Friday, April 28, 2017

Why Your Pastor Speaks in Code (and You Should Learn it)

I have been told--not by any source that I can cite--that the simple stick-drawing fish which Christians use to decorate their cars, started as a secret code.  In the dangerous first century, so the story goes, back when Christians were fed to lions, it was a way to discover if the person you were talking to was safe.  You simply take the end of your walking stick and draw a casual arc-shaped scratch in the dirt. Just a random gesture, like the legendary Masonic signs. But if you are speaking to a Christian, they will understand.  They use their own stick to make a complimentary arc, finishing the picture of the fish, and both know at once that all is well, and they are safe to speak freely.

I believe the story, not because of the sources I have never looked for to verify it, but because I can see we are still doing it today. Your pastor, specifically, is doing it every time they meet a new person. We look for code words, clues to see how safe it is to share freely with you.

Why? Well, sad to say, it's because she's a member of an endangered species.  No, I don't mean the anticipated pastor shortage, as more retire than are training to enter the ministry.  I'm not even referring to the recent research that says the life expectancy for an Adventist pastor is 68 years.*

No, what I mean is the fact that any casual word can be dangerous. In every church, in nearly every group, there is someone who will be horrified that he has seen that movie, or listens to that artist, or lets his children celebrate that holiday. There are a thousand ways for him to lose a member's good opinion, and since pastoral leadership is entirely accomplished through relationships, that's bad news. Never mind calling the Conference on her, the real risk is her effectiveness.

So he approaches each relationship with caution.  And if she doesn't know how much to "be herself," then she has to speak in code.  Like this:

One Friday night, about a month into our time in a new district, a family invited us over for dinner. It was time to check out the new pastor. As with all the other meetings like this, we all spoke carefully, using psychological sonar to hunt for hidden dangers in the conversation.

About halfway through the night, someone said to Jim, "I have a question for you." And Jim replied with, "Is the answer 42?"The moment was magic. The husband, sitting at the end of the table, lit up, and began asking questions about towels.

Now, I can't really explain 42, if it doesn't mean anything to you. Let's just say it's a combination of a literary reference and a secret password.  A certain kind of nerdy soul will see it, complete the fish, and the relationship is secure.  We were suddenly "in," with this family and a few others they were close to.  For our entire time in that church district, we had a place we could speak freely.

So why am I telling you this? Why would I reveal the code, and risk that some innocent pastor will be thrown to the social lions because the secret is out?** It's because the gains are greater than the risks. For pastors, teachers, and other "church people," safe friendships are more precious than gold. Pastoral leadership runs on relationships, that's true, but it's because people run on relationships. These people who serve need your help.  They need support and acceptance, and spaces where they can like music and movies and sports.***

I'm telling you this because, if you have a pastor or another leader in you life, they're probably drowning a little every day in the responsibility. Just like everyone else. There is no way to survive this way of life, except by sometimes stepping away from it, and relaxing like a normal person.**** I want you to learn the code so that you can be that safe space known as a friend.

I don't ask for charity.  Actually, pastors and the like make some pretty awesome friends. They don't tell your secrets, they know a lot of good jokes (you won't believe how funny theology actually is--I promise), they are usually deep thinkers with a strong appetite for fun.  Also, family-friendly.  Oh yes, and they know the incomparable value of friends.

So the next time you talk to your pastor, try out the code. Make a joke, or a pop culture reference.  It's a risk, I know--there's about a 1 in 5 chance you'll get the hairy eyeball.  But the chance is much greater that they will finish the fish symbol, and you may have a friend.  And if they ask a question, it doesn't hurt to check if the answer is 42.

*Feel free to take a moment and be appalled by this number--I am.

**Actually, 42 is becoming less useful as code, since it's an older literary reference theses days. I have met bona fide geeks who have never read Douglas Adams, so perhaps this password is outdated. So I tell myself to sooth my conscience.

***Or not like sports, as sports are a freebie, or even mandatory, in many places. Or like the wrong team.

****Ideally, the church should be such a safe and honest place that we always get to be at ease and act normal there. We all know this isn't completely possible.

Friday, April 21, 2017

How to Criticize your Leaders

Many years ago, a friend came to talk to me about her troubles. She was a lay leader in a neighboring church, and their new pastor was . . . not settling in well.  He had a style of leadership that was hard on his followers.

I remember sitting on the couch listening, and wondering what I could safely say.  I knew the church and the pastor, and her pain was legitimate.  I wanted to affirm her, but I was afraid of criticizing him. We still hoped he was learning better ways, and I didn't want to injure her willingness to follow.

I was kind of stupid.  I should have cared more about her needs than his.  But I worried that criticizing a leader was bad on principle.

It's not.

Yes, I know what Paul says about magistrates getting their authority from God.  I even know the story of the wrath Miriam suffered when she and Aaron complained about Moses. But there are other examples in the Bible as well.  Forget prophets calling out the kings in the Old Testament.  Remember Jesus' words for the religious leaders of his day.  "Bleached tombs," anyone?  No, we can't say that criticizing our leaders is a sin, unless we want to rethink our Christology.*

Leadership is a relationship, and every human relationship comes with responsibilities. We talk a lot about the responsibilities of a leader, but they go both ways. And thoughtful, intelligent criticism is one of the responsibilities of followers.

I am married to a pastor.  This means I get to see what it takes out of someone to lead a volunteer organization.  But more than that, I've had the chance to meet and talk to various church leaders. And I've found, most of the time, that they're good and even competent people, who want the best, even for their critics. And so I've spent years of my life trying not to criticize leaders because I don't want to make their jobs harder.

But there are moments when it's important.  Like my friends' situation, when my tactful silence normalized her pastor's unkindness to her.

So what is thoughtful, intelligent criticism?  Because we all know about the other kinds--the screaming-at-the-computer-screen, or laughing-up-ratings-for-late-night-television kind.  What makes criticism honest and just. and beneficial to the world? Well, here's my take:

First, it needs to be earned.  That means based on observable reality.  We criticize our leaders for what they do, or what they communicate, and not what we assume they eat for breakfast.

Second, it needs to be specific.  Just like with praise, "Preacher X is an idiot" is not helpful.  "Preacher X shows disdain for education" or "Preacher X ignores advice" has a better chance. (Yes, I knew we could get more technical: "X did not respond to my email advising him, and acted contrary to the advice in it" is more objective.  But let's not overstate our tendency to be objective when annoyed.)

Third, it needs to be empathetic. It's the critic's job to look at the choice from the leader's point of view, and not judge simply on whether it was inconvenient to themselves. You're only making a useful statement if you can say the choice was wrong, rather than it made more work for you. (Making more work for you is probably something your leader should consider, but when you criticize empathetically, you admit there were other factors, too.)

Last, it needs to be prayerful.  Because it's all too easy for criticism to go from a responsibility to a pastime. It's easy to pass into mere complaining. Ask God to keep you honest.

Today, I want to encourage you to criticize your leaders, for two reasons:

First, because it can help them.  As someone who has failed at leadership, I know the value of earned criticism.  It hurts, but the hurt is motivation to grow and do better.** If I didn't see this unflattering image of the job I was doing, I wouldn't have known how big my mistakes were.  I'm not saying the criticism has to hurt, but even the painful stuff can help.

It is true that not all leaders learn from criticism. But good leaders do.  It's one of those responsibilities that come with power which Spiderman's Uncle Ben warned us about.

The second reason it that it can help others.  Your leader may not choose to hear, or to grow, no matter how respectfully you criticize.***  But they're not the only ones out there who may need to hear what you're saying.  Someone else may need to be told, "You're right--that was wrong."

We don't create healthy people telling them they have to accept bad leadership, or approve of someone when they're wrong. What we create, instead, is opportunity for abuse. Accountability for leaders is blessing, for the leader and the community both. Following intelligently is more useful than following admiringly.

Right now the Adventist church is in a crisis about leadership. As church members, we see more than our share of blind loyalty and blind dislike.  What we need is responsible criticism. Now is the time to follow intelligently (and to know where we won't be led).

So pray for your leaders.  Support them.  And criticize them. It's a good thing.

*Plus, there would be a lot more cases of leprosy breaking out spontaneously over Sabbath lunch.

**Also, working with the same people who have seen me fail, knowing they know my past mistakes and may still judge me for them, is a pretty good deterrent against getting a big head.

***And of course it's possible that you're wrong, too.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

"What was that?"

"I think it was, 'Blessed are the cheesemakers.'"

"What's so special about cheesemakers?"

"Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally.  It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products."

The scene is from a Monty Python movie, and the joke is that a group of people are listening to Jesus' famous sermon on the mount, but they're standing too far back to hear him. And so the profound lesson they learn is, "Blessed are the cheesemakers."

I don't recommend The Life of Brian.  I haven't watched the movie since I've become an intellectually responsible adult--too much making nonsense out of what is sacred to wade through it for the good jokes.  But I find myself wondering, as I vacuum the living room this morning, if it might be true.  Are the cheesemakers blessed?

It's Wednesday, my work day.  It's the one day all the kids are out of the house, and I can do stuff without interruptions. My writing projects all gather in waiting for this day, as well as any complex communications.  Today it's just me and the dog and the laptop.  And yet, before I can start, I have a date with the vacuum, because I'm serving the grandparent babysitters supper, and the house has to look sanitary enough to eat in.

Is cheesemaking blessed?  Is vacuuming honorable?  Can there be dignity, can there be value in the inescapable round of work which bears the technical label of "menial?"  I really want to know this, because it seems like I can't escape it.  I want to build my identity around what I do on my laptop--the sermons or dramas I write, or the events I help create. I don't want it to come from my vacuum.  I want to be a peacemaker, on a world scale, or locally. But what I am most hours of the day is a cheesemaker.  And it gets worse because, while I do have hope that one day (when the children are all in school) I might make a living with my brain, I know it's no escape. The house will still need vacuumed, the dishes washed. No matter who else I become, I will always have to be a cheesemaker.

Where does human value, human dignity lie? I want so hard to be valued for the things I can produce with my brain, rather than what I can produce with my hands. But if I take the time to unwrap that want, it doesn't look so beautiful underneath.  Because as great a treasure as the human intellect is, it is the human heart which Jesus died to save.  Perhaps my value to a critical world lies in my power to comprehend or express ideas. But my value to God is in my character. Honesty compels me to admit that it's the vacuum, and not the laptop, that grows my character.

When mankind fell in Eden, and God began the work of redeeming us, the first weapon he placed in our hands was work. "Painful toil" is an accurate translation of the word God used both for tilling the ground and for bearing children. And even today it hurts, and we call it menial. Even with my trusty vacuum and my dishwasher, still, it hurts my pride, knowing I am capable of sublime* things, and yet  being kept busy folding laundry, or cleaning the litter box.

It is the vacuum, and not the laptop, which grows my character. Indeed, the very fact that I draw personal value from writing arguably disqualifies it from being an act of character.  The exercise of the mind is a good thing, it helps to make us human.  Theology is essential to the service of God.**  But it is unglamorous work that pushes and stretches, and grows me.

So I guess the irreverent British comedians have this one right.  Blessed are the cheesemakers. We are growing in grace.

So I offer my respect to all of you cheesemakers out there.  Because there's more to cheesemaking than cheese. What makes your work honorable, what gives it dignity, is you. You are the image and glory of God, and the work you do is not trivial because it makes you more like him. May God bless you!

*at least I think so

**This is very, very, very important.  Because I love theology, and philosophy, and storytelling, and I wouldn't ever want to appear to disparage them in any way.

Friday, April 7, 2017

What the Pagans Got Right about Easter

Easter is coming up fast. It's the season for resurrection pageants, pastel-colored candy, eggs and bunnies. And of course, that other Easter tradition—arguments over whether this is all pagan or not.

This year, I've decided I don't care. I don't care for two reasons. One is the two-thousand (ish) year history of Christian Easter celebrations. Maybe the eggs and bunnies used to belong to the pagans. Maybe they got adopted so the new church could be “seeker-friendly” in the first century. But after about 2,000 years, simple squatter's rights say those things belong to us now. Especially since there is a shocking lack of pagans around to fight us for them.  Today's competition for the world's ear is not paganism, it's materialism.

And that's the second reason I don't care if the eggs and bunnies were pagan. It's still a good thing for Christians to celebrate new life in the spring.  Because the pagans weren't wrong about everything,  And when it comes to eggs and bunnies, there's something vital that they knew that we've forgotten.

It's this: spring is a miracle.

 It's easy to miss, when we spend the winter nestled in insulated homes and offices, when the snow is just an inconvenience, when supermarkets bring us the same food all year round. In this century, spring is a perk. It improves the scenery, and gives a chance to go outdoors.  But our lives our busy. I find that I catch spring in stolen glimpses of white flowers on the trees, seen out my car window on my way to another meeting.

It's easy to miss, and it's easy to misinterpret. The Enlightenment taught us to see nature as a mechanism, instead of a revelation. We assume that spring just happens. We forget what it actually is. We forget that the outside world was dead--gray and black, and brown. Leaden skies and leafless trees, dead grass, ice, and water on stone. And when the earth finally turns toward the sun again, and spring arrives, the world is resurrected.

We forget that a seed is just as dead as a rock. And yet that seed, with the sun, and dirt and water will turn into a flower. The fleshy stem, the veined web of leaves, the silver-blue in the spray of petals, all come from virtually nothing. Creation ex-nihilo. No wonder the pagans were in awe. It should leave us speechless. It should move us to worship.

It's not that the pagans were wrong—Paul as much as says they saw the revelation of God in nature. The problem was they didn't have the whole story, and they made up the wrong ending. They ended it too close to the natural world, with gods who didn't heal the taint of death on the human heart. The pagans were right, just not right enough.

As a Christian, I know the God who resurrects the world every spring. I know the power that turns the grey web of empty tree branches into clouds of yellow buds or pink blossoms, also broke the shell of death and resurrected Hope out of the hollow stone of Jesus' grave. I know that every day he is making life out of death, love out of bitterness, spring out of winter.

So this Easter I'm going to fight materialism instead of waving sticks at paganism's grave. I will take pains to watch the cherry blossoms, to touch the daffodils and stare at the blue sky overhead, and not simply rush on to my next task. And I will enjoy the eggs and bunnies of Easter unashamed. Because I know they really aren't symbols of anything. They're examples of the life God offers, extravagant and free, to the world.

 Happy Easter.