Monday, April 24, 2017

A Parable About Spiritual but Not Religious.

      Lazarus owns a 1999 Dodge Neon, a car with a bit of Y2K disaster built right into its glovebox.

      Lazarus’ Neon, by popular acclaim one of that year’s “Ten Worst Cars,” is by now very rusty. Its leaky oil pan stains the driveway. The wheels are out of alignment. It doesn’t have any get up and go. Foam stuffing is coming out of the seats.

The infamous 1999 Neon
 One day, when the brakes feel especially spongy, Lazarus decides he has to take his Neon to the Nazareth Auto Repair shop. In a moment of carefree optimism Lazarus even asks the mechanics to give the car a tuneup. It has been a long time since the car has had a tune up—forever, in fact. Some car owners are like that.

      So the Nazareth mechanics go to work. They discover that the compression is way down in two cylinders. The spark plugs are still original equipment. The brakes need new rotors and discs all around.

      In fact, the Nazareth Auto Repair mechanics finally tell Lazarus that the car isn’t worth tuning up. It needs a resurrection. Repairs will cost at least 4,000 dollars and that wouldn’t even cover the upholstery or rust. The Nazareth mechanics advise Lazarus to buy another car, instead. They actually have a good used Aura on their lot.

      So Lazarus goes home to consider his options. He decides that he doesn’t trust the Nazareth mechanics. Never has, really. You see, he actually only trusts how he feels about cars—just as many of us only trust our feelings about spirituality. In fact, Lazarus trusts his feelings more than he trusts the Nazareth Auto Repair shop’s expertise. And that is how it is with most people today when they think of religion, too.

      That is how it is for the church. When it comes to faith—whether rusty or none at all—people tend to trust their intuitions, feelings, and whatever they last read on the Internet more than they trust the church as a religious institution.

      Of course, Lazarus’ story is a parable. I’m exaggerating when I say that people only trust their feelings when it comes to spirituality. I actually know some very thoughtful people who pursue personal spirituality vigorously. They’ve studied the great religious prophets like Martin Luther and Martin Luther King and maybe have even read the Upanishads or the Koran. They meditate according to some Eastern discipline or another. They devote time and intellect to their spirituality.

      But usually, when people say that they are spiritual but not religious, they make the claim based on their feelings and intuitions.

      This is especially so, I think, for one key reason. We live in an era when most of us—whether we go to church or not—most of us are very skeptical of all institutions. We don’t trust government institutions that go to war because we know that once upon a time they did not find weapons of mass destruction. And they tax us too much, we think. They can’t build the subways or transit or run Hydro (the electric utility) the way such things ought to be run.

      People are skeptical about institutions. Classrooms are too crowded. Persons of Colour end up being carded or languishing in jail more than White folks. Banks push their own investment instruments rather than the best ones, and then charge too much for doing so. Oh, and they charge a million user fees. Millennials can’t find the jobs they trained for and when they do find one it’s merely a “gig” rather than a career.

      People are skeptical about institutions. They don’t like them and don’t trust them. So what are they supposed to do? Mostly, we cannot quit the institutions that are part of our daily lives. We can’t take our money out of the bank and put it under a bed and then buy stuff on Amazon. We can’t quit taking cars on government roads or public transit to work. We can’t stop being citizens of Canada or of the US—national free agents. Most institutions, whether we love them or hate them can’t be avoided.

      So, to express their anti-institutional angst, one thing that many people do, often unconsciously, is leave those few institutions they can choose to leave. Like the church. People reject Nazareth Motors because it satisfies their longing to thumb their noses at an institution, any institution.

      This frustrates me. On the one hand, I get it. Churches have, through history (and like banks and governments and militaries through the ages) done some very stupid, very bad stuff. Fought for Constantine. Went on crusades. Persecuted Jews. Participated in the Residential Schools cultural genocide.

      I get it. You can’t quit being a citizen of a country that sometimes does very bad things, but you can quit being party to this ancient institution called the church that did so much wrong. 

      But the church doesn't always fail. At its best, the church has done some pretty incredible things. I like the story in Acts chapter six.The newborn church faced a problem. You see, idealists that they were, they had gotten into the habit of selling everything they had and sharing the cash with each as each had need. Not a system guaranteed to work for very long, but they did it with the best of intentions.
Worship at Lawrence Park Community Church

      Except that some members of the church were overlooked in the distribution of the food. The early church did right by its Jewish members, but not by its non-Jewish gentile members. The Jewish members were well looked after, but the Greek-speaking widows went hungry.

      To resolve this problem, the church organized itself, as institutions do. It organized itself religiously, in fact. It selected several men to make sure that money was shared fairly. And the amazing thing was that the church selected—we can tell by the names we read—the church selected only Greek-speaking men, the children of those hungry Greek-speaking women, to take over all the financial leadership of the church, for both Jews and Greeks.

      Amazing. For us, it would be like putting only people with the biggest mortgages on the boards of banks. Like putting only homeless people on Toronto’s City Council. Like only allowing only First Nations people to work for the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Very idealistic. Irregular. Perhaps unworkable.

      And yet this sort of risky, selfless, upside-down behaviour is actually what organized institutional religion, at its best, is all about. Churches are a time, a place and an opportunity for spiritual people to join hands with other spiritual people, learn together, and work together for the good of all humanity, even if at great personal cost. It is risky, because as is the case with all human institutions, churches sometimes fail. But it is necessary, because when people try to work out what it is to follow Jesus together, the potential good multiplies exponentially.

      So, for example, my church brings refugees to Canada, even when we know that it will cost us in time, big time, when they finally arrive. We contribute generously to fund a children’s summer camp even though we don’t personally know the impoverished kids who go there. We encourage our City Councillors and MPs to keep working for the least and the last even if it means more taxes. We insist together that our planet is a temple and we will do what it takes, politically and personally to keep it beautiful, even if it is only our grandchildren, rather than ourselves, who will benefit. We inspire our bankers to work for shareholder profit and the common good—and they try. We remind each other that racism isn’t just a matter of personal prejudice, but a matter of systems that wed prejudice to power, systems that mostly white folks benefit from.

      Our denomination has done some pretty awesome things too. The United Church of Canada, at great cost to itself, was the first major Canadian institution of any stripe to call for equal rights for gay people. As a denomination, we keep raising the ire of corporations and politicians, and even some of our members by demanding social justice for Palestinians, refugees, the poor, and the environment—among a hundred other causes.

      Spirituality can be great. It is an inescapable human need, like exercise or food. But religion can be great too. Religious institutions unleash the hopeful power of spirituality to change minds and other institutions and even whole cultures and planets. Spirituality with religion is more than merely a feeling or intuition. Religion at its best is the potential we all share to become both more deeply human, more like Christ or the Buddha, and more connected to each other and the divine--not solely for private benefit, but for the good of all people.

      I am still bothered by the long history of institutional failures on the part of the church, even though I can point to many successes as well. Failure is what humans do. Still, there are some problems that we need to join hands to overcome, even if we have failed in the past. So let’s try again. Let’s join spirituality to religion and give it a go.

      The truth is, we all begin to sag, and rust, and slow down when we try to do spirituality merely as an intuition or gut feeling. It is hard to keep a private spirituality firing on all cylinders. So what we all really need, to do spirituality right, to keep it in good repair, is check in at the Nazarene Repair shop, to tune it up. Regularly. While keeping an eye on each other to make sure we do it better!

Monday, April 3, 2017

Preaching Matters. But . . .

I have always thought of myself—certainly with more than a little presumption—as a better than average preacher. Perhaps every preacher thinks so. 

But I’ve also studied preaching. I did it from a non-religious point of view, focussing on how preaching persuades, for my Ph.D. work. I’ve taught homiletics to aspiring preachers. And I’ve studied—again, mostly in non-religious settings—how contemporary media has changed both people’s ability to listen and read. 

         Along the way, as a minister, I’ve wondered long and hard about what attracts people to one church rather than another. Sometimes the reasons have little to do with “how good” a church is—however you define “good.” Lots of churches, for example, are tribal. People belong to them because “their people” belong. This is often true of immigrant churches and of ethnic churches in particular, though it may have to do with social standing and belonging to the right club. Sometimes—more often than you would think—people go to church out of long habit, and it is enough that there is one very close to them. That decides it. In my years as a minister, I’ve met people who go to one church or another because of architecture, because of a friend, because of the music, or because it has a great Sunday School for their children.

A few people choose their church for theological reasons. They want (for example) a really liberal church. Or a fire-breathing Primitive Baptist church that does revivals. Not many, but a few!

Put aside all these reasons for choosing a church, there are still two matters that count more than almost any other. First, people will make a judgement, upon visiting, about whether or not there is a community in that church that will fit them. A few weeks ago, for example, after attending my congregation a few times, a youngish millennial couple asked me how many other couples their age attended regularly. I gave an honest answer and have not seen them since. And, of course, people looking for community will stay if the community they find truly embraces them. 

Second, getting back to preaching, I realize more and more that over time people will make a judgement about where to go to church based on the preaching. If a church wants to maintain its size or grow it will need a preacher who connects on a very regular basis. The room for so-so preaching has shrunk, a lot. People want a preacher who will have them holding their breath to see how “it” turns out. Someone who can make them laugh at themselves. Someone who has something to say that is rooted in the heart of the gospel but that resonates with lived experience. Something more than self-help. Someone who is compelling but doesn’t nag. Someone who says the mystery in a way they feel it. Someone who connects with their fear and hopes.

So, though I like to think of myself as that preacher, as I enter my final season as a preacher, I have begun, in spite of what I’ve said so far, to question how much of a difference I can make as a preacher.

Let me explain the reasons why. Although they are informed by my studies, what I’m sharing now is my gut feeling about these things. I’m interested in what others may think.

First, it is harder to make an impression as a preacher because audiences don’t listen anymore with the same skill and attention that they used to. Once upon a time preachers created sermons in the image of the essay or book. This worked, because people tended to read a lot. They were deft at figuring out linear, rational, ordered arguments. 
But these sort of sermons work with a smaller and smaller demographic. Partly this is because attention spans are way shorter than they used to be. If you are not sure this is the case, check out the literature. It takes a lot more skill to gain the attention or your audience, keep it, and engage it than it used to.

Second, people also have a harder time attending to sermons because the most common model for sermons a generation ago was the book, but it isn’t anymore. Books—and good essays—are linear. They build their case cumulatively and rationally. They use reason and narrative. And when people used to listen to sermons, they listened with the ears of readers.

But people do not read as much as they used to. They find it difficult to attend to sustained narrative. The books they do read—just check out how many there are in any bookstore—are often self-help books that are long lists of “to do’s.” Books are far more fractured and less narratively sensible than they used to be. If narrative preaching is a partial answer to this reality, it has to be the sort of narrative that non-readers used to be able to listen to—legends, sagas, parables and so on. Walter Ong’s description of the psychodynamics of orality helps me here, but challenges me too. It’s hard.

Third, I’ve also become less sure of myself as a preacher because I’ve become acutely aware of my own uncertainties and waffling. I live with ambiguity when it comes to what and how to preach. I used to be able to count on people being interested in the truth of dogmas, for example, and spent time trying to get those dogmas across. But I’m done with dogma myself, so it doesn’t make for great preaching fodder anymore.

Fourth, I’ve become less sure of myself as a preacher because I know that my status—perhaps role is a better word—as preacher has changed over the years. I cannot rely, any longer, on being listened to because, well, I’m a preacher and I know. People don’t sit down convinced that they need to listen; they sit down to decide whether or not they will listen. People don't come to church believing that they are empty vessels that just need to be filled.

What to do about this? Well, I take longer to write than I used to. I pay more attention to how sagas and legends were told in an era before people read. I count on my current audience’s high level of literate education than I used to, so I can be forgiven a bit more. I try new things: preaching secular texts and songs, using drama, interactive exercises. But I’m an amateur at much of this, unsure of how to embrace it and make it work.

The bottom line? Preaching is harder than ever. There is no excuse for business as usual. We have to take risks. We have to speak to what people are really wondering about. And we have to keep on trying.