Sunday, February 22, 2009

Alanis on a Sunday

I'm not embarrassed to have an Alanis Morissette song as one of my all time favorites. I will say that it's the only Alanis song I have on my iTunes, but that's more about lack of resources than hate. I'd listen to her more, but she's in line behind other music I want to buy.

I love her song, Everything, for several reasons. I love the acoustic guitars on it (I'm looking for a partner to learn to play this, and I like the fact that it takes two in this song). I love the melody and progression of the song. But this song is mostly about the lyric for me.

These days I like the word thick. So many strategies for life are thin and don't account for much. The beauty is in the complexity, and sometimes that complexity is seemingly contradictory. But there are things that can hold contradictions together meaningfully, things like faith, hope, and love. And this song is about love. It's not thin love, a sugar high. It's thick, like a great microbrew, or something, you know, full and complex.


I can be an asshole of the grandest kind
I can withhold like it's going out of style
I can be the moodiest baby and you've never met anyone
Who is as negative as I am sometimes

I am the wisest woman you've ever met.
I am the kindest soul with whom you've connected.
I have the bravest heart that you've ever seen
And you've never met anyone
Who's as positive as I am sometimes.

You see everything, you see every part
You see all my light and you love my dark
You dig everything of which I'm ashamed
There's not anything to which you can't relate
And you're still here

I blame everyone else, not my own partaking
My passive-aggressiveness can be devastating
I'm terrified and mistrusting
And you've never met anyone as,
As closed down as I am sometimes.

You see everything, you see every part
You see all my light and you love my dark
You dig everything of which I'm ashamed
There's not anything to which you can't relate
And you're still here

What I resist, persists, and speaks louder than I know
What I resist, you love, no matter how low or high I go

I'm the funniest woman that you've ever known
I'm the dullest woman that you've ever known
I'm the most gorgeous woman that you've ever known
And you've never met anyone
Who is as everything as I am sometimes

You see everything , you see every part
You see all my light and you love my dark
You dig everything of which I'm ashamed
There's not anything to which you can't relate
And you're still here

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ministry Maxim, 4

You usually hear this one the other way around, but I always say, "it's easier to ask for permission than forgiveness." Here's the deal. As a minister, you seldom have a vote. You don't vote in the elders' meetings. You have to watch yourself in congregational meetings and discussions. And you don't get to vote about whether or not you have a job. The biggest thing you have to trade on is trust. It is gold. And there is nothing more powerful in a human community. Blindsiding your leaders or the congregation squanders it.

I know the temptation to do it the other way around. It seems like change is so arduous in a congregation. And elders and other leaders are set up by the system to be conservative, even if this isn't their own personality or inclination. They're concerned with the preservation of the whole, and they have to spend way too much of their time keeping the customers happy. They will keep their foot very close to the brake, and sometimes it seems like things will never change. It seems easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. I think the short term gains from such an approach, however, aren't worth the long term damage in most cases.

I'm convinced, moreover, that a congregation will give you a lot of permission toward real change. There are two things that have to be in place for this to happen. First, the congregation has to believe that you are open ended about their future. Most ministers who flame out cast the dye in their opening weeks and months. They try to change things too fast, and they have an ideal congregation in mind (the one they wish they had) that constantly judges the congregation as it actually exists. I am suspicious of any leader who knows beforehand what it is that God is up to in a congregation, and so are church members.

The second thing here is that every congregation has challenges that are real and at the surface that they would love to see addressed. These aren't always the one ministers are interested in. Some are easier to deal with than others, but a congregation will give you permission to work on things.

Let me give you an example. One congregation I worked with had a ministry structure that existed before I arrived. Well, structure is too strong a word. They had people with titles and tasks, but had no idea how those were assigned, how they were related to the budget, etc. And it caused no little consternation in leadership meetings. It was something that they couldn't solve because they had competing interests that they were afraid would cancel each other out if they went one direction or the other. Everyone was frustrated. I asked for permission to take what everyone was saying and work on a proposal. Just a proposal. If we didn't like it, we could try again. They gave me permission. Helping us past our girdlock on this matter was probably the most significant thing I did with that congregation.

It worked in part because they recognized their conversation in the proposal. And it was biblically and theologically grounded. And I made sure they knew at every step along the way that it was only a proposal. If it didn't express what we thought God was up to, we could start over.

I never lacked for such opportunities. You know you're on potential permission giving ground when you keep having the same conversation over and over again and no one is satisfied. Brain storming gets you nowhere. The move then sounds something like this..."We've been over this ground 100 times and we never seem to get anywhere. This seems pretty important. Would you give me a few weeks to work on a proposal to let me see if I can bring everything we're saying into focus. It will give us all something concrete to work on, move us past the brainstorming phase. It's only a proposal, and I promise not to get my feelings hurt if you don't like it."

But permission given has to be rewarded with good work. That's the catch, isn't it. So, here's my advice on a proposal.

1. It has to be recognizable. That is, people have to be able to see that their viewpoints have been taken into consideration. I know this is not always easy, and some viewpoints need to die. But the proposal needs to be respectful of the conversation to this point. There needs to be a sense that this is what we have been trying to say.

2. Find the bigger frame. Reframig is the biggest part of moving past sticking points. The great thing about good theology is that it can account for polarities, for tensions and contrasts. The frame should always be bigger than the field of contention. It should be theological.

3. Treasure new, treasure old. A proposal should express the congregation's identity, both what is has been (treasure old) and what it hopes to be (treasure new).

4. Detail, detail, detail. The frame is the big work, but the details clinch the deal. It needs to be concrete. And details are places for negotiation. As long as you don't lose the frame, details provide the possibility for negotiation, for collaboration. If you lose the frame, you have to go back to the drawing board.

You'll never run out of this kind of work, and the better you get at it as a congregation, the more risks a church will be willing to take. The big stuff becomes possible.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

God, World, Church, 3

What accounts for some of our practices in church? For instance, what accounts for various practices of communion? In congregations of my ecclesial tradition we typically pass trays down rows and urge people to turn inward, to reflect on the meaning of the death of Jesus for them personally. This is not the way churches have always practiced the Lord's Supper. We read no description of this kind of practice anywhere in the literature of early Christianity? What accounts for this practice?

Several things would have to be answered to get a question like this. Our practices bear many meanings and not all of them are readily accessible. But at the very least there would be issues related to what we think of God and what it means to be human, and in turn what it means to be saved.

I've been making the point that in the Western theological tradition, God tends to be thought of as a single subject with three different roles (creator, redeemer, sustainer). Personhood is related to the acting subject. This not only applies to God, but also to humans. I am a self-contained individual. I count as a person because I am a self. Salvation, therefore, is primarily an encounter between Jesus and the self. It happens to me, in me, as a self-contained individual. It makes sense, in light of this, to practice "table" as a private experience with individual portions and inward thoughts.

This applies to more than just communion. This kind of individualism accounts for much of what we experience in worship. I often hear prayers or calls to worship that invite us to put the cares of the world aside so that we can focus on God, as if we could understand God apart from the cares of the world. I have invited students to observe worship to determine the "horizon" of the congregation's awareness. What is it that the worship service is aiming at? What horizon accounts for its practices, its language, etc. It becomes pretty clear for them that our practices cannot be understood primarily in relation to the world, or to a community, but in relation to individuals and most directly to their inner lives.

This is not wrong, in and of itself. It is, however, limited. And ultimately, if it is the primary imagination of the congregation, it makes otherness a problem. And I think this is rooted in part by our understanding of God.

This is not, however, the only way that God and humanity have been conceived in the Christian tradition. As we noted before, the Eastern church emphasized the thre persons of the Trinity. They had to account for God's unity in some way that did not diminish the three persons. They did this, in part, by redefining what it truly meant to be a person. We are not persons as individuals. We are persons only in relation to an other. Personhood is not defined primarily by individuality, but precisely in our recognition and engagement of the other. We understand personhood more completely when we imagine God as three.

Eastern theological notions have recently gained more currency in ecumenical discussion in large part because our understandings of personhood are changing in the Western philsophical tradition. Descartes' "I think, therefore, I am," has been expanded. There is no, "I think," apart from the recognition of an other. There is no "I" apart from a "Thou." Our identities are inescapably social. Ricouer, Levinas, Volf and others have written powerfully about our obligation to the other on the path toward personhood. It is not surprising, in light of this, that the Trinity has come more into focus in Christian theology. And social understandings of the Trinity have changed the way I think about what happens at church.

But here's the bigger payoff in my book. When we see God this way, the world becomes something other than the target at the end of the church's strategic interests. The church cannot know its true identity apart from its koinonia, its sharing participation, with the world. More, it is in God's love for the world that we truly see the nature of God, the love of the truly other. God's participation with the world, not just the church, is necessary for us to see God as a person, for his righteousness to be revealed. This kind of imagination about God would radically change our practices related to mission.

OK, I've gotten some of the big pieces out there, though in an overly simplified way. Let me see if I can break it down over the ext few weeks. Some of you have confessed eye glaze when you read this kind of stuff. I'll only invite you to love me as an other and I'll try to love you as a reader better as I unpack this.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday (Featuring Jackson Browne)

I put Bob on genius this morning, starting with "Spirit on the Water." Genius (the itunes playlist generating tool) works fairly well with Dylan. It's hard to argue with a list that has Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Leon Russell, Wilco, Tom Petty, Bonni Raitt, and Ben Harper. The name that appeared the most on this genius list, however, was Jackson Browne.

Seeing Jackson Browne's name made me smile. A while back I posted about this guy who came to a Dylan presentation I made. He found such promise in me that he began sending me all of this Dylan stuff--books, dvd's, cd's. It was a nice little haul. One of the things he sent me was Jackson Browne's first cd, Late for the Sky. Seems many in the Dylan crowd were convinced that when Bob kind of disappeared for a bit that his successor might be Browne. Late for the Sky is a great cd, but as my friend pointed out, Browne ultimately proved to be a disappointment.

This is true of nearly anyone who had to make a living in music during the 80's. I've been listening to some old Rod Stewart lately. Great stuff. Maggie May, Stay With Me, etc. But the 80's ruined him. Maybe something like this happened to Jackson Browne.

But the thing that's always been true about Browne is that he is a great lyricist. And my favorite Browne song has great lyrics, Doctor My Eyes. So, today's song via Dylan through genius, asks "is this the prize for having learned how not to cry?"

Doctor, my eyes have seen the years
And the slow parade of fears without crying
Now I want to understand

I have done all that I could
To see the evil and the good without hiding
You must help me if you can

Doctor, my eyes
Tell me what is wrong
Was I unwise to leave them open for so long

cause I have wandered through this world
And as each moment has unfurled
Ive been waiting to awaken from these dreams
People go just where there will
I never noticed them until I got this feeling
That its later than it seems

Doctor, my eyes
Tell me what you see
I hear their cries
Just say if its too late for me

Doctor, my eyes
Cannot see the sky
Is this the prize for having learned how not to cry

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Relentless Politics of Generosity

There's this great line in the Ben Harper song, "Put it On Me." I think I have an idea of what he means when he sings, "the politics of generosity are making me weak." Sometimes, there's nothing more manipulative than kindness. And even if kindness is offered without strings, the burden of reciprocity still lingers in the one who received the kindness. The gift becomes something other than a gift. Some cultures, I have found, know how to kill you with kindness.

Don't get me wrong, generosity is a good thing. I'm always looking for persons who are generous of spirit, not small or provinical or who return evil for evil. But even good things, like the law, offered earnestly can end up enslaving us.

There's this great Gomer Pyle episode (and yes, I'm embarrassed) where Sgt. Carter saves his life only to receive in return Gomer's overwhelming gratitude, an unwelcome attention. Sgt. Carter decides that the only way to get Gomer out of his debt is to stage an opportunity for Gomer to save his life in return. Of course, Gomer messes it up and Sgt. Carter ends up having to save the both of them again, increasing Gomer's determination to smother Sgt. Carter with care. The politics of generosity can make us weak.

Several years ago there was a book on marriage entitled, His Needs, Her Needs. The book offered itself as a Christian recipe for a succesful marriage. Men and women, according to the author, have a hierarchy of needs, differing by gender. As long as you're meeting your spouse's highest needs, everything will be great. So, as long as a wife experiences affection, the husband will get sex, and vice versa. The author talked about a love bank, a place where you pile up credits that will come back to you in having your needs met. There are so many things wrong with this, I don't even know where to begin. I'm not saying that some people couldn't manage a happy marriage this way, but this establishes for many couples a viscious cycle of reciprocity. They beat each other up for the ways their needs aren't being met. As the old Heart song, "Even it Up," puts it, "I made you your breakfast in bed, now even it up, even it up, even it up." The politics of generosity is making me weak.

In the New Testament, Paul is very careful to root his relationships with churches in something other than reciprocity. He refuses, for instance, the patronage of the Corinthians precisely so that what he offers them will be experienced as free. In Philippians, he takes great pains to make sure that the gift they sent him while he was in prison is not seen as an obligation for him to return.

This is not because Paul does not want to be in service to others. He does. But he removes service from the human economy of generosity and reciprocity. He places his sense of security, not in the response of others, but in the resurrection of Jesus. Here love can remain a gift, something we do not manage or produce, but something that sustains us anyway. Gift. Love. Freedom. These things go together for Paul and allow a new way of human relating.

Some days I'm better at seeing this than others. I fall too easily out of thankfulness, or try to secure my own sense of well-being through generosity. And it makes me weak and I love poorly. So, today I am living in the confession "that the one who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us also with you..." Gift.

Monday, February 2, 2009

God, World, Church, 2

All of us have an imagination related to God, church, and world. That is, we have imagined a world that accounts for the relationships between these three realities and this imagination authorizes any number of practices. Paul Ricouer (a moment of genuine respect at the mention of his name) sees the imagination as a productive human capacity that mediates the relationship between beliefs and practices. And people like Graham Ward and Charles Taylor argue that this imagination is a social thing. It is something that communities share, a repertory of sorts, that makes us competent in a common life.

The question then is what elements are being tied together in our shared imagination. And here's the thing, the most powerful things in a shared imagination are the things we can take for granted, the things we can assume. For instance, I assumed that all the cars on the road today had a basic respect for red and green lights. It allows us all to function together. We simply assume it. Can you imagine how terrifying it would be to drive to work if you couldn't assume that shared repertory? And these assumed things tend to be the last things that we question.

So, as a theologian (I'm a certain kind of theologian), I'm interested in how our beliefs and practices are tied together in congregational imagination.

One of the beliefs I'm interested in is our functional understanding of God. A congregation's shared imagination is different from what its individual members might believe. There might be a 1,000 different understandings of God in a congregation, but there is a shared life that assumes a common understanding., or at least a range of understanding. So, the real theological question is what view of God best accounts for the practices of a congregation.

Much of a congregation's imagination is not deliberately cultivated, but inherited, and from many sources. It takes something of an archaeology, what cultural anthropologists call a thick description, to uncover the various layers of a congregational imagination. That's what I'm trying to do with regard to our understandings of God, world, and church. Here's the thing: once it rises into view, it can be addressed.

All that to say...

Our practices in mission are embedded in certain understandings of God, and those understandings have to do in part with how we view the relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. And even if we have an allergy to the word Trinity in our congregations or rarely talk about it in our congregations, we have functional understandings that have been in the water of Western Christianity since Augustine.

Last time I mentioned that Western views of Trinity tended to emphasize God's oneness (the shared being between the three), while Eastern views tended to emphasize the three persons. Both emphases are susceptible to distortions. The Western view can turn into modalism where Father, Son, and Spirit are thought of as just different modes of the same single acting subject. The Eastern can so emphasize each person that you end up with three gods.

These are more than just ideas to fight about. These differences have practical implications and tend to form a different kind of imagination about things like mission. Western views of God tended to focus on the mode of sending. How do you describe the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit? Mainly in relation to the activity of sending. The Father sends the Son, the Father and Son send the Spirit.

The Eastern views of God tended to focus on the relatedness of the three persons. They are one through an interpenetrating communion, what is referred to as perichoresis. God is less a series of movements, and more a model of social life.

At the risk of a massive oversimplification (which is what I do best), we can at least begin by observing that these traditions produced very different notions of salvation and mission. The history of mission in the West often falls under the word, "expansion." It's how we think about things. The church is on the side of God in a series of sending. We're conquering, expanding the borders of the Kingdom. Eastern mission was thought of more as getting people to church, to experience the mystery of communion.

I want to come back to both views in more detail, especially as the Eastern impulse has been further developed in more recent Trinitarian thought. But for now, I want to point out that in both views the view of the world is problematic. In Western mission, the world is just a target. It's simply on the receiving end of a series of sendings. It has little impact on God's relational identity and plays no positive role in the story of redemption. The church here is both enlarged and reduced. The church is on the side of God and the things of God in the sequence of sendings. It has all the goods. But the church is also reduced to an instrument of God, a way for God to get things done.

It is interesting in light of this to think about Protestant missions in the 19th and 20th centuries (well, maybe intersting is too strong of a word). Mission was thought of almost exclusively in terms of sending to preach to individual souls. The question of establishing congregations was clearly secondary. We've experienced this with crusade evangelism (think Billy Graham or Louis Palau). It's always been a problem to think about how these individuals who have welcomed Jesus into their hearts belong to a community of God's people. And for most mission endeavors in this period, mission was not done by congregations, but by mission societies. Mission was a mode of the church's existence that could actually be done better outside of the congregation by a mission society. Mission is not the church's relational identity to God and world. (Yeah, interesting is really too ambitious for this paragraph).

In Eastern Christianity, everything that counts happens within the mystery of communion and communion happens only within the church. The world can only observe. The gulf between God and world is so wide and massive, that God can only commune with the world in Jesus, and by extension through baptism, the eucharist, and the bishop.

What both of these views of God hold in common is a certain understanding of being itself, an ontology, that has a stake in keeping God safe from the imperfections of the world. This hasn't always been the case in Christian theology, and more recent explorations of Trinity have proceeded from different understandings of God and being. But that's for another day.