Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Sports on Christmas


As the Christmas holidays are approaching (‘holidays’ because they are ‘holy days.’  You should never be upset if someone says “Happy Holidays,” because at least they are recognizing the holiness of these days, and holy not only to Christians but also to Jews and maybe other religions, too, I don’t know), I am forced to reflect on how Christmas Eve is on a Sunday.  For pastors, that fact makes Christmas Eve a hard day for their families, because a Christmas Eve Sunday means worship services all day long and a ton of preparation.  I, for one, won’t be able to spend any time with my family from 8 in the morning until about 8 at night on Christmas Eve.  Yes, that is a plea for your pity.  The more I have reflected on the pressure of having Christmas Eve on a Sunday, I realized that the real problem is not with multiple worship services or that I have to work, but the approach that our society takes to holidays on Sunday.  Essentially our approach is, “Who cares if a holiday is on a Sunday?”

With many declining churches across the country, but especially here where I serve in Vermont, pastors often hear a common refrain, that schools need to stop allowing sports games or practices on Sundays.  Back in the day, people say, we didn’t have a problem with church attendance or youth attendance at church because there weren’t competing forces.  Then the schools started having sports functions on Sunday and all hell broke loose.  That’s what people in church say.

Recently, however, I discovered that the common refrain we sing to ourselves is short-sighted and, probably, entirely wrong.  Both of my churches held Church History Nights in the past couple of months and, at one of them, old pastor’s reports were out and available to read.  In the pastor’s report for 1930, the pastor at the time described church school (Sunday School) attendance to be unacceptable—the number had dropped below thirty on occasional Sundays.  Thirty kids!  Many churches in Vermont would bend over backwards to have thirty kids in Sunday School.  But to this pastor, thirty on any given Sunday was unacceptable.  Clearly, the trend of losing kids had started long before twenty or so years ago, days that we look back on with such gilded reminiscence because we had ten to fifteen kids.  The trend is bigger and more far-reaching than sports on Sunday in the last twenty years or so.

Indeed, extending our perceptions to see the trend of declining adult and youth attendance beyond the past twenty years will show us that school sports on Sunday is not the problem but a symptom.  Schools started to have sports on Sundays because they could, because parents and families had already lost interest in keeping Sunday as a holy day dedicated to God.  For some families, this is because one or more of the parents work on Saturdays and Sunday becomes the only time in which a family can ‘have to themselves,’ and parents no longer see church as life-giving to the family.  And there we have the crux of the problem that I want to flesh out here: what is life-giving?

Church and worship are no longer seen as life-giving, and are instead viewed as obligations, as time that a family is not actually spending together, as time forced upon us that could be spent relaxing.  Rest days are no longer seen as Sabbath, and Sabbath is no longer seen as rest and renewing, not only for individuals but for the whole family.  Church and worship, as Sabbath, are no longer family activities, despite being the ultimate family activity.  Why is this the case?  Because our answer to, “What is life-giving?” has morphed from being Other-centered, specifically as being God-centered or holy-centered, to Me-centered.  Look no further than sports on holidays—not school sports on holidays, but professional and college sports on holidays.

Last year, I was kind of shocked to see that the NFL held their Sunday games on Christmas, which was a Sunday last year, as normal.  Nothing was different.  The NBA in the last few years has increased their Christmas day slate of games, one of many reasons why I do not like the NBA.  Even the NCAA has asked college students, students who are not being reimbursed in any way for their sacrifice, to play on Christmas Eve and Day.  Our response to this trend may be, “Okay, other than the college kids, so what?  Professional athletes are paid a ton of money so it’s not really much of a sacrifice.”  Maybe, but what about the people working at the ticket booths?  At the concession stands?  In the parking lot?  At the TV studios?  The security guards?  We don’t even give them a thought.  We don’t give those minimum wage workers a thought because, hey, it’s a holiday, it’s our holiday, it’s our day to spend with the family in a special way, these games should be there for us.  The workers who make our means of relaxation and celebration possible become invisible, it matters little that they are not able to spend the holidays with their families in the way they’d like, because, hey, isn’t it awesome that we get to watch sports on a holiday?

I completely understand if sports are some families’ means of bonding and relaxing, of resting and celebrating, but a problem arises when we feel entitled to a day centered around us, when we feel entitled to a vacation and holiday good for us and so what if it’s not good for others.  Perhaps sports, school or professional, on Sundays aren’t a problem, but on holidays they absolutely are a problem.  And, again, sports on holidays aren’t a problem simply because of scheduling; they are a problem on holidays because it means thousands and thousands of people are forced, by those of us who are Me-centered, to tear themselves away from their families and work.  When we take a Me-centered approach to holidays, or any designated Sabbath (Sunday, as a Sabbath, is meant to be a mini-Easter, so it is a holiday), we indirectly or directly ruin that day for countless others.

This is why a God-centered answer to “what is life-giving” matters.  A God-centered approach takes the lives, the hopes and dreams, of other people and other families into consideration.  If we are renewed, as individuals and as families, by centering on God and what is holy, then we can still have our rest, our bonding time, and whatever else, while also not doing harm to the lives of others.  My wife and I try very hard not to do any shopping or eating-out on Sundays for this reason.  When it comes to the holidays, though, John Wesley’s first general rule of, “Do no harm,” comes into clear focus: we should not only care about what we want, what is good for us, what will be relaxing for us.  Me-me-me hurts a lot of others.

Yet unfortunately, the Me-centered approach to rest, Sabbath, and holidays has entrenched itself in our culture, beginning at least in 1930.  It’s not your fault, it’s not the fault of the schools, of the NCAA, or even of the owners of professional sports teams.  While we may say that professional sport team owners are greedy, we are the ones who let them be greedy.  We turn on the TV, we go to the games, we buy the jerseys.  We buy in.  If anyone is at fault, it is the royal we.  We have given permission to anyone and everyone to concoct a fantasy rest day, a fantasy holiday, and then convince us that it is what we want, and there we will be.  We have done this because we think that holidays should be about us. 

Ultimately, though, nothing is about us, individually.  A healthy perspective on life realizes that.  If you are a religious person, life should be about God, about the holy.  If you are not a religious person, life should be about the communal good and welfare.  Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the forefathers of existentialism, a philosophy that is all about the I, was rather emphatic in arguing that rather than existentialism being a Me-centered life approach, existentialism is actually a humanism: the only appropriate way to focus on our own I, according to Sartre, is to simultaneously acknowledge the countless other Is around us, and we can therefore not seek the good of our I by harming other Is.  Religious or not, it does you good to move away from a Me-centered approach to an Other-centered life approach, or a holy-centered life approach. 

As we approach the holidays, then, I encourage you to reflect and pray about what the holidays (holy days) mean to you, the special holidays and the mini-holidays.  How are you celebrating?  Are you concerned that the celebration be joyous to you?  Or meaningful in a holy, communally uplifting way?  Do you want to rest and celebrate in the way that seems right and good to you?  Or are you willing to focus on the holy and find the infinite rest that is God?  Do you, intentionally or unintentionally, directly or indirectly, want others to sacrifice so that you can have a good holiday?  Or are you willing to find rest in God and let others also have a day of rest?

Whatever your answers may be, I pray that Christmas Day and the Christmas season (yes, there are twelve days of Christmas) not only be peaceful and joyous, but are a time of God’s inbreaking into your heart, whether you called Him or not, so that you can see who Christ truly is, what he truly means, and how you might find your calm in him.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

500 Years After the Reformation



Today is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting his in/famous 95 theses on the doors of the Wittenberg church in 1517.  Usually, the word ‘anniversary’ carries positive connotations: wedding anniversaries, birthdays count as anniversaries, Bruins’ Stanley Cup victory anniversaries, etc.  Sometimes, however, an anniversary is not so positive, like when we remember the passing of a loved one or the raid on Pearl Harbor.  ‘Anniversary,’ after all, simply means an annual memorial, like a commemoration—co-remembering.  Depending on your perspective, the reforming of the Church that Luther intended and hoped for (and other visionaries before him, by the way), which turned into the Reformation and then Protestantism (a word that is probably in need of updating, since we are no longer actively protesting against Rome), beginning on October 31st, 1517, may either be a positive or negative anniversary.

On the positive side, the Church did reform in needed ways, even the Roman Catholic Church.  Years after the Lutheran Church and Calvin’s Church became entrenched in the West, there was the Council of Trent; and many years after that, as many of us may remember, came the Vatican Councils, most recently and importantly what we now call ‘Vatican II.’  Though the Roman Catholic Church at first dug their heels in opposite Luther, the Church eventually and over time did see that reforms were necessary.  Indulgences, for instance, were not only unbiblical but also corrupting; priests’ withholding reading and knowledge of Scripture and, in many ways, personal access to salvation were also unbiblical and corrupting practices.  As a reformer, Luther did and has had a good influence on the Church in the West, as Protestants and Catholics alike try to return to the Word of God as expressed in the Bible and further salvation for all God’s people.

Some would argue that Luther also freed millions from the tyranny of a spiritual hierarchy.  In the United States, or France, or any country that has had strong democratic movements grounded in absolute freedom may hold this argument more fervently.  Indeed, throughout American history, the Pope has been viewed with suspicion as a meddling foreign influence on our country.  The colony of Maryland, now the state, was founded by Lord Baltimore expressly as a safe haven for Catholics (in honor of his wife, Mary), and even then the Catholic colonists of Maryland were outnumbered and often at risk of persecution.  Whatever our stance may be on the Pope and the hierarchy of Rome’s Church, the supposed benefits of Protestant church structure are, I think, subjective.  I myself am a Protestant and am in agreement with the UMC’s essentially democratic structure with a Council of Bishops, but I can also see and understand the advantages of a more defined hierarchy as in Roman Catholicism.  Freedom from the Pope, then, is a neutral matter of opinion.

Unfortunately, while there are positive and neutral parts of the story, there is also a sad part of the story of the Reformation.  Perhaps the saddest part is the nature of the Church: it is slow.  In recent days I have heard the Church referred to as a giant tortoise and as an Ent, like in Tolkien’s Middle Earth (you know, those talking trees that think and talk slowly).  Both are appropriate metaphors, although slightly incorrect.  An angry tortoise or stubborn Ent may be better.  The story of the Reformation is the story of the Church saying, “No, we’ll shut our ears, because this is what we believe and practice… and now we’re going to believe and practice these ways EVEN HARDER!!”  Though the Church did reform, on both sides of the Protestant divide, at first Rome chose to dig in their heels, as I’ve said; indeed, look at any denomination that has split and you’ll likely see that the original denomination took a stubborn stance for an elongated period of time as a response to proposed reforms. 

If the Church is not in need of reformation, then stubbornness in the face of proposed reforms is not a bad position to take.  The Church is God’s Temple here on earth and we should listen to God for insight, not society or culture.  Yet the nature of the Church is inherently, and unfortunately, linked to the nature of humanity.  Our human instinct is to reshape the Church in our image, or at least an image that is beneficial to us, maybe easier for us, maybe an image that grants us more power and wealth.  When that happens, reforms are required, as in Luther’s day, and stubbornness does no one any good.  A combination of human nature and stubbornness, also human nature, resulted in division when Luther tried reforming the Church, and nearly always has resulted in division when later reforms are attempted in any denomination.  Methodism, my tradition, began as its own denomination unintentionally as well, because the Church of England was slow to respond to John Wesley’s movement.  It is that history of division and enmity that most plagues commemoration of the Reformation.

You could say that the ugly history of division and enmity between the various churches, denominations, amongst God’s Body of Christ, is more felt and apparent now.  We live in divisive times.  Just this week our country’s news has reported on Spain and Catalonia, disputed elections in Kenya, and a spat between our President and Congressional members of his own party.  That spat reminds us of the greater political division present in our country.  Indeed, the division in our country is often not merely division but also hate and mockery.  Members of my own family have insulted others in my family as ‘morons’ simply because of political beliefs, simply because some are worried about the clear rise of white supremacy and nationalism, and anti-semitism and racism.  These are challenging times when we all long for unity, we pray for it, we talk about it, but then our actions separate us even more.  Calling for and talking about unity does not create unity. 

As I write I am ever aware of the difficulty working towards unity presents, because of the national political dialogue, yes, but also because of developments in my church, the United Methodist Church.  Right now a special commission, the Way Forward Commission, is working on a solution to the questions and issues surrounding homosexuality in the church, whether “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian doctrine” or not and whether persons who are homosexual should be ordained or married, to bring before a special General Conference in 2019.  If that special General Conference does not end ‘the right way,’ many in the church on both sides are subtly or explicitly threatening to break away, to create a schism in the church, a new denomination.  All this despite the fact that many in the church are calling for unity, particularly the bishops.  Yet those who feel like their side will not ‘win’ also hear the call for unity as a call to suppress and oppress dissenting beliefs and practices; they hear the call for unity as a disingenuous plea to not reform, to keep the status quo.  Some may say that’s ridiculous, that we need to believe those who are calling for and praying for unity at face value, that they really do care for unity.  Regardless, we should see in the UMC how complicated creating unity and being unified is. 

One of the unintended consequences of the Reformation is that splitting a church has become a part of Church life.  If the UMC does split, it actually won’t be all that newsworthy in comparison to recent church history.  There are now over ten thousand Protestant denominations, in case you weren’t counting.  It seems that any time anyone is not perfectly happy with a church, he or she ups and starts another church, adding yet more division and disunity to God’s family and society generally.

Having established the downsides of the Reformation, particularly in our current climate, what can we learn from even the negative history to help us move forward as God’s people?  First, I do want to repeat that there are good aspects of the Reformation.  Catholics and Protestants alike are more aware and focused on God’s grace, rather than the power of the Church, in working miracles and salvation, among many other things.  With that said, there are at least three lessons as I see it: in the form of questions, 1) Are the issues of discord ever worth the passion invested? 2) What do continued divisions say about us?  3)  What is it that we as a Church stand for?

1) If you listen to or read NPR, you might have heard or read a piece on the Reformation five hundred years on.  The piece included a good deal of history as well as an update: Lutherans and Catholics now agree on almost everything, except church structure.  Catholic leaders now thank Luther for initiating much needed reforms.  It seems Pope Francis is going out of his way to acknowledge Protestant leaders, actually, because he also recently thanked and recognized John Wesley for the Methodist movement.  If Lutherans had not spent five hundred years apart from Rome, it is possible that the two churches could now merge together, because many can look back and ask, “Was that worth it, if the difference between us is now minimal?”  If God had been the centerpiece rather than human nature, and passions were not quite so high at the time, then perhaps Lutherans and Roman Catholics would indeed now be one family. 

The Methodists themselves have experienced splintering a number of times.  The major split occurred over slavery.  Though the Methodist Episcopal Church first held a firm anti-slavery stance, in the mold of John Wesley, over time some came to believe that owning slaves was not a great sin; others believed that the church should become politically engaged to fight for abolition; others believed that the church should not own slaves but needn’t go extreme.  Methodism split more than once on this one issue.  Then, after the Civil War, they all came back together, essentially saying, “You know what, this isn’t worth our separation any more.”  After a time, Methodists looked back and questioned the split.

I am, of course, significantly downplaying frustration and disagreement within the Church.  But my point is, will we in the UMC, if we split in 2019 or not, look back in years to come on the division now within our church and say, “Well, that was silly”?  Will we question why we fought over homosexuality, or anything else?  And will we in our country look back on this time and question why we so fervently fought over the rights of immigrants, the rights and health of the poor, of blacks or Hispanics, of women?  Will we look back and question why we didn’t turn to God, turn to God’s Word as written in the Bible, turn to God’s overwhelming message of love and compassion, and live accordingly?

My concern (and thanks to Rev. Greg Smith for putting words to my thoughts) is that we will split, we will continue to live out bigotry without acknowledging it as such and fuel tension and discord, and realize too late our mistake.  Lutherans and Catholics will not merge any time soon because they have spent so much time apart.  Methodists were able to merge because the split lasted less than a century.  Is our disunifying passion worth the risk of formally and forever solidifying division?  Or should we take a more loving, compassionate, upbuilding and sanctifying all people approach? 

At the end of the day, friends, the history of the Reformation, and the various Christian versus Christian wars—let alone the Christian crusades against Jews, Muslims, and atheists—arising from the Reformation, should tell us that fighting one another is not worth it.  Anything that contributes to division and not loving God and loving neighbor should be removed, or at least take secondary or tertiary position in our personal and corporate faith lives.  If indulgences are at issue, let’s review whether the indulgences are biblical; if the corruption of the priesthood is at issue, let’s evaluate and review the role of the priesthood; if slavery is at issue, then perhaps we should remove slavery; if homosexuality is at issue, then perhaps we should remove our stance on homosexuality altogether, or at least not make it a matter of church discipline; if the rights and health of the poor are at issue, then we should turn to the biblical prophets and ask how we might better serve the poor so that they are no longer; if immigration is at issue, then perhaps we can turn to the Bible and see that we should care for the alien, and review how we might better serve those who are fleeing impoverished and dangerous conditions rather than just selfishly kicking them out, and so on.  God, God’s love and God’s Word, and loving neighbor must always be our focus.  Let’s be passionate about that rather than ruled by human nature to serve self, even if we disguise self-service as merely opinion, over non-essential matters.  John Wesley urged the Methodist movement to hold firm only to essential matters of salvation and God’s grace, and let non-essential matters be secondary or tertiary.  Why can’t we?  Nothing that inhibits others from loving God, life, and neighbor should be practiced.

2)  Looking back on the splits and mergers within the original Methodist Episcopal Church, there are some denominations that split that have yet to merge back with what we might call the ‘mother denomination,’ the United Methodist Church.  I do not argue that those other denominations are sowing discord by not merging back.  Rather, I argue that perhaps taking stock of the Methodist denominations remaining separate might tell us something about who we are as a people, within the church and in society generally.

The major Methodist denominations still separate from the UMC are, as you might know, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and African Methodist Episcopal-Zion (AMEZ).  I’ve already written enough in this post to discourage you from reading the whole piece, so I’ll keep the history recap of these churches short.  If you remember well the history of African-Americans in our country, you can probably guess the history of the AMEZ. 

Both churches, though, beginning with the AME in the early 19th century, have their origins in the racism of this country.  Some church buildings to this day retain architecture of a checkered past.  The two churches that I currently serve both have two staircases, and one of them has a bar down the middle pews, the other used to have two entrances as well as two staircases.  These features were meant to keep men and women separate.  My churches are in northern Vermont, where there has never been much of a population of African-Americans.  Yet in places throughout our country where there has been an African-American population, if your church building was built prior to the Civil War or during the days of Jim Crow and your building has a balcony, you may want to research whether that balcony was built for black persons.  In what was then the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), black persons were more and more only allowed to sit in the balcony as the 19th century rolled along.  After awhile, black preachers were being kicked out of MEC pulpits.  This racism—and, remember, this isn’t even including the splits over slavery as an institution, this is about racism, pure and simple—led to African-Americans starting denominations in which they could worship and serve God in peace.  Of course, AME and AMEZ churches were attacked and persecuted, but at least those churches accepted the people who came to preach and worship and serve our God of grace, mercy, love and compassion.  I think this is all you need to know about the history of these churches to get the picture.

Here's the thing: what does it say about us, Methodists and Americans generally, that the AME and AMEZ churches still exist?  If time plays a role in whether churches are able to reunify, as I am suggesting and seems obviously to be the case since time contributes to the development of new practices and traditions, then how long becomes too long?  If the Methodist churches that split over slavery, an institution, could reunify within a century, why couldn’t the Methodist churches that split over racism also reunify?  Or was racism too inherent in our country, in our systems, even our religions?  Is racism too entrenched in our country, in our systems, even our religions two hundred years later, to reunify?  Or would we rather blame it on time, two hundred years later, and not confront issues that are actually pivotal, as opposed to non-essential, about who we are as individual persons and as a corporate people?  Lutherans and Calvinists (Presbyterians), at least, have five hundred years of history buffering them from reunification.  We don’t have that much tradition as an excuse.

Will we ever be able to acknowledge the racism that still lives in us—yes, you and me—and our institutions and churches?  If we are unable to acknowledge that racism, will we ever be able to conquer racism and unify as a people, whether as a small community, a church, or a country?  I believe in God’s almighty power to transform us through His grace, to make us real disciples of the Christ, but honestly, with so many people unwilling to look inward and to face who they are deep down, choosing instead to declare, “I’m not racist, I’m not sexist, but…”, I have little hope.  God can only renew us in Christ if we rely on Him rather than ourselves.  Right now we are doing a whole lot of relying on what we think is right, on what is right for us, based on only our own experience, and we are not listening either to God or to our brothers and sisters.  That needs to change if hope is to be restored, if the history of the Reformation can redeem itself from ugly to beautiful—from kicking out to accepting and loving those who are different.

3)  The question, “What is it that we as a Church stand for?” is a uniquely Reformation-esque question.  I imagine that before the Reformation church leaders and believers simply said, “Here’s the Church, its doctrine, and that’s that.”  Defining what a church stands for is usually motivated by delineating it from other churches.  So there was no reason to ask or answer the question when there was one Church.

Now, it must be said that for a millennium there has been a break between East and West, Roman and Orthodox.  The rift between the Christian East and West had been brewing theologically for hundreds of years.  Rome and Constantinople did divide over theological matters eventually, not over a reform issue that would rock the Church as with Luther.  Still, it is somewhat West-centric to highlight the Reformation as when the Church split rather than five hundred years before.

With that said, I push back against this notion that a church needs to stand for anything.  Every church should stand for, if we want to use that language, what the Church should stand for: God’s grace and love, and living a life in which loving God and neighbor through Christ is paramount.  We shouldn’t be asking or answering the question of what we stand for because, again, that question is intrinsically divisive, pitting my church against yours, or what I believe against what a church believes to determine whether or not I can join the church.

You may wonder who is asking, “What does your church stand for?”  The answer to that is, a lot of people.  A few weeks ago someone asked me that question in response to a Front Porch Forum post about one of my church’s summer projects.  More recently that, while I was making myself available at what I call Pastor’s Listening Place for prayer and conversation with folk who do not have a church family, someone asked me what my church believes and stands for.  I knew what both these individuals were looking for: here are our positions on God, the Trinity, homosexuality, marriage, the Bible, etc.  And for both of them I avoided the question altogether, which of course disappointed them.  What I did reply to both of them was, essentially, paraphrasing from memory, “Ultimately, Methodism is a movement concerned with holy living in God’s grace, of living in such a way that God’s means of grace are utilized to the utmost as we strive to be perfected in God’s love and live like Christ.  It is not a church concerned with enforcing right belief, or standing for anything, unless what we stand for and what we are believing in is God’s loving and merciful bent towards salvation, justice and peace.” 

Because of the Reformation, unfortunately, such answers, while I think true to Methodism at least, always seem like copouts.  The response is almost always, “Well, okay, but I want to know where you stand on this and that.”  A few years ago, a local radio station refused to bring me on to briefly talk about a book I wrote merely because I am Methodist and the UMC does not share a stance on certain issues with the radio station.  No matter what the book was about or how it might help people live better lives or help end human trafficking.  The funniest part is that the UMC does, if you were it ask the denomination, share the same ideas as the radio station around the issues the station was concerned; the UMC just doesn’t care (or shouldn’t care) to stake its life on every single question of theology and practice.  But this is life post-Reformation: “What does your church stand for?  And, by the way, when you answer, make sure you answer in agreement with what I stand for, or else I’m walking away.” 

Ridiculous.  Here’s a unifying thought for you: persons of all churches everywhere should make evident what it is they stand for in how they live.  Ironically, this is an idea straight from the Reformation and on down to Wesley and the people called Methodist, yet it is an idea eschewed because of the defensive isolationism propagated by the Reformation. 

What I mean is that we should make evident in our lives, by our compassion, that we stand for a Savior who associated with the outcasts, aliens, and sinners; make evident in our lives, by our humility rather than assertiveness and self-righteousness, that we stand for a Savior who died on the cross; make evident in our lives, by our dedication to holiness despite what culture or friends or family may demand or expect of us, that we stand for a God who is powerful enough to make us new; make evident in our lives, by our service to all our brothers and sisters, that we stand for a God who has always heard the cry of the needy, oppressed, alien, and downtrodden; make evident in our lives, by our attention to prayer and worship, that we stand for a God that does not care about political boundaries but longs for His Kingdom made real.  There are seven billion people on this planet, which means there are seven billion people in need of God’s love and transformative grace, so why the hell do we care what a particular church stands for?  And why the hell does each church fight within itself about what it stands for?  Don’t we all stand for the same thing?  To reclaim and paraphrase a Revolutionary War slogan from my home state, we are doing far too much treading on others, as a Church and as a country.

My hope and prayer for you, and for all of us, as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, is that we rededicate our lives to God and God alone, put our trust and loyalty in God and God alone, to know in God what is essential and what is secondary, and seek God’s perfecting grace in our lives by living holy lives, and drop the weight of all else, so that we can transform the history and legacy of the Reformation from division to unity.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Vocation

Mitch Hedberg had a funny joke that I like to retell often because it's easy to remember: "I'm sick of following my dreams.  I'm just going to ask where they're going, and hook up with 'em later."  It's funny for a couple of reasons: it's clever in a silly way, and many of us can relate.

Following our dreams sounds like a perfect plan when we are children and the realities of adult living haven't hit us yet.  Too often, dreams are smashed into smitherines with no hope of repair.  We get tired of following our dreams because at some point they become impossible (at age thirty, probably not going to become an astronaut with an English degree) or miserably implausible and depressing if we try holding on to them.  This isn't to say, of course, that accomplishing one's dreams is always impossible.  There are plenty of people who work hard with singular focus toward a life goal and wake up one day with a heart full of success.  That reality happens, too.  The fact that the latter reality happens less often means, though, that ultimately there's a fine line between promising our children the fulfillment of their dreams if they work hard enough and teaching them from the beginning that life stinks.  A lot has to do with privilege, too, whether we like it or not--whether we're talking race, class, or sex privilege: a wealthy white boy will be, on average, far more likely to follow his dreams and also hook up with 'em later.

What we do with the fine line is a tough question for parents.  We want our kids to dream big and become something great and be happy.  We'd rather not teach them about the weighty obligations and unfairness of life at age eight or ten.  My wife watches a lot of Gilmore Girls.  Near the end of the original airing of the show, the secondary main character of the show, Rory, a young woman who has had so much promise throughout the running of the show, has a choice to make: take a solid, respected journalism position out of college or postpone her working career to seek a prestigious fellowship that could land her an even better position, the position of her dreams, in the future.  Her mother, Lorelai, actually encourages Rory to take the job because Lorelai has had to fight for what she wants her whole life and understands life's practical side; Rory's boyfriend, Logan (a rich, white male by the way), encourages Rory to go after her dreams.  Rory listens to her boyfriend, seeks the fellowship, doesn't get it, her previous potential employer has long moved on, and after seven seasons of hope and promise that Rory would rise through all the struggles her mother endured for her and stand atop the world, everything collapses.  Indeed, when the new, eighth season ran on Netflix, Rory was still floundering ten years later--not sure what to do with her life while still dating Logan despite his living in a different country engaged to another woman.  "What happened to the Rory with promise and a moral center?" is just about the only question that ran through my head watching part of the eighth season with my wife.  The answer, I think, lies back with her decision to chase her dreams rather than make a practical decision.

Again, not everyone's life turns out that way when following and chasing one's dreams.  Enough do, though, to wonder how we are supposed to navigate life or advise those who are starting out.  I'm going to be a lot like Rory here and admit that, after three paragraphs of build-up, I don't have an answer.  In fact, I'm barely even going to address the question.  Take that, suckas!  But seriously, I do want to point out that there's a spiritual dimension to the question of whether we should follow our dreams or not--a question that we could rephrase more generally, "What in the world am I supposed to do with my life?"  Usually we answer that question with two alternatives: earning as much money as I can right now, or some version of pragmatism, on the one hand; or working towards happiness or life success, or some version of idealism, on the other hand.  What I want to suggest is that there's a third alternative that, maybe, may be a middle way between the other two: vocation.

Vocation is a spiritual, religious concept prominent in many traditions of Christianity and other faiths, like Hinduism, that basically boils down to what God has made you for or calls you to do.  I prefer the latter, what God calls us to, because I am heavy on free-will and spiritual liberty.  As such, I believe that it's entirely possible that God 'makes us' with a purpose in mind but then we take a life path that swerves us well off course and then God has to adjust and call us to some other purpose.  Perhaps God has to adjust multiple times until we hear the call and move in that direction.  Either way, part of the concept of vocation is that God enables and empowers us to fulfill our purpose or our call.  In other words, God gives us the spiritual gifts to do what we are called to.

My own life is a good example of the power of the concept and why I think it's important we reclaim the importance of vocation in our "Navigate Life Tool Bag."  When I first went off to college I thought for sure that I would be a math teacher.  I was and am good at math and I like teaching.  I had even done some teaching interns at high school with that plan in mind.  My thinking basically was, "What am I best at?  Math.  What can I do in life with math?  Teach."  I didn't know of any other mathematical career choices other than teaching, but more importantly I didn't know of any other questions to ask.  It's critical to note that I didn't know of other questions to ask because when I got to college, within a year I realized that no matter how good at math I may be, I hated it.  Recently as a private tutor I've regained some appreciation for mathematics but at that point I knew I did not want to spend the rest of my life working with math.  So I finally asked another question, "What do I enjoy?"  To my parents' chagrin, the answer was reading.  I loved reading and I had grown to love writing, too.  When I told my parents I was switching majors their reaction gave voice to my own fears, "What are you ever going to do with an English degree?  Teach?  You know how many English teachers are out of a job because of a shortage in demand?"  I had no idea what I would do but I had started to follow my dreams by asking what my dreams were, what I'd like to do with my life, what I would enjoy and make me happy in life.

A couple of years later I found myself asking another question.  Now, I know some people don't believe in this type of thing, but I truly believe that I heard God's speaking to me at a church worship one Sunday that I should be a pastor.  Regardless of whether or not you believe in that sort of thing, hear me out: I believed in what happened, but I didn't believe it could be really and honestly true.  Why?  Because I hated and was no good at public speaking, I was incredibly shy and introverted (and yes, please understand shyness and introversion are two different things.  You can be an outgoing introvert), and I have a terrifying reaction to being around needles and other hospital situations in which I faint and seizure for minutes.  All of that were serious roadblocks to becoming a pastor because, obviously, a pastor needs to preach, needs to meet and engage a whole community of people, in and around the church, and needs to visit people in hospitals.  How in the living hell could I become a pastor?  So I started asking a third set of questions, the questions of vocation, namely, "What does God want me to do?  What am I spiritually gifted for?" but the answers were not pleasant.

But then amazing things started happening to and with me.  The more I started asking the questions of vocation and wondering why I should bother because the answer to the first question, "What does God want me to do?" conflicted with the answer to the second question, "What am I spiritually gifted for?", the more God showed some almighty power.  And, I suppose somewhat ironically, it happened because of a political science class.

That political science class had a student with social anxiety and perhaps other forms of mental illness.  Other students mocked him.  I, in seeing how he was mocked, decided I needed to learn how to overcome my own shyness and talk to him, show him some support and care.  So I did, and all of a sudden, and I mean all of a sudden--well, okay, after a few months--I was no longer shy.  Still an introvert, wanting to spend most of my time alone, but no longer shy.  By the time I got to seminary, for instance, I was comfortable asking girls out left and right.  It wasn't exactly healthy, but I wasn't shy.  And then, not long after I started mustering the courage to speak to that one student and be a friend, the fear of public speaking dissipated, too.  The professor of the class required that each student give a five-minute presentation on some assigned article.  I had completed my requirement early in the semester to get it over and done with.  I hated it and got a bad grade.  But sometime after the start of my invasion of the lands of shyness, and our professor informed us that the class was small enough that some students would have to sign up twice, and if a student volunteered he or she would get extra credit, I suddenly, and I mean suddenly (this time I really mean it), felt entirely comfortable doing public speaking.  I don't know why.  Perhaps my professor's genuine interest in his students played a part (shout out to Dr. William Grover), but I think God's Spirit had more to do with it.  I volunteered for two more articles and I enjoyed every moment of those two additional presentations.  It was as if God said to me, "If you even consider going down the path I have in mind for you, I'll make sure you have the gifts for it."  I'm not the greatest pastor on earth, but I am a pastor who has overcome my general shyness and loves preaching.

What about visiting people at the hospital, you ask?  Well, God did something else amazing that didn't seem so amazing at the time.  God gave me a slow-moving anxiety attack that led to a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder.  Fun, right?  Seven years later I have finally realized that, actually, that time was special and blessed and, and the realization led to my feeling the need to write this article/post.  You see, that diagnosis brought me to a psychiatrist who prescribed me medication to deal with my anxiety.  Eventually I learned how to handle my anxiety without medication but still needed help with certain events, like needles or hospital situations, or flying in an airplane.  I still had little hope for becoming a pastor because I did not want medication to be a constant part of my life.  Indeed, my inability to handle my anxiety in certain events was one-half the reason I stopped following the path to becoming a pastor while at seminary.  Perhaps my deciding not to become a pastor was a God-send, too, because it wasn't until the year after I graduated that I started dating my now-wife.  At the time she worked for a company that produces and sells supplements.  One of those supplements is fittingly called "Serenity Now" and provides instant and long-lasting calm.  With her guidance and support, I now had the final piece of the puzzle: take some calm pills, that are healthy supplements rather than medication, and then just be honest with the people I'm visiting in the hospital.  Strangely, if my wife weren't such a staunch supporter of my health--and of me generally, of course--I'm not sure I ever would have thought to say, "Okay, I have to look away now so that I don't see the needle, because I'm here for you and I don't want to become a distraction seizuring on the floor."  I don't believe that God sends us people to marry and all that, but I'm rethinking it, because I needed my wife to feel comfortable becoming a pastor.  God didn't give me the gift of visitation, but God did remove the spiritual obstacle that had been in my way.

Now here I am as a pastor.  I don't earn a whole lot of money doing it and I'm certainly not successful in the way I could have wished, and, even, I'm not doing what I thought I wanted to do.  I thought I wanted to be a writer and a writer only.  That was my dream.  But honestly, I believe that I am doing what I am called to do and what I am gifted for.  For that reason, every day I feel fulfilled, despite constant fears that I am not what my churches need, that I'm committing rookie errors all over the place, or generally not doing enough.  Still I feel fulfilled. 

Vocation is critical here because, as I've said, I have not chosen the path of practicality or chasing my dream.  Instead I asked the questions of vocation, "What does God want me to do?  What am I gifted for?"  I followed those questions to the end and found that, strangely, I was and am gifted in ways I didn't know beforehand.  By asking the questions of vocation doors were opened that I hadn't even been aware of previously.  By asking the questions of vocation I came to a place where my happiness is connected more to fulfillment and contentment than getting what I want, be it financial success or accomplishing my dream or both.  Success, then, is redefined as answering the questions of vocation. 

Answering the questions of vocation can be hard.  What we are gifted for is not the same, I think, as what we are good at.  I am good at math but I'm not gifted in math.  I am gifted as a preacher but I may not be good at it.  I don't know that I can explain the difference well so I won't try, but in our souls I think we all probably know the difference.  Perhaps a gift is a some place between talent and passion.

Once we answer the questions of vocation, moving in that direction can be fairly easy.  For instance, if you're gifted in hospitality, well, there's a whole range of occupations from which you can choose.  If you've discovered that's your gift, then you can be fulfilled in life by either chasing your dreams, whatever they are, and inviting neighbors into your house for a weekly meal and chat, or by taking a more pragmatic route and taking the first available housekeeping job.  When we are talking about vocation, it doesn't necessarily matter what we do, it matters that we are doing it because we are gifted and/or called.

If we believe in God, then vocation adds hope to our lives, too.  As in my life story, if we believe in God and go in the direction that God has called us to, then there always remains the hope that God will provide the gifts necessary.  Of course, it must be God's path and not our own, otherwise we won't be gifted in the ways necessary.  I find great hope in this because it means we need to start walking before the bridge has been built and yet God won't let us fall.  That's cool, as the young people say.

Reclaiming vocation as the deciding factor in our lives, then, adds hope to our lives and eliminates the false and depressing either/or between pragmatism and dream-chasing.  One can do both or neither when choosing to live by one's vocational dictates.  As long as one's vocation is the deciding factor then fulfillment is on the horizon.  Reclaiming vocation as our guiding light also, regardless of belief in God, empowers us to see what our true gifts are, of what we are capable, and that feelings of hopelessness when we don't know what to do with our lives, or misery when we know all too well that we might do what we're good at without joy, do not rule us.  Instead, we are our own rulers; who we are and what our gifts are determine our path forward.  True, vocational insight may not lead to success, financial or otherwise, but vocational insight reminds us that success is fulfilling who we are. 

All this may sound like an unsuccessful person trying to justify his life.  But I am reminded every time I enter a hospital to visit a parishioner that vocation is real and, if understood correctly, can truly save our lives from wandering, depression, and hopelessness.  Maybe I'm not doing a good job of explaining what vocation is or why it's important.  I don't care.  Writing may be part of my vocation, but that means only that it fulfills who I am and what my gifts are, not that I'm good at it.

So who are we?  What are our gifts (not just what we're good at)?  How is God calling us? 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Holy Pastor Doing Stuff

By installment three of my new video series I figured I'd share, finally.  Here's Holy Pastor Doing Stuff.  Check out the others!

How to Brush Your Teeth

Monday, April 24, 2017

Divisive Unity

Trump and Republicans and many of their supporters have, since the election, many times said, "The election is over.  Get over it.  We need a unified country."  Oftentimes these statements are followed with, "You've never seen the Republicans act that way."

Of course, anyone with an unbiased memory will immediately know these statements for what they are: hypocritical amnesia.  Many Republicans protested Obama's election claiming he was/is not American and Muslim (as if that is supposed to matter); many Republican Congressmen explicitly and publicly said they'd reject any Obama policies just to stall the government in order to elect a Republican Congress and President; and Republicans initiated the whole Supreme Court nomination fiasco (though Gorsuch is a good selection, the fiasco is the process) by unprecedentedly refusing to hold hearings for Garland--this last one is particularly difficult because the reasoning was that the American people had the right to vote for a president to nominate the justice and, even if we ignore the fact that we had a sitting president who just nominated someone, the presidential election campaign technically and officially does not start until the conventions in June.  Given all these quite recent events, a Republican telling a Democrat to 'get over it' is hypocritical.  Adding that Republicans would never act 'that way,' meaning protests and stalling, is nothing but amnesia.

By the way I've begun here you might think I'm launching into Republican bashing.  I'm not.  As always, it is important to hold one another accountable for the truthfulness and genuineness of our statements, but here I'm more concerned with the Republicans' call for unity.  Unity was a major talking point for all the candidates in the election and certainly was a talking point afterwards, too.  After the election, Trump, McConnell, Ryan and others all said it was time to forget everything past and move on together because he, and this Congress, would be for the people, all the people.  It's been rather clear that Trump is not a president for all the people, but let's put that aside for the moment as well.  Let's just focus on this call to unity amidst hypocritical amnesia.

What do people mean when they call for and pray for unity?  Obviously, when you are on the 'losing' side and you call for and pray for unity, unity for the sake of the good of all people is indeed what you want.  That is true because if your chosen policies and leaders have lost, then you gain nothing by becoming unified around a different set of policies and leaders.  Gaining nothing is perhaps the purest evidence we have of altruistic motives.  If, on the other hand, you gain total control by calling for unity because the majority is on your side, then unity is not necessarily altruistic.  When unity gives you everything then when you say, 'unity,' what you're really saying is, 'power and dominance.'  Calls for unity from a position of strength sounds oppressive to those on the losing side whose voices would be drowned out in supposed unity. 

While I do not mean to say that all Republicans who call for unity have ulterior motives and are actually power hungry, hoping to silence those who disagree, it is almost certainly true that when a victor calls for unity, those who are defeated feel silenced and oppressed.  Whether the victor likes it or not, and whether the country or organization in question needs unity or not, those in the minority who hear, "Let's forget our differences and move on as a unified whole," are actually hearing, "Look, our side is clearly stronger, give up, shut up, and assimilate."  You may say that responding in such a self-victimized way is not appropriate, that the victors, in this case Republicans, do not want to silence or oppress anyone and, again, the losers should get over it and move on.  You may say that.  But the typical loser's response is at least legitimate.  The Founding Fathers created a government that would protect minority voices and groups for this particular reason.  Our government's constitution and structure acknowledges that throughout history minority voices and groups have been silenced and oppressed in the name of unity and assimilation. 

The United Methodist Church, in which I am a pastor, knows this well.  Currently we are intensely debating homosexuality in the church (I don't know how to properly talk about this.  Saying, 'the issue of homosexuality' is certainly not right, nor is 'the place of homosexuality.'  What I have here said doesn't sound right, either, but alas).  This debate has raged for a long time and is now seemingly coming to a breaking point as the Church has yet to budge from its stance that, while persons who are homosexual are welcome and loved, persons who are homosexual cannot be married or ordained.  Lately, because of the intensity of the debate, there have been many calls for unity.  As a church, the Church has said, we have to be unified, since we are the Body of Christ after all.  Of course, the problem is that unity sounds great to those who are confident that we can and will rally around keeping the status quo, the tradition; while to those in the LGBTQ+ and alliance community, unity sounds like a subtle new way of perpetuating their silence.  Indeed, how would you feel if for thirty years you have been fighting for what you believe to be right, all the while being shut out not only from the church but from the very discussion, and then at the moment when your movement had momentum the majority portions said, "Well, wait, let's have unity"?  How would you feel?  Would you not feel like unity were being used as a silencing and oppressing tool?  To silence you so that the majority position could regain complete control?  If you didn't feel that way then you probably didn't care much about your positions in the first place.

Herein lies the difficulty: unity is a good ideal because any organization is stronger when unified, but when humans are involved differences of opinion--no, passionate differences of opinion are inevitable.  Calls for unity are, by nature, divisive. 

Divisive unity may sound disconcerting to you.  The idea that calling for unity might create more division, especially at times when it seems unity is most needed, may be troubling to you.  But you shouldn't be troubled.  Our country and Western religions are built on the right and the necessity for prophecy, for standing for justice in the name of liberty.  Without prophecy, without the freedom to voice one's sense of prophetic justice in a divisive climate, we would still be a slave-holding country, Jesus wouldn't have existed, and we'd be a part of Great Britain.  To put it bluntly, life would suck if we were always unified.  There must be room for divisive unity; there must be room for people to not 'get over it and move on' when justice and mercy are at stake, when the very ideals of our country are at stake.  Prophecy and liberty must never be stifled.

So where does that leave us?  First of all, we should get over and move on from hypocritical amnesia.  In general, we should probably never say, 'We won, get over it.'  Beyond that, we need to create space for dialogue.  People who are in the minority do need to accept that their positions may not always carry the day, but they have a right to expect that they will be heard.  Our political system has taught candidates, and the rest of us, that as long as we have enough votes we don't need those who disagree with us (remember Mitt Romney's famous statement?).  That is the wrong approach.  We cannot legitimately call for unity when we don't care about those in our unified bubble who aren't like us.  At the end of the day, then, unity must be a place where all people are invited to gather to speak and also to be heard.  The reason why minority voices and groups raise hell as they do is because, first, they believe they are right, but secondly because they are silenced.  We must hear one another and accept that we cannot all agree, and this also includes ensuring that the processes by which we make decisions are transparently fair (hint hint). 

We need to embrace divisive unity in order to move forward.  Perhaps the best way to embrace divisive unity is by limiting the number of universal rules our organizations have.  For the UMC, perhaps open the door to allow marriages and ordinations if the church, pastor, or conference involved are okay with it; for our government, perhaps take a more libertarian approach on social policies and let science do the talking for agency policies.  Whatever we do, rather than silence our divisions, we must let those divisions be our unity, because throughout history the minority's voice and prophecy has always made civilization move forward stronger.