Thursday, December 09, 2010

Candlelight--the music video

Hanukkah ends today so I thought I should promo this YouTube video one more time (I shared it earlier on Facebook). From The Maccabeats--enjoy!

If you enjoyed that, be sure to see the video that inspired it, Mike Tompkins' version of Taio Cruz's Dynamite--incredibly clever and cute.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Advent dreams (Sunday Reflections for December 5, 2010)

One look out the window and it’s obvious: the world has gone dead. After a long and pleasant fall, we’ve finally experienced a hard freeze and even the first snow. My neighbor’s pear tree still has quite a few leaves on it and the grass still holds some residual green color but that won’t last long.

There are also reminders of the “green season” in some of the annuals and other plants that keep going to the very end, e.g. potted and now shriveled geraniums and marigolds. There’s a large rose bush that I walk by with a couple dozen blooms, now all freeze dried—kind of weird looking.

Balancing all this dying is the growing life and energy involved in preparations for Christmas. Malls and retail districts are bustling with shoppers. Holiday lights are glowing everywhere. Nonetheless, the shortening days, increasing cloudiness and our exhaustion at all the extra activity leave us feeling like some of our life is draining out, as well. When Christmas is past and we head into January, we hunker down for the slog to the time when life begins to return with the first signs of spring.

One of the geniuses of the ancient liturgical calendar is that it not only tells the church’s story of Jesus, it also repeats many of the experiences of nature and life. The current season of Advent is characterized by themes of expectation and preparation. The liturgy and music are generally more subdued and reflective.

For quite awhile this has put it at odds with the secular “Xmas season” (as C. S. Lewis called it). Popular culture tends to “front-load” its holidays. In other words, the holiday is usually the climax of a period of celebration. Once the actual day has come and gone, culture moves on to the next thing. In the church, the holiday begins the season. So when Christmas comes (or Easter as another example), the church’s celebration is just starting while secular culture has hit its peak and now it’s all downhill.

Wisely, the church has mostly stopped trying to impose its agenda on secular culture, or even its own members. At the same time, however, I think people have come to appreciate the church’s observance of Advent as a place of calm in the midst of the storm. I don’t hear the clamor for Christmas carols during Advent the way I used to. I suspect that’s due in part to the fact that we now start hearing Christmas music on the radio and in stores not long after Halloween.

The music and liturgy of Advent encourages us to pause and catch our breath. In the midst of the chaotic shopping, decorating and partying, Advent provides us a place to stop, think, meditate, and enjoy some silence. “Just come in, sit and be quiet,” the season seems to say.

In this sense, Advent is much in harmony with the natural world right now. While we may lament the cold and dark descending on us, nature is also “clearing the decks” we might say. In the Middle East, ancient Christians went to the desert as a place to clear their minds and renew their spirits. The barrenness of winter can provide the same service for us.

Barren times are not unusual. Not only are they built into the cycles of nature, we also know them as regular occurrences in our own lives. This is true individually and collectively. Today we are in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Many people have lost jobs and lost their homes. Nearly everyone has experienced some financial reversal.

It’s a barren time and it’s gone on a long time. And while it doesn’t seem to be getting worse, it doesn’t seem to be getting better very fast. Things will get better, of course, but it’s looking increasingly to be the case that things won’t just go back to the way they were. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The Bible has repeated stories of success and reversal, often quite dramatic. In fact, in some ways those cycles are what the Bible is about. One of its most profound ironies is that while God’s people are repeatedly promised and looking forward to better times (“a land flowing with milk and honey”), success and prosperity is almost always a prelude to disaster. Here indeed is support for that popular wisdom, “Be careful what you wish for.”

After the various disasters that befall them, people in the Bible then have a period of time to reflect on what’s happened and how they can do better. The prophets are the people we most associate with facilitating this process. These times in the wilderness or in exile are indeed barren, yet spiritually they become the incubators for faith and hope and new visions of life and community.

Our country and in some ways the whole planet are at a turning point. Free-market capitalism, along with science and technology, have produced standards and qualities of living unimaginable just a few generations ago. Within our country, and even more so globally, these riches have been shared grossly unequally. This isn’t a new problem, and not coincidentally it is one the prophets railed against more than any other over two thousand years ago.

History has shown that such inequality simply cannot last. No society can function that is grossly imbalanced and we are seeing that the same is true for the planet. In this “barren time” we have an opportunity to reflect on what has past and what we wish now will come. What is our hope, our vision, our dream? Can we imagine a world of prosperity as well as one of fairness and equal opportunity?

In his Pentecost sermon in Acts, Peter repeats the words of the prophet Joel: in the days when God’s Spirit is poured out on the people, “your young shall see visions and your old shall dream dreams.” Such experiences rarely happen in the normal hurriedness of life but more often in the dark and the quiet. May these times of darkness and barrenness be, for each of us and for our world, times of visions and dreams, courage and hope.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Will the real Jesus please stand up? (Sunday Reflections for November 21, 2010)

Most adults remember the long running game show To Tell the Truth. Three contestants would each claim to be someone with an unusual occupation or experience when, in fact, two of them were imposters. By asking questions, a celebrity panel would try to figure out which person was genuine. After making their guesses, the narrator would intone, “Would the REAL _____ please stand up?” All three contestants would make motions as if to stand until the actual person finally did so.

That scenario isn’t a bad description of the state of biblical study into the life of Jesus. For one of the truths biblical scholars have been uncovering almost since beginning their work is that the New Testament contains multiple Jesuses. By that I mean that the various ways he is depicted in the gospels and other writings just can’t be merged together into a single person.

As scholar Robert Price says, there are just too many Jesuses: teacher, sage, miracle worker, prophet, mystic, reformer, revolutionary, etc. All the ways he is depicted in the Bible simply can’t be brought together into a single, coherent individual. The result is that over the centuries people have constructed multiple Jesus figures from the materials available, selecting some bits and ignoring others.

Over a century ago, and before his medical missionary days, the scholar Albert Schweitzer exposed this practice among theologians. It’s only been more recently that we’ve realized the problem goes all the way back to the New Testament itself. “Will the real Jesus please stand up?” Unfortunately we seem stuck in that moment when the contestants each make the gesture of standing up—but no one ever does.

The past few weeks I have been writing about the problems of religion in the modern world. Standing in the middle of any discussion about re-thinking Christianity or re-making the church is, of course, the figure of Jesus. In reality, though, we don’t have one Jesus to deal with, but many. Some New Testament scholars talk about the difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. I think a variation on this that is more helpful is to think about the Jesus of Galilee and the Christ of Calvary.

It doesn’t take a literary or theological genius to realize that a dramatic shift takes place in the gospels when the rabbi Jesus leaves Galilee for Jerusalem, to become the crucified Christ. Nor is it hard to recognize that the gospels struggle to make this transition convincing or logical. Jesus’ “trial” is never really believable because the story of his prior life doesn’t set the readers up for it. The evangelists try to make this support the notion of the unfairness of Jesus’ death but it really just leaves a dramatic hole. Asking “What did Jesus do to deserve this?” is as much a question about the story as it is about theology.

The conclusion of many scholars is that the gospels in essence are two stories awkwardly pasted together: one about Jesus’ Galilean ministry and the other his death in Jerusalem. Some have described the gospels as passion stories with long introductions. I think this is wrong, but it certainly has been a popular interpretation and probably the prevailing one over the centuries. In any case, it points to that sense of disjunction, resolved by making the Galilee story a prolog to the Calvary story.

The reality, which preachers and most scholars both prefer to ignore, is that the origins of the New Testament and the church are hidden in a fog that will never clear. Modern New Testament scholarship has taught us a lot. Yet one of its most important realizations is that there is much we almost certainly will never know. One consequence is that it is unlikely the “real Jesus” will ever stand up.

This has been the source of many of the biggest fights in the church over the centuries. Yet paradoxically this diversity has probably also been a source of strength. People have claimed the label Christian while constructing in their own minds a Jesus that suits their personalities and needs. The church today needs again to take advantage of its “multiple Jesuses.”

Around the world, even among non-Christians, Jesus remains a popular figure. Yet it isn’t just any Jesus. It is almost always the rabbi Jesus of Galilee. Today most people, including many Christians, have relatively little interest in the crucified Christ of Calvary. Yet it is this latter Christ that the church has promoted and built itself upon—and that’s a problem.

Salvation through faith in the crucified Christ has been the church’s primary “product.” In Catholicism and the churches which remained close to it, people received salvation through the sacraments, especially baptism and communion. Salvation was very real as people literally “got” Jesus this way. For evangelical Protestants, salvation was more of a psychological or emotional experience. People got Jesus by believing in or “accepting” him and often by having various spiritual experiences so that they “felt” saved.

Yet whatever the tradition, the result was the same: people received salvation through Jesus’ death on the cross. It was tangible and very personal, as this well-known 19th c. hymn declares:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!

Today, most people are not interested in possessing Jesus as the ticket to a heavenly reward. However, this is the Jesus promoted and “sold” by the church through most of its existence. As that market has dried up, the church’s fortunes have fallen. People’s concerns are for their lives here and now, not for some intangible existence that might come later.

Yet this practicality is exactly what we find in the rabbi Jesus of Galilee. This Jesus rarely if ever offers “pie in the sky, bye and bye.” His concerns are consistently with how people treat one another, with their values, and with their appreciation of what a gift they have in each day of living. He focuses both on individual relationships and on the justice and injustice of social structures. He is concerned with the abuse of power and the need to protect and care for the weak. In this Jesus we encounter someone who treats each person as an equally valued individual.

Admittedly, Jesus is a person of his ancient world. Not everything he says or does has equal relevance to life in our time. Yet there is much that does speak to life in this world and that people are still listening to. Putting this wise, prophetic and compassionate Jesus front-and-center would be a step toward remaking the church into something contemporary people could find of value. But that can only happen if the church is willing to move the crucified, savior Christ into the background and let go of the ancient baggage he carries with him.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Getting out of the salvation business (Sunday Reflections for November 14, 2010)

What business is the church in? What is the church’s product? As I said last week, this can be a bit complicated to figure out. Over the centuries, the church has always offered a variety of products and services. This has been part of its strength as it allowed people to connect with the church in a variety of ways. Still, however people valued it, the church has understood itself to offer one primary product more important than any other: salvation. That product, I believe, has become the church’s buggy whip.

Theologians and church historians will tell us that salvation has always been understood in a variety of ways. That is true, but let’s accept that for the vast majority of Christians, as well as for most people who have heard the Christian message but didn’t accept it, salvation has meant escaping the judgment and wrath of God and receiving the gift of eternal life. That is what has been the church’s primary product and that is what it can’t sell anymore, or even give away for that matter.

In my ministry, I can honestly say I have encountered only one person seriously concerned about going to hell, and she was in a hospital psychiatric unit. Not only are people not concerned about this for themselves, they show no concern about it for others they know (hence our evangelism problem).

My most memorable example of this was a young man whose life was basically one screw-up after another, hurting a lot of people along the way. He finally took his own life and at his funeral (which was well attended) I quoted his brother’s summary of him and of people’s feelings about him: “He was a son-of-a-bitch but we loved him.” Afterward, people congratulated me on my message. No one expressed any concern about his soul.

Salvation and its alternative are simply not on people’s radar screens anymore. Generally we’ve all become pretty vague about what we think does happen in “the next life” or even if there is one. That’s a topic for another time but for now I’ll just note that whatever is awaiting us, very few of us are concerned about it. The experience of dying may scare us (especially our loss of control) and we may be anxious about all those potentially unfinished items on our to-do lists. Yet the idea of being dead doesn’t seem to bother us much. The very-old often look forward to it. In any case, the once awesome image of “meeting our maker” hardly gets a thought.

And to that I say, “Well, it’s about time.” For to me this is testimony that the church’s message has finally sunk in. Whoever or whatever God is, people have concluded, God loves us. God is the personification of love. God is love. That’s all in the Bible but so is a lot of other less positive God-talk. Yet I don’t think the God-of-love has ever been reconcilable with the God-of-wrath. It’s just been too obvious that the God of hellfire and brimstone has been a convenient tool of religious authorities to scare people into propping up religion and its institutions.

As the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, Paul and Luther all discovered, a genuine message of grace inevitably generates violent opposition from religion and the people in charge of it. They just have too much to lose if people ever genuinely believed it. And they’re right, of course. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Christian message of freedom also means freedom from religion. The inevitable conclusion is: I don’t need it anymore.

In short, humanity has been growing up but religion, including Christianity, hasn’t been keeping up. In fact, it often has been resisting that development. It has been to the church’s advantage to keep its members in a child-like, dependent relationship. Over the past century or two, however, people throughout the modern Western world have been maturing and leaving the church by the millions.

Aimee Semple McPherson
And so to repeat, people don’t need to be “saved”—not from God’s wrath and judgment, not from hell and damnation. That buggy whip won’t sell. Now as I indicated above, for many theologians, as well as many church leaders and even ordinary Christians, this is old news. For them salvation long ago became a metaphor for other human needs and experiences. For them, the gospel is about our experience of God’s love and grace in this life rather than some reward in a life-to-come.

Fine—yet the truth is that even in so-called moderate and liberal denominations like ours, this is rarely said explicitly nor has it significantly influenced our liturgy or the materials we use in Sunday school, adult education, evangelism, and so on. I think there are two reasons for this. One, as I’ve talked about before, is the unwillingness of clergy, especially, to do anything that might provoke those who retain old traditional religious beliefs. Why kick the hornets' nest? Yet, protecting their sensibilities has resulted in the loss of far more people for whom religion has become increasingly disconnected from real life and therefore irrelevant.

The other reason the church has resisted moving beyond “salvation” is that it will take hard work to, quite frankly, recreate Christianity. It will take admitting, once and for all, that ancient Christianity is dead and that the only alternative now is for something new to take its place. It will take major rethinking, remaking, and even some killing off of much if not all of the church’s sacraments, liturgy, liturgical calendar, scripture, institutional structures and self-image.

Billy Sunday & Mae West
It will require re-imaging an adult God for adult people. This God can no longer simply be Santa Claus on a cosmic scale, who’s got a list, checking it twice, to see who’s been naughty or nice; a God who brings treats and toys to good girls and boys but puts coal in bad children’s stockings. This God must somehow encompass a 14 billion year old Universe, vast in space and time beyond our imagining, yet also relates to a human species on one small planet and whose history encompasses only the tiniest last fraction of the Universe’s existence.

The church must get off its high-horse and finally say to itself and to the world, no one needs us. We are not God’s instrument of salvation for the planet. We are not essential to the life or well-being of humanity.

Then, having said it and genuinely believing it, perhaps the church can re-create itself to be something people want in their lives. Then, perhaps, we can rediscover the genuine hope and wisdom of our scriptures and of our saints, buried by centuries of institutional self-interest and stagnation. Then, perhaps, we can again be a genuine force for justice and peace in the world and a source of courage and love in people’s lives.

That could be a viable business plan, with a product that will sell. But first we must accept, once and for all, that the church is not any longer in the salvation business.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The best buggy whip money can buy (Sunday Reflections for November 7, 2010)

Imagine it is 1905 and you are president of Acme Buggy Whip Company. Your sales are dropping alarmingly. Without questioning why this is so, you assume you need to improve your product to make it more appealing to your customers. As a result, you begin making buggy whips in different colors, different sizes, and with different grades of materials. You begin having contests, two-for-one deals, a buggy whip of the month club, and other promotions. Result? Sales continue to drop and you are soon out of business.

The problem, of course, wasn’t with the quality of your buggy whips or their price. The problem was that fewer and fewer people wanted buggy whips at all. The problem was the arrival of something brand new and which you did not anticipate: the automobile. As a result, there was nothing you could have done to improve your buggy whips that would have made any difference. What you really needed to do was change your product.

Businesses have become very introspective. They are all followers of Socrates: “Know thyself.” Business guru authors, seminar leaders and consultants all preach that businesses need to better understand their operations. They need to have a clear understanding of their “mission,” of their customers, of their products, of their internal operations, and of their company culture.

To be successful (they are told) businesses need to know who they are and what they are trying to accomplish. In short, they need to know what business they are in. Remarkably, this is much more difficult than it sounds. Like people, businesses are reluctant to change, preferring to keep on doing what they are familiar with. Plus, there are those monthly bills to pay. If there is enough cash coming in to cover expenses, why do something risky? And we don’t want to alienate our stockholders.

In recent years, there have been attempts to apply MBA-style thinking and concepts to the church. In general, they haven’t accomplished a whole lot but frankly I suspect that is because churches find it difficult to be as honest or as ruthless as such thinking often requires. The church isn’t a business but it certainly has business aspects, as the Crystal Cathedral, the ELCA national operations, and countless congregations around the country, including our own, have learned. Churches, too, have a bottom line.

Yet as my example above illustrates, business thinking doesn’t start with dollars and cents. It starts by asking a more fundamental, and therefore more difficult, question: What business are you in? Acme Buggy Whip was making a product which its customers no longer needed. It had to re-imagine itself and understand its primary objective was to meet customer needs. If customers no longer needed buggy whips, Acme needed to re-create itself to meet some other need—or go out of business.

Today, the church needs to be asking itself: What business are we in? Like Acme, the church has been offering a variety of products and services for which there has been a steadily falling demand. Also like Acme, the church has responded by trying to improve those products making them more appealing, more consumer friendly, more affordable, etc. Result? “Sales” have continued falling with hardly a pause. Could it be that, like Acme, the church’s real challenge is not to improve its product but to find a new one altogether?

Of course, the church’s product is not as tangible or simple as a buggy whip. Over the centuries, the church has provided a variety of services and, as a result, people have joined churches for a variety of reasons. Take worship, for example (the church’s most well-known service). I have learned during my years as a pastor that people come to worship for many reason. For some it’s the liturgy or the sacraments, for others it’s the sermon, or the music, or having some quiet time, or the fellowship, or the coffee and donuts afterward, or for the kids or to keep their spouse happy, or just habit.

Because the church as a whole has this multi-faceted nature, it’s made it hard to figure out what isn’t working (maybe we just need better donuts). A big part of the church’s success has been the variety of products and services that it offers. It’s given people many different ways to connect with the church. So when, despite that variety, and the tweaking and improving that’s gone on lately, participation in church life is still falling, then that would indicate something has fundamentally changed.

Remember again our beloved Acme: the reason it couldn’t sell its buggy whips wasn’t because it didn’t make good buggy whips. They were the best. It was because people no longer needed them. Their horses and buggies had been replaced by automobiles. What could Acme do? Assuming its whips were made of leather, it could have found a different leather product to make. If it wanted to stay in transportation, perhaps it could have shifted to leather wrapped steering wheels or gear shifts, or leather interiors, or something we can’t imagine.

What business is the church in? That’s been a difficult question for church leaders to look at. When you think you’ve been given your mission by God it’s pretty hard to imagine that mission changing. Acme’s management couldn’t imagine a world without horses and buggies, or that they could be replaced by those noisy, dangerous, unreliable auto-mobiles, motorcars, or whatever you wanted to call them (“Menaces is what I call them!”). And yet….

It’s probably true, as some people say, that the phrase “out of the box thinking” is overused. It is a useful image, though, because our thinking often does get trapped inside of mental “boxes.” Cars were outside the box of Acme’s leaders. And being unable to imagine such a world, they couldn’t imagine how Acme could fit into it—and so it didn’t. End of Acme.

The church is now in a new world. Thus far, it is a world the church cannot imagine and therefore can’t imagine its place in it. Its thinking is still in that box with the horses and buggies. Surely some people will always want our buggy whips, won’t they? For awhile longer, yes. However, that time seems to be coming to an end. But imagine the opportunities in this new world! Can we get out of our box, put aside the buggy whips—and imagine?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The first thing we do, let's kill all the churches (Sunday Reflections for October 31, 2010)

(My Sunday Reflections post a few weeks ago on the latest round of ELCA cutbacks generated a lot of blog hits and quite a few comments. A few of those raised the obvious question, “Well then, what’s the church supposed to do?” Neither in that post or previously have I provided many constructive suggestions. Mostly I have just reported on the problems and how what the ELCA and other churches are doing isn’t working.

The question is a fair one. However, to use a medical analogy, the patient isn’t going to accept the treatment if she doesn’t believe she’s really sick. I believe the church has been, and still is, in this situation. The various “fixes” that have been tried over the past few decades have almost always fallen into the category of “If it doesn’t work, do more of it.” In other words, most still believe the church is fundamentally okay but it just needs to do what it does better. The result—to use the quote from my earlier post—has been lots of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

So I’ll cut to the chase and state my conclusion: religion as we have known it is dead—or dying and soon to be dead. Now I am well aware of the signs of life that still remain. Most of those, however, are in parts of the world just now entering the modern industrial world. Where modernism has taken hold, religion’s trajectory has been steadily downward for decades or even centuries.

Religion has not disappeared but it is now simply a personal option, a life-style choice. Some people still “enjoy” religion but it’s the way others enjoy music, art, reading, gardening, sports, fitness, and so on. In the past religion was part of the fabric of society; so much so that some ancient languages (like biblical Hebrew) didn’t even have words for “religion,” since it was inseparable from the culture. Today religion is just one among many cultural components, all jostling for people’s attention. This cultural “comedown” is why traditional fundamentalist religions are in such a panic. Remembering their glorious past, they are desperately trying to reassert their power and generally being pains-in-the-neck.

The problem for moderate religions, including mainline Christianity, is that basically, we get it. We know what’s happened but we don’t know what to do about it. We know that religion of the past is just that: past, over, done. Yet we also have this gut feeling that there is something of value that needs to be kept alive, that is of value at least to us, even if we can’t quite put our finger on it. That, I think, is what churches like the ELCA are trying to reach for but we’ve been going about it very poorly. We’re like the trapeze artist who just can’t let go of the rope because we’re not convinced another one will be there to grab on to.

A new Lutheran magazine came out at the same time as the ELCA’s latest turmoil and it included Bishop Hanson’s monthly back-page column (which now inexplicably is behind a subscriber's paywall. Can the Lutheran find anymore ways to shoot itself in the foot?) When I first read it I admit I thought it was another mish-mash of theological jargon, using nice-sounding words but saying little. Re-reading it I changed my opinion. I think it actually spills Christianity’s theological beans, though I don’t know if that’s what Bishop Hanson intended.

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Christianity really contains the seeds of its own destruction—intentionally so. Historically I think there has always been a minority that understood this but who were oppressed if they started talking about it too loudly. It is a tension that has existed in Christianity from the start, planted by Jesus himself. Perhaps the best symbol of it is the story of his overturning the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. This one we know as the founder of the world’s greatest religion was actually prophesying the end of religion.

Hanson’s essay is titled “Our gospel must be Jesus.” Briefly he describes the many competing, false “gospels” in the world, both secular and religious, with their strenuous requirements for success and salvation. Hanson then uses a series of quotations from Paul (someone else who got it) to describe Jesus’ gospel—of freedom.

This gospel is the healing of all separation and alienation It reveals the fruitlessness of all hoop-jumping and rule-keeping. It gives the assurance of every person’s inherent importance and worth. Hanson summarizes this saying: “The good news we proclaim and believe is that Jesus would rather die than be in the sin-accounting business.” Exactly—and to me this is another way of saying, “Jesus would rather die than be in the religion business.”

Which is why Hanson fumbles at the end of his essay. He wants this to lead to a stirring call for revival in the church. He can’t pull it off, though, for a simple reason: It doesn’t lead there and he knows it. Instead we get this:

When we proclaim this gospel with clarity, courage and conviction, the Spirit will be at work, bringing us to faith, freeing us and calling us so mission will flow from it into the various contexts of our lives and throughout the world.

Why not say this instead?

When we truly hear and believe this good news of affirmation and freedom, we will go out and live our lives with passion and joy, using our talents and opportunities to the fullest, with love and compassion.

The bottom line, though, is that whether you use Hanson’s statement or mine, it’s hard to see how either leads to joining a church, attending worship services, and serving on the property committee.

Hanson quotes Paul from Galatians in what may be the most revolutionary statement in all religion: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” The irony of our time is that the modern secular world gets this, but the church still doesn’t. It wants to take back the most important thing the gospel offers. Realizing its implications, the church keeps sputtering “Yes but…!” in a desperate attempt at self-preservation. It’s not working. More and more people do get it. Our freedom also means freedom from religion.

So, should the church just shut its doors and hang out the For Sale sign? That certainly is happening, but I’m not sure it’s the only option. True to its heritage, however, for it to go on the church must die to be reborn. It must give up what it was for it to become something new and genuinely life-giving. The question is how long it will be before the patient is ready to take that medicine.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Controlled descent (Sunday Reflections for October 24, 2010)

National midterm elections are less than two weeks away. Typically less than half of those eligible cast ballots in such elections and that is likely to be true this time, as well. Not voting can reflect satisfaction with the way things are, frustration with the system, or disinterest. Polls report an unusually higher number of likely voters who are angry. Not surprisingly incumbent Democrats are especially anxious and the party may lose control of one or both houses of Congress.

The distressed state of the economy is the dominant campaign topic. Unlike previous disagreements over wars or social issues, however, there is no clear “for or against” divide. The result has been a muddled election campaign with a lot more emotion expressed than clear ideas. The economy is a mess; it doesn’t seem to be getting much better; so somebody needs to do something—but what?

Not surprisingly the party in power gets the blame for such problems. The likely gain in Republican congressional seats will not set a clear alternative direction, however. Instead, it will likely result in more Washington muddle for the next two years, which in some people’s minds is a good thing. They may be right, but I doubt it.

As a country we are in new territory, and while we don’t really like where we are at, neither do we know of another place to go. We certainly don’t have anyone confidently saying, “Follow me. I know the way out of here.” In fact, the real problem is that we don’t know where we are. We’ve run off the map.

Many view the modern study of history as beginning with Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was published in England, in multiple volumes, during the time of the American Revolution. Gibbon’s work reflected the Enlightenment’s fascination with the classical origins of Western culture. Its focus on the end of Rome’s empire was also a cautionary tale. With unrest and revolution in the air, there was considerable interest in learning how great nations can also go greatly wrong.

That interest has continued and been the topic of many subsequent books and college courses. One of the more obvious conclusions of such studies is that no empire lasts forever. Another conclusion, however, is that empires and great nations do not all end or decline the same way. There is considerable difference, for example, between ancient and modern empires.

The ancient world was characterized by a succession of dominating, long-lasting empires, like Egypt, Persia, Greece, and, of course, Rome. The modern world, on the other hand, has seen countless competing empires come and go relatively quickly. Some have fallen suddenly and often violently. Others, however, have come to an end more gradually and orderly, often transitioning into new, smaller entities. Nazi Germany is a spectacular example of the former while Great Britain demonstrated the possibility of the latter.

Not surprisingly, there has been much speculation on whether the United States has begun its decline. One of the first and still best scholarly examinations of this was historian Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), which covered the period from 1500 onward. If there is one word that explains the decline of the powers Kennedy looks at, it is “overstretch.” Ultimately, the dominating power of all of these nations ended because their (mostly) military endeavors eventually outran their resources.

Kennedy does not say there was necessarily anything these countries could have done to prevent this outcome. Indeed, he says, it is simply not given for any nation to dominate the world indefinitely. Awareness of that truth, and awareness of how decline happens, implies that nations can have some say in preparing for and managing their inevitable yielding of the world power stage to another.

The current recession has revealed that we are in a state of denial about our future. The recently burst housing bubble was the result of government economic policies trying to compensate for decades of flat household income growth with cheap and easy credit. In fact, this was only the latest of a series of such bubbles, each one trying to create wealth via investment schemes rather than with actual economic growth. The result each time is that a few savvy folks make out like bandits while far more lose their shirts.

As a consequence, the disparity in income and wealth has been growing alarmingly. Not since the 1920s has such a small percentage of the population controlled such a large portion of the nation’s wealth. The rich are also doing a remarkable job of hiding this fact. A recent survey showed that American’s have no clue just how rich the rich really are—and how relatively poor they are as a result.

Voter anger is not surprising given these circumstances. Unfortunately, politicians are all too ready to exploit that anger for their own purposes by directing it at manufactured bogeymen. This only makes the problems worse, however, and plays right into the hands of those able to exploit those problems for their own benefit.

We need to face the fact that the United States’ political and economic place in the world is changing. The global dominance it has experience since the end of World War II is ending, as it inevitably had to. Just as Europe and Japan rebuilt themselves after that war, so now many formerly poor and often exploited countries are joining the modern global economy.

Our slice of the global economic pie is shrinking but only because the pie itself is getting bigger. It’s essential we understand this difference between perception and reality. Thus far, though, we haven’t been doing a very good job with that. Trying to hold back this tide will only result in disaster, as we have seen. Instead, we need to learn how to ride with it.

We need to rediscover who we are as a people and recommit ourselves to our historic values: preservation of personal freedom and opportunity combined with care and support for those in need. We need to channel our anger, not into hatred or vengeance, but into a resolve to right what is wrong. We need set a new course that reflects our changed circumstances, that will lead us all together to a better tomorrow.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Time to get disorganized (Sunday Reflections for October 17, 2010)

Wind from the Sea--Andrew Wyeth, 1947
And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. (Acts 2)

As expected, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson revealed last Monday the outline of the ELCA’s new churchwide structure. The plan was approved by the ELCA Church Council at a meeting the prior week held via conference call. The new structure purports to be simpler and is certainly smaller. Sixty-five staff members will be let go, most working at the Chicago headquarters on Higgins Road. This is about 20% of the ELCA staff and comes after a ten percent reduction last November.

The reorganization is the consequence of a dramatic falloff in churchwide revenue. According to the ELCA news release:

"In 2008 after adjusting for inflation, the value of mission support income had declined by half since the founding of this church in 1988," Hanson wrote to the council. "From 2008 to 2011, estimated churchwide mission support dropped from $65.3 million to $48 million." The work of the design team is based on an estimated range of $45 million to $48 million in annual mission support income for the next three years, Hanson said.

The last statement indicates ELCA leadership believes the income drop has hit bottom but doesn’t say why they believe this. I don’t see any reason to believe this is the case, which means another round of cutbacks will be coming soon. This can only add to the sense of embattlement and malaise in the churchwide office.

One Lutheran blogger described the reorganization plan as “more of the same, only on a smaller scale” and that’s the way it looks to me, as well. Perhaps that is all that can be expected as this point. The new scheme was put together pretty quickly with the overriding objective being to cut spending. I think this needs to be seen as a stop-gap that has bought some time because this is going to have to be revisited, and soon.

“The same but smaller” just isn’t going to cut it because the church really has entered a whole new situation. This was true even at the time the ELCA was formed, though it wasn’t recognized sufficiently at the time. And it is why the ELCA has essentially failed—and this needs to be frankly admitted. It’s time to go back to the drawing board and start over.

The group forming the ELCA in the 1980s was called the Commission for a New Lutheran Church (CNLC). Much emphasis was placed at the time on the goal being to create a genuinely new denomination. In hindsight we can now see the result really wasn’t nearly new enough. As a student I attended a conference at my seminary about the potential merger. I remember one presenter (I think it was Bob Benne) wondering aloud whether this would actually renew American Lutheranism or whether it would simply be a case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or of the last two dinosaurs mating. The current reorganization certainly is deck chair arranging, after having tossed some of them over the side.

So what’s next? As I’ve written many times before, it is incredibly difficult for people within an organization to imagine it becoming something genuinely different. The secular, contemporary example I often cite is General Motors. GM has been doing what it’s been doing, the way it’s been doing it, for so long that it’s been nearly impossible for it to adjust to the dramatic changes sweeping the automotive world. The end result, of course, was bankruptcy.

The church, especially at its higher bureaucratic levels, is much the same. Yet change it must. Recently the ELCA appointed (yet another) task force to study itself, called LIFT (Living into the Future Together). LIFT member and lay youth minister, Erik Ullestad, wrote this in response to the ELCA restructuring:

Much of the conversation and research on the LIFT Task Force has pointed to something painfully radical: The mark of a vibrant organization in a post-modern, open-source world is not a large national expression headquartered in a high-rise building, but instead consists of strong, healthy local expressions that network together for mission and ministry.

Perhaps the best symbolic statement the ELCA could make that it is going to be something radically different would be to hang a big “For Sale” sign on its Higgins Road office tower (of course, good luck with that in this real estate market). I think it’s now apparent that the goal of the ELCA was to achieve the pinnacle of denominational organization, just as the denominational model was dying. What better symbol of that was there than to have a tall, shiny, big city office building?

I don’t know what the future holds for American Lutheranism or American Christianity. I have ideas, some of which I have shared and will share more, and others have ideas, but what most everybody agrees on is that religion in America and around the world is changing radically. What the ELCA needs to do is certainly not to fight that, for that is sure to end in disaster. Neither can it ignore that reality or simply react as it gets clobbered by one blow after another, which is what it has mostly been doing.

The challenge for the ELCA is to reform itself to so it can ride with these changes, adjust to them and, when and where possible, take advantage of them and perhaps even influence them. As Ullestad’s quote indicates, this is likely not going to happen at the top but in the responses of the multiple, inter-dependent parts of the church: congregations, colleges and seminaries, social service organizations, ad hoc associations, etc.

All of this seems to argue for a radical decentralizing of the church. There needs to be some creative chaos right now. We need to let things get out of (our) control. This, of course, is the bureaucrat’s worst nightmare: “We can’t let them do that!” Nor will it please anyone concerned about Lutheran quality control. Yet the truth is that such control and administration is already breaking down, especially at the congregational level. Instead of resisting it, now is the time to encourage it.

There is, of course, a long history of creative disorder in the church, supported by considerable biblical tradition. Indeed you could make the case it’s the way God most often gets things done. At least that seems to be what Jesus is telling one of the Bible’s many control freaks, Nicodemus: “The wind/Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” It’s time to open the windows and let the winds blow in.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Looking for direction on Higgins Road: A follow-up

The ELCA News Service has put out a news release about the churchwide reorganization just approved by the ELCA Church Council. It gives an overview of the consolidation of what was previously 16 “units” into three, though not many specifics. The bottom line is that 65 staff members will be let go, out of a total of 358, most of them at the Chicago headquarters. Questionably the reorganization assumes no further fall-off in contributions. Why it is assumed the church income drop has hit bottom is not explained. This fits, though, with an overall picture of a church that is still not grappling with the harsh new realities of denominational life.

In one quote Bishop Hanson says, "This new design positions the churchwide organization to make a vital and vibrant contribution to the ministries of this church and the work of partners throughout the world.” Again, there seems to be an unwillingness or inability to recognize that the role of “the churchwide organization” and denominations generally must change and has changed fundamentally. Churchwide support is now half what is was when the ELCA was formed yet the impression being given is that this is just a bit of tightening and fine-tuning. Rather than a pro-active vision this seems like yet another short-sighted reaction to blows that will just keep on coming.

Postscript: And how can you not see the cover of the October Lutheran magazine epitomizing the ELCA’s current near total confusion. Jack Benny? What percentage of the population would even recognize his picture?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Looking for direction on Higgins Road (Sunday Reflections for October 10, 2010)

Change continues to be the dominant reality for the ELCA’s national organization. The Conference of Bishops met this past week to hear of a major reorganization of the ELCA’s churchwide operation. These changes have been necessitated by a continuing and dramatic fall-off in contributions to the synods and national church.

The details haven’t been announced yet but everyone knows major staff cuts are inevitable at the Chicago headquarters on Higgins Road. There have been lay-offs before but they have involved shrinking existing offices and departments. This time there will be a real reorganization. The national church will be different with, of course, some months of inevitable chaos and confusion bringing it about.

Last year, when a ten percent budget cut and corresponding lay-offs were announced, two ELCA leaders presented them very differently. Mark Hanson, the Presiding Bishop, lamented the cutbacks but insisted they would not materially affect the ELCA’s ministry. The church’s mission and commitments would remain. However, Pastor Wyvetta Bullock, ELCA executive for administration, in detailing the reductions admitted frankly, “We will be doing less with less.” Now, apparently, the ELCA will be doing even less, with even less.

These are tough times for the ELCA. The atmosphere in the Higgins Road office tower is understandably grim. The staff has known for weeks that major layoffs were coming but specifics weren’t to be announced until now. As church employees they are not covered by unemployment insurance. Those let go will probably get a small severance package which, in this economy, will run out well before they find new jobs.

I have yet to hear an explanation for why the church provides less of a social safety net than secular society. This issue is at the heart of another church employee mess, the cancellation of an Augsburg Fortress’ pension plan. Plan members have sued the ELCA Publishing House for fraud because it claimed exemption from the federal pension insurance program, ERISA.

The problem is that the ELCA has tried to have it both ways with Augsburg Fortress. Its sole purpose is to meet the ELCA’s publishing needs, is run by an ELCA elected board, and operates as a church organization for legal purposes, such as exemption from ERISA. Yet the ELCA also has claimed that AF is an independent organization, meaning the church has no financial obligation to it or its employees. This may be legally accurate (we’ll see what the courts think) but ethically it stinks and everyone knows it. No one in ELCA leadership can talk about it now that it’s in litigation, but it is just adding to the ELCA’s sense of confusion and deterioration.

I suppose it’s understandable, then, that Bishop Hanson seems to have assumed the role of denominational cheerleader. Most people give him a lot of credit for his dispassionate and even-handed management of last year’s churchwide assembly and the multi-year process leading to the approval of gay clergy. The dust is settling, it’s fairly clear what congregations have left or are leaving over this (significant but certainly less than 10%), so he wants to rally the troops to move ahead.

The ELCA news service published a summary of Hanson’s report at the start of the bishop’s meeting last weekend:

• It is time for the church to move forward and get over being “timid” about mission and ministry.

• "I've been pondering that a lot. Have we become a timid church?" Hanson asked the ELCA leaders. A sign of a timid church is one that describes itself by what it has lost and what it lacks, he said. Such a church is one that tries to hold onto the past and preserve what was, Hanson said.

• A church that defines itself by controversies and partisan divisions "will become a weary and timid church," Hanson said.… The presiding bishop also said he is "deeply concerned" that leaders preach with a sense of confidence.

• Hanson said he continues to have confidence in the two priorities for the churchwide organization: accompanying congregations as growing centers of evangelical mission, and building capacity for evangelical witness in the world to alleviate poverty, and work for justice and peace.

• He reflected on his experiences at recent gatherings [of teens and youth and campus ministry leaders]. "In those gatherings, I saw evidence of the stirring up of leaders in this church that gives me a sense of confidence and courage," he said.

• Hanson concluded his report by asking leaders not to lose confidence "in the gifts of the Spirit and what it means to live out the faith."

So, timidity is out and confidence is in. If only it were that simple. Actually, as I wrote to a colleague, I don’t think the problem is timidity as it is confusion. The Bishop wants the church to more forward, but which way is that? Unfortunately it is so easy in the church to get lost in rhetoric, speaking without actually communicating. Above Hanson describes the church’s priorities as “accompanying” and “building capacity.” Huh? Paul says somewhere that an army can’t move forward if the trumpeter’s sound is uncertain. I think we’ve found an example.

I don’t mean to dump on Bishop Hanson personally. He is a good man who has done very well in an impossible job. Rather I cite him because his words and actions reflect the state of the ELCA and church denominations generally. While recent controversies have given the ELCA a jolt, the downward trends have been in place for a long time, and not just for Lutherans.

Unfortunately Hanson and most church leaders are too close to the problems to get real perspective—and perhaps also don’t want to see what’s there. An ELCA staff member posted on Facebook a quote from the management guru Peter Drucker: "Every organization has to prepare for the abandonment of everything it does." Perhaps the question the folks on Higgins Road and in our synod offices need to ask is, “What would happen, and who would notice, if we didn’t exist anymore?” It’s a question being asked in lots of places today, all around the world, and many are startled to find the answer is, “Not much and not many.”

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Going down?

And while stock prices (and gold, but more on that in a minute) are going up, the value of other things are going down. Inflation has been virtually nonexistent this year. Prices for most retail items have held steady or even fallen. The most publicized price drop, of course, has been real estate, which is what started the cascade of financial dominoes over three years ago. Yet even after all that time prices do not yet seem to have hit bottom, with recent forecasts being for another 10-20% drop still to come.

Recently, however, a more disturbing drop has been occurring and that has been in curency exchange rates. Last year President Obama said the country would export its way out of the recession. The only problem with this strategy is that all the other stumbling developed economies are also trying to export their way to recovery. If everyone is exporting, where are all these products going to? Mars?

The result has been a competition to see who can lower the value of their currency the furthest and the fastest. Since these countries all have more or less the same costs and levels of efficiency, the only way to make their products cheaper, and therefore attractive to foreign buyers, is by making their currencies cheaper. This bizarre competition has been dubbed the “race to the bottom.”

This isn’t just an academic exercise, however—it has real consequences, most of them bad. If pursued long enough it really does mean those dollars we have (or Yen or Euros or Pounds) really do lose value. So how can everyone’s currencies lose value at the same time? Good question. It does sound impossible since we usually thing of a currency’s value relative to other currencies. If they’re all dropping they should actually stay relatively the same.

Yes—and no. Currencies are also valued for what they buy (obviously) and it is possible that they could all start buying less of certain things. Like gold, or oil, or a number of other commodities which have been going up in price recently. The meaning and ultimate value of gold is a topic of endless debate. Its practical uses are pretty small yet its supply is remarkably constant—and also small. Thus, it remains popular as a kind of economic insurance: you can’t do much with it yet it is always in some degree of demand. Many are interpreting gold’s recent fairly dramatic run-up in price as a sign that people are trying to get away from national currencies. In other words, it’s a vote of “No confidence” in the whole global economic system.

Sound complicated? You have no idea—no one does. And this is what makes our current situation so scary. We really are in uncharted waters. Could currency values start tumbling in a free-fall? Perhaps. The central banks have pumped trillions of dollars (or their equivalent) into the world’s economy over the past two years with virtually no result. Where has all that money gone? If that money suddenly started getting pulled out of the corporate mattresses and cookie jars where it’s hiding, inflation could go through the roof. Yet we want them to spend some of it to get the economy moving again—that’s why it’s been given out.

The gaping hole in what I’ve said here is that there has been no mention of the “BRICs”: the developing powerhouse economies of Brazil, India, and of course China. China’s economy is huge but in some ways still very primitive. Yet it has already been making economic waves around the world. How it fits into the rest of this economic puzzle is anyone’s guess. It’s very new at this mega-economics stuff and could make some horrendous mistakes. Or not.

In any case, the simplistic talk of whether we are in a recovery yet or not is so beside the point as to be laughable—laughable except for the fact that we’re talking about the economic well-being of hundreds of millions of people. The only thing that’s certain is that we have a long road ahead of us.

Going up?

(I haven't had an economics post in awhile so here's a brief comment on recent developments. Frankly, it's a bit depressing to do this very often.)

The stock markets roared ahead today and the DOW is within spitting distance of 11,000. The MSM chorus is singing in harmony: surely this is another sign of “the recovery.” But waiting for the recovery is increasingly like waiting for Godot.

Why did the market go up today? Because it can. The media can always find some news story as an explanation. Ignore them—no one knows why the market does what it does, not even the traders.

Here are a few facts. Since the crash two years ago, there has been a steady outflow of investors from the market and trading volume has dropped accordingly. If there was an inclination to reverse this, the bizarre “flash crash” last May (when the DOW dropped 1000 points in minutes) reaffirmed the suspicions of an out-of-control market. More than a few investment advisers have advocated putting a big “Danger! Keep Out!” sign on Wall Street.

Because they like the black-and-whiteness of numbers, the media want to hang on to the notion of the DOW as a barometer of the nation’s economic health. If that was ever true, today there is no evidence for such a correlation. Nonetheless, even supposedly sober news outlets like NPR and PBS breathlessly led their news summaries with reports of the DOW’s jump today.

Stock markets are likely gaining for one simple reason: money, and the anticipation of money. The one real economic news story today was the announcement that the Bank of Japan would be buying lots of public and private bonds and just about any other kind of financial paper it can get a hold of. This is what the Federal Reserve did for over a year after the crash and is likely to resume doing late this year. Oh, and the European Central Bank as well as the Bank of England have been doing it too. All this is their way of trying to pump money into their economies.

The reason for this is the same in each place. Interest rates are the way central banks normally regulate money supply and try to adjust the economic thermostats of their respective countries. The problem is that interest rates have dropped to zero. The national banks literally can’t give money away. Or as in the US, private banks will take it but they’re just squirreling it away because their own financial state is so precarious and because businesses aren’t borrowing since they can’t find anything to spend it on.

Bankers, however, do have a lifestyle to maintain so they have to make money someplace. One place they are willing to put some of that free money is the stock market. In this instance, Wall Street is really not much different than The Strip in Las Vegas. The banks are playing craps with the Fed’s free money and that activity is pushing up stock prices, even though there is little or no economic reason for the markets to be going up. Is the Fed upset by this? Not really because there is some hope that rising stocks will stimulate economic activity (note: the opposite of the way people assume it works) and besides, nothing else seems to be working.

Could it work that way? Because if it does, then those rising prices are anticipating economic growth and if you don’t get in now you’ll have missed the action. At least, that’s the kind of talk you’ll hear on MSNBC or from your broker. Right now the chances of this happening seem to be somewhere between slim and none.

The nation’s economic problems—or the world’s economic problems, for that matter—are not going to be solved on Wall Street. The economic hole we are in was years, if not decades, in the making. Wall Street doesn’t have enough shovels to dig us out. Besides which, the bankers' and brokers' sole interest is in digging themselves out of the hole. Once they’ve done that, they’ll rip the shovel they let you borrow out of your hands so fast, it’ll leave splinters.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Don't know much 'bout religion (Sunday Reflections for October 3, 2010)

This week the media have given quite a bit of attention to the release of a Pew Trust survey on the religious knowledge of Americans. The results were not what one many would expect—hence the media scrutiny.

A survey sample of over 3400 people was asked 32 questions about Christianity and other major religions. What was startling was that the religious group that scored the best was: None of the above. That’s right, atheists and agnostics knew more about religion than people who claimed to actually follow a religion. The groups that scored the next best were Jews and Mormons.

Among the zingers: More than half of Protestant responders did not know that Martin Luther began the Reformation. Nearly half of Roman Catholics did not know their church teaches that the Eucharistic bread and wine become the real body and blood of Christ, rather than just symbolizing it. There was also confusion about the political status of religion. While nearly 90% knew that public schools teachers are constitutionally prohibited from leading classroom prayer, only a quarter knew that teachers are allowed “to read from the Bible as an example of literature.”

Of course, this is not the first time that the ignorance of religious people has been exposed. As I wrote last week, Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism after a depressing tour of German parishes:

Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach….

Luther wasn’t one to mince words. More recently evangelical church leaders have reacted with alarm to awareness that many of their members are ignorant of the basics of Christian beliefs. This is dismaying to them especially because they put such high value on right theology and doctrine.

Yet Luther’s experience nearly 500 years ago gives us a clue that knowledge about religion—even one’s own—is not valued all that highly by average folks. Theologians and religious academics inevitably evaluate religions for what they believe and teach. Most religious people, however, value religions for their practices, values, traditions, community, and sense of identity.

As a freshly minted pastor, I too was initially horrified at how little church members knew about the Bible or the basics of Christian theology, let alone Lutheran teaching. That horror has greatly diminished over the years. And it’s not that I have simply become resigned to this state of affairs. Rather, my understanding of the place of religion in people’s lives and in the world has changed.

It’s been realized for quite awhile, for example, that theologians don’t initiate inter-religious dialog and cooperation. Average religious followers do that. Theologians come in much later to put their seals of approval on what has already been going on. Religious leaders, in a classic case of running to get ahead of the parade, come up with the fancy theological language and formal documents to bless what people have been doing on their own for some time. The reason, of course, is that average people aren’t blinded by doctrine and theology. They simply recognize the common humanity of people they live and work with, who happen to follow a different religious tradition.

It’s also no secret that in the modern world much traditional religious doctrine and belief has taken it on the chin. Science has simply made unbelievable most of the ancient and medieval presuppositions religion has been built upon. This has certainly explained some of the decline of religion in Western countries but many have been surprised that religion has hung on as well as it has.

Here again the fallacy may be in the assumption that value of religion for most people is in its beliefs. Over the years I have found the beliefs of many church members to be all over the map. Many are aware that science has knocked out most of the legs of religion’s theological stool. They just don’t care. For some it’s out of a defensive stubbornness but I think for just as many it’s because theology and doctrine isn’t why they’re involved with religion in the first place.

One person not surprised by the Pew survey results is Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists. He told The New York Times, “I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Ouch. Yet there is some truth to what Silverman says. Put most religions under a microscope and you do find a lot of nonsensical beliefs and some pretty abhorrent behavior. Yet you would also miss something because getting up real close isn’t always the best way to see—you know: that whole forest and trees thing.

But frankly, that may be the mistake religion itself is making. As we all know, there is a lot of distress and hand wringing about the decline of religion, and especially Christianity, in modern Western society. In fact, we should probably be amazed it’s still around at all. That it is should tell us something about what religion’s true value: it isn’t in its doctrines or teachings. Religion is much more than what its books and teachers say it believes.

For that reason, the Pew results make sense. The people most aware of religious teachings are those most put-off by them. The ignorance of such things by many people claiming a religious identity isn’t surprising because that isn’t what’s important to them. The problem, however, is that those are often the things most important to the people trying to save or revive religion: theologians, bishops, preachers, and frankly the religious fanatics. If religion is to be saved, it may need to be taken away from the religious professionals and given to the ignorant amateurs who actually may know and understand it much better.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What shall we tell the children? (Sunday Reflections for September 26, 2010)

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13)

Once again I am about to begin a new year of teaching confirmation. I have been doing this for a long time—almost 30 years if you count my seminary internship. It’s a bit frightening to realize some of my first students could now have children of their own in confirmation class (if they’re still in the church).

For as long as I have been in the ministry, confirmation has been an unsolvable mystery. The attitude of most clergy I know was revealed in a candid moment at the time the new ELCA was electing its first synod bishops. Upon hearing of his election, one about-to-be bishop blurted out, “I don’t have to teach confirmation anymore!” I lost count long ago of how many confirmation programs Augsburg Fortress or its predecessors have offered. It seems there is a new one almost every year. Then there are those from independent publishers, plus the churches or pastors who make up their own (I’m now basically in this category).

I think what makes confirmation so problematic for pastors is that it forces us to confront the most difficult puzzles of the church and of Christianity, ones we would often rather avoid. If they are honest, I would guess every pastor would admit to thinking at least once, and possibly every year, “What the hell are we doing?” It’s not enough that we’re dealing with one of the most difficult times of life: junior high and early adolescence. We’re also trying to answer, for these theologically innocent young people, all the questions the church can no longer answer for itself.

Historically, the primary resource for Lutheran confirmation preparation has been Martin Luther’s Small Catechism (1529). Luther wrote it, he says in the book’s preface, in horrified reaction to the theological ignorance he found while visiting small town and rural parishes in Germany. Thus, it was intended for use by adults, as much as for older children.

The Small Catechism (and yes there is a Large Catechism, read mostly by theological over-achievers who usually are or become pastors) provides a simple explanation of the basic elements of Christianity: the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments of baptism and communion. It is a classic and, for Lutherans, the book has become an icon in itself.

In some ways this was the high watermark of traditional Christianity, for it essentially has been all downhill from there. It wasn’t long before all the things Luther sought to make clear with his little guidebook were being questioned for their meaning, accuracy or value. After nearly 500 years the contents of Luther’s Small Catechism and the confirmation preparation efforts it inspired are creaking and stumbling to near collapse. For that reason, publishers crank out one new program after another (“Now Online!”), trying to keep the old machine going just a little longer.

Like the Small Catechism, confirmation preparation has primarily been about conveying ideas and content—people, events, beliefs, rules, vocabulary, memorization, etc. In the past, the primary motivation for young people to cram this stuff into their little heads has been fear of the thundering wrath of a Herr Pastor and/or one’s own parents. The days of such motivation are, of course, long gone. As a result, the content of confirmation has changed to . . . what?

It seems to be all over the map. Learning this content isn’t as important anymore because . . . well, because the content isn’t as important anymore. The simple reality is that much of what Luther was so sure Christians needed to know we just aren’t sure about. Here we again face the yawning gap between our world and Luther’s and the Bible’s, between ancient times and modernity.

Consider this “simple” question: Where is God? Ancient people knew and Luther knew. God was in heaven and heaven was “up there.” There are even ancient and medieval maps that show where heaven is. Now: Your answer? Uh huh, that’s what I thought. Why do we have trouble believing in heaven? Because we have no place to put it. “Up there” has no objective meaning anymore. There is no up or down in the universe; there isn’t even a beginning or end. So today God is “in our hearts,” or “all around us,” or “everywhere,” or—fill in the blank.

Now I can work with all that, and some of those ideas are even in the Bible, but they’re not the mainstream. So we have to be honest and admit we’re not really talking about our ancestors’ Christianity anymore. We’re moving on, and that’s okay. We need to because the world certainly has moved on. In doing so, however, we’re leaving things behind, not unlike when we grow up and leave home. And as the saying says, once you’ve left you can never really go back.

Our world is in flux, and that includes Christianity and religion generally. We’re now in a mode of exploration and experimentation. To do that effectively, I think it’s important we know where we are coming from. For that reason, teaching the Christian tradition is important because it has profoundly shaped us and the world around us. In doing so, however, we have to be honest with ourselves and with our kids that this was the world of our ancestors but it isn’t ours anymore.

In education today, teaching content isn’t nearly as important as it once was. We have more content at our fingertips than we know what to do with. Answers to more questions than we can even imagine are seconds away via Google and Wikipedia. No, the challenge is learning what to do with all that information: how to find it, sort it, evaluate it, judge it, and synthesize it.

I think something like that is what we should be doing with our kids in the church. The goal is no longer to teach them “The Truth.” First, we’re not sure what that is or means. Second, even if we had it, it’s not what they need. Why not? Because truth is not something handed to us on a silver platter. It doesn’t arrive in a box labeled, “Contents: The Truth.” In fact, when something does show up like that, alarm bells should go off because it almost certainly is a fraud.

In the past, young people were taught lots of practical survival skills: how to hunt, fish, plant, cook, sew, build, and so on. Religion, however, was pretty much handed to them ready-made. Today I think the reverse is true. Most of the “stuff” we need to live is made for us, but our religious beliefs and practices are what we need to learn how to develop and construct. Some techniques are better than others and some materials are better than others. There are good sources for these things and there are hucksters peddling crap and we need to learn how to distinguish between them.

If we can convey to our young people the basics of the Christian tradition, something about the world’s other historic religious traditions, an understanding and appreciation of the great questions of life, an ability to sort through and judge possible answers to those questions, and—most importantly—an appreciation of what a gift life is and what a joy and responsibility it is to be a part of that life—If we can provide them some basic tools to start down that path, then I think we will have done them a great service. We will have helped them become truly good persons—and that’s what it’s about, isn’t it?

Now, how am I actually going to do that starting next Sunday? Well, that’s another question.