Category Archives: Reflections

The Santa Claus Dilemma

Santa Claus with a little girl

Image via Wikipedia

Speaking of problems that too much theological education creates: our household is having some difficulty getting our story straight on Christmas.

It’s important to understand that I have been self-diagnosed with hyperaletheiality, a condition which makes it psychologically painful for me to knowingly deceive my children.  And while I am a huge fan of imaginative play and happy to be a dinosaur, pirate or alien, it crosses a line for me to tell my kids that their presents are actually from an old man who lives in the North Pole.  The line between imagination and reality gets blurred, and I move from joining my child’s pretend world to creating a deception.

Naively, I thought that it would be relatively simple to sideline Santa Claus.  My plan was to tell the kids that we give gifts to each other to remember the gifts that were brought to Jesus as a child, and because God wants us to be generous and to share with each other.  Easy peasy, that’s Christmas at the Cowell house.

The problem is that my daughter is now four.  And she’s talking to other kids, who are all excited about Santa. And the Hollywood-North Pole alliance is killing us.  You’d almost have to cut her off from all kids’ shows this month to avoid her seeing one that strongly emphasizes how important it is to believe that Santa is real.  Isn’t that the last act of every single Santa movie?  Christmas was almost ruined, but then people believed in Santa again!  The kid heard the jingle bell ring!  The reindeer were able to fly over Central Park!  Just believe!

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that pushes belief in Jesus as hard as the Polar Express pushes belief in Santa.

This is complicating my plans.  I had hoped to just be Santa-agnostic and not really even mention the jolly old elf, but then my beloved daughter, the apple of my eye, my never-waning delight, asked me, with hope-filled eyes, “is Santa coming to our house?”

This is an development I hadn’t anticipated.  Now we can’t just ignore Santa and do our own thing.  We have to take some kind of a stand.

I was put on the spot by the question and wasn’t willing to just say “yes,” (and a simple “no” wouldn’t have worked either!)  So we had a little conversation in which I told her that a long, long time ago there was a person named Nicholas, and he loved God and cared about other people, so he gave good gifts to families that couldn’t afford to buy nice things.  He was such a good man that people have told stories about him for hundreds and hundreds of years, but in different parts of the world they called him different names.  Now, a lot of people call him Santa Claus.  But there isn’t just one Santa Claus, there are thousands and thousands of people who do the same thing that Nicholas did: they take the extra things and money they have and give them to people who need them.  So this Christmas, Mommy and Daddy and Grammy and Grandaddy and Uncle Kasey will be Santa Claus for her, and also for some poorer families who need our help.  It’s our turn to do what Nicholas did.

I admit, this is all a bit much for a four-year-old, even the world’s brightest four-year-old, which is what we’re dealing with here, but I did manage to avoid pointing out that the modern conception of Santa Claus is largely the creation of the Coca-Cola company, and is basically an advertising gimmick which has further been co-opted and twisted for the benefit of the entire capitalist world and the aforementioned Hollywood-North Pole complex.  Sure, I’m a compulsive truth-teller, but some things are just to horrible to expose to the innocents.

And then I ordered Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend, which I hope will help us navigate this conversation next time.

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Finding a New Church Home

At age 38, I am looking for a new church home for only the second time in my life.

Up to this point, almost every time I have moved–about nine times as an adult–I’ve either had personal connections at a congregation in my new town, or I was moving to join a church staff. The only previous time I’ve had to look for a congregation to join was when I left to attend seminary. I found it a surprisingly frustrating experience. I had no idea how easy it was to visit a church, attend worship, and leave without making any sort of a connection with anyone else. Eventually someone from one of my courses invited me to visit her Sunday School class, and I settled into that congregation simply because I finally had some connection to another person, and once I had that, my base of friends grew pretty quickly.

On one hand, visiting churches is easier now. Families of four aren’t as easy to overlook as a single introverted man, and since my children are ridiculously cute, they tend to attract a crowd. And after all my years in ministry, it’s easier than it used to be to find the preacher and chat him or her up after worship. I’m less inhibited about that than I once was.

One the other hand, the field has broadened significantly. Until now, I was emotionally tied to a particular denomination, and now I’m open to almost anything. I even visited a Southern Baptist church last week, which quickly confirmed for me that although I love my dear SBC friends, I’m not going to join them anytime soon. I don’t resonate with the theological impulses or the cultural mores there.

We’ve visited two Disciples of Christ congregations. I’m drawn to them because I know their history well and I think I’m picking up on the culture. One was a disaster, but the other was a real possibility, except that there just really aren’t any other folks our age. I’m not one of those people who won’t talk to someone more than five years away from my own age–I really have strong inter-generational tendencies. But I do want some other 30-somethings (soon, 40-somethings) around, and, more than that, I want a group of preschoolers for my kids to befriend.

We’ve also visited two Methodist churches now, and both of those are real possibilities, if I can get over my antipathy toward pedobaptism. One of them, a church of around 100 in a town of around 1300, I really loved visiting. It had one of the strongest senses of community I’ve experienced, and although the music was fine and the sermon was quite good (and a little daring in ways that I appreciated), what really stuck with me was the laughter. Not from silly jokes or dramatic sketches, but spontaneous moments of real human connection–just people enjoying being with each other, and feeling free enough to let out a chuckle at one another’s foibles and idiosyncrasies. It felt as much like home as anything we’ve tried in months. At first I was tempted to just land there, and I’m pretty comfortable with Methodistism theologically, so I think we will go back there again.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is how hard it is to look for a congregational home in a theologically responsible way. I’ve typed and then deleted the phrase “church shopping” a dozen times just writing this out, because I don’t like the consumer-driven mentality it implies and I sure hate church marketing. One of the quickest ways to make sure I never come back to your congregation is to try to sell me on it–how wonderful the children’s program is, how upbeat the music, how relevant the sermon. The last thing I need in my spiritual development is to be pandered to. But still, there is a choice to be made and it needs to be made somehow. No one ever trains people in how to find a Christian community that fits them.

I’m certainly open to learning more, and but here’s what I think I’m looking for:

1) authentic community
2) sacramental centrality
3) healthy balance of involved laity and respect for clerical authority
4) a sense of grounding in the ancient Christian tradition
5) a missional impulse that sends the church into the world, rather than inviting the world inside the cloister
6) a willingness to challenge visitors with a hard calling rather than woo them with the soft sell
7) a group within the church that will join and support me in my pursuit of spiritual disciplines (or, better yet, invite me to join them)
8) emotionally and intellectually engaging worship

I don’t know where that church is. Maybe nowhere near me. But I’m looking….

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On Conscientiously Refusing to Praise Humans

It’s been a busy, busy month–thus, the lack of blogging.  My wife and I are still in our contest to see who can get a job first, with no winner yet.  She’s had a few interviews, the most recent of which may still result in an offer.  I have an interview next week for a community college adjunct faculty position, which wouldn’t pay much–but it doesn’t take much money to improve on zero.  I am so looking forward to telling my grandkids stories from the great recession.

Our daughter turns four today.  Due to our moves and transitions, she is currently without friends, so when we noticed that one of the Methodist churches in town was about to start a VBS, we signed her up, and then worshiped there the Sunday before VBS began to get a feel for the congregation.

I’m inclined to have warm thoughts toward Methodism in general, because of my affection for the work of Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon and Richard Hays, who have significantly impacted my own thinking.  (I understand that Hauerwas is attending an Episcopal Church now, but his roots are Methodist.)  I explored the idea of becoming a Methodist pastor once, but I can’t get enthusiastic about infant baptism, although I see the argument for it.  I wouldn’t say that I’m against it, or that I think it’s invalid, but I was raised in a tradition that immersed professing believers, and that symbolic act still resonates powerfully with me in a way that pedobaptism just can’t match.  I suppose if I had been raised Methodist, my feelings would be just the opposite, but I wasn’t, and you have to go to war with the memories you have, not the ones you wish you had.   I’m also not keen on being told which church to go to and when–although I haven’t always done a dandy job of sussing out by myself which congregations would be a good match, so I might be able to get over that one.

At any rate, we attended this Methodist church and found it, overall, delightful.  Very welcoming, very enthusiastic.  It was an unusual Sunday for them, because they were wrapping up a mission trip (to the heathens of neighboring Oklahoma) and kicking off their VBS, so the whole service was given over to testimonies, appreciations and explanations.  As a visitor, I rather appreciated the chance to get some insights into the life of the congregation that I wouldn’t get on most Sundays.

One thing that stood out to me was the two or three times that a specific instance of laudable work was mentioned, and the speaker would always offer the caveat that, “Of course, I’m not saying this to give glory to Jim (or Carol, or Brandon)–we’re giving all the glory to God.”

I’ve heard that sort of thing in churches of various stripes.  I’m sure it’s not limited to Methodism–although it was so pronounced that I wondered if the refusal to honor humans is particularly strong in Methodist culture.  I admit  that always strikes me the wrong way.  I get it that we’re shunning pridefulness and encouraging thanking God in all things, but surely there is some room to acknowledge Jim, Carol and Brandon made some exemplary choices through their own free will that can be praised and emulated.  Scripture doesn’t seem to shy away from doing that.  Just look through Romans 16, for example, and watch Paul praise one person after another, without ever stopping to snatch the plaudits away from them and redirect them toward God alone.

Humans need exemplars, and we need to be told when we’ve done something well.  Unabashed praise of outstanding work is a blessing both to the worker and to the witnesses.  It gives us something to aim for.  A friend of mine says “You get what you praise.”  As church leaders recognize and honor certain kinds of activity, the congregation moves further in that direction.  I’m a little concerned that perpetually saying, “Of course, it’s not Jim that we’re honoring, it’s God” will leave Jim feeling a bit deflated, wishing that his community could at least notice that he did some really hard work that he didn’t have to do, and that he chose it.  Others are concerned not to diminish the agency of God, but Jim is also a moral agent, and I don’t see the value in pretending otherwise.  If Jim gets no credit for his work, and it was God alone that made him work hard, then it was God alone that made Skyler lazy, and God alone that decided that Suzy would feign an illness and run off to the liquor store during the Thursday evening devotional.  If there’s really only one moral agent in the universe, then human awards and punishments are an exercise in futility–unless the only point is to try to discern the mind of God by noticing which particular meat puppet he used for good deeds this week and which he used for criminal ones.  That doesn’t seem like a fun game to me.

Yeah, the person who stood and praised God for the things that Jim did probably didn’t mean it that way.  But words are powerful, and words of praise especially so.  Let’s go ahead and clap for Jim.  If he becomes prideful, then let’s pull him aside and rebuke him.  Either way, at least we are appreciating that he, too, makes choices.

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Shifting Over Time

There’s been a lot going on the past few weeks.  We packed up our house and then I drove from North Carolina to Texas in a 26 foot U-Haul moving van–just me with my almost-four-year-old daughter and 14-month old son, traveling over 1300 miles in 2 1/2 days.  Packing up everything you own is a good spiritual exercise.  It makes you realize just how much stuff you’ve accumulated.  For me, it’s somewhat depressing, as I like to think of myself as freer from materialism than the average American–and I probably am, but “less materialistic than the average American” is kind of like being “less murderous than Ted Bundy.”  You can meet that standard and still leave a trail of bodies in your wake.

So, blogging has been set aside while we moved into our temporary headquarters, AKA job search central.  I know I want to settle back in Texas, nearer old friends and family, but exactly where depends on where my wife or I find a job and perhaps what jobs are close to a school where I can train for a post-ministry life.

While I’m doing all this soul-searching and stock-taking, I’ve been thinking about the major ways that my thinking has shifted over the years.  I probably want to think and write a little more about each of them over time, and it’s already late tonight, so think of this as kind of a place-holder for content that may or may not follow later.  Even this is subject to revision.  But I think my major shifts have been:

1. From a static Bible-based faith that sought to preserve and maintain the first-century church to a stance that sees the Bible as one part of a living, breathing tradition that grows and changes as it engages God freshly in each era.  Part of this shift has been my acknowledgment that the Bible itself is far from monolithic, and itself models wrestling with existing traditions and adapting practices to new situations.

2. From an emphasis on orthodoxy (believing the right things) to orthopraxy (doing the right things.) Both are necessary, but I feel like I grew up in a church culture where doctrinal correctness and “chapter and verse” Bible knowledge were expected, but whether anyone ever actually fed the hungry or clothed the naked was completely off the radar.  Frankly, a lot of the minutiae we studied was either pointless or actively harmful, and kept us from going out into the world and being Jesus for the dying.

3.  From looking for the work of God in the congregation alone to seeking Him at work in the world.  I think that 12 or 15 years ago I pretty much thought that anything I should do for God would happen within the context of the congregation, with the possible  exception of personal evangelism, but even then, the point was to get some, ahem, “unchurched” person to join my church.  But I don’t want to “church” people–I could stand a little less “churching” myself.  I think the hardest part, for me, about trying to be a deeply devoted Jesus-follower and a minister in your standard American religious congregation is that Jesus has this tendency of calling religious leaders on the carpet for burdening people with the legalism, for caring more for like-minded insiders than struggling outsiders, and for missing the radical love and grace of God even though they had memorized so many verses.  I kept seeing myself and my tradition in the people that Christ excoriated.  I spent a lot of time asking myself where Jesus would be if he were incarnated in the 21st century, and no matter how I ran the numbers “in ordained congregational ministry” was never the answer.  I’m not saying there isn’t a place for it, or that some churches aren’t doing a wonderful job of forming people into ambassadors for Jesus.  There is and they do.  But I do think it’s harder than most folks think to be a preacher and to be like Jesus.  He won’t be bound in church life.  But this is more biography than theology, perhaps.  What I mostly mean is it’s a lot harder for me to radically follow Jesus from the context of a staid ministry position than I realized until recent years.  He keeps pushing me out among the pagans, and I keep finding Him already at work there.

I feel like there’s something more kicking around in my brain.  Maybe it’ll crystallize in a day or two.  Time for bed.

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Thoughts After Lunch

I had lunch about a week ago with Pastor Mike, one of the co-pastors of our “new little church.”  Mike is an insightful preacher, thoughtful person, encouraging soul and all-around great guy.  But congregational ministry isn’t his day job, although it used to be.

I don’t know all the details, but once upon a time Mike was pastoring a church and things went sour and he was forced out.  A friend told him about a position nearby as a hospice chaplain, and he accepted that as his new vocation.  He’s been a chaplain ever since, more than a decade now.  About six years ago, he and Pastor Rebecca, who is, I think, a counselor by day, founded our new little church, where they take turns preaching, and keep a hand in pastoral ministry while drawing a paycheck somewhere else.  I certainly see the appeal in that, and in some ways I think it’s actually good for the community to have relationships with pastoral leaders who are modeling involvement in good work in the world, and who are not going to be able to drop whatever they are doing at the drop of a hat to come visit a church member.  It creates a different set of expectations.  It’s also good, though, to know that Mike and Rebecca do what they do for the church out of the sheer joy and love of it, not because they get a salary from it.

I had lunch with Mike because chaplaincy is one of the few jobs out there that I could conceivably go into where my education and experience would be seen as directly relevant assets.  I took a course in healthcare ministry when I was in grad school that involved a lot of visiting sick patients at a hospital, but I didn’t pursue that path long enough to get a completely clear sense of the rhythms of life in a chaplaincy career.  Mike was enormously helpful in giving me the lay of the land.

On the topic of our mutual departures from full-time congregational work, Mike mentioned the book Clergy Killers, which he said includes the statistic that 30% of ministers will be terminated or otherwise forced out of a ministry posting at some point in their careers.  30%!  That’s a pretty sobering statistic.  I’ve seen citations in other places about extreme rates of burn-out and depression among ministers.  According to some researchers, 70% of ministers are struggling with depression at any given time.  It’s a good thing that ministry has such a deep appeal in other ways, because it if became widely known that your average ministry job is going to require 90 hours of seminary, pay far less than your would get doing almost anything else with that much training, and come with a 70% chance of depression or burnout and a one in three chance of getting canned at some point, we’d have a hard time keeping the pulpits filled–even harder than we do now.

The other thing that interested me about Mike was that he was raised Methodist and is now in the Disciples of Christ.  That probably doesn’t seem like a strange thing to most of you reading this–and it doesn’t to me, either, anymore, but in all my time in the Churches of Christ, I only heard of a handful of people who left C of C ministry to go to a different denomination–and I never heard of anyone who did the opposite journey.  For a long time, I had a sense that denomination switching was something that was virtually unknown.

But then when I started attending ministerial association meetings, it turned out that almost every pastor I met had made a denomination change at some point.  Some of them spent their seminary years finding the right match; others started down a career in a certain network and realized it wasn’t for them a bit down the road.  None of them seemed to think that switching was a terribly difficult thing to do, logistically or emotionally.

Part of why Churches of Christ are different, I think, is our own sectarian past.  We just haven’t played very well with others, and the rest of Christendom can seem like a very different world.  For a lot of the major Protestant groups, though, they are used to associating with and respecting leaders in other folds.  It’s just not that big a chasm.

Which is to say, I’m realizing that I had made a denomination change out to be a bigger thing than it really has to be.  The doors are open out there, if I want to walk through.

Or there’s chaplaincy work.

Or being a cop.

Or a kindergarten teacher.

Or a landscaper.

Or myriad other ways to contribute to the restoration of the world.

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On the Threshold

So, my family and I are going through some really interesting transitions at the moment, and people ask how we are doing.  That’s a question I have a hard time answering quickly.

Admittedly, there are some negative aspects to being unemployed during the worst economic downturn since the 30’s.  I’ve applied for any job that looked remotely promising (and you know, I think I might have really enjoyed being a police dispatcher!) but there doesn’t seem any demand for ex-preachers in non-preaching positions.  And it’s not just me–my wife, a teacher, has been told that her position won’t exist next year, and that there likely won’t be any open positions in the entire county.

All of this, I’ve decided, is terrific.  If Sandy had any hope whatsoever of having a job here, we might have been tempted to stay in the area.  If my ministry experiences had been somewhat less frustrating, I might have been tempted to stick with it.  But now we find ourselves in a true liminal state.  Here’s what Wikipedia, the world’s foremost authority on everything at all, says about liminality:

Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective, conscious state of being on the “threshold” of or between two different existential planes, as defined in neurological psychology (a “liminal state”) and in the anthropological theories of ritual by such writers as Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner, and others. In the anthropological theories, a ritual, especially a rite of passage, involves some change to the participants, especially their social status.  The liminal state is characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. One’s sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. Liminality is a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed – a situation which can lead to new perspectives.

We can’t go back.  There’s no “there” there anymore.  We have to push ahead into the unknown.  I don’t have the faintest idea where we’ll be living in three months.  I don’t know what jobs we’ll have, if any.  My normal limits are as relaxed as possible.  We could go anywhere and do anything.  I can’t think of a time in my life so full of possibilities.  We are about to learn a lot.  We are going to look back on 2010 as the year that everything changed.  It could be the year that I moved into a line of work I never thought that I would do.  It could be the year that we become Lutherans.  It could be the year where, out of sheer desperation, we move in with family members for months at a time and do whatever odd jobs we can pick up.  It could be the year that I follow in my little brother’s footsteps and become a cop.  It could be the year that we move the kids to China where and teach conversational English to college students.  Anything is possible.  All options are on the table.

Now, how many people get to say at age 38, with two kids in tow, that anything at all could happen this year?  Would we have ever willingly given up comfort and security if there were any other option?  Probably not.  But now we are completely free–free to go anywhere and accept any opportunity. Free to learn about poverty firsthand, maybe.  Free to accept help from old friends.  Free to rest in silent prayer.  From to be re-created into a new kind of people.

I used to have a practice, when I moved to a new city, of driving aimlessly until I was completely lost, and then driving again until I found my way back to my new home.  I did that when I moved to the small city of Abilene, Tx, and I did it when I moved to the metropolis of Houston.  Being lost and looking for landmarks makes you keenly aware of your surroundings, and often I discovered that I wound up knowing my new city better than people who had lived there for years and were never desperate enough to start paying close attention to what surrounded them.

I’m paying close attention to everything right now.  I’m currently lost in Life, and looking for signs that might lead to a place to stay for a while.  I feel sharper, fresher, younger than I have in a long time.  No more living life by default.  This is the year of unbound possibilities, in an uncharted land.

To me, there is no other sensible or faithful position to take.  What is one to do but move ahead in hope?

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Marketing the Messiah

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.
–Luke 10:1-4

I’ve had this passage stuck in my brain for a couple of years now*, always wondering the same question: how do the people of Christ today fulfill their calling in a way that is congruent with this beginning? (Maybe I’m still a restorationist at heart after all.)

Sometimes we think the palpable weirdness of the New Testament is a function of gaping chasms of linguistic and cultural difference that must be crossed when reading an ancient document from another part of the world. And sometimes that’s true. But even in his own day and age, Jesus was a weirdo. I can’t imagine that anyone else who intended to start a new global movement would do it this way–send people out into the world resourceless and vulnerable, looking for a friendly home to take them in so they could spread their message of the kingdom.

Churches today–at least, the ones I know anything about–do almost the opposite. Rather than walk through the world empty-handed, looking for places where the Spirit is already at work, our impulse is to show the world how much we can offer it. “Exciting Youth Program! Upbeat Worship! Relevant Preaching!” I remember getting a advertisement in the mail for one congregation’s Easter service. Six different times it mentioned that the Easter bunny would be there in person to meet the kids who came to the egg hunt. Not once did it mention that Easter was a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, the words Jesus or Christ didn’t appear anywhere in the ad. And this wasn’t one of the flaky “Best Life Now” temples to personal success. It was a fairly well-grounded congregation that I had attended for a couple of years. But their idea of reaching the world, at least on that day, involved a volunteer in a bunny suit and a proclamation of the good news of free eggs and prizes.

The rebuttal I usually hear when I get all cranky and reactionary about this stuff is that we are supposed to do Nice Things for Our Neighbors and, anyway, Once We Get Them in the Door, We Will Tell Them the Gospel. This is where I’m kind of simple-minded. I think we ought to do Jesusy things in Jesusy ways. If you can honestly picture Jesus spreading the word that his new movement will have “Well Staffed Nurseries!” and “Beautiful Worship Spaces!” and “Your Kids Can Meet Astarte Herself During the Spring Fertility Rituals!” then go for it, I guess, but that’s not the vibe I get from him in the gospels. It looks to me like a bunch of us are deciding that the world doesn’t want what we actually have to offer, so we’ll give them what we think they do want, and kind of see what happens from there. Maybe everyone is in agreement that the pastor they interviewed on the Daily Show, who tries to win converts through Ultimate Fighting, has gone off the deep end, but I think of him as a kind of living reductio ad absurdum argument against evangelism that relies on the power of clever marketing rather than the power of the spirit working through our resourcelessness and poverty. Once you decide that you are going to offer the teeming crowds what they want in order to get them inside, you may as well notice that some of them really want Ultimate Fighting, so what’s the harm?

I think it would be an interesting learning experience for a church to try to recreate some of these gospel scenes as closely as possible. What if we agreed that one Saturday morning we would put on simple clothing, leave our wallet and keys at home, and walk out into the world looking for a place where God is working, praying for open eyes that will let us see where we can join in, and praying also for hospitable strangers who will welcome us?

Yeah, I know–do I want people to think we’re a bunch of weirdos?

*In fact, I probably blogged it before, but it’s on my mind again and I’m not going to let redundancy slow me down. The internet isn’t running out of pixels.

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