Monday, April 24, 2017

A Parable About Spiritual but Not Religious.

      Lazarus owns a 1999 Dodge Neon, a car with a bit of Y2K disaster built right into its glovebox.

      Lazarus’ Neon, by popular acclaim one of that year’s “Ten Worst Cars,” is by now very rusty. Its leaky oil pan stains the driveway. The wheels are out of alignment. It doesn’t have any get up and go. Foam stuffing is coming out of the seats.

The infamous 1999 Neon
 One day, when the brakes feel especially spongy, Lazarus decides he has to take his Neon to the Nazareth Auto Repair shop. In a moment of carefree optimism Lazarus even asks the mechanics to give the car a tuneup. It has been a long time since the car has had a tune up—forever, in fact. Some car owners are like that.

      So the Nazareth mechanics go to work. They discover that the compression is way down in two cylinders. The spark plugs are still original equipment. The brakes need new rotors and discs all around.

      In fact, the Nazareth Auto Repair mechanics finally tell Lazarus that the car isn’t worth tuning up. It needs a resurrection. Repairs will cost at least 4,000 dollars and that wouldn’t even cover the upholstery or rust. The Nazareth mechanics advise Lazarus to buy another car, instead. They actually have a good used Aura on their lot.

      So Lazarus goes home to consider his options. He decides that he doesn’t trust the Nazareth mechanics. Never has, really. You see, he actually only trusts how he feels about cars—just as many of us only trust our feelings about spirituality. In fact, Lazarus trusts his feelings more than he trusts the Nazareth Auto Repair shop’s expertise. And that is how it is with most people today when they think of religion, too.

      That is how it is for the church. When it comes to faith—whether rusty or none at all—people tend to trust their intuitions, feelings, and whatever they last read on the Internet more than they trust the church as a religious institution.

      Of course, Lazarus’ story is a parable. I’m exaggerating when I say that people only trust their feelings when it comes to spirituality. I actually know some very thoughtful people who pursue personal spirituality vigorously. They’ve studied the great religious prophets like Martin Luther and Martin Luther King and maybe have even read the Upanishads or the Koran. They meditate according to some Eastern discipline or another. They devote time and intellect to their spirituality.

      But usually, when people say that they are spiritual but not religious, they make the claim based on their feelings and intuitions.

      This is especially so, I think, for one key reason. We live in an era when most of us—whether we go to church or not—most of us are very skeptical of all institutions. We don’t trust government institutions that go to war because we know that once upon a time they did not find weapons of mass destruction. And they tax us too much, we think. They can’t build the subways or transit or run Hydro (the electric utility) the way such things ought to be run.

      People are skeptical about institutions. Classrooms are too crowded. Persons of Colour end up being carded or languishing in jail more than White folks. Banks push their own investment instruments rather than the best ones, and then charge too much for doing so. Oh, and they charge a million user fees. Millennials can’t find the jobs they trained for and when they do find one it’s merely a “gig” rather than a career.

      People are skeptical about institutions. They don’t like them and don’t trust them. So what are they supposed to do? Mostly, we cannot quit the institutions that are part of our daily lives. We can’t take our money out of the bank and put it under a bed and then buy stuff on Amazon. We can’t quit taking cars on government roads or public transit to work. We can’t stop being citizens of Canada or of the US—national free agents. Most institutions, whether we love them or hate them can’t be avoided.

      So, to express their anti-institutional angst, one thing that many people do, often unconsciously, is leave those few institutions they can choose to leave. Like the church. People reject Nazareth Motors because it satisfies their longing to thumb their noses at an institution, any institution.

      This frustrates me. On the one hand, I get it. Churches have, through history (and like banks and governments and militaries through the ages) done some very stupid, very bad stuff. Fought for Constantine. Went on crusades. Persecuted Jews. Participated in the Residential Schools cultural genocide.

      I get it. You can’t quit being a citizen of a country that sometimes does very bad things, but you can quit being party to this ancient institution called the church that did so much wrong. 

      But the church doesn't always fail. At its best, the church has done some pretty incredible things. I like the story in Acts chapter six.The newborn church faced a problem. You see, idealists that they were, they had gotten into the habit of selling everything they had and sharing the cash with each as each had need. Not a system guaranteed to work for very long, but they did it with the best of intentions.
Worship at Lawrence Park Community Church

      Except that some members of the church were overlooked in the distribution of the food. The early church did right by its Jewish members, but not by its non-Jewish gentile members. The Jewish members were well looked after, but the Greek-speaking widows went hungry.

      To resolve this problem, the church organized itself, as institutions do. It organized itself religiously, in fact. It selected several men to make sure that money was shared fairly. And the amazing thing was that the church selected—we can tell by the names we read—the church selected only Greek-speaking men, the children of those hungry Greek-speaking women, to take over all the financial leadership of the church, for both Jews and Greeks.

      Amazing. For us, it would be like putting only people with the biggest mortgages on the boards of banks. Like putting only homeless people on Toronto’s City Council. Like only allowing only First Nations people to work for the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Very idealistic. Irregular. Perhaps unworkable.

      And yet this sort of risky, selfless, upside-down behaviour is actually what organized institutional religion, at its best, is all about. Churches are a time, a place and an opportunity for spiritual people to join hands with other spiritual people, learn together, and work together for the good of all humanity, even if at great personal cost. It is risky, because as is the case with all human institutions, churches sometimes fail. But it is necessary, because when people try to work out what it is to follow Jesus together, the potential good multiplies exponentially.

      So, for example, my church brings refugees to Canada, even when we know that it will cost us in time, big time, when they finally arrive. We contribute generously to fund a children’s summer camp even though we don’t personally know the impoverished kids who go there. We encourage our City Councillors and MPs to keep working for the least and the last even if it means more taxes. We insist together that our planet is a temple and we will do what it takes, politically and personally to keep it beautiful, even if it is only our grandchildren, rather than ourselves, who will benefit. We inspire our bankers to work for shareholder profit and the common good—and they try. We remind each other that racism isn’t just a matter of personal prejudice, but a matter of systems that wed prejudice to power, systems that mostly white folks benefit from.

      Our denomination has done some pretty awesome things too. The United Church of Canada, at great cost to itself, was the first major Canadian institution of any stripe to call for equal rights for gay people. As a denomination, we keep raising the ire of corporations and politicians, and even some of our members by demanding social justice for Palestinians, refugees, the poor, and the environment—among a hundred other causes.

      Spirituality can be great. It is an inescapable human need, like exercise or food. But religion can be great too. Religious institutions unleash the hopeful power of spirituality to change minds and other institutions and even whole cultures and planets. Spirituality with religion is more than merely a feeling or intuition. Religion at its best is the potential we all share to become both more deeply human, more like Christ or the Buddha, and more connected to each other and the divine--not solely for private benefit, but for the good of all people.

      I am still bothered by the long history of institutional failures on the part of the church, even though I can point to many successes as well. Failure is what humans do. Still, there are some problems that we need to join hands to overcome, even if we have failed in the past. So let’s try again. Let’s join spirituality to religion and give it a go.

      The truth is, we all begin to sag, and rust, and slow down when we try to do spirituality merely as an intuition or gut feeling. It is hard to keep a private spirituality firing on all cylinders. So what we all really need, to do spirituality right, to keep it in good repair, is check in at the Nazarene Repair shop, to tune it up. Regularly. While keeping an eye on each other to make sure we do it better!

Monday, April 3, 2017

Preaching Matters. But . . .

I have always thought of myself—certainly with more than a little presumption—as a better than average preacher. Perhaps every preacher thinks so. 

But I’ve also studied preaching. I did it from a non-religious point of view, focussing on how preaching persuades, for my Ph.D. work. I’ve taught homiletics to aspiring preachers. And I’ve studied—again, mostly in non-religious settings—how contemporary media has changed both people’s ability to listen and read. 

         Along the way, as a minister, I’ve wondered long and hard about what attracts people to one church rather than another. Sometimes the reasons have little to do with “how good” a church is—however you define “good.” Lots of churches, for example, are tribal. People belong to them because “their people” belong. This is often true of immigrant churches and of ethnic churches in particular, though it may have to do with social standing and belonging to the right club. Sometimes—more often than you would think—people go to church out of long habit, and it is enough that there is one very close to them. That decides it. In my years as a minister, I’ve met people who go to one church or another because of architecture, because of a friend, because of the music, or because it has a great Sunday School for their children.

A few people choose their church for theological reasons. They want (for example) a really liberal church. Or a fire-breathing Primitive Baptist church that does revivals. Not many, but a few!

Put aside all these reasons for choosing a church, there are still two matters that count more than almost any other. First, people will make a judgement, upon visiting, about whether or not there is a community in that church that will fit them. A few weeks ago, for example, after attending my congregation a few times, a youngish millennial couple asked me how many other couples their age attended regularly. I gave an honest answer and have not seen them since. And, of course, people looking for community will stay if the community they find truly embraces them. 

Second, getting back to preaching, I realize more and more that over time people will make a judgement about where to go to church based on the preaching. If a church wants to maintain its size or grow it will need a preacher who connects on a very regular basis. The room for so-so preaching has shrunk, a lot. People want a preacher who will have them holding their breath to see how “it” turns out. Someone who can make them laugh at themselves. Someone who has something to say that is rooted in the heart of the gospel but that resonates with lived experience. Something more than self-help. Someone who is compelling but doesn’t nag. Someone who says the mystery in a way they feel it. Someone who connects with their fear and hopes.

So, though I like to think of myself as that preacher, as I enter my final season as a preacher, I have begun, in spite of what I’ve said so far, to question how much of a difference I can make as a preacher.

Let me explain the reasons why. Although they are informed by my studies, what I’m sharing now is my gut feeling about these things. I’m interested in what others may think.

First, it is harder to make an impression as a preacher because audiences don’t listen anymore with the same skill and attention that they used to. Once upon a time preachers created sermons in the image of the essay or book. This worked, because people tended to read a lot. They were deft at figuring out linear, rational, ordered arguments. 
But these sort of sermons work with a smaller and smaller demographic. Partly this is because attention spans are way shorter than they used to be. If you are not sure this is the case, check out the literature. It takes a lot more skill to gain the attention or your audience, keep it, and engage it than it used to.

Second, people also have a harder time attending to sermons because the most common model for sermons a generation ago was the book, but it isn’t anymore. Books—and good essays—are linear. They build their case cumulatively and rationally. They use reason and narrative. And when people used to listen to sermons, they listened with the ears of readers.

But people do not read as much as they used to. They find it difficult to attend to sustained narrative. The books they do read—just check out how many there are in any bookstore—are often self-help books that are long lists of “to do’s.” Books are far more fractured and less narratively sensible than they used to be. If narrative preaching is a partial answer to this reality, it has to be the sort of narrative that non-readers used to be able to listen to—legends, sagas, parables and so on. Walter Ong’s description of the psychodynamics of orality helps me here, but challenges me too. It’s hard.

Third, I’ve also become less sure of myself as a preacher because I’ve become acutely aware of my own uncertainties and waffling. I live with ambiguity when it comes to what and how to preach. I used to be able to count on people being interested in the truth of dogmas, for example, and spent time trying to get those dogmas across. But I’m done with dogma myself, so it doesn’t make for great preaching fodder anymore.

Fourth, I’ve become less sure of myself as a preacher because I know that my status—perhaps role is a better word—as preacher has changed over the years. I cannot rely, any longer, on being listened to because, well, I’m a preacher and I know. People don’t sit down convinced that they need to listen; they sit down to decide whether or not they will listen. People don't come to church believing that they are empty vessels that just need to be filled.

What to do about this? Well, I take longer to write than I used to. I pay more attention to how sagas and legends were told in an era before people read. I count on my current audience’s high level of literate education than I used to, so I can be forgiven a bit more. I try new things: preaching secular texts and songs, using drama, interactive exercises. But I’m an amateur at much of this, unsure of how to embrace it and make it work.

The bottom line? Preaching is harder than ever. There is no excuse for business as usual. We have to take risks. We have to speak to what people are really wondering about. And we have to keep on trying.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Lent in the Time of Trump

I would like to read a poem by Margaret Avison. If you are of a certain age, you studied it in a Can Lit class. Listen. You can follow along via the insert in your bulletin.

For everyone
The swimmer's moment at the whirlpool comes,
But many at that moment will not say
"This is the whirlpool, then."

By their refusal they are saved
From the black pit, and also from contesting
The deadly rapids, and emerging in
The mysterious, and more ample, further waters.

And so their bland-blank faces turn and turn
Pale and forever on the rim of suction
They will not recognize.

Of those who dare the knowledge
Many are whirled into the ominous centre
That, gaping vertical, seals up
For them an eternal boon of privacy,
So that we turn away from their defeat
With a despair, not for their deaths, but for
Ourselves, who cannot penetrate their secret
Nor even guess at the anonymous breadth
Where one or two have won:
(The silver reaches of the estuary).
From: Winter Sun. Toronto: UofT Press. 1962

The “swimmer’s moment,” is a decision point. Such moments might find you on a cliff in Killbear Provincial Park, thirty feet above the water, where you decide, “No, I’m not going to jump after all.” Or, perhaps, more seriously for example, our swimmer’s moment might come to us that day we must decide to either confront an elderly parent about her need to give up her driver’s license, or not.

And naturally, we are anxious about such decision points. We might belly flop. Mom might be very angry and write us out of the will. Fearing trouble, we might choose not to choose, turn our bland-blank faces away from the whirlpool and live forever on the rim of suction, never daring. A grey life.

Avison says, however, that some people do dare, and so win, “The silver reaches of the estuary.”

An estuary is where the river’s fresh water meets the sea. Estuaries, like Chesapeake Bay or the Amazon Delta, are incredibly rich areas of biodiversity. Estuaries are life. The “silver reaches of the estuary” conjures up images of cottages, crabbing, and late evening bonfires on shore. A good, joyous life.

In our text from Hebrews, you could think of Jesus’ decision to set his face for Jerusalem as his swimmer’s moment.

Jesus could have chosen otherwise. He could have turned around and walked with bland-blank face back to Galilee. He might have chosen to take up carpentry, again. But for the joy set before him, for the sake of the silver reaches of his estuary, he dived in and saw his Lenten journey to its end on a cross.

It is hard to know, two thousand years later, what exact joy Jesus aimed for. He spoke of rising from the dead. He almost certainly wanted to demonstrate the power of turning the other cheek, of changing the world through passive resistance.

But whatever exactly would give Jesus the greatest joy, he would achieve incredible things for humanity only at great cost to himself. He was abandoned, whipped, and crucified—because he decided.

In our text Jesus’ story is told so that we will do likewise. The author of Hebrews writes in chapter 12, “let us also lay aside every weight and . . . run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” and then in verse 12, he concludes by saying: Therefore for the joy also set before you, “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet . . .” Just do it.

And we must, for we live in dangerous times.

I’ve just read Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late. In it the New York Times columnist describes about 101 crises facing the human race. Economic dislocation. Climate change. Failed states. Desertification. Refugees. Terrorism. Overpopulation. Racism. Ineffective schools. Friedman paints a bleak picture of the world facing its cosmic swimmer’s moment, a world he believes our children and grandchildren will suffer in, unless we act, now.

Perhaps, at this point in the sermon, I should describe some of these crises at greater length. They are, after all, living as we do in our Western bubble of ease, hard for us to see. But I won’t, for now. After all, I know you feel the unease and uncertainty that runs without ceasing, like a long-distance marathoner, under the skin of our culture. This very real unease is partly, at least, what is fueling the Trump and alt-right phenomena of our era, the siege mentality that is so much a part of life today. The crises of our day loom over us like Mount Vesuvius over ancient Pompey. Now is our swimmer’s moment.

Will we act? Or will we live in denial, turning away from the whirlpool? And just what is the joy set before us? A safe, just, meaningful future for our children and grandchildren?

If we do act, there are no guarantees. The deadly rapids are a black pit, says Avison. There is no emergency “stop” button for saving the world from impending tragedy. I suppose acting starts with helping force national spending priorities to avert or mitigate the effects of climate change and habitat destruction and failed states; it continues with our choices at work—what we invest in, who we hire, what strategic goals we choose for our companies. Acting now involves what we buy, how we eat, our politics and our conversation at parties and our willingness to generously support organizations tackling some of our society’s deepest fears.

It’s like Jesus heading for Jerusalem, that final time. We must dive in to achieve the silver reaches of the estuary. It takes courage and faith in order to achieve the joy set before us. But turning away is so tempting.

It’s like this. At the turn of the last century, Blondin was a great French tightrope walker. Once, before ten thousand screaming fans, Blondin inched his way from the Canadian side to the American side of the Falls, above the roaring whirlpool in the Niagara River. As he stepped off his tightrope, his fans chanted his name, "Blondin, Blondin, Blondin."

So Blondin raised his hand. He said, "I am going back across the Falls on my tightrope, but this time I will carry someone on my shoulders.  Do you believe me?

The crowd called back, "We believe!  We believe!"

Blondin silenced them again and asked, "Who will be that person?"

And now the crowd was silent. You see, this was their swimmer’s moment at the whirlpool below. At last, one man climbed onto Blondin's shoulders and was carried back across the rope to the other side of the whirlpool, winning the silver reaches of the Canadian side. One man faced his swimmer’s moment and succeeded—but now the crowd really believed and many clamored for their chance to cross.

My dream, for everyone here, for my grandchildren, is that for the sake of the joy set before us, we will, at our society’s swimmer’s moment, choose as Jesus chose.

Jesus—God with us, in a lovely, mysterious way—joined us in life’s struggle to demonstrate to us that we can satisfy our deepest longings and the world’s greatest needs in spite of great risks and dangers. We can act now to emerge in those mysterious and more ample, further waters. We can climb on each other’s shoulders and, step by step, reach the silver reaches of the estuary, the joy set before us.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Best of What I Read in 2016

            I keep lists: of ancestors, of sermons I’ve preached, of places I’ve been to, and of books I’ve read. I am not sure why lists appeal to me, but when the time comes to reminisce they are handy for jogging my memory. I track my books on And so, without further ado, here are the books I read in 2016 that I don’t want to forget.

            Where We Came From: My ongoing fascination with human evolution was enriched by Svante Pääbo’s Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. Pääbo’s book is a memoir about how he fell in love with genomics, and how his team eventually became the first to sequence the Neanderthal and Denosivan genomes. While the book does get a bit technical from time to time, Pääbo is able, for the most part, to describe the science in terms understandable to lay people.
The inside look at the politics of science is a reminder that Washington and Ottawa are not the only places to find politics. The book feels, in some ways, like a road trip where you know the destination and can’t wait to get there. Hands down, the best science book I’ve read in years—and I’ve read quite a few.

            Science Fiction! Several of my favorite books were science fiction. Two African American women writers were my hands down favorites. The first was N. K. Jemisin, who wrote, The Fifth Season trilogy. The first book in the trilogy is The Broken Earth. Her books encouraged me, as a reader, to reconsider systemic racism and personal prejudice by making the point of contention not skin color, but unique but not widely-shared human gifts and skills. The turns of plot are both surprising and believable, the Earth Jemisin creates is detailed and exotic, and the key characters are well-developed.

            The other author—perhaps the best I read all year—was Nnedi Okorafor. Her novella Binti reminded me, a bit, of Margaret Atwood at her best as a stylist—as when Atwood’s poetic chops spill over into her prose. Okorafor’s writing is also near-poetic and subtly engages all of the reader’s senses with compelling descriptions of characters, their looks, their smells, and their families. I’m looking forward to reading the Novella’s full-length follow up, which was published in late January, 2017.

            Modern Media Tech and Its Casualties. My PHD was in Speech Communication, and during those studies I became fascinated with how different speech, reading and writing arts and technologies demand different kinds of intellectual equipment. People in oral societies with low literacy develop fascinating ways of communicating via spoken word and other media that are quite different from societies where books are front and centre. High literate societies, on the other hand, are very different than those where screens predominate. I explore this in my own book, Not Sure.        
            Adam Gazzaley’s The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World is pure gold for parents, teachers, preachers, and university students who want to understand what is going on in their brains, and the brains of their wired audiences. I found the book’s structure—one half given over to neuroscience, and the other half to explaining its consequences—a bit off-putting. And the book is dense. But the effort it took to read was richly rewarded with deepened understanding of a technological change that is still sweeping over us. A good companion to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and a look under the brain’s hood for those who want to understand why it is that we entertain ourselves to death.

            Behind the Trump Phenomenon: Two books that provided very helpful background for understanding Trump’s victory and white Evangelical Christian support for him were Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America and Robert Jones' The End of White Christian America. Isenberg focusses on how America was built on the backs of poor immigrants such as indentured servants, jail parolees, as well as slaves. She traces out the generational poverty of this sort of deep-family-history, and it isn’t pretty. Jones shows how the structures of Christian religion, both mainline and conservative, have often worked against racial justice, inclusiveness, and an honest appraisal of why things are the way they are.

            Memoirs: When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir of the author’s long illness with cancer, up to just before his death. Paul Kalanithi is a neurosurgeon struggling to finish his residency and keep his marriage afloat. He’s a good man and his story, as sad as it ends, is also inspiring. I was fascinated by the role religion played in his life, even though he doesn’t dwell on it. With several doctors in my own extended family, the description of the grind Paul had to go through as a resident was sobering and sad. But I came to love this man, even if only from a great distance.
            Stefan Hertmans wrote an inventive memoir about his grandfather titled War and Turpentine. I was impressed and often moved by the way Hertman’s described the social and familial traps his grandfather had to navigate. The grandfather’s diary of his time as a soldier in Flanders Fields serves as the non-fiction basis for this book. But Hertman then adds his own fictional gloss to the story in order to make a truer portrait rise and shine. The aching pains from long ago that marked his grandfather’s life is given great prominence here, and encourages all readers to be sensitive to the hurts they or others struggle with too. The book includes some very compelling descriptions of First World War battles, as well.

            Written in English: As an old English major, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of English—and by extension, the evolution of language. John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English focusses on the impact of Celtic and Norse grammars on English grammar, and the reasons why this sort of influence is often missed in “history of languages.” I know. It is hard to imagine that this might be scintillating. But it is! Language is a window on so much more. His takedown of the Sapir Whorff hypothesis is marvelous. His speculation that Phoenician traders may be the source of up to a third of proto Germanic words that are not Indo-European is really fascinating.

            Fiction: I read many novels that were not sci-fi, but my favorite was Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. This slim work is part mystery, part gripping yarn, and part parable. The protagonist, Tony, reflects on what he has made of his rather empty life. I resonated with his doubts and disappointments. The ending, though, is a big surprise, one that Barnes has carefully laid the groundwork for so that it is also totally believable.

            Theology: As a minister and theologian, I’ve read (a nearly) countless number of books about the meaning of life and basic theological questions like, “Is there a god?” and “if so (or not) so what?” The best of a dozen I read this past year—if not in style, then in terms of offering a helpful overview of more liberal perspectives—was David Ray Griffen’s God Exists but Gawd Does Not.
             This is a book about Process Theology, deeply rooted in the work of Alfred North Whitehead. Griffen describes the “Gawd,” of classical theism, as one who sits on a throne and interferes in the world on behalf of some but not others. He contrasts this concept of Gawd to Process Theology’s God. He nailed much of what eventually made me uncomfortable with the sort of God that I was raised with. His explanation of the Process alternative, however, was less compelling.

            New Amsterdam Dutch: I couldn’t put Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Centre of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America down. A great deal of American political and social culture is partly rooted in how the Dutch set the table at Manhattan. From the Declaration of Independence, to the Bill of Rights; from pluralism to religious freedom, the Dutch experiment in New York informed the nascent American psyche, and sometimes for the better. I read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton a few months later, and I couldn’t help but note how often Shorto’s book shed light on Chernow’s.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Insurgent Advice for Pastors (Parishioners Welcome to Listen In)

            We all know that ministers are supposed to be great preachers, Bible scholars, and culture critics. They should have a rich interior life, great emotional intelligence, and manage time effectively. And so on.

            But there’s more. Stuff they don’t necessarily talk much about in seminary. So, what follows is my insurgent advice for young pastors. Take it with a grain of salt, since my experience may not be universally applicable. Still, this is the sort of stuff I would talk about if I were invited to a seminary ministry class. And, from another angle, it is the sort of insight that parishioners can use to support and encourage their pastor.

            One: Friends. For reasons I’ve never fully grasped, I find that ministers rarely make good friends with other ministers in their community. Partly, this is my fault. If making new friends isn’t my priority, it won’t happen. If I won’t brave time in traffic to get to the coffee shop, it won’t happen. If I don’t pick up the phone and ask about stopping by, I won’t. And if my internal theological or professional “weigh and evaluate,” apparatus is too finely tuned, I’ll be too judgmental.
            Still, even when I try to overcome these personal challenges and I do meet other ministers I rarely find my interest reciprocated. Maybe I’m just hard to like, but, from my conversations with fellow ministers I know in other contexts, I sense this reticence to connect is widespread. I think part of it is rooted in the temptation we all have to brag about how things are going rather than get real—and bragging is irritating.
            Ultimately, however, no man or woman is an island. We all need friends. So, if it isn’t going to be other ministers, it still needs to be someone else. Find friends! They are one of life’s greatest pleasures.

What does it take?
            Two: Loose ends. They are both unavoidable and precious. Unavoidable because you may have as many as two or three hundred “bosses” in your congregation, parishioners who feel strongly about “their” church and how it is going. They see you as many things—but also as their employee. So, that comes with lots of expectations. Your email box will fill up with their advice, queries, and complaints. They will corner you in the hallway to fret and direct and complain about everything from youth ministry to janitors to music selection. It adds up to a lot of emails that need to be answered, promises that need to be kept, serious concerns that must be addressed, and phone calls to make. Loose ends. Tough stuff.
            But loose ends are precious too, because each one—every email waiting for an answer, every expectation laid upon you in person, every appointment you need to make or keep—every loose end is a great opportunity. When you tie up loose ends you connect, you show yourself to be a caring minister, and you create trust. Tying up loose ends makes you real to other people, helps you laugh or weep with them, embrace or nudge. Loose ends are precious because they are a raw material ministry provides for connecting you more deeply with parishioners.
            So, tabulate those loose ends. Keep “to do,” lists. Answer every email religiously (spiritually?). Stay organized. Connect.

            Three: Anxiety is a fact of life in ministry. I used to handle anxiety easily, but it gets tougher and tougher as I get older—a pattern I’m seeing over and over among colleagues.  I’m not sure why. For me, it’s partly my nature. It is that unending sense that there is always more I could do (see two, above and four, below). And I’m anxious because of the ever-increasing complexity of the job itself. To make matters worse, fewer and fewer people are going to church. Success in growing churches is rare. But expectations for ministers remain high.
            What can I say? Most interesting jobs are more complex than they used to be. Most interesting jobs are never done.
            The thing is, all of us need to take anxiety seriously. Don’t drink too much. Don’t take it out on others. Face anxiety straight up without blaming others. Get counselling if your anxiety is extreme. Practice prayer or mindfulness meditation or a hobby or sports or long walks or best of all, all of these things, because they do give relief. Confide in your partner or a friend who will listen. Read up on anxiety. Get to know all about your enemy. Tackle it. If you don’t, your anxiety will stop being a helpful goad encouraging you to do what really matters, and will start being a corrosive force that saps your life of pleasure.

            Four: Relax. Even though the Bible loudly promotes the idea of Sabbath, too many ministers find it really hard to take time off. There are those loose ends I mentioned in two, above. And anxiety can sometimes fuel increasingly less productive attempts to get on top of things—attempts that take more and more time and that become a vicious cycle. What happens, eventually, if you don’t take enough time for yourself, is that you start spinning your wheels. Your time at work becomes less productive. You play Solitaire to avoid difficult tasks. Resentment about being busy builds. Things slide.
            So, take time off: every day, every week, and every year. Walk the dog. Pick up a novel. Visit friends. Play a game of Scrabble. It takes discipline and self-understanding to get the balance right and to stay organized enough to leave time for yourself. If you don’t try, however, you are not going to make it as a minister, because you will burn out—and probably with lots of unfair resentment to spare.

            Five: Flexibility. Ministry isn’t unique. Lots of jobs come with huge responsibilities, stress, potential conflict, anxiety, and high expectations. But ministry is very special too. We usually have a great deal of flexibility in how we structure our days and lives. We’re not expected to clock in or out. We can arrange, on almost any day, to either golf with a friend or be home when the kids return from school. We need to recognize that flexibility, exploit and enjoy it. It is one of the things I most love about my job.
            So, don’t complain about the unreal expectations placed on us ministers unless you also own up to some of our great benefits. And perhaps most important, be disciplined about both taking advantage of your flexibility, and about not using it to waste your time.

            Six: Don’t show contempteven in private. If there is one quality in a minister that, from my perspective and experience at least, suggests failure, it is a penchant for complaining about your parishioners or refusing to hold them in high regard or even attacking them publically from the pulpit.
            People catch on when you don’t hold them in high esteem. You can’t hide contempt for long. People have a sixth sense for it, even if you think you’re putting on a great show. Don’t be condescending. Don’t mock in private. Don’t disparage parishioners to staff or other parishioners. This is just really, really dumb. Not only is showing contempt hypocritical, given scripture’s own values, you will eventually pay for your contempt with your own happiness and probably even your career.  

            Seven. Congratulate. This is a corollary to “don’t show contempt.” Churches thrive on success, gratitude, and volunteerism. So, congratulate members or committees or leaders whenever there is a reason to do so, even if the reason is weak! A steady stream of congratulations from the minister sets the mood for all congregational interaction. Congratulations create positive vibes. Saying “thanks,” makes people happy and encourages them to volunteer again. Every church needs to be a place where people are happy to leave with a job to do, and the expectation that they will be thanked helps make it so.

            Eight: Moving on. Leaving your current charge can relieve some stresses. You get out from under a lot of loose ends. You don’t have to repair those difficult relations that mark every ministry stop. You can skimp on sermon preparation by starting out with oldies but goodies in your barrel.
            But moving also creates great stress—just check out one of those web pages that lists the most stressful activities people regularly engage in. Moving is right up there with things like death in the family and marital breakdown. What’s more, many ministerial moves are to distant cities where you may not have friends or family and the support they offer.
            Moving is hard on kids too—though you never really know how hard till they tell you about it twenty years later. And ultimately, honeymoons in new churches only last a few months, and then it will be back to all the usual challenges, stresses, and strains. So, before you move, think twice—because moves are about you and your family’s long-term health as much as they are about the congregation’s.

            Nine: Exegesis. Exegeting a difficult text to within an inch of its life, as if this is what matters most about preaching, is just wrong. It isn’t the sitz in leben or unique use of the aorist that matters most about texts, at least week in and out. No. What congregations really need to hear about are the big themes of scripture, the core story, and how that stuff still makes a difference today. Instead of focusing on exegeting difficult texts, ministers would be way further ahead by paying attention to the art of actually getting people people hear the old, old story with new ears and interest. Spend your time on that.

            Ten: God’s gift to ministry. It isn’t me and it isn’t you. We all have weaknesses that, even if we recognize them and work hard on them, we are never going to totally overcome. We cannot be equally skilled at every aspect of our jobs. People will recognize our weaknesses even when we don’t, and they will likely grumble and complain too. If we expect or need 100% positive feedback about everything we do, we will all be unhappy campers.
           So, I try to keep two things in mind. First, I never stop trying to do better, because I have not yet arrived and with time I could do better. But second, along the way, I’ve tried to admit my weaknesses and ask for help—either for training to overcome my weaknesses or for other people to step in and do what I find most difficult. The alternative is us to live in a make-belief world with make-belief accomplishments.

Monday, December 5, 2016


            How do you grow a liberal church? Quick, tell me. I pastor one!

            Lawrence Park Community Church (LPCC) was founded in the dying months of the second world war. It started as a pure community church, but decided it wanted a denominational home. The Anglicans said that that if LPCC joined, they would have to amalgamate with a local Anglican congregation. The United Church, on the other hand, was much more lenient, and let the young congregation stick together on their own. So LPCC joined the United Church. And it grew. With strong leadership, and in an era when to be Canadian was to join a mainline protestant church, a large part of the affluent neighborhood LPCC was built in was soon sitting in the sanctuary every Sunday. Hundreds of people.

            LPCC’s programs were numerous. The music program was wonderful. The pastor was beloved. Money was never a problem. After some time, however, the number of programs declined. The music program remained wonderful, but its traditional tunes appealed to a smaller and smaller demographic. The founding pastor retired and every pastor who followed was seen as a transitional pastor (and, members now joke, will remain so until everyone who remembers the founding pastor finally dies). The church endured some big conflicts around building programs, leadership, theology. The culture became more and more secular. Kids starting playing hockey, baseball and soccer on Sunday mornings. Membership declined. Thankfully, money never became a huge issue. Those who stayed on were and remain generous.

            But there are many fewer of them now than in 1960. Maybe 125 or 140 on an average Sunday. Fewer in the summer and holidays. Many more during Advent, Christmas and Lent. Pretty typical. But LPCC would like to grow. So what now?

            Growth and decline in mainline churches has actually been in the news lately. Some scholars, reports Maclean’s, suggest that it takes conservative theology to grow a mainline church. Others, in response, suggest that what’s missing in declining mainline churches is evangelism . To be honest, I’m really simplifying their arguments, which are from top to bottom, much more nuanced.

            The thing is, I have no interest in following conservative theology, even if it correlates highly with church growth. Having grown up in a conservative denomination, and after I became a well-known leader in that denomination, I changed my mind. It was a life-changing decision after a very difficult and heart-rending process. But I feel good about it, now. So going back to conservative for the sake of church growth would be like selling my soul. I don’t think that even conservative pastors would recommend that I do that!

            So my church wants to grow, and I don’t want to adopt a “strict,” approach to church that seems to correlate with growth (though I note that correlation isn’t the same as causation). What will it take?

            I’m guessing any growing church needs at least a majority of the following qualities—perhaps more:

            ONE: Heartfelt vision or values or mission or whatever you call it. To grow, everyone in church will have to understand what their church is all about and embrace it both at home and in the sanctuary. At LPCC we’re working on that, right now, with a council led, congregation-soon-to-be-involved strategic initiatives process. I know how I’d like it turn out. I think, in their hearts, members know how it will turn out. But we’ll see. The main thing is, we have to own it.

            TWO: A focus. Not quite the same. While setting up her psychotherapy practice, my wife turned up research that suggested a focus on one specialty would be more successful than a generalist focus. This is so because such focus helps drive the therapist’s expertise, and because it is easier to explain (sell, market) a specialty to others. My wife liked this, because she wanted to do Couples Therapy. That singular focus has been good for her practice, Couples In Step. Churches need a similar focus on the right programming that fits their vision.

            THREE: Marketing. Congregational Members have to share the good news about what is happening at LPCC with everyone who matters to them if the congregation is going to grow. The second article, referenced above, is a good place to start thinking about this sort of “evangelism.” Successful church marketing campaigns need things like fliers, newspaper ads, webpages, emails—but the key is real buzz that starts in the pews and is as unstoppable as a tide or sunrise. What I mean, I guess, is that marketing isn’t going to work if the people already in the pews are not sold on what is already happening.

            FOUR: The right preacher. We’ve all had experience of standing at a grocery store checkout line where the clerk didn’t seem to know how to do his or her job with speed, or politeness, or accuracy. And we’ve all had the experience of bringing a car in for repair, and then having to bring it in a second or third time. Not everyone hired to do a job is suited for it. Sometimes they can move to another department. Sometimes not. It can be difficult.
            However, we have all had similar experiences when it comes to church. Few guests will make an effort to go to a new church a second time if they were not moved by the minister’s message, leadership and demeanor the first time. This is a very sticky and difficult issue. As ministers we are pretty defensive, even if we know in our hearts that we’re not all as equally qualified or able. As congregational members, we hardly know where to begin if we’re not being moved by the preaching but love the community.
            Still, the truth is, a growing church very likely has a highly competent, emotionally smart, excellent communicator in the pulpit. Being outgoing and charismatic helps too. Look at growing conservative churches—along with their strictness, you’ll usually find just this sort of pastor. I’m threatened by this reality, but dare not shy away from the challenge.

            FIVE: The right lay leadership. Every church needs leaders and volunteers who love the church, who are not set in their ways and willing to be convinced by new ideas. They take risks and roll up their sleeves when something new needs to be tried. Churches need leaders who are trusted by the membership, who don’t shy away from conflicts and who know how to lead councils and church staffs through tough discussions.

            SIX: Quality music. In a big city like Toronto there is an audience for every genre of music: classical, rock, folk, ska . . . it doesn’t matter. Churches should specialize here (see 2, above), and do whatever they do with panache. If you have multiple services, you should do a different genre at each service to extend your range. But always offer high quality because our culture is immersed in music like never before, and individuals generally don’t respond well to jarring notes.

            SEVEN: A willingness to continue trying things, even after initial disappointments. When you try a new recipe, sometimes it disappoints you. So you don’t use it again. But you don’t then starve; you try something else. Taking programming, staffing, music risks—always measured—is necessary for any church to grow. But when a risk fails, don’t starve yourself by never taking another! Instead, smile and try something else.

            EIGHT: No Guilt. At our church, the marketing materials say things like, “Not Married? Living Together? Welcome!” When people who don’t come very often do, and apologize for being away, I tell them, “When you’re here, we’re glad; when you’re not, we bless you.” I try, as much as possible, not to use the pulpit to wag my finger at the congregation for not giving enough or not being engaged enough on my favorite social issues.
            Ultimately, yes, there are things people should feel guilty about. But it isn’t the minister’s job to name these things and then flail people with them. Conservatives guilt people into insecurity that the church manipulates (scholars call it the strictness hypothesis). I want to challenge people to be who they dream of being.

            NINE: Joy. The flip side of “no guilt,” has to be joy. The minister has to model it, the leadership has to embrace it, the staff has to revel in it. If people are not happy in church, they are not going to come. Period. Party! Eat! Dance! Do Tai Chi! Succeed at outreach social justice projects. Drink wine. Whatever it takes, enjoy your time together. While long-term love, care and support for all members can keep a church strong for generations, it is joy that will spark growth, because visitors will see this first. The rest of it comes through experience.

            TEN: There’s more. Great worship space. Good nursery. Lots of parking. Dedicated youth and children programs. Multi-generational worship. Web presence. Great technology. You can’t do church today without most of these things, unless not doing them is (somehow) part of your unique brand or approach. But what I’m really interested in is what other features you expect to see in a growing liberal church. Besides liberal theology, that is!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

About Last Tuesday. Trump, the Dispossessed, and Us.

(A sermon preached on November 13 at Lawrence Park Community Church after Donald Trump's election victory.)

         I don’t want to be too melodramatic. But last Tuesday night, when Trump was elected, I was gob smacked. Irene and I had some back-and-forth, agonizing calls with our kids in the States. I went to bed stunned and woke up depressed. I was unable to read commentary about the election for days after. I am afraid of what is next.

         Now, personally, I don't like Trump’s trade, or tax, or foreign policies. I worry about his impending supreme court picks. Still, I also understand that among people of good repute there can be disagreement about such policy matters.

         On the other hand, too many of Trump’s policies and statements are not debatable, but immoral. In spite of the science and the apocalyptic risk he denies global climate change. His hatred of “the other,” or “the stranger,” is xenophobic. It means he wants to ban Muslim immigration and deport millions of non-documented immigrants and has no sympathy for the issues that have ignited the “Black Lives Matter” movement. His statements preferring Jews to blacks as employees or denying that Obama was born in America or is a Christian, his mockery of people with disabilities, and his pathetic and demeaning treatment of women, his goading of supporters to violence against protestors at his rallies—these actions are not just impolitic, they are immoral.

         Still, as the week wore on and I tried to understand, it dawned on me that I’m not the only one who is afraid. A sizeable portion—not all, but a key part of Trump’s support base—belong to a large white American underclass that doesn’t have much by way of prospects. And they are afraid too. I do not approve of this group’s decision to support Trump, but I think we need to understand them and their grievances.

         Who is in this underclass, exactly?

         These are mostly white people who are afraid that the American dream is a fantasy as far as they and their families go. They can’t keep up with the change from a General Motors and US Steel economy to a Microsoft and MacDonald’s economy. They lost their homes, or at least their equity, in the financial crisis. They can’t afford college for their kids. They are stuck in generations-long spiral of poverty. And, believing they have nothing to lose, they chose Trump as their last, best hope for somehow changing the game they keep on losing. I am afraid of Donald Trump for intellectual and moral reasons; but many of the people who voted for Trump are afraid for themselves.

        This week the New York Times ran an article entitled "6 Books to Help Understand Trump's win. Most of these books are about the white underclass and their gripes. I had already read one of them, The Unwinding, by George Packer. It is a book about how white factory workers, tobacco farmers, backwoods people and even politicians have been left behind by big changes in the American economy and social landscape. One chapter is about Newt Gingrich, and how he discovered that as far as these people are concerned, facts don’t matter anymore. So instead, Gingrich suggested that if politicians offer up political venom, true or not, anytime and they will get away with it, a lesson not lost on Trump. Gingrich "gave them mustard gas," writes Packer, "and they used it on every conceivable enemy."

          Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Hochschild explains why many poor white Americans believe that "others [that is, mostly immigrants, blacks, and women] are 'cutting in line' and that the federal government is supporting people on the dole -- 'taking money from the workers and giving it to the idle.'" This is a book about the fear and loathing poor white people have when they imagine even poorer, more marginalized people are taking the jobs and benefits that they don’t have.

         White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg tells how from America’s earliest days, a white underclass has slowly grown in America’s suburbs and backwaters. Their ancestors came over on the Mayflower as indentured servants, later as slaves, prisoners, or as hated Irish or Hispanic Catholic immigrants. This underclass died for America in its wars, was always available as cheap labor in mines and on farms, and was largely ignored when it came to sharing most of the benefits of America’s economic growth.

         A significant portion of the people who voted Trump experienced a generation or two of good-paying factory jobs but now have to settle for twelve dollars an hour at Walmart. They have been cut off from welfare by Bill Clinton’s reforms. They think the system—free trade, banking, health care, immigration, the one-percenters—it is all stacked against them. They point to the brokers and bankers and CEOs who made out like bandits during the financial meltdown while they lost their homes. They resent the fact that Bush and son ran America, that Trudeau and son run Canada, and that Clinton and his wife nearly ran the United States; it suggests to them that the system is rigged to keep the powerful in power; rigged to keep people like them down.

         This underclass is not a majority. They are a small but not insignificant demographic, enough to turn the tide, and they are full of dread. And they don’t give a damn what Trump says about women or blacks or Hispanics—people they desperately need to make common cause with, but won’t. They don’t care whether he has gone bankrupt or cheated his contractors. They don’t care whether Trump deals with Putin or gropes women or says he’ll nuke the North Koreans. They just want somebody who will finally, finally feel their pain and do something about it—never mind any other historically marginalized group or ethnicity in America.

         So now what? Well, I have an old acquaintance, who wrote, on Facebook: “Don’t worry, God is in control.” To which I responded, “Why blame God or God’s plan? We made this bed, we have to sleep in it. No need to bring God into it.”

         She responded by defriending me.

         Essentially, this approach to God and to Trump as God’s crooked stick washes our hands of responsibility to do something about his poisoned politics in the USA, or similar poisoned politics when it rises—as it has and threatens to again—in Canada. In this case, faith in God adds up to an excuse to carry on as before, to baptize the status quo, especially if we are doing okay. This adds up to a weak, emasculated Christianity devoid of inspiration, direction, and wisdom.

         So I want to suggest a different approach. One that is less interested in putting God on a throne where God runs things than it is interested in inspiring Christians to be like Christ, here and now. We should not fear as they fear, says Peter, in 1 Peter 3:14. We should, rather, be Christian.

         You see, I think the solution to Trumpism—at least in the long-term—is not so much to fear Trump as it is to pay careful, empathetic, and loving attention to the concerns of all of America’s—and Canada’s—marginalized classes of people, just as Jesus sought out lepers and women of ill repute and tax-collectors for his inner circle. And in fact, the whole point of living in a democracy is that here we—whether rich or poor, influential or not—we all get to make decisions together for the common good, for our neighbor’s good. We should not fear as they fear. We should do justice and love mercy, instead. It is the Christian—and Muslim, and Hindu, and Jewish, and secular humanist—thing to do.

         The way for us to deal with our fear of the consequences of a Trump presidency, or a Mayor Ford victory, or a turn to extremism in any form has to lie in our decision—to use Peter’s words—to refuse to let our tongues speak evil or our lips deceit—no matter what the demagogues like Gingrich are screaming. We should not fear as they fear. Instead, especially for those who have been left outside the circle of our ease and success, we must redouble our efforts to seek peace—shalom—for the whole body politic.

         I can’t tell you what policies, exactly, will achieve this aspirational goal for Canada. If I were to tell you that would make me a Liberal or Conservative or NDP policy wonk instead of a preacher. But the values that drive our policy choices and voting should have roots in Biblical passages such as the one we read today, or the Sermon on the Mount, or the love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13, or Jesus’ claim that what we do for the prisoner or the hungry or those poorly clothed we do to him. We don’t have to put our fear in the driver’s seat, but we could put our compassion—for the poor who live at Jane and Finch, the First Nations in our prisons and on their reserves, for the homeless at the subway entrances, the immigrants who can’t find work that fits their training and abilities—we could put our compassion in our political driver’s seat and let that compassion drive our search for policy. This is, in fact, what you are already doing: by sponsoring a Syrian refugee family, by supporting Kenny’s work with First Nations youth at risk, and by the many other social outreach programs we do. This is good stuff.

         This is a remarkable congregation. But besides charity, we also have real influence to do lasting social good for the whole nation. This is because we are mostly well-educated. We have careers that influence who buys, what they buy, and what values our corporations are run by. We vote—and are at the table when parties pick candidates and we influence their policy. We know our political representatives personally. We hire people. We take on pro bono clients. We run non-profits. Many of us have personal resources to invest in social good and charity and culture. We are, for the most part if not entirely, utterly unlike the dispossessed who voted for Trump—or the dispossessed on the fringes of Canadian society.  We do not need to fear as they fear. Rather than cross our fingers and leave matters to God’s inscrutable plan, we actually can do great things that make a difference for all. We can, with those on the margins, help build a more lasting, more compassionate, more forward looking dominion.

         I still fear what Trump will do, but I am focused on doing what I can. Remember how Leonard Cohen put it? “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” True. We’re not perfect. We are not all powerful. There is a crack in everything we do. But we can do our part, which is not inconsiderable, to let the light shine in for all Canadians.

         We should not fear as they fear. We should, instead, be like Christ.