Whose Tradition is The Best?

Recently I’ve heard people in church leadership saying things like, “What makes our tradition the best?”   Or “This is why I think OUR tradition is the best.”  In all cases, people are talking about tradition (“We have such great hymns,” and “We don’t judge people who come to worship with us,” and “We have such a wonderful burial liturgy,” and “The thing I like about being Episcopalian/Presbyterian/Lutheran etc. etc. etc. is that we use language so much better than the others!”).   They are also talking about culture–ritual, vestments, candles, all the rest of it. 

Culture and tradition are not faith.  It is a great mistake to confuse either of the two with the value and efficacy of faith. 

We are all inclined to admire ourselves.  We are all inclined to rest there in front of the mirror, oozing satisfaction in our identities and our heritage.  We all do this, and we do it with such satisfaction that we are less than one step from implying that we have the true faith because our traditions are better than others’.  Some people, of course, take that last step and stand firmly on the seemingly solid ground of opinion.  “My tradition is the ONLY one by which you will be truly saved–”  whether that means that you alone know how the Holy Spirit works, or you alone are privileged with God’s view of the goats and sheep in advance of the Last Day.

You can’t convince me.

It’s not just that being judgmental and exclusionary is not Christian in the least.  The great trap and betrayal lying in wait here is that inability leaders have to see in proportion.  Leaders and ordinary Christians MUST be able to distinguish between practice and preference, and stop acting largely on the latter.

Leaders in the church have to grow past the American cultural ideal of success and accomplishment (professional or personal).  When they have learned to really distinguish the self-taught, self-reinforcing blindness of self-deception, they will stop seeing others as valuable only inasmuch as they reflect their own values.  This behavior, not Christian at all, ends in worship of tradition, worship of one’s own cultural expressions of being human.  “Come here, we do it better than anyone else does; you’ll have a better experience of salvation with us.” 

Christians for centuries have been rightly accused and justly condemned for this behavior.  There’s no difference in the effect if is a declaration of superiority or a condemnation of a difference.  The claims of appreciative inquiry are bosh.  The claim of being super-right is equally ridiculous.  There’s no supportive need in the church’s early development or justification in the canon of Jesus’ example, (before the emperors claimed Jesus and the church weapons of their own).  If you carry on as though your own tradition is better than anyone else’s, you are clear about your tradition, and the rest of us are just lucky if we get to see Jesus in it.  People who claim their tradition and culture promote Christianity better than anyone else’s, are either converts or have never left home.   The core values of Christian faith have a larger platform of common ground.

It’s hard enough to put up with nations fighting each other to declare supremacy of values (since we no longer tolerate claiming each other’s real estate).  Let the leaders of churches and their professional helpers refrain from doing the same.

“As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

So–there’s only a modest point in being Episcopalian, or Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist, Moravian or United Church of Christ, Copt or Orthodox. 

One’s best traditions are like good or beautiful choreography for some who are drawn to that way of dancing.  Or, traditions are like rooms full of decor that appeal to one person’s tastes and not another’s.    One can rejoice in the pleasant lines and heritage one has received, without claiming to have the best of anything.  If one is to boast, one should try to remember that the only valid boast is in Jesus Christ.

The text in Galatians quoted above does not conclude, “and if you belong to the Episcopal/Methodist/Southern Baptist/Anglican/Presbyterian… Church, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Jesus’ words in John, quoting Isaiah, run thusly:  “This people knows me with their lips,  but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” These are words to wrestle with when we feel particularly satisfied with our own ways.  We rarely recognize it when we’ve become smug.    But we can look after ourselves (and our traditions) without prizing ourselves.  That way is the way of humility.  That way is the most winsome and Christlike.  Not easy, but plain; a low way and quiet, worthy of tradition.

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Don’t Bring Them In–Send Them Out!

It’s time for evangelism to get out of the church.

The standard line in churches now is ‘bring them in, call them home, give them the Good News inside–here.’

This is a real problem for Christians and churches everywhere in America.  For one thing, whether under the guise of ‘doing evangelism’ or being evangelical, the standard approach is also disingenuous because underneath it all, the plain point is getting more people together with your congregation, because they have more funds to tap to get the buildings and program out of debt and get the budget paid for–not to mention clergy and staff salaries.  Well, perhaps we should mention salaries.  They are a major reason that evangelism is self-centered, static and about ‘growing’ the church.

The deep point I want to make is that for at least 75 years now in American church life, Protestant churches–probably RC as well, have NOT been able to conceive of and get real things done, and have retreated consistently to the spongelike way of being that we see and experience everywhere in Christian communities now.  Getting things done, conceiving and organizing socially are hog-tied by all the questions about finance.

When I was growing up on the Presbyterian mission field, everything had to be paid for, or missionaries went home and projects shut down.  The mentality was strictly pay-as-you-go.  I am sure the change in fiscal probity occurred while I was an adult, but I must not have been really paying attention (though I was paying my pledge).  Perhaps the easy money of the late 90s and early 2000’s infected the church as well as the housing  market and the banks themselves.  After all, churches are wont to trust the banks more than  God–like that brutal truth or not.  (How many church leaders, clergy included, inarticulately assume that God will be asking to see the bank balance sheet on Judgment Day, and will certainly be rewarding all those who provided for themselves rather than waiting for God to give them the money they needed?) 

In all, this has twisted the point of evangelism so that seriously dedicated, regularly worshipping, constant givers and church leaders think that the way out of their debt-ridden endowment drawing problems is to bring in more members?  “We’ve tapped out our regular givers; our only serious answer is to get more members who will contribute,” is what I heard in the 1970s, and I’m still hearing this in 2011. 

Evangelism is NOT about getting more people into the church.  Evangelism is about spreading the Light, being the yeast, being salt, realizing and offering authentically Good News to people wherever they are, as it is truly relevant to those people, not as your church needs them for their money.  At least one way of learning to stop the heretical thinking about joining the Baptized in the Body of Christ.  Think twice.  Imagine the people you are hoping to reach, sitting in the pews of your church, without any money, and with a heart for worship and prayer.  Imagine them as doing enough if they come to worship.  Imagine giving proceeding from the feel of belonging that results from being at home in worship. 

Go out to affect the people whom Christ Jesus has within reach of your expression of compassion.  Don’t wait for these people to come in and find you in the pew next to them.  Go out and be salt, light and the Body of Christ where they are.  If they want to come back where you get your strength and nourishment for witness, hope they’re coming for the worship of Christ and not for what they’ll eventually put in the plate.  When  they want to belong to the Body of Christ where you are, that’s the time when belonging is important and giving is essential.  Don’t skip over the terribly essential part of witnessing without the expectation of gain.  That’s the only way the winsome light of Christ will move through you into someone else.

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Madeleine l’Engle’s Birthday and Irrational Meaning in Advent

November 29th is Madeleine l’Engle’s birthday.  She’d have been 92 this year.   She made a big deal of her birthday, she said, because it was so easy for her own day of celebration to get lost between the communal celebrations of Thanksgiving and the start of Advent.  “I may be a grain of sand on the shore but I am a named grain!  And my name is known!”    Madeleine’s assertions of the reality of self against the general and inevitable cultural juggernauts cruising through November into December were sign posts for me:  “This way to a seat on the side of the road.  This way to get out of the way and off the road and look over the terrain and get some perspective.”

The week before Advent, my husband’s family had a week of gathering together over Thanksgiving in a lovely big, rented house midway down the Outer Banks, and we drove 9 hours to get home again afterwards.  When I woke up on Sunday morning I had trouble remembering it was the first Sunday of Advent.  I really didn’t want to haul myself out of bed and go to church, but I felt I was quite close to making a mistake if I didn’t stick with my interior discipline of starting the new church year in community.  So I prepared myself and went to church. 

The sermon made it into the exclusive category of the top ten worst I’ve ever heard (a list that currently has four empty slots at the bottom, since I can only remember five other worst sermons right now.  When I forget the sermon it drops off the list.  And yes–I have a list of the top ten best sermons I’ve ever heard, and that one currently has seven empty slots.)  The service felt like a set of discrete actions trying to get organized.  But more distressing to me than the poor execution of liturgy and the very bad sermon was the sudden feeling of isolation and loneliness that overtook me somewhere between the sermon and reciting the Creed.   As I began to say the ancient words–“We believe–” a door blew open in my heart and a strong, cold, winter’s wind blew across my mind, altering my inner landscape from indoors comfortable to the out-of-doors unknown.

Not even in Advent am I immune to the problems of going to church.  Every Sunday I encounter the 21st Century cultural problem of balancing between my individually named self and merging into a communal body of believers.  I find the balance is not gained by giving more attention to one than the other.  So, feeling exceedingly lonely, I stopped speaking, sat still in the service, watching and listening, letting my feelings rise and then recede.    During the Offertory,  I suddenly  remembered Madeleine and thought of her birthday perspective, her insistence on drawing aside from the crowd (or congregation) to feel and assert the value of her own name.  The preparations of Advent draw me away from my solitude at home and into communal rhythms, but unless I find my balance in going between one and the other, I get none of the expected comfort of family and I have no shared pleasure in anticipation or religious ritual that seems to be culturally expected in church, of church-goers.  The shared rhythms of Advent and Christmas  point up for me the seeming contradiction of isolation, self separated from other selves, even as we all say or sing the same words and move in unison.

In the late 1970s, for several years I lived close enough to NYC to go in for a day.  In those years, I always went in to visit Madeleine during Advent.  I would go on a Wednesday, and Madeleine and I would first share the Wednesday noon healing service in the Cathedral, and then share lunch at the Green Tree restaurant across from the Cathedral close on Amsterdam Avenue.  The first year we did this, while we were waiting for our food to be served, some frustration or concern of hers made her say with vigorous and cheerful irritation, “Right now I think it would be best for Christians if all the churches in the world burned down at once!”  I had felt that way before, and understood her without needing to ask why she felt that way just then.  We shared a perspective from our different places without the distraction of personal details.

This past Sunday, as I sat through what I hope will be the worst sermon I’ll hear in the new church year, and then sat through an unexpected heart-freezing chill of isolation in the midst of communal joy in the signs and songs of the new Advent season, I was blessed with a clear (unexpected) focus on the sight and smell of the Green Tree’s rich Hungarian goulash and then the blunt, energetic sound of Madeleine voicing her frustration with some systemic ecclesial (read: clergy) self-centeredness.  The memory made me laugh quietly, right there during the service; Madeleine had repented somewhat of her drastic judgment,  even before lunch was over.   “Well, that’s not a practical approach,” she said.  “Think of the mess we’d have in cleaning up before we could begin over again,” she said.  “We’re never free just to walk away and start something new somewhere else.  No one ever made a clean break and a new religious approach at the same time.  Trying it only amounts to littering the religious and cultural landscape as you drive on your merry way.” 

Being Christian today involves even fewer assumptions to be taken for granted than Madeleine and I were willing to make thirty years ago, about the church and the life of faith.  The frustrations for everyone involved are probably no greater, but I notice today that ecclesial types feel a greater risk in acknowledging real problems in the church and doing anything real about them.   Naming difficulties in being Christian, or being the church anywhere, seems too close to giving ammunition to the parascientists and other aggressive, antagonistic atheists.  This, I think, is to define ourselves by their beliefs and complaints.  When Madeleine l’Engle claimed the distinction of being named and known by name, she was asserting the power of creation, not just the fact of individual value. 

Churches in general don’t trust the power of creation–it’s too wild and unexpected if it’s really creative power at work, after all.  But creative power can’t be completely denied or controlled.  The wildness of Advent is more real than all the propriety of its liturgy and symbolism.  When I was overcome by loneliness in the midst of the congregation, I knew longing for an awareness of the sort Madeleine proclaimed–that my name mattered among all the other names, not more than all the other names.   Being in a congregation lets one  feel the difference as real and abiding and transformative.    I don’t have to fix things.  The best of being in the presence of God is being in the presence of God.  When I hold myself apart and separate as a church member–not feeling belonging or wanting to belong–I miss this experience of inner transformation entirely. This doesn’t make sense to me, but the surge of creativity and Life happen ahead of–and in spite of– the rational stuff in church.

I notice that I came to this intuitive sense of reality and Presence during a church service with a terrible sermon, and emptiness in the liturgy and disconnection between ritual, symbol and voiced expression of belief.    What came before clergy, theology and tradition, and exists before and without our choice, is the Wholeness that is both wild and provided for all of us, when we come together.  That Wholeness is still available to us,  coming as we move between our individual lives and our shared life in congregation.

Madeleine l’Engle emphasized celebrating her name and her birth day within the larger celebrations of Thanksgiving and Advent, illustrating how the particular gives meaning to the general, and the general sustains and cultivates meaning for the particular.  This amounts to knowing and celebrating one’s own life in the context of gratitude and the goodness of the future.    “The irrational season,” is her description of Advent.    I can sit and wait with that for four weeks.

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Who’s Afraid of the Church Consultant?

Church leaders are notoriously slow to bring in outside help. 

The attitude of  “We’ll do it ourselves or be damned trying”  can come from miserable experience and not just from pride or prudence.     Church pews are lined with leaders who wouldn’t hire church development consultants to save their lives, likely because they’ve already been there and not done that.

I firmly resented consultants before I became one, and I’ll admit why:  again and again the consultants we hired had no sensitivity to the facts in front of them:  it was our church and we knew our household better than they did.  The little parade that came through our meeting room doors brought armfuls of skinny paper back books with shiny covers advising us to change according to plans and ideas invented by cutting edge theorists who were out to (make money and) convert us to their idea of what a church ought to be.  What we needed instead was to sort out who we were and why God had called us all together.  That essential clarity remained a mystery to the leaders and beyond the increasingly troubled congregation.

So:  consultants who arrive knowing what churches ought to do are not worth the money they charge to tell that to the leaders.

I firmly resented church consultants for a second reason:  all of them talked down to the non-clergy in the room.   They politely treated us as obstinately stupid, misbehaving children who were out to make the clergy’s lives miserable.  The church consultants we hired were all clergy, and thus projected a doubly special privilege in telling us the right ways of being and doing church.  They lost most of their credibility as soon as they opened their mouths to preach at us.   In the 1970s and ’80s, church leaders were still basically Christians nurtured from childhood.  They knew in their bones that church does not exist for the benefit of clergy; the secrets of the church are not given solely to Christians when they go to seminary; a clergy leader and a congregation share the issues, problems and context of faithful community.   

So:  consultants who condescend to church leaders from positional privilege, suck all the oxygen from the room and are not worth the money they charge for the experience.

A third reason for resenting and distrusting church consultants has to do with what Virginia Woolf has called ‘home truth.’  The home truth in congregations needing help, is that they need help and to receive that help, the leaders and the members of the congregation will have to change.  They know in their bones before the consultant arrives, exactly how they will have to change, and dammit, they don’t want to.  So they won’t, and they’ll pay money to insist publicly on blaming someone else, often the clergy.   

So:  congregational leaders who pretend to want health will do what it takes to stay away from good congregational development consultants.

I know.  I was that kind of church leader in several congregations that had that kind of attitude.  Everything came to a bad end in the churches where all of us made choices that justified our use of power or our agendas.  Such a bad end has a very long half-life, which may eventually be redeemed.  Church consulting has come a long ways since the 1970s, in particular that area of consulting based in principles of organizational development.  Consultants can bring health even to intransigent unhealthy congregations.

When I look back at the long string of miserable consultation experiences I had as a leader in succeeding congregations, I see some things we could have done at the outset to make a positive difference in our experience with the consultants:

  • Define and articulate precisely what we wanted to the consultant to help us do
  • Engage the consultant for more than one workshop or more than one session, so we could get over any of our defensiveness
  • Determine to learn to learn, and not to get answers, so we would know how to do it ourselves, afterwards
  • Evaluate our experience fully and frankly, measured against our own expectations, and share that evaluation with the consultant
  • Set expectations of ourselves to use what we had learned how to do, to foil the waste of our money

Good leaders are wise not to rush toward quick fixes, and wiser still if they know what they need help for, and how to get good outside help when they need it.

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