Don't Be a Sucker: Speak Out
My Facebook feed is full of statements opposing the rise of white supremacy. Ministers tend to like words. We also expect to speak out on issues that we find important. There is no way in the world that one could look at what happened in Charlottesville and see anything other than a potential turning point in race relations. Which way will we turn? I do believe that among the many, many markers of the rise of the radical right this weekend will stand out. Therefore, I have been reading and talking and listening along with everyone else.
In fact, there has been a part of me that wonders if there is anything left for me to say that hasn't been said better by others. For a moment I even thought of letting this pass and to wait for another news cycle to bring a new set of offenses. However, speaking out is something we all have to do.
Besides, otherwise I am just walking around angry anyway.
So I thought I would point out a few markers in the internet sea that make the anti-racist/anti-fascist case better than I can. Each of them gets to specific concerns (among many) that I have and that many of you have as well.
Paul Krugman, in his column "When the President is Un-American" opens with a reminder of Sarah Palin's "real America" phase. You will remember the concept. It isn't difficult as many people right, left, and center, fall into it's trap. "Real" America--according to many--is populated by a strangely simplified form of "rural" or "working class" whites. We raise them up as examples of what we perceive as American virtues. The problem is that when we do this (whether we mean to or not) we have instantly labeled everyone else as less "real" and therefore less worthy.
Liberals do this, too, by the way. Right now there is a lot of talk in the Democratic party about "reclaiming the base". Along with this effort, there is little thought given to the risk of romanticizing the crueler part of whiteness that--as we have seen this week--simmers beneath the surface. Perhaps they (we) do it unconsciously and without reflection. However, when we ascribe greater authenticity to one group, we give them greater power. Their narrative then controls the conversation.
My faith tells me that all humans--and that would include all Americans--are equally "real". This is a bedrock of the theology I preach. However, it is a challenge to assert that position when so much of the noise around us tries to tell a different story. That is why speaking out is important, even if it feels like our position has already been said, and said with more art than we can muster.
But I digress: Krugman's article is an indictment of the President, who has inhabited the "real America" narrative of his base. Donald Trump has increased the noise in what at best can only be called a failure of leadership. In many ways, the stoking of this narrative has led directly to society's apparent new comfort with white supremacist language. The results of that should be obvious.
On the same day and in the same paper Michael Eric Dyson wrote "Charlottesville and the Bigotocracy" I don't feel the need to add much commentary. He refines the point that Krugman makes until it cuts with surgical precision. He quotes LBJ saying "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you are picking his pocket". To me that is an accurate--if somewhat dated in its language-- description of how myth of "realness" functions.
Dyson concludes with a call to people like me. "Now is the time for every decent white American to prove he or she loves this country by actively speaking out against the scourge this bigotocracy represents. If such heinous behavior is met by white silence, it will only cement the perception that as most white folks are not immediately at risk, then all is relatively well." This article has reminded me once again that I need to finally get through his book "Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America".
Finally, I have one more item. This is an old film first shown in 1943 and then edited and rebroadcast (as far as I can tell) in 1947. "Don't Be a Sucker" is many things. I see it as a classic noir PSA. The narrative of America it provides us, though, is still a powerful antidote to the rhetoric we are hearing from the alt-right, the fascists, and many in the conservative establishment,
Many folks have been linking the tw0-minute clip. If you can stand it, however, I suggest you watch the whole thing below. It is jumpy and the beginning feels like a non-sequitur at first. That said, I am glad I stuck with it. It made me uncomfortable in parts. However, it made me ask why...
Oh yeah... and the American Nazi? He talks about "real Americans" too.
Midway Sabbatical: Spiritual Journeys
Last night my wife and I slept on cots in the living room as our bedroom ceiling is being repaired and the walls painted. In fact, this is going on in every room in the parsonage, in order. Each time the contractors move on to another room, we engage in a deep cleaning and a culling of stuff. Then we shove what is left into the middle in anticipation of the tarp that will protect our possessions. Then we do it again...and again. Of course each effort reveals a new problem that needs to be addressed. There is some ancient wiring that must be removed at some point before it catches fire. There are leaks in the plumbing that have developed over the last 15 years. There is also the usual sort of wear and tear that can be expected in an old building occupied by clumsy humans.
In a weird sense, it fits right into my experience of sabbatical. In my mind I expected it to be peaceful, with an abundance of time for reflection and study. Instead it has reveled in impracticality and inconvenience. It underlines disorder. It shines a light on places in life where the workmanship has been haphazard.
In my last post I described the church as being a place that sometimes gets wrapped up in measurable tasks at the expense of the spirit. It turns out that pastors get wrapped up too. We are as guilty as anyone of losing track of that path of faith and exploration. As much as anyone, clergy folks like to point to what we have built and--if it is good--say "I did this". At least we say it to ourselves. We also stress out about those times when we have failed. When we do, many of us are still capable of seeing our hands and voices in those moments.
My sabbatical is full of tasks and goals. It is full of things that I can point to--good, bad, or indifferent--and account for time spent. However, I have lately felt the absence of that Transcendence which makes all the activity worthwhile.
Or maybe I have just gotten around to noticing the absence. Maybe it drifted away a while ago and now as I search around for that connection I depend on, it is finally missed There are plenty of reasons why the feeling would recede, just as there are reasons I need it. Not only are all our possessions being shifted around the parsonage. There is plenty of motion and chaos elsewhere. One son is in college now. The car that has been a constant since before our youngest was born finally kicked the bucket while cruising down Rt. 128. Sabbatical, itself, has its own rhythm and requirements that open and close doors for me every day. I am getting stretched.
Also, there are the more global issues. Black Lives Matter continues to underscore the existence of a system of racism that I--like the rest of you--participate in. The presidential election has made us all think about the pool of sexism we cannot seem to get out of. In fact, any member of the male species who hasn't been challenged by the antics of Donald Trump must be spiritually dead. It is a time for self examination. We cannot say we don't recognize him, even if we have never been like him. What are we men to become in this exciting new world? I know what I don't want to be. I don't want to be a burden, an impediment to progress, or a creep.
What I am trying to say is that, like most people, I want to walk through the garbage dump of life equipped to be the best human being I can be. That is a hard thing to do. There is no way I am not getting some garbage on me. My spiritual life is what I rely on to get me through.
I am (we are) reminded of various inequalities and oppression. We all push through times of personal; transition. We should be. What is the faithful response? What is my faithful response? The question today isn't about my work as a progressive and liberal minister of a progressive and liberal church. We all have jobs and I am blessed to have one that enables me to work toward solutions. The question is more existential and fundamental. How should I act? What should I do as a human being?
More basic: Who. Am. I?
One change for sabbatical is that I have made time for study and--consciously or unconsciously--also ended up with a system of accountability. I have written elsewhere about how Dungeons and Dragons encourages the imagination. That curriculum for the RE program requires not just facts and figures but a a level of religious intention. Those courses I am teaching force me to explain and examine some fundamental elements of my own belief system. Hanging out with teens can change your perspective as well. However, maybe the best articulation of the spiritual problem I found was thanks to good ol' Ralph Waldo Emerson.
If you read this blog you are aware of the fact that one of the courses I am teaching is entitled "Nature and Spirituality". Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the readings--in fact the key one--is Emerson's "Nature". It turns out that it is a bit of a challenge to explain to kids, particularly because I and they get hung up at the same place Emerson did when he wrote it. That place is the philosophical concept of "Idealism". For Emerson this material world (or "nature") is infused with the Divine. Ultimately what is real is the soul, It is God, It is the spirit that has ultimate and permanent substance, not the matter that it inhabits. I could go on about his take, but instead you should read the book.
The problem is that for those of us who try to live a life of the spirit face an enormous hill to climb. The problems that we are all wrestling with and that cast a pall over our regular lives need material ("real-world") solutions as much as spiritual ones. In fact, our basic needs in a world in crisis obscure the spiritual ones to a large degree. How, for example, do you explain to someone who cannot get enough food to eat, or who fears the reality of daily violence that they should contemplate the divine spirit that flows through all things?
Of course, there is another question that should hit closer to home for most readers of Burbania Posts. How do we connect with the spirit in people who put their own ambitions and desires over the basic needs of others? What do we do to make them (us) see that spirit in such a way that there is a change of heart? We aren't starving. In fact, most of the people I know are not lacking in material wealth. We are the ones who can make the changes to create abundance for the rest of the world. In giving up our own material ways we can free ourselves, too. Such potential! Such inertia! Dang!
If you asked me what my bedrock beliefs are I, like Emerson, would claim to be an idealist, but we are living (to quote a certain 20th century bard and philosopher) in a material world or, at least, in a material culture. There lies my own tension (again, in the philosophical sense). I expect it does for others.
To be a person on a faith journey is to be a person who at some level accepts that there is more. There is something greater (maybe "God", maybe not). There is something behind what we see and interact with that is worth knowing better. We expect it to sustain us, after all. We may even hope, like Emerson, that we can experience a holy and absolute connection to that "Oneness" that will give us the strength to let go of all the crap--material, emotional, spiritual--that we cling to. As we let go we may fall, but where we land will be a better land than the one we left.
That said, the journey is long. When we feel the absence of meaning it is important to fill the space with the right thing. I do believe that there is more to the world than what we see. However, it takes patience, insight, and effort to connect to what lie behind our mundane existence. Over the last few months I have gained a new appreciation for this dynamic in life. I have also gained an appreciation for the institution of Sabbath. A question, I think, for all of us as a community and as individuals is how to bring the sabbath back. It is more than "time off" after all. How do we find the structured time to return the sacred to our hasty lives?
Thank God I go to a house of worship. Thank the Divine presence that I can take part in a community to support my own journey even as I support them. I give thanks that sometimes--during my better moments--I can get a glimpse of the spirit that flows through us all. Thanks for the strength to move through the darkness and the struggle. Thanks for the power to grow and change.
The New Church Chapter #2
We are back! Last time I talked a bit about my "listening tour". Thanks to my flexible sabbatical schedule I am able to visit my friends and colleagues and hear a bit about how their church lives are going. The upshot is that people are frustrated. Just as we see in pretty much every other area of life, the way people are doing religion is changing and old, steady, tried-and-true institutions are having a hard time adapting. My colleagues and I are on the front lines of this shift. Trained in the "old ways," part of our job is to meet those old (and still important) expectations while looking ahead to what comes next.
In this second installment of the "New Church" Series we will examine another couple of areas where people are finally noticing the massive shifts in our church life. Last time we talked about denominations. This time let's discuss clergy. I will include a link to Chapter 1 on the bottom of this page.
Clergy Must Learn Different Things and Learn Them Differently
When I went to seminary I received the usual education. There were excellent theology classes. In fact any academic discipline was well-provided for in quality staff and literature. I use what I learned from them pretty much every day. This is a good thing because there were a lot of those sorts of courses. I spent a great deal of time learning about the Bible, the history of the church, religion and science, religion and philosophy.
Then there were practical courses that were frequently also taught by academics who--while they had more experience than me--didn't necessarily have a whole lot of actual experience in what they were teaching. To counter this, at other times they would bring in people who had some experience (not as much as one would hope) but who frequently couldn't teach! They were on campus for other reasons and were dragooned or seduced into classroom time. Many of us left seminary with a deep well of spiritual and religious knowledge that has served us well. That said, if it wasn't for my excellent internship under the guidance of Reverend John Corrado and the Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church I am not sure I would have survived my first settlement. The fact is, some of what I learned in school about the practice of ministry was simply wrong. Maybe it would have worked in a vacuum. However, the void doesn't have protestant congregations.
It has been a while since seminary for me. My experience since tells me that things are changing for the better. When I enrolled in my Doctor of Ministry program I was delighted with the results. It was practice-based. It adapted to our ongoing ministries. The adjunct practitioners were top-notch. Best of all, these big-name homiletics professors knew their strengths and weaknesses. What a blessing it was when I asked a question in class one day and my teacher (a publisher of many books) responded with "I don't preach nearly as much as you do. I bet you can answer better than I can." Thank you.
I am pleased with the direction that seminaries are going. I also know that more change is on the way. Of the four seminaries I know best one is dead, two are in the process of completely transforming themselves and one still looks the same but I know it is constantly adapting. In two years none of these four will be on the campuses where I studied. There will be more losses and transformations to come. I am actually pleased that they have risen to the challenge. Clergy need to learn new and different things. We need to be flexible enough to let that happen when (as we have noted) we don't really know where God is taking us.
Churches Need to Ask Themselves if They Need Clergy
Yeah, I said it. The fact is, as we develop new models for congregations (or whatever we choose to call them) some of these models will not need a religious professional. At least they won't need one all the time. They may need a consultant or a theology teacher every once in a while if they are a small yet high-commitment church. Maybe they need a circuit rider to come preach every once in a while. It is possible that many of these new religious communities won't be meeting for one big worship every week. When you add this to the changing view of clergy and of "leadership" in general, even congregations with a full time pastor or two may want to think creatively about how they want to use that person's time.
The decision can go either way. The trick is to be creative. As I was leaving my first settlement I remember telling the congregation that what they really needed was an administrator more than a minister. They were already pretty good at doing a lot of the pastoring themselves but could use some coordination. In my current settlement everyone is so busy they need a minister. It is a small and dedicated membership afflicted by all the busyness that comes with suburban life. We have talked about it and it is hard to imagine a healthy congregation in this context where the clergy staff isn't heavily invested in whatever the "new thing" may be. Incidentally, we are also a teaching church if there are any seminarians out their interested in experimenting...
So, practically speaking, what does this mean? It means some creative thinking for everyone, but particularly for lay leadership. Obvious changes like bi-vocational ministry (ministers having another non-minister job), part-time pastoring, "yoked" congregations, and licensed or lay ministers are the sorts of things that religious professionals are familiar with. Right now my friends and I are having a semi-humorous Facebook conversation about who would do better in the food service industry when we need to scale our ministries down! In short, we are ready for change...but maybe not all of us for professional kitchens.
The problem (and to be clear, it is nobody's fault) is that we are stuck in a cultural vacuum. The perception of the church and clergy in the current culture is based on an "ideal"--and primarily fictional--image from two or three church-phases ago. To most people a protestant church pastor is married but very old and almost certainly male. He has to be, because in our heads his wife is still running the Sunday School...for free. This hasn't been the situation for a long time. It probably never was the situation. However, while most congregants as individuals would acknowledge that fact in a heartbeat, the system still acts like this is the way things are. We all (clergy and lay) play into it. We see our divergence from this model in terms of compromise and failure. How do we change this to terms of opportunity?
A different sort of pastor may be just the thing for many congregations. A leader who is also a teacher, a lawyer, a musician, an artist, a warehouse worker or barista would naturally open up different sorts of ministry. It would also give the congregation a flexibility it wouldn't otherwise have. That new leader of the "new church" would have experiences to draw on that other clergy would not. It would be an exciting, unique and different opportunity.
We face an entrenched image if "respectability" and "success." We need to break out of the trap and go on the road willing to be more like the prophets of the past. Only then can we open ourselves and our community to the variety of opportunities that abound for the spiritual life.
That is all for now. In many ways this area is the place we have seen the most change. That shouldn't be surprising. If the clergy are doing their job--and rest assured the vast majority of us are working very very hard--we should be out ahead. Another big challenge might be in how we learn from the transformation (and yes, death) of our schools. What can we take with us to the people we serve?
Anyway, food for thought. Thus ends Chapter #2
Here is the link to Chapter #1
TO BE CONTINUED
The "New Church" Chapter 1
Back when I was in seminary, there was a retreat center that ran advertisements in church trade magazines. The ad featured a large picture of a youngish hipster male blissfully and intently staring at a handful of moss. I will say that again. He was staring at a handful of moss. It appeared that he had previously been smelling it and was now in the process of of making it his pet. I always thought this picture was a little odd. I get the idea of course. I know (and teach) my Emerson and Thoreau. "Come to our retreat center and stare at moss" isn't really that bad a sales pitch in the world of spiritual and religious development. It indicates an extended period of free time with nothing to bother you. You have the freedom to stare at moss! What a blessing that is.
That image has been flashing through my mind lately when people ask how my "vacation" is going. They mean my sabbatical, of course, but since they probably aren't reading my blog their image of me is closer to that of our moss-meditating friend than it is to reality. At the very least I must be sitting by the lake, right? Nope. I have projects and ideas, many of which I have already mentioned. However I am finding that there is a certain flexibility in my time that has allowed me to engage in an unofficial listening tour of church leaders who also happen to be my friends. I have to tell you. What they report is both exciting and sobering.
Things are hard in the traditional church. People are stressed out. Attendance is down. enrollment is down. Pledges are just holding their own in most places and dipping in others. Our old, romantic-yet-tired buildings keep sucking away more and more of the money. Our pastors feel the pinch of limited resources and guilt for not being able to "turn it around" and send the church back to the dreamy heights of the 1950's and 60's. They experience this while knowing in their hearts that in most cases they really really can't. That train has left the station. A new era has begun.
Still, in the midst of all the crazy and the chaos, people are finding new ways to do church. They are seeing clearly enough to begin to build the tools and techniques that will help the next generations grow their own communities of faith. They do this even as they live in and love the old way.
In an earlier post I wrote about how the new church is coming but that I didn't know if I had any suggestions. I still may not, but I do have a better idea of what people see as the next thing. By "people" I mean ministers, mostly, and some dedicated lay leaders. Which is to say, the folks who think about this pretty much all the time.
I am beginning a series today about what I am learning. First we will look at some changes that people are talking about. Perhaps there might even be some suggestions by way of example, but I can't promise anything....
Here is #1
Denominations are becoming both less important and more important.
This really shouldn't be a shock to anyone, right? We all know about those people who do not claim any particular religion (we like to call them "nones" apparently). Well, guess what? Most lay people who attend church probably don't claim a specific denomination. Instead of saying "I am a--" [UU, Baptist, or...whatever] they say "I attend--" [First Parish or Johnson Street Baptist or...whatever]. Their identity is with a specific group of people with whom they have formed relationships, not with an office in a city somewhere, a set of historic institutional predecessors, or even a poetically-named initiative.
The specific differences between the United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist Association, American Baptist Convention, and Disciples of Christ, for example are very important to the people whose job it is to serve member congregations. To the person who shows up on Sunday or volunteers in a congregation's ministry it is a lot less important. There are plenty of agnostics in conservative churches. There are plenty of evangelicals in liberal ones. I have met a lot of them. Mostly they are happy where they are and have solid reasons for attending a congregation that does not reflect their theology. To put it simply, they love the people they go to church with.
That said, all you denominational types don't need to panic right away. There is something very important that you need to do. Congregations still need services. Folks may no longer want denominational leadership (denomination x tells me to do y so I will) but they do want quality materials for RE. They like to have their professional staff licensed in some way. They need people with big picture knowledge to facilitate their own congregational discernment. Churches need to know that they are not alone even if our connections work differently than they did before.
Denominations cannot point the way to the future because they don't know what it will be either. They are doing their best to do so but there have been so many changes. Just like churches, themselves, they are trying to survive, to hold on to what they have been for the last century or so. Also just like the churches the option to turn back or stay the same is a mirage. We are all becoming transdenominational. We are finding out together what that means. Clearly there is a place for institutions that work with (not over) congregations. I know many denomination leaders who are doing just this kind of work. It is happening but it is slow and sometimes obscured by other things.
For those of us who serve churches in the Congregationalist tradition we have a model hidden among the various programs, initiatives and positions that have built up over the years. Providing basic services was what denominations (or associations) were originally all about! In the Congregationalist way every congregation is its own denomination. An individual is only ever a member of that local church community. Good news! We are headed back to our roots. The challenge is to point ourselves in the right direction.
OK this is already long so I am ending Chapter #1
Here is a link to Chapter #2
...TO BE CONTINUED...
All is suddenly quiet at the parsonage. My wife is off to work, Son #1 is off at college, Son #3 is having his first day of school. Son #2 is about to get some work done in preparation for his first day of classes next week. My plan is to have some coffee before the weather becomes inhumanely hot. Then I will settle in to the second day of catch-up on my third most pressing sabbatical project...Dungeons and Dragons world building.
You see, the youth groupers have been asking for a D&D (or more generically "role-playing") club for a long time and we--the pastoral staff--just haven't been able to find the time for the basic preparation necessary to get a solid, believable game going. Both I and my former intern (now sabbatical pastor) Shane Montoya have plenty of experience in this area. There is a story line to be developed, of course, and a dungeon or whatever seeded with badies. However, the story has to take place in context and that is where it becomes tricky.
A good game needs geography, politics, and religion. It needs characters with motivations and depth well past what is provided in a 90-minute action movie or even in the most well-developed fantasy video game. It needs a world at least as complex as a quality novel. In some ways (because the players can literally travel anywhere) it needs to have eternal potential for even greater complexity.
So that is what I am doing. I am building a world (part of one, actually). I have been doing this sort of thing since my very early teens. Back then, it was out of necessity. It may seem strange to my younger readers but Gen X (and older) nerds know the situation I was in. I was an early adopter of Dungeons and Dragons. I loved it. Even today I occasionally drag out my old Basic and Expert books just to experience a wave of happy nostalgia for a less complicated time. It was my refuge. It was my permission to dream. Still, there were a series of hurdles to clear before actually playing the game.
The problem, quite simply, was that D&D was the ultimate badge of awkwardness. Nerds are kind of cool now (okay..."geeks" are cool...whatever posers) because some of them now make money. Society says money is magic. Back in the Lord-of-the-Flies '80's, though, it took courage to spend a day rolling the dragon dice or discovering the inner workings of your Commodore 64.
Personally I wasn't so much brave as fatalistic. There was no way I was ever going to be the cool kid. I had bad skin, a bad haircut (until I stopped cutting it entirely), and I went to prep school where I loved the theater. Many of my nerdy friends, however, harbored dreams of acceptance and were fearful of what the game might do to their (frankly non-existent) cool points. Even today I know 45-year-old men (and some women) who I am certain played but who will deny it. It is their secret weakness. It is still their hidden curse.
Needless to say, back then it was hard to get a game together. Sometimes I would manage to get a ride to a game shop a few towns over and play with a group of kids I didn't know so well. The big draw was that the Dungeon Master wrote modules for Iron Crown Enterprises. No. I won't explain what that means. Either you understand or you don't. Most of the time, however, I had to badger my cowardly friends or indoctrinate my (much more willing) brothers in order to get a game in. This meant I was always the DM. I was the one who ran the game and did the extra work well before the others would arrive. I resented it at the time. I still do, actually.
Still, those hours spent on my own fantasizing about other imagined places has come in handy over the years. The various "pantheons" of gods and goddesses got me interested in actual religions. The vagaries of the always-inadequate alignment system got me interested in ethics (I mean, who ever actually believes that they are the evil ones?). The game play was a combination table-reading/improv (with a touch of randomness from the dice) that got my creative theater juices flowing. It also let me make something and share it. I cannot write a novel or a play, but I can create a place where novel-like stories can happen. This may not be "cool" in the middle and high school sense, but it certainly is cool in every other way.
Anyway, I have been making a new world. My old ones are rushed and inadequate. It is hard work, actually. To be believable, things need to connect in believable ways. For example, in an action movie the bad guy can always be crazy. In a game where most of the imagined population is rational, that doesn't work. Crazy-evil makes it hard to get followers, after all (don't yell "Trump" at me...please). If people are seeking power they are going to gravitate toward a rational power-seeker. A strongman, maybe, but not the cackling cartoon psychos that TV cops and superheroes take down on a regular basis. The questions one has to answer in the game world are the same sorts of questions we would ask about a culture in our world.
Interestingly, the questions I ask now are different from the ones I used to ask. Times have changed, haven't they?
So this new imagined world is built around a question I have had for some time. What would happen if you had a group of people who constantly talked about their god? What if they read his/her/its sacred texts and disagreed over their meaning but who tried to live their lives based on what they felt they knew about this god they cannot see? Was this person they follow a god? A prophet? A good (or bad) myth? A Metaphor? In role-playing games the gods are just knocking around, granting spell powers and so on. To have an absent one is a big deal.
Perhaps up to this point, things make sense. What if we took it a step further? What if at some point that "god" (or myth or metaphor or prophet) returned and started doing stuff? What if it refused to clear up doctrinal conflicts? Who among the believers (or suspecters) would be the most disappointed? Who would be happy?
Anyway, that is the starting point. Then there are questions of economics. What do these people do for work? Where do they live? There are questions of politics, too. How do they get on with other people from other more (in game) conventional faiths? What is the role of women? What about the LGBTQIA+ community? It's my world. I can make it how I want it. How are they organized from family, to work, to "church", to government? How are the people around them organized. That is how the world grows. There are a bazillion questions. It isn't ever finished and much of its development depends on gamers playing through and asking their questions. Still, a lot of groundwork needs doing before that player characters ever meet in the ubiquitous back-road inn.
Now, I know that many of the people who play the game probably won't notice the work that went into it. They shouldn't. The world should be lived-in and seamless. Besides, most of them will just want to kill monsters and rack up "points" like it is World of Warcraft. That is fine. However, I will know what is there, and a few players might even take an interest. You make a world to answer your own questions. You draw a map because you want to know what is behind (or under) the mountains. Others participate as they are willing or as they can.
I have to go soon so I will stop here. Shane is helping me with the game mechanics as I drift into story teller mode, so I have deadlines. No doubt you will hear more about this as time goes on.
Or...you could just show up for a game or two...
So today is the first official day of my sabbatical. I have already been working on various projects but in the next week or so, things will be kicking into a higher gear. Over the last few weeks, there have been some changes to the plan. My "Folk Project" will need to take a back seat to some more pressing material. In fact, a theme has emerged that runs through most of the other projects and, naturally, this is something that I intend to follow.
I am enclosing here the outline of my work for the next few months. They are roughly in the order they will be addressed. Of course, there will be some overlap as well.
Teaching: Some of you are aware that I have a son who is "homeschooled". The term--while it makes sense from a legal perspective--is a bit misleading. Most homeschoolers do NOT spend their days sitting around the kitchen table. They are highly social and are involved in programs outside the home on a daily basis. Many times they have a great deal of control over what and how they learn. It can be complicated, but for a certain kind of kid who is willing to take ownership of their education, a well-conducted homeschool plan is just the best darn thing.
Among other activities, my son attends a school that subscribes to a "self directed learning" model. It has teachers and advisers who help the student plan out their year. Various courses are offered by the teachers, volunteers, and interns based on the interests of the student body. This is where I come in. I will be teaching two course at the school this fall. One is Public Speaking and the other is Nature and Spirituality. I know a bit about both subjects and expect to learn more.
I am looking forward to this. I am curious how it will go. While I have done some teaching with children in this age group (10-19), it has been mostly in a church context. Of course, there is a great deal of similarity between a Sunday School model and what happens at this school, so it won't be entirely unfamiliar. Still, it is good practice and a lot more "face time" than what I am used to. Each class meets formally once a week and then I will be available as a "mentor" at other times. Thanks to this time commitment, it is the first on my list.
Church Curriculum: I have written about this before. We are transitioning our Sunday School to a "one-room" model with a series of "units". Each unit will lead to some kind of project or presentation in church. I am responsible for writing all but one of these.
My former intern (now sabbatical pastor) will be writing the second unit on Advent. I have already written the first unit, which is about women in the church. This means that the next one I am concerned with (a social justice unit with a focus on LGBTQIA+ issues) will need to be ready some time in November so the teachers and I can go over it before it's January start date.
Obviously, the teaching I will do at the school will influence how I go about these curricula at church. In both cases there is a "project" element. Also, they both work on a student-centered discussion model. A great deal will depend on their willingness to be engaged and our ability to engage them. I am actually moving a little slower in this area right now because I think that my perspective may change after doing some teaching.
Dungeons and Dragons Club: Yeah, there is this. I am well into the development of a world for my player characters to explore. I have been a Dungeon Master for many a year, starting way back in my teens when being a nerd wasn't so cool. Perhaps that is why I am still a bit surprised by the level of initial interest from the kids. It is a great thing! I am very pleased.
My goal is to have enough material ready for a first meeting near the end of September. At that point we will make characters and perhaps run through a couple of short battles or scenarios to see if everyone gets the game mechanics. It would also be good to see who actually shows up so we can plan for either one or two groups. I will probably also need a rotating cast of "assistant DM's" to keep things rolling...
OK... I assume you see the theme, right? All of these activities will apply most directly toward the church's religious education program. RE has been an interest of mine ever since my first paid gig as "Co-Youth Group Director" for the middle schoolers at the UU church in Evanston, Illinois. In my current capacity I don't have as much time to do get into it as much as I would like. I am hoping that using my sabbatical time to get the prep work done will make me a better pastor to the kids and their parents. We shall see...
What this does mean is that the who Folk Project must be the last of my concerns. I haven't given up on it entirely. However, the spirit does seem to be moving me in a different direction right now...
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind and earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. (1 Kings 19:11-12)
Over the past month or so I have had two similar experiences that got me thinking. The first was while I was camping with my family in Maine. We drove up from Burbania as we usually do. Then we spent the rest of the day in pursuit of the usual activities. We visited friends. We ate. We laughed. We swam in the lake. Then-- not long after dark-- we went to bed. Some time after dawn I woke up and it was completely silent. It wasn't just quiet like it sometimes gets in the woods. There was no noise at all! No loons on the lake. No critters rustling in the bushes.
The second experience was a little bit more surprising as it occurred at a bluegrass festival. Music festivals are loud, after all! In fact, at this particular week long event (no doubt I will tell you more about it in another post) things don't really settle down until around 3 AM. Falling asleep before then means contending with a layer cake of noise. This is true even in the "Quiet Zone" where the music of the main stage high on the hill provides background to the sounds of the dance stage only a few yards away. It is "quiet" in the sense that we are spared some (but not all) of the wandering revelers. Some folks bring earplugs to bed. Most of us, however, just stay up until we are exhausted. Then we drag sweaty, tired bodies to our sleeping bags and pass into a dreamless state until morning.
The first night I woke up to a bright light in the tent and cursed what I assumed were the high beams of somebody's car. Then I realize the light was the sun and that there was no real sound but the ringing in my ears. Over time I could discern some other noises. It wasn't really as still as that lake in Maine. However, there is a special sort of silence made by over 3000 people trying not to wake each other up that is just as majestic and profound.
Silence is something I am not all that familiar with since I entered the ministry...since I had children...since I moved to the suburbs over a decade ago. After all, my profession requires a great deal of talking and listening. Thanks to years of training, when I talk I am usually loud. Then there are the many sounds of children growing up and filling the void with their noises as they do. Finally, even when I have a few moments and the parsonage is empty (the ringer off and books waiting to be read), there is the constant sound of "civilization". There are cars humming by. There are people on the sidewalk, planes overhead and God knows what else contributing to the background hum that I must accept as part of living where I do.
I grew up in the country on a rural road in Androscoggin County, Maine. I spent my summers working on my grandparent's farm in rural Dutchess County, New York. In both places you could hear a single car coming from half a mile away, note its passing, and then listen to its retreat for another couple minutes. My adult life, too, had been spent either in cities like Chicago or Montréal or in small communities in northern New England. Maybe this is why (in spite of my verbose nature) I value the moments of silence I do receive. It is something that doesn't really happen much anymore.
I wonder if it happens to any of us all that frequently. To the best of my knowledge, I live the way most people live. There is a great deal of chatter and environmental noise. There is the "noise" of the Internet, social networking, and the news cycle. So each of us in our own way yells to be heard. We also are naturally attracted to the loudest voice. Sometimes we hear shouts of joy. Sometimes we hear shouts of anger. Mostly, though, what we hear is confusion. I am talking about politics, of course. I am talking about religion. I am also talking about the ways we relate to each other more personally. I am talking about the way we interact with the world; with Creation.
In that quote from 1 Kings the final phrase "sheer silence" is sometimes translated as the "still small voice". In either case we need to find ways to hear it. In the noise and the thunder that we create around us it is hard to discern the motions of whatever spirit we wish to listen to and follow. It is also easy to be distracted by fear and anxiety. Recently at the church we decided to have a picnic, a "Civility Dinner" to purposefully practice making room for that spirit in the midst of our conversation. Of course, we try to practice it all the time but-- just as in worship--sometimes it is good to do it with intention.
We Will Not Save "The Church"
I want to be clear. I chose a life in the church. When I was about 17, I became one of those kids that hangs around the margins of friendly youth groups. I would show up for pizza and movies. Sometimes, I might even go to worship. At that time my parents were not church people. They liked to sleep in and have brunch on Sundays. I went on my own.
There were many reasons for my decision. I was interested in issues of life and death that didn't seem to be addressed in other places. I was also a very political kid. In fact, I decide to become a minister at the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta. I was a "page" for the Maine delegation (I wasn't old enough to vote ). However, I was also there as a volunteer for Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign. It was my time with that campaign ---staying up late with a combination of labor organizers and pastors ---that helped me find a different path from the political system I had become disillusioned with. That is when it finally occurred to me that I could find a way to combine my interest in spirituality with my interest in helping people. None of those folks I knew in Atlanta would remember me today but I am glad that I met them.
The point is, I love the church. There have been times and contexts where I have found myself in a "poor fit". There are times when I have grown tired both as a layperson and as a pastor. This is natural. That said, I have made the church central to my existence. It is my job. The church houses, clothes, and feeds me...literally. When everyone else leaves, I am still there. It is also, in many respects, central to my social life. Outside of my family, the vast bulk of my friends are either clergy or clergy spouses. So it is no small thing to me when I see the changes happening in our congregations and institutions. You can count me in the front ranks of those who have a lot to lose.
Like everyone, I see that most churches are shrinking. Some of them are closing. Supporting institutions like denominations/associations and seminaries are merging and sometimes vanishing as resources for survival become harder to find. Well-meaning church growth consultants will sell you recovery programs. The problem is that their success rate is hardly better than doing whatever you are doing now. Pub Theology isn't going to save us. Tweaking the liturgy isn't going to save us. Increasing or decreasing staffing isn't going to save us. Altering our programming isn't going to save us. At least not the "us" that we think of when we think of the traditional institutional church. Change is already here.
It is inevitable that we greet this desperate situation with a certain amount of anxiety. This is simply because the change we see is also inevitable. There are too many forces at play to turn back the clock and expect that being the "best congregation or denomination ever" is going to bring people back in to worship every week. We are in the midst of watching something we love potentially die. It is as if we built sand castles on the beach expecting that the tide would never rise. Well now it has risen and it will continue to. Building a bigger moat will work about as well as it does on the beach. Our culture will not reverse itself. The institutions that we know and love will either fall into the sea or become something entirely different.
We do no one any favors by pretending that this isn't happening. When we do, we all end up running around trying to fix it. Then, when we fail we label ourselves "failures". Perhaps we find others (denominational leaders, pastors, church moderators for example) to blame for a flood that has been centuries in the making. In any case, we mourn the loss and see it as final and tragic. None of this is a necessary response.
What we should do is stop our whining and face the future with our heads high and our hearts open. That, of course, requires us to greet our situation using a different frame. Instead of anxiety, fear, and frustration as we watch the "old thing" fall away we need to turn to the "new thing" being born with a combination of hope, love, and excitement. It is exciting, you know. After centuries of doing roughly the same thing we have been chosen to reinvent how people do religion! Who wouldn't want to do that? I don't know about you but I believe in resurrection. I feel blessed to be able to witness at least the beginning of this one.
The challenge ahead of us, frankly, is a big one. Those consultants I mentioned? They are doing their best but the fact is no one knows what is coming. They are showing us programs that worked somewhere else (we hope). They do not know our (or your) church. Each congregation and each religious organization has a part to play in this resurrection story. That part requires courage. There will be more failures in our future than victories. Yet, the victories will be greater than our failures. It means every leader of every committee in our committee-filled faith will have to expect that they will be sifting through the ruins of plans A, B, and C (at least) to find the small successes with which to build a new way of doing church. Every pastor will have to expect that the church they are building may be beyond their (our) skill set to lead. Denominations and Associations may have to face the fact that they are in the way rather than the way. Everything must be on the table. Why would we expect what comes next to be at all like what is here now?
As you might have gathered, I am not planning to make any great system recommendations at this time (and possibly ever). Too much is in flux. What I would like to suggest, though, is that we practice changing our attitude. We need to be aware of our irrational concerns and to work to solve only the rational ones. We need to once again find joy in innovation. We need to cheer the heck up and open the windows. Throw things against the wall and see what sticks. Then clear out what falls and move on with more grist for the mill.. This is not a time for timidity. Church mice can hide and wring their hands. The rest of us cannot afford to.
I chose a life in the church. I do not want the new church to be built by people with closed minds and hearts. I do not want to spend the rest of my life in an institution that is bitter, angry, and always looking back. I do not want to live in a church that is sincere but scared of the world around it. Can we prepare ourselves for the leap of faith? I hope so. I do not enjoy living in a world of infinite resignation.
So after many, many years at Blogspot I am finally moving on. My reasons were many. However there are some obvious ones that finally prompted a change. First, I need a web presence that is broader than what the old page can provide. I am doing more things. There are ministries that really need their own presence online. Things like the still-growing and ever-popular music ministry. Also I wanted to find a way to post recent sermons. Perhaps soon we will also include a "Pub Theology" section!
Right now, however, I just wanted to fill in some of the white space on the weblog portion of the page and so I am. There will be more later (I promise!) as I figure out how I want things to look and where I want the new blog to go. Until then, thanks for checking this out!
This is my old weblog of many years. I will probably post here from time to time is there is a subject that does not fit WWG. However WWG is the more active page at this point.