Sunday, April 2, 2017

30TH EPISTLE TO THE NEVADANS: WE LACK ONE THING


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

After wandering in our desert for nigh unto a decade, my understanding of the challenge we face has distilled in the heat of our sun. It has been a purgation as all sorts of ideas, feelings, and attitudes have been burned away.

The question I ask now may not be of immediate or obvious interest to you. I tie my mind in knots over how to be the Church. You are struggling with your daily lives of family, work, relationships, finances, and all the stuff that makes up a life. What I am struggling with matters to you only if two things are true:

1   1. The key to living any aspect of our life is the Christian faith that defines the meaning of         everything we do. Religion is not a category apart from our other activities. It is the core of all of them.

2.  2. Christianity is a team sport. We are shaped Christoform through our participation in the Body of Christ, the Church. Individualistic me-&-Jesus spirituality is a modern – mostly American – invention. It is not the faith of the New Testament or centuries of Christian tradition. To Jesus and the apostles, this faith can only be practiced together.

If either of those points is false, there is no need to read further. But, if they both might be true, then this could be important.

I have prayed for the Diocese of Nevada daily for so many years now. At first I prayed for specific things until I came to believe we needed absolutely everything. So, I prayed “God we need it all. We need more people, more leadership, more vision, more passion, more money, more buildings. We need it all. We’ll take anything you’ve got to offer.” And I prayed it with a desperation worthy of the psalmist.

While I prayed, I offered and promoted programs and assistance in various kinds of ministry. Most failed. Occasionally, some met with moderate success. One of them has made significant in-roads for some congregations. But we still live on the edge, just getting by. Why is that?

Two things have slapped me awake this year. They have been happening all along. But they finally came together to bring me to the ground zero of being the Church in Nevada. They have brought me on my knees to Mark 10: 17-21 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+10%3A17-21&version=NIV and Luke 10: 38-42 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+10%3A+38-42&version=NIV. You may do well to read those texts before going on so you’ll know where we’re headed.

The first wake up point was seeing how we treat each other in our congregations. In those congregations that are declining, the reason is plain as the nose on one’s face: People behave deplorably toward one another. Insults fly. Plots thicken. Ultimatums are thrown down. “If you don’t do x, I’m leaving.” The issues are usually of near comic insignificance, but the passion invested is over “getting my way.”

But if you bite and devour one another, watch out or you will be destroyed by one another. – Galatians 5: 15

It is no wonder contentious groups do not attract or retain people. Self-preservation dictates keeping our distance.

Such conduct is human nature as far as group behavior is concerned. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion wrote about it in Experiences In Groups. We use fight-flight to self-sabotage and defeat our real mission, the actual point that brought us together. I do not judge or condemn. It is merely human behavior. But that doesn’t make it Christian. The entire thrust of the New Testament is that we are not bound to merely human behavior. For those of us who are “in Christ,” it is possible to be an entirely different kind of community -- a community that heals, empowers, and sanctifies us, transforming us from glory unto glory into the likeness of Our Savior.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed            away. Behold the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5: 17

We are “in Christ” if we are in the Body of Christ, the Church, if we are baptized. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live in the way prescribed by the New Testament and not remain enslaved to the world’s ways so well analyzed by Wilfred Bion. The Hymn to Love in 1 Corinthians 13 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+13&version=NIV  is not about marriage but how to be the Church. The Epistles are all about the art of community.

Yet even our congregations that are doing well on the institutional vitality scale are riven by people treating each other in sub-Christian ways. Nor is this limited to congregations. I sometimes see our Diocese acting hurtfully, judgmentally, unkindly, shackled by pharisaic law rather than flying free in the Spirit of love with joyful expectation for the Kingdom Mission.   

In a word, we are not behaving like Christians. Naturally, we welcome people who are not spiritually mature so there are bound to be incidents we regret. But I am saying something more fundamental. Our norms of behavior are not Christian. Why would that be? That question leads to the second wake up call.

I have heard from several of our leaders and leadership groups, sometimes reporting what they hear from congregations, about what we as a Diocese care about, what deep down matters to us. I hear that our congregations just want a building and a priest. Some value the camp’s enjoyment of wholesome outdoor activities. Some value charitable activities which could well be tied to the gospel, but I have not heard them tied to the gospel and they are the same charitable activities secular groups offer.

What I hear about our mission is not at all bad. It sounds as if we are lonely and want to connect with each other as friends. Some of us want to do a bit of worthy community service. There is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it is good. If a secular service club named these priorities, I’d say that’s just fine. But what rocks me is that I have heard literally nothing – not virtually nothing, literally nothing -- about the Christian faith. I get the sense that we are serving a secular cake with Christian sprinkles. If that’s all we’re doing, I would still vote for it but I wouldn’t campaign for it or contribute to support the cause. When I notice that about myself, the reason most of our congregations cannot mount stewardship campaigns or engage in evangelism suddenly becomes obvious.

I feel that all the technical fixes for the Church have finally been distilled away. We need one thing – except it is not a thing – it is a person: Jesus.

When the rich young man came to Jesus seeking eternal life, Jesus gave him the to-do list of his time and place. We have our to-do list of Church projects and some of us do them. But when the young man said he had checked all the boxes, Jesus replied, “You lack one thing.” He told him to sell all he had. But that is not the “one thing.” That is just clearing the path of his many things so he can choose the one thing. “Come, follow me.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o469PRLdbHU

Martha of Bethany had her to-do list. She was bustling about the house like priest and altar guild on Sunday morning while Mary sat at the feet of the Master. When Martha demanded that Jesus shoo Mary away, Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are . . . upset about many things. Few things are needed – indeed, only one. Mary has chosen the better part.” Mary chose a relationship with Jesus.

Here’s what I believe. There are scores of congregational development programs that would, in principle, help us do a better job of Church. There are behavioral covenant models that, in principle, would lead to us treating each other more civilly. There are stewardship methods that would raise more money and evangelism programs that would swell our ranks – all in principle. But there’s a problem. They are like a manual on better farming practices. Back in the 40s, a young man was trying to sell an old farmer a manual on farming but the old farmer replied, “Son, I’m not farming half as good as I know how, as it is.”


Our challenge isn’t knowing churchmanship. It’s knowing Jesus. It’s deciding to follow him heart and soul, not just as individuals but as a community. It would mean living for the Kingdom Mission because that’s the only thing that makes our lives count. If we fall in love with Our Savior and follow where he leads we will, as the song says, “never be the same.” Then and only then will all the programs make a whit of difference.

Friday, February 3, 2017

BOW UP



The vanity license plate on a pickup truck here in Elko reads, “Bowup.” For those unfamiliar with the expression, it is “Bow up.” It means to assume a fighting posture. The neck and back curve defensively. The elbows bend. The fists clench. You get the picture. I gather the license plate is an invitation or an admonition to any and all to “bow up” to fight for anything that comes along.

I learned the expression “bow up” from my father. He would tell the story of some conversation at work or at a baseball game. At some point in the story, one of the characters would “bow up.”
Invariably, in my father’s telling of the story, the character who bowed up would have demonstrated himself to be some kind of fool, defensive, reactive, unable to keep his dignity. The bowed-up posture is not a dignified one. By bowing up he had already lost regardless of whether a fight ensued or who “won” it.

But there’s another side to the equation. In my Texas culture, there were also certain indignities that were not to be borne. Some slurs or offenses had to be regarded as “walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.” The problem for the more thoughtful of us -- and a lot of us were more thoughtful than we let on – was that we were not sure where that line was drawn. We were most likely to bow up not because we were genuinely angry but because we thought perhaps we ought to be angry and that our dignity would be lost if we did not take a stand – though paradoxically, bowed up is not a stand but a demeaning posture and by taking it we had forfeited our dignity. It was lose-lose.

Our fragile self-esteem can be cloaked in all sorts of things – righteousness whether political or old style puritanical, superiority of our intellect, depth of our spirituality, fidelity to the institution with which we have identified our pride – the list goes on. The cloak around our self-esteem is the trigger for our reactivity. It is our point of vulnerability.

As I look around these days, it seems a lot of us are bowed up. It is a posture we have assumed. The various political or religious claims and taunts of the day prompt the posture. But this license plate skipped all that. It went straight to the point. No need for pretexts. Just a straight prescription for an existential posture. It is as if the fear and the posture are connected by the issue that exercises us. But this vanity plate cut out the middle man.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about postures. One text is obvious. “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other.” New Testament scholar Walter Wink read that teaching as more clever than it seems. He treated the first blow as a backhand slap of a superior to a slave. If you turn the other cheek, he can only strike you with the forehand slap that challenges an equal to combat. It is actually a brilliant way to preserve dignity.

The other posture text is less obvious. It is translated as “do not resist evil” or “return evil for evil.” Wink says this is actually a term for military maneuver in which one army mirrors the formation of the other. Jesus means there are more effective ways to combat an adversary than to mimic him. But mimicry is out reflexive action.

We encounter a lot of bowed up people these days. Our mirror neurons respond automatically with an impulse to mimic them. Plus, we are apt to feel threatened, and like a Texas teenage boy insecure about his virility, we may fight out of fear of disgrace. There is a lot at work to make us speak and act precipitously.

Jesus did not generally recommend that approach. If he had a vanity plate, I don’t know what it would say, but I seriously doubt it would be “bow up.” It might be “bless” – not condone evil, not cooperate with wrong, not agree with what is factually false. But it might very well be “bless.” It might have a hint of a suggestion that we look past the outrageous thing someone else is saying or even doing to find their subterranean human worth and say with God, “That’s good,” and perhaps find a way to remind them who they are. It might be a gesture toward healing their wound instead of jabbing at it.

The basic function of blessing is not approval but connection. The basic function of cursing is not passing judgment so much as breaking relationship. We live by connection. We grow by connection. We are transformed and we transform each other through connection. There is a dignity in the resolute determination to bless this world and all who live therein.


Monday, January 16, 2017

WHAT WOULD ATTICUS DO?


You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
                                                                                    Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

The current flap over whether our National Cathedral Choir should sing at the Inauguration is the present arena in which a lot of passions are flowing at cross-purposes. People are in very different places. For the record, I fully support what Bishop Mariann Budde and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry have said in defense of the choir singing, but my heart is stirred by the pain of those who feel betrayed.

I am still trying to understand the feelings that have been unleashed, manipulated, and magnified not just in the recent election but in the American public square since roughly 1990. This is not an attempt to say anything definitive, just to notice a piece of the puzzle.

There are very concrete fears and resentments stirring for people threatened with the
loss of health insurance, people on the verge of retirement when Social Security and Medicare are in jeopardy, people whose families may be divided by deportation, people who may have to publicly register their religion at a time when their religion makes them a target of abuse and violence. Others are afraid of terrorism, the financial hardship to support those who cannot fully support themselves, the loss of jobs and changes in culture caused by immigration.

But, perhaps because I am deep into Eric Fromm’s classic, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, I cannot stop seeing the deeper processes at work in people, the surging of so many painful dynamics.  We can’t ignore the psychological dynamics at play, in individuals and in the collective.

For whatever reason, the President-elect stirs our responses to experiences with narcissistic sado-masochistic behavior. Anyone who has ever been bullied, sexually abused, victimized by a domestic violence, harassed for any reason, mocked, belittled, or ostracized is subject to having old feelings brought up.

How that plays out is not simple. There can be PTSD flashback experiences, narcissistic abuse syndrome with feelings of fear, confusion, inner turmoil, and all that goes with co-dependency; identification with one’s status as victim claiming a kind of moral authority and exemption for Jesus’s “love ethic” born of innocent suffering; or – and here’s where it gets really complicated – variations on Stockholm Syndrome in which the victim identifies with the abuser. That means – now ponder this – two victims of the same kind of abuse may respond to a narcissistic personality (or someone perceived to be a narcissistic personality) with opposite reactions. One will fear and loathe him. The other will cling to him like a beloved parent or even savior. The two people may be at each other’s throats, not despite but because they have suffered the same or similar wounds.

Add to that tangled web a dynamic Fromm calls “group narcissism.” To begin with narcissism isn’t just arrogance. It is an inflated view of one’s own importance, being consumed by a deep need for the admiration of others, and an incapacity for empathy. But the arrogance is all on the surface. The Mayo clinic definition says, “Behind this fa├žade of self-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that is vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

Not a happy way to be in the world. So, what is “group narcissism?” Fromm says, when individuals are belittled and scorned, they want to belong to a group that is great, strong, powerful, commanding respect and instilling fear.

So, where does this leave us as the Church? I don’t know. It definitely would not help to go about pathologizing the political convictions of others. But we might benefit from a touch of humility, curiosity, and compassion. Psychology does not answer the question. But it is one of the voices – along with theology, Scripture, and traditional social justice teachings – that informs our answer.

One thing I do get from this psychology piece is that a lot of people are hurting and our judgments of them will not help or heal. I am sometimes taken aback by the emphatic repudiation of Christian norms, derived from Scripture and enshrined in the Baptismal Covenant (e.g., to seek and serve Christ in all people, to respect the dignity of every human being) by people who are ostensibly Christians. I am mystified by hate-filled rants against Mexico (not undocumented workers but the whole nation). This list goes on. We are dividing up and fighting in ways that are hard to comprehend.  Most days I feel buffeted from the left and the right alike in ways that seem utterly beyond the bounds of civil discourse.

One thing I know: there are stories behind these impassioned statements. Stories I have not heard. There are people with something at stake. That something may be very tangible and clear at least in their imaginations. But in most cases, there is a lot stirring of which even the person with the forceful opinions is not aware. How can I know his or her experience? How can I know what that person has at stake?

I can ask!  I can inquire!  I can ‘hold space’ for a human being to tell the story lying behind the passions and the behavior.  Daryl Davis, whose story is told in the documentary, Accidental Courtesy, is a stellar example. A black man, he has converted 200 members of the KKK – not by arguing with them, not by calling them names, but by listening to them. http://accidentalcourtesy.com

It is a cardinal virtue to know the situation, to plug into the reality at hand. If I am to have any hope of acting wisely and lovingly, I need to stop and breathe long enough to realize I don’t know what I’m dealing with and perhaps to ask a few questions that might help both of us find out.