord, but must listen instead to a stale sermon?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thoughts About Young Clergy

Carol Howard Merritt has a post up about the young clergy crisis. Here's a bit of her post:
Since I’ve been chairing a national Presbyterian Church (USA) committee on the Nature of the Church for the 21st century, I’ve been gaining a different perspective on many of the larger trends of our denomination. One thing that has been difficult to realize (and equally difficult to communicate to the larger church) is the young clergy crisis. Why would I call it a crisis? We’ve known for a long time about the startling decline of young clergy. The drop-out rates don't help (I can't find hard and fast stats on this... but some claim that about 70% of young clergy drop out within the first five years of ministry, usually because of lack of support or financial reasons). The average age of a pastor in the PCUSA is 53. And I’ve realized that the age of our leadership might be much higher. Over half of our congregations cannot afford a full-time pastor and many associate pastor positions were cut during the recent economic downturn. These are churches where seminary graduates would normally be heading, so what are the congregations doing instead? Many of them are hiring retired ministers or retired laypeople to serve these churches while our younger pastors remain unemployed.
The post has garnered a lot of fellow young clergy and the like agreeing with her. In some ways, I agree as well. Mainline Protestant denominations don't do a good job with younger clergy. Churches are cutting Associate Pastor positions, which in many ways have been the entry point for young pastors. Also, denominations and seminaries need to deal with the ongoing debt issue. Many people (myself included) come out of seminary with a lot of debt. These young clergy then need to have a well paying call to help pay off the debt. Then there is a silent generational conflict going on with Baby Boomer pastors on the one side and GenX and Millenial pastors on the other and right now the Boomers are winning.


Thursday, December 08, 2011

Sunday Sermon: December 4, 2011

“That Will Preach.”
  Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8  
December 4, 2011  
First Christian Church Minneapolis, MN

It been interesting to walk around the church office these days. It’s kind of become a bit of a museum. As we get ready for the upcoming move to SpringHouse Ministry Center, old newsletters and church bulletins are being taken out of the archives room and getting scanned onto a hard drive. Space is going to a bit tight in our new home, so now is the time to get rid of or economize our stuff. It’s been fascinating to look at the newsletters and bulletins from the 1950s, 60s and 70s and to see what things were like here at First during that time. It’s hard for me to come into the office and not look at these documents from our past. There’s something about recent history that I find fasinating. There’s a store in Stillwater that has old car ads dating from the 1920s and onward. I could sit for hours and just look at these old advertisements. I really like reading more recent ads because it kindles a sense of nostalgia, a longing for how things used to be. These old bulletins can also kindle a sense of nostalgia. When you read these documents, you get a glimpse to the days when this sanctuary was full at two services. I remember reading somewhere that the Sunday School kids classes had hundreds of kids. Yes, I said hundreds.

 It’s after reading all this that you noticed how the feeling of nostalgia slides a bit into despair and sadness. The thing that keeps running through my head is what happened to all those people? Why are we not growing now? Is there any hope for us now? In a little over a month, we will have our last worship service here and we will probably get into a bus and start worshipping in our new space. There’s a lot of anticipation among us, but I also know there is probably some sense of sadness in there as well. We are headed to into a new way of being church. I know there is excitement in the opportunities to work together with Salem Lutheran and Lyndale UCC. But we can’t pretend that there is a sense of loss. The reason we are leaving this location is for a pretty simple reason: we had become too small to maintain this building. When we moved into this building in 1955, First was a large congregation. We aren’t that anymore. And while we can say all these great things about downsizing, we can’t really deny feeling as if we are losers.

Where's Jesus?

This past Saturday was the day that the members of First decorate the place. The hallways are decked out in wreaths and garlands, Christmas trees are found in the lounge and in the sanctuary. This year's decorations will be memorable because this is the last Christmas at our current location. In a few weeks, we will take buses and start worshipping at SpringHouse.

One of the things that are always interesting are the manger scenes. Like most folks, people tend to decorate the mangers with all the central characters; the wise men (even though they weren't at the manger), the shepherds, Joseph, Mary and yes, Jesus. One my favorite mangers at church is one that is basically made for kids. The characters are all dolls and you can imagine a kid picking it up and squeezing it. That manger scene is a bit different. One of the young mothers set it up in front of the communion table. Mary and Joseph are there at the stable, but you have the shepherd on the steps leading down from the chancel and the wise men are all the way in the back of the church near the narthex.

What missing is Jesus. There's no baby Jesus to be found.

The young mother explained to me that it's not Christmas yet, so the characters in the birth story are still aways off. As Christmas draws closer, they will move in closer and closer. What I was fixated on was the fact that there was no Jesus. She did a good job of hiding Jesus, because I could not find the baby Jesus any where in the sanctuary. Where's Jesus? Where indeed. Advent is about waiting and expectation, but I wonder if sometimes it's also about this scary feeling that hope will never come, that things will never change. Recently, I found out that a friend of mine lost their job. This person and his partner are facing an uncertain holiday season, not to mention and uncertain future. I am reminded of my own struggles of being fired from a job several years ago near Christmas. That season was not one for the recordbooks. It's in those dark times that people feel that hope is not present and that Jesus is nowhere to be found. We might pray and pray and for whatever reason, it feels like the phone line is dead.

Where's Jesus?

Isaiah 61 tells the returning Israelites that hope is on the way. The holy city of Jerusalem that had been destroyed decades earlier, would be rebuilt better than ever. It's a great story and would be even better if it just stopped there. But we learned that some of the background reveals that Jerusalem was never rebuilt in the way the writer of Isaiah 61 said it would-at least not in their lifetime. And yet, this passage is still one of hope. Actually it's not just about hope, but also about faith. We have faith that hope will prevail even if we can't see it. As I said earlier, one of the Christmas trees is located in the lounge. It's decorated with lights and an angel at the top...and socks. We're collecting socks to donate to the Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services, to help newcomers have warm feet in the winter, since most of them are coming from tropical countries to chilly Minnesota. I think that in Advent we learn that Jesus can take the form of...well, socks. It's hard when you are in pain or suffering to see Jesus anywhere, but maybe we can have hope that Jesus is the giving of socks to the stranger, or in the kind word we give to someone grieving or simply standing by a friend as they battle cancer. Maybe it's in these small acts that we have hope and faith that God is here with us...and maybe it's where Jesus is found.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Is It a Sin to Live in the Suburbs?

I've always been a city kid and for the most part have always lived in a city. As kids growing up in Michigan, I grew up with the belief that the 'burbs were somehow not a good place to be. They were filled with white people who fled the cities to escape people who look like me. As I got older, I learned that suburban America is not as whitebread as I was once taught. It's still not my preference in living options, but I don't see it as some kind of moral failing either. But in many sectors of the American church the suburbs are considered something...well, alien to Christian living. I've read a number of writers and bloggers and heard a lot of fellow Christians that emphasize the need to be in the city and tend to look at the suburbs as a place that is superfluous if not antithetical to being a follower of Jesus. Here's a sample of what I mean. It's what set me off to write this rant...I mean post:
Suburban living is about comfort, security, and prosperity. The modern evangelical movement has capitalized on these desires by providing superbly outfitted temples that cater to the consumerist cravings of their congregations. It provides “safe places” where parents can be assured that they and their children will never have to rub shoulders with pagans, never be disturbed by ideas or concepts that challenge their Sunday School faith, and never have to deal with the uncomfortable realities that live next door.
So, this is what the suburbs are all about: a place that is safe, comfortable and affluent. Except that suburbs aren't all like this and the people living their aren't always living the easy life. I always get the idea that most of the people who talk like this about suburbs have never really bothered to find out what the 'burbs look like. They just hear a few criticisms and take them as gospel. Obviously if a family lives in the suburbs, they must be racists that don't care about the poor and want to live in comfort. I don't know where in the Bible it says "Thou shalt not live in a suburb," or "Blessed are they that live in the city," but it must be somewhere that I'm not looking. There was a time that I would have been as judgemental when it comes to suburbanites. What has changed is that I've spent time working in the burbs and I now serve an urban church where most of its members are suburban. The suburbs have some of the same issues facing cities such as poverty. Suburbia is not the promised land. First Christian might be located in Minneapolis, but we are a regional church. A majority of our members drive in from the suburbs surrounding the Twin Cities. Most of these suburbanites are good people, some of whom deal with a lot of pain. It's been in these experiences that I've learned that people who live in Eagan or Eden Prairie or Woodbury are...people. There are people who live in the suburbs who are saints. They do what they can do live as a Christian, loving God and serving their neighbor. I've also met people who live in the city who happen to be first-class jerks. Living in the city or the suburbs doesn't make one a better follower of Christ. What matters is that people learn to be the church where they live. It's not about the zip code as much as it is about being the church wherever one lays their head.  

Monday, December 05, 2011

"A Glimse of What Is Possible"

The word is getting around about SpringHouse Ministry Center (that's the new name), the new building where First Christian is moving to and working with a UCC and a Lutheran congregation. I've shared about how First Christian came to join this partnership and now here are some words from Geoffrey Black, the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. He was in Minnesota recently and toured SpringHouse. This is what he had to say of this new venture:
What I saw was three Minneapolis churches that are about to move into one building and share life and ministry. They call the new building the SpringHouse Ministry Center. These churches are not merging—and that is an exciting element of their story. What they have decided to do is take the largest of their respective buildings and refit it. The building will now serve three congregations, thus reducing their aggregate carbon footprint. The new facility will provide each congregation with an accessible facility where they can live out their distinct identities while sharing in Christian formation, community and mission. Lyndale United Church of Christ, Salem Lutheran (ELCA) and First Christian Church (DOC) are the churches that have come together to embark on a new life in the edifice that was once the sole home of Salem Lutheran. The building will now house three sanctuaries, classrooms, offices, community space and a full-service kitchen. One interesting feature of this arrangement is that the congregations will rotate their use of the sanctuaries, giving each the opportunity to experience the unique features of each worship space. This is a good news story, and it may give us a glimpse of what is possible and what the future might look like for many churches. In this instance, the churches coming together have ecumenical ties since the UCC congregation has a full communion relationship with both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. While the Lutherans and the Disciples do not have this kind of relationship, I'm sure that this living arrangement will enable these two congregations to discover a way toward oneness that might be a gift to their respective denominations. Of course, the presence of the UCC in the SpringHouse might just be the ingredient that makes it all work.
I'm proud of the step of faith that First Christian has taken. Actually, I'm excited that all three churches have decided to follow where the Spirit leads, which of course will be someplace pretty awesome.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

"Welcoming Every Member of the Body"

As many of you know, besides my duties as the Associate Pastor at First Christian in Minneapolis, I also work as the Communications Specialist for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area. I worked with the Presbytery's Disabilities Concerns Taskforce to put together a special issue ofInPrint, the bimonthly newsmagazine I put out. There are several good stories in this issue including one by me on being a pastor with autism. I wanted to share it with others and feel free to share. It's great to work with others who are trying to make sure that all really are welcomed at Christ's Table. [scribd id=71335540 key=key-hqywe4q75ftmuihh4f mode=list]

Friday, December 02, 2011

Notes from a Scrapper

I've been meaning to share this post by Carol Howard Merritt, but life has been busy and so I never did get around to it. But hearing about some fellow Disciples of Christ clergy who feel that they have no place in the church reminded me of it again. She uses the term "Scrappers" to describe a generation (or two) of folks who have worked to piece together a ministry, in this time of diminishing resources. Here's a snippet of what she's talking about:
A Scrapper is pragmatic. We are people who have learned to work outside of institutional structures in order to get stuff done. It doesn’t always mean that we’re anti-institutional. It just means that after facing years of rejected articles and diminishing job opportunities, we’ve learned to build our own unsteady platforms and live out our creative callings. When we can’t get published, we start blogs. When we don’t get invited to speak for large audiences, we fire up a Twitter feed. When we’re not allowed to use amplification, we call on the people’s mic. When we we’re not invited on radio shows, we start podcasts. When we cannot find pastorates, we plant churches. When we get tired of the same people at conferences, we stake out our own venues. When the media does not cover our concerns, we find ways to get the word out. We are usually under the age of fifty (aka, Gen X and Millennials), but not exclusively. We’re Scrappers. We’ve learned to survive this way. The question is… how will we thrive? It’s hard to be a Scrapper sometimes, because we don’t usually make a lot of money for the work we do and (as I said earlier) we’ve often been rejected by the established structures. We didn’t cry or whine over that fact (at least not too much). Instead, we DIYed it. We worked really, really hard and created something else.
While I don't agree with her politically, she is right on about how young persons in the church have to live in this age. We won't be handed things on a platter. We have to learn how to basically DIY our callings. I look at my current call. It was totally constructed. Same with Community of Grace. Mainline Protestants are learning something that evangelicals have known for a long time: that when the resources are sparse, you have to learn how to create your own ministries. Denominations and congregations are no longer rolling in cash to just provide us with a nice job or a great salary. To those frustrated Disciples clergy, I can only say: I know of what you speak because I was in your shoes. And the thing is: I very well could be there again in a few years. I know that you can get frustrated at the denomination and think that it's filled with idiots who are letting the ship sink, but I can tell you that the leaders in most mainline Protestant denominations are feeling the same way- trying to figure out what's going on and feeling scared to death. Yeah, the institution is failing you and me, but it is also trying to figure out how to be church in an age that it wasn't prepared for. Remember that we are called by God to preach the good news. Remember that people like Abraham and Moses didn't have the easiest time trying to follow God. Suffice to say, life didn't turn out the way they expected. Remember that all of these folk walked on faith, starting new journeys and challenges only on the shear hope in God's word. The years ahead aren't going to be pretty: more and more churches won't be able to afford full-time pastors. But the Gospel still needs to be preached. We are going to have to learn to be scrappers, to find ways to be church in the world. We are going to have to learn to be bivocational and be creative in sharing the good news. No doors will be opened for us, so we need to start knocking some walls.