Thursday, July 27, 2017

Things I Didn't Learn in Seminary (But am Glad to be Learning Now!)

The whole "things they didn't teach in seminary" trope often comes up when clergy lament the difficulty of fixing a particularly cranky toilet or navigating a certain aspect of church finances. (I don't think it's bad for clergy to know these things, but there are probably cheaper places to learn them.) Of course, the comment is commonly tongue-in-cheek and can refer to particulars of a local context that either could not have predicted or, even if they had been predicted, would have only been relevant to one or two in the class. Even so, I think the question has lasting merit and is worth engaging from time to time: "What would have constituted adequate preparation for this?"

The list that follows is my realtime answer today. Probably different from my answer tomorrow, definitely different from yesterday's. The list doesn't replace or take for granted the things I did learn - Scripture, theology, CPE - and I should add that just because I didn't learn it at div school doesn't mean someone wasn't teaching it (or that that someone wasn't one of my professors, which is just to say I'm sure I missed significant pieces of the knowledge dropped on me along the way). In any case, this is my list and, if nothing else, you'll find links to six interesting books! Without further ado...

Community Organizing around the Presence of God

To be fair, I probably did learn a fair bit about this. But it was good friends made after seminary, with backgrounds in community organizing, who showed me that whatever I had learned was only a start. Community organizers showed me that the church's default question, "How many people showed up to X, Y, or Z?" didn't have to be a measure, and implicit endorsement, of the attractional model of being church ("If you build it, they will come"). For years, such a model led well-meaning Christians  to take turn-outs as a kind of referendum of a gathering's resonance, relevance, and/or content. So a poorly organized Bible study effort leaves church members bemoaning the "fact" that people in a given community "just don't take Scripture seriously." At the same time, Willow Creek famously acknowledges (a while back) that large numbers have, for years, obscured the reality that the church isn't realizing its goal of transformational discipleship.

Instead of taking turnout as a referendum on relevance, effectiveness, or something else, community organizers have taught me how to build toward a gathering from the baseline of relationships, and in ways that allow us to shape the thing we're building toward together. And that you can do this in measurable ways. Turn out is still important, and it's actually relatively predictable when you are organizing communities, because you're talking with, learning from, and listening to the people with whom you'll gather.

Additionally, it was in reading David Fitch's Faithful Presence that I discovered a marriage of sacramental practice and (the best of) evangelical sensibilities that grew my imagination for Christian community organizing that is intelligible to itself beyond a vague sense of being usefully disposed toward others. Fitch writes
This is the challenge of being a Christian today. We have forgotten how to live together in Christ's kingdom and invite the world along. Our collective imagination has lost the new possibilities for the world in the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus Christ. Instead, with the comforts of Christendom, we set up churches as organizations for maintaining Christians. When people...think of church, they think of large buildings where people gather to hear well-dressed men (mostly men) talk for an hour, usually from behind a pulpit. As a result, many of our sons and daughters cannot stomach the thought of becoming a pastor in these churches. 
Nonetheless, this is the task the church faces: political organizing for the kingdom. To be clear, this has nothing to do with national politics. It is the work of gathering people into God's presence, living together under the one reign of God in Christ. This way of life doesn't stay within the walls of a church building but bursts out into the world through all the circles of our lives. The task of church leadership today is to gather people into Christ's presence in all the circles of our lives. This is what faithful presence looks like. This is church. (emphasis mine)
As a seminary class, I imagine a blend of community organizing principles, sacramental theology, and Fitch, a CMA evangelical who goes around quoting cultural critic and philosopher Slavoj Žižek and Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann in equal measure. 2017 is an amazing time to be alive.

Accountability Conversations

Call this the Matthew 18 class. Or don't and just skip to reading this book: Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior. I'm not wild about the sub-title, but it works so long as "resolving" doesn't get read as "fixing the bad behavior of others." The book is not about that. The book is about conversing "about violated expectations in a way that eventually solves the problem and improves on the relationship." It sounds simple, but the authors observe that many times "we don't say a word because we don't know how to handle the conversation, or we fear that we don't know how. We're not bad people. We're just frightened." I won't rehash the whole book here, but I will say it's not about picking our battles and winning them. It's about meeting one another in the space of shared values, clarifying intentions in ways that allow the other to feel safe, and standing up for what one believes is important while being open to learning something new and being open to change. It's about being focused and flexible. In the words of the author, "How about you? Are you ready not to rumble?"

Leading through Questions

Jesus did a lot of it. I'm not as good at it as I'd like to be. It's definitely harder than having all the answers. And it's not the same as only saying, "How do you feel about it?" or "I've got nothing to add for you." Good questions are rare and incredibly substantial gifts for formation, discernment, and both personal and corporate development. Further, where answers tend to fill space, good questions open space, which is a special priority for me in light of Fitch's book (above).

Full disclosure: I haven't read (yet) any of the books that follow, but I asked a good friend what he'd recommend as resources for developing the ability to ask worthy questions, and this is the list he came up with.


That's my list. What's yours? What would you add?

Monday, July 17, 2017

Why I Sold Back My Smartphone (& Why I Blame David Fitch)

Last week, I walked into my local Verizon store and said I'd like to upgrade my phone. "Sure," he said. "What do you have?" An iPhone 5s. "Great. And what do you want?" A basic phone, I explained. The cheapest you have. The sales guy gladly steered me toward the basic phones, but then something like this went down, when he tried to sell me a $150 basic phone:



To his credit, the sales guy subsequently backed off and happily sold me a $50 flip phone. "It's got no wifi," he shrugged.

Exactly.

Before I go on, a couple of notes:

1) I am not brave or courageous for selling back my iPhone. What I was was addicted to a piece of technology that suggested itself as the way to make every aspect of my life easier and more efficient, even if I didn't know yet how it could do that. Because, you know, "there's (always) an app for that." Did you know there is even an app for monitoring your iPhone use, ostensibly so that you can pare said use back to reasonable levels? Yeah, that went about as well as you'd expect. Unsurprisingly, it turns out the mere presence of a smartphone in a room is enough to inspire distraction. Many times, at lunch with a friend, if said friend got up to use the restroom, the phone instantly came out. Because it never really left. I was not in control.

2) I am not prescribing my action for others, and I don't judge smartphone users. Plenty of people I know manage to use their phones without using them to fill in the cracks of spare time between everything else. I was not one of them. One day last week I woke up and imagined myself continuing to fill in the beautiful cracks of between-things spare time with a must-be-productive-in-every-moment sense of iPhone urgency, combined with the device's lackluster record of coming through on the productivity promise, lived out over the next fifty years, and I had something like a panic attack. I had a clear sense of wanting another life for myself.

3) I am very, very aware of the insane amount of privilege involved in the decision. First, I had an iPhone to sell. Then, I developed (thank God) the audacity to resent a device many people could never afford. And I could sell it. And I could purchase some of the capabilities I'd be losing without an iPhone, like a guitar tuner, to compensate for what I'd be missing. And yet, as I have come to understand privilege, the goal is not to deny or "take off" privilege (as if one could!), but to leverage what privilege one has for others. Surely, leveraging privilege for others requires being present to others, and I believe I am better able to make that space without the phone. That said, I take seriously critiques of how I used my privilege in this discernment.

Relatedly, part of the discernment around the trade-in involved an app by app inventory for how I could change my phone habits without thoughtlessly shifting the burden of my decision to others. For example, surrendering my bank management app might have made me feel lighter at Rebekah's expense, if I had seen selling the phone as disconnecting from all of the responsibilities I had previously invested in the phone. One of those responsibilities is to stay connected to the news of the world around me and to stay active. I fully intend to keep a social media presence. Just not at the expense of a physical presence to my physical neighbors.

4) My new phone stinks. I regret nothing, and it stinks. I won't glamorize T9 texting. It took me five minutes the other day to confirm a lunch date with a colleague: "Okay. See you then!" Auto-replies are my friend. But I made the switch so that I would talk more and text less. To that end, it works and it's great.

My new phone's name is Fitch. I named it after David Fitch, whose recent book Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission has come like balm to my soul at a needed time. To grossly generalize, the book introduces a) the disciplines of sacramental practice to evangelicals, on the one hand, and b) a robust theology of submission to the lordship of Jesus in sacramental/liturgical traditions like mine, on the other. Even if that characterization is not exactly right, the space of intersection Fitch explores between historically evangelical and liturgical emphases is rich and full of life.

I named the phone Fitch because I want to remember, on those days when not having Google Maps makes me late to a meeting, why I made this decision. To be faithfully present to God's presence.

In a world crunched by antagonisms and ideologies (for which my iPhone was sometimes a homing device!), Christians - says Fitch - are called to open space, to make space, to be present to God's presence in our midst, with one another and others, and to proclaim that "Jesus is Lord and at work renewing all things - making a new creation (2 Cor 5:17)."

Friends, we are called to make space. To live with. To proclaim. To be present.

Surely, selling back a smartphone doesn't make a person present. But it's a start. Admittedly, it's a start I hope gets better. I'm improving, but I confess I spent my first couple of days without a smartphone instinctively reaching for its ghost. Still, it is a start, and one I hope will both a) ask more of me over time and b) prepare me to be up for the ask. I want to make space, to live with, to proclaim, to be present. All with God's help.

I was sitting in a book group with David Fitch and Rebekah at last week's Gathering of the Ekklesia Project. We were just about to start. Suddenly, Fitch's smartphone went off. Startled, he turned it off and threw it down, with some visible (theatrical) disgust. "So much for presence," he said.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Becoming Capable of Life-Giving Failures

Five years ago, right before St. Francis House sent a few of game people to our very first student organization fair, a long-time campus missioner friend gave me a call. I asked him if he had any advice for engaging the event. "Yes," he said. "Be sure to communicate to your folks that advertising doesn't work. I'm not saying it won't, but it doesn't. And I'm not saying you shouldn't. I am saying, ask your crew whether they think it's worth doing, even if nobody becomes a member of your community as a result of the effort. If they say, 'yes,' ask them why."

I did as my friend suggested, and I was relieved when the students did not appear to be as discouraged as I was at the unsurprising news that church advertising seldom yields fruit directly. I asked them if we should go ahead with our presence at the student organization fair anyway. "Yes," they said. "Okay, great. Why?" Silence. Then one said, "It will make us think about and give voice to  what this community means to us." YES. "I'm in," I said.

Because of this prior conversation, when the unexpected opportunity came up for one of our students to fill a 30 second spot on university radio during the fair, the student jumped at the chance. Only, he didn't answer the question he was given, exactly. Instead, he started with "St. Francis House saved my life..." and told his story. Standing nearby, watching this student, listening to his voice roll through speakers and echo into the halls of the Kohl Center and across campus, I welled up with tears.

Because we had asked the questions, "Is this worth doing, even if no one shows up as a result?" and "Why?" the student was willing to tell his story in an unexpected moment on an unexpected platform  and bless a lot of people. After asking the questions, we made space, in community, for the students to discern and answer them.

In the larger church's ongoing conversations about numbers, attendance, and the rest, it is sometimes helpful to ask ourselves, "If no one shows up as a result, is this worth doing anyway? Why?" And I also think the logic holds if we run it in the other direction, "If a ton of people show up as a result of this thing, is it worth doing anyway? Why?"

Numbers are not bad, but they aren't self-justifying, either. Numbers are helpful partners to lift up what we are about, but they can only do so when, in a given project or moment, we know what we are about. Do we give ourselves permission to be patient and take the time it takes to ask why the thing matters and then create space for the answers?

Two helpful leadership questions I picked up from Pope John Paul II are, "What light do the scriptures shed on this issue/opportunity/challenge?" and "Who can we ask for help?" When we are in touch with the reason that fills our hearts we become capable of even failures that sustain us. Equally, we detect the emptiness of successes that do not satisfy. We notice the difference between relying on grace and controlling the outcome. Most of all, I suspect we become in those moments people whose lives are put in touch in new ways with the story of God, of which God is patiently making us a part.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

"You Have No Idea What You Are Doing" (A Wedding Homily)

After both of the readings we just heard, which Ian and Anna chose, but especially following the lesson from 1 John that Aunt Jane just read, I feel like maybe the best a preacher can hope to say in this moment is, “Yes! That! What she said.”

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God…Beloved, since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another.” Do you hear how, read on this day, in this moment, these verses sound less like a should, like a thing to do, like a burden, and they become more like the opening of an impossible possibility made true? As if it has just dawned on the lover that the love of God, made known in Jesus, received in the heart, might be shared, with another person, across a lifetime, and this dawning comprehension fills both souls with life as when the sunrise breaks the night. “Beloved, since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another.” We can love one another because “we have known and believe the love that God has for us.”

Amen, Aunt Jane, amen.

Onto this beautiful anchor, the gift of God’s love, I only want to add this one, hopeful encouragement:

Anna and Ian, you have no idea what you are doing. To say that you do not know what you are doing is not some snarky cynicism from a preacher; it is probably not even news to you. It is simply descriptively true. You know that you are promising to love each other, but you do not know what the love you promise will ask of you because life is beautiful and wild, full of gifts and also difficult. No one who gets married knows what they are doing. None of the rest of us who will witness your vows today know what you are doing, either. That’s why it is the church’s wisdom to cover all the bases: sickness and health, richer and poorer, better and worse. Because, who knows? Of course, life will almost certainly give you seasons to practice each of these, but those seasons will be only partly predictable. The unforeseen grief will seize you and you will not know why. From under the parched ground of the dry season you were certain would never end, the unexpected joy will bubble up. In every season, trust that you are loved. God is with you in it all. Let your trust of God’s love be the source of your love for one another. Let your marriage be a pilgrimage of trust. Or as Aunt Jane read to us, “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

My family and I met Anna nearly five years ago. And we have known Ian for the past couple of years, too. I have known both of them to be incredible people. And I know in my head that incredible people are usually attached to other incredible people, so it is a great joy to finally see the rest of you. That Anna and Ian know God’s love and are able to share it today is probably at least mostly your fault. By your love lived in shapes of generosity and forgiveness, both extended and received, you have shown them what it means to abide in love, even when love is difficult and costly. 

Ian and Anna, when love is difficult and costly, do not be afraid. This is not a sign that you are beyond love but that you are near the heart of the love of Jesus. Give and forgive and give and forgive one another and others again and again and again. Walk toward that love, even when you don’t see the way. 

Finally, when it comes to your marriage, that you do not know what you are doing does not mean you shouldn’t, or can’t, do it. (And I guess it’s too late now.) No, it means that your marriage is a light of faith to the world. You know very well, and I have gotten to know in each of you, that God has given the two of you everything you need to walk this life together in ways that will grow God’s love in you and make you holy. What’s more, you do not do this thing you do not know alone. I mentioned them before, but take a second to look around and soak in all of those just in this space who are committing their love and their prayers to your flourishing. These are not spectators with scorecards in front of whom you will be asked to perform your lives. This is the Body of Christ that is with you and for you. Even as you deeply love, you are deeply loved.

And most of all by God.

“Love one another,” Jesus tells his friends, “just as I have loved you.”


Amen.