Thursday, June 28, 2012

Intellect and Experience

I wonder, sometimes, if we aren't too concerned and preoccupied with intellectual knowledge about theology, about what's in the bible, and about what the bible means. I wonder if we don't too often neglect experience in favor of knowledge.

I'm spending the week at summer camp this week, with middle school students, and I've started to wonder if that isn't part of the point of camp ~ to move beyond intellect to experience; from knowledge to faith.

Obviously there's nothing wrong with intellectual exploration of the divine. At the same time, there's more to a life of faith than the mind. At camp, young people get the opportunity to explore that life, even if they don't know it's happening.

But what about at church? What about our regular congregational worship life? What about in the life of the congregational community? Do we, in the mainline traditions of Christianity, too often reduce faith to intellectual assent to that which is basically unbelievable?

Still, though, the intellectual is important. Without the intellectuals of history, our life of exploring the divine with our minds would be stunted.

So, then, what would it be like for us to intellectually explore the divine while at the same time we allowed ourselves to be carried away by and experience of the divine that is beyond and apart form the simplicity of our mind?


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Church and Politics, Again

The last post on this blog was criticized for being too pious and self-righteous, apparently because I didn't indicate what issue the caller was promoting.  I can see the person's point, even though my intention was simply to steer clear of charged political issues.

I was not attempting to make myself out to be better, or more spiritual, or more pious, or more enlightened than someone else.  I apologize to that person, whoever it is, that was offended by what I wrote.

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Here, perhaps, is what I should have written about that encounter.

While I was in my office the other day, working on Sunday's sermon and a couple other things, I got a call from a political operative.  This woman, who was very polite (and I presume, kind as well) wanted to know if I would consent to having some petitions available on Sunday morning for the congregation I serve to sign.

The petitions she wanted to bring are in support of the 'personhood amendment' (an amendment which would constitutionally define the beginning of life as the moment of fertilization).  She may not have been, but she seemed baffled that I (a member of the clergy and a student of scripture) would not want to support this amendment.

To tell the truth, I do not support this amendment.  I believe that there are many matters more pressing on us as a society, which (I believe) need to be dealt with before we're ready to broach this subject.

At the same time, if someone were to approach me on the street with this petition, I'd sign it ~ see, I believe that signing a petition in support of having an issue on the ballot is not the same thing as agreeing with the promoters of the petition.

But this is not why I refused to allow these petitions to be available at the congregation I serve.  The reason is that the membership of my congregation has not decided, as a congregation, that we will support this petition.  And to have them available on Sunday morning would imply that we do.

The question that this petition, in support of the 'personhood amendment', addresses is one on which people of deep faith disagree ~ and to have it available at worship would imply congregational support.  I cannot speak on behalf of the congregation I serve on this issue, and so I cannot make this petition available.

Further, the phone-caller did her best to convince me that Jesus would agree with her, and that I was wrong to not let her send these petitions.  She did her best to convince me that Jesus was a political figure, and that I ought to be working politically on behalf of those who can't speak for themselves.

I, for one, am reluctant to state definitively that I know the mind of G-d.  Others, smarter than I, have said that whenever G-d's opinion and mine are always in sync, I've succeeded in making G-d in my image. 

My reading of scripture leads me to believe that there are more important issues to deal with before this one.

According to an article found on Wikipedia, the population of the world reached 1 billion in approximately 1804.  Today, the world's population is over 7 billion.

The truth is that there are issues which are part of our reality today that those who were inspired to write scripture never could have imagined; for instance, overpopulation, globalization, the capacity of the planet to feed everyone who is alive, the degradation of the environment ~ issues that we are only beginning to recognize and which we have not begun to be able to responsibly address.  

In my opinion, questions of poverty and hunger and housing and environmental degradation need to be dealt with soon (before the question of the moment when life begins). 

Additionally, I see the Torah and the Prophets and Jesus talking way more about the injustices of poverty and hunger than I see them talking about the beginning of life. 

You should also know that I don't think my refusal is based on or motivated by my personal opinion that this amendment should not pass.  For instance, I believe that same-gender couples should be allowed to be married.  However, if someone wanted to make a petition available to my congregation that supports an amendment to that effect, I would also not allow that one.

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I hope that's satisfactory, Mr. or Mrs. Anonymous.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Church and Politics

I just got off the phone with a very polite, and I'm sure nice, woman who wanted to bring petitions by the church building for people to sign.  The change this group is trying to bring about is one I don't happen to agree with ~ but that's not what kept me from going along with her request.  (I've been known to sign petitions that I don't agree with because I believe the issue should be on the ballot.)

When I told her 'no', she couldn't believe that I didn't want those petitions at church.  Further, she seemed astounded that I didn't want my congregation to appear to support one side of an issue on which people of tremendous faith disagree. 

She tried to convince me that Jesus would have been on her side.  She also tried to convince me that Jesus would have (and certainly did) take on the political leaders, and that because he did, we should also.

Well, Jesus certainly did confront the political and religious leaders of his day.  I'm pretty sure, though, that he never tried to pass legislation to impose his religious beliefs on someone else.

I pointed out to my phone-caller that scripture talks way more about poverty than it does about her issue.  I wish I would have thought to say that I'd love to support her cause just as soon as we legislated away hunger, homelessness, and poverty.

I also wish I would have thought to say that I find it dangerous, in a nation that professes freedom of religion, to legislate beliefs.  In fact, imposing religious beliefs on those who aren't part of that religious tradition borders on abuse.

I don't know if that would have helped, though, since I have a feeling she would be comfortable with (her version of) a Christian Theocracy.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cycling and Church ~ The Accordion Effect

It's harder riding in the very front of a group, since the very front doesn't have the benefit of riders in front of them blocking the wind. But it's also difficult riding in the back, especially if it's a big group.

Here's what happens. When the road is straight and relatively flat, there's no problem. All of the riders fall into a rhythm, settle into a pace, and everyone cruises along just fine.

But then there's a hill, or there's a sharp turn or a tunnel or an underpass that requires more caution. The front of the group slows down (you know, to be safe … or, because the hill goes up) ~ which then causes the back of the group to slow down as well.

However, the back of the group hasn't quite arrived at the hill (or whatever) that caused the front to slow down, which means they're slowing before they really need to.

Then, when the front of the group hits the top of the hill, or gets past the obstacle, they obviously pick up speed. But the back of the group isn't there yet, and so can't accelerate quite as easily. When the back is able to speed up again, the riders in front are farther ahead, which forces the back riders to work harder just to catch up with the group.

It's like an accordion ~ when the front slows, the back bunches up; and when the front speeds up, the whole group stretches out.

I worry, sometimes, that some people in our congregations experience our life together in that way. The leaders are up front, and hopefully are moving along as steadily as possible, so as to not lose people at the back. But inevitably the congregation approaches a hill or a turn or some other obstacle.  

I worry that there's an accordion effect in our congregational life, where some folks who aren't currently in front might have to work hard to keep up, or who might get left behind.

One of the groups I ride with tends to stop and regroup after big obstacles. The other group I ride with just keeps riding, trusting that those who get left behind can find their own way.

I'd prefer church to tend toward the former model rather than the latter.

But it might be even better if congregational leadership would pause every so often to turn around and make sure no one is left behind. A congregation can't spend all its time looking backward. A congregation also probably doesn't serve itself well if it spends all its time looking forward either.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Cycling and Church ~ Sharing Leadership

On the final day of the Fuller Center for Housing Spring BicycleAdventure, I ended up in a paceline with some pretty strong riders. We had all experienced riding with each other through the week, and so we decided on the last day to see how we would do all working together.

We started the day knowing that some of us were faster riders, and some were not quite as strong. The thing is, though, that we made this unspoken commitment that we would all work together.

The way we worked the paceline that day was for one rider to be in front for a minute or two, with the rest of us trailing behind that person enjoying the break in headwind provided by the rider in front of us. After the front rider's minute or two was done, that person would move to the left, ease up on the pedals, and drift to the back of the line.

Obviously, when the front person moves to the back, there's a new front person who spends a minute or two working harder than the rest of us ~ at which point they move to the back, and another person takes over the leadership.

That day, each of us didn't spend the same amount of time in the front of the group. The stronger riders stayed on the front for a couple minutes at a time, and those of us who weren't as strong took shorter turns in the lead.

If we'd tried to keep things equal time-wise, our group would have been slower. Taking longer turns up front and having less time to rest behind the other riders would have worn me out and slowed me down much earlier in the day, and therefore would have slowed the whole group down, especially during those times when I was up front.

We had ridden together all week, but the way we rode together earlier in the week didn't matter at all on that day. I had spent a couple hours one day earlier in the week in the slipstream of another rider, as I worked to catch up with my dad. I wasn't strong enough that day to catch my dad, and he was strong enough to help me.

He was able to help me one day, and later in the week, I didn't have to pay him back. Every day, we started fresh. Every day, we contributed to the group what we were able, and received from others what they offered.


What if, in the church, we didn't hold grudges or keep score? What if we didn't worry about who works more than others, and who seems to just be along for the ride? What if everyone felt free to contribute to the group what they're able and to receive from the group what's offered?

When I ride my bike, some days I feel stronger and some days I feel weaker. Some days I can spend a lot of time in front, and some days I can't be up there at all. But on the bike rides, what I did on Friday doesn't matter when Saturday comes around. We start fresh every day.

What if every day, and every week, and every month, and every year in the church was brand new? That's the promise of our baptism (as Lutherans understand it), that we start new every day. God's promise of grace and mercy and forgiveness is renewed every day.

When someone asks a Lutheran when they were saved, they're just as likely to say “Just again this morning” as they are to say “A little over 2000 years ago” … or that's what they ought to say, anyway.

There has to be a balance, where we can encourage those who are stronger, those who have the gifts, to take greater leadership in the church while at the same time we don't discourage those who aren't quite as strong from taking their turn up front.

Sometimes it seems like church leadership, those who spend the most time and energy on making sure the congregation is in good shape, see their job as providing a service for those who 'just show up'. How would church look different if we were to operate as if we're all in this together?


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Church Conference

I spent the day today at the “You Lost Me – Live” seminar/conference/panel conversation today, which was sponsored by the Barna Group. Much of the day was given to talking about cultural differences between generations. In particular, the conversation revolved around the truth that the mosaic (millenial) generation is coming of age in a world that is ridiculously different culturally from the world Gen Xers, or Boomers, or any previous generation has emerged into.

That part of the conference was good, and applicable across different Christian traditions. However, the other thing I noticed is the cultural differences there are between Evangelical Christianity (in which, it seemed, most of the attendees today are rooted) and Mainline Christianity. There was a great deal of in-group language that I didn't identify with.

To be fair, if any one of the folks who was there today were to come to a Lutheran, or a Mainline, conference, they'd have the same experience as I did today. I imagine they'd hear a lot of in-group language and assumptions, and they'd feel just a little bit on the outside at the same time that I would be perfectly comfortable.

I wonder if we, as church leaders, ought to make a more concerted effort to talk with each other more often. It couldn't hurt to understand our neighbor a little better, could it?


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Cycling and Chruch: Group Rides

This year, for the first time in a long time, I've spent quite a bit of time cycling with groups. I used to go on group rides when I was in high school, but we didn't have experienced mentors and didn't ourselves really understand the nuances of riding with a bunch of other people.

When we moved back to Colorado and I started cycling in earnest again, I mostly went out on my own. Recently, though, I got connected with group from my neighborhood who goes out twice a week, and have been riding regularly with them.

Not surprisingly, I've been setting my cycling experience alongside my church experience ~ and so, I'm planning to post a series of blog entries to share my insights with you, my seven readers.


Group Rides

Last Friday was one of the group ride mornings. I got up much earlier in the day than I would have otherwise to meet the group. We rode our typical route, which ends up being about 30 miles.

As it turns out, I had free time later in the morning, and I have a (100 miles) coming up in a few weeks.  Together, those prompted me to go out riding by myself after the group ride. My solo course, accidentally, ended up also being about 30 miles.

When I compared the two, what I notice is that my solo ride took ten minutes longer than our group ride. Of course a person could argue that I was tired after the first ride, and so because of that was slower for the second ~ and there may be some truth to that.

But the further truth is that part of the course we ride as a group is the same as my bicycle commute to work; and I go much faster in the group than I do by myself along that route.

What happens is that when you ride in a group, everyone works together so that everyone has an easier time. Here's how that happens:

A group of more experienced cyclists, especially those who are trying to go as fast as possible, will often ride together in a paceline. What that means is that the riders get right up close behind each other to take advantage of the slipstream (relative lack of wind resistance) provided by the rider in front of them. The rider in front works just about as hard as they would be if they were on their own; the riders who aren't in front, though, have a much easier time of it.

The riders in front don't stay in front the whole time. When their time is done, or when they've been up in front for long enough, they move aside, slow down, and make their way back in the group while someone else takes the front position. In this way, the group shares the load, and no one person has to do all the hard work.

Further, every group has a different ethos. The group I ride with during the week rides fast, but doesn't leave anyone behind. Newcomers are welcomed into that group, and are taught the basics of group riding. Still, there are some riders who like to race. They push the pace sometimes, leaving some of the weaker riders momentarily behind, until the next re-group location.

In another group I ride with, though, folks are expected to know how to behave in a paceline. You're expected to be able to keep up with the group when they start to accelerate. And if you're not able to keep up, you're left behind and have to group up with others who are left back, or find your way home by yourself.

And when I rode with the Fuller Center for Housing Spring Adventure in March, each person was expected to make their way from point to point on their own. We were, however, encouraged (as we were comfortable) to form paceline groups when we wanted to, in order to share the workload. On a longer, non-competitive ride like that, you get the chance to spend different days riding with, and getting to know, the different people in the group.


I'm going to spend a few blog posts thinking about the different aspects, and subtleties, of group riding and how those line up with church life. So here's how I see the basics lining up.

When we compare the life of faith in community with an individual life of faith, it's easier to work through these faith struggles in community than by yourself. Of course, some might say that being part of a church community is too much trouble, and that they have an easier time on their own.
Sure, it may be easier on your own ~ it's certainly easier for me to sit on the couch than to get on my bike. But I don't get any stronger sitting on the couch, and our faith doesn't deepen unless we allow ourselves the opportunity to struggle … and that struggle is easier in community.

Plus, in a congregational community, a few people don't have to do all the hard work all the time. In healthy communities, everyone has an opportunity to take the lead for a while, and everyone has the opportunity to step back for a little while to let others lead.

And finally, anyone who's been part of more than one congregation knows that each group has a different ethos. Some are welcoming, and some are more closed-off; some encourage involvement right away, and some allow greater anonymity; some have strong leadership from a few individuals, and some have a more communal leadership style.


Over the next few posts I'll be digging more deeply into different aspects of how group cycling works, because almost every time I'm out on a ride I think to myself, “Church could be better if we could learn better how to _____.”