Saturday, December 15, 2012

How do we respond?

Words can not express how I sad, outraged, and fearful I feel in the wake of yesterdays' shooting.  As a father of two children of the ages of those killed this really hit home,  but I would like to think about how do we minister to our neighbors in times such as these.  Lots of people will have lots of questions.   Lots of us will be providing answers that may make ourselves feel good, but may or may not be helpful to others.   I would like to just quickly go through some of the questions I have seen in media, social networking and conversations with friends.

Where was God?

The question that always comes from these events.   How can a good God let this happen?  Some will answer that God is not really there, others (even people of faith sometimes) will say that God was powerless and could not be there.  Others will answer that God was in the midst of the suffering (my default response as a Christian) and still others will say God was in the actions of those who executed the countless acts of self sacrificing love to protect and comfort those involved.   As our society has fragmented, how people answer these questions may depend as much on what group they are in as it does on personal reflection.   Those in the secular media will err on the "God was not there" side,  those of  us in the Church will find stories of God's presence in many of the details as they come out over the next few days.   The real point for those of us who want to be there for others is, what are the real ideas and emotions behind these responses?  Those who speak of God not there, may have something deeper that they are trying to grasp.  Those of us who affirm God's presence may be wanting to make sure that our friends and neighbors have hope to meet uncertainty of living in this mixed up world.  So my prayer will be for the Spirit to lead me and all those who care the wisdom to listen through the conversation to the deeper realities.

Do we do politics?

This seems to be the most divisive question.  The default answer that many people come up first is no.   It is not the time.  President Obama said as much in his response yesterday.   Lots of posts on my Facebook news-feed said something similar.  The emotions are too raw,  people need time to grieve,  it will upset those who are have been victimized by this shooting are some of the default answers.   There is some truth in this but not the whole truth.   I would encourage those of us who minister to listen to those on the other side.   There will be a significant portion people who hear behind this response a lack of resolve to make the necessary changes to help avoid these types of events in the future.   People who want to make sure that we don't change the wrong things, or change too much, will also fear that emotions will lead people to make choices that will have unintended consequences down the road.   There will be people on all sides of the spectrum who will say now is precisely the time to use political processes to either make changes or guard cherished values.   Please understand these people care just as much about those who suffer tragedy as those who need time to mourn or process do.  It is just another way that people cope with the horror.   So my prayer will be for the Spirit to lead me to listen to those who have a different response than I do, take it in, and think about it seriously.

How do we tell our children? 

I am an advocate of limiting children's access to the media.   We do not leave the cable news on in our home.   Images have power, and have been shown in neurological studies to rewire the brain.   So we need to be careful.   I  am also an advocate of telling the truth to our children in ways that they can handle.   This means being upfront that people, and yes children died.   I am not a big believer in using euphemisms to talk about death to children.  I think that talking around death only confuses children and merely communicates our our anxieties.   Young children can basically only think concretely, but are masters at reading emotions.   This does not mean you need to tell them every detail,  but you should find a way to communicate the essentials.  It is also important to communicate your love and your willingness to be there for them.  Kids need stability especially when they hear about tragedy.  When they go to school on Monday the other children will be talking about this.  So my prayer is for the Spirit to help me communicate to my children the tragedy in the most healthy way and to let them know how much I love them. 

I know there may be other things on people's minds, but these were the three that stood out to me.  I am sure there is much more to say and to listen to.

I wish you a blessed remainder of Advent.  

P.S I had actually written another piece for this space called Requiem for Advent but decided to pull it when I heard the news because I used some metaphors that might not have been appropriate in light of yesterday's events.  (it can wait till next year)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Black Friday or Good Friday

This post comes to us from James Krombholz Pastor of Faith Lutheran Church, New Providence NJ

I am becoming increasingly wary of comparisons of a church to a business enterprise -- even missional church. The comparison is all too easy, especially since all business is concentrating on staying "mission-focused" and mission driven. When we confuse church and business, don't we reinforce a way of relating to each other that reduces all relationships to customer-service relationships. Here's what I mean.

"Black Friday is the retailers’ showcase, a time when they should do everything they possibly can to ensure they perform flawlessly—to inspire customers’ long-term loyalty by delivering more than they were expecting."

Now substitute Christmas, Easter or other high-traffic church events for Black Friday and church or congregation for retailers. When we do this we come to diagnose (misdiagnose, I think) our problem as an inability to inspire our customers' long-term loyalty by delivering more than they were expecting. Maybe our churches cannot change, not because our basic model is broken, but because we as people and pastors cannot think or act or relate except as merchants or industrialists. We have received from our tradition and from our ancient scripture an agrarian way of understanding the world, each other and our God, not to mention God's work in our lives and in the world (see the parable of the sower), but we continue to think it would be better if we treated church as business and industry. We have applied industrial technique to agriculture with disasterous consequences. Why would we expect any better result for our churches. Treat a farm like a business and it will go bankrupt or become an plantation or destroy its environment in search of greater and greater profit. Maybe the same can be said for churches. I love this story from Wendell Berry's Economy and Pleasure ...

"I was fortunate, late in life, to know Henry Besuden of Clark County, Kentucky, the premier Soutdown sheep breeder and one of the great farmers of his time. He told me once that his first morning duty in the spring and early summer was to saddle his horse and ride across his pastures to see the condition of the grass when it was freshest from the moisture and coolness of the night. What he wanted to see in his pastures at that time of the year, when his spring lambs would be fattening, was what he called "bloom" - by which he meant not flowers, but a certain visible delectability. He recognized it, of course, by his delight in it. He was one of the best of the traditional livestockmen - the husbander or husband of his animals. As such, he was not interested in "statistical indicators" of his flock's "productivity." He wanted his sheep to be pleased. If they were pleased with their pasture, they would eat eagerly, drink well, rest, and grow. He knew their pleasure by his own. "

That sound a lot more like the work of a pastor than this ...

“I personally apologize for the experience you had, and I apologize for any other customer that might have experienced that,” he told me. ... When I asked about why that Wal-Mart worker [pastor] had pooh-poohed the website’s inventory listing [the religious or spiritual service I came looking for], he said there were some “misaligned incentives” between store workers [clergy] and Web orders [your spiritual desires]. At the moment, in-store employees don’t get any credit toward their bonuses for sales made online [self-guided spiritual experience] but picked up in a store [by attending worship]."

But guess which one sounds more like my day? Customer service, you got it. But that's what the mission-statement says: We're a "Christ-centered [customer] servant community." I don't think we need to change our model as much as we need to understand what we are and what we have to offer a world that is being destroyed by Wal-Mart, Amazon and a host of other enterprises that thrive on statistical indicators and productivity. Maybe we can once again offer a place, a community, a savior, a kingdom to which this "brood of vipers" or "generation" can flee for refuge, repentance and redemption.

Anyhow, maybe our problem is that we're a nation of merchants. How do we change that?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Do the old ways work anymore?

I am wondering how much has the way that people relate to each other changed in the past ten years. As I look around the church and country, I see much different religious landscape than a few years ago. Headlines speak of the rise of the "nones", people who have no religious affiliation whatsoever. However, many of these same people hold religious beliefs and even engage in practices like prayer or meditation. Many people who do hold religious affiliation attend their community's activities less often. Some of the stock answers to this phenomenon speak of the rise of secularism and so on. I am wondering if something deeper is going on.

I am currently finishing up a book called "the winner effect" by neuroscientist Ian Robertson. Much of the book revolves around how certain behaviors we engage in produce dopamine in the critical areas of the brain giving us a reward of good feelings when we do. All kinds of behaviors do this, but this happens especially when we experience a "win" no matter how small. Robertson also goes on to explain how many of the addictions people develop happen because they manipulate these same dopamine receptors in the brain. Gambling, drug addictions and so forth fool the brain and subvert a biological process in the brain leading a person to self destruct.

The question that I have is, is there something like this going on in human social relationships? Are the activities of media consumption and online social networking doing something similar? Do we get a  shot of chemicals in the brain when we connect online, or view our favorite TV show, that mimics the good feelings we get when we are relating to friends and family in person? I almost want to answer the question in the affirmative. Statistics in such works as "Bowling Alone" and "American Grace" by Robert Putnam speak to the collapse of community and social capital in the US today. Is part of the reason because we can get the same good feelings of being in community when we are sitting on our sofa in our underwear? Do we feel that we get the benefit of community without the risk? I do think it is obvious that we are rapidly changing how we relate to each other. While much of the positivist tech press talks about the upside, I am sure there is a downside that we haven't thought of yet. While we hear many horror stories of the Internet exposing someone's dark side, the real risk seems to be the reverse. The Internet allows us to shape, control or manipulate our image very easily, while this is safe, no one gets to know the real you. Grace is always a gifted affirmation of the person and not a controlled one.

The practical ministry question that arises from all this is do the old ways of being in Christian community work anymore? If I answer yes then perhaps we just have to plug ahead a do what we have always done. If I answer no, do I have to learn how to be in this brave new world? I have no answers in this post just questions.