Thursday, April 29, 2010

Surprise & Delight

A week or so ago, a tweeter I follow pointed me to a blog post questioning the common wisdom that the way to get ahead in business is through innovation. The writer says that innovation for innovations sake is a waste of time and energy. Instead, a business seeking to be successful should aim at "awesomeness." The writer sees four pillars to awesomeness: 1. ethical production - things are always done with an eye to ethics, 2. Insanely great stuff - new isn't enough, it must be great. 3. Love - the high touch part of the equation, people must love what they do and must love their clientele. 4. Thick value - the value added to life is real, significant, and sustainable.

What if we embraced awesomeness in the church? A friend of mine who is an administrator at a Continuing Care Retirement Community came up with a motto for their workers - "surprise & delight." What if we embraced that motto in the church where people didn't just experience the new big thing but instead found surprise and delight in experiencing the awesome?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What Does It Mean to be "A Church?"

More than once I have told people only half jokingly that after 32 years as a pastor and two graduate degrees, I don't understand church. The roles and purposes of church have changed significantly over the last generation and there isn't a consensus as to what the new roles and purposes are. For some, church is a hospital we visit to find healing and strength to go back into the world. For some, it is a place to build social networks. For some it is a place to find spiritually inspiring entertainment. For some it is a base from which to launch various kinds of mission programs. For some it is a series of programs competing with kids soccer, men's therapy group, and women's drum circle. For many, it is completely irrelevant to daily life. Many of those who do attend church do so with the primary question being one of added value, "what value does this experience add to my life?" This question is even more important in a time when virtually all of the roles of the church can be fulfilled in some other way.

Let me share two illustrations that underscore my question, "what does it mean to be a church?" First... some years back I was attending a meeting and met a pastor from a Presbyterian church in Manhattan. As we talked I asked the pastor question - "How many do you have in worship?" It is a convenient metric and it says something even if I'm not sure what. She answered, "30." I was a pastor of a downtown church and the time and knew all of the struggles to keep one of those institutions going and all of the surrounding needs. Her congregation didn't have Sunday school or a youth program. If it were not for a significant endowment, it would have closed years prior. Then, she added, "but we have about 5000 people come through our building each week for 12 step meetings, feeding programs, neighborhood classes, etc. etc. etc." Almost none were "members" and likely a significant proportion would not have called themselves Christian. Almost all received services of one sort or another, consuming resources rather than giving them to the institution. What does it mean to be a church?

And watch this video which I first saw on my friend Bob Cornwall's blog.

Can you be a church in cyberspace? Can our need for human connection be met online and does that have anything to do with being "church?" What do our human networks have to do with our connectedness to the holy?

I have a couple of thoughts. I do not believe that a person can be a follower of Jesus alone. I truly believe it takes a community of accountability and challenge and support for us to follow Jesus. I believe that ministry/service/mission is not enough on its own to quality as a church. They are necessary traits, but there must also be activities that contribute to nurture and there must be experiences that lead to the holy, mystical experiences, for a group of people to be a church. Can it happen online? I'm not sure. I think for me, it has to have skin on it... but I don't know whether that is a more general rule. Does it require a traditional institutional expression? I pretty sure it doesn't, but I think some ind of organizational structure might be required just to make it happen.

So for you, what does it mean to be church? Does the UU church in Second Life qualify? Or even the Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Undocumented people

Arizona. There are pieces of life there that really puzzle me. My daughter lives in Phoenix and we have visited a number of times. We ate breakfast at a Waffle House and there on the door was a sign, "No Hand Guns Allowed." I have to say I was more than taken aback that they needed to have a warning that handguns were not allowed at the Waffle House. I have to wonder what led to the warning... shootout at the Waffle House? The sheriff in Phoenix is more than a little... I'm not even sure what to say when you make male inmates at the county jail wear pink jumpsuits. Now this law that essentially requires law enforcement officers to stop people and check them for their citizenship documents if they suspect they may be here illegally. And we all know that the only folk who will be suspected will have brown skin. Lots of folk are rightly arguing that this is unconstitutional. More are rightly arguing that it is clearly immoral and sinful and counter to any understanding I have as to who we are as a culture. I'll not go over those arguments.

The sickness seems to be spreading as other states are discussing similar laws. The Republicans have already begun battling in California for their primary for the governorship and treatment of undocumented folk is high on the list of issues over which they're squaring off with each trying to prove that they are more draconian. Take it for granted that I think the plans they're floating are illegal, immoral, and sinful... they are also downright stupid for the health of California.

We depend upon undocumented workers in this state. Most of the vegetables, flowers, and wine grapes grown in the US are grown here and common wisdom says that many of the workers are undocumented. If you have ever watched the workers in a field of strawberries or peppers, you know how difficult it would be to get anybody else to do those jobs. Imagine if only 10% of the workers were undocumented and they were all removed tomorrow. Imagine every work day beginning with police officers gathered at the field, checking through every person's documents. Agriculture in California would grind to a halt. Produce would rot in the fields. Our already faltering economy would crash and food prices would skyrocket around the country. That doesn't begin to take into account the ripples in the service industry. These folk carry a significant portion of our economy on their backs. And then there is the impact this would have on law enforcement. Who is catching violent criminals when all of the officers are busy checking for birth certificates? And what happens when all undocumented folk refuse to cooperate with law enforcement for fear of being sent back to Mexico?

a few more random thoughts...

two media recommendations - TC Boyle's book The Tortilla Curtain and the film A Day without a Mexican. Check both out for a more accurate picture of what is going on.

I heard a pastor once say that rather than calling these men and women "illegal aliens," we should call them "good parents" as most are sending money back to Mexico to care for their families.

Many undocumented folk are in mixed families where some are citizens and some are not. Some children here without documents have never lived anywhere else and have all of their relationships and social networks here. Sending the undocumented family members back across a border destroys families and damages the entire fabric of communities.

And finally, we live in a world were goods and capital flow freely across borders but people cannot...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tax Day

I mailed off all of my tax forms today and like most folk, have mixed feelings at best. We do have a refund... but I also have to make quarterly payments so one hand receives a check while the other writes one. All of it has been more immediate this year with all of the talk going on regarding the federal deficit and the impact it will have on future taxes.

I've been hearing commentators over the last few days say that with the huge deficit and the new health care bill, we will need to raise taxes or cut entitlement programs or both. As a general rule, I believe we should pay as we go. Yes there are some things for which borrowing is a logical plan, but generally, we should pay for the benefits we receive. And if you can't afford a Mercedes, drive a Kia. But here's the problem... we're being told to drive a Kia while nobody is questioning whether or not we really need a 14,000 square foot house with a pool and a tennis court. Huh? Let move away from the metaphor. The largest area of expense in the Federal budget is military spending. Now, the government figures say military spending is 20%, but that does not include costs for past military, interest on the debt incurred by military expenditures, or military costs that fall under other budget categories. The War Resisters League places the percentage of military spending at 54% with 36% going to the current military. In either case or somewhere in between, military spending is a huge piece of the pie. It needs to be a part of the discussion.

A budget is a reflection of values. Where your heart is... there is your money. The US spends more on the military than the next 15 nations combined, accounting for 47 percent of the world’s total military spending. Of the next 15 countries, at least 12 are considered allies of the U.S. So what does this massive spending say about us? Do we need to maintain military bases all around the world? Does that even make us safer? Or are the better ways to spend our money?

I don't mind paying more taxes. I benefit from living in the country in ways I cannot begin to express. It is my responsibility to contribute both to current needs and to the future. Even though I am a pacifist, I won't even complain about a reasonable amount going to the military. I do mind 1/2 of my taxes going to empirism. So let's talk seriously about the budget, about deficits, about the need to both cut spending and to raise taxes, but lets keep military spending on the table and realize that without cutting those expenditures, other changes will be inadequate to solve the problem without causing incredible hardship to our population. Imagine how many seniors would live in poverty if we drastically cut social security. Imagine what would happen to health care for seniors if we did away with medicare. We already have school districts talking about cutting a day from the school week to cut costs... imagine.

One of the primary pieces contributing to the disintegration of the Soviet Union was unsustainable military spending. Infrastructure suffered. Social programs suffered. Education and health care suffered while they continued to spend on the military until everything collapsed.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

I Don't Want to Live in a Christian Nation

There is a lot of chatter these days among those on the far right that we live in a Christian nation... or that we used to live in a Christian nation until the Democrats began to push us away from our Christian moorings.

Well, that is at best revisionist history and at worst a complete misunderstanding of the genius that is the United States... but that is another post. Regardless of whether that interpretation is incorrect, I don't want to live in a "Christian" nation. If we were one (which again, is a misread of history), then good riddance. If we were not (now you've got it right), then let's keep it that way.

First, let me address the idea of separation of Church and State. It was not an idea that came from secularists. The deepest roots of those ideas came from the Baptists, the Quakers, and the Unitarians. Indeed, the phrase, "wall of separation" came from the founder of the first Baptist church on English soil, Thomas Helwys. While many religious groups had experienced persecution under the state churches in Europe, those three groups had in common a belief that at its core, the soul must be free. They believed that an individual's relationship to God is between them and God and no outside body, including the state, has the right to dictate what that relationship must look like. At the simplest level, they knew that any time there was a state church, somebody would be unable to seek God as their hearts led them and somebody would be persecuted for not towing the line. Groups like the Puritans, for example, had experienced persecution for their faith but rather than seeing the Americas as an opportunity for freedom, they saw it as a place where they could impose their faith on others and often the persecuted become the persecutors.

The basic problem of living in a "Christian" state is whose version of Christianity are we talking about? Are we Roman Catholic? Or fundamentalist evangelical? Or staunch Calvinist? Or liberal mainline protestant? The early Baptists knew what it meant to be on the wrong end of those questions. Then, what force of the state will be used to enforce that particular understanding of faith? Prison? Using zoning or tax regulations to destroy organizations? The list could go on.

And finally, what happens if one is not a Christian at all? Do we use the power of the state to convert? To "train" children, taking away the freedom and responsibility of their parents?

I don't want to live in a country where any particular version of Christianity is imposed, even my own. I want even less to live in a country where the official state religion is some watered down, civil version of Christianity that has no teeth at all. I also don't want to live in a Muslim country, a Jewish nation, or a place with any other official religion you can name. Instead, I want to live in a place where the government has no say in matters of faith at all, where the government neither supports nor undermines religion. I want to live in a place where I am free to practice my faith or lack thereof as my conscience dictates and where you can do the same. It is only there that truth faith can flourish.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The whores of war

The Republican Party has worked for some time to privatize as many functions of government as possible. The one area I would have expected to be immune from this tampering was the military. Going back to Bush I, Cheney and Rumsfeld have been working to outsource tasks that have traditionally belonged to the military to private firms. In Iraq and Afghanistan, this trend has become frightening. Euphemistically called, "contractors," these folk are not carrying hammers and rulers but instead M4's and automatic weapons. They are guarding diplomats, facilities, and escorting convoys of supplies through war zones. There have even been instances where these mercenaries have commanded US military forces. To make it worse, at least in Iraq, they are not subject to military rules of engagement nor are they subject to civilian law... Yes, you read that correctly, they are essentially above any law while being in incredibly stressful situations and highly armed. Currently there are over 22,000 of them operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were even deployed under similar rules in New Orleans after Katrina.

Many of these mercenaries are former US special forces people but others, employed by the US government, were former members of Pinochet's henchmen, apartheid soldiers in South Africa, and the worst of the worst from other war torn places.

This industry has quickly grown to being worth billions of dollars.

Here are some of the pieces that really worry me...

They make war easier. As a nation we think twice about committing our sons and daughters in uniform to war. Mercenaries don't elicit the same concern. And the costs of war are not quite so clear. All of this makes it easier to go to war without the input and approval of the population or even our elected representatives.

We are encouraging private companies to build large, highly trained armies that are not accountable to anyone except the folk running those companies and their bottom lines. We are making our national security dependent upon companies over whom we have no control and who have no accountability to the government or the people of the United States.

What happens if their commercial interests or political ideologies differ from the nation as a whole? Or what if a bunch of crazy billionaires say, "Here is more money than you've ever imagined, let's overthrow the government and turn it into the utopia we envision." At the same time, because these mercenaries are paid so well, they are siphoning off many qualified people from our military and from the militaries of our allies.

As an industry, they benefit from conflict and suffer if there is none so they have significant impetus to be sure that conflict continues and to insure that the primary response to a political conflict is violence. Because it is such a huge industry, they have the ears of many in Washington, on Wall Street, and in other places f influence around the world.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky in the House (H.R. 4650) and Bernie Sanders in the Senate (S. 3023), have introduced bills that would prohibit hiring private mercenaries to perform tasks traditionally done by the military. This is essential to our national security. This is essential to our future. Contact your congress people and encourage them to support these bills.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter - Stations of the Cross


When I am in the darkest night, remind me of the coming dawn. Creator, the one who made everything, remind me that you have transformative power. In your compassionate arms, evil is made good, ugly made beautiful, weak made strong, dead made to live. Allow me to receive your compassion so that I may transform lives around me.

Hear my earnest prayer O God.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Blogging through The Orthodox Heretic day 40

Today's parable is a fun one... The Debate tells the story of a young man, unsuccessfully trying to convince a rabbi to take him on as a student. One of my favorite pieces about the Jewish tradition is the requirement for debate and disagreement even to the point that God cannot stop the discussion. There is another story of two rabbis who argued the point of one scripture for years. Finally God became tired of their arguing and stepped in, "Let me tell you what this means..." The rabbis replied, "Who are you to tell us what this scripture means?"

I think there is a similar thread in my tradition - Baptist - although most people wouldn't know it. The idea of soul freedom requires that we wrestle with meaning and struggle with scripture even to the point of arguing with God... It means that we must always hold our answers lightly and be willing to see things from a different perspective. When I was in seminary, one of my professors said to us, "I don't care where you come out on these questions... but you'd better be able to tell me how and why you got there."

So here we are... at the end of Lent. We got here wrestling with some wonderful little parables. I hope you enjoyed this little journey with me. Perhaps next year I'll find a similar discipline to work through those 40 days.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Blogging through The Orthodox Heretic day 39

Better to sleep is a very short story that deals with judging others. A father and child join with a group of others keeping vigil through the night. One by one they all fall asleep except the father and son. The son turns to the father and comments that the others had failed in their obligation to which the father replies, “Beloved son, I would prefer that you slept like them rather than slandering them.”

It is so easy to judge the actions or lack of actions of others, especially those who claim to be people of faith. What does it look like for us to share and care and support even those with whom we have significant disagreements?

Blogging through The Orthodox Heretic day 38

Somehow I got behind a day...

So here we are... New Life tells of a mother whose infant dies a few months after birth. As she travels, seeking a miracle, she is told to gather mustard seeds from others who have never experienced loss. She travels and hears the stories of others and is then able to face her own pain.

There certainly is something to be said for sharing the human condition. It does not remove our pain, but it does put it in perspective.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Blogging through The Orthodox Heretic day 37

The difference between love and lust is often a subtle one. Lust... wants. Love... gives. That is the theme in today's story - The Besotted King. The king has fallen in love with one of his slaves and, against all propriety, frees her and moves her int the castle, planning to marry her. But the woman becomes ill and nobody can heal her. Finally a holy man is called who says he can heal her but it will be extremely painful. The king agrees to whatever must be done if the woman agrees. To that the holy man responds, "You misunderstand your majesty. The pain will not be hers. It will be yours as she loves another. Give them your blessing to marry and she will recover"

We don't know what the kind did. If he truly loved her, he gave the blessing. If he was only our to possess her, he likely had the man she loved killed and watched her melt away in grief.

Do we love? Or just lust? Likely a mixture of both.