Three things Progressives should think about progress

imageThese boots are made for walking towards justice

“The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”

“I have a dream…”

~Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Daniel Pink says there are three truths about mastery. I think they apply to progress as well.

1) Progress is a mindset.

You either believe progress is possible or you don’t. Those who believe that things can and do get better are really the only ones “making progress.”

They believe it about themselves. They believe it about society. They believe it about everything. They ignore those who would like to remind them that, as the Human Race, we are awful, awful people. They ignore those who say, “No, we just have new and better ways of killing/oppressing/marginalizing each other.” They do not believe that goodness is a fixed reality, and that all we can do is figure out how to manage the destruction. They believe that people have the capacity to grow and change and mature.

Progressives have Hope.

2) Progress is hard.

Stony the road,” indeed.

Progress is not an easy task. There are more setbacks than anyone cares to admit. There is more opposition than anyone thinks there will be.

But Progressives don’t get fooled and give up because someone says “No.” They press on because they have Faith that one day they will say “Yes.”

3) Progress is never fully realized.

Progressives take steps with the full knowledge that each step forward is not the final step. Each step is just one more step, and there is always another one after that.

With every victory comes an assessment of “Where do we go from here?” With every person set free comes a survey of “Who needs freedom now?”

Progress is never done, but more progress will have been made when we pass the baton than when it was passed to us.

Are you willing to be a screwup?

I love to preach the Gospels, particularly because it is fun to poke fun at the disciples. Those poor boys just don’t seem to get it most of the time, do they?

They make me feel good to read about. I love reading how, again and again, Jesus tries to teach tem, get them to understand what he’s teaching, trying to nurture and form them into disciples worthy of carrying on his work. And, again and again, they come up short, completely miss the point, and sabotage (even if unintentionally) what their teacher is trying to accomplish.

These stories are gold mines for the Bible studying Christian. We can read them and allow their foibles to teach us valuable lessons. Much like other people in our lives, we can allow the characters in the Bible to make the mistakes we don’t want to be making, so that we can learn from them. They screw up so we don’t have to.

But….

What if we looked at it another way?

One of my favorite writers, Seth Godin, has a new book in which the reminds us that the story of Icarus and his wax wings had two cautions in it. One, of course was to not fly too close to the Sun. That is the caution we all remember.

But did you remember that Icarus’ father also told him to not fly too close to the sea? If he did, his wax wings might get wet and ruin.

Not too high, Not too low. Where to fly in the sky is something we all have to figure out, and I think that a lot of our screw ups can be attributed to our willingness to push the outer reaches of our ability in order to find the proper altitude at which to fly. Can we really be held accountable for simply try to figure out how to live life?

What if Peter’s offer to built three tents on the mount of Transfiguration was just him trying to be as close to the divine as he possibly could? He just saw Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Are we really going to fault the man for this?

What is James and John’s request to sit at Jesus’ right and let hand in glory was just their desire to be as much like Jesus as possible? The entire idea of following a rabbi was to be as much like that rabbi as possible. Can we really fault them for trying to find the limit of what that meant?

What if Sarah laughing at the suggestion that she was about to be pregnant was just her trying to be realistic? I mean, come on, she was old, even by our standards. Can we really fault her for trying to maximize whatever energy she had as she neared the end of her own life?

What if Martha rushing about the house was just her trying to be as good of a friend to her friend as she could be? Someone had to make sure the food was prepared and her sister wasn’t really helping? Can we really fault her for trying to be hospitable?

What if Nimrod’s parents were just trying to give their son a very interesting name? Can we really fault them for that? 😉

Of course, I’m not suggesting that every misstep in the Bible can be written off easily, but I am suggesting that automatically reading these as tales advising us towards caution may be bad for us. God’s people are called to risk everything for the sake fo the Gospel, and, yet, we are the most cautious bunch of folks who ever lived.

I fear that we are not giving our all to the Missio Dei because we are afraid we might end up screwing up. We’re afraid that we might do something so irreparable that we don’t push the envelop and find out what the line is.

God needs big things from people who are willing to make a mess of things while trying to figure out how to do those things.

Are you willing to be a screwup?

Some churches care more

A recent blog post from Alan Cohen about business startups has caught my attention. In surveying what “experts” say is needed to have a successful new venture, the author found evidence of what he calls “the start-up trifecta”:

A brief (and perhaps little unfair) survey of recent entrepreneurial literature boils down to what I call the “start-up trifecta”:

  1. Doing your homework about the market/having a brilliant insight about technology
  2. Gaining sufficient investment and strong investors/advisors
  3. Finding great talent: hire “A” players.

These are the things that most companies focus on, with the belief that, if they have them in abundance, everything will be okay. Not so, he says.

In his experience, companies that succeed want it more.

The Church Planting Trifecta

In the Church, we are guilty of this same line of thinking. Whether it is about starting new churches or saving old ones, we believe that if we just get our trifecta straight we’ll be golden.

In my denomination, whenever one pastor leaves and the congregation is searching for a new one, a usual practice is to do a demographic study of the community. They download data on median income, political persuasions, crime rate, age dispersement, racial/ethnic breakdowns, etc.  They do all of this under the assumption that knowing this information will help them to know what kind of ministry they should be about and, therefore, what kind of pastor is needed to lead the community going forward, given that information. It seems sound, but I have yet to find a congregation that has actually had that research impact their search process.

Likewise, there is a big push going on now about using new media as a part of your ministry toolbox. My friend Bruce Reyes-Chow is the best at this that I know of, and I think his insights are some of the more nuanced around. But he will be quick to tell you that he’s just helping folks gain basic competency with social media. He will be quick to tell you that this isn’t a panacea.

We also think that if we can attract the right group of people, we’ll be set. I address this at length in Open Source Church, but the idea that we can bank on “experts” to show us the way is a flawed notion.

However, finding “experts” is often a secondary concern. The primary concern is finding givers. Yep. We want cash. I’m convinced that part of the reason we do demographic surveys when planting new churches is that we want to gather a congregation in “growing areas.” You should read that as “young, middle to upper class families.” If we go where the cash is, we’ll be able to have a successful ministry.

And, finally, my uber-pet peeve: We want to hire the perfect pastor, the “local resident church expert.” Everyone in my age range (in particular) has heard it: “We’re looking for someone that can attract young families” or “We’re looking for a person with a lot of experience and vision.”

Yes, of course, we don’t want a dolt in our pulpit, but this will not save our church. Intelligence is not fungible. We’re not hiring a CEO. We’re hiring a teacher. She will not save us from ourselves.

Some churches care more

I agree with Cohen’s point, in that the trifecta will not ensure any measure of “success.” I have seen congregations with the trifecta in abundance, and ones that are severely lacking. But the ones that are the acknowledged leaders in the Missio Dei are those that, quite simply, care more.

These congregations, their members, and their leadership never seem to let the lack of an “ideal location,” wealthy giving base, or rockstar staff/volunteers inhibit their ability to offer tangible care for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed. I see this in small and large congregations; rural and urban ones. The congregations that make an impact simply care more.

There is a palpable feeling of concern for the other over themselves. There is a distinct lack of infighting. There is nowhere present the need to preserve the organization. There is a mindset of sacrifice and action.

In my denomination, there is one job requirement for being elected as a leader: A leader must demonstrate the New Commandment to love as Jesus loved as a matter of course. There is nothing that says they must be world renowned (or even passable) theologians. There is nothing about possessing a certain skill-set. They need to love. That’s it.

I spend a lot of time delving into and parsing the philosophy of ministry. However, at the end of the day, the things I write about are just tools and tips and tricks. They are not the solution.

If you want to be a vibrant disciple of Jesus, and if you want to be a part of a congregation that vibrantly participates in God’s Mission, forget programs and worship styles and whatever else. Just be Love and be a part of Love.

Landon’s Law of Declarations of Oppression

Yesterday, I tweeted this:

I am so damn tired of privileged white, straight people playing the victim card. #youveneverbeenoppressed

This was in response to a trend I’ve seen for a while, but is cresting in the particular religious world I live in. In short, it is increasingly the case that those who have historically been in the majority on several issues are now not, and it is making folks crazy. There are some that, to their credit, are doing the very hard work of trying to reframe their understanding of living in a community that they do not wholly resonate with, but so many more are playing a game I find deplorable.

Persons who have historically occupied positions of privilege have begun to declare that the tables have now turned and that they are the victims of marginalization and oppression.

What is at play is a lack of understanding of regarding the actualities of marginalization. Given that these persons have rarely (if ever) had to function in an environment where their behaviors and understandings were not the dominant norm, when they enter into a situation where their options for control are limited they begin aping what they believe they have heard from other marginalized persons or groups and mistakenly apply those to their present situation. They declare that they are now being marginalized and demand to be accommodated.

This betrays a belief that life is a zero sum game and the best strategy to win it is to seize control. This is problematic in a Christian religious environment, where we have historically affirmed that God is always creating and that there is “always room at the table.”

So (in a nod to Godwin’s Law) I now offer “Landon’s Law of Declarations of Oppression”:

As the influence of a person or group of privilege decreases, declarations of oppression and marginalization will occur in the inverse.

The Threat of Literalism

A colleague of mine, Ken Kovacs, reminds us of the dangers of “literalism”:

Literalism is the belief, the philosophy, the attitude that truth can only be found in exactness and certainty.  Literalism is an obsession (and it is an obsession) with what is actual, literal, with the “letter of the law,” with the need to nail down (sometimes, literally) what is true and not true and then defending that “truth” at all costs.  It’s a way of being and believing that seeks to maintain a tight “hold” on reality.   It’s a way of being that is suspicious (maybe paranoid) of anything that smacks of analogy or metaphor, of anything that leaves open the possibility of multiple meanings, of plurality, because for the literalist, for example, there can only be one interpretation of a text – whether it’s a religious text (such as the Koran or the Bible) or a secular text (like the U. S. Constitution) – only onemeaning, only one way to be and one way to believe in this world.

So, why is literalism such a threat?  Because, quite simply, the literalist bent undergirds and stands behind the many expressions of fundamentalism (religious and otherwise) unleashing its toxic effluence throughout the contemporary public square.  The unmitigated fact is that reality is infinitely more complicated and complex than fundamentalists will acknowledge, actually more than they are free to admit.  Fundamentalism, especially the religious variety, is the very opposite of freedom.  It’s a form of bondage.  It’s a defense reaction against the ever-increasing intricacies and challenges of the contemporary world.   Fundamentalism might be viewed, as one commentator has said, as a refusal to see beyond the vested and small certainties that do more to hold off the unknown, than give answers.  As a result, fundamentalism and its bedfellow literalism have inflicted untold most damage against the very world they say they care most about and try to defend and preserve, the world of religious faith.

Read the rest.

The Postmodern Problem of the Fundmentalist

I returned, a few days ago, from keynoting a retreat based on my book, Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All. Part of the book centers on a survey of the history and foundational principles of Wikipedia, one of which is that “Wikipedia has a neutral point of view.”

The idea that Wikipedia is after is that our contexts are so diverse that there is no way that we are going to come to an agreement on “the truth” or “the best view.” As a result, Wikipedia often has to present multiple points of view side by side. I submit that the church should also learn to cultivate a space in which multiple points of view can exist. There already are several different ways of understanding the work of Jesus Christ or the Church. This thing we do is all relative – we ought to just acknowledge it and account for it.

Of course, wherever I go, I hear the same basic critique of “postmodern relativity”: If all things are relative, then you have your truth and I have mine and there is no truth. You can’t build a society/community/church on that kind of thinking. Things are not “all relative.” There is one Truth.

My response is usually two-fold: One, while I do believe there is a truth, I don’t believe that I know what it is and I don’t believe you do either. Two, while I do believe that all things are relative, I also believe that some things are relatively better than others.

Wait… Better?… Really?

Yep.

The dirty little secret that I rarely share is that, at heart, I’m a Developmental Structuralist – I understand the different aspects of creation to evolve over time. I know that in this day and age I’m not supposed to think like that, but I do. I usually disappoint my liberal and progressive friends when they find this out, because we usually hold the same convictions and there is an assumption that we’ve come by them in the same way. I’m supposed to say that all things are equal. But I don’t believe that. I believe that some things are better than others.

Before you start throwing stones, let me explain what prompted me to say something so outrageous. I call it “The Postmodern Problem of the Fundamentalist.”

Embarrassingly, it was not so many years ago that I was deep in the throes of postmodern theories of relativity, claiming that everything is equal and that there is no good or evil because those are the value judgements of the “unenlightened” (I was dabbling in Eastern philosophy at the time). I had seen the tyranny of worldviews that suggested that one way of thinking was right and all others were wrong. I had struggled mightily to leave the highly conformist religious traditions of my youth and had found solace that I could engage in a relationship with God free from coercion and with a measure of autonomy and intellectual honesty.

But I live in Kansas City. Not too far away is Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church. You know the “Let’s picket funerals and tell the world that God hates ‘fags'” church?

So, as I tried to live into my new found conviction that “All things are equal” I was troubled to find a way to include Westboro Baptist into that equation. I tried and tried and tried. It wasn’t working. I acknowledge that God loves the members of Westboro Baptist Church just as much as God loves me. God chose them, just like God chose me. That said, those people are some of the most unChristlike people I’ve ever seen. How can I live in a world where the vile they spew is on equal footing with the love I and my colleagues strive to preach? The question I began to ask myself was “If I believe that all things are equal, does that mean I believe that a Fundamentalist’s understanding of creation is equal to mine?” For me, the answer was and is a resounding “No,” and so the problem comes into stark focus with the next logical question: “Why?”

I’ll give my answer in a subsequent post, but, first, I’m interested to know what you might say.