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What’s your Salamander: Confronting Fear and Discrimination

So crazy things happen in politics.  Crazier things seem to happen in Idaho politics, did you see the GOP Gubernatorial debate last May?  It went viral around the country thanks mostly to the participation of Harley Barnes and Walt Bayes who are summed up by Washington Post:

With his bushy white beard and khaki shirt, Walt Bayes looked like a slender Santa Claus on spring break as he thundered Bible verses from the podium. And then there was Harley Brown. Clad in a black leather vest, hat and gloves, the engineer biker with a more manicured white beard and missing teeth looked like a bad Santa. And he sounded like one, too. “I’ve got a master’s degree in raising hell” was one of the many gasp-worthy things uttered during the hour-long debate.

So after two years of living here I no longer get surprised with the antics of our legislature and politicians. Not surprised, but still frustrated and saddened.  It struck again this week.  House Bill 1 was being heard by the House State Affairs Committee.  This bill was attempting to have the Idaho giant salamander named as the state amphibian.  8th grader Ilah Hickman was even on hand to present why she thought this was important, and she had the backing of several voices on the committee who tried to move the legislation to be sent to the House floor… but, no.  This is Idaho.  The legislation lost – again.  And then in words I will not soon forget I read the words Representative Ken Andrus said to her:

When I grew up, when I was a young boy, in our swimming hole, there were salamanders, and we called them water dogs… and I learned to despise them. To me, and to my fellow youth, they were ugly, they were slimy, and they were creepy.  And I’ve not gotten over that. And, so, to elevate them to a state symbol and status of being the state amphibian, I’m not there yet.

Really?  You grew up thinking they were ugly, and 60-70 years later you aren’t over how ugly those salamanders were so you can’t allow this species of salamander, mostly unique to Idaho, to become our state amphibian???

This makes me almost unbearably sad.  I read this the next day and sat dumbfounded and dismayed.  This is where I live?  We are so governed by our fears and dislikes that can’t put aside a childhood impression of a salamander?  How are we supposed to address more engrained problems like systemic racism, gender discrimination, the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors, and religious intolerance?  When I was a child I had irrational fears – it’s part of being a child.  I grew up in an old Midwestern farmhouse with a large unfinished basement.  Like so many kids I was convinced that unspeakable things lived under the stairs to our basement.  We also had playroom in the basement that required me to traverse those stairs daily.  And you know what?  I ran.  Every day I went down those stairs as if the devil was on my heels… because I was CONVINCED that was exactly the kind of plight I was in.

But guess what?  The place under the stairs in our basement?  It was not a den of inequity.  It was not a place of horrible monsters or great evil – I know it, and you know it.  But little Andy didn’t.  I grew up.  I saw the world different.  I learned to confront my fears to gain new understanding and appreciation for that which was outside my comfort zone. In fact that process took me to mission work in the Philippines and chaplaincy in large public (and very urban) hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.  Experiences that became formative, if not fun for this introverted shy boy who grew up in a sheltered suburban community, because they challenged me and helped me grow.  They made me see the world differently and with much more perspective than an eight year old version of myself was ever capable of.  In fact, they made me see the world with more perspective than 38 year old me is capable of, and with more perspective than 78 year old Andrew will be able to manage.  That is why we need community and diversity to help us understand things we aren’t naturally going to know anything about.  This is how we grow, change, and become wiser versions of ourselves.  We confront the other, and become known and we come to know it or them, and our sense of neighbor grows bigger.  Our world becomes bigger.

And we all have such stories.  At least I hope so.  But maybe not.  Maybe we all have some things we can’t, or won’t, change our mind about.  Maybe we all have our “salamander.” Maybe we all have something or someone that we refuse to get to know.  We refuse to let go of our presupposed opinions and allow ourselves to be changed by them.  Maybe Ken Andrus’ statement is the most apocalyptic and helpful words that have come to me in a long time.  Because, you see, he was willing to be unveiled about a “thing” in a way he would never be about a person.  He was able to be honest, because he didn’t have to care about a salamander.  But most of our salamanders are people.  People whose faith we have judged as ugly or destructive.  People who we have decided don’t work hard or well and therefore deserve their lot.  People whose priorities are different than ours and we decide they are dysfunctional or irrational or wrong or… an abomination.  I have heard those words used recently, by a law-maker… of a person.  Talk about your “salamander!”

If there is to be hope in this world, we have got to let go of our unchecked and unconfronted biases and fears.  We have got to sit down with our “salamanders” and learn about them and let them learn about us and find a way forward together.  Most of those biases are not our fault.  They were handed on to us by instinct, by friends or family, by society as whole.  They were kneaded into the dough we are made with and they are a part of us. They are so ingrained into our being that we react out of those fears and biases without knowledge: as one wired to feel and believe certain things without thought.  We should not feel guilty because we have bias toward or against something or someone.

And yet.  Setting that guilty and shame aside, we cannot stop there.

It is when we stop there that we incur responsibility.  When we refuse to confront and learn and do the disciplined hard work of rewiring our biases?  That is on us.  I have never met a person, nor do I ever expect to, who didn’t have some fears, who didn’t have some jaded understanding of someone else, who didn’t have bias.  But I also hope never to meet people who aren’t working to address them. Walk down the stairs, maybe get a friend and go under the stairs – have a picnic there!  Meet people outside your normal network and learn how to care for them as a neighbor.  Make your world bigger, more informed, and more understood by being willing to sit down with “others” and make them companions.   Learn to appreciate salamanders!

Because fear of “salamanders” is leading us down dark roads toward a scary future.  And I don’t want to live in that future! We all owe it to each other to work toward something better: more caring, more understanding, more whole.

What and who and where are your salamanders, and what are you prepared to do about it?

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Diagnosis: take a year long break from Church

This is part of an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here

  • In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
  • To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: here
  • To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: here and here
  • To hear the voices of peoples long silenced: here
  • To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: here
  • In gratitude to God: see below
  • Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: forthcoming
  • Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

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In gratitude to God

You have heard it, somewhere and some when. If you are like me – you have said it. “I have to go to church meeting.” I’ve slipped and said it, but usually I try to catch myself and say instead, “I get to go to a church meeting.” I get to worship. I get to go to bible study. I get to witness resurrection in the midst of mourning the death of a loved one. I get to…

I’m amazed at how often we feel like faith or church or mission is a burden we carry. (Sometimes with good reason but often because we are approaching it from the wrong mindset.) And I don’t disagree. Having to wrestle with faithful ways of living in my life is more challenging that just… not caring. That’s not what I’m talking about here though, I’m talking about those times church has begun to feel like one more obligation in a week that is already over-flowing.

What does it mean to take seriously the notion that we “work with others… in gratitude to God?”

Our life together in faith is not meant to be an onerous burden. Strangely enough I have always found church fun. From choir and hand bells to Sunday school and confirmation – church feeds me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of a community. And yes there are days it doesn’t feel that way, but mostly it does. However the moment it ceases to be that for a protracted amount of time… that needs to be addressed. I remember talking to Cynthia Rigby, professor at Austin Seminary, and she mentioned a time when she recommended a church member stop reading the bible for a whole year. She did this because that person had turned reading the bible into an obligation that was killing their spirit. They weren’t feeding abundant life with their reading – they were crushing it under the weight of “I ought to do this.” So she told this person to knock it off, to stop reading it, and I say: great advice.

We are called to serve – to work – together in gratitude. With joy. If we have lost the sense of awe and gratitude to be trusted with this work than an essential ingredient of ministry and calling is missing, and we have to stop and take pause.

Listen to the Psalmist in Psalm 8:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.”

The Psalmist is awed, humbled, and empowered. I am nothing. And yet God has entrusted me with everything. I have been granted the privilege of responsibility. This is to work in gratitude to God.

So… how do we get that?

Maybe you are in touch with that now – maybe you are living this phrase. In that case, let your let shine!

Maybe you are close, maybe its there but you don’t quite realize it. Would it help to just recall the ways you have been blessed by companionship in community, and the way you have been a blessing to others.

Maybe you are holding yourself back because you fear it, but if you just let loose a little you will realize how much joy you are experiencing from ministry together.

Maybe you are there – and you don’t even know it. Name it; claim it.

There is another response – a deeply faithful response. Maybe you need to knock it all off for a bit. Taking Cindy Rigby’s story a step further I have recommended that before. That someone just take a year off of church… or from leadership or from programs or missions or… whatever it is they are doing that has lost that sense of awe, privilege, and gratitude – and has instead become an onerous obligation. And you know what? It’s biblically faithful. (or at least I think so.) Right before the Exodus commandment to keep one day in seven reserved for Sabbath it talks about letting your field lie fallow one year out of seven (Exodus 23:11). Sometimes we are dried up and we need to stop and just abide and rest. We need to let the dust settle, scatter the structure to the wind, forget about seed and harvest and just wait… and see what comes up again next year. Maybe you need to take a year off of church.

There are many ways to gain that sense of gratitude in service. None are right or wrong except in so far as they are right for you, for this time. But what I am getting at – what I think our Statement of Faith calls us to attend to – is that our work together is meant to be work that feels like privilege, a joy, and a reason for gratitude to God for the opportunity – I get to do this. And if we aren’t there – it’s time to take stock and figure out how to, because this is all about abundant life: for you – for your neighbor – for all God’s creation.

Thanks be to God.

Addendum (the next day):
A congregation member sent this clip to me in response to yesterday’s blog post (which get emailed to the congregation as devotionals of sorts). Spot on: “we GET to play baseball today.”

Even more spot on with the idea of taking time away: I occassionally lament that Michael Jordan left basketball for that whole misadventure with baseball. What would his stats be, how many more championships we would have won if he hadn’t done that? But when your spirit needs you to “take off” and go on a misadventure that is the the RIGHT adventure for you, than that is what you have to do. Who knows, maybe those last three championships don’t happen without him taking his break.

Home: A Sermon on the sordid families of Abraham

From today’s sermon on Genesis 29’s story of Jacob’s brides (you got that right, more than one and double it again if we are talking mothers of his children) but really its a sermon on the repetitive story of Genesis:

Robert Frost defines home as the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in.

The family systems sickness that is passed through the generations starting with Adam and Eve (I was told later I created a new notion of original sin) and working through the generations of Abraham’s children is the belief that we are in a competition to earn God’s love. We keep defining “home” smaller and smaller so we have to let fewer people in to the circle of God’s love out of fear that there isn’t enough or that we will be out earned by the other.

The Kingdom of God, Heaven, Chosen Land, Chosen people, New Jerusalem… etc, etc are all just different words for home. And God’s home is to the ends of the earth and there is room and love enough for all. We all have a home in God’s heart. The question isn’t how do we earn it, or be worthy of it. The questions we have to answer is how do accept that we really are loved by God without need to earn it, and how are we making that same love palpable for all we meet?

You are loved; we are loved; we all are loved. Open your heart to call the world home, and let everyone in.

The Giving Tree or The Taking Boy

Okay so now and then I let slip that I do not like The Giving Tree. People love it. I get it. So here you go, why I don’t. You will have your reasons why I’m over analyzing, but it’s what I do and… I really don’t think this is a reach but it’s right there in the story:

The message that we read in the story of the boy is that happiness is procured from money, working all the time so you have no time for play, a family (he seems to not to end up with), having a house, and going to far away places to find what you don’t have. All this at the expense of the life and vitality of your friend who appears to be codependent and lives only for the happiness of the boy who apparently has no thought of the happiness of the tree.

By the end the dead used up remains of the tree are, we are told, happy to have served the whims of the boy who appears to have never found happiness because here in the end he is sitting alone without friend or family on the stump of an old dead tree.

The end.

Yes that is harsh.  But I really do think this story is a damaging narrative cloaked as a sentimental and benign children’s tale.  So some further thought before you go to it’s defense:

Yes the tree gives. But the boy takes. This is the groundwork for almost every imperialist culture ever. Imperialists take advantage of generous people until it’s too late to change the dynamics of the relationship.

There is a reason Jesus’ death is said to be “once and for all.” It’s that we do not require sacrificial death from our neighbors in order that we might live… and yet, sadly that still isn’t true.

The hidden sadness of this book is that you cannot buy happiness. Happiness is not external and no amount of chasing after it will “find” it.

This book more than any other reminds me why I love the triune love commandment from Jesus: “love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself.” These three work in concert and balance. You can’t do one or two to the exclusion of the third if you are following in Jesus way. To love God but not neighbor? Misses the point. Self-love to the exclusion of others – no way. But also: to love neighbor without any care for self stands outside of Christ’s calling. In our care and service to one another we have to be able to care for ourselves as well. We live interconnected lives building each other up – not one at the expense of the other no matter that we claim the other “desired to make those sacrifices.” This is the way we defend imperialism, slavery, patriarchy, racism, and the subjugation of the environment, etc, etc, etc.

So there you have it, why whenever someone reads or mentions The Giving Tree, all I hear is The Taking Boy.

The Challenge of We

When I did my Doctor of Ministry work my focus was discipleship.  Mainly how our focus on membership in churches was detrimental to our more primary task of discipleship.  The two do not need to be mutually exclusive, but it often works out that way.  The focus by the end of my research was on our welcome of new members to our church community and how that process relates to discipleship.  If I were to sum up my whole paper in a couple sentences it would be something like this:

  • The task of the church is to follow in the way of Jesus with our whole lives serving as a source of shared challenge and mutual affirmation to the way in which we are called to live.
  • We do that by walking together as we follow; discerning together God’s calling, inviting others to follow with us.  That is we create a culture of discipleship with the intention of getting others to join us on the journey (not very different to Jesus’ own group of twelve disciples – sadly we often use the crowds that follow the disciples as our church model rather than the circle of disciples themselves).
  • The invitation to new members (followers) is not an invitation to a set of beliefs but this corporate journey; we aren’t seeking right thought but shared action.  And the commitment to an individual community (membership) is to say that in my larger discipleship journey I am declaring my intention to live that out for this time and place with this particular group of people.
  • The task of the church then in that moment of initiation is not about informing new people but nurturing their sense of belonging – it is about cultivating a sense of “we” in service to our shared journey in the way of Jesus.

The concept of “we” is an interesting one, mostly because we are very tempted to towards a way of them and a way of me.  Early on in the process I became very attuned to such language.  When you talk to someone and they say something about you or they – this person generally doesn’t feel like they belong.  I went through that myself last year as I became a part of a new community of faith.  I watched myself slowly stop saying “you all do this,” or “your history has been,” etc.  And begin to say “our” and “we.” In moments of conflict our temptation to do this is even greater.  We distance ourselves (intentionally) when we say “they are doing this” or the “the session decided” or “you all thought.”

We do this when we do not belong.  Now to be fair sometimes we don’t belong because the leadership doesn’t care to have us belong.  We do not get a voice, and so we don’t really belong.  We aren’t following together in the way of Jesus – we are following the voice of those with power as they follow their discernment of Jesus’ way.  Other times we do not belong because we do not seek to belong.  We seek to protect ourselves or keep our independence; we aren’t willing to compromise “my” way to “our” way.

Being we is hard work.  Being me is much easier, and seeing it as them versus us is a constant challenge. The way of we is harder yet because I do not mean that when we are “we” there is uniform agreement (see the last post on being assimilated).  Rather the joy of we is that we bring our different perspectives to bear on a common journey, and we stick with that journey even when me doesn’t agree with the decision of we. 

I will give perhaps my two favorite examples.  John 6 and Matthew 19.  In both cases Jesus taught hard lessons about the kind of journey he invites us on (you might check out the end of Luke 9 as well for examples of people not ready to make the commitment of “we”… but I’m trying to resist make this list really long but do note that there “we” doesn’t tell someone else they don’t belong, it is the me that decides it is not ready or able to be “we”).  In John 6 many disciples left offended – they stopped following. I do not think Peter and the twelve are any less offended. But their sense of belonging – commitment to Jesus’ way – means that unlike the others they stayed in for the journey.  “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69).

Similarly Peter (I think, but it’s a loose interpretation) has regrets about leaving everything behind (personal possessions at least) to follow Jesus when the rich man (Matthew 19) is told to sell all and give it to the poor.  What is the different between this man and Peter?  The next day Peter still follows, and the other has slunk back into anonymity.  Maybe he does it in the end, maybe he follows in Jesus’ way eventually.  But he wasn’t yet ready to commit to the way of we. 

As “we” we seek common good.  Humility calls us to think our voice and opinions hold no more weight than anyone else’s.  We belong regardless of whether we are entirely happy with where we are going or not. We give our best effort even when it’s not the effort we would have chosen.  We take responsibility not for ourselves but for the whole and we recognize that all parts or inter-dependent.   We is a challenging way to live.  It challenges me.  And yes, I’m to challenge it.  That is part of we: there is no passive role in the journey.  No-one is just along for the ride, we are all given an active part.  There is no “they” in a community of we.  We are they.  This is what it means to belong – it is a combination of commitment and ownership.

So are you taking on the challenge of we?  Are you empowering others to live into that roll?  Are you listening, and speaking, and then listening (and hearing) again? Do you belong and make spaces for others to belong as well? 

These are questions we need to ask ourselves every day and they are the question I find at the center of my quest to wrestle with discipleship and my calling to follow in the way of Jesus.  Thanks be to God. 

Sports Arenas and Houses of Worship

So I’m having a less-than-the-norm day in terms of productivity.  I have nothing to hide, there are plenty of crazy days (yesterday I was checking off items on the to-do list like a madman) so I tend to think you need to balance those out.  So I’m sitting at my desk and I’m reading this article (http://extramustard.si.com/2014/01/08/nhl-versus-nba-attendance/) that is making note that the NHL has more teams selling out the stadium right now than the NBA.  The author is realistic.  This is not a sign that the hockey is eclipsing basketball in popularity.  What he does argue is that the NHL offers a better live fan experience.  The sport, he argues is actually easier to watch from up high in a live stadium than down low or on TV.  And the fans get into the experience.  They are offering a reason to spend the time and money to go to a game rather than watch on TV.  (I could say a lot about this from the perspective a Blackhawks fan but that would be to digress.)  The money quote?  “There’s a bigger incentive to leave the house when it actually feels like you will be part of something collaborative and special.”

This is that point at which I realized this wasn’t just some diversion from productivity.  That really was a great quote.  It’s the question I believe we, the Church, need to ask ourselves: are we offering an experience to people where they “feels like [they] will be part of something collaborative and special?”

Let’s face it: a good sermon is a good sermon, mostly regardless of whether it’s on a TV, in a pulpit, or from a podcast.  We live in a world where we have easy access to great music whenever we want.  You can buy excellent and engaging books and video series that challenge you and help you grow.  And we can put our money towards special interests that are near and dear to our heart with the click of a button.  None of these are unique to the church, and none of these require attendance on Sunday (or any) morning.  Pastors will downplay online religious experiences and TV worship services with the claim that they lack authentic community… but how often are our churches actually doing that – is Sunday morning worship really that much more authentic?  Do we actually offer something collaborative and special?

I am not convinced that this is often the case.  Let me borrow from the sports article one more time.  “There are certainly great fans at individual NBA arenas — Memphis comes immediately to mind— but my observation is that the average NHL venue is more collectively engaged.”  There are certainly churches offering a great collaborative sense of worship, mission, and belonging to a community.  But my sense is that this is less and less the case in many places.

So what is the challenge that comes from this?  What is our take-away?  Let me give three quick hits on what some of the take-aways might be, but my lists isn’t all there is, it’s just the beginning.

Belonging  – I could file this whole post under belonging, and it’s become a very important part of my ecclesiology so I’m challenged to be brief here.  But like with a professional sport team’s fan base belonging is the target.  Cubs fans consistently show up to watch one of the losingest (not a word I guess but it is in this Cub fan’s vernacular) teams.  They aren’t showing up because the product is the best, they are show up because the experience of belonging won’t let them walk away.  Jesus’ calling and baptismal covenant is about belonging.  And radical discipleship is the acknowledgment that the challenge of Jesus’ way is endurable, in fact joyous, because thick or thin – we belong here.  How many of our churches fight battles over style and not substance because we are afraid we do not attract people, or that people will get bored.  Connect with people, nurture people so that they belong to your vision and mission and you to theirs – and no differences over style will drive them away.  I’ve seen it.

Collaboration – pretty close to belonging.  But a particular, and easily overlooked, piece.  Collaboration acknowledges that in belonging each person has a voice and vote in the process.  Collaboration means everyone is invested in the process and the product.  No-one is just along for the ride, and everyone has to work together on the problems that arise.  Here I think is also a very interesting point for worship – which is so often led by a few for the (viewership?) of the many.  How do we collaborate for, in, because of worship?

Passion – maybe I should call this energy.  Like fan chants (tribal language?) and team colors we witness our passion for our sports teams and it’s essential to the belonging.  But do we have this for our churches and in our worship?  When we are gathered do we look and feel like a people who would rather be here than anywhere else?  If not… why should anyone else want to be here – is our being here really important at all?

Belonging, Collaboration, and Passion.  These are all a part of making a community rather than just a random gathering of like-minded individuals.  And they remind us that the work of the church is the work of the community engaging in vital and essential ways in each other’s lives and the life of the world.  So recognizing some truth in the thought that “there’s a bigger incentive to leave the house when it actually feels like you will be part of something collaborative and special,” ask yourself: what are you doing to nurture that feeling in yourself and in others?