Repost: “Progressive Christians” and Yours Truly

progressivexianityI wrote this post in the summer of 2011.  The trend has continued in the succeeding years.  I will write something more current on the issue, but this old posts still stands.

I’ve been noticing lately within Mainline Protestant  circles, the rising use of the word “progressive” as a way to describe Christians who might have once used the term “mainline Protestant.”  The biggest change to note is over at the religion megasite Patheos, which changed the name of one of their religion portals.  What was once called “Mainline Protestant” is now called “Progressive Christian.”  That change has brought about a discussion of the term and there have been some fairly good posts about name change.

That said, I’m also a tad bit wary of the term.
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Repost: Out of Place

Note: I wrote this earlier this year about relationships. One thing I’d like to add: tell people that you care for them or that you are their friend. For someone like me with autism it can make all the difference in the world.

lonely childWhen I was in high school, I ran track. I didn’t run well, but I did run track. Practice would take place after school. I remember heading into the locker room to change, and passing by this front room set aside for physical therapy. Every time I passed by there were people my age chatting and having a good time.

One day, I decided I was going to join in. I came in after practice and walked into the room. Unlike other days, the room was mostly empty save for one student who was being attended to by a teacher. I walked in and sat down hoping to engage in some conversation. The teacher stopped what he was doing and looked at me. “What are you doing here?” he said. I gave him a confused look and started to think I had made the wrong decision. He pointed to the door and ordered me to leave. I walked out feeling ashamed that I had even bothered to come in.

I share this story because it serves as an example of the ups and downs of one person with Aspergers trying to be social. Looking back, I probably should have known that social situations change. But in my mind, everything repeats. If there were people goofing off one day, then they would be there everyday. Obviously there were time it was okay to be in the room and times this wasn’t possible. But that nuance was lost on me.

Relationships for someone with Aspergers is like walking into a room that’s pitch black. You can’t see anything. The darkness is scary and you feel very alone. The result is that you are always scared, scared that something in the darkness is coming after you.

This all makes it hard to simply be. You are constantly worried you are going to say something stupid and when you do, all hell breaks loose. So, you withdraw feeling more alone and isolated.

It’s not just that you don’t know how to act with potential friends, it’s also that you don’t know how to act with fellow co-workers. A conversation that I intended to be helpful was interpreted as being hostile. I nearly lost my position because of it.

And let’s not even talk about romantic relationships.

In many ways, I’m still that 16 year old boy trying to figure out human relationships and failing miserably. It’s trial and error, finding out what works and what doesn’t.

The thing is, after being rapped on the nose more than once you start to become risk averse. You feel like a trapped animal with eyes darting about; seeing others as a potential threat or potential friend.

Blogger and fellow aspie Penelope Trunk has said that people with Aspergers don’t have friends and don’t have the emotional need for friends. I tend to disagree with this. I want to have friends, especially close ones, I just don’t know how to start a friendship let alone maintain it.

Adventures In Church Planting: 2013 (REPOST)

Writer’s note: I was going to write another post about church planting in Mainline churches, and I still plan to, but I think this post sums up a lot of what I am feeling still. One update: I am not leading the new church team anymore.

The Clockwork Pastor

As most of you know, I’ve been the head of a new church ministry in my Region.  There have been some good and not so good developments in the area of church planting last year, though for the most part it was a down year in many ways.  The good news is that our group got bigger as a few more people expressed interest in being involved.  The so-so news is how I’m leading.  I want to give people the chance to step up and take part, but I have to balance that with the need to just get something done.

church planting quoteThe not-so-good things is the fact that a lot of potential church plants just died on the vine.  One planter looked like he was going to plant a new community in the eastern suburbs of the Twin Cities.  Things seemed to be moving ahead and then he back out…

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Repost: Beyond George Zimmerman (the Ferguson Edition)

I do have something to say about Michael Brown, the police and Ferguson, MO.  But while I’m thinking about what to write, I wanted to share a post I wrote in the days following the verdict acquitting George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin.  Funny how only the names have been changed.


Ever since the verdict from the George Zimmerman case was made known, I’ve been wondering what I wanted to write about this event. I happened to be down the road from Sanford, Florida in Orlando for the 2013 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It was interesting that in the same convention center the NAACP was having its national convention.

I was looking at a post I wrote a year ago about this case and it is fascinating how on target it still is. The words I said back then still make sense:

The recent tragedy concerning Trayvon Martin has a lot of people talking. There’s a lot that one could talk about here: racism, the role of young black males in American society, gun control or lack thereof and so on. I know that it’s common for pastors and even moreso for black pastors to speak out on events like this, but I’m still holding my tounge, unwilling to somehow speak to the moment.

The reason I don’t at this point is because there is so much that is unknown in this case. We have a lot of pieces of what happened between Martin and his alleged shooter, George Zimmerman, but we don’t really have a clear story. While many may think otherwise, the details of this case are still being learned. What seems so obvious might not be…

…we want to try to make the events fit our own templates to further our own agendas. We try to hunt and look for whatever shred of evidence about silly things like Trayvon smoking marijuana and use that to paint him as some crazy thug. We want to use some words said during a 911 call to paint Zimmerman as soon kind of suburban klansman. For some reason, we don’t want to simply wait and see what the facts bear out. No, we already have the “facts” and are ready to fashion stories based on whatever spin we can get from those facts.

I still think in many ways we are trying to spin this story to serve our own ends. Yes, race is still a problem in America, but we don’t need to make this case into a racial melodrama to make that case. As a church leader, I am a bit wary of touching this case because it isn’t such a clear story. Maria Dixon points that out well in her recent blog post on this:

Many churches and church leaders will hold vigils and offer prayers of the people when the inevitable firestorm of racial angst breaks loose. They will ask for calm, write soothing words about reconciliation–when it is their very ineptness at helping all of us deal honestly with difference that has doomed us to failure. Ok, maybe that’s harsh, but then again maybe it isn’t. You see, most mainline denominations have difficulty with discussing race, even amongst themselves. Substituting quotas and tallies of who is speaking for the really hard discussions of inclusion, difference, and the mandates of Christ, the church–particularly those denominations considered most progressive–fears such discussions. The problem is not with only the lighter hue of the pew. The African American church has lived so long in the world and discourse of struggle that it, unlike the church of South Africa, has yet to be able to fully embrace and cultivate a dialogue of racial reconciliation and renewal. So let’s be clear: There is plenty of blame to go around for why cases like Treyvon’s cause such national handwringing and outrage. It’s like my good friend and mentor, Mark Lawrence McPhail–one of the top scholars on race and rhetoric–writes, that no one has clean hands in this racial system.

There is a part of me that thinks I should rail against racism and how this verdict just shows how American society views black men. But the reality is, we really don’t know if George Zimmerman had a racial intent. From the evidence the jury saw they said no. I don’t think we can use this case as a proxy for our continuing struggle concerning race in America because the lines aren’t so clear.

That doesn’t mean that African Americans are silly to feel the way they have. No matter the age, Africa Americans carry a psychic scar, the result of centuries of actual racism. It’s hard to not think about past tragedies where race was involved: Emmet Till or Medgar Evers. African Americans can make a leap of logic because, well, we’ve been here before.

It also don’t mean that conservatives should be crowing the way they have in the wake of the verdict. As someone who is politically right of center and African American, let me tell you something- if you don’t want black people assuming all Republicans are racists, then maybe you want to show a bit of respect and understanding. African Americans might be wrong in jumping to conclusions, but no one can blame us. We are the ones that have lived with a dark history; one that still rears its ugly head. It would behoove white conservatives to at least sit down and listen to African Americans instead of acting like pompous jerks.

It’s high time that America and the church had a real heart to heart on race. But for that to happen, we have to be willing to be vulnerable to each other. African Americans need to be willing to listen to whites share their fears and concerns. Whites need to allow African Americans to share their frustrations on how they are always treated with suspect. I don’t care who is “priviledged” and who is not. I don’t care who feels oppressed. What I do care to see is for blacks and whites and everyone in between to talk to each other, honestly. The church should be the place where this starts.

I don’t know if George Zimmerman is a racist and at some level I don’t really care. What does matter is how we will move forward, how we will learn to live with each other and accept each other warts and all.

Repost: Saving Liberal Christianity

The following is a post written in 2012.

On the heels of what I wrote late last week on the pitfalls of Progressive Christianity, there has been a flurry of articles on the future of liberal Christianity.  I want to start off with a piece by Allan Bevere who wrote the following last Friday:

In recent years evangelical Protestantism has been going through a soul searching, questioning some of its cherished political and hermeneutical positions that have become so intertwined with evangelicalism. An increasing number of evangelicals are re-evaluating some of their “sacred” views on Scripture and science and politics. I think that has been a good thing. But I must say, I have not seen that same kind of soul searching among mainline Protestants. It cannot hurt to wonder if we always have it right. It cannot be a bad thing to remember that perhaps our views are not always biblical, but rather the opposite side of the same modern coin we share with those who are evangelical. Perhaps Dennis and John are beginning an important self-critical conversation that we mainliners need to have. If this is the start, I welcome it.
After all, the unexamined life, politic, and theology is not worth embracing… and it’s not good for the soul… or the church either. An adjective is meant to describe a noun, not get in the way.
I bring up Allan’s piece because one of the things Progressive Christians have not been good at is thoughtful self-examination.  We are good at telling others what is wrong with them,, but when it comes with doing our own soul-searching, I think we come up incredibly short.
You see this in reaction to Ross Douthat’s column published over the weekend on liberal Christianity.  Douthat is a conservative Catholic, but unlike other conservative critics, what he has to say is not simplistic or vindictive as some have been.  Nor does he say that liberal Christians have to be conservative in order to see their memberships increase.  He starts by naming the problem with liberal Christianity as well as reminding conservative Christians that they aren’t the cat’s meow either:

Traditional believers, both Protestant and Catholic, have not necessarily thrived in this environment. The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2006 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)

Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline. Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. Fewer still noted the consequences of this eclipse: Because progressive Catholicism has failed to inspire a new generation of sisters, Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor.

Douthat then expresses what he wishes to see Liberal Christianity do in order to revive itself:

What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”

The reaction to Douthat’s article among some notable (and not so notable) progressives has been…interesting.  In some ways, it reflects exactly some of what Douthat said was of the denial taking place in liberal Christianity: a belief that somewhow we are the church of the future.  Church Scholar Diana Butler Bass wrote a response to Douthat’s article that basically said that liberal Christians might save Christianity itself.  I think in some ways she misinterprets what Douthat is getting at and instead responds with some worn rejoinders to the issue:

…Mr. Douthat insists that any denomination committed to contemporary liberalism will ultimately collapse. According to him, the Episcopal Church and its allegedly trendy faith, a faith that varies from a more worthy form of classical liberalism, is facing imminent death.

His argument, however, is neither particularly original nor true. It follows a thesis first set out in a 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing by Dean Kelley. Drawing on Kelley’s argument, Douthat believes that in the 1960s liberal Christianity overly accommodated to the culture and loosened its ties to tradition. This rendered the church irrelevant and led to a membership hemorrhage. Over the years, critics of liberal churches used numerical decline not only as a sign of churchgoer dissatisfaction but of divine displeasure. To those who subscribe to Kelley’s analysis, liberal Christianity long ago lost its soul–and the state of Protestant denominations is a theological morality tale confirmed by dwindling attendance.

That was 1972. Forty years later, in 2012, liberal churches are not the only ones declining. It is true that progressive religious bodies started to decline in the 1960s. However, conservative denominations are now experiencing the same. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, one of America’s most conservative churches, has for a dozen years struggled with membership loss and overall erosion in programming, staffing, and budgets. Many smaller conservative denominations, such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans, are under pressure by loss. The Roman Catholic Church, a body that has moved in markedly conservative directions and of which Mr. Douthat is a member, is straining as members leave in droves. By 2008, one in ten Americans considered him- or herself a former Roman Catholic. On the surface, Catholic membership numbers seem steady. But this is a function of Catholic immigration from Latin America. If one factors out immigrants, American Catholicism matches the membership decline of any liberal Protestant denomination. Decline is not exclusive to the Episcopal Church, nor to liberal denominations–it is a reality facing the whole of American Christianity.

Douthat points out that the Episcopal Church has declined 23% in the last decade, identifying the loss as a sign of its theological infidelity. In the last decade, however, as conservative denominations lost members, their leaders have not equated the loss with unfaithfulness. Instead, they refer to declines as demographic “blips,” waning evangelism, or the impact of secular culture. Membership decline has no inherent theological meaning for either liberals or conservatives. Decline only means, as Gallup pointed out in a just-released survey, that Americans have lost confidence in all forms of institutional religion.

The real question is not “Can liberal Christianity be saved?” The real question is: Can Christianity be saved?

liberal-ChristianThe thing is, I don’t think Douthat was saying that conservative churches are doing all that great.  In fact, he has been critical of conservative churches as well, not only in this column, but in his most recent book, Bad Religion.  Butler Bass then goes into the standard but-the-conservative-churches-are-shrinking-too argument that is true, but covers up the fact that liberal churches are still declining.  It’s a nice argument and one that makes those of us in declining mainline churches feel good about ourselves and kind of snicker at all those conservative churches.  There are problems with conservative Christianity and there is a decline taking place there as well, that doesn’t erase the fact that we have a problem that has to be taken care of.  My own take at a glance is that the two wings of Christianity are losing members for different reasons.  Among conservatives it might be the problem of intolerance towards LGBT persons.  Among liberals the problem seems to be that we have compromised the basics of faith (concept of sin, Christ’s divinity) and overemphasized social and political issues to the point that people realize that they don’t really need to go to church to care about the environment of gay rights.

I think Progressive Christianity has some great strengths.  However, we do a crappy job of self-examination.  We never allow ourselves to think that somehow what we do and how we do it might possibly be wrong.  We are unwilling to think about what we might have done wrong and how to correct for fear that we will become some kind of clone of the Southern Baptists.

Self-examination doesn’t mean we have to stop being progressive Christians.  It doesn’t mean throwing out everything.  But it does mean seeing what might be hurting us and putting aside our egos to in order to see if we are the best church we can be.  When liberal Christians start doing this, then we can be on the road to saving Liberal Christianity.  Until that happens, we will keep whistling down the road towards irrelevance.

Repost: On Funerals and Christian Cliches

On Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year is a time many churches have “Blue Christmas” services.  Mindful of that, I wanted to share this post from 2012.

christian-phrasesThis past weekend, I was in Orlando, Florida for the funeral of an uncle. My Uncle David was the youngest of my mother’s siblings dying at the age of sixty. Diabetes took it’s toll on David’s body and finally that body gave out. David leaves behind a grieving widow and five children, three of which are too young to have to have to deal with losing a parent.

David was an active of an Apostolic church in nearby Sanford. As we went to the viewing at the funeral home and the next day at the church, I came to face to face with all those cliches you hear when someone dies. “God is in control.” “He’s not in pain anymore.” “This all happens for a reason.”

My seminary trained brain tells me I’m not supposed to accept such trivial sayings. I’ve learned that such words just cover up the pain that people are really going through. I’m supposed to see such sayings as a twisting of theology and incredibly insensitive to those suffering.

I know that’s what I’m supposed to think.

But now I don’t mind hearing them. Not after dealing with what I’ve dealt with.

After hearing my mother, who is nearly 20 years older than David, wail at the loss the boy she helped raise- after seeing my cousins and my Aunt deal with the indescribable, I really don’t have a problem with people trying to offer some words of hope-even if they are cliches.

Fellow Disciple Christian Piatt, has been doing a series of blog posts on cliches that Christians should avoid. He starts with some of the common ones that are said during tragedies, and then goes into some that are more general. While I get what he is trying to communicate, there is something a bit high-handed about all of this. As I heard some of the cliches said, I reminded myself that some of these folks took time on a Sunday afternoon to come out and be with the family. Their actions of love and concern spoke a lot louder than their words.

But there was something else that spoke to me during this time. As I sat in the funeral service and heard the pastor use some well-worn cliches, he also reminded me, reminded all of us, that even in the midst of our pain and mourning, we know that death doesn’t have the final word. In the middle of all those cliches, there was hope, hope in the coming resurrection, hope in the day when all creation will be healed.

Christian has ten antidotes to the Christian cliches. I’ve read them, and maybe I need to read them a few times more, but it’s hard to see where the hope is, to see where Christ the Healer is. He has some good advice, but in many ways he doesn’t speak the good news of Christ: the belief that God is with even when darkness falls.

Of course, context matters. There are times that such cliches are not helpful. But sometimes, those worn phrases can be a balm to those grieving.

Faith is not about not saying the right words as much as it is about being present with people and preaching the good news. At least that’s what I learned this week at a funeral.

Repost: God Doesn’t Love the One Percent.

From 2012.

I have a mixed relationship with Mary’s Magnificat found in Luke 1. On the one hand it is a wonderful message of justice; that the lowly in life will be vindicated and remembered by God. I love singing the song A Canticle of the Turning by Rory Cooney.

But the text also is bothersome to me. It’s take on the rich and powerful is not one of charity; instead it is a hard justice-one where the rich are sent away empty and the powerful are made low. God of grace and love it isn’t.

David Neff writes in Christianity Today that he wished modern hymnody would not try to blunt the message that Mary sings. He notes:

As a worship musician who tries to fine-tune what we sing with the Scriptures we read, I have felt frustrated by the way musicians blunt the Magnificat’s protest against the 1 percent (to borrow Occupy language). Take Dudley-Smith’s otherwise excellent “Tell Out, My Soul” as an example. Five years younger than his Cambridge friend John Stott, Dudley-Smith was part of the circle that renewed English evangelical hymnody midcentury. But in “Tell Out, My Soul,” he focused on the first half of Mary’s poetic parallelism that contrasted the powerful with the humble and neglected the second half that counterpoised God’s treatment of the hungry with the rich. Talbot and Cooney commit the same sin of omission….Now, we know that pride and stubbornness are not the exclusive province of the rich. If the Holy Spirit had wanted to talk about these vicious habits of the heart, he would have inspired Mary along those lines only. But he didn’t, fingering the rich along with the powerful.

Neff frames this in modern garb talking about how the Magnificat was a blunt criticism of the one percent to borrow language from the Occupy Movement and I guess I understand that, but the song seems at times so graceless. There is not distinction between those who might be wealthy but are also caring of the poor. Nothing is ever said of leaders who are benevolent instead of hurtful. The rich and powerful are all just lumped into one catagory and soundly condemned.

Which brings to mind the nature of God. I grew up with a view of God that was one of both love and justice; a God that loved people, but wasn’t afraid to punish as well. As I got older, I was told that God wasn’t a vengeful God, but instead this wonderful God of grace that sits besides us and cries with us. People seem to believe in that God, but there always seem to be a big astrisk beside the God is love thing, because the Magnificat is asking for a God that will execute justice and Mary doesn’t want God to show any mercy.

So is God all love with us, or does God also judge and send people to punishment?

Neff’s article brought up another point: who is rich? In his article he basically says it’s the one percent. But…I wonder, what about those of us who aren’t in the one percent but make a decent salary and have all the nice shiny things like a flatscreen tv, laptops, iPads and smartphones? Is there danger there as well, or am I off the hook?

And what about the powerful? It’s easy to talk about Roman despots, but what about someone like say, a pastor? Are we off the hook or is God gonna get me if I stumble.

The Magnificat is a wonderful text, but I think it should have more than just the one percent shaking in their books and being driven to the mercy of God. Maybe the Magnificat reminds us that God is a just God and will set things right and if any of us, be it the one percent or someone in the middle class like me, abuse the poor and powerless- well, facing God is never pretty.

Update: Via Blue-Eyed Ennis, here’s a sermon that might explain things. Here’s a snippet:

Listen carefully to the words of the Magnificate. Not the poetry of the words, the beauty of the words, the loveliness of the words. Listen to the five important verbs. In the Magnificate, God tells us that God regards or respects the poor, exalts the poor, feeds the poor, helps the poor, remembers the poor. In that same chapter in Luke, we hear the story that God chose a slave girl, Mary, to be the mother of Jesus. God didn’t chose the beauty queen of Ballard; God didn’t chose a mother who was a millionaire; God didn’t chose a bride with brains. God chose a little thirteen year old girl from a fourth world country, with dark skin and dark brown eyes and dark brown hair to be the mother of Jesus. The Bible didn’t call her a handmaiden. The word, “handmaiden,” sounds so pretty. The Greek word is, “doulos,” which means slave or servant. Mary was a servant girl. God exalted a servant girl from a fourth world country to be exalted and lifted up. And this servant girl sang her song and it is called the Song of Mary. The actual words of her song are revolutionary. The Song of Mary is a revolutionary bombshell because it turns the values of this world upside down.

In the Magnificate, God totally changes the values of life. We have agreed that this is what a revolution is: it totally changes things such as the computer or the cotton gin. In Christian language, before the revolution, we were impressed with the rich. After God’s revolution, we are impressed with the poor. Before God’s revolution, we are impressed with bucks and beauty. After God’s revolution, we are impressed with paupers and poor people. The Magnificate is revolutionary stuff. Don’t get caught up in the poetry. Don’t get caught up in the music. Don’t get caught up in creative interpretations that allow you to water down or dismiss the Magnificate. Let the revolution begin in your life, and mine. This is God’s revolution in our hearts. God’s value is to respect the poor, exalt the poor, feed the poor…within our hearts and actions.

Update II: Peter Leinart tears apart our beloved Christmas hymns and yes, it has something to do with the Magnificat. Merry Christmas!