Why you gotta be so mean?

I’ve got that ear-worm of a Talyor Swift song stuck in my head…


I’ve started researching what I hope becomes my next full length book. It’s based on the idea that the role of “pastor” can and should be thought of primarily as a “court jester.” I’m working with the title Jester/Pastor. We’ll see if it flies.

Part of what intrigues me about the Jester is the granting of the license. Jesters, also called “fools,” typically fell into one of two categories: the “natural fool” and the “licensed fool.”

Natural fools were those who’s very person amused others. From what I can glean in my limited research, these were people who had some sort of cognitive, communicative, or physical difference that set them apart from the typical population. A lack of awareness granted society permission to get a laugh at their expense.

On the other hand, there were Licensed Fools. These were performers who were trained, called, and granted permission to not only amused the court and the populace, but were also welcomed into a ruler’s inner circle. They often became an advisor of sorts. Licensed Fools were granted permission to say things that others might be thinking. Because of this freedom, Fools developed an ability to couch hard truths in humor, to soften the blow a bit, to allow those being critiqued to save a bit of face. Because of the trust engendered between a ruler and their fool, this was a delicate dance and the Fool needed to know the temperament of the ruler in order to be successful. Say too little and you’re not fulfilling your duty. Say too much and you’ve forgotten your place. And there were dire consequences for forgetting your place…

This reality is called the “Limit to the License,” and every Fool did well to remember it.

I want to suggest that pastors are like Licensed Fools. We have the privilege of being welcomed into people’s lives and we get to say things to them that others are not allowed to. But there is a limit to this license because we are not the ruler.

The limit to our license is found in the recognition that when people are on the spiritual path there are certain things they can hear and certain things they cannot. That is not their problem; a fish does not know it is in water. We must be very careful when we speak publicly. We might go too far. Like the Fool at court, we may amuse those watching, but if the Ruler cannot hear our critique then it is useless and could, potentially, be life/career threatening.

Recently, a prominent pastor has been offering what many believe to be a good and accurate critique of the Spiritual But Not Religious. In truth, I think I’m prone to agree with the theology and ecclesiology behind the argument, but I fear that this pastor has bumped up against the “Limit to the License.” In trying to offer a clarifying word, I believe that meanness has been the result. There are claims at humor, but it feels too much like when someone cuts you down and then cries, “KIDDING!” I’m not buying it. The damage has been done.

I am particularly sensitive to this because it is a tendency of mine as well. Ask anyone with whom I’ve ever argued and they will tell you that I can be a real asshole. I mean, seriously: a Class-A, #1 Asshole. I was trained as a writer and actor, was a state champion debater, raised in a religious world that prized apologetics, a personality that makes me think I’m the most original person on the planet, and have a lot of psychological baggage to work out. If you go toe to toe with me, you may win, but you’ll get beat up pretty badly. I can make you question your very sense of self worth. It’s ugly. But it’s not okay, and I’ve spent my adult life trying to reckon with it. The need especially became clear when I became a “Licensed Fool.”

So, fellow Fools, we have been called to embody something more honorable. We fail – Lord, we fail! – but we have to learn to admit it, make restitution if need be, and resolve to do it differently next time. We should live our lives in such a way that we are never asked, “Why you gotta be so mean?”

Lillian Daniel is making my job harder, and I wish she would stop.

I’m sure it will not be a stretch for you to believe me when I tell you that I was picked on a lot as a kid.

I grew up in a small town in Kansas and was a theatre geek. I wasn’t athletic. I was smart. I was musical. I loved Jesus. I wore ties to school. I was gawky and sensitive; overly prone to tears (that hasn’t gone away). I yearned to fit in and have friends, so I took a lot of risks to get people to like me. As such, I was very defensive when anyone would criticize my earnest attempts to figure out who I was.

In short: I was an easy target. It was easy for kids to make fun of me, and, for a while, it became a thing. Want to score points with your friends? Make fun of Landon. Need a bit of an ego boost? Make fun of Landon. Do you need to prove yourself as one of the cool kids? Make fun of Landon. I was the whipping boy, and I carried a lot of people to popularity on my back. Really, I should receive a medal.

I’m not trying to ask for your sympathy, but to offer my own experience as a way of saying: I’ve been the brunt of the public ridicule, and it’s awful. I never want to experience it again.

Which is why I can’t seem to wrap my head around the fact that pastor and author Lillian Daniel seems to have made a decision to base her current writing and speaking career denigrating those who are variously called the “Spiritual but Not Religious” or the “Nones.”

Her most recent book, When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church, has an appropriately engaging and descriptive title. But in all the press I see leading up to its publication, Rev. Daniel appears to have taken a page from the playbook of my hometown antagonists.

She tells the SBNRs to “Please stop boring me” and says that “any idiot can find God in a sunset.

I take her point, and I actually agree with her understanding of the Church, but a) she’s basically wrong about who these folks are, and b) well, she’s just being mean.

I believe Rev. Daniel makes some insightful and incisive points about the nature of being religious. She is an educated person who has contributed, in the course of her ministry, what many consider something of great value to our common life. She is accomplished, and well-respected, as far as I can tell. So why would she do this?

Does she truly believe that an SBNR/None is going to read her book? I would be surprised if she did. I doubt that those who are (in her words) “shunning faith” are going to be bothered to obtain a copy. And even if the marketing machine gets the book some press in the media, what does she expect the net result to be? That they will see the error of their ways and come running home to Mother Church? I think not.

I contend that she wrote this book for Church Folk. And, in so doing, she is giving a wink and a nod to those who Tripp Hudgins eloquently calls “religionists.” While ostensibly calling the bluff of the SBNRs/Nones, she is actually shaming the very people she is purporting to want to help.

And this is where my beef with Rev. Daniel truly lies: She is shaming the very people that would benefit from what the Church has to offer. It is one thing to preach this to your own people, whom you know and trust and who know and trust you. It is entirely another thing to go on a media spree of mean.

I admit that I am Religious but would really rather be Spiritual. And behavior such as what I am witnessing from Lillian Daniel is why. I have given my life to the Church, but understand why there are those who have not. How, now, am I supposed to reach them?

She says that she is sick of the New Atheists treating the craziest pieces of religion as if it were the whole. They should know better, she says. Can she not see that the same logic should apply to her? Can she not see that she is broad brushing the intentions and hopes of the SBNRs/Nones, and in a very poor “straw man-esque” manner?

I don’t know what her goal is with this book and speaking. I don’t know what she understands her job to be, in this regard. But I do. I know who it is I’m supposed to reach, and my job just got a lot harder because of this book.

Lillian Daniel is making my job harder, and I wish she would stop.

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.


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?

The Adjacent Possible as your New Year’s Resolution

Theologian Paul Tillich taught us a lot about what it meant to “have being.” Today I am thinking of his thoughts on the interplay between Destiny and Freedom.

Destiny – In each moment, we are each presented with particular facts that we must deal with. We are born a woman or a man, rich or poor, black or white. Each of these (and others) constitute who we are at any given moment.

Freedom – Regardless of the particular situation or context we find ourselves in, we have the ability to make decisions and take action that can lead us into new situations and contexts.

Today, a lot of people are finalizing their resolutions for the new year.  I used to scoff at this practice, but then I realized that it is part and parcel of what it means to be human. I actually think it is a good practice and one that churches should figure out how to sacramentalize.

It is no lie that our destiny plays a significant role in our lives. In a very real way, the particular situations and contexts we find ourselves in “set the parameters” for the ways which we will be able to function.

Notice that I wrote “set the parameters” not “limit our options.” This is the key, I think.

We are not stuck.

For instance, I get a bit annoyed by the newbies who delve into personality type theory (MBTI or Enneagram) and use it to make excuses for their behavior.  When I hear “Well, this is just the way I am” I walk away. This person is not looking for insight, but justification.

On the flip side, knowing your parameters helps you to move forward with your eyes open. I am an introvert and I make a pretty big deal out of it. Does that mean that I get to avoid social situations? Not at all. Knowing that I am an introvert makes me responsible for my well being, and requires that I take steps to fulfill my social responsibilities in a way that acknowledges that I can’t be around people constantly. I use what I have at my disposal to take positive steps forward.

Stephen Johnson wrote about this idea in Where Good Ideas Come From. In that work, he talked of the “adjacent possible,” the ability to see what resources and limitations are currently present and take a step forward by “cobbling them together to create new uses.”

It’s certainly not a one-to-one analogy, but it makes me realize that when I’ve failed at changes in the past, it is because they have been too drastic, too radical. I am a completely different person than I was 10 or 20 years ago, but the places of maturity represent gradual exploration and experimentation.

As you think about your New Year, I encourage you to shy away from goals that require a wholesale change in who you are. Instead, I encourage you to focus on a larger question – “What does it mean to be more patient?”, “What does it look like to be bold in my convictions?”, “What gifts and skills do I have that might be of some benefit to others?” – and explore it.

Don’t set yourself up for failure. Spend the year exploring one aspect of your life.

What do you tell yourself everyday?

Adam Dachis at Lifehacker asks us, “What do you tell yourself everyday?”:

Someone posed an interesting question on Quora recently: what do you tell yourself everyday? That repeated phrase could be good, bad, or just plain weird, but it likely has a profound effect on your behavior.

Let’s take a look at some examples. Valeria Cooper said:

This won’t last forever.

Oliver Emberton said:

What’s the most important thing I can do now

Finally, Shreyas Panduranga says what I should probably say to myself more often:

This doesn’t really matter, move on.

I agree that this is a profound line of thinking.

When I was a kid, I was told that the Bible says, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Turns out, that’s not anywhere in the Bible, but it’s true nonetheless. Garbage in; garbage out.

For the past few weeks, Lady has been telling the Advent story (a la Godly Play) on Sunday nights as we light each of our Advent candles. The first week, we told the story of the prophets (“people who were close to God, and God was close to them, that they knew what was most important”), then the Holy Family (“I bet they were the last people on the road to Bethlehem that night”), and last week the Shepherds (“and the angels told them, ‘Don’t be Afraid.'”) This week, we’ll introduce the Magi, the people who “followed a Wild Star” (yes, liturgical sticklers… we know).

We have been telling our kids this story because we think that it is important for how they interpret the Birth of Christ. We tell them, week after week, and day after day, that the Mystery of Christmas is important, and we need to take time to get ready for the “King that already came, and who is still coming.” We want it bored into their hearts and minds that Christmas was about God loving us, not Santa brining us entitlements or fearing the tattle-taling Elf on the Shelf.

What do you tell yourself everyday? What shapes the way you see the world?

Is it, “I don’t deserve this”? Is it, “No one could love someone like me”?

Is it, “I keep getting screwed” or “It’s hard.”?

I think there is a reason that the “A” of the theological alphabet is Grace. Grace is the first thing we should tell ourselves. We are God’s and there is nothing we can do about it. There is no “God’s way or the highway,” it’s just God’s easy way or God’s hard way. All ways are God’s ways. Which will we choose?

It’s is important to consider what we tell ourselves. It’s even more important remember what God’ tells us.

You are loved.

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.

Being a gadget whore demonstrates my love for Jesus

And now for something completely different…

Confession: I am a gadget whore.

Lady refers to my iPad and MacBook as my fifth and sixth children. I think I have had a new cell phone every year since, well, they began making cell phones.

I bought a Kindle. Then I bought one of the first iPads, but then I sold it and went back to the Kindle. Then I sold that in order to get a 7″ Android tablet. Then a 5″ Android tablet, specifically for reading. Then another Kindle. Then another iPad.

I’m pining over the Kindle Paperwhite right now. Dear God in Heaven, that thing looks sweet.

It’s not that I’m not a serial gadget purchaser who’s trying to make himself feel better. Truly. I’m not the guy who buys gadgets because it’s some sort of retail therapy. That’s not it at all.

It’s that I’m trying to find the perfect one. I’m trying to find the right gadget so that I don’t have to go looking for the right gadget any more.

I’m tired of looking. I’m tired of this quest for the holy grail of electronics. I like to have gadgets that work the way I want them to work and for all the things I need them to work for.

I got rid of the Kindle because I thought I could do my reading on the iPad. I was right, of course, but it wasn’t the dreamy experience I thought it was going to be. Then I got rid of the iPad because, at the time, it wasn’t the content creation thing that I needed.

I tweeted about it one time, asking what the hell my problem was, and a friend of mine (who knows me well) responded, “Your problem is that you’re a purist. You want the right thing for the right job and nothing less will do.”

Yep. That sounds about right.

This has been a problem for me my whole life. I say “problem,” but sometimes it’s a bit of a blessing. It comes in handy being the guy in the room that can cut through clutter and hype and get right to the heart of the matter. But it is a problem, in that I am never satisfied. I am never content. I am never completely sure that I am doing the right thing or have the right tool or am enacting the right plan. And so, I am always on a quest.

But I’ve come to see it as an okay thing. Not being satisfied means that I am never settling. It means that I am never doing what one is supposed to do simply because that it what one is supposed to do. I may never get there (whatever “there” is) but I will always be trying.

I’ll always be trying to find the right thing because the right thing has value, and I have come to believe that the pursuit of that value is about as good as it gets.

It’s kind of like Merton’s prayer in relationship to my spiritual life: I don’t know if what I am doing is actually pleasing God, but I have to believe that my desire to please God is actually pleasing to God.

That may be all I’ve got, but I think that’s good enough.