How the Birthday Cake Ruined the Church…

How the Birthday Cake Ruined the Church…

In my half-century of life, a lot has changed (and is constantly changing) in our world.  That’s, of course, a ridiculous understatement.  The world is changing more rapidly and more radically with every passing day.

Though many of those changes involve science and technology, let’s consider something a bit more basic – a birthday cake.

A century ago, or more, if you wanted a birthday cake, you ground the grain you grew and harvested, collected eggs from your own hen-house, milked the cow, and hoped you still had the ingredients you couldn’t produce, purchased on your last trip to the general store.  After mixing the ingredients, yourself, you might have needed to chop some wood to heat the stove to bake the cake.

A half-century ago, to celebrate a birthday, you went to the neighborhood grocer to buy the ingredients you needed – flour, sugar, eggs, milk, baking powder, etc.  You took those ingredients home, mixed the batter with an electric mixer, and baked a cake in your electric or gas oven.  I can still remember a particularly delicious chocolate cake my mom made, with thick, rich frosting.  It wasn’t pretty, but it was sooooooooo good!

Then came a simpler way.  Rather than buying individual ingredients, cake mixes and canned frosting could be purchased.  You still baked the cake yourself, but the process was so much simpler, less time-consuming, and required less knowledge or skill – just dump the mix in a bowl and follow the directions on the package.

Then came the grocery store bakery.  There have always been bakeries, of course.  But, grocery store bakeries were cheaper and move convenient.  Now, instead of baking, you could buy a ready-made, beautifully decorated cake, in the color and flavor of your choice, and even have a custom birthday greeting added for no additional charge.  No time, effort, or skill required.

But, the problem is, everyone doesn’t like the same flavor of cake.  Some people are on diets.  Some are vegan.  Some are lactose intolerant.  Some are avoiding gluten.  Some have food allergies.  Some prefer more basic flavors, while others desire something  more exotic.  And, aesthetics matter.  We don’t want to eat something that looks mass-produced.  We want a nice presentation.  So, we order designer cupcakes, on-line, catering to multiple wants and needs, packaged in special boxes, and have them delivered to our office or home.

We’ve shifted from creators, contributors and cultivators, to consumers (and, sometimes, critics and complainers).

This scenario is replayed over, and over, and over.  We used to make coffee, at home, in a percolator.  Now, we order ahead for a grande soy latte with whipped cream and an extra shot of espresso, hot and ready for pick-up in minutes.  We used to wait in line at movie theaters, hoping tickets were available when you got to the window, knowing you might not get great seats.  Now we order our movie tickets ahead, selecting from a variety of viewing and listening options, choosing our specific reclining, leather seats, with no waiting at the theater door, and with plenty of time to purchase a much wider variety of beverages and snacks than just basic popcorn and soda.

The list could go on and on and on.

Notice how we’ve moved from basic commodities – cake ingredients, coffee beans, general seating – to being served by others, with little-to-no personal effort, and much higher levels of expectation for personalization, specialization and convenience.

I suspect, when we made our own cakes and coffee, we accepted certain imperfections.  I remember sitting on the front rows of movie theaters, just glad to have a ticket, or settling for a different movie because the show I wanted was sold out.  I think, we used to be generally more accepting, and assumed the burden was on us to make things better if we weren’t satisfied.

If the cake didn’t turn out right, bake another one.  If you don’t know how to decorate a cake, ask your neighbor for help.  If you don’t like chocolate cake, hopefully you’ll get vanilla next year.  If you made the coffee too strong, add some milk.  If you want to get a ticket to the show, get in line earlier next time.

We don’t think that way any more.  We want it customized.  We want it perfect.  We want it pretty.  We want it easy.  We want it special.  We want it NOW!

We’ve become spoiled, critical, demanding, and impatient.

We’ve become consumers.

As a pastor, I see numerous ways this shift has negatively impacted the Church.

If you follow the same general timeline I shared about birthday cakes, there was once a time church consisted of the many and varied contributions of the members.  Repairs to the facilities were performed by member craftsmen.  Sanctuaries were cleaned and decorated with home-grown flowers collected and arranged, paraments sewn and embroidered, washed and starched, pews polished, holiday decorations made and displayed, all by the members.  The music was generally the best efforts of the church’s best musicians.  Some member typed the bulletin on a typewriter, usually including a few typos.  Somebody arrived early to turn on the furnace or open the windows.  An usher swept the front steps.  Somebody baked the communion bread.  Parents and grandparents took turns teaching Sunday School, leading and planning Vacation Bible School, and working in the nursery.  Members taught Sunday School classes, and took food to the sick and homebound.  Members gathered regularly for home-cooked, church-wide dinners.  “Elder” members made the decisions, prayed, and dreamed of starting new ministries and building new buildings.

EVERYONE gave what they could, as the Lord provided.  EVERYONE took turns, doing what needed to be done.  EVERYONE did their part.  And, when it was necessary, if a need or problem or deficiency became obvious, someone stepped up to do it.

Church was the gathered service, gifted-ness, creativity, and contributions of the members; sometimes as good as the delicious home-baked bread served at communion, and sometimes as terrible as grandma’s arthritic attempt to play the piano.  Every gift was given and appreciated with love, for what it was – an offering of service to the Lord.

Now, church has become a place to be served.  Though we still depend on volunteers, the message from many is, “Don’t ask or expect to much.”  The even-greater message is, “I come to church to be served.”  I want to sit where I want to sit.  I want to sing songs I know and like.  I want the volume set according to my tastes.  I want to hear messages relevant to my life, that fit neatly into what I already believe.  I want to attend when it’s convenient.  I want the temperature adjusted to my comfort.  I want to drop my children off at the nursery, or Sunday School, or VBS, or the youth group, and have others entertain them.  I want someone to make sure I am safe.  I want lots of programs offered for me and my family, so that I can pick and chose what fits into my schedule.  I want a good parking space.

Even serving often seems self-serving.

Rather than expecting church to be the place to serve and contribute, many expect church to serve them and contribute to their own needs, wants and desires.  If I don’t like something, I’ll complain, or at least grumble.  If I don’t like the current sermon series, I’ll just stay home.  If I don’t like the music, I’ll come late.  If I don’t want to give or volunteer, I’ll let others take up the slack for me.  If I’m not interested, I won’t show up.  If I hear another church has more to offer my family, without asking so much, I’ll just go there instead.

Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy cupcakes and lattes.  I appreciate convenience.  I like to be served.  I, too, have high standards and expectations.  Even as the pastor, I want things at church to be done well.

I’m not questioning our appetite for excellence.  I’m challenging our consumeristic expectations and demands.  If you want something to be excellent, then YOU make it excellent.  And, just because the world is willing to cater to your demands for convenience and customization, don’t bring that expectation to church.

Church is a place to serve, not to be served.

Church is like a birthday cake, baked from scratch, from pure, fresh ingredients.  We are the ingredients – the flour, the sugar, the milk, the eggs – lovingly mixed together and baked by our heavenly maker.  The final product might not be everyone’s favorite flavor.  It might be a little lopsided.  The icing might be a little un-even.  “Hapy Birtday” written in frosting, might not be spelled exactly right. But all in all, the ingredients can potentially combine to create a delicious offering for the world.  An offering for the world – not us!

Church is a place to serve, not to be served.

Maybe we need to learn how to bake cakes, from scratch, again.

Privilege

Privilege

Last night, I was privileged to attend a lecture, at St. Thomas University, by Dr. Diana L. Hayes, Professor of Systematic Theology at Georgetown University.  Dr. Hayes shared about recognizing the image of God in EVERY person and the ongoing problem of personal, systemic, and institutional racism in America.

As a white, straight, middle-class, college-educated, male, Christian, southern-U.S. citizen it’s taken me a while to grasp the place of cultural privilege I’ve been afforded.  I never did anything to earn or deserve the opportunities I’ve had, simply because of the life I was born into.  Nor have others, more marginalized by society, necessarily deserved the challenges they’ve had to bear because of their skin color, nationality, gender, sexual-orientation, or socio-economic status.

Even though public education is available to everyone in the United States, there’s no denying some schools are better than others, and some homes are more advantageous for learning.  I’ve never had to worry about being harassed by police for my skin color, or objectified for my gender, or condemned for my sexual orientation.  I’ve never had to worry about my personal safety, or where my next meal might come from.  I’ve never worried, for a moment, about being the victim of a hate crime.

I was, and am, fortunate.  I’m privileged.

I recently read Ta-Nehesi Coates’, Between the World and Me.  As a white man, it wasn’t easy to read.  But, I’m so glad I did.  Though we are, more or less, contemporaries, both having grown up in the United States in the same generation, our life experiences have been radically different, for one reason – the color of his skin, and the color of mine.

Through the years, I’ve denied my privilege, arguing, “Everyone has equal opportunity in America,” blind to the enormous head start I was given, and the myriad obstacles others have had to overcome.  For a season, I was apathetic, thinking, “It isn’t my fault I was born white and male.”  I remember resenting Affirmative Action and “Equal Opportunity,” foolishly presuming others were getting what I worked for.

For a time, I felt guilty.  Maybe I still do.

Now, I would say, I increasingly realize I need to use my place of privilege to speak, act, vote and pray for those less privileged in our world, facing much greater and much more unfair challenges than I’ve had to contend with.  I need to take off my blinders, do my homework, and seek to better understand other’s challenges.  I have a role and responsibility to play in advocacy for those on the margins, who do not have the positional advantages I do to leverage change.

And – let me be clear – I have much to learn from people who have lived on the margins.  And, I have much to honor and respect.  What has been handed to me, has been hard-earned by others.  Opportunities I’ve squandered, have been cherished by others.  Though the reasons are deeply unfair, those who’ve lived on the margins have a greater strength from the battles they’ve fought, have greater perseverance from what they’ve endured, greater wisdom from what they’ve witnessed, and a very different perspective on faith and spirituality.  Though I’ve no claim or right to their earned life lessons, I want to learn and I want to show respect.

Dr. Hayes specifically offered the following “Four Corners of Racial Reconciliation”…

  1. Develop the ability to hear and be present to black anger, seeking to understand, without becoming defensive.
  2. Create safe spaces that allow for different perspectives.
  3. Cultivate genuine friendships with people of different cultures, ethnicities, and life experiences.
  4. Develop a willingness to act on behalf of justice.

Though it’s been a journey, and it’s taken me longer than it should have, I am increasingly aware, increasingly open, and increasingly willing to do my part.  Though I still have a lot to learn, friendships to develop, and cowardice to overcome, I’m starting to get it.  I’m starting.

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long!

 

What is manly?

What is manly?

I’ve recently been in conversations about manliness and masculinity, which has me thinking about roles and stereotypes.  Like…

Real men don’t cook or clean…

ramsey
Gordon Ramsey, Chef
Mr-clean
Mr. Clean

Real men don’t wear jewelry…

biker

Ream men don’t wear make-up…

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Karowai Tribe, Papua New Guinea

Real men never cry…

tear
Iron Eyes Cody

Real men don’t have long hair…

samson

Real men don’t like to share their feelings…

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Soldier writing home from battle field

Real men aren’t into poetry…

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King David – warrior, harpist, and author of many Psalms

Real men are independent…

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U.S. Marines raising flag over Iwo Jima, World War II

Real men aren’t into artsy stuff…

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Workers on Mount Rushmore

Real men aren’t affectionate…

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Super Bowl LII champs, LeGarrette Blount and Chris Long 

Real men don’t dance…

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Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula

Real men never show weakness…

jesus_crucified_bust

Clear enough?

“Dim Dots” – Where we’ve been, and where we’re going

“Dim Dots” – Where we’ve been, and where we’re going

Annie Dillard ends her childhood memoir, An American Childhood, by reflecting on the “dim dots” of her life that led to her becoming fully alive – “the moment of opening a life and feeling it touch this speckled mineral sphere, our present world.” By “dim dots” she means the moments and events of our lives that form a single contiguous line toward who we eventually become.  Her “dim dots” include various memories of childhood, that continue to hold significance to her, while others, she had hoped not to forget, have strangely faded away.

Though I am more than sure many of my “dim dots,” though significant, have fully faded from view, many remain clearly visible in my mind’s eye.  For fear of leaving something important out, or overemphasizing less important memories, I’ll refrain from sharing my list, as it occurs to me today.

The point is, we are the accumulative sum of all of those “dim dots.”  Though some life experiences are clearly more memorable and impactful than others, nothing can be excluded.  Remove any of my dots, to some degree, I’m no longer who I am today.  Obviously, some things matter more than others.  But, every experience, every interaction, every relationship, every sensation, every mistake, every achievement, every moment of transcendence, every coincidence, every hurt feeling, every life-stage, every moment of ecstasy, every sickness, every season, every loss, every holy moment, every employment, every abysmal failure, every skill we learn, every book we read, every test we pass, every moment of breathtaking beauty, every act of service, every gauntlet we endure, every weakness we overcome, every act of selfishness, every spiritual encounter, every moment of debasement, every goal achieved, EVERYTHING contributes to who we become.  EVERYTHING has contributed to who we are.

In fact, I think it could be argued that every dot, to some degree, predicts the dots that will follow.  Not always.  But, often.

Beyond the moments that could potentially be marked on a calendar or a map, or recorded in a journal, yearbook, or police record, or photographed or videoed, are the countless other influences – our genetics, our parent’s guidance, our birth-order, our ethnicity or nationality, our social/economic status, our geography, our traditions, our generation, our friendships, our loves and losses, our education, our religious influences, our exposure to beauty or tragedy, etc.

As you reflect on the “dim dots” of your life, here are some questions to ponder…

  • Who are the people who’ve made the biggest impact on your life, for good or ill?
  • What memories cause you the most joy?  What memories cause you the most pain?
  • When were you the happiest?  When were you the saddest?
  • Where has been “home” for you?
  • What, to date, has been your greatest achievement?
  • What would you erase from your past, if you could?
  • What if you had chosen a different school to attend, a different career to pursue, a different place to live, a different person to marry?
  • What memories haunt you?
  • What historic events do you remember most clearly?
  • What precious moment would you relive, if you could, simply for the joy of it?
  • When have you felt most alive?
  • When did you stop pretending?  Have you?
  • What moments or experiences, if erased, would most alter who you are today?
  • How has your faith and spirituality affected who you’ve become?

If you drew a line, starting with your birth, from dot to dot to dot, all the way to this very moment (yes, this moment – as you read this blog), what dots might be coming next, and after that, and after that?

What are your “dim dots?”

Getting Out of the Echo Chamber

Getting Out of the Echo Chamber

About a year ago, I heard a Korean-American, female pastor challenge white, male, North American pastors to stop reading white, male theologians for the next year.  Her point was, we need to broaden our theologies and perspectives by adding new voices into our learning.  And, I think, her point was, white men reading white men was a bit like reading in an echo chamber – just hearing the same voices repeated over and over and over, reinforcing firmly-established belief-systems.

I didn’t obey her challenge perfectly.  I’ve still read a few white, male authors.  But, I respectfully took her point, and have expanded my reading by intentionally selecting a broader range of authors, than I  have in the past.  And, I’m so glad that I did!

Over the last year, or so, my reading has included, in no particular order…

  • Desmund Tutu – male, South-African
  • Pope Francis – male, Argentinian
  • Dorothy Day – female, Anglo-American
  • Makoto Fujimura – male, Japanese-American
  • Renita Weems – female, African-American
  • Ta-nehisi Coates – male, African-American
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. – male, African-American
  • Deidra Riggs – female, African-American
  • Lisa Sharon Harper – female, African-American
  • Elizabeth Gilbert – female, Anglo-American
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – female, Nigerian
  • Bryan Stevenson – male, African-American
  • Oscar Romero – male, El Salvadoran

This is a challenge I’m glad I accepted, and intend to continue.  The truth is, my shelves are covered with books authored by white men.  While many of them are brilliant and deeply spiritual, they do tend to speak from a vernacular of common life, education, and experience.

By adding new and varied influences, my perspective is being broadened and deepened.  I’m increasingly, painfully aware of the inherent advantages I have as a white, Southern, college-educated, man – advantages I’ve taken for granted, perhaps even assuming I have “earned.”  I’m increasingly aware of the disadvantages others have, simply because of their gender, skin-color, ethnicity, or country-of-origin.  I’m increasingly aware of injustice and unfairness, ways that I’m complicit, and ways that I’m called to live and lead differently.  I’m increasingly aware of my wrong assumptions, attitudes, and biases.

My eyes, and my mind are being opened.  And, while that’s not always easy, I am thankful.

While white, male authors are not permanently banned  from my bookshelves, I plan to continue reading an increasingly diverse group of authors.  I plan to continue being challenged, stretched, and deepened.  I encourage you to do the same.

I wonder, any non-white, male authors you might suggest I read next?

 

The Black Panther and the Church…

The Black Panther and the Church…

Sunday afternoon, I watched the long-awaited and much-anticipated movie, The Black Panther.  I thought it was excellent.  But, when it comes to super-hero movies, I’m easy to please!

The Black Panther is both a super-hero and the king of the fictional nation of Wakanda; a small central-African nation, presenting itself to the world as poor and “third world,” while concealing incredible wealth and advanced technology.  Tradition, and fear, have kept the advanced Wakandan society hidden from the world, for generations, all-the-while possessing gifts that could address the world’s greatest needs.

Underlying the primary story-line of the movie are questions about Wakanda’s purpose. Should Wakanda remain hidden from the world, keeping its precious gifts to itself?  Or, should Wakanda use it’s technology to improve, or possibly punish, the world?  Are these gifts to be shared, protected, or hoarded?  Does Wakanda exist for itself, and its personal hoard?  Or, does Wakanda exist for the sake of the world?

Not surprisingly, I couldn’t help but think of the Church.  We also have a treasure the world desperately needs.  We, the Church, also struggle with the purpose of our existence.  Do we exist for ourselves?  Or, do we exist for the world?  Are we a kingdom in hiding, or a kingdom advancing across the earth?  Is this treasure intended for us to keep to ourselves?  Or, is the treasure meant to be shared?

Many would argue the Church isn’t hidden, that our doors are open, and that our treasure (God) is available to all.  True.  But, I would argue thousands drive by our churches every day, with no knowledge or understanding of what we are, what we do, or why we do it.  For all practical purposes, we might as well be hidden.

But, we don’t have to be.  We have the greatest treasures of all (God, and each other), and there’s more than enough to share.  We have treasures the world needs.  We have treasures that can change the world.

Every Marvel movie has an added post-credit scene – sometimes more than one.  In one of the two post-credit scenes, the Black Panther, as King T’challa, stands before the United Nations, announcing Wakanda’s plans to share its treasures with the world.  One of the UN delegates, not knowing what Wakanda has hidden, ignorantly asks, “What can a third-world nation, like Wakanda, possibly have to offer us?”  The scene ends with T’challa smirking.

Perhaps the world is asking the same of the Church.  “What can the Church possibly offer the world?”   We know.  Lets show them!

 

 

God meant things to be so much easier…

God meant things to be so much easier…

“We want to build a society where it is easier for people to be good.”  Peter Maurin (Co-founder, with Dorothy Day, of the Catholic Worker Movement)

Long before last week’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I’ve been in turmoil over the brokenness I see, every where I look…

  • Thousands dying from opioid overdoses.
  • Countless women revealing the abuses they’ve suffered from men behaving like animals.
  • The growing divide between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
  • The bullying young people endure in our schools, and on social media.
  • The vitriol that dominates our politics.
  • Senseless acts of “road rage,” ending in senseless deaths.
  • The public rise of hate groups.
  • The decline of civility.
  • The alarming negative impact of social media on everything from our politics to our children’s social development.
  • ISIS.  Al-Queda.  Boko Haram.
  • The Pulse night club massacre.  The Las Vegas strip massacre.  The Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre.

What is happening?

I know the world’s never been perfect.  There’s always been war, violence, hate, prejudice, addiction, sickness, poverty, disasters, racism, injustices, etc.  Certainly, anyone whose lived through wars, or famines, or the Holocaust, or slavery, or in a refugee camp, or a natural disaster, may not be as shocked or disturbed as I am by our current state.  Perhaps the world is no more broken than it ever has been, and I’ve just been blind or ignorant.

Nevertheless, my eyes are wide-open now, and I don’t like what I see.

Do you?

Dorothy Day wrote, “We are not expecting utopia here on this earth.  But God meant things to be much easier than we have made them.”

Is it possible that we’ve created a way of living that’s unhealthy, unsustainable, and undermining the kind of life we actually long for? Is it possible that our values and lifestyles – the values and lifestyles of normal, church-going, law-abiding citizens – are actually completely out-of-whack?  Is it possible that for the world to change, we’ll have to change ourselves?

In the shadow of recent events, children are on my mind.  I think we’re failing our children.

  • We aren’t providing children with adequate role models, mentors, and guides.
  • We’re pushing our kids to be too busy for their own good, and have placed too much pressure on them to perform.
  • We’re sacrificing family time, for work and activity.
  • We’re sacrificing community and extended-family, for opportunity and mobility.
  • We’re sacrificing religion and spirituality – in the Church and in the home – to competing obligations and recreation.
  • We’re not teaching children the values of respect for authority, hard work and discipline, and basic morality.
  • We’re exposing our children to way too much evil in movies, TV, the internet, and social media, without the supervision or skills to discern good and evil, right and wrong.
  • We’re indulging our kids, instead of investing in them.
  • We’re allowing our kids to grow up with way too much fear, without the foundations of security we all need to thrive.
  • We are creating survivors, not thrivers.

And, when I say “we,” I’m not just blaming parents.  Parenting is the hardest job I’ve ever had, and I certainly didn’t do it perfectly.  “We” is me.  “We” is you.  “We” is society, culture, government, the Church, the media, the press, school systems, sports leagues, etc., etc.  “We” are the problem.

I’m also not suggesting there aren’t countless parents, grand-parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, Scout leaders, police officers, politicians, etc. trying to make a difference in kids lives.  There are, thank God.

But, something has to change, doesn’t it?  What we’re doing isn’t working, is it?

I don’t have the answers, and it’s certainly much easier to identify problems than to develop solutions.  But, increasingly, I want to be part of building a society where it is easier for people to “be good.”

What if we lived simpler lives, with less stress, and more time for family, friends, and faith?

What if we knew our neighbors, and built stronger community with them?

What if we developed habits of helping each other, relying on each other, supporting each other?

What if we all gave more time to service, helping the most fragile members of our society?

What if we spent more time looking into each other’s faces, and less time at screens?

What if we planted deeper roots in one place, forsaking the next promotion or opportunity, for the sake of long-term stability?

What if we valued character-development – our children’s and our own – over academic, athletic, or professional achievement?  Not instead of, just more than.

What if church, worship, service, and faith development was a priority for the whole family?

What if we were more generous with our resources, our time, and our hearts?

What if we collectively committed to fixing what is broken in our society, instead of turning our backs and hiding from it?

What if we collectively believed we could make the world better than it is, and did something about it?

I want to be part of building a society where it is easier for people to be good – really good.  Do you?