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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Grace of Giving and Receiving

Le Nain, Nativity with a Torch, 1600s
Christmas – the season for giving and receiving gifts. In the Child of Bethlehem we receive the self-giving love of God. And we are reminded that we are at our best when we give generously and receive gratefully.

So, if Christmas is about what is humanly truest and best, why all this giving and receiving cause us such stress? In our hearts, we know that Christmas in 2016 has a lot less to do with Jesus and a lot more to do with the insatiable demands of a consumer-driven economy. Christmas shopping can become a form of seasonal affective disorder, and when all is said and done we realize that no matter how much we
give or how much we are given, it doesn’t necessarily make us any happier.

Pondering these questions confronts us with all the twists and turns of our disordered hearts. We’re faced with what the fact that, in the words of St. Paul, “the good we would do we cannot do, and the wrong that we seek to avoid is the very thing that we do.”

We’re taught to receive gratefully, yet our receiving can be tainted with a sense of entitlement or resentment. We start to feel that we receive good things because we deserve them. Or, resentful that we don’t receive more than those who are less deserving than we are.

I’ve just finished a book entitled Strangers in Their Own Land by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild.  A well known academic, Hochschild left her ivory tower in Berkeley, California and spent five years getting to know members of the arch-conservative Tea Party movement
in Louisiana. She wanted to overcome the “empathy wall” that increasingly divides and isolates Americans from those who think differently than they do.

Hochschild found her “Tea Party friends” (as she calls them) individually warm, engaging, generous and kind. But she also found that they habored a deep-seated resentment against people they thought had been given unfair advantages. In the quest for the “American dream,” less deserving people were unfairly jumping the queue ahead of hard-working people like themselves. “Line jumpers” include immigrants, Syrian refugees, welfare recipients, pampered government employees, affirmative action beneficiaries, the inner city poor. This belief, Hochschild discovered, explains the extraordinary hostility of the right to Barack Obama.  After all, (the reasoning goes) the only way that a mixed race child of a low-income single mother could have risen to the Presidency is if he were given unfair hand up, not available to ordinary (white) working people.

But before we rush to judge this attitude, let’s remember that the Baby of Bethlehem reveals the secret recesses of all our hearts. He compels us to look at the ways in which we too sometimes feel entitled and resentful of others who aren’t as “deserving” as we are. It’s an impulse that is within us all.

Likewise, our giving can come with a lot of strings attached. Generosity can be a means of wielding power over others by making them beholden to us. We condescend to those “less fortunate” in order to make ourselves feel virtuous and superior. Many Christian “good works” are more than a little marked by this self-congratulatory attitude.

At Christmas, we are invited to ponder the mystery of the Baby of Bethlehem and what his coming means for us. One of the central themes of Christmas is light. Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”

That light of the Christ Child is warm and comforting, but it is also searching and painfully bright because, if we have eyes to see, it will make us face up to the truth about ourselves – that even our best-intentioned actions can conceal selfish motives that cause hurt to others, whether or not we’re aware of it. The angels sang about the arrival of “Peace on earth, good will to all,” but their song seems to be mocked by the inability of fallible human beings to actually live it out.

The Bible has a word for this human-all-too-human reality, a word that is widely misunderstood and pretty much out of fashion. The English word is “sin.” Sin is not breaking the rules or feeling badly about ourselves. Sin is the universal human impulse to misuse the good things we have been given.  The consequence is alienation from God, and, as a consequence, from others and from our own true selves. G. K. Chesterton once quipped that original sin is the only Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable. Our thoughts and deeds are permeated by it every day.

Therefore, our attitude at Christmas should first of all be one of humility and poverty of heart. We need help – the help that only one who comes to us from God can bring. We need to receive before we can hope to give – receive the grace that is a free, no-strings-attached gift from beyond ourselves. If our hearts are going to be purified and our actions made right, we can’t rely only on ourselves. We need help.

What keeps this from being a depressing guilt trip is the wonderful mystery of grace. God comes to us in love, not to condemn us, but to empower us to do what we seem to be incapable of doing on our own. God does this by showing us the true Way to life, but also by freeing us from paralyzing guilt and shame. God shows us the way. But God enables us to walk the way through forgiveness and the assurance that we are never beyond hope or redemption.

When the Baby of Bethlehem grew up, he said, “The truth shall set you free.” In other words, we don’t need to be afraid of the truth because it does not condemn us, it frees us. That includes the truth about ourselves. Jesus came to tell us the love and grace of God are always stronger than whatever we have done or failed to do.

Detail from "Joseph the
Carpenter" by Georges de
la Tour, ca 1645
Martin Luther famously said, “Sin boldly.” By that, I think he meant, don’t be under any illusion that your motives and actions will ever be entirely sinless and pure. But don’t be paralyzed by the fear that you will get it wrong either, because it’s unavoidable. Instead, act according to your faith, and trust in the grace and mercy of God to redeem even your mistakes.

Jesus is more and more receding from public view at Christmas. Jesus even seems strangely absent from many of our churches. There seems to be an attitude that the less we’re about Jesus, the more people will be interested in us. But the one thing the Christian Church still has that people can’t get anywhere else is the message of the Christ Child. This message tells us the often painful truth about ourselves, but more importantly, the truth about the God of healing and salvation and grace. If we Christians have anything at all to offer to a hurting world, surely it is that message, in word and in deed.

If anything, we need to double down on our proclamation of Jesus, not retreat from it. It’s the gift we have been given that we are invited to give to others in such a way that it communicates the freedom and life that are God’s desire for us.

May you have a blessed and holy Christmas and a happy and grace-filled New Year.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Getting More Out of Your Mission Statement

In September I wrote a blog post which questioned the value of the mission statement. But if you worked hard on your church’s mission statement, I don’t want to suggest that it was wasted effort. I would like to share some thoughts, though, about how you can get more value out of your mission statement, so that it actually drives your mission.

One way to get more out of your mission statement is to identify the words that are the key to its meaning and focus on them.  I call these “weight-bearing words.”

These words function like a load-bearing wall in a house. According to Wikipedia, a load-bearing wall “bears a load resting upon it by conducting its weight to a foundation structure.” In other words, it allows the foundation to support the weight of the house so that it doesn’t
Load bearing wall

The weight-bearing words in your mission statement are those few words that connect your church’s life to its foundational purpose and identity. They capture the essence of who you are as a church. You should have two or three at most. If you can’t narrow it down to that few, then your mission statement is too diffuse and unfocused. And, if you find that the words that really describe your congregation’s purpose and identity aren’t in your mission statement – well, it’s time to retire that version of your mission statement.

Choosing two or three words doesn’t mean that the rest aren’t important. But the weight-bearing words often encompass others in their meaning. For example, the word “discipleship” could incorporate other words like “worship,” “fellowship” or “spiritual growth.”
Having narrowed your focus to these few, key words, you then reverse direction and expand them outward.  You do this by spending lots of quality time with them in worship and conversation, digging into them, drilling down into them, telling lots of stories about them, unpacking all their complex layers of meaning. You do this by creating as many opportunities as possible for people to interact with these words.

Often, weight bearing words seem on the surface to be very mundane and ordinary. They might include such everyday words as “family,” “community,” “caring” “faith” or “love.” But that’s OK. Our God is the God who comes to us in the everyday, and whose glory is revealed in the ordinary. From the beginning, the Christian church affirmed this understanding of God by taking ordinary, everyday words and discovering in them profound theological and spiritual significance.

Take the word baptizo, for example, from which we get our word “baptize.” Baptizo originally
described the act of dipping vegetables in brine to make pickles. The vegetables were changed by being Immersed in brine. How imaginative of the early Christians to take this workaday word to describe the inner transformation that takes place when believers are immersed in the waters of baptism. 

Or take the most common word for “church” in the New Testament, ekklesia. Originally, this was not a religious word at all, but referred to a town hall meeting where citizens were called together to conduct the business of the city. Rather than choose one of the many available words for a sacred or religious community, the Christians saw the potential of that mundane word to describe what happens when Jesus calls his followers together in a particular place to do his work.

Your weight bearing words may not be loftily spiritual, but quite non-religious and down-to-earth. This is as it should be since Jesus abolishes the dividing line between the sacred and the secular and turns every place into holy ground.

But ordinary does not mean shallow.  The reason mission statements are often ineffective is that we take a casual, “everybody-knows-what-that-means” attitude towards. Instead, we need to find ways to open ourselves to their hidden depths.

Let’s say your church decides that one of the keys to your purpose and identity is the word “inclusive.”  Don’t be content with just saying, “Oh, we accept everyone.” For one thing, choosing to include some people often means that you choose to not include others. Or, they exclude themselves because they do not feel they can find a home among you. Have some serious conversation about what exactly it means for you. Whom are you able to include in your church? How is that inclusiveness expressed in practical terms? How does that inclusiveness stretch and challenge you? What price are you willing to pay for including young families, persons with addictions, the poor, those with disabilities or mental health issues? Most importantly, how does that word “inclusive” help you to participate more fully in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation?

I’ve compared words to a wall. That’s an analogy, and, like all analogies, it can only be pushed so far. Words and walls may be similar in some ways, but they’re very different in others. A wall is static and stationary. Walls don’t move. In fact, they’d better not move!

Words, on the other hand, are dynamic and evolving. Our words echo the Word of God
which, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, is “living and active.” They do not just describe what is, they have the power to evoke what could be. Words don’t just confirm the status quo, they hold the potential to change us.

If “inclusive” is one of your weight-bearing words, don’t let it make you complacent and self-congratulatory. Allow it to challenge your hidden biases, unexamined blind spots and the barriers you might be erecting to the participation of some that you’re not even aware of. If inclusivity truly is central to your identity and purpose, don’t be afraid to prayerfully face these uncomfortable questions head on.  Let this word prod you and invade your comfort zone. Then your mission statement can begin to do what it should do – lead you farther down the road of faithfulness.

The dynamic quality of these weight-bearing words means that they can change over time. The words that express the essence of who you are as a church today may not be the best words in five years. Part of our openness to the Spirit is being open to the future significance of different words to carry the weight of our church's life.

Mission statements can be nothing more than a string of empty and easily forgotten words, but they can also contain our best and most profound intuitions. Finding the words that bear their weight and exploring those words to the full is one way to get more out of our mission statements. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Congregational Surveys

When a church wants to know what people are thinking, what do they do? Often, they create a congregational survey. Whether they’re contemplating changes in worship or programming, or calling a new minister, the preferred method is the survey questionnaire.

What I often hear, though, is that the results are less than hoped for. The most common complaint is that younger people and those newer to the church don’t fill them out. “We want to know what the others think. How can we get them to complete the survey?" is a question I have heard over and over again. 

Here are some thoughts about creating better congregational surveys.

Most church surveys are put together by “insiders” – by people who are actively involved and familiar with how the church works. This can be unintentionally reflected in the way the survey questions are asked. For instance, a question like “Do you prefer traditional or contemporary music?” presupposes that people are familiar enough with the church that they know what those words mean. Someone who is new or who doesn’t attend very often may have no idea how to answer that question, and so conclude that this survey isn’t really for them. 

If you want to hear from people other than your active membership (which includes most younger people), create your questions with them in mind. 

Short and Sweet
Many congregational surveys are simply way too long. I saw one recently that had over 100 questions. The people who will be motivated to complete such a survey are those who are already committed to the church. Typically, that means people who are over 60, who attend regularly, and who have been members for ten years or more. A young couple, juggling work and family, may look at it and say, “I don’t have time for that.”

In general, it is more effective to have several short, clearly focused surveys than one long “omnibus” questionnaire.

Also, consider how the survey is delivered. Is it printed on paper and handed out after church? Then it's likely that only  older people will complete it. If you want younger and newer folks to respond, your survey needs to be available online using a program such as Survey Monkey. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’d better ask your grandkids.)

What’s the Angle?
People, especially younger people, are becoming increasingly suspicious and cynical about those who want to ask their opinions. They assume it’s in order to try to “sell” them something. The church is not exempt from that suspicion. 

“How can we provide more things for younger people if they won’t tell us what they want?” sounds like a well-meaning and sincere question if you're on the inside of the church. But to an “outsider,” it sounds like you’re more interested in shoring up the church and its programs than in hearing their opinions. So, they’ll pass.

What’s It For?
Many survey questions are prepared with little or no thought given to how the information gleaned from them will be used. For example, questions such as, “Would you like to have a church service at a time other than Sunday morning?” or “Would you like to replace the pews with chairs?” are good questions, only if you’re prepared to deal with the responses.
People tend to not be in favour of things that they aren’t familiar with, so your typical survey respondent will be more likely to say no to both of those questions. And people who might like to see those changes may believe that it doesn’t matter what they say because nothing is likely to change.

But in any case, if you have no intention of starting a new service or getting rid of your pews, don't ask for people's opinions about it. 

Never put a question into a survey unless you have a clear idea of what you plan to do with the responses.

Talk To Me
Written surveys provide a certain kind of information. But they should always be augmented by face-to-face contact – personal interviews, focus groups, intentional conversations. Checking a box on a survey won’t necessarily give you a clear idea of what people are thinking.

Once you’ve tabulated the results of your survey, follow up with individual and group conversations. This will give you a richer, “thicker” picture of what people in the church are thinking than the survey alone.

And remember: If you want to hear from people other than “insiders” – those active, long-time members – you need to be intentional about seeking out their contributions. The onus is not on them to answer your survey, it's on you to make it worth their while to give you their thoughts. 

Congregational surveys can be helpful sources of information, if they are easily understood, have a clear point, are not too long and are complemented with face-to-face conversations. It’s always a good idea to test out the questionnaire before you distribute it, remembering to get input from people outside the inner circle of the church. And, even if it costs a little bit of money, advice from someone with marketing experience can help you design a more effective survey. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

What to Do When Everything is Unraveling

On September 17, 25 people from four congregations and one ecumenical ministry met at Wesley United Church in Cambridge to begin a journey called “Into the Promise.”

Into the Promise is a collaborative learning project initiated by Rev. Christine Jerrett, a
Christine Jerrett
United Church minister from Sarnia. It is based on the work of author and consultant Alan Roxburgh, using his recent book Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World.

Alan argues that churches in North America are in the midst of a “great unraveling.” The church that many of us were raised in seems to be coming apart. We have spent almost fifty years trying to “fix the church” – trying to find solutions that will stop people, especially young people, from leaving. But none of those efforts have worked. The church can’t be “fixed” – not in the sense of recreating the church we once knew.

Alan Roxburgh
Alan argues that this unraveling is actually the work of the Spirit. God is active in the world. And God still needs the church. 

But the basic questions have changed – from “church questions” (“How can we bring people back? How can we “fix” the church?”) to “God questions”  (“What is God doing in our neighborhoods and communities, and how can we join God?”)

This is a fundamental shift in vision and orientation, and it demands that we develop a new set of practices. Alan outlines five of these practices:
·         Listening. Learning to listen deeply to one another, to Scripture, to our neighborhoods and communities.
·         Discerning. Learning to see what God is up to in the lives of people.
·         Experimenting. Learning to develop simple, practical, “lightweight” ways of joining with God.
·         Evaluating. Asking, “What did we do? What are we learning? Where did we see God at work?” (And, not being afraid to fail!)
·         Deciding. Creating new, sustainable ways to be the church.

These deceptively simple practices involve learning a new set of skills. That’s what the
congregations involved in Into the Promise will be doing over the next 18 months. Small teams from each congregation will meet regularly. They will come together every other month to share their experiences and to receive coaching from Christine.  We will all learn as we go, realizing that we’re in uncharted territory.

Into the Promise is not a typical study program with a beginning and an end. Its purpose is to begin to shift the culture of our congregations. It involves learning to see things in a different way and to undertake new practices.

Into the Promise is also designed to be collaborative. Congregations will share with one another what they are doing and what they are learning. And the hope is that others will benefit from that learning in the future.

The “great unraveling” that Alan Roxburgh describes is disruptive and stressful. But it is also a time a hope and excitement because the Spirit is at work creating a new future.

Who’s involved in Into the Promise? Wesley United, Cambridge; St. Luke’s United, Cambridge; St. John’s-on-the-Hill, Cambridge; Rockwood-Stone Pastoral Charge; Knox United, Ayr.

Want to know more about Alan Roxburgh’s work? Visit

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Binding and Bridging

I think one of the most influential books of the last 20 years is Bowling Alone: The Collapse
and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam. Putnam, a sociologist at Harvard University, describes how traditional forms of community have been on the decline in American – and I think we can say, Canadian – society since World War Two. He shows how people have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and democratic structures. The title of his book comes from the fact that while more people are going bowling, membership in bowling leagues has plummeted. People are literally “bowling alone.”

Bowling Alone helps to explain what is happening to our churches. Churches are one of those forms of social participation that is in serious decline. The drop in attendance, disappearance of Sunday School, and aging congregations can be seen as part of a massive social change in which an increasing individualism is undermining the groups and organizations that our parents and grandparents relied on to give structure and meaning to their lives.

One of Putnam’s key ideas is what he calls “social capital.” We all know about physical capital – money, property, the goods and assets that can be used to create wealth, and that is the basis of our economy. Putnam argues that there is also social capital – the connections between people on which communities are built.

Think of all the communities that you are a part of – your neighborhood, school, social clubs, service organizations, church, coffee group at Tim’s. Think of how thick and rich the webs of relationships are that both strengthen community life and are strengthened by it. Think of how you are sustained by those connections, and how much poorer and thinner your life would be without them. Imagine that on a society wide level, and you’re thinking about social capital.  

Putnam goes on to argue, though, that there are two kinds of social capital. There is “binding” social capital which he says functions as a kind of social “superglue,” creating group identity and cohesion and giving people a powerful sense of belonging.

Then there is “bridging” social capital which acts like social “WD-40,” building bridges between different kinds of communities.

Churches are rich in social capital. That’s what people mean when they talk about their church as a “family,” a place where they know they belong. Even a small congregation has a complex web of connections.

We need this binding social capital, but it can be too much of a good thing. While it fosters close-knit relationships and loyalties, it can also lead to closed circles that are suspicious or hostile towards those who aren’t part of their group. Nobody has stronger social capital, Putnam argues, than the Mafia or the Hell’s Angels.

So what many church members identify as the most important quality of their congregation – that it is a “close knit family” – can also make it a closed circle. Churches that have strong binding capital can send a very subtle, but clear message to outsiders and new comers that there is no place here for you. This can happen in spite of the sign on the lawn that says “All Welcome.”

Binding social capital needs to be balanced by bridging social capital. As well as creating a strong sense of family, belonging and loyalty, churches need to intentionally forge connections beyond their members – with those outside the church, with new comers, and, with future generations.

Binding used to be enough when churches were replenished from within, when children grew up to be the next generation, or when new waves of immigrants were continually arriving. But that’s not so anymore, as once solidly ethnic denominations like the Christian Reformed Church are beginning to discover.

As the kind of social change that Putnam describes becomes more dominant, it’s natural for communities like churches to instinctively turn inward, seeking the comfort and reassurance that the ties that bind them to their friends provides. Ironically, though, as they become older and smaller, churches may actually become more resistant to new people who could revitalize them.

In other words, while our impulse might be to rely even more on the comfort and security of binding social capital, we need to find ways to strengthen the bridging social capital of our congregations if they are going to remain vital and alive in a rapidly changing world.

Rev. Paul Miller,

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Do We Really Need A Mission Statement?

I used to think that every church should have a mission statement – a short and snappy couple of phrases that everyone can remember and follow. It should be visible everywhere, on walls, on the website, on the Sunday bulletin. It should be rehearsed at every board meeting and known by heart.

I’m not so sure any more. The truth is, most mission statements are not worth the time we devote to them. Not that there’s anything wrong with mission statements per se. Some are really effective. The best church mission statement I ever heard was five words:  “More people, more like Christ.” You know immediately what that church is about. It’s about growing in numbers, and helping people live more Christ-like lives.

But that’s the exception, not the rule. A lot of church mission statements are a string of
platitudes that nobody remembers and is rarely, if ever, referred to.  

What should you do if your mission statement is not working for you? One thing you should not do – launch into another time consuming missions statement writing process!  Because chances are, what you come up with won’t be any more effective than what you had.  
Unless your mission statement is seriously at odds with your church’s values, the best thing to do is to leave it be.

But make your current mission statement more useful.

Here are a few ways to do that.

A Mission Statement is not a box to be checked. The reason many churches spend hours writing mission statements is they’ve been told they should have one. At a recent meeting I attended, someone said, “All the experts say we need a mission statement, so we’d better write one.” But a Mission Statement is only useful if you follow it. Karl Vaters, who writes a great small church blog, says this:  “Great mission statements don’t make great churches – or fix broken ones. We have to do the mission first. We shouldn’t put anything into words until we’re already putting it into action.”

More important than simply writing a mission statement is honestly and regularly evaluating your church’s mission.  

Focus on the key words. Even if you’re happy with your mission statement, you should identify the words that really matter. I call them the “weight bearing words,” the two or three or four essential words that support the whole statement. Pay particular attention to words that have the potential to challenge and stretch you, that would change you if followed them. For example, if your statement contains a word like “hospitality,” have the courage to dig into that word and ask, “What would it mean for us to be a community that practiced radical hospitality?” We waste lots of time on trivial word smithing. We should spend more time talking about the weight-bearing words, the words that really matter.

Does everyone know what it means? Many church mission statements use words like “community,” “family,” or “inclusive.” But  ask people what those words mean, and they don’t really know, or they have very different understandings. Noted consultant and author Kennon Callahan used to say, “All churches are friendly churches – to the people who attend them.” Likewise, all churches are “inclusive” – for those who feel included. If you define your church as “inclusive,” ask, “What do we mean by that word? How do we live it out? What differences of age, income, education, gender, orientation, race, ethnicity are reflected in our congregation? What are the limits of our inclusivity? If we welcome and include everyone, why does everybody look so much alike?”

If you want to make your mission statement more effective, create as many opportunities as possible for people to talk honestly and openly about what it means.

Is the word “mission” part of the problem? Mission is central to the church’s existence. It comes from the Latin missio, which means “to send.” Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” (John 20: 21) Our mission is what we are sent by Jesus to do and to be.

But over the centuries, the word has picked up a lot of negative baggage. It conjures up pictures of colonial missionaries imposing over other cultures. It suggests imposing our beliefs on others. And, for 1500 years, the church’s mission has been offloaded to professionals and experts so most ordinary people don’t think it has anything to do with them.

Without getting rid of the word “mission,” then, can we find other words that work better – purpose, goal, the difference we’re called to make? Your mission statement should simply express the purpose for which your congregation exists. If the word “mission” is getting in the way, find other words to express it.   

Remember: writing a mission statement is not the completion of a task, it’s only the beginning. It’s not having a mission statement but living your mission that matters.   

Monday, July 4, 2016

Elie Wiesel: "Wounded Faith"

Tributes have been pouring in for author, teacher and Holocaust-survivor Elie Wiesel who died on July 2 at the age of 87.
Elie Wiesel Sept 30, 1928 - July 2, 2016

Wiesel’s classic Night was one of the formative influences on my spiritual and theological development. Although written as a work of fiction, it is based on Wiesel’s own experience in the Nazi concentration camp where his father, mother and younger sister all perished.
Wiesel’s forty books all deal with the mysteries of suffering, God and faith, and the vital importance of memory. Wiesel has written extensively about the suffering of the Jews, but with no trace of self-pity, rage or entitlement. His voice has carried such moral authority because he has spoken on behalf of all innocent victims, not only his own tribe. He insists that we remember so that we will learn, grow and heal. 

Wiesel also reminds us that faith is a struggle and that doubt is an essential element of belief. 

It is common today for people to give up on faith too easily. “I see terrible things happening – so God must not exist.” “The Bible was written 2000 years ago – so it must not be relevant to today.” “Christians are responsible for wars and oppression – so the church must be wrong.” “I can’t make sense out of doctrines like the Trinity – so I’ll just dispense with them.” “Science has vastly increased our knowledge – so we’ve outgrown ancient traditions.”
From Elie Wiesel we can learn the importance of struggling with faith and wrestling with God.

In a 2005 interview with writer Cathleen Fansani, Wiesel talked about what he called his “wounded faith.”

Why on earth does he still believe? I want to know. I need to know.

“Doubt is there all the time,” he says, softly. “The questions are there, and all my questions are stronger than all my answers.”

And yet you continue to wrestle with God?

“I continue because what is the alternative?” he says.

You could walk away.

“And do what, really? Could I not believe? If I were not who I am, of course I would not. But I am who I am,” the professor says. “I cannot not believe. Not because of myself, but because of those who were before me. It is my love for and fidelity to my parents, my grandparents, and theirs, and simply to stop, to be last in the chain, is wrong. It would humiliate them. They weren’t at fault. Why should I do it to them? I feel such a presence when I think about them and even when I don’t think about them. I want to follow in their footsteps. I don’t want to break the chain. And to choose what? Is it better to be agnostic or better to be an atheist? I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. I accept having faith. I call it wounded faith, my faith is wounded. But I believe. A very great Hasidic master once said, ‘No heart is as whole as a broken heart.’ And I paraphrase it differently: No faith is as pure as a wounded faith because it is faith with an open eye. I know all the elements of the situation; I know all the reasons why I shouldn’t have faith. I have better arguments against faith than for faith. Sure, it’s a choice. And I choose faith.”

(From Cathleen Falsani, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People.

Wiesel’s voice is so powerful because it is the voice of authenticity. There is nothing facile about his faith. It is the faith of someone who has wrestled with God. Atheists often accuse believers of taking the easy way out, of using God as an avoidance strategy. They haven't listened to Elie Wiesel. Faith for him is not an opinion considered at a safe distance. It holds him in its grip. It compels him. Far from blinding him to the realities of human existence, his is a faith “with an open eye.”  

I fear that we are losing that willingness to wrestle with God. I hope that Elie Wiesel’s voice will continue to be heard by future generations, that they will read him and remember him, and be both challenged and encouraged by his remarkable, wounded faith. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Never Too Late to Try

My wife and I recently watched the movie Danny Collins. It's about an aging pop star (Al
Al Pacino in "Danny Collins" 
Pacino) who was hugely talented as a young man, but chose money over art. He made a fortune singing the most shallow brand of pop tunes. He lived the life of a rock star -- booze, cocaine, women -- and now well into his 60s, it's starting to catch up with him. 

One day, Danny's manager (Christopher Plummer) brings him a letter, written to Danny by John Lennon forty years earlier. Danny never got it. His agent intercepted it and sold it. In the letter Lennon tells him how talented he is, and that he should follow his music. 

In a moment, Danny realizes that he's wasted his life. He wonders how his life would have been different if he'd got that letter when it was first sent. 

But he makes some changes. He cancels the rest of his tour. He moves into a hotel near his hometown in New Jersey. And he tries to make amends with the son he fathered on a one-night stand with a young groupie, but has never known. 

It's a story about how it's never too late to change. It's a story about the possibility of redemption. 

What I liked about it, though, is how believable the story is. The letter from John Lennon motivated him -- but it didn't magically transform him into a totally different person. He didn't suddenly become a saint. Change comes hard. He continues to hurt people and let them down. 

But he perseveres. The movie closes on a question mark -- but it's a beautiful question mark, opening onto an unknown but hopeful future. 

It made me think of my life (I'm 62) and, of course, the church. (Everything makes me think of the church these days.) It made me think of all the times I've thought it was too late to change, too late to start something new, too late to try to undo old mistakes. 

It made me think of all the times I've believed that about churches -- and the churches I know have believed that about themselves. It's hopeless. We're too old, too few, too far gone. And when that's the story we believe, it's hard to see moments of grace when they come to us. 

Danny Collins reminded me, that, while we can't turn back the clock, it's never too late to try to fashion a different tomorrow. 

Recently, I've been involved in a couple of church situations that I really thought were hopeless. "These people will never make it," I thought. And then, unexpectedly, there was, if not a transformational breakthrough, at least a cause for hope. 

We are where we are. And where we are is where God comes to us, and calls to us, and can use us if we are available. The God of the Bible is always at work creating a new and unexpected future. We are never past the point when we can do something to get on board with that future. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Look Who's Using the E-Word

I serve on the Board of our local Habitat For Humanity affiliate, and recently I attended the Habitat National Conference in Kitchener. 

As with most conferences, participants could sign up for a variety of workshops. One that I attended was on "Branding" -- specifically, how to use social media so that people will recognize who you are and know what you're about. It was led by Sean Moffitt, a well known marketing guru and author of the book Wikibrands: Reinventing Your Company in a Customer-Driven Marketplace. 

It was fascinating, but a lot of it was over my head. The information flew past at warp speed, and Sean talked about social media and technologies I had never heard of. 

But there was one moment that made me sit bolt upright. 

"It's no longer about product promotion," he said. "It's about brand evangelism."

Did I hear right? Did he just use the dreaded E-word? That word that Christians invented but that most of us are ashamed to utter? 

Did he just say EVANGELISM?

Evangelism comes from the Greek word euangelion which means "good news." It's been central to Christian identity since the beginning. We have heard good news, and we need to share that good news with others. 

But what our churches have mostly stopped doing, marketers are embracing enthusiastically. Brand
evangelism assumes that it is not the corporation that calls the shots anymore, it's the customer. Companies are realizing that if they want their brand to take hold, they need more than high priced advertising. They need millions of ordinary people who will spread the good news for them. 

Brand evangelism is based on a few key principles. 

1.   The EXPERIENCE matters more than the PRODUCT. 
Branding is not just about the practical merits of this car, shampoo, cell phone, yogurt over its competitors. It's about the promise of a certain experience or lifestyle. It's about how this product will change your life. 

2.  PARTICIPATION matters more than PURCHASING
Brand evangelism takes off when people have a sense that they are participating in something bigger than themselves. By aligning with this particular brand, they are joining a movement. They are connected to others who share the same experience. 

Marketing used to appeal to people's long-term loyalty, loyalty that could last for generations. ("My Granddaddy was a Ford man, my Daddy was a Ford man, and I'll be a Ford man till the day I die!") Marketers today know that the ground is constantly shifting. Because people are looking for an experience, not just a product, they will quickly move on if something else promises to deliver that experience better. So companies need to be constantly thinking ahead and be ready to change their approach on a moment's notice, or they will be left behind, as former giants like Sears, IBM, GM and Blackberry have found out.  

4.  STORIES are critical
Marketers have become great storytellers. Or, more precisely, they have created the conditions in which their customers can become great storytellers. Brand evangelism relies on personal testimony that connects at the level of the heart. 

One of the best examples I've seen of this is the Tim Horton's commercial where a woman and her husband are cleaning out her parents' house in preparation for downsizing. It's the
house where she grew up. You see a flashback of her as an excited child on moving day. In the garage they find a cardboard box of Tim's cups, each marked with a significant event -- "Moving in," "Jess's first hockey game," "Dan proposed to Jess." They take the box out to her Dad who looks at the house he will soon leave, so full of memories, and then writes on the Tim's cup in his hand.

This commercial has nothing to do with coffee and donuts. It's about relationships, family and the creation of memory and meaning. The message is that Tim's is there in all the important moments of your life. 

And, it's a true story. 
If you haven't seen it, here's the link:

Church people get nervous when we talk about marketing. It sounds exploitative and manipulative and it certainly can be. 

But our critical Number One Question today is:  Do we still believe we have good news that's worth telling people about? Do we still believe that we have something that can change people's lives -- something of vastly greater value than even the best computer, car or cup of coffee? 

And if so, why are we so afraid to share it? If marketers can talk unabashedly about evangelism, why can't we? 

I know why. That word has a lot of baggage. It's caused a lot of harm. And we don't want to simply emulate the purveyors of religious consumer products. 

But what can we learn from today's marketers about how to get a message  into people's hearts and homes? 

Some questions:

How can we offer people an experience of God that rings true, and that touches their lives at a deep level? 

How can we foster a sense of genuine participation so that people are connected by things that really matter?

How can we become more responsive to our fluid cultural landscape without losing our souls? (A special challenge for churches that were created to resist change.) 

How can we free people to tell personal stories and find ways of sharing those stories with others? 

Of course, it all has to start with the message. We need to do some soul-searching there. It's clear to me, anyway, that companies believe more passionately in their message than many churches. 

Sounds like plenty of material for at least five more blog posts. 

Stay tuned. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Searching for a Faster Horse

Henry Ford once said, "If I asked people what they want, they would have said, 'A faster horse.'" 

It's human nature to want what we already have -- to default to the known and familiar. And that is the basic flaw in our current JNAC (Joint Needs Assessment) system. We ask our congregations, "What do you want?" and, surprise, surprise, they tell us that they want more of what they already have -- a minister who will fulfill their desires for topical sermons, pastoral visiting and ability to relate to all ages. 

It's the equivalent of looking for a faster horse.  

And that works well if our goal is maintain our churches they way they are now and to satisfy our present congregations. 

Except that most of our churches are NOT satisfied with the way they are now. Most of our churches are not content that they are becoming smaller, older and more tired. 

It requires an act of courage and imagination to ask, not "What do we want?" but "What do we need to do?" If we ask ourselves what we want, we will say "A better version of what we already have." Henry Ford was a visionary who was able to see beyond the limited horizons of people's current wants and desires. 

The real question that is facing the church today is "What do we need to do to be faithful to the task that has been given to us?" What is God asking of us? What does faithfulness to Jesus look like? Those questions require a different level of vision and imagination. 

And the answers to those questions might have little or nothing to do with what we have now. 

As long as we keep asking ourselves what we want, we'll just get more of what we already have. 

And how is that working?  

Thursday, March 31, 2016

More on Dwelling and Seeking

Recently I stumbled across the most amazing singer. Her name is Eva Cassidy.
Eva Cassidy
She has a voice of such purity and beauty, such a rare combination of power and fragility, it’s hard to describe.

Eva Cassidy died of cancer in 1996. She was only 33 years old. She sang in local clubs and festivals and made a couple of self-produced CDs. But outside of her hometown of Washington, D. C., she was virtually unknown.

She became famous by accident. The host of the big morning radio show on the BBC in Great Britain was given one of her CDs. He played Eva’s rendition of the classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  
The switchboard lit up with people clamoring to know who this incredible singer was. Sales of her CDs took off in England.

At the 2002 Winter Olympics, figure skater Michelle Kwan used Eva’s version of the Sting song “Fields of Gold” as the music for her routine.  She became a hit in the US. 

Since her death, her CDs have sold over 10 million copies.

So why didn’t she become famous when she was alive? How could it be that someone as gifted as Eva Cassidy was only discovered after she died?

The main reason is that she refused to be put in a box. She couldn’t be categorized, so no record company would sign her. She sang folk, rock, jazz, blues and country tunes. But the record producers kept saying “What are you? Are you a jazz singer? A pop singer? A folk singer? You have to pick one.” And because she wouldn’t do that, she never got a recording contract.

In a documentary about her, a record executive tells how he called Eva near the end of her life and tearfully asked her to forgive him for not recording her. He said that it was the biggest mistake of his professional life.

So where am I going with this?

In my last blog post, I wrote about two different kinds of spirituality – the spirituality of “dwelling” and the spirituality of “seeking.” Dwelling is about home, belonging, and the safety and predictability of sacred spaces. Seeking is about risk, uncertainty, and the quest to find the holy in unexpected places.

And our temptation is to view these two kinds of spirituality as mutually exclusive, as an either/or. Either you’re a dweller or you’re a seeker.

Some would say that the day of the spirituality of dwelling is over. We all have to be seekers now. 

Isn't that human nature -- to always be trying to draw sharp lines and make clear cut distinctions? We do it in the church all the time. “Is your worship traditional? Or is it contemporary?” “Is your theology orthodox? Or is it progressive?” “Is your church attractional? Or is it missional?”

But we forget that the most contemporary forms are often those most deeply rooted in tradition; that most progressive theology (whatever that means) can be the most orthodox; and that the most attractive churches are the ones with the strongest commitment to a mission.

I'm always reminded of the worship writer Robert Webber who talked about our "ancient/future faith." 

The truth is that the deepest things of life are rarely hard-and-fast either/or’s. We wish they were. It would be simpler. But they are almost always both/and’s and life is about learning to navigate the paradoxes.

This is at the root of Christian faith. For centuries, Christians have affirmed that

·         God is transcendent. God is immanent.
·         Jesus is fully human. Jesus is fully divine.
·         God is one. God is three.
·         We are justified by faith alone. Faith without works is dead.
·         God is just. God is merciful.
      We must remember the past. We must forget the past. (Isaiah 43) 
·         If we want to live, we have to be prepared to die.
·         If we want to be great, we must be humble servants.

The life of faith is the ability to hold things that appear to be opposites in creative and energetic tension. It's what keeps faith alive and ever renewing. We don’t like tension, so we want to resolve it, to make it either/or, to fit the messiness into clearly labeled boxes. But whenever we do that, we end up with something much thinner, much poorer, much less true.

Eva Cassidy remained true to herself by refusing to be put in a box.

And Christian communities are most true to themselves, and more importantly, true to God, when they can learn to live in the life-giving tension between a spirituality of dwelling securely in the presence of God, and a spirituality of risk-taking pilgrimage.