My Pastor Irritates the Crap Out of Me

Church is not always enjoyable.

Seriously, other than our jobs or school, it’s rare that we willingly choose to be in a place where we “have” to be with people and “have” to forge some sort of relationship with strangers.  People who we don’t necessarily like and probably wouldn’t choose to hang out with under different circumstances.  People who get on our nerves and are difficult to like.  The difference being the church’s mission is for us to long to do this, yet it’s equally rare that we reflect on just how hard it is to do so.  And too often the word “community” is reduced to little more than a buzzword.

I was struck by a comment that a Christian lady made to someone in her church.  She said something along the lines of how great it was that he was so willing to love those difficult to love.  What struck me was how she inadvertently revealed the truth that, as the church, this isn’t how we typically operate.  It’s easy for us to love people who act like us, speak like us, think like us; where people are like you and believe what you believe.  Of course that’s easy fellowship:  it’s an extension of loving ourselves!  It’s natural to only want to be someplace that’s comfortable, that instinct is what drives many of our race and class problems.  Most of what we call fellowship remains social and superficial and shouldn’t be confused with true unity.

With a great uniting element like being brothers and sisters in Christ, it should theoretically be easier.  But anyone who’s experienced a Thanksgiving dinner knows how trying connecting with family can be.  Because we don’t always like family.  Church family is no different.  What it’s like to be with people who you don’t always like.  Who get on your nerves.  Who are just SO different from you.

Within church and without, many of us settle for 4th grade relationships/love:  “I like you, you like me, we can chill together.”  We form little (religious) clubs that end up not being particularly welcoming because we wait to see how well the new people fit in before we’re willing to hang out with them.  The onus is on them to prove they’re easy to get along with and not too much relational work.  Because it’s hard to truly engage with people and we don’t like to work too hard at relationships.

This extends to how we work through problems within community.  It’s easier to leave people alone, to “let them think about what they’ve done” and let them “come to us when they’re ready” rather than pursue them.  We also want people to be fixed quickly (“what do you mean you’re still hurting?  I’ve put in two weeks.  Get over it already.”)  And I’ve seen people simply withdraw or (fake) “getting over it” because they don’t want to be a burden or a downer.

This is an immature form of relationships and what we call love.  Even “sinners” (the unchurched or whatever we want to label those outside of our little religious clubs) can love those who love them or who are easy to love.  Us united by Christ, no matter where we are, is how we like to say that’s the way church is supposed to be.

When you think about it, of course “being united in Christ” isn’t always enough.  We don’t all agree or even have the same idea of who Christ is and why He came.  And that’s assuming everyone in the community even believes in Christ as you don’t, or shouldn’t, have to believe before you belong.  People come to church for all sorts of reasons from being entertained by the pastor, loving the music, kids programs, their friends are there, or even cause there’s a free meal involved.

And a lot of our version of fellowship and discipleship seem focused on correcting behaviors and getting people to act a certain way—making it easier for us to like them—rather than learning what it means to love each other.

The church, since the church is people, is made up of people who irritate us, people we don’t get along with, people so different from each other.  We don’t want to struggle.  We don’t seek discomfort out and we do all that we can to avoid it.  This makes us perfectly human.  Loving relationships correct as well as affirm.  Loving relationships, loving accurately and well, mean we can say hard things and still stay in relationship with one another.  Loving relationships are marked by compassion, understanding, and love.

My pastor irritates the crap out of me.  He “demands” to be in real relationship with me.  He wants to speak into my life and wants me to speak into his.  He once randomly sent me a note telling me how much he loves me, like hearing what I think, and appreciates how much I add as a part of their church simply by being me.  So I avoided him for a week or so because I didn’t know what to do with that.  That wasn’t in my usual experience with pastors.  The same thing happened a week later when I went to visit my friend Rich Vincent at his church.  He had me stand in front of his congregation while he told them and me how much he loved, valued, and appreciated our friendship.  That simple act of love and appreciation about reduced me to a puddle of tears.  Neither of these guys—unlike me, of course—are easy to love.  They are full of quirks and eccentricities which can drive a person nuts.  But they’ve nailed what it means to love well.

Think about what it means to live in relationship and community with one another.  Just like there’s no “I” in “team,” there’s no more “me”, only “we”, in community.  Everything is done together and this bumps against just how much of an idol we have made of individualism in Western/American society.  For example, it impacts how we view sin because there are no “personal sins”:  our decisions impact each other.  It’s easy to not be in relationship, that is, to hide from one another, because we’re relationally lazy.  We’re all irritating, frustrating, and difficult to love and be in relationship with.  Too often we try to mask our differences under the banner of a shallow unity through (or to) theology.  Being in constant communication, speaking into each other’s lives, requires intentionality and work.

I like to think of the church ideally being sort of like an AA group (ironic considering the origins of AA).  Where we are united by a common pain or brokenness.  Where we come together in our woundedness, with that sense of “I’m among people who ‘get this’”.  People who accept one another where they are, how they are, build them up, affirm them, and encourage them to wholeness because of what Christ has done for all of us.

If you’re only in relationship with people who agree with you, you don’t know about love yet.  Not mature love.  What it means to love the difficult, those different fromm us, or our enemies.  To love well and deeply—in a way so profound it transforms lives and brings people to wholeness—not easy.  It’s not comfortable.  But when the church becomes comfortable, it becomes irrelevant.

Midwest Emergent Conference 2007: Emerging Highlights Part II

While I started out expression my concerns about the emerging church movement as I prepared to attend the Midwest Emergent Conference, I realized that I probably ought to back and and describe what the emergent church is (rather than “is not”). Scot McKnight gives a more cogent analysis of the Emergent Church movement in The Covenant Companion called “The Future or Fad: A Look at the Emerging Church Movement”. For those that have no idea what I am talking about when I refer to the “emerging church”, McKnight defines it this way:

So what exactly is the emerging movement—or the emerging church as it sometimes known—all about? It is a conversation about the future direction of the evangelical church in a postmodern world; it’s a reaction and a protest against traditional evangelical churches; and it’s a conversation focused less on theological niceties and more on “performing” the gospel in a local setting.

“Emerging movement” is an umbrella term that refers to a group of churches, pastors, writers, and bloggers who are exploring the missional significance of culture, philosophy, and theology in a postmodern context. Within the EM is the Emergent Village organization, largely an American group identified with Brian McLaren, Ivy Beckwith, Tim Keel, Chris Seay, Doug Pagitt, Dan Kimball, and Karen Ward, along with Andrew Jones (a.k.a., the “Tall Skinny Kiwi”) who lives in the United Kingdom. Other emerging voices of sorts would be Rob Bell, author of Velvet Elvis, and John Burke, author of No Perfect People Allowed.

The emerging church is a threat to some folks. We have seen the accumulated of property, money, endowments, institutions, and entrepreneurs (cults of personality) as a part of church institutional growth and empire building. For the power and influence to continue, there is the need to self-perpetuate, including the need to build more seminaries and ministries. Sadly, some groups are organized in such a way as to target an enemy because they need an enemy/controversy to justify their existence. They need to flex to demonstrate their relevance. And rally the troops.

As long as bills are being paid and numbers remain up, the church won’t ask missional questions, like “how can we live out being a blessing to the world?” However, in some circles, the numbers have already started to dip and we’ve already lost a generation of folks. Facing a loss of empire, some of us have gripped harder in our efforts to maintain control. Those who can speak to that generation scares us (especially if we aren’t doing it the way we are used to). We need to be challenged but we don’t always react well when those of us with “power” are questioned.

Sorry if my use of “we” for everyone confuses anyone. I am trying to use “we” because we, all of us, are still the church. Church is like family: you have folks you claim and folks you have to claim, but you’re all still family. You just try to make the best of it and be the best family you can (sometimes you have to get your people some help). That’s the thing that, as I hear things, I don’t hear enough of: I hear plenty of the “we hate church/what the church has become” and not enough “we are the church”.

It’s easy to have criticisms in a vacuum, randomly raging to any who will listen; a lot more difficult (though more useful if you’re interested in genuine conversation) when you go to the folks you have issues with. Which brings me to the Midwest Emergent Conference (as usual, this is a long way to get to my point – Rich Vincent, my roommate for the conference, summarized things succinctly). My two major highlights centered around food:

1) Friday lunch with Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, Annie Gill-Bloyer, John Armstrong, me, and Rich.
2) Saturday lunch with Alise Barrymore and James King.

Sitting down with Tony Jones and getting to pick his brain really eased a lot of my concerns (though it’s always funny to watch the gap between what the “pioneers” of a movement think and how their teachings get acted out – wait, never mind, I think I just summed up all of church history) .

I had been frustrated by the emergent conversation in that I have seen a lot of talk, but not enough doing, especially in terms of racial inclusion. I get what Spencer Burke was saying when even asking the questions and having the conversation is important, but I was feeling Andre Daley when he was exclaiming why he was post-Emergent. So my second highlight/lunch came as an answer to prayer. Tony and I had a long conversation about black folks in the conversation and the next day I am introduced to Alise Barrymore and James King of The Emmaus Community. That conversation will be reverberating with me over the next few months as I continue to digest and learn from it.

Actually, that conversation pretty much sums up why I enjoyed this conference so much. It really was a chance to learn as well as have good conversations. I tend to judge conventions based on the contacts I made, and let me say that there will be a lot of work for me to do spring-boarding from this conference.

I’m still questioning and searching. We are to be culturally aware, sensitive, contextualized. None of us invent the faith; we either assent to it or we pass on it. Church still has to be about teaching, about spiritual formation, about taking communion and manifesting the kingdom – when it isn’t, it (has) failed. Just like I know that my thoughts on God aren’t absolute, but there are absolutes. We can’t know comprehensively, but we can know truly. We need to get comfortable with the idea that we’re only going to get glimpses of how things are supposed to be. And we need to keep working toward what we know we’re supposed to be.

If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

Midwest Emergent Conference 2007: Emerging Criticisms Part I

A friend of mine once said that “I don’t know why Emergents just don’t call themselves American Orthodox and be done with it.” I guess one reason is that such a naming would reduce them to yet another “brand name”/denomination rather than being provocateurs of conversation. I tend to go into situations with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. It’s how I roll. The Midwest Emergent Conference was no different: I had some questions, some criticisms, and some conversations needing to be had all rolling around in my head ever since the last emergent convention I attended. Not the least of which was the topic of black folks in the conversation.

I’ve had some concerns about the emergent movement and you can probably pick up the tenor of my own prejudices (tinged with cynicism) in how I ask the questions. Too often I encounter an attitude of pride of acting like we’ve discovered something new and cool, like we’re the ones who have gotten things right (an attitude I know that I have been perfectly guilty of and thus my frequent prayer). As John Armstrong says, “no, we’re simply ahistorical”. We forget that the church has been around for a couple thousand years and a lot of the questions we’re asking now have been asked from the beginning. It’s not the asking of the questions that is bad, it’s the attitude of having (KNOWING) the answers that concerns me.

The Emergent discussion continues the same Protestant trajectory of “the church is screwed up and/or heading in the wrong direction” which seems to only promulgates the sectarianism that already runs so rampant among us. That “we’re better than you” that mentality of if you don’t agree with me, I can’t walk with you” attitude that usually leads to more division.

I don’t want to get caught up in faddism or of being “cool” (whatever that means when it comes to religion, church, and God). I saw that as ridiculous in high school and I don’t want to start buying into it now.

I hear promises to re-imagine church which sounds more like recontextualizing the church/Gospel in a postmodern paradigm. Yet while we have no problem criticizing the modern paradigm it seems like there is a near wholesale acceptance of the postmodern one (postmodernism may only be the tail end of modernity, the problem of naming our epochs while still entering them). Which would mean that we’re still culturally captive.

I sometimes wonder about how we approach issues of social justice. I’m pro-social justice issues, but leery of jumping into bed with politics. I’d hate to see the church reduced to being the chaplain for liberals (learning nothing from too many of us positioning the church as the chaplain for conservatives).

I wonder when the gender inclusivity of language issues will pop up in earnest. What will it do to the Father/Son language?

With our reaction to church as we’ve experienced it, from fundamentalism to the business model, we know that control and efficiency is not a model for family nor how to do church. However, we can’t just have picnics with strangers and call it church.

If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

Spooning with Rich

Rich Vincent has been one of my spiritual mentors for as long as I’ve known him and he’s now the Senior Pastor of Immanuel Church in West Bend, Wisconsin. As it was halfway between each of us, we decided to go to the Midwest Emergent Conference partly as an excuse to hang out with each other. Now, I’ve known the man for 11 plus years now, so I don’t know why I act surprised every time I hang out with him. A summary of my time with Rich:

Two weeks ago:
M: Hey Rich, since the conference starts so early on Friday, why don’t we go ahead and get the hotel room for Thursday night also? That way we don’t have to deal with Chicago rush hour traffic.
R: Nah, we’ll just leave early on Friday. It’s all good.

Thursday night. 10:00 pm
R: Dude, I’m getting a room so that we don’t have to deal with Chicago traffic. Why don’t you come up early?

Friday morning. 2:30 am
M: I thought we had double beds?
R: Had to trade it for a single king. We can smoke cigars in here.
M: We?
R: You get second hand enjoyment.

M: Dude!
R: Sorry about that. I had chili cheese fries for lunch.

Friday Morning. 7:15 am
M: Dude!
R: It’s a gift.

R: 7:30 had bowel movement.
M: What are you doing?
R: It’s important to keep detailed notes of your life.

At the Conference.
R: Let’s pretend we’re homosexual lovers and see just how open this group is.
M: Get your arm from around me. You so wouldn’t be my type.

Saturday Morning. 8:00 am
R: Dude!
M: Brothas for Dutch Ovens, baby!

At the Conference
R: I’m down, homie.
M: What have I told you about doing that in public?

In other words, it was another successful hang out time with Rich. Oddly enough, he recalls this past weekend slightly differently than I do.

If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.