Pondering Thanksgiving

A confession: I am as likely to focus on what I lack or what I miss as on what I have. Living in a spirit of Thanksgiving is hard for me. So today I am grateful that we take out a day to at regularlize the idea of gratitude.

I am blessed in many ways. I have a very cool wife, good and creative kids, a job in the midst of this recession, my mortgage is not under water, a love for writing/reading/learning, enough technology to drive me crazy, a supportive church community, the opportunity to do interesting ministry with good friends and fellow travelers, enough time and money to help out agencies doing good work (in the neighborhood and around the world). Mostly I'm thankful for a God who showers grace upon my sorry disposition (see below). And that's not the half of it. So there, I've said it, for the record. Now feel free to remind me of this list when I am having a hard time being thankful!

Some interesting perspectives out there today that I need to share:

Seth Godin celebrates Thanksgiving, writing that, "For me, the holiday celebrates people who contribute with no expectation of anything in return." He urges his readers to live generously, to go out of their way for people who can't pay them back. Why?

I hope the answer is obvious. It is to me. The benefit is in the fact that they can't pay you back. The opportunity to instruct or assist when you can gain nothing in return is priceless. It creates meaning and momentum and structure.

Hmmm. I believe I've heard that thought before...

John O'Hara
(HT: Emergent Village) riffs on grace -- the whole reason for Thanksgiving.

Grace is classically defined as unearned favor. I’m beginning to realize that this, or any attempt at definition is far from adequate. And that’s because grace isn’t really grace until the hot glow of her presence has fallen on your own sorry disposition.

Brian McLaren
offers some commentary on the classic Thanksgiving hymn, "We Gather Together..."

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining, ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine; so from the beginning the fight we were winning: thou, Lord, wast at our side: all glory be thine!

What a beautiful thought, especially on the edge of the Advent season … God with us joining. Since God has joined with us, since God has inaugurated God’s peaceable kingdom, good can’t ultimately lose and evil can’t ultimately win. God has been with us, whatever we have experienced. Thanks be to God!

My favorite observation comes from my neighbor (relatively speaking), Todd Hiestand:

Stop reading my blog and hang out with your family.


Luther is supposed to have said that the wallet was the third conversion, after mind and heart. (From Out of UR)


Enterprise zones for the church

The states and federal government have used the concept of "enterprise zones" to encourage investment in blighted areas to create jobs and stimulate the economy. The concept works differently in different places, but the general idea is that there are tax incentives to locate businesses in these depressed areas. By giving on some of its normal expectations of businesses, the zones can achieve economic goals that couldn't be met under the normal rules. The special rules only apply to special areas designated as enterprise zones. The rules don't change for the rest of city or state, and businesses that aren't contributing to the specific goals of the zone don't expect a similar tax cut.

A similar concept of church enterprise zones might be a way forward for mainline denominational structures, which (as we discussed yesterday based on Kelly Fryer's thoughts) can cling to conformity when faced with the challenges of a rapidly changing frontier rather than digging deep for faithful innovation.

In his marvelous little book "Tribes," which is a must-read for church leaders who want to challenge the status quo, marketing guru Seth Godin has an apt description that can apply to oldline businesses, charitable and educational institutions, government and the church: "Stuck."

“Some tribes are stuck. They embrace the status quo and drown out any tribe member who dares to question authority and the established order.” (5)

Here Seth gives voice to many younger, emerging church leaders, as well as veterans who are tiring of the status quo and feel called to explore new answers for changing times.

I observe that the ELCA tends to want to birth “new things” within existing models. Communities that are struggling to raise up leadership have to deal with a system in which leaders must vetted, appointed and educated according to a standard pattern. Grassroots communities, or groups that may always be organically small, don’t have easy access to a planting system based on achieving self-sufficiency (we don’t even know what this means in new models yet!) as quickly as possible.

Of course, this makes sense from the institution's point of view. Redefining a part of a system -- such as "pastor" or "congregation" -- implies that the rules are changed for everyone, which could lead to freedom or to chaos. The problem is that if what can be imagined and birthed can only look like what we already know, the possibilities for true creativity and innovation are eliminated. As the old saw goes, "Our system is perfectly calibrated to achieve the results we are already getting."

The results we are already getting are in many cases disappointing. While the mainline church-as-we-know-it works well for many people in many places, the general long-running decline of the mainline churches and the relative absence of post-confirmation youth and young adults indicates that all is not well. In the case of these lost generations, and in the growing number of post-modern people of all ages (it's not a generation but a way of looking at the world), there's a good case to be made that some enterprise zones, spaces where new church could emerge connected with but not in conformity with the denomination and tradition, could help the churches tap into what the Spirit is doing among these populations.

This could be as simple as authorizing “sandboxes” where experiments can run firewalled off from the existing church, much as software developers often run new or potentially malicious programs in a virtual environment where they cannot crash the underlying operating system. These experiments could be set up so that there would be a path into the recognized church if they succeed, by moving toward changes in rules and procedures based on the signs of the Spirit recognized in these new communities. If they fail, we'll have at least learned something. Or if the denomination and community don’t agree on moving ahead, it could be agreed ahead of time that the group would simply cease to exist, or spin off as an independent church.

Such pilot projects provide a way forward for denominations that are “stuck” without creating the risk of massive destabilization or fracture. By being self-contained, the experiments are less threatening to the existing institution than different new “churches” that suggest a new model for others. Of course, experiments do suggest new models, but providing an enterprise zone allows them to take risk and grow without directly threatening the status quo. The new models can later be absorbed into the mainstream once they are proven, rather than stamped out before they are tried because they are risky or misunderstood.

These enterprise zones tap into the latent potential Godin sees in such mired systems:

“Every one of those (stuck) tribes, though, is a movement waiting to happen, a group of people just waiting to be energized and transformed.” (5)

By releasing the energy of leaders and communities who want to experiment, their energy can be harnessed to release even more innovation and renewal across the institution!


Creativity crisis?

Wandering through Kelly Fryer's sites the other day I found an insightful article digging around under the drive for conformity in the ELCA and many mainline churches. You can see it in the endless conversations about sexuality (Is anyone listening to them any more?) which put off change -- or even a decision -- until everyone can agree (or at least a supermajority can impose its will). But you also see it in our discussions -- or lack of discussions -- about What is the church? How do we organize for mission? What does ministry look like post-Christendom?

Kelly notes that its natural for threatened people and organizations to look for confirmity in the name of unity. The US did it after 9/11. And the mainline is under attack. We're declining, our message isn't connecting, we've lost the ear of the culture (and even some of our own members) to evangelicals and what Brian McLaren calls "radio orthodoxy."

It's natural to want to get everyone on the same page, to build an illusion of strength amidst the chaos. But it's wrong. It's an example of what Seth Godin would call the fallacy of going after "most people." Most people in the US rarely if ever go to church. Most people who go to church are not Lutherans or even mainliners. Most people want to be accepted in their diversity, not forced into confirmity. And this leads to the problem. Trying for comformity in this atmosphere leads to a church that tries to play it safe, and most people can do that on their own. The few who want to believe something and take a stand don't want to, or can't, conform.

I don't know when Kelly wrote this article, but it was before the global financial system melted down. The tendency to turn in, protect and bureaucratize that she describes is only going to get worse as money gets tighter, giving goes down, bills go up. Which makes her even more right that this conformity impulse is the wrong response for these times:

It is, I think, a natural impulse to pull in the reigns or slam on the brakes when you feel threatened. And I can't even blame all the people at every level of the denominational institution & within our congregations who end up doing this. But it is exactly the WRONG thing to do. What we need more than ever in the mainline is the freedom to experiment, the permission to make gigantic messes trying new things, and the encouragement to respond to each new context with open minds and creative spirits. We need flexibility, not conformity. We need innovation, not institutionalized sameness. We need faith enough to risk going in directions we've never gone before - even multiple directions at the same time! - not a fear-based clamp down on anything and everyone new. (emphasis added)

We're running a corporation with no research and development department. There are no new products in the pipeline (don't blow a gasket, I don't mean we need new religions, but we aren't doing so well re-casting the Gospel in our changing contexts). When the product that you have isn't selling, the answer isn't to make more of it. Just ask the auto manufacturers. And there is no bailout rescue plan for us.

Imagine if we let go of the natural desire for conformity and ran some experiments. What if we released some people to try new ideas and models to see if they can thrive and even co-exist along side (not in or under) the predominant model? What if we could look at other ways of being church not as threats to our own beliefs and preferences but as just other ways of doing the same work together with different people? The conformity model says we're weakening and these emerging ideas would weaken us. I think it would make us all stronger, and better.


Sustainable mission?

David Fitch has an insightful post on sustaining missional ministries in the midst of the fiscal meltdown we're seeing. These times are tough on all churches. Small, organic communities, those trying to do mission without walls and with different models of leadership, are pressured as well. Our community, for example, is making do without the overhead of a building or even a permanent space, and leadership is volunteer at this point. Even that can be precarious, as the pressures of the economy build on people's work and family lives and affect their commitment to the ministry.

It's especially a challenge for communities that are looking to make a difference in their host communities. One of our values is to give most of our money away, not to put most into mortgage/utilities/salaries as we did in previous churches. I feel good about giving much more to actual causes -- to feed the hungry, help the poor, etc. -- that I ever did in a brick-and-mortar church. But there is a tension between maintaining this capacity to be generous to those in need, which is a greater need than ever right now, and maintaining even minimal ministry expenses as the recession hits home and people's bills go up and pay goes down.

David thinks missional churches can be more easily sustained than the brick-and-mortar/corporate variety in these times for three reasons, which I mostly agree with.

1) Keep building expenses minimal -- We are doing this by borrowing/renting as needed, and using homes much of the time. He suggests that reusing closed church buildings is an option, though heating and utility costs can still be significant (assuming someone gives you access to the building and doesn't want to sell it to you). One solution would be to turn such a building into a community center, social service agency or even a commercial space that can be partially used by a missional community.

2) Have multiple bi-vocational leaders -- It is good to have multiple bi-vocational pastors if you can find them. In our case we have leaders with different gifts volunteering outside their full-time jobs. This can be difficult when one of us travels or is in a crunch time, but we are working at sharing leadership better. He's right on when he says that one leader can't do this alone!

3) Build economically viable communities and lower costs by free-cycling, sharing meals, child care, etc. -- This is a challenge in suburbia, where people are spread out and used to doing their own things. But that in itself is an opportunity.

One of the unexpected blessings of this period will be that many of us will have to readjust our expectations and plan a more sustainable lifestyle. Some will learn to do with less, others will have to do with much less while they pay off significant debts. Free-cycling and sharing some items/services will happen, but I don't see major moves toward living in community, ride sharing, etc. given our individualism, work schedules, etc.

However, perhaps this downturn will help us to focus on what is really important. If we can work hard to get a house and all of a sudden be upside-down, if we can strive for a 401(k) and it can nearly vanish in a couple of months, maybe we will learn to put less stock in these fleeting treasures and focus on the kingdom of God, where God's mercy and acceptance can't be consumed by irrational exuberance, greed or bad luck. Here's where missional communities can make a contribution by holding up the possibility of another, deeper way.

Shrewd dealings?

We puzzled over the parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-8) on our community's blog this week. One analysis of the text that I looked at riffed on the master's commendation of the manager's shrewd and ethically challenged actions and wondered if the church could learn from the ways of the world.

I didn't think much of this question, until I saw this video below. It's so funny it's sad. One thing is clear...there is a lot the church should not teach the "real" world.



Yes WE did!

I was just 10 years old when America’s cities started to burn. In 1968, when downtown after downtown erupted in violence following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., my family lived just across the city line from Philadelphia. There was concern and real fear that chaos would ensue and envelop our community. The anxiety was rooted in the same issue that caused the riots, that motivated Dr. King and that created the conditions he fought against – race.

So my eyes teared up last night when Barack Obama took the stage last night as President-Elect of the United States. The emotion did not spring from naïve hope that racism is defeated. If anything, this campaign has showed that racism and xenophobia continue to plague us – perhaps quieter and less socially acceptable, but still forces to be dealt with. No, the tears came from the fact that we could, as a nation, look those forces in the face and choose not to be driven by them. That is the hope that we need.

I cannot begin to imagine the emotion that John Lewis, Jesse Jackson and other veterans of the civil rights movement must feel, going in one lifetime from being subject to Jim Crow to seeing an African-American elected by a commanding margin to the highest office in the land. As a white male who observed some of these struggles, and who wrestles with the subtle racism still embedded in parts of our culture and in myself, I am moved by how far we have come, and hopeful that this election can help us go the distance we still need to go.

I have been impressed with Barack Obama since I saw him speak at a rally in Levittown during the April primary. I was drawn then to the quiet, steady courage that he displayed during the entire campaign, even through the financial meltdown that drove investors, politicians and citizens alike into reactive spasms of panic. I saw in him then, and see even more now, that he gets the changes in the world that require consensus building instead of unilateral bullying, that call for responsible sacrifice and sustainability over opportunism, that demand that we work for the common good rather than hope goods trickle down to the commoners.

This is a kairos moment in our planet’s history. Our problems – environmental, economic, and political – can only be solved by recognizing that we are all in this together, that the sides of the aisles and the ends of the earth are inextricably bound together. Our greatness as a nation depends on our ability to release and nourish the potential of all of our citizens, not just the privileged and powerful. Barack Obama seems poised to move us in that direction.

I was impressed by his common-sense appeal to shared responsibility, that if we all sacrifice and all work hard we can make a better nation and a better world. The last 30 years have been marked by policies that have discouraged Americans from engaging in making a better world. Let us run the country and the economy, the rich and powerful have said. You keep working hard (and harder, and harder) and we’ll make sure the benefits flow down to you. After 9/11, this philosophy reached its absurd conclusion – taking on adventurous wars while asking those given the most to sacrifice less. This led not to real prosperity but to a disastrous economic meltdown that threatens most families and our national security.

I saw in April, and continued to see last night, that despite his barrier-breaking achivement, Barack Obama was not a “black” candidate and will not be an “African-American” president. He has both made promises to and challenged all Americans – rich, middle class, and poor. His hope is of an America that is fairer, more just, and a better citizen of the world – core values that have been driven underground by our fear in the last few years. With roots in both Kenya and Kansas, he is not “one of them” but “one of us.”