Sunday, July 16, 2017

Other people's heroes

(NOTE: repeating a disclaimer from the first edition of this re-repurposed blog: "Evangelicals should probably move on.")

I feel the need to begin with the acknowledgment that I was never all that impressed by The Message.

I'm not sure why. It's possible that the "contemporary language" Bible versions available in my youth, titles like Good News For Modern Man (not good news for women of any age, apparently) or The Living Bible (it is an eternal shame that nobody ran with the horror-movie possibilities of that title) soured me on the whole project. For whatever reason, at that young age the "contemporary" language felt more limiting to me than enlightening (but I was a total geek even then). If anything those early hip-language versions helped form in me one of the few cliché-like statements I consider myself to have invented: "you can't say 'contemporary' without automatically saying 'temporary'." For all the hoopla about it, in my few forays into The Message or occasions hearing it used from the pulpit, it never got out of that box. It's not as if I'm immune to the power of re-contextualizations of the scriptures -- I'm a big fan of Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch translations/recontextualizations of most of the New Testament, but then those are a thing quite other, daring far more than Eugene Peterson's magnum opus.

The above disclaimer is probably not necessary, but is about as much as I thought about Eugene Peterson before this week's kefuffle on "Christian Twitter," in which Peterson first seemed to have declared himself o.k., if somewhat indifferent, with same-sex marriage, even allowing he'd officiate such a marriage if asked, then seemed to be under threat that his considerable arsenal of publications would be shut out from the largest "Christian" bookselling firm, only to (by the end of the week) retract, apparently, any sentiments that might have been expressed in the earlier interview about same-sex marriage. (You may speculate as you wish as to his motives for retraction; I have my opinion but no particular need to express it.)

(NOTE: let me be clear that I don't endorse Christianity Today just 'cuz I used a couple of links to them. I feel icky already.)

One can predict more or less the ebb and flow of the week's reactions on various social media. I have no interest in rehashing the evangelical side of that kerfuffle; I am not into banging my head against brick walls. But mainliners, I gotta talk to y'all. Mostly to the straight white folk among you. And mostly (not completely, but mostly) to the guys within that subset.

Can we please not get so hung up on seeking the approval of other people's heroes?

Apparently Eugene Peterson was actually ordained in the PC(USA), my denomination of affiliation and choice. That said, the arc of his career and writing make it pretty clear that in the current moment he's about as much PC(USA) as Donald Trump (which is to say, not). That's fine. He's made a life and a living in the evangelical pool, and might even be said to have some celebrity status in that particular stream of the church. As far as I can tell he's probably one of the less offensive members of that particular brand of celebrity, which is probably o.k. but doesn't really mean that folks in the mainline-progressive need to be clamoring for his approval.

To be honest, I'm kinda with this guy:

Would that we'd hear. (And yes, I'm an old straight white man.)

The mainline denominations have as members a number of LGBTQ+ persons who are the folks regularly getting kicked in the teeth by the evangelical wing of the church. I'll understand why a LGBTQ+ person would get excited by the initial Peterson reaction; maybe I'll get kicked in the teeth a little less. We are also home to persons of color who are getting told far too often to accept second-class citizenship by the world at large. We are home to immigrants or descendants of recent immigrants being scapegoated by this country's government. And yet rather than listening to those voices within the mainline (brothers and sisters in Christ all), we keep our ears cocked, it seems, for any sign of approval from an evangelical celebrity. 

Can we not, please?

Can we spend more of our energy listening to the voices of those getting dumped on rather than the ones doing the dumping?

Can we listen to the least of these, even if we run the risk of realizing that, just possibly, we might be the least of these too?

Can we worry about getting our own (shrinking but maybe a little less quickly shrinking) house in order, rather than worry what the doomsayers and vultures and vultures have to say about it?

Can we actually listen for the "sound of a sheer silence" instead of getting caught up in the yelling?

Maybe I'm naive or stupid, but I can't help but wonder if we mainline types (at least the straight white portion of us) would be better off if we didn't care so much what Eugene Peterson thinks, except to the degree that it harms our sisters and brothers in Christ. That's the thing to care about, not our puppy-dog need for approval.

In short, move on and listen to the folks who were really hurt in yet another round of crossfire.

He's made his bed, he may now lie in it.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Don't be jerks

I sometimes wonder if the best starting point for a lot of mainline churches to figure out how to move forward (whatever that turns out to be) would be to put a sign on their most public lawn saying, very simply, "We don't hate you." Nothing fancy, not clubbing folks over the head with a Bible verse, just a very simple "We don't hate you."

Once when I expressed that opinion a ministry colleague responded that such would require the church to live up to it. That colleague had a point.

While away this weekend I met a lot of people, but one in particular (really, one family in particular) struck me. The mom of the family was actually on the program staff of the conference in question, despite not being a Presbyterian (it happens, actually fairly often). In fact she is a member of a much more conservative evangelical denomination. She's worked with Presbyterians and the conference center in particular quite a few times, though, and has gotten relatively comfortable working with PC(USA) types, enough so that (in her words) moving to PC(USA) would not be that hard.

If such a move ever does happen, though, I don't think it will be because of getting called upon to work with Presbys. It will be because of her daughter.

That daughter is in high school, fun age that that is. She is what might be called by some "quirky" or a "free spirit"; she is, by mom's description, not great at conforming to the rigidities of modern education, and doesn't play the shoot-for-Harvard game that is usually thrust upon kids with her test scores. When I met her, her hair was an undecided shade somewhere between purple and lavender, and she was wearing a t-shirt proclaiming her Harry Potter house -- not that such is all that uncommon, but it wasn't Gryffindor, which I don't see as much.

This young woman has, apparently, a pretty miserable time not just in school but also in the denomination to which that family belongs. She ends up much less stressed when she joins up with activities in the PC(USA), be it in local churches or larger gatherings (she was in fact arriving for a week upcoming at the same conference center). Apparently her contemporaries at these gatherings don't make a fuss about her career ambitions, or her unusual educational background (a period of homeschooling that ended in disappointment, to some degree because of raging fundamentalism in that field), or her hair (except possibly to ask how she did it).

In other words, she's accepted. Welcomed, even.

Radical concept, that.

This does hold a lesson for us mainline types in our struggle/quest to move forward (whatever that turns out to mean), and I think it's a fairly obvious one. It is one that the old guard (or at least some of it) didn't always get, feeling compelled (or privileged?) to take up God's role of judgment to themselves. Judging is pretty easy to do, but it's particularly insidious when directed at some designated other, a them perhaps, with the intention of keeping the outsider distinctly and clearly locked away outside. And frankly, it is a nasty little luxury the mainline doesn't have. Any judgment on the part of the mainline needs to be directed at the advocates of injustice in the world, of which there are too many to count. But as to the misfits, the quirky ones, the weirdos or Hufflepuffs or free spirits, the mainline really needs only one simple rule:

Don't be jerks.

Supposedly I'm a Ravenclaw, for what it's worth...

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Face the past

One of the challenges the mainline faces in finding a way forward (whatever "forward" may turn out to be) is that we oftentimes haven't quite finished reckoning with the past. And as everybody knows, those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

To be more specific here, mainliners have no memory, or maybe in some cases a selective memory, about the degree to which the mainline was once a frequent, some times even a primary perpetrator of many of the same things for which mainliners now get peeved at evangelicals for doing.

For example: do you think that the only pastors to whom Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was writing from the Birmingham jail were evangelicals? Uh, no. While a few mainliners managed to stand with the civil rights movement, many, many more were either keeping silent or chiding King for making trouble or wanting to move too quickly. 

I am reminded of the kerfuffle over the "new" book by Harper Lee that somehow appeared late in Lee's life, Go Set a Watchman, in which Atticus Finch (the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird) was a rather less than heroic figure. I'm not sure which was more upsetting to many folks: the original perception that Go Set a Watchman was a sequel, suggesting that we were finding out that a beloved literary character was less wonderful than previously thought, or the later realization that GSAW was in fact an early version (a first draft, if you will) of TKAM

For me, I think, the later version is ultimately a more depressing version of events. One could easily get the idea that Lee more or less wrote what she saw and experienced, raw as it was, and sent GSAW for potential publication with Atticus as the more flawed character she had probably known in many of the men she had known and seen as a youth, only to discover that readers of the late 1950s/early 1960s needed to have the story "sweetened" to make it palatable; they required a good guy, and specifically a white good guy. (This is of course leaving aside more mundane editorial issues that needed to be addressed in GSAW.)

Modern mainliners may be guilty of this to some degree. 

It's not hard, for example, to be in Presbyland and hear of Eugene Carson Blake. A Presbyterian minister and educator, later denominational and ecumenical leader, Blake holds a place of high regard in mainline Presbydom for having stood with and even marched with King and other civil righs leaders in the March on Washington, and speaking at the Lincoln Memorial. I don't know how many other folks outside Presbyland would know of him, but he is highly regarded within this particular domain.

As far as I can learn and discern, Blake was legit, a throughgoing progressive on race and many other matters. But we moderns shouldn't necessarily assume that Blake was necessarily representative of all of the then-PCUSA or UPCUSA denominations in which he served. 

So yes, Presbydom and the mainline in general can take some measure of solace in Blake's work. But the mainline also has some real pieces of work in its various family trees, like one James Fifield. A Congregational minister who fought like, well, hell to prevent the merger that created the United Church of Christ, Fifield is particularly noteworthy as the "Apostle to Millionaires," embracing without apology and with horrible exegesis what would seem like a proto-prosperity gospel, except that its aim was far more sinister, and far more directly corporate. It wasn't just prosperity for which Fifield shilled, but specifically the prosperity and profitability of American tycoons. The "Christian America" rhetoric of today (like this) has its roots not in anything of the colonial era, but in Fifield's work. 

Note: I have already recommended Kevin M. Kruse's One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Created Christian America, in which Fifield figures prominently. This NYTimes article from a couple of years ago summarizes some (but not all, not nearly) of the salient points of that book.

In short, if we're gonna claim our Blakes, we gotta own our Fifields. We gotta be forthright about the role we played in how supposed Christianity in this country got to the point where it is today. A lot of the stain might be on evangelicals now, but they didn't do all the work. 

There won't be any successful going forward (whatever "forward" turns out to be) until we do that reckoning.

Rev. James W. Fifield, Jr., the "Apostle to Millionaires," or "St. Paul of the Prosperous"

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Ridiculous Comparison: The mainline and Broadway

So if the mainline church is lacking in celebrity (whatever that means in churchworld), what of it? Where's the fit? Despite the most virulent naysaying of the vultures, the mainline is not dead yet, and as long as that's the case it maintains some toehold in American religious culture (whether that's a good thing to be part of is a question for another time). So, what is that toehold?

I'm going to put forth a Ridiculous Comparison. I'm liking this so much I'm putting that in caps, as a potential recurring feature of this blog. Or a threat to do so. Who knows? But here goes:

The role of the mainline in American religious culture is somewhat, a little bit, kinda sorta like the role of Broadway in American entertainment. (Yes, I'm currently watching the Tony Awards. Why do you ask?)

No, I'm not trying to make a full-fledged equation betwen the two, although somebody will probably try to claim I'm doing so. But there are similiarities, I think, at least enough to justify a Ridiculous Comparison.

So, for your consideration, a few rough comparisons of Broadway and the mainline:

1. They're both quite overshadowed by far more pervasive and flashier options in their respective fields of endeavor. Speaking of the Tony Awards, the occasion of that broadcast is for an awful lot of people the only awareness of Broadway they ever get. In many ways I do count myself among such people. I don't get to New York very often at all, and while I'll try to get to a show if one comes near me, I'm not living in a place where that's the easiest thing to do.

On the other hand, Hollywood churns along with ridiculous sums of money going into movies that can potentially tank incredibly badly, and yet the cycle happens again and again. If that happened to a producer one time on Broadway you'd probably never hear from that producer for quite a while; Hollywood somehow doesn't work that way.

Throw in television in its various permutations, streaming services, and other entertainment options that frankly encourage people never to leave their homes (or to not look up even if they do), and Broadway becomes a lot of work and a good deal of expense by comparison, at least in the perception of a lot of potential audience members.

A mainline church can seem like a lot of work. If they're doing worship right you can't just show up; you actually are asked to participate. You might even end up speaking as much as the preacher (or is that just my church?). They can be rather hard to find depending on where you live -- the mainline is getting a bit more scarce in some rural areas, for example. Mainline churches don't tend to carry quite the prestige that they once did, and certainly not the sense of social compulsion that once filled pews if nothing else would. Megachurches tend to consume a lot of oxygen in the communities they inhabit, and mainline churches can struggle to breathe. The mainline and its churches don't get to fail; when you go down, you're gone for good. Church celebrity, as noted elsewhere, tends to be an evangelical thing. In multiple ways, the mainline just gets overshadowed.

2. For both, the most vital signs of life are found when those long excluded, and their stories, are , included. Suffice to say Broadway benefits tremendously from the presence of artists male and female (and even in-between), artists of color, LGBTQ+ people, and more that I'm sure I'm not thinking of in every role possible -- on the stage, directing, providing technical prowess, composing, and all the other jobs that make a show happen. Further, an awful lot of the best of Broadway happens not just when the excluded are in the cast or behind the scenes, but also when their stories are the ones being told.

This last point might be more aspirational than current in the mainline, but as far as the life of the church, the places where church is actually showing life tend to be the places where the once-excluded are included. You want examples of the moribund and fading mainline to justify your vulturing? Find the churches where the old white guys still hold sway. When the folks who have spent generations being shoved aside or thrown out or worse are now part of the church, not just on the margins but being heard and welcomed and having more than a token voice, the church is living and even feisty.

3. They are both at their best when they tell the story differently, finding an unconventional perspective to illuminate what we (think we) know. Hollywood can give you movies, for example, based on the events of September 11, 2001. They can give you a movie about what happened on that plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, one about the emergency personnel responding to the attack, a forthcoming movie (originally a play, admittedly) about people trapped in one of the towers that day, and so forth. Broadway can do those, but it's at its best when it tells the story of Gander, Newfoundland, the place where all those transatlantic flights on 9/11 landed when they could no longer get into the US. (I really, really want to see that show now.)

Similarly, this may be more aspirational than real, but the mainline church is at its best when it "tells the story slant" (to crib from Emily Dickinson). The more the church opens up the whole of scripture, finding the stories the rest of the church doen't hear or doesn't want to hear or wants to stop anybody else from hearing, the more the mainline is telling the whole story of faith, of salvation, of the relentless God who would never accept human lostness. Are you willing to learn from the midwives Shiprah and Puah, or the slave Onesimus, or the Syrophoenician woman who, when first rebuffed by Jesus, nevertheless persisted? They're not tidy stories, but they still tell us of God's moving among God's people. And those stories certainly haven't been told enough.

Maybe this is silly, but it's not as if we don't have some things to learn as a community of churches trying to be faithful, even if a faithful remnant. If we can learn something from Broadway, let's learn.

A number from Come From Away at the Tony Awards. 
Yeah, I want to see that show.

Sunday, June 4, 2017


So is there such a thing as a "mainline celebrity"?

An article in a journal called Faith and Leadership posits as its title the question "Why are there so few mainline celebrities?" You can read the article for yourself, but for me it was a bit of a befuddling slog to contemplate if only because of a tremendous lack of definition, particularly of the key word "celebrity." Nonetheless, if the question itself is not necessarily a helpful one, it is nonetheless useful for raising other questions that might be more helpful or more illuminating in considering where the church stands more generally, and the condition of the mainline in particular. So this is an old favorite kind of blog entry for me: one in which I address a question by asking a bunch more questions. So, here goes:

1. In this context, what exactly do you mean by "celebrity"? Who defines it? As best as I can tell, the author's main criteria for "celebrity" seem to involve book sales and televised "ministries" (I feel that to be a very loose use of that word, but don't have a better one at hand), with a particular interest on the latter. If you go by that as your primary definition, I have an easy answer for the author's question: because being that kind of "church celebrity" is frankly gross. Who in the world wants that? (To be fair, one anonymous pastor does seem to be quoted in the article as expressing that sentiment.)

Of course, this requires another qualification, namely that we are talking about a very limited and specifically defined kind of "celebrity" here, celebrity within the limited but sometimes white-hot cauldron of "church culture." And again, this also begs a pretty quick answer to the author's original question: because that cauldron of church culture caters primarily to that portion of the church carrying the name "evangelical," the "celebrities" formed in that culture are going to be folks who tell that culture what it wants to hear, i.e. other evangelicals. That culture writ large isn't particularly interested in hearing from Walter Brueggeman or Carol Howard Merritt, and such "mainliners" as do appear among the big-ish names (thinking of Rachel Held Evans here) tend to do so as objects of hatred.

On the flip side, you get yourself among the right mainliners and mention Walter Brueggeman's name and the room gets all glassy-eyed and dreamy and starts rhapsodizing about any one of his several dozen books and how it changed their life. In the mainline, Brueggeman is about as much a "celebrity" as there is. Held Evans (who is, of course, a recently signed free agent for the mainline roster, as a fairly new Episcopalian) is popular, to be sure, at least as much as an object lesson ("see what they do to you?") as for her writing (and note that she is not a pastor, which means of course that the televised megachurch route to fame isn't really open to her anyway). Other mainliners might point out the likes of Diana Butler Bass or Carol Howard Merritt as having a pretty strong following in the mainline. (This also begs the acknowledgment that of those four potential mainline celebrities named, three of them would be very specifically disqualified from speaking in the pulpits of a lot of evangelical churches or colleges. Just making an observation there.)

But again, this definition also leaves out the possibility of other "famous" mainliners (or evangelicals for that matter), who actually do exist. Even if he's been dead many years now, we Presbyterians will always have the record for The Most Bestest Ever Ever Ever Famous Person in the United States of America, namely Fred (Mister) Rogers, and no denomination will ever top that. (Insert smile emoji here.)

Now, let's try a living person: if you're a fan of Pixar movies you may well recognize the name Pete Docter. Even if not you probably recognize the titles Inside Out, Up, Monsters, Inc., and the various Toy Story movies. He wrote and directed Inside Out, Up, and Monsters, Inc., and created the original story for the Toy Story movies. Dude's a Presbyterian, too. In the larger world that would count for a level of fame well beyond any "church celebrity," but Docter is known for movies, not for being Presbyterian (and certainly not for arguing about it). We are talking about a tempest in a teapot here, for sure, by comparison to most sane definitions of "celebrity."

2. Is such celebrity necessarily a good thing? You know who else was a "mainline celebrity"? Norman Vincent Peale. I'm not sure how the Reformed Church in America feels about Rev. Peale today, but back in the day he was one of them, and a big freaking deal to boot. He's the guy who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, one of the more controversial books to be issued by a clergyperson of any type in the twentieth century, denounced as both a psychological and theological disaster. Nonetheless, it caught on with a lot of folks, and persisted as a general frame of mind even in the face of widespread denunciation. (Backintheday he was a favorite pastor of both Richard Nixon and Donald Trump, if that gives you any idea.)

It would be hard to imagine Peale as a mainline pastor today, but when you start surveying the history of "mainline celebrities" from past decades and Peale is the type you wind up with, you're going to be naturally turned off from the idea of celebrity.

3. Would "celebrity" necessarily be all that helpful to the mainline? For that matter, has it been all that useful to evangelicalism? Do book sales and TV ratings points necessarily translate into spiritual integrity and maturity? (From here the evidence suggests not.) Are the products of evangelical celebrity necessarily beneficial to the "consumers" of the products of that celebrity? (Again, straining to see here... .) If your goal is anything beyond "butts in seats," what good does celebrity do?

Of course, the drawbacks of celebrity are pretty obvious when celebrity becomes notoriety. While "church world" gets all a-flutter when scandal erupts around the likes of Mark Driscoll or Steven Furtick, there are plenty of us whose first reaction to those scandal stories was something along the lies of "I'm sorry, who now?" The old saw "the bigger they are, the harder they fall" most definitely applies here. Ugly ethical horrors are bad enough; having them happen under the magnifying glass of celebrity, even small-scale celebrity, only amplifies the ugliness and rancor.

And even if we expand our gaze to the realm of "real" celebrity, what exactly about that world recommends itself to the mainline?

3a. Is it even possible to be a "celebrity pastor"? Yes, it's clearly possible to be a celebrity preacher -- we've got a bunch of those walking around for better or worse. But a celebrity pastor, in anything more than title? Performing the functions and roles and ministries that happen outside the pulpit?

Seriously, how would that work? TV cameras following the celebrity pastor on hospital visits? So paint me dubious on this one.

Now, to be clear to the point of transparency, I'm no candidate for "mainline celebrity" status even if I were ever to want it, which I don't. I pastor a small church, and am pretty unlikely to pastor anything like a large church. I'm already fifty-two, so I'd be getting a late start on celebrity of any kind. I look like a deformed toadstool, and whether or not that should matter, it does. (This is of course another point against the desirability of church celebrity, which you can place in whatever category you see fit.) And I'm waaaay too cranky to put up with the demands of celebrity of any kind. So, to be clear, no sour grapes here -- if anything, great heaving sighs of relief.

I simply don't see how having a greater "celebrity" presence in the mainline is actually helpful to the churches of this tradition in doing the things these churches need to do to be the churches God calls us out to be. Maybe I'm wrong (that happens a lot). Show me otherwise, if it matters that much to you.

But frankly, I don't find the lack of mainline celebrity anything to be mourned all that much.

Uh, I'm gonna pass on this one...

Sunday, May 28, 2017

When (or to whom) not to listen

So the previous entry on this fool's errand suggested that the staggering but "not dead yet" mainline needs to do a heap of listening as it seeks to find the way forward in the Spirit to be (finally, at last?) what God has ever been wanting the church to be. There are limits to that, however.

Folks involved with computer science and programming (and probably lots of other folks) will be familiar with the phrase "garbage in, garbage out" (sometimes shortened to "GIGO"?), an expression that reflects a computer's inability to do anything about the quality of the data entered into it; given flawed data, the computer will duly process that data according to its programming, producing output that is as flawed as the input from which it is generated.

(A further extension of that acronym points to human gullibility about anything that comes out of a computer: "garbage in, gospel out." Now this really begs to be considered in the life of the church, but in its own blog entry, or maybe several.)

So in short, bad input generates bad output. And that certainly has application to the mainline. Given this maxim, we'd better be very cautious about who or what is allowed into the church's head space. Whether it is those who are up to no good, those who are sincerly but desperately misguided, or those who can only envision a rival to be conquered, there are plenty out there who should not be allowed to deposit garbage into the soul of the mainline.

Such as...?

Don't listen to the vultures. You know, those people. Just don't. It's bad for your soul.

Don't listen to the fixers. They often overlap with the above, as in "you're dying but I can bring you back to life." Unless Jesus Christ in the flesh (or in the Spirit) is the one standing in front of you saying this, run. Run very hard in the opposite direction. One thing the mainline absolutely, positively cannot get caught up in is "personality churches." To the degree that any human figure usurps the role of Christ as head of the church, the church is no church and should be euthanized immediately. The mainline has usually managed to avoid such a thing, thankfully, but now is not the time to be anything other than extra-vigilant.

Don't listen to the clone-makers. That would, not surprisingly, be a related category to the fixers, though it might not involve a lone hero figure. Instead it might sound like "if your church would do (x) and (y) etc. like our church does it would be great." No, it wouldn't be great. It would be a pale imitation of something else transplanted into a situation where it (very likely) makes no sense.

Don't listen to the nostalgia-mongers. Now this is the hard one, but every church has them. You know them, the ones who remember when the church was full every Sunday (though what defines "full" can be hard to nail down...), when the choir was the best in town, when all the right people were know the drill. And you also know, dear mainline church leader, that the road that follows Christ never goes backward.

(Somewhat on this subject, I cannot recommend highly enough Kevin M. Kruse's One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. The title says it all. Even that spasm of everybody going to church and all that was part attack on FDR's New Deal, part "parasitic greedhead scam" in the ever-poetic words of singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. Just read it.)

Do you notice how these seem to have a lot in common? How to fix. "I alone can fix it." (Really, shouldn't we know better by now?) These are all things that distract one from the hard work of knowing where you are and how you and your church got there, and how you and your church might respond to that particular, distinctive context. (They also tend to involve human heroes, but I harped on that already.) In other words, they lead you away from the hard work of listening. And they certainly don't lead you to the leading of the Spirit.

There are more red flags to discuss and I have a feeling we'll get to them. But in the meantime, a kind of "shaking the dust off your feet" (Luke 9:5) is not out of line here. They don't listen to your testimony, because all they can do is tell you what to do? Shake that dust, baby, and walk away.

One thing that might make all this easier to remember is the hard but needful saying that it is not your  (pastor, educator, member) job to save the church. It is your job to be the church.

Confusing the two only leads to misery. So don't.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The mainline and the "fine art of listening"

I'm not wild about my local classical music station.

(Note: I spent part of grad school as a music host at such a station, so such things are nearer to my heart than to most folks' hearts, I suspect.)

I mean, I don't hate it by any means, and I'm highly aware that the phrase "local classical music station" doesn't actually apply in many places in this country, and I'm exponentially more likely to listen to it than to any other radio station around here. On the other hand, I'm also aware that the phrase "local classical music station" doesn't necessarily apply even to those places that technically do have one; the music is actually piped in from some syndicated national source, and in many places there is little to any local content. (For part of the year there is a three-hour afternoon block of music with a local host. That program apparently takes academic holidays off.)

There is one thing about this station that I not just like but love, however: its tagline.

I'm talking about the thing you hear at the end of a station identification or frequency ID blurb. The masculine announcer voice gives the call letters and frequencies of the main station, its various translator frequencies or HD locations in this case, and then finally ends with this gem of a line:

"Dedicated to the fine art of listening."

BAM. Now that is how to sell your classical-music station, particularly in an age when the classical music establishment doesn't have the caché that it used to. Now I might wish their musical progamming actually lived up to such a lofty standard, but at least the standard is there.

Needless to say, I have a sneaking suspicion the church, particularly the mainline, could learn from this tagline.

I mean, I have been arguing since the second entry ever posted on this blog, lo these many years ago, that the mainline had a period of high influence (sort of) that was largely squandered (with a few exceptions). We had (or at least fancied that we had) the numbers, we had the right people, we had the influence.

If anything is apparent these days, it is that those things are no longer true.

Right now we're the corner of the church on which, ahem, other branches of Christendom are laying odds on our death. Out of Christian love, you know, and all that.

So, now that we're pretty severely stripped of all those pretensions of human power and influence, what do we do? I'm going to suggest that we might take a cue from the Gospel reading for this Thursday, Ascension Day.

(You did know that Thursday is Ascension Day, right?)

Stay in the city and wait.

And, I might add, listen.

Listen to the scriptures from which we preach. Listen to it. Study it in great large gulps. Resist the urge to reduce it (or to stand by as others reduce it) to "greatest hits" verses and cherry-picked checklists.

Especially listen to the gospels. Don't just resist, absolutely fight the sanitized Jesus of schlock paintings and shlock songs. Problematize Jesus. When Jesus is difficult, say so. Plow into the really difficult passages. Absolutely call out and stomp on anything that turns Jesus into anybody's mascot.

Listen to our worship, in particular (from my point of view) our liturgy and the songs we sing. If they don't match up with what we hear when we listen to the gospels, ditch 'em. This is no time to be sentimental, folks; that's how we got in this hole.

Listen to the folks who don't look like us. (Talking to the white folks here.) The mainline has, with a few exceptions, been at best an uneven partner in seeking justice, especially when that justice has called into question the exalted position we just kinda naturally assumed was ours because we were just really nice people. Folks, we didn't hit a triple; we were born on third base. (Wow, did I just riff on a Barry Switzer quote?) In this particular case the listening we need to do to Christians all over the world, and to Christians in this country who have gotten ground up in injustice, is going to involve an element that is necessary for good listening in general, but will be desperately important here; shutting up. Not getting defensive, not playing wounded, just shutting up and listening.

Listen to the Holy Spirit. (Back to everybody now.) You remember that, right? That embarrassing thing that some groups get all excited about. Yeah, that. Part of that Ascension Day story is that, of course, when the disciples went back to the city and waited, eventually Pentecost happened. I'm not expecting the on-the-spot ability to speak Korean or Punjabi to appear out of nowhere one day, but who knows? And we have to know by now that relying on our own inspiration isn't cutting it.

It's not as if this really is a list of discrete items to be checked off a list. I've gone on record in a forum that got read a lot more than this blog ever does about the degree that listening to our congregational song and listening to the global church (or, you know, the church) will likely interact with one another if we do it right.

Of course, the really big challenge for us is that listening takes time. With the overeager vultures circling overhead, the temptation is to be urgent, to do something now. That would be foolish. Part of the need to listen is about learning, and clearly we've got a lot to learn before we rush off into anything. Trying to do things our way, on our own timetable, in our own particular idiom (watch through about 1:05 or so) gets churches in trouble.

Listen. Quit assuming we've got the answers. Quit assuming it's all about us. Quit assuming we call the shots.