Month: April 2015

When Church is a Choice

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“We have decided to let our kids choose whether or not they go to church and to pick their own religion.  We tell them God exists, but how they choose to believe in God, or whether they go to church or not, is up to them.”

I have heard this statement from parents many times.  They usually say it proudly, like they have really thought about it and have come up with a great answer as to whether or not they would take their kids to church.

I have no doubt that the decision is well meaning.  Parents want their kids to find their way to religion without it feeling forced or pushed upon. They want their kids to know that church is a choice, but they are not obligated to attend.  They might say they were forced to go every Sunday and hated it, so why would they ever infringe that on their kid?  Or, they might argue that there is not one right religion and who are they to provoke one religion on them?  Or, they might argue that church’s can be exclusive and divisive and do more harm than good.

Whatever the reasons, when parents don’t make their kids go to church, I am certain they are doing so out of protection.  It’s not that they are saying that God isn’t important. They are saying that religion isn’t important to know God.

Here’s the problem.

When kids are told that church is a choice and that religion is a buffet of entrees in which they can pick the one’s they like the best and ignore the one’s they don’t…kids hear this:

Religion doesn’t matter. God is there if you want Him, or not. Take Him or leave Him.  He’s around, if you want to give Him a call. Otherwise, don’t worry about it. Live a good life. Be a good person. You will be fine.

If I told my kids that bathing was a choice and that they were free to decide whether or not they wanted to bathe or brush their teeth…my kids would opt out of the practice and ritual of good hygiene. – Gross, I know. But true.

If I told my kids that nutrition was a choice and that they were free to eat whatever they wanted… we would have Oreos for breakfast.

What kids hear when their parents say, “It’s up to you,” is “It doesn’t matter to me, and therefore, it doesn’t matter.”

What concern’s me more,  is I see a generation (my generation)  of parents telling their kids that church is a choice, and I wonder, what happened to that generation?  Was it the “I’m free to do what I want any old time” culture?  Was it the fact that the church is human and therefore can be hypocritical and hurtful?  Was it the feeling that the church did not move with the times?

  What will it take to get this generation back?

Here is what’s not going to work:

Shame. Shaming people back to church only creates bitterness.

Hell, Fire and Damnation. That ship has sailed.

Programs. They work for a short term fix, but not for the long term relationship. They look good on banners and in brochures, but studies show they don’t provide true spiritual growth.

Here’s what might work:

Really honest conversations about God and science, about the Bible and authorship, about Christology and salvation. Allowing people to not be afraid to say, “I do not believe that” and still be welcomed and received as part of the body of Christ.

Really honest conversations about suffering and death, about prayer and discipline, about mission and service.  Allowing people to practice their faith in very tangible, life giving ways.

Really honest conversations about money and sex, about power and greed, about love and struggle. Allowing people to be real and authentic and to name their struggle in a safe community, without judgment.

Conversations outside of the church, in coffee houses and around kitchen tables, where God becomes a conversation partner, before a life event happens. Because when that event does happen, suddenly there is no foundation, no life preserver, no faith and God’s name is raised as an option to consider and suddenly He becomes the Bad Guy, who could have prevented the event all along.

Ritual, reverence and spiritual practice. Religions need to hold to their religious practices that frame their identity.  People are hungry for substance, we cannot feed them white sugar. Our order, sacraments and creeds matter in that they define how we come to understand God.  We cannot lose sight of who we are, out of the desire to be something for everyone. We need to be who we are. If we are Presbyterian, be Presbyterian. If we are Lutheran, be Lutheran.  People know when we say things only to make them happy.

We who do the church thing, need to be mindful of how hungry people are for real substance, let’s be sure to provide them with the Bread of Life and trust the Holy Spirit to do the rest.

A letter to those who suffer in silence

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To those who suffer in silence.  To those for whom no blog is written, no book is published, no Facebook page is “liked,” no jars for pennies are presented at the gas station, no picture is on the grocery store window. To those who walk with a diagnosis every day and manage medicine, treatment, research, doctor visits, insurance, and try to have a “normal” day. To those carry on and persevere, without anyone knowing you are in pain, or afraid, or angry, or sad. To those who face death and live. To those who see tomorrow as a gift and not an expectation.

Know this.

You are not alone.

As you persevere through your hardest day and walk into treatment or face another scan, and do so without the world knowing, know this: You are known..

As you try to keep things looking normal and try to maintain an outward appearance that all is well, and inwardly you are frightened and dismayed. Know this: You are seen.

Dear Child of God, whoever, wherever you are. You are so brave. Perhaps you feel your bravery is a disguise. Perhaps you are more afraid than you let on. Know this: You are loved.

To those who suffer in silence, He has you in the palm of His hand.

Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

“You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain 

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees, 

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, 

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.”

The Sabotage

There is a meeting. There is a problem. Discussion. Solution. Agreement.  Resolution. Adjournment.  Everyone goes home.  Suddenly an email pops up. A phone call is made. A conversation happens in the parking lot. A cyber meeting takes place. Chaos ensues. The problem is not solved. It just got worse. There is confusion. Frustration. Finger pointing. Another meeting. More clarification. Discussion. Consensus. Agreement. Resolution. Adjournment. Everyone goes home.  An email pops up. A phone call is made. A conversation happens in the parking lot.  A cyber meeting takes place. Chaos ensues. The problem is not solved. It just got worse. There is confusion. Frustration. Finger pointing. Trust is dwindling. Ill will is rising. Exhaustion is setting in.   Remind me, what exactly was the problem?

Maybe the problem isn’t the problem.

Maybe the problem is: The system has a pattern of sabotage.

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What’s a leader to do?

Here are a list of options.

1. Ignore the problem

2. Ignore the behavior

3. Join in the behavior

4. Stay the course

5. Name the behavior

6. Stay self differentiated

7. Understand that sabotage is normal, predictable and expected.

8. Get angry.

9. Get annoyed.

10. Drink wine.

11. Stay mature.

12. Be immature.

13. Become manipulative, passive aggressive and triangulate

14, Remember the big picture. Get in the balcony. Gain perspective.

15. Breathe.

Micheal McKinney comments on one of my favorite books, A Failure of Nerve,  by Edwin Friedman:

Sabotage “is part and parcel of the systemic process of leadership” writes Edwin Friedman in A Failure of Nerve. “Sabotage is not merely something to be avoided or wished away; instead, it comes with the territory of leading, whether the territory is a family or an organization. And a leader’s capacity to recognize sabotage for what it is—that is, a systemic phenomenon connected to the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system and not to the institution’s specific issues, makeup, or goals—is the key to the kingdom.” 

The “shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system” just referred to, have a lot to do with people’s insecurities, people trying to measure up and just trying to merely hold on to what they have or where they are. It is a reaction that some people get to strong and clearly defined leadership. Knowing that this is part of the leadership process and not an unexpected turn of events is helpful in maintaining a leader’s authenticity. 

An effective leader should expect to be attacked as a result of their leadership. Some people will react negatively to what a leader stands for and then begin a campaign of sabotage in order to draw attention away from themselves or the mission. Friedman says “this is the moment when a leader is most likely to have a failure of nerve and experience a strong temptation to seek a quick fix.” This is the moment of truth. “A leader can never assume success because he or she has brought about a change. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the subsequent sabotage that the leader can feel truly success.

Here’s the deal: leadership is hard, hard work. It’s not about easy fixes, or quick rewards. It’s definitely not about being popular, liked, or respected. It’s lonely. It requires courage. It demands that you do not lose your nerve.   That’s your job, dear leader.

A note about the sabotager, bless their hearts. Sabotagers don’t know they are sabotaging when they sabotage.  I don’t believe people wake up in the morning with that intention – unless they work in Washington D.C –. I do believe they are God’s children with emotional agendas. Their agenda may be simply to have power, be recognized, be heard, be validated or be acknowledged. Or, their agenda may run deeper. They may want your job.

The ultimate question is not about the health of the leader or the unhealthy behavior of the sabotager. The real question is, How healthy is the system? Is the system healthy enough to guide and correct the sabotager through the problem and the agreed resolution? Can the community see sabotage when it is happening and can they hold to the vision when voices are speaking contrary to the vision? Talk about hard work.

Jesus was sabotaged all of the time. So was Paul. So was Peter. So was Moses. So was David.  So was Mary Magdalene.  If you are a leader who has experienced sabotage, you are in good company.

Here are my top ten do’s and don’ts when addressing sabotage:

1, Do Expect It.

2. Don’t get angry about it. – Anger serves you no purpose. – Stay non anxious.

3. Do Name It.

4. Do correct the behavior on a systems level.  Set group norms and expectations. When those norms are not honored, address them as a community.

5. Don’t take it personally. – It’s not about you. – Again, stay non anxious.

6. Do expect the organization to self correct and address destructive behavior.

7, Do empower your leaders to name behavior that hurts healthy process.

8. Do limit decision-making and discussions via email and other electronic devices.

9. Don’t make it spitting match between you and the Sabotoger. It’s not about you, and nobody cares how far you can spit.

10. Do keep your eyes on the big picture. Keep your perspective.

When you have experienced sabotage?  How did you address it?

Making Sense of it All: Good Friday Conversations and the Meaning of Easter

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“Death seems scary to me,” she said, as we drove out of the parking lot after Good Friday services.

Behind us the purple sunset sky, along with the memory of a bare sanctuary, extinguished candles, blackened cross, and the words of John.  It is finished.

That story,” she said, “Is so intense, uncomfortable, painful. But I know what happens on Sunday!  It’s going to be better! He will come back. There will be flowers in the church, and it will be beautiful.”

My eleven year old daughter has been attending Good Friday services since she was an infant. She has always heard the story through the ears of a child. She has witnessed many dramatic services – to the point that she now gives me director notes for next year. She knows the pomp and circumstance of Easter. She knows we stand for Handel and that flowers will fill the cross.  She expects trumpets.

This year, her questions and her observations were more complicated.

“But what is heaven like?” she asked. “How old are you in heaven?”  “Where was God when Jesus died?”

“I haven’t been to heaven lately,” I said, “So I don’t know a lot about it. I’m not sure how old you are when you are there. Those are good questions. I can only tell you what I believe. I believe that heaven is not a very far off place, but is very close to us. I believe that death is only a moment, and after death is eternal, (that means forever).  I also believe, that we are closest to the people we love, and we never leave them.”

“But, did God leave, Jesus? Why did Jesus have to go through all of that?”

“I do not believe that God ever left Jesus. Ever. Ever. Ever. God never leaves his children to suffer alone.  There are big words like atonement, redemption, and salvation that are hard to understand.  People called theologians have long tried to explain why Jesus suffered and died on the cross.”

“It’s because we all sin and need forgiveness, right?”

“Yes, but I think it’s more than that. I think Jesus saw the world as it was and he knew that there could be another way to live. He spent his whole life trying to teach people to live a new way. He also saw that people suffer terribly at the hands of other people and by personal affliction (like the story of the man born blind)….I think that his suffering stands in solidarity for all of humanity’s suffering. I think his whole life and his death and his resurrection are all messages to every life.”

“So Jesus knows how we feel.”

“Yes, I believe he does.”

“And if Jesus knows how we feel, then so must God. ‘Cause they are like the same person only different.”

“Right.”

“That’s confusing.”

“It can feel that way.”

“I’m really sorry that Jesus had to suffer and die, but I know that Easter is coming and that he will be different, but o.k. Maybe that’s what heaven is like, maybe when we die, we are different, but o.k…. Hey  Mom, you know that’s sort of like hope.”

“Yes, darlin’, it sort of is.”

“I can’t wait for Easter.”

“Neither can I.”