Update # 2 - The Social Media Fast and the New Zealand Mosque Attack

I’m no a full two and a half weeks into my fast from Social Media. A few random thoughts:

  1. The fact that Facebook, You Tube etc were used as vehicles of communication around the Terror attack at a Mosque in New Zealand is indicative of how far we have come from the early days of social media. What was originally a platform for sharing of news about ones friends, has now moved to a forum for the spread of hate speech (I signed up for Facebook in 2007 to view photos and updates of my son’s year abroad in Argentina). This most recent and tragic event, is yet another example of how antisocial Media tools are being weaponized to spread vicious lies and horrific hate speech.*

  2. I genuinely wonder about it’s overall value in my life.

  3. For the most part I’m not missing Facebook, Twitter, etc. Though I admit the photo based Social media platform Instagram is the one forum I am most tempted to engage.

  4. Because I’ve removed all the apps from my phone, my screen time usage is down 50%.

  5. The extra time I now have means I’m engaging in more reading and more writing.

While I’m still planning to return to some modified and lightened use of Social Media when this fast is concluded on Easter Sunday, I currently am harboring even deeper suspicions of what positive use it may have in my work and personal life.

*To be clear, I have not watched any of the online videos but read about this in the Boston Globe.

Tribe by Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger, New England native and bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, has penned a fascinating quick read in Tribe. The book explores the way in which modern US American society is structured in an inhospitable manner. He uses both Native American Indian encounters with white europeans in the 1700’s as well as returning veterans from recent wars to drive home his point. This book weaves in some new perspectives that most people who read this blog would not normally encounter. That alone makes it worth the read. Want to understand why men are not in our congregations? Want to get a glimpse into evolutionary forces that help explain genuine community? Want to understand how the legalism on both the left and the right are tearing a part culture, society and democracy? This book will force you to reexamine some of your foundational beliefs. But, I’d only read it if you want that challenge as it’s not for those who wish to continue in a kind of reaffirmation echo chamber.

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Trustworthy Servants of the People of God

Dear Pastors, Deacons and Members of Congregations of the New England Synod,

Last week I attended the Conference of Bishops in Chicago. The Conference meets twice per year to hear reports, to network and to discuss matters relevant to the life of the church.  Among the many issues we reviewed, (including a full day retreat focusing on congregational vitality), were two documents that I wish to bring to your attention.

The first is a Pastoral Messagein which the Conference of Bishops acknowledges the hurt and pain caused by the uneven and inequitable ways in which the document “Vision and Expectations” have been applied to the LGBTQIA+ community and others.  In my view, this message is our attempt to articulate our regret and grief over the ways in which V&E was used.  That Pastoral Message can be found at this link.

The second is a document entitled "Trustworthy Servants of the People of God."  We spent considerable time reviewing this document, which, if adopted by the ELCA Church Council, would replace “Vision & Expectations”.  As Bishops, we affirm "Trustworthy Servants"as a timely replacement and a faithful expression of our calling to serve as Rostered Ministers in this church.  That document can be found here.

You will note that this document is in a draft form as it goes from the Conference of Bishops to the ELCA Church Council. Let me be clear in explaining that while the Conference has initiated this replacement document, it is only the Church Council, as the legislative body, who has the authority to adopt this document.  In the period between now and March 18, synodical bishops will collect feedback regarding the substance of this draft.  As we gather feedback, should we see cause for a major revision, we will advise the ELCA Church Council.  I invite you to offer your feedback to me at Bishop@nesynod.org

As I have begun conversations with some of you regarding these documents, I want you to know that I am seeking ways for us to have a meaningful and helpful dialogue about these documents.  More broadly, I think a substantive conversation about some of the topics "Trustworthy Servants" addresses is worthy of our attention.  For instance:

-      Line 2- "Every church has hopes and expectations for its leaders." In an era, where leaders in business, government, sports, and other organizations are routinely revealed to be sorely lacking in their conduct, what does it mean for a church to have hopes and expectations for its leaders?

-      Line 19- What does it mean to be a blessing as a leader "advocating against all the ways that racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of prejudice and injustice limit participation and harm individuals, communities and the whole body of Christ."?

-      Line 24- through 63 are the tasks of Ministers in this church.  As you review them.... What strikes you?  What needs re-reminding? How do the people you serve respond to these tasks which are a part of our calling?

-      The document encourages faithfulness and trustworthiness in a number of areas: Health & Self Care (158), Relationships & Friendships (183), Family Life (196), Finances & Intellectual Property (205), Communications (222) Human Sexuality & Gender (231), Sexual Conduct & Speech (238), Marriage (273), Creation (290).  As you read all of these sections...... What challenges you?  What resonates? What confounds you?

As we engage this draft document, I ask us to be the thoughtful and prayerful leaders I know us to be.  As we talk with one another, I encourage us to engage using vehicles of communication that bring out the best in us.  I also believe there is wisdom to be gained from conversations that include the breadth of our synod.  People in the pews should be engaged as well as pastors and deacons.  

This may be time for a broad discussion on leadership in general.  As I have always maintained, congregations and ministries serve the Kingdom of God when pastor/deacon and people are bothengaged and exercising leadership.  I commend this document as an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue.

 

Sincerely in Christ,

 

Bishop James Hazelwood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Update # 1 on My Lenten Social Media Fast

Last week, on Facebook and Twitter I announced that I would begin my Lenten Fast early. The initial plan was for me to make this a Lenten discipline, but I couldn’t wait, so I started a week early. The primary impetus has been my reading of Cal Newport’s fine book Digital Minimalism. What Newport describes in the early chapters was so sobering, that it literally scared me away from not only Facebook and Twitter, but also much of my habitual phone use. Since last week, or was it two weeks ago, I’ve not only been off Social Media, but I’ve removed those and many other apps from my phone. I realized it wasn’t just my obsessive use of Twitter, it was my checking various News apps, the stock market, sports scores & news. The final blow came when my Apple phone screen use app reported that I was on my phone an average of 3 hours per day.

Is my life any better because of those 3 hours of news, sports, and Facebook? NO!

What’s different now? The most notable change is a sense of relief. I attribute this to my lack of an online presence of Facebook. I realized that what was once an enjoyable tool for engaging in conversation with friends, had devolved to a cauldron of opinions, and sharing of blog posts that were designed to amp up ones response. Yes, there were mixed in photos of children and an occasional original writing that had some thoughtfulness, but those were much less common. For me, the simple knowledge that I don’t HAVE TO engage is a relief.

The second change is more challenging. My phone use is down, but it still lingers in my mind. I use my phone for texting and for calls, but I also still find myself obsessively picking it up when I have no real reason to do so. I’m trying to navigate this, as well as ask myself, what’s going on inside my brain that seeks some kind of chemical reward, stimulation, etc that I get from my phone.

Cal Newport’s book is beyond excellent. It will be one of my top books of 2019, and his suggestions regarding alternative activities such as solitude, walking, writing are in the tradition of Thoreau and others. Now that I’m regaining upwards of 3 hours per day, I’ll have more time to engage those activities. I’ll be back here with more updates through the season of Lent.

Self-Doubt

From Steven Pressfield excellent little book The War of Art.

Self-doubt can be an ally.  This is because it serves as an indicator of aspiration.  It reflects love, love of something we dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it.  If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), "Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?  Am I really a _________?" chances are you are.

The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident.  The real one is scared to death.

Preparing for my Lenten Fast...Join me?


Lent starts in a few weeks…..What to do for Lent this year? I'm considering a fast - Not of food, but Facebook, and Twitter and Instagram. That's my unholy trinity. Why? Candidly, I think it's eating away at my brain and my soul. Yes, in the same way, an addict needs just a little bit more. I now find myself strangely fixated and frustrated at the same time.

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the one hand, I want to go and see what you are all doing, how my grandkids are growing up and what interesting, trivial or significant ministries are happening in and around our synod. On the other hand, there's a lot of …well, nothing. Political drama and virtue casting, bad photos of indoor painting projects and whiny complaints about clothes not fitting or airport security personnel misbehaving. Plus, do you care that I was at St. John's by the Gas Station last Sunday, and that my sermon, bombed. (It did, but it wasn't at St. John's, it was at St. Bartholomew's by the Donut shop)

Mostly, I'm wondering about what's happening to me. I find myself chasing the bird, the squirrel and bell that Pavlov is ringing. My attention span is decreasing. My ability to focus on reading something of substance or listening to a friend is in decline. Cal Newport authored a book called Deep Work. Yup, you don't even need to read the book. You know just from the title that it's about the real need in our current cultural context for us to focus. He argues that what we need now more than ever is the capacity to pay attention and dive deep into our work. That work could be child rearing, parent attending, or report writing. It could also be plumbing, surgery, and cooking…all three of these tasks need focus to be done well. After all, no one wants a distracted surgeon operating on your (fill in the blank). Newport's new book Digital Minimalism is just out, but I don't have time to read it, cause I'm spending time coining a catchy twitter post.

So, I'm preparing for a Forty Day Fast. Ash Wednesday to Easter 2019 I'll be living without the Social Media world that defines our age. I may miss the chatter about some upheaval in a church institution, or controversy of a politician. You'll miss out on my quirky humor, photos of grandsons, and my political outrage. I'm confident you'll survive. What will I learn? What will I miss? Hmmm, I'll let you know on the other side.

P.S. To be clear. Yes, I'll still use the internet. Yes, I'll continue to correspond via email and text. It's just Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Starting March 6, Ash Wednesday through Easter April 21.

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Everyday Spirituality

I'm writing a book on Everyday Spirituality, and I'm looking for examples of God showing up in people's lives, in the ordinary, commonplace parts of our lives.  Interested?

Where and when have you seen God?

- at the grocery store
- on a vacation
- while spending money
- around the cafeteria
- over coffee
- in the hospital
- on the soccer field

If you've got a story, (even a weird one) I'm interested in hearing about it.  It just might end up in a book, and it might help other people realize that God shows up in unexpected ways and in unexpected people and places. We can do this anonymously if you prefer. 

Let me know.  Just send an email with your story.  It doesn't need to be perfectly written, cause this is just a first draft. 

Send me an email at bishop @ nesynod.org or use the contact form on this website

On Tyranny

Two years ago, nearly to the date of this writing, Timothy Snyder released this little book.

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I write ‘little’ as a reference to its size, a four inch by five inch paperback. It’s cute, fits in your jeans back pocket. But, don’t let its size deceive you. This little book is, or should be, the BIGGEST book of our time. In 20 short tightly written chapters, Snyder reminds us of the essentials of democracy. He outlines the wisdom of the founding fathers of these United States of America, by pointing to its fragility.

Hamilton (have you seen the musical?) Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin understood our human proclivity to acquire power. They designed a government that included competing institutions that would balance each other in order to protect the larger vision of governing. That wisdom is on full display today as we see the various branches of government and society holding each other accountable.

On Tyranny demonstrates what can happen if one person or a small group of persons are left to an unchecked access to power. The titles almost tell the story themselves: Do not obey in advance, Be kind to our language, Investigate, Contribute to good causes, Listen for dangerous words, Be a Patriot. On this last one, I think he is speaking not of Super Bowls.

I had read this book when it was first released. Today, it dropped into my hands again. I’m reminded of our responsibility as citizens. Pick it up, read it. Carry it around with you. Give it to friends, and those who you disagree.

Then, act…or as the title of chapter twenty “Be as Courageous as You can.”

The Wall has Already been Built

So the people shouted, and priests blew the trumpets; and when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted with a great shout and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city (of Jericho).   [Joshua 6:20]

But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh, he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.       [Ephesians 2:13‐15] 

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St. Paul provides a different perspective on walls than the one we have been hearing about in the last few weeks. Or shall I say years?  St. Paul is articulating one of the visions of the faith of Jesus – namely the tearing down of what divides us.

We are in a time of great division.  We now define ourselves by what we are against, and sadly, we are more eager to find that it is our neighbor, our fellow pew sitter, our co-worker whom we oppose.  In many ways, the wall has already been built.  

However, like Jericho, the walls can come down…at least for New England Lutherans

First, let’s reclaim and recall our identity as immigrants.  In recent years, I have celebrated church anniversaries throughout our New England Synod. Several of them were 125th anniversaries.  Why so many, 125 year events?  In the 1880s & '90s, there was significant immigration from the  Southern region of Sweden, due in large part to a multi-year drought. Farmers, lumberjacks and merchants left there and came to the United States where they established churches, schools, colleges, and hospitals.  These anniversaries are but one of hundreds of reminders that we are an immigrant church.

Second, let's fully embrace our companion relationships with our two Global churches.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan & the Holy Land, as well as the Lutheran Church in Honduras. They are our partners in ministry. We have people in these churches who need our prayers, our support, and our advocacy.  Each of them struggles in different ways and in circumstances that would make many of us shocked, outraged and disgusted.   

In February, I along with a dozen people from our synod will travel to Honduras for a week-long mission trip.  We are going there to do light construction on a Lutheran church, provide resources so children can attend school and be with them as the hands & feet of Jesus engaged in ministry together. We are also going to visit this country because it is at the epicenter of an ongoing debate about immigration in our own country.

The United States is currently in the middle of a partial government shutdown that has impacted hundreds of thousands of federal workers, and is potentially having a negative impact on the US economy.  The primary reason given for this shutdown is over the President of the United States desire for funding for a border wall.  In addition, for several years we have heard this President make numerous statements disparaging our fellow human beings, fellow people of the faith and all of them children of God.

This leads me to our third way forward in bringing down the wall that divides us and pits us against one another.  We need to reclaim a Christian ethic of civil discourse. We also need to recover that simple, but increasingly challenging call to be decent and kind people.   

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”.   Martin Luther King Jr.

This does not mean that we are to lack clarity of purpose or strength of our convictions.  I believe one can be kind and decent, yet still forceful. 

When the chaos of this time recedes, and I believe it will, there will be a need for people to rebuild our connections to one another, to civic life & democracy as well as to the healing of the injustices that this wall is causing in our souls, in our country and around the world..

New England Lutherans are here because immigrants came here.  We continue to be here in our ecumenical, inter-faith and global companionships. We find our strength in Jesus, who demonstrated convictions and actions that tore down the walls of hostility between us.

These are days of division – that cannot be denied. However, these are also days where together with Christ we can rebuild, not walls of division but bridges of understanding, kindness, and justice for all. 

Sincerely in Christ,

 

Bishop James Hazelwood

 

 

 

The Wall between Us

I commend to you this letter by my friend and colleague Bishop Abraham Allende. He has been a consistent voice on matters of immigration.

Click here

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.

Ephesians 2:13‐15

Where is Christianity headed?

The article "Where is Christianity Headed?" has been making the rounds on the internet.  It is by W. Granberg-Michelson whose book Future Faith was released last fall.   I've been recommending this article to our congregation councils.  

For me the most significant sentence is here following a section describing the influences of non-western Christianity:

These new influences are raising new questions about the relationship of the individual to the community, rational versus nonrational pathways to perceiving truth and the interplay of the spiritual and material realms.

I think this touches on something that goes to the heart of our ELCA decline.  As I entered this office of Bishop, I became aware that the culture of the ELCA is centered around carefully worded rationales for the way we operate.  We are a church whose essence is defined by words, and often linear rational approaches to ALL aspects of our life, faith, and governance.  

Hear me out:  I am NOT opposed to logic or rational thinking.  I sometimes engage in it myself. 😊  I do think that we have more to learn from our non-western non-white brothers and sisters than we realize.  I'd be very interested in having some "developing world" theologians engage us in this topic.  For me, the crux of the matter falls around our western dualistic thinking where we divide “sacred and secular”, as one example.  

As Lutherans, I think the origin of the divide for us is between Luther and Melanchthon.  How's that for bringing up a sensitive topic?.  Luther had a love relationship with the divine.  Melanchthon got the theology but didn't seem to have the same spirituality.  Then again, Luther was rooted in the Old Testament, he had a Hebrew approach to faith, as opposed to the Greek dualism that dominated theological thinking.

Today, we wonder why our people seek out their spirituality outside of the church.  Is it possible they are connecting to something we are missing?  Our recent visit to the outdoor church in Texas as part of the 2019 Bishop’s Academy struck me when the Pastor said, "We talk with our neighbors who are not enthusiastic about the church.  They say ‘we worship when we are in nature’. Her response was, ‘well we do too, come check us out’ - outside."  There is something more profound in that than simply a church that decided not to build a building.

I'm working my way through Larry Rassmussen's book Earth Honoring Faith.  What a treasure trove of integration of science, theology and the arts.  Larry is touching on something that is similar to the quote from Granberg's article above.  He sees a theology that is integrated with all aspects of life, and some of it mystical and non-rational.

How can we lift this up?  How can we get our clergy to preach and teach around this?  How can we shift our ELCA culture toward where the broader culture is going, while connecting it to the best of Luther?

Perhaps our struggle is not in our ecclesiology, perhaps it is in the DNA of how we live, move and have our being in the Spirit.

Just a thought or two



What does the Bible say about "The Wall"?

What to do when you are watching the Patriot runaway with a playoff game? Answer: Do a word search on the word “wall” in the Bible. I selected some to share with you. Yes, this is called proof texting also known as picking those verses that say what you want them to say. But, hey, others have done this for centuries to justify their positions, so why not. Is this high level critical scholarship? Hmmmm. But, it did keep me occupied during an NFL football game.

“‘Of the animals that move along the ground, these are unclean for you: the weasel, the rat, any kind of great lizard, 30 the gecko, the monitor lizard, the wall lizard, the skink and the chameleon. Leviticus 11:29&30 NIV

“Suddenly, Saul tried to skewer David with his spear, but David ducked. The spear stuck in the wall and David got away.”   I Samuel 19:9. The Message

 

“then Meshullam son of Berekiah rebuilt the wall in front, of his storage shed.”  Nehemiah 3:27 The Message

 

 “We’re nothing but a joke to our neighbors, graffiti scrawled on the city walls.” Psalm 79-4 The Message


“Anyone who loves to quarrel loves sin; anyone who trusts in high walls invites disaster.” Proverbs 17:19. NLT

“Why bother even trying to do anything with you when you just keep to your bullheaded ways? You keep beating your heads against brick walls.” Isaiah 1:5 The Message

“You trusted in thick walls and big money, yes? But it won’t help you now.” Jeremiah 48:7. The Message

 

“So I will tear down the wall which you plastered over with whitewash and bring it down to the ground, so that its foundation is laid bare; and when it falls, you will be consumed in its midst. And you will know that I am the Lord.15 Thus I will spend My wrath on the wall and on those who have plastered it over with whitewash; and I will say to you, ‘The wall is gone and its plasterers are gone,”    Ezekial 13:14-15 NASB

“God sent the hand that wrote on the wall,and this is what is written: mene, teqel, and peres. This is what the words mean: “Mene: God has numbered the days of your rule and they don’t add up.   Daniel 5:24-26 The Message

“For he (Christ) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”  Ephesians 2:14 NRSV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Complaints about the Pastor

As a Bishop, one of the concerns I hear about from people in congregations falls into the category of complaints about their pastor.  Oh, I hear complaints about me as well, my decisions, my dress code, my height, my theology, my progressiveness, my conservatism.  But, this colum is about complaints about the minister.  

Whenever, I hear about someone complaining about their pastor, I tend to listen to the way they phrase the complaints, as opposed to the content.  For instance, if I get an email, phone call or letter and the language is all about how horrible the pastor is, with no reference to other factors, I wonder if the author has really taken the time to be a thoughtful and helpful participant in resolving differences.  In other words, if it's all ‘you’ language, I tend to be suspicious.  On the other hand, if the complaint is rooted in some "I" language, I tend to pay attention.  As an example, "You know, it's been a stressful time for our community, and I believe our pastor really cares about us, it's just that I notice s/he tends to...."   That's a very different form of communication, than "you know Bishop, this pastor has never done anything right in his/her ministry...ever."  My response is typically along the lines of "really, never done anything right?  Ever?"

All this reminds me of a chart from Ed Friedman's classic book on congregational life Generation to Generation.  The chart is below, and I've left it large so you can print it out.  Ed's main point is that all of the complaints that have ever been lodged against the clergy can be found on this chart.    Rarely is the complaint have anything to do with the content. 99.9999999 times out of 100, it's about unresolved conflicts in either a) the family of the complainer  b) the family of the congregation as a whole.

How many times have I been attacked for something I never said in a sermon?  Let me count the ways.

Finally, this all should take us back to Jesus and his admonition to first approach the person you have the disagreement, then if unsuccessful in addressing the matter bring someone with you for the second meeting, then a third meeting in front of the leaders of the community. Most of the time, we go talk to everyone else first, and never sit down with the person we have the disagreement. If we did that, we’d solve virtually all the differences. Oh, and then there is that great admonition by St James the Lessor, “Don’t deal with conflictual matters by email.”

Now having said that, it's equally important for the parish pastor to recognize that a third and important factor plays into this as well, and that is c) our own unresolved matters from our family of origin.  That's a topic for another post.  

For now, spend some time studying this chart, and then listen to the complaints people say.  I bet it fits on the chart.


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Yes, it's 2019 Prediction Time

The odds are good you are not interested in this article, nor are you interested in my Best of 2018 list. But here you are wondering, curious and sitting on your couch trolling the internet. Maybe you have even found this page via a Google search or Exposing the ELCA hacks sent you here in search of some heresy. Good news. I’m about to give you some heresy mixed in with some worthwhile thoughts. The challenge is to discern which is which.

Prediction # 1. The coming year will seem like more of a roller coaster ride than any other year. We are in for a wild ride. That’s true for geo-political economics as well as restaurants that will open and close. My advice is to find your center, and hold on to that above all else. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Prediction # 2. No matter what you think about New England sports teams, odds are we’ll be in the run for championships. This means January, May, June and October are going to have energy. Sorry, rest of America, we are just in one of the phases. Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots. It’s been a great run since 2000…it’ll continue.

Prediction # 3. In the life of church world, I’m maintaining that even in the midst of all this change, the basics are still what matter:

Churches that do the following will find life and energy:

  • Focus 70% of their energy on serving their neighborhood.

  • Hold worship services that are inspiring & meaningful to newcomers

  • Engage in helping people grow a healthy mature spirituality

  • Care for the poor, widowed and orphaned

I could add a million other items, but I think if you do these four well, the rest will follow. The challenge is doing these four consistently over a long period of time. Yes, this is hard work because there are forces that want you to have cat fights about money, the placement of napkins at coffee hour and Facebook arguments. If you can keep your head and heart about you, and focus on keeping the main things the main things…I believe the Holy Spirit will be reborn in your congregation. If not, then….

Prediction # 4. More churches will close.

Prediction # 5. I’ll finally finish that book I’ve been working on and it will be published. Working title: How Heresy is What the Church needs Now or Rocky & Bullwinkel discover Boris & Natasha infiltrated the Altar Guild.

I tried Stand-Up Comedy...here's what I learned.

The promise was clear. “The only person who ever regretted taking this class was the guy who didn’t invite anyone to the final performance.” Those were the words of the person on the other end of the phone when I called to inquire about Poppy Champlin’s Comedy class.  I had seen the flyers around town for years. While I’ve incorporated humor in my public speaking, preaching and presentations, I’d never done anything close to Stand-Up comedy.  I’ve been intrigued and frightened by it for decades.  

My first attempt to be a part of this class ended in failure.  I showed up in September, only to find the course was cancelled since I was the only participant.  But two months later the minimum registrants of four had gathered to begin our journey into comedy.  Throughout the next six weeks, we would engage in a crash course in the world of Stand-up Comedy.  The final exam would be a live performance on a Saturday evening in December.  Each of us would prepare and perform an 8-10 minute set.  We were encouraged to invite friends and family. Thank you to all of you who showed up, I was grateful for the support. How’d I do? Below or here you can watch my performance, and judge for yourselves. 

What I learned over these six weeks.

Comedy is hard.  Many people think they are funny.  That may or may not be the case, but standing up in front of a live audience with a microphone, keeping their attention and sustaining laughter is not easy.  First off, this is public speaking on steroids.  If the fear of public speaking is the highest angst producing activity for US Americans, then add the expectation of generating consistent laughs. No wonder, I and my classmates were nervous back stage.  In Jerry Seinfeld’s recent Netflix special, Jerry before Seinfeld,there is a brief scene in which he teases the audience.  I’m paraphrasing, but the essence is this: “I know you’re thinking, I could do this, but I just decided to do something else with my life…like sell life insurance.”  

This was, in many ways one of the hardest things I’ve done in a very very long time.  Imagine bringing material, yes, your own precious ideas to class each week, and having them summarily dismissed.  “Nope, that’s not funny.”  “Too long, get to the point.”   As I was describing the process to my analyst, he encouraged me to, “Think of it as having some narcissism burned off.” Sheesh, now I’m getting it on two fronts.  I’m paying people for this kind of help?  And yet, our instructor Poppy Champlin, an experienced comic with credentials that included appearances with Rosie O’Donnell, Second City in Chicago, and Bill Maher, was a master of encouragement.  Her contagious and boisterous laugh communicated when you were on the right track. She challenged us and lifted us up along the way.

The combination of sharp criticism and celebratory praise was just right for me.  The honesty was so refreshing over other seminars and classes I've had where sugary politeness drowns out the opportunity for real learning.  “Comedy is different than other forms of communication,” Polly said.  “Each word, each phrase has to have a purpose.” I think her favorite mantra was “cut, cut, cut.” Her edits, her suggestions were mostly right on target. If you disagreed with her, you could push back. The engagement was lively…and tremendously helpful.

The best comedy is all scripted.  When you go to a comedy show or watch Comedy Central, it often looks as if these people are just naturally funny.  All they do is get up on stage and start talking, random funny things must come to mind, and they just say them.  WRONG!  It's all scripted.  Every single sentence is structured and tested and retested. Then it’s memorized, familiarized and incorporated into one’s very being.  Those seemingly spontaneous moments are plotted out.  Even those interactions with the crowd.  For me this involved an editing process that had 12 versions of my script. Over time it was reduced down to a core 8 minute or six-page document. I spent every spare moment I had learning that script.  This included various techniques of reading it out loud, recording it, then listening to it over and over and over again.  Practicing both in my living room as well as in my head on walks or while driving.  If it looks spontaneous, and you don’t notice the preparation, that means someone spent tons of time preparing that performance.

Would I do this again? Absolutely.  However, at the three-week mark, my answer would have been “no way.”  I had this sense I was just failing miserably. But, like most things in life, the rewards come out of the struggle.

What's next? Will you do more comedy?  Right now, I'm just enjoying this moment.  We will see.  I'm very intrigued by the area of humor and faith, because I think this is an untapped resource for us in the church. Humor can be effective in preaching, leadership and culture forming in our congregations.  Comedy is rooted in honesty, which has a closer sister in confession and absolution. I also believe that the best comedy comes from our personal lives. I think of Molly Phinney Basket’s book Standing Naked before God. Plus there is the Humor of Jesus, an older book by Earl Palmer.   And one of my favorite classics and now out of print, Jurgen Moultmann’s Theology of Play. So, I'm very interested in exploring the connection between personal storytelling, comedy, and faith.  We'll see where it all goes. 

Hey, you never know, I may end up seeing you at a club…or in a cathedral.

There will always be Church

We have been reading lots of stories over the past 5 or so years about the end of the church. This post is a counter argument.

While it’s true that the nature or form of the church is changing, and I’ve written about that elsewhere. Click here for my paper from earlier this year on that subject. What I want to highlight here is that the tools that church world lives and breathes are needed now more than ever, and I believe will be needed in the future.

Obviously, there is a theological/spiritual/biblical understanding that the church is eternal just as Christ is eternal. But, some have wondered if the current form of congregation centered church has a future. What about social media? What about Artificial Intelligence? What about automation? Yes, these are impacting the work world, but let’s remember that ministry is really centered around somethings that can’t be automated.

Church world is built on relationships, with one another and the Divine.

Technology will continue to change the way we do things over the coming decades in ways we probably can’t even imagine. But church life and ministry will always require:

  • trust

  • people skills

  • the correct temperament

  • the ability to tell your and God’s story

  • the ability to make the case for the value of your ministry

  • communication skills

As I travel around New England, and elsewhere, what I’m seeing is those ministries that hit most of those points have vitality, energy, meaning and purpose. Some of them have lousy websites, never do Social Media but they have a vibrant relationally. They have a connectedness with both God and the neighborhood.

My point is simple, but increasingly we are distracted from this work: Go out and connect with people, build trust, engage in conversation, practice relational prayer. That’s the work that matters, and that’s why there will always be church.

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An RIC Synod

In 2001, the New England Synod became a Reconciled in Christ Synod. It was an intentional decision, not without dissent, to be a leader in the acceptance, welcome and full embrace of LGBT persons. Since then this synod has welcomed many of the finest leaders who identify as LGBTQ - both lay and clergy. I am continual impressed with all of our leaders, and candidly, could not imagine this synod without the many fine pastors, deacons, choir members, property team, Tuesday quilters, lay leaders, hunger outreach persons who make this synod so exceptional. Thank you. God has indeed blessed us by your ministry.

Today at our Synod Council, based on a prompting from Reconciling Works, we adopted updated language to our RIC synod status.

We affirm that people of all gender identities and sexual orientations share the worth that comes from being unique Individuals created by God; 

We affirm that this synod encourages all of its ministries to welcome people of all gender identities and sexual orientations into membership upon making the same affirmation of faith; 

We affirm that, as members of ministries of this synod, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations are expected and encouraged to share in the abundant life within this church, rooted in the Word and Sacraments; 

We resolve to identify as a ‘Reconciling in Christ’ synod; 

and 

We urge all ministries of this synod to affirm their welcome of people of all gender identities and sexual orientations and to make that welcome known in appropriate ways, making use of such materials that are available from Reconciling Works and other LGBTQ+-affirming organizations. 

During our discussion, one of the questions raised was whether or not we should include ‘ia’ in the ‘LGBTQ+’ We chose not to because we as a Synod Council did not believe we as a synod could honestly claim a full embrace of ia, i.e. intersex and asexual. (A helpful introductory article explaining LGBTQIA+ can be found here.) Let me be clear, it’s not that we oppose, denigrate or antagonistic this section of the full breadth of humanity. Not that at all. Rather, we were attempting to be honest. Yes. Could we honestly say that we as a synod have done the good, necessary and vital work of engaging, learning and living into this portion of the LGBTQIA acronym? We believed that we have work to do, and want to do this work. In my view, this pause, before simply adopting something we have not fully engaged would be disingenuous. As a way of indicating our support of desiring to grow in this area, we decided to add the +. It was articulated that the added + would affirm all persons as well as further understanding. This entire conversation was largely lead by younger members of the Synod Council who were thoughtful, and patient in their educating supportive older members of the council.

I will confess my own need for growth in understanding the full breadth of human sexuality. I’m looking forward to deepening my own appreciation. We are indeed, always being shaped in ways that help us grow as God’s people.

ThanksGiving

As we enter into one of the better expressions of our uniquely US American liturgies, (better than the Super Bowl) I think of several people for whom my life would not be the same. I am grateful for them, and have begun my annual liturgy of writing notes, cards or emails to express my thanksgiving.

For whom are you grateful?

Books that have changed my thinking

The original post was titled, “Books that have changed my Life,” but that seemed a little over the top. There are some 130 million books that have been published since, well, since books were published. That means my small list represents some fraction so small, that if you have a beef with my selections…go make your own more significant list. Sorry, that was a little in your face, but just trying to make the point…to each his own.

In no particular order:

Memories, Dreams and Reflections by Carl Jung. I was a sophomore in College when I took a class called the Literature and Psychology of Mysticism. We read a lot of weird stuff and we read some really holy literature. This book led me into Jung’s way of thinking about life, faith and why I do some stuff that makes no sense.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Along with the sequel, Dharma Bums, these books captured my imagination, but more than that it was Kerouac’s writing style. I’d never read something that was so fluid, so random, so full of run-on sentences that made sense. It’s been 40 years since I read these books, time to break them out again.

Selected Poems by Mary Oliver. If nature is where you experience the holy, the divine or just plane wonder, no one communicates the significance of life through the words describing the natural world better than Mary Oliver.

Leading Change by John Kotter. I devoured the whole series of his books. As a young pastor trying to figure out how to move a congregation in a direction of openness to its community, Kotter’s simple steps (but hard to actualize) were my guides.

Jesus by Marcus Borg. Despite four years of seminary education, I still lived with a burden of not fully understanding Jesus and his life & ministry. Borg explained it all here. It was clear, and fit with my both/and view of Jesus and very down to earth and somehow divine at the same time.

The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley. This book, along with the recent new version by his daughter Sarah Stanley Fallaw are insightful research on wealth. The titles may make you think I’m into some kind of get rich scheme. Actually, what these books have done, and the first one especially, is to steer me down a path of living within my means, saving and being generous. This was minimalism and FI movement before it was hip.

The Freedom of Simplicity and Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. If you want to understand and explore Christian spirituality, these are the two books to read. Both have been recently updated by the author, and I highly recommend them for anyone wanting to deepen their lives.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. You were wondering if there was to be any fiction. I first read The Hobbit while traveling by train throughout Europe in 1979, My brother introduced me. I think it’s also safe to say, this might be one of the few times book made it into a movie with success. Though I still would have loved it if Tom Bombadell had made a cameo. :)

That’s it. What about you?