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?”

You don’t need another commentary

Artists everywhere know that it’s not the tools that make the Art. Tools just help them get the job done.

Sure, a painter can use a cool brush, and a writer can buy a new pen, but the Art is made by simply showing up and doing the work.

Don’t believe me? This man used a toy camera to make amazing pictures:

It’s a new year, and you have a nice, fat book allowance to spend. You’re probably trolling Cokebury right now looking for that commentary on Luke that’s gonna blow Year C wide open. If you can find that one good set of theologians and biblical scholars spilling their wisdom, you’re sure to set the world a-fire for Jesus.

It ain’t gonna happen that way, and – deep down – you know it.

You don’t need another commentary. You don’t need another blog post that’s going to give you the insight that will spark this thing.

You need to write. You need to dig deep, and recall that experience of Jesus that knocked your damn socks off.

When they reacted to Jesus’ teaching, they often said “He speaks like no one has ever spoken before.” They were amazed because something deep inside of him welled up and blew their hair back. He didn’t quote other rabbis like he was giving a book report. He had the word of God written on his heart.

You do, too.

You don’t need another commentary.

Oh, the places I don’t really want to go…

I have a friend who uses big words. He uses them on purpose and not in a way that makes you feel stupid when he does it. The other day he told me he was “facile” in regards to something. I had to go look it up. I learned something.

But guys like him are becoming rare.

Knowledge is easier to obtain now than in used to be. There is no shortage of information. If I want to know something, Wikipedia is just a browser away. “define:[word]” is one of my favorite Google searches ever.

I don’t need some smarty-pants to tell me things any more. I can go find it myself. And, yet, I often don’t.

There is an overabundance of information at our disposal. We don’t know what to do with it all. There have been studies after studies done that show that the more choices we have, the less content we are.

Do you remember when you first began shopping for yourself and stood in the aisle looking at all the different kinds of spaghetti sauce you could buy? It’s overwhelming. A few nights ago, I spent 2 hours trolling Bandcamp, looking for new music. Any kind of independent artist you could want is there, but I was having a damn hard time finding anything through the crowd. There’s just too much. I have this fear that I’m going to miss something good, that I’m going to spend my hard earned cash on something when the thing I really want is one more click away…

It seems to me that pastors have a unique opportunity in this moment. We have an opportunity to recognize our role as the new Public Intellectuals.

An Intellectual is a person who concerns herself with the life of the mind. She is passionate about ideas and the ways those ideas shape the way we live. She is concerned about her thinking being “critical” in nature. Rocks must be overturned, doors opened, avenues explored. She does not shy away from hard truths, and goes where information leads her. She always knows that deeper and deeper realities are discoverable even when her colleagues stop.

What makes a pastor a Public Intellectual is that she does not have the luxury of this exploration being private. By the very nature of her calling, a pastor is asked to do this wrestling in public. In front of other people. Where she might be criticized.

And this is the rub.

Pastors succumb to doing a lot of things they should not, but they often shy away from being the primary person in a community asking questions that have no destination for certain. The truth is that we have been given tools that a lot of people do not have in order to navigate the questions that a lot of people are asking. But we still have to ask them. We still have to give our best answer, and then ask people what they see.

There is a lot of religious information out there, and with a populace that is not slowing down in their drive to be “spiritual,” the need for someone to authentically help navigate all that information is at an all time high. Folks don’t need to be spoonfed the answers, but they want to watch us run the obstacle course of faith first – complete with tripping and falling – because watching us run it will give them courage to run it themselves.

This isn’t easy work, but it’s fairly straightforward. It requires that we steel our spines and go places we might not otherwise want to go.

But it is important work, and our people need us to do it. Pastors, we can no longer afford to be facile about our work as theologians. (See what I did there? 🙂 )

Preachers are not starving artists, but we often act like them

A rabbi friend of mine once told me, “You know the problem with you Christian preachers?”

Oh, do tell, I thought.

He continued, “You have no imagination with the text. You think it can only say what it says and nothing more. If that’s the case, people can just read it for themselves. What do they need you for?”


That one made me think.

Preaching is an art. I’m not saying that preaching should be artistic, but that the act of preaching is itself an exercise in making art. It is akin to painting and composing music and photography. Preaching is art that finds an audience once a week, and, in that moment, the preacher has a chance to open horizons.

Just like in other forms of art, preaching has its share of hacks (and we all started as one). Similar to the “Starving Artist” sales that permeate hotel ballrooms and exhibit halls, we find artists in pulpits all across the Church who’s work is boring and tired. It is overly pedantic and dry. It relies on what others say, and not on the inner discovery of the one saying the words.

We don’t buy starving artist paintings because they are paintings that we’ve seen before. We’ve seen them in hotels and restaurant chains and postcards. They do nothing new for us. They do not reveal the truth of the world to us. They don’t even inspire us.

These are pieces that have been done before – we’ve seen hundreds just like them. If we do buy a piece, it is on the cheap and for the purpose of decoration only (most likely in the second guest bathroom that no one ever uses).

Because Preaching is Art, it should do (at the least) four things:

It should find it’s vocabulary in an encounter with God, and nothing else. Scripture, friends. Scripture. (NOTE: The Gospel According to Marcus Mumford is non-canonical.)

It should take that private encounter and make it public. As Anna Carter Florence says, we must get into that text, look around until we are amazed, and then come out and testify to what we have seen and heard.

It should reveal something new, even if only a little. We can’t spend a lot of time telling folks what Barth or Luther saw. This isn’t a trial. We’re not being graded. Congregations want to know what we saw in there. This is our art.

It should be reflective of the common experience of us all. You and I are not so different. Start with the particular, but as Rob Bell says (curses be upon him), always go to the “thing behind the thing.”

If we don’t do those things, at a minimum, we’re giving speeches, and most likely policy speeches. Folks don’t need to come to worship for that.

Top 5 things I’ve learned from 6 months of being nobody’s pastor

About six months ago, I left the congregation I had been serving to begin service to a regional level of my denomination. This is the first time in almost 10 years that I’ve not actively served a local congregation (in some capacity) on a regular basis, and a few things have brought themselves to my attention.

I’m a firm believer in the Pareto Principle. Most of us know it as the “80-20 Rule”, and it states that 80% of the output is the result of 20% of input. I look at everything this way, constantly trying to pare down the things I’m doing to what is actually effective and beneficial.

Naturally, attending other churches with the kind of insider knowledge I have means that (for a while) I’m looking at what can be improved upon and what is working well. For six months I have been given a perspective on congregational life that few pastors get. And so, in hopes that it will be helpful, here are the Top 5 things I’ve learned about church in the last six months:

  1. Preaching matters. A lot. I’m not saying you’ve got to be Anna Carter Florence or anything, but if you half ass the sermon, shame on you. This is your number one job.
  2. If the folks you serve don’t know how to be hospitable, it’s over. And the bigger you are, the harder it is. Think about it like the way you want a server at a restaurant to behave: attentive to what you need and willing to get it, but not too chatty that they smother you. It’s a fine line and it’s hard to find, but that’s no excuse.
  3. Casual or informal worship is fine. Unintentional and watered down is not. Plus, anything that smacks of a performance? Boo.
  4. All things to all people just doesn’t work. There are a gazillion churches out there. Not everyone is gonna love the kind of stuff yours offers and that’s okay. Do what you do, do it well, and make it easy for folks to get involved. This is particularly applicable to Christian Education programs. Multiple offerings is fine, but come on – Some of us are ridiculous.
  5. Every congregation needs a mission project to rally around. Of course, given my belief in open source methodology, congregations should have a culture of experimentation and permission, but a lot of people are not “starters” and need something to latch onto.

These, in my opinion, are the 20%. They are not earth shattering, but in this changing landscape of whatever church is and is becoming I have to admit that I was surprised by a couple of these.