Nobody asked my opinion, but…

IMG_4406This weekend, the eight churches participating in the Unglued Church project in Pittsburgh Presbytery gathered with our consultants from California to check in, review our impressions of the work done thus far, and begin the process of making a decision for adaptive change.  I am serving as an adaptive change apprentice for one of the participating  churches, and as pastor for my own church who is also part of the project.

On Saturday morning, a dozen or so members of my congregation met with our consultant and our apprentice.  As pastor, my role was to listen and reflect upon the conversation.  In other words, I kept my mouth shut.

Early in the discussion, our consultant asked the question, “What is your biggest hope and your biggest fear about the Unglued work?”

After reviewing the notes I took during the conversation, I have concluded that the consensus seems to be:

Biggest hope:  We keep the building

Biggest fear:  We lose/sell the building.

I wrote down one quote that said: “We’ll do anything, try anything so we can stay in/keep this building.”  Because I was under a gag order from the consultant, I couldn’t say, “Are you will do anything, try anything, give up anything to live into the Gospel of Jesus Christ?”

I don’t think that question would have gone over well.

When I entered into ministry, I accepted the reality that I would be serving people who would likely be quite different than I — in their theology, political views, life experience, cultural background, etc.  I realized that I would need to spend more time listening than talking, and work very hard to meet people exactly where they are without judgment.  I understood that I would need to model a pastoral countenance of radical acceptance and deep compassion.  I knew that that I wouldn’t have all the answers, and I would need to stay continually engaged in prayer, theological reflection, and study of Scripture.  In my ordination, I vowed to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.  I knew that vow would be a hard one to honor some days.

What I wasn’t prepared for, however, is the reality that for many people, church has been and continues to be the place they go on Sunday morning at 11 am to feel warm and fuzzy for an hour or so, see their friends, then go home without anything having changed for them.  Occasionally, they enjoy getting together for dinners and for Bible study.  They write checks to keep the building from falling down, the religious professional (the pastor) paid, and to take care of poor people far away.  They even write checks to support missionaries taking the “Word of God” to people in other countries, but it isn’t at all clear to me that the “Word” has had much discernible impact on them.

I feel like a terrible, judgmental person even writing these words.  And I know it’s completely unfair for me, somebody who takes the Gospel so (too) seriously that I decided to devote my life to helping other people take it seriously too, to criticize laypeople who have faithfully spent most of their lives upholding the institution in the best way they knew how to do.

But I wonder…

As every religious institution in our country continues to lose members and money and influence, perhaps what we are learning is that very few of its adherents really took any of this Gospel stuff seriously to begin with.  Maybe church was just a habit practiced by a certain class of people in a certain period of time.  Maybe “going to church” was like joining any other club.  Maybe church really wasn’t much different than the Elk Club or the country club or the bowling league or any other organized institution that is declining along with the church.

I really do understand what church people are going through.  The building my members love so much represents a history that matters to them; it is the place where they were married, their babies were baptized, their kids went to vacation bible school, and their parents were eulogized.  The building is a place where they spent Sunday mornings listening to pleasant music and sermons, surrounded by people who were also mostly pleasant.  I am a child of the church and have great memories of events that took place in the church in which I grew up.

Although almost nobody would argue against the fact that “the church is the people,” the church building is still where everyone feels closer to God.

The problem, of course, is that God never was only in the building, no matter how many fond memories people have of the candlelit Christmas Eve services and adorable babies being baptized.

And, if you ask me, I think God left many of our buildings a long, long time ago.  If you ask me, I think God has gotten tired of waiting for church people to be the church instead of going to church.  I think the Holy Spirit has moved out of many of our institutional structures and out into places we’d never expect to find her. I think the institutional church has lost the holy skill of seeking first the Kingdom of God.

So if you ask me what my greatest hope and greatest fear is, I would have to say this:

My greatest hope is that the church (not just mine, but all of us) will wake up and realize that Jesus has kept moving ahead of us even as we’ve become more and more stuck in our pretty buildings and our endowments and our worship wars and our cultural battles about sexual morality and theological orthodoxy.  I hope that we will be so intrigued, excited and inspired by what Jesus is up to in the world that we’ll get over our nostalgia and allow ourselves to get involved in the work of the God we didn’t make up.  My hope is that we’ll become a lot more spiritual and a lot less religious.

My fear is that we will be having this same conversation in 20 or so years.

Today, I am remembering that statistic (which I am too lazy to look up at the moment) in which more than 50% of pastors leave ministry within the first five years.  For the record, I’ve been doing this for 3 1/2 years.

I am also thinking of the words to a favorite Gungor song…

“we cannot keep you in a church
we cannot keep you in a Bible
or it’s just another idol to box you in

they could not keep you in their box
we cannot keep you in ours either
you are so much greater

who is like the Lord
the maker of the Heavens
who dwells with the poor
and he lifts them from the ashes
and he makes them sit with princes
who is like the Lord”


Whichever Way You Turn

IMG_0003A few months ago, my dear friend Mary Louise invited me to attend the “Awakening Soul” conference held in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina near Asheville each year at Lutheridge Conference Center (

The featured presenters are John Philip Newell and Barbara Brown Taylor.  Those who know me even fairly well know that Barbara Brown Taylor is one of my favorite preachers and writers, so I was happy to accept Mary Louise’s invitation to go with her (and the fact that I get to spend four days with my very favorite preacher and friend was a bonus).

I was not very familiar with John Philip Newell prior to this gathering and I am already smitten.  He has been a leader at the Iona Community and at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, and is a poet, peacemaker, scholar, and is an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland.  His poetic language in speaking of a sacred thread that draws God’s people together really touched my weary spirit last night.

Today, he spoke of disillusionment in Western Christianity (the Christian “household”) and how Christianity may be reborn by rediscovering the sacred thread that connects all of the great wisdom religions.  I was particularly taken by his discussion of discovering Hinduism in India some thirty years ago, and his continuing reflection upon the presence of the Divine in all things, all creatures, and in all of creation.  It is deep and compelling stuff and I am looking forward to reading his book, Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation.

It’s a good year in which I am able to listen to Barbara Brown Taylor twice. At the Festival of Homiletics in May, I heard her lecture from material in her latest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. This weekend, she is drawing upon new material for an upcoming book.  The working title, it seems, is Holy Envy.  Like Newell, she is drawing upon the the idea that “Truth is One, though people call it many names,” and “one light in many manifestations,” believing that there is wisdom in all of the great world religions that enrich and enlighten one another.  She does this, acknowledging that she is most interested in seeing how these traditions function and are re-interpreted in the U.S. where religious pluralism is quickly becoming the norm, not the exception.  While continuing to drink from the deep well that is her Christian faith, Taylor invites us to become open to living fully, respectfully and with great curiosity in an expanding Christian neighborhood.

IMG_0012  The music in itself would be reason enough to spend four days in the NC mountains.  Fran McKendree is leading a band with fiddle (Duncan Wickle), bass (Charles Milling), percussion (River Guerguerian) and beautiful vocals (Lindsay Blount).  Much of the group singing is in the form of chants composed by Fran, and I have a CD to bring home to my congregation.  They are simple, lovely and meaningful.  My favorite today:

Whichever way you turn,

this is the face of God.

The organizers have taken a large conference space and transformed it into a warm and inviting worship space, and the banner artwork created by a Tennessee folk artist, Rara Schlitt has much to do with the transformation.


But perhaps my favorite part of this day was the hour we were given for a silent walk in the woods on this beautiful fall day.


Preacher Nerd Alert:  I am not ashamed to admit that I was absolutely giddy when BBT sat next to me at lunch this afternoon.  I talked with her about Rachel’s studies at Harvard Divinity, and Taylor had me very nearly convinced that Rachel is really on to something with her interest in South Asian religions.  She agreed with me that Rachel’s generation, having grown up with friends of every faith, are much comfortable in exploring the threads that connect the traditions, yet point always to the One who created the earth and everything (and every one) in it.  Rachel understands, as Taylor said in her lecture, how various religions do not compete with one another, but complete one another.

Rachel is studying Sanskrit, so I hope she’ll be delighted to know that, thanks to Newell, I learned my first word in the language today — “maya.” Which means that all things are passing and have no ultimate reality.  Maya applies even to religion because it only exists for a time and only to point to the One, which is the only reality there is.

This introvert is talked out,  but am so grateful for this time spent in silence and conversation with new friends, as well as a very dear old one.  I am looking forward to hearing more from Taylor and Newell tomorrow.

Much to process.  And more to come…



I am participating in the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from ‪#‎Unco14‬, focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The theme for November is (Un)Gratitude.

The last few months have been pretty lousy because I miss my best friend. My friend had a mastectomy in August and is now undergoing radiation treatment which has left her ragged and raw and in tremendous pain. She has kept everyone except her immediate family at a distance, communicating through email, texts and Facebook postings. I don’t blame her for shutting down. If I were in her situation, I’d probably do the same thing.  I shut down when I have the smallest of sniffles, so cancer would probably drive me into a dark cave.

I’ve done my best to respect her wishes, but the loss of my friend’s laughter and listening ear and just her sheer physical presence feels like death. Which is stupid because, of course, she’s not dead. In fact, she’s doing everything she can do to not die. I am not totally selfish, and I most certainly want her to get well even more than I miss her.

Yet I am flooded with a heavy sense of loss because I know nothing will ever be the same after this — not for us as friends, and certainly not for her. She will survive the cancer, but her life has been forever changed. She will, in the fullness of time, be ok.  But nothing about any of this has been even remotely ok.

I am not very good at putting a positive spin on pain. I do not see people who are suffering as blessed. I am hard-pressed to see anything good or valuable coming out of my friend’s cancer. I don’t see anything that remotely resembles a blessing in another friend’s major depression, or another friend’s failing marriage, or even in my 13 year old son’s continuing struggle with autism. I do not see blessings in the deaths this year of my mentor, Jannie Swart, or my friend Don Polito, both of whom were much too young to be called home to Jesus, as nice as that home must certainly be. Nothing about any of these losses feels like blessing. Every single one of them feels  like crap. It all feels like grief and sadness and “I-feel-like-punching-something” anger.

I know, I know. We are supposed to rejoice always in the Lord and be grateful for all of life, even the parts that really suck.  I know I am supposed to pretend as if a sunny Christian attitude has the power to disinfect the messiness of it all.

Yet, I confess to feeling distinctly ungrateful as we enter into this month of gratitude.

My ungratitude extends beyond my own friends and family. I am ungrateful for the never-ending wars in the Middle East, and for the kidnapped Nigerian school girls who will never, ever finish their educations and never, ever get to go home. I am ungrateful for the growing population of homeless families in the little burb in which my little church is located. I am ungrateful for the many in my congregation who are suffering loss with a capital “L.”  I am ungrateful that the little church I serve is perhaps on its last legs with few good options available to it.

You are probably capable of making your own list of things for which you are distinctly ungrateful. It has, however, occurred to me that perhaps naming all those losses for which we are distinctly ungrateful is something we all need to do before we get to genuine thanksgiving.

After the Royals lost to the Giants in the World Series, a diehard Royals fan said, “losing is good for the soul.” “Baseball” he went on to say, “is proxy for the fundamental drama of humanity, with its failing and adjusting, redeeming and overcoming.”

In other words, it is not that loss itself is good for us. What is good is recognizing that the cycle of life, with its ups and downs, celebrations and grieving, gains and losses, is what makes us fully human. A whole human life is a movement between gratitude and ungratitude, and one cannot exist without the other. By attaching ourselves to something or someone we care about, even to something as frivolous as a baseball team, we are attaching our heart to the near certainty that our heart will be broken. As a  Pittsburgh Pirates fan, I have entered into many Aprils knowing that baseball would break my heart. But, as I always say, what else are hearts for?

So it is with friendships. Relationships. A full life on this earth means, by necessity, that there will be times when we are left with very little but ungratitude. Until we have deeply loved into the possibility that loss will devastate us, there can be no blessing.

I preached on the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:1-12) last Sunday, a text in which Jesus says that people who want to be blessed are going to suffer deep losses of one kind or another. Jesus says that losing is not only good for our souls, but also a necessary step to saving them.

I hate that Jesus says that, but at the same time, it’s kind of comforting.  In fact, you can see a Kingdom perspective played out in the Beatitudes if you invert them a bit.  Like this:

We cannot receive the kingdom of heaven until we become poor in spirit. If you are rich in spirit, Jesus doesn’t have much of anything to say to you.

We cannot be comforted until we mourn our losses. If you do not allow yourself to grieve, Jesus doesn’t have much comfort to give you.

We cannot inherit the earth until we are meek. If you think you have all the answers and don’t need anyone’s help in figuring out this God stuff, you haven’t left Jesus much room to teach you.

We cannot be filled with the good things of God until we are hungry and thirsty enough to receive them. If you are stuffed with junk food theology or sugary sweet faith, you won’t be hungry for the real stuff which is the bread of life.

We cannot receive mercy until we are merciful to other people. If we are unwilling to forgive other people, we probably don’t believe that Jesus forgives us we mess up just as badly.

We will not see God until our hearts are broken wide open to receive God. A closed and protected heart is the surest way to keep Jesus at a safe distance.

We cannot be children of God until we are willing to be peacemakers in our families, our communities and our world. If we are quick to anger, we are following an angry, vindictive God and miss out on the love of Jesus.

We will not receive the kingdom until we do the right thing, even when it’s the hardest thing in the world to do. Staying safe and out of trouble is not the path that Jesus plots out for his disciples.

So I guess I should be grateful for my current state of ingratitude, as much as I hate it.  Perhaps it is the path I need to take to get to a place of genuine thankfulness instead of my typical knee jerk reaction of guilt about how good I truly do have it.

Blessed are you who on this day are in a place of ungratitude, because you are closer than you know to the very heart of God.