When It’s Hard to Let Go

(This post originally appeared on Ministry Matters.)

“I’ve tried to pray and give my problems to God,” the grandmother told me, “But I can’t seem to stop worrying. What does that say about my faith?” It was the third time in a week that someone had asked me such a question. The first had been a man who couldn’t let go of his anger toward his ex-wife. The second had been a woman who was full of guilt and regret about her past. Each had asked me if their lack of peace meant that they lacked faith in God.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Worried_People_2.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Worried_People_2.jpg

“Worried People 2” by Bhernandez from Miami –  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Regret, worry, anger, and social inhibition are only easy to let go if you are an animated Disney character. For the rest of us humans, our grip on negative emotions is surprisingly strong. Even when life is going along swimmingly, my brain will often go searching through the dusty cardboard boxes of my memory and pull out a decaying recording of an embarrassing memory from middle school. I can still sweat and turn bright red as I relive trivial social gaffes from thirty years ago. Why do such things have such a powerful hold on us?

In these kinds of pastoral care situations, I find that Christian culture is mostly unhelpful. We repeat trite sayings from inspirational posters: “Don’t tell God how big your problems are; tell your problems how big your God is!” For years, preachers have attributed negative thoughts and memories to the devil: “That’s just Satan trying to bring you down! Keep your eyes on Jesus! Don’t let the devil steal your joy!” That approach may work occasionally, but for people overwhelmed by guilt, worry, or anger, policing their thoughts and attributing negativity to Satan only makes the problem worse. Now they not only have the stress of worry, but they also feel obligated to play emotional Whack-a-Mole, tamping down every negative thought. Someone who is a worrier now worries about their worry. Someone who feels guilty now feels guiltier.

What I share with people caught in such a bind is this: Your brain is a problem-solving organ. God gave you your brain to keep you alive. In fact, your brain loves solving problems so much that if you don’t have a problem, it goes looking for one. It rummages through the drawers of your experience and pulls out powerful memories and examines them, asking, “What can we learn from this? What could we do differently?” Sometimes it even invents problems or situations you haven’t encountered yet.

Our brains do this so that we can learn and survive. It helps us avoid mistakes. Usually it is helpful: Check your blind spot when you merge so you don’t have a wreck. Don’t let Billy play with your favorite toys, because he will break them.

The problem, of course, is that not everything is a problem to be solved. A man whose wife had an affair kept asking. “Why didn’t I see something? How could I have been so stupid? What could I have done differently?” His brain was approaching the experience as if it were a problem to be solved, when, in fact, there was absolutely nothing he could have done differently. Pointing out this fact to him could not make him stop obsessing over it, though. Nor could it help the woman who said, “If I had stayed on the phone with Mom another minute, she wouldn’t have been at the intersection when the drunk driver ran the stop sign.” These kinds of thoughts are impenetrable to logic or reason, because our brains keep trying to find solutions to these unsolvable problems.

“Metacognition” is the word psychologists use to describe how we think about thinking. It can be helpful to take a step back from our cognitive process and observe what’s happening. For many people, thinking about our brains trying to solve problems can be helpful. “This is just my God-given brain trying to solve an unsolvable problem.” If we acknowledge our irrational brains, we can allow the negative thoughts and feelings to have their moment and then pass away so we can get on with real life and solvable problems.

Of course, some folks feel empowered by the idea of spiritual warfare, and thinking of their lives as a cosmic battle is uplifting. They relativize their negative thoughts by attributing them to Satan. But it’s important not to treat negative emotions as if they are a failure to be adequately faithful. Although Jesus told his disciples not to worry about tomorrow, he acknowledged that we do, in fact, have trouble today. He was well-acquainted with human frailty, and treated it with compassion, not contempt. Unbidden negative thoughts and feelings are not a failure to be faithful. They’re simply part of the total package of being human.

Finely Crafted Fertilizer

Fotothek_df_roe-neg_0006438_014_Genossenschaftsbauer_Grygo_beim_Dungbreiten

“Deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” That’s Max Black’s definition of humbug, and it provides a jumping-off point for Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit.

Of course, the essay is itself BS, an example of the kind of delightful writing that’s more poetry than philosophy. Frankfurt waxes rhapsodic about the metaphor: He says BS implies a lack of refinement: “Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought. The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain strain.”

The key distinction, Frankfurt says, between BS and lying is that a lie requires the liar to know or at least be interested in the truth, and to misrepresent it. The BS artist, on the other hand, is not really interested in misrepresenting the truth. He is interested in misrepresenting himself. The truth is irrelevant.

As I said, Frankfurt’s essay is, in many ways, also BS. Like a signpost, though, it points beyond itself to something that is true. Much of our language is not about truth, but about performance: gaining the upper hand, making peace, shaming, praising, wooing, or persuading. We often do one thing while pretending to do something else: shaming while making peace, gaining political advantage while praising, and so on. It is drama, performed by actors (or hypokrites, in the Greek).

Jesus and Paul used similar scatological metaphors (see Luke 13:8, Luke 14:5, 1 Corinthians 4:13, Philippians 3:8) to describe flavorless followers or praiseworthy credentials. Our English translations tame the metaphors into “manure” and “rubbish.” First century “rubbish” did not consist of aluminum cans and take out containers. It was far more vile. Manure is… well, bullshit. I don’t think either Jesus or Paul would have a problem with the way Frankfurt uses the word.

What happens among Christians, though (and especially preachers), is that since we have these important commandments to love each other, and we want to be more Christlike in our behavior, we pretend. We wind up attempting to be bullshit artists. Honestly, we’re not very good at it. We have too much invested in creating the illusion that we are nice people. We are especially fond of smarm, the kind of BS that allows us to occupy a morally superior position because we are so nice about it.

You may have heard the famous Winston Churchill quote about diplomacy being the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions. Most preachers, though, can only aspire to Churchill’s art. Instead of learning our rhetoric from schools (where it is no longer taught) we learn it from television. Our BS is not finely crafted. It is dumped.

At our Annual Conference, for example, one of my colleagues got up and made a speech, that went something like, “I am colorblind. Anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t see color. I don’t care who we elect to the delegation as long as we choose somebody who believes in the authority of the Bible.”

See, like cable news anchors, we have become practiced at using dog-whistles and code words. I actually agree with this colleague’s statement. (Well, except for the reality or even the desirability of being “colorblind.”) I, too, was eager to elect representatives who believe the authority of the Bible for faith and practice. I would say I want representatives who are orthodox (they can say the Apostle’s Creed without crossing their fingers,) evangelical (they believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ,) and Spirit-filled (they are pursuing sanctification.) But I mean very different things when I use those words. In the context of our Annual Conference, and in the context of the recent brouhaha over LGBTQ inclusion and rumors of schism in the United Methodist Church, what he said and what he meant were two entirely different things.

Of course, everyone listening knew it. There was no question that what he was really doing was making a campaign speech, asking folks to vote for someone who would not support LGBTQ inclusion. It was bullshit, a statement that had no interest in any particular truth-claim, that misrepresented the desire and intentions of the speaker. It was a performance. I could have made a similar speech by saying, “I think we should elect someone who really believes the gospel is Good News for all people.” With my voice and eyes, I could have communicated quite a bit. Of course, at that point, people would have groaned because I would have drawn attention to the BS performance in which we were all complicit. It would have been like polishing a turd.

And certainly, progressives often do the same thing. They can make pointed comments, insinuate, connote, and cast aspersions under a veil of politeness. People who claim to be neutral or moderate often bring buckets of smarm to the conversation, denigrating “both sides” as being extreme and virtuously claiming the middle. BS, all of it.

As Frankfurt concludes, insofar as we are unaware of our own selves, “sincerity itself” is BS. All language is, in some sense, a performance, and whether we find something convincing or not or even label it as true has a lot to do with how good the performance is and how much we trust the speaker. Most of us who read Catcher in the Rye resonate with Holden Caufield’s complaints about all the “phonies” in the world, even though the narrator himself is a compulsive liar. But we develop a sense that he is trustworthy. I have friends who I disagree with about a great many things, but I trust their yes to be yes and their no to be no. I trust them well enough to participate in bull sessions, in which we try out different ideas or points of view to see if we can convince ourselves of their truth value. If one can’t “pull off” the idea, another will usually point it out. So perhaps the real issue with BS is whether we trust the person with the shovel not to hit us with it.

I do not know if it is possible, or even desirable, to reduce the amount of BS in church life. Certainly, some of it is good fertilizer, well-seasoned, out of which may grow tasty fruit. But too much just stinks, and bad fertilizer can scorch roots and stunt growth. I’m not actually sure which I want more: better-quality BS, or more clergy colleagues who I can trust enough to fight fair. Honestly, I think I could go for either.

The Education of Shelby Knox

This is an excellent documentary, and it raises some great questions about contemporary Christian sexual ethics as well as the public discussion about “liberal” and “conservative” values. I re-watched it in preparation for our October Sermon Series.

It starts with this quotation: “Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love. ~Butch Hancock”

I’m not a fan of describing world views in terms of “conservative” and “liberal,” but the fact is that both inside church and outside of it, this is the dominant narrative of American culture. Since the 70’s, political and religious language have grown even closer together. Since I believe in honoring the way people describe themselves, I’ll use their own language.

Even though I have harsh criticism for conservative Christian sexual ethics (summarized so well by the Butch Hancock quotation), I think it’s important to point out that one of the things that made Shelby such an excellent spokesperson is the lessons she learned from her conservative Christian parents. Her passion for social justice is inspired by their idealism. This fits with the findings of Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, that self-esteem of young women who have conservative Christian parents is higher than those who do not. There are three related points I connect to this:

1. I believe that the Christian story is uniquely suited to teach kids that they have a source of value that is not dependent on their bodies’ social or sexual value to the surrounding culture. It is not the only story that can do so. But I believe its strengths for teaching are in a) the doctrine of incarnation and resurrection (because bodies and how we treat them are important) and b) love of God and neighbor (because loving your neighbor requires emotional self-regulation and delay of gratification). In other words, your body is connected to an ethical system that encompasses all of creation—even people you don’t like. So you deserve honor and respect just as much as your neighbor (or your enemy) does.

2. That conservative Christian fathers change some of their views when they have daughters. Slut-shaming and body-shaming become real threats when directed at your kids. Shelby’s parents gradually (and reluctantly) shift to supporting their daughter’s positions. The local pastors, by contrast, double down on the slut-shaming language. I love the scene where she is able to say to the pastor who attempts to shame her, “I’ve made a commitment to abstain, but not everyone has a supportive family like mine.” Saint Paul would be proud.

3. That liberal parents need to critically examine how they teach their kids about religion, character, pluralism, and activism. A lot of liberal parents I know say that they don’t want to “indoctrinate” their kids into one religion by taking them to church, and instead will just let them sample a buffet of beliefs and let them pick when they get older. As if they won’t do this anyway. Your kids are entirely able to critique their own religion if you do your job and teach them critical thinking. But don’t expect the marketplace to teach them about God, spirituality, commitment, faith, transcendence, or social justice. Don’t expect mass media to teach them about belonging to a community that values individuals’ gifts,  Abercrombie & Fitch will be happy to fill that void with their own values. Dang, join a humanist church if you must.

Anyway, I found the relationship between Shelby and her parents one of the most touching and grace-filled aspects of the whole documentary. In contrast to the political views of the white male pastors in the movie (who assert that liberal politics and Christianity are like “oil and water”), her parents sincerely want to understand her activism and her compassion.

“Do no harm.” This is what it looks like when you take it seriously.

(I’ve enjoyed following Shelby Knox on Twitter since I saw the documentary a few years ago. You don’t have to agree with her, but I think Christians should listen to her.)

Before You Say “Happy Anniversary,” Think About This

I wrote a bit about our anniversary last month, and then decided, for a variety of reasons, not to post it. I’m posting it today:

—————————-

We just celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary. As people always say on such occasions, it is hard to believe it has been that long.

We went out to eat. I told our server that it was our anniversary, and he pretended that it was the best news he had heard all day. I told both friends and strangers that it was our anniversary. They said complimentary things. Sometimes I overshared and got sentimental, but people still smiled and politely congratulated me.

This is the point where I should post a picture, along with some words about how she is an awesome, wonderful, talented, beautiful human being, that she has helped me grow in emotional and spiritual maturity, that she is an example as well as a friend. I should say that I am proud that she is the mother of our son, her love helps me understand how God loves me in spite of my flaws, and so on. All of this is true.

And, if you are my friend, you should probably say “Congratulations!” People will “like” the status on Facebook. If I were to post a wedding picture, you would notice that I have less hair and a higher BMI than I did then. We look so young in our picture, you might say.

The wedding was good, but I’m posting a travel picture instead. Part of our marriage is actively working toward God’s kingdom: planting churches, promoting justice, helping people who need help. We share a mission.

Bolivia, 2007

Bolivia, 2007

Now, before you click like or make a comment, just let me make an observation:

Nobody — not one — will tell me that I SHOULDN’T talk about it. No one will tell me that my love for her isn’t really love, that it is really sexual perversion, that my attraction for my wife is a character flaw or an addiction like alcoholism. Nobody will tell me that we are an abomination, or that I should try not to love her. Nobody will criticize me for having the audacity to be PROUD of my spouse, or for wanting to shout from the rooftops that I am the luckiest guy in the world. In fact, they will praise my devotion because, even if they secretly gag on my saccharine words, they believe that I SHOULD say these things. That is part of what healthy couples do.

(I imagine that if someone did respond with contempt, or tell me to be silent on my anniversary, I would invite them to go and do something anatomically impossible to themselves.)

Some of my traditionalist friends might accuse me of turning our anniversary into a political statement. But the fact is, EVERY anniversary, every single year, every card and restaurant date and bouquet is a political statement, because we have historically given privileges to some people that we do not give to others. Every time you participate in the anniversary ritual and say “congratulations!” you are making a social and political statement: marriage is good, and we should be proud of it. This set of people has a right to be acknowledged, affirmed, celebrated… and these do not.

I am proud that I am married to a woman who will let, even encourage me to say these things that I believe to be true. I am thankful to have such a partner in life, love, and ministry. And I hope, both for our own church and for our denomination, we will become the kind of church that says congratulations to everyone who shares news of their anniversary.

Advice for Small Group Leaders: Using the Magic Question

I’ve absorbed my share of sermons and essays that lament how we greet each other. “When you ask someone ‘How are you?’, do you really want to know?”, they ask.

No. No, I don’t.

I figure it’s pretty obvious to anyone who can read social context that “How are you?” isn’t actually a question. It’s a greeting. Sometimes we shorten it to “Howdy!” Imagine saying “Howdy” to someone only to have them stop, scratch their head, ruminate for a few minutes and reply, “Well, I feel a bit melancholy today, but I think it is because I didn’t get enough protein in my breakfast.” I wouldn’t want to lengthen the conversation.

For the ancient Romans, “Salve!” (sal-way) was the preferred greeting. It means “Health to you!” It’s also where we get the word “salvation.” We’ve simply turned a wish for health and well-being into a call-and-response rhetorical question.

Jesus gave his followers guidelines for how to show love for others in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:47 says, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” He uses greeting people who are not your brothers and sisters as an example of impartial love for all people. Greeting others demonstrates a loving attitude toward all people. It creates a culture of hospitality He did not say you needed to stop and have a therapy session.

Having said all that, there are times, especially in small group meetings, when I do want to encourage people to share. John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” is a bit abrupt in its intimacy. I’ve found that if I replace “How are you?” with the following question, people begin opening up to talk about their lives:

“How has your week been?”

Rather than saying “Fine,” or “Okay,” people tend to talk about specific events, feelings, and activities. Once we are having that conversation, I find it much easier to ask people where they see God active in their lives. We might even get around to addressing John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” question. It also creates opportunities to pray for specific things that people might not mention if the leader only asks for “prayer requests.”

I also like the freedom the question “How has your week been” gives to others. You are still free to answer “Fine,” if you don’t really want to go into detail.

I stumbled on this question about ten years ago when I was putting together a worship team that would pray before practice each week. I wanted our prayer time to be something more than the usual perfunctory words about the weather and playing well. I wanted the group to bond as a team, and to honestly pray for each other and to know what was going on with their team mates. I started beginning each practice with this question, and we’d spend the first thirty minutes of band practice praying for each other.

I noticed that after about six weeks, they started asking “How has your week been?” in other contexts. They started asking it of me. They started asking it of people during worship. That simple change of phrase did far more to change the culture of our congregation than a dozen sermons asking “Do you really care about the answer when you greet someone?”

Psychologist John Gottman talks about the importance of a married couple having their “magic ten minutes a day.” This is the time they spend reconnecting at the end of the day in a stress-reducing conversation, which can begin with a simple “How was your day?” I’ve started calling “How has your week been?” the magic question for small groups. Creating intimacy by hearing each other and praying with each other is part of building a successful small group.

It’s amazing how a fairly simple change of wording can shift the way we interact with each other.

How Being a Pastor Changed My Thinking on Homosexuality

I managed to make it through college, seminary, and grad school with most of my prejudices intact. I won’t overstate my bigotry: “I had gay friends,” but I was the kind of person who would use that phrase when defending my prejudices.

What changed me was being a pastor. I was entrusted with the spiritual care of real live human beings. My first appointment was to a small church in rural, red-state, Bible-belt Alabama, which was the last place, in my naiveté, I would have expected to face questions of gender identity and sexuality. (Now, I realize I should have known better—but I should have known better about a lot of things.)

Nor did I expect that God was going to do heart surgery on me through the people God introduced to me. Within the span of a few  months I met several persons who walked into my office and told me either that they were gay or had struggled with their gender identity. One described the way a former church had tried to exorcise him of the demons of homosexuality. He said it was terrifying. Another talked about the way he had finally just given up trying and decided to be promiscuous, which ended badly. Another, taking the Bible literally, cut off his offending member rather than have his whole body cast into hell.

In spite of the pain they brought into the room, they also brought faith of a caliber that shamed my own. I was not worthy to be pastor to these wounded faith giants. I felt both the weight of the moment and an almost giddy sensation that the Holy Spirit was coordinating this whole thing. Sometimes I felt nudged to speak, and other times I felt prompted to hush. Each story was uniquely painful and grace-filled. After describing the burdens they had carried for years and decades, I was astonished that any of these people decided to stick with church. We cried and prayed together.

After one such conversation, my visitor left. As soon as the door clicked behind him I got on my knees, not because I’m a particularly holy person who kneels to pray, but because my legs couldn’t hold me up. I remember saying, “God, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. How am I supposed to think about this stuff? What am I supposed to say? How am I supposed to be this person’s pastor?”

Feeling compelled to read the Bible, I dragged myself to my table and sat down to look at the text I was studying. And I read these words:

“…[the Pharisees] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them…” (Matthew 23:4)

I couldn’t catch my breath.

Several things clicked at once: These guys had burdens placed upon them by others (people like me) that had nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus said his interpretation of religious Law, his yoke, was easy and his burden light (11:38). His opponents, the religious leaders, accused him of abolishing the Law (5:17) and ignoring their pet scriptures about holiness and who was “in” and who was “out.” The fundamentalists of Jesus’ day were threatened by his message of an easy yoke, and they made his followers out to be “abolishers of the law.” In response, Jesus  commanded his followers to out-love, out-pray, and out-give his detractors (5:21-7:27).

Choose your yoke- heavy or light?

This is what a yoke looks like.

I suddenly had a new focus for my ministry. I was supposed to be a burden-lifter, one who removes the barriers that religious leaders often put in the way of folks who need Jesus. I read more.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:13-15)

Locked out of the kingdom. An evangelical program of hate. There are no better words to describe anti-gay Christianity.

Although I’ve never preached an anti-gay sermon, I had listened to them with a sense of smug approval. Like Paul, I had held the cloaks of people who had been throwing rocks at others. This was my own Damascus-road moment, when I knew that God was not finished bringing people into the kingdom, and God wanted to change my heart and mind. I went back and devoured the story of the early church in Acts and the letters of Paul, and I read with new eyes the stories about the hot-button issues of their day: circumcision and meat sacrificed to idols.

So many things changed for me in the following weeks and months: the meaning of the word evangelize, to spread good news; the meaning of the word salvation, healing; all the words in the New Testament related to yokes and burdens and Jesus’ conflicts with religious leaders, and why they couldn’t recognize Jesus’ divine mission because of who  his friends were. Like Paul, I felt that I had been blind, but that God was restoring my sight. As I think about my past, I’m still learning that God was working on me decades before I imagined writing about God’s impartiality.

I’m writing this not to be self-congratulatory. I live with white, male, heterosexual privilege in a world that is oriented toward my success, and I am a relative latecomer to this worldview. I’m writing this because it was being a servant-leader in the church that really changed me—not social pressure, not my academic education. It was being given responsibility for leading others.

Being a pastor is more about being willing to be led by God and changed by the people I meet than issuing infallible decrees from a pulpit, more about admitting I’m wrong and sharing my frailty than pretending I know God’s will on a given subject. One friend describes preaching as a “homiletical wager,” and I’ve come to believe that pastoring, presuming to be a spiritual leader, is bit like gambling with God, where the stakes are very high but I’m betting the game is rigged toward grace.

I also know that plenty of folks have turned their backs permanently on the church, on religion, on Jesus, because they have struggled with heavy yokes and been locked out of the kingdom of God. I’ve had the privilege of helping a few hear the good news in the Good News, and seen them stand up straighter when the yoke is lifted off their shoulders. The church is still a place where prisoners are released and slaves are set free.

There are other pastors out there who keep on tying up heavy burdens that they will never have to lift. They give me plenty of work to do as a burden-lifter. If any of you pastors are reading this, please hear me: the easy yoke is a lot better. Letting prisoners go is a joy. Don’t be afraid of the people who tell you you’re abolishing the law by doing so. Don’t let them make you ashamed of the gospel. Out-give, out-pray, and out-love them. That knot of fear inside you will finally relax, and you may find freedom, too.

Happiness versus Holiness?

In order to sound profound, preachers and devotional writers will often make statements like this:

Feel-good religion is concerned with making people happy; but God is concerned with making people holy.

I suppose this is motivating for some people, but it makes me bristle inside. I understand the idea behind such statements, and I even agree up to a point: the goals of the Christian life and what Jesus preached go beyond “self-actualization” or “your best life now.” Sure.

But contrasting happiness and holiness creates at least two new problems. The first is philosophical (or theological), and the second is practical.

The philosophical problem is that it ignores about three thousand years of conversation about what “happiness” or “the good life” actually is. Epicurus, Aristotle, the author of Proverbs, all talked about the moral aspect of happiness. According to Aristotle, a life well-lived meant pursuing moral virtue. The author of Proverbs agrees:

Better to be poor and walk in integrity
than to be crooked in one’s ways even though rich. (Proverbs 28:6)

Aristotle observed that people can have lots of money and still be miserable. Happiness was not the same as comfort, pleasure, or easy living. Yet in order to pursue moral virtue, one must also have “a moderate amount of wealth.” Again, the author of Proverbs agrees:

…give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that I need,
or I shall be full, and deny you,
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
or I shall be poor, and steal,
and profane the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:8-9)

You do not find any distinction between happiness and holiness in the Hebrew Bible. A happy life was a holy life, and vice versa. God’s holiness was to be reflected in the equality, social stability, and right living of God’s people. The Kingdom of God was supposed to be a happy place:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. (Zechariah 8:4-5)

One rabbi explained his Judaism to me this way: we want to make God happy, and God is happiest when we are fully alive. If you spend a lot of time in Proverbs, you come to see how odd the contemporary Christian distinction between happiness and holiness is. In fact, the more I hear the statement, the more sanctimonious it sounds.

Which brings me to the second, practical problem: it sounds bad. God doesn’t care about your happiness? Well, does God care about the happiness of people who can’t get enough food? Does God care about the happiness of people trapped in abusive relationships? This is not the kind of person, or God, with whom I would want to be in a relationship.

The idea that God wants us to be holy, not happy, is not only a bad sales pitch: it is lousy politics and lousy theology. It is lousy theology because it misrepresents the holiness that we see in Jesus Christ. Jesus did care about human happiness, especially those that religious people dismissed. If a human being were not concerned about other people’s happiness, we would never call that person “holy.” We would use other words.

It is bad politics because it reflects a position of privilege: people with all they want can afford to be dismissive of happiness. Justice is concerned with happiness and the freedom of all creatures to be fully alive.

I think there is still a lot of potential in talking about happiness and holiness, but it goes in a different direction: what happens to Aristotle’s notion of “a life well-lived” (which included a good death) in the shadow of the cross? In the light of Easter morning? How is God’s holiness bound up in the happiness of all of God’s creation? Should hearing the “Good News” make us happy?

Jesus vs. the Drama Queens

We usually use the word “hypocrite” to mean someone who doesn’t practice what they preach, or someone who notices other people’s sins but do not notice their own. But after hearing yesterday’s lesson on Mark 7, I began to hear something different about the way Jesus uses the word “hypocrite.”

I wrote about this passage in my book God Shows No Partiality: “hypocrite” is a Greek word that meant stage-actor, and for the first Gospel writers it would have carried several negative connotations that they associated with Greek theater. Because both Christians and non-Christians use the word so much, it has lost it’s ability to connote these other meanings.

So I started thinking, what if we translated “hypocrite” as “drama queen?” Imagine Jesus saying to today’s Christians, “Woe to you fundamentalists, you drama queens!” The phrase “drama queen” connotes both acting and overacting. It can include manufactured outrage, religious posturing, or disapproval at people who break religious regulations. It connotes the shocking gender and sexual ambiguity that was present in first century theater (where men played women’s roles, and theater people were associated with lax morality) as well as the modern implication of some kind of personality disorder. Religious drama queens have a deep personal need for attention and approval, either from God or from their social group. They love stories in which they are an oppressed minority. For them, the world is always about to end. The president or the pope or Lady Gaga are the anti-Christ. For preachers who rail against homosexuality, the phrase “drama queen” points out that they may have their own gender and sexuality issues.

It’s too easy for Christian holy-rollers to shrug off being called hypocrites, and it’s too easy for non-Christians to slap the hypocrite label on religious people without thinking of how it applies to themselves. One common sermon illustration is the person who says they don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites. The pastor replies: “We’ve always got room for one more.” Both religious and non-religious people can be drama queens.

You can be a religious or a non-religious drama queen any time you build yourself up by showing others what a lifestyle diva you are: praying in the marketplace, as Jesus said, or publicly lamenting whatever it is trendy to lament, or manufacturing outrage over someone else’s misstep. Their are eco-drama queens, and second amendment drama queens, and vegetarian drama queens, and libertarian drama queens. In this way, hypocrisy is not only about saying one thing and doing another. It’s the whole practice of blowing tiny things, even irrelevant things, out of proportion.

The story from Mark goes like this: The disciples sit down to eat one day without washing their hands. (For contemporary Christians, this might be like sitting down to a meal without saying a blessing first). Some of the Pharisees notice, and they say to Jesus, “Don’t your students care about honoring God before they eat?” Jesus answers, “The Bible warns about you religious drama queens: ‘These people talk incessantly about me, but their hearts belong elsewhere. Their worship is meaningless, and they teach their own rules instead of mine.’ ”

The Pharisees were taking a few verses from the Bible about religious purity for priests (who were supposed to wash their hands and feet before serving in the Temple) and applying it to all people in all situations. Today, religious drama queens take all kinds of scriptures out of context, or make up new restrictions that they say follow logically from other scriptures, and teach them as God’s Will for All Humankind. Jesus says that such people are not really following God. They are drama queens.

As we begin forming Saint Junia, our new United Methodist Church in Birmingham, I think we need to establish early on a “no drama” rule. Not the theater arts, obviously, which are hugely important, but the bad drama of moralistic posturing and religious politics. The idea is to walk with God humbly, recognizing that it’s very easy for us to cross the line from authenticity to overacting without ever realizing it.

What Does “Authentic” Mean?

Our clergy continuing education group spent three years studying “Young Adults, Authentic Community, and the Future of the Church.” One of the things we were concerned about was how many people say they left a church because it did not feel “authentic.” You probably know the familiar refrain: “People have not stopped being spiritually hungry. They’ve simply stopped trying the institutional church.”

But as we wrestled with the topic, we kept coming back to the question: what does “authenticity” actually mean? Is it something you can measure?

Everyone participates in “social discourses,” meaning that you are trying to be a certain kind of person. How you dress, how you talk, what you consume, all of it communicates information to the people around you. Nobody gets to opt out of social discourses. “Normal” or “regular” are also social discourses. It’s why you don’t see more men wearing kilts or togas in Birmingham. When you do, you think, “Hey, what’s he trying to say?” But every man wearing shorts is also “saying” something. Part of authenticity is if you can “pull off” being a certain kind of person in a convincing way.

And what does it mean to be an “authentic” community? We shared experiences of visiting churches that were trying so hard to be authentic that it felt fake. And there’s nothing faker than fake authenticity. “Look! We have tattoos and cool glasses! We’re edgy!” I like the ways these guys point out the social discourses they are using:

In our travels and visits, we came to understand that healthy communities have what Luther Smith calls both intimacy and mission. Intimacy is the warm-fuzzy group feeling that we have being part of a community together. But by itself, warm-fuzzy group feeling is toxic. Communities that turn inward and worship their own sense of community will die. They must be focused outward and have a clear mission. Likewise mission without intimacy becomes brutal. The community guilts its members into service. Healthy community requires both intimacy and mission, which in turn creates a sense of identity. We can say, “This is who we are. This is our history, and this is our future together.”

My friend Bill had this insight: In such a community, I can have a sense of authenticity when I can say, “This is who I am in the midst of who we are.” I can clearly state the kind of person I am trying to be. I do not feel that I have to walk on eggshells around other people, that I’m going to somehow hurt the group with my own identity if I disagree with someone, or if I don’t live up to their—or my—own expectations. In fact, I relish being held accountable. In such a community with a clear mission, I can have my own mission as well, and other people are helping me achieve it.

So, for now, that’s my working definition of “authenticity.” I want Saint Junia United Methodist Church to be a place where people can find their mission in our mission, where they are free to say “This is who I am in the midst of who we are.”

Lessons from Last Sunday

One of the things I’ve been looking forward to is the time I’ve scheduled this summer to visit other churches and learn from them. I visited a major Birmingham mega-church this past Sunday, and although I did not get to hear the senior pastor preach, I did get to observe what happens in worship.

I’ll go ahead and confess I’m inclined to be annoyed at this large, dynamic, successful church. Part of my annoyance is healthy competitive spirit, but it is part envy as well. I have been in ministry in other cities and other churches dwarfed by a large neighboring church, stymied by attempts to do ministry because “______ Church is already doing that far better than we can.” Rather than being excited by the other church’s positive impact in a community, I’ve been resentful. Members would get siphoned away from our church to the larger one because of bigger youth and children’s programs, and I would mutter about “sheep-stealing.” (To be fair, I’ve also been in ministry in a large, dynamic church that has probably done the same to smaller neighbor churches as well).

So when the preacher began his sermon with a ten-minute sales job for the church, I was initially put off. Over and over again he said that he loved this church, that he loved the pastor and the pastor’s family, that he loved Birmingham and the impact the church was having on Birmingham. I began checking my clock. Was this guy ever going to get around to preaching? But then I began to reflect that if people are exposed to this kind of cheerleading on a regular basis, they probably begin believing it. They might even begin acting on it.

One of the most powerful tools leaders have to change behavior is called “attribution.” It means that you attribute to someone the qualities you want for them to have, and then they try to live up to your expectations.

In one famous psychology experiment, researchers established a target behavior for three classes of fifth graders. The first class was offered a pizza party if they would keep their classroom free of litter. The second class was offered no reward, but the principle would visit the room and say, “Wow, you kids keep your room so tidy. You must like to keep your room clean.” The last class was the control group. Guess which class did the best job at keeping their room tidy? Not the one with the reward incentive, but the one to whom the principle attributed tidiness.

It has become popular to ridicule the self-esteem movement in education of the last decade, but it is mostly because both its critics and advocates misunderstand incentives and behavior change. It is well-established that attribution is a powerful tool for changing behavior for both individuals and communities. This is why good-hearted, well-intentioned pastors who whine about people not participating in missions can’t actually guilt people into serving, while gung-ho pastors who incessantly praise their churches succeed. People live up or down to expectations.