Making Sense of Advent

Today’s comment comes from Andrea.  She wrote: “I would love to hear How Christians of progressive faith navigate Advent. I’m assuming most don’t believe that three wisemen followed a donkey to a stable filled with clean sheep and smelling of wood soap?”

While there isn’t just ONE Progressive take on the Advent and Christmas seasons (yes, they are separate), let me offer these words as a jumping-off point for how some Progressives approach the seasons.

If I were to use the language of Marcus Borg for a minute, Marcus would say that when we talk about matters such as biblical stories and traditions there are at least two ways we can talk about them.  We can talk about them as factual (meaning we spend our time debating whether the accounts happened EXACTLY as recorded), or we can talk about their meanings.

Progressives, of course, will talk about facts.  For instance, they will quickly point out there is no mention of the number of wisemen/magi/kings in the biblical texts.  They will mention that the notion there were three grew out of an early assumption that because there were three gifts there must have been three wisemen/magi/kings.  They will also note that within the global Christian community, there is disagreement about how many wisemen/magi/kings there were.  Those in the West say three; many of those in the East – especially in the Syriac churches – say twelve.

And unlike many Traditionalists – who fold the accounts of the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke together to craft one story – many Progressives will talk about the two versions of the Christmas story separately.  They do so in order to talk about how each Gospel had theological agendas that emphasize a different aspect of the tradition.  The Gospel of Matthew, for instance, includes a telling of the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt to escape persecution by Herod while the Gospel of Luke doesn’t include that story.  Matthew (a Gospel written primarily to appeal to an audience steeped in Jewish tradition) wants to present Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew Scripture.  The flight to Egypt picks up on a passage from Hosea 11:1 (“… out of Egypt I have called My son”).  Luke’s audience, on the other hand, is more Gentile and less Jewish.  This Gospel is slightly less concerned with presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture and – therefore –less compelled to tie Jesus to Egypt.

Over the last few years, however, many Progressives realized that ONLY talking about the factual dimensions of the Christmas story left them cynical, bitter, and jaded – and robbed them of the joy of the season, leaving some feeling spiritually adrift.

As a result, some Progressively have grown increasingly comfortable moving beyond a conversation about fact and embracing conversations about the meanings contained in the Christmas story that inform their experience of Advent.

What do these conversations look like?  Here are a few bulleted points about these conversations.

  • These conversations start, for instance, by talking about how while Jesus was initially welcomed by adherents of one religious tradition (Judaism), Advent reminds us that God’s deepest desire for us it to bring us together across lines (i.e. Jew and Gentile).
  • The conversations also remind us that our Christian faith invites us to think about the ways in which God’s love is concrete (or Incarnational) and not purely abstract or ethereal.
  • The conversations remind us that one of the oldest biblical themes is that God initially comes not to the best and the brightest, but to the meekest and most humble. Those on the margins hold a special place in the heart of God.  And while God may enter human experience/consciousness from the margins, God’s radical love and grace spread throughout all social locations.

Those are just a few of the conversations through which Progressives can joyously – and excitedly! -connect with the spirit of Advent and Christmas.

So what about you?  How do you bring your Progressive commitments to the seasons of Advent and Christmas?

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What’s On Your Mind?

As the holiday season approaches, I’m wondering what you’d like to talk about.  Drop me a line and let me know

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Social Media? Friend or Foe?

Yesterday, I was blessed to have two folks respond to my request for topics. Here is the second that was submitted by Andrea. She wrote: “I am thinking a lot about social media influence and folks who claim to be more open to all walks of life but, if you have a question, they slam you for being uneducated. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for people trying to figure things out and learn in a safe environment. It feels a lot like the popularity clique back in high school where the loudest, smartest, and wittiest person wins; and we all must follow along with pom-poms, or we are losers. I am at the point in my journey where I am willing to do what it takes to find myself despite opposition or closemindedness – but what if you are not as brave as I am? I don’t mean that in a narcissistic way. I am almost 50 and done being a follower. I am concerned, however, for the younger generation who might feel they have to either just go along to get along or suppress questions. I’m terrified people are not allowed just to think and feel. This lack of connection has people doing crazy things like picking up guns. Again, I did not mean to sound dramatic. It’s just what I’m thinking. What are your thoughts?”

Thanks, Andrea, for bring up the topic of social media and its impact on our lives. I have two thoughts regarding social media that I’ll share, and then I’d like to open it up to my readers to share their thoughts as well.

The first thought Andrea’s comments raise for me comes in the form of a question: what is the purpose of social media?

Of course, I can’t answer that question for everyone – but for me, social media serves two purposes. First, social media is a platform that informs me about what is going on in the PERSONAL lives of those I care about (be they personal friends or celebrities whom I respect). Second, social media provides a platform for entertainment. Through social media I can be exposed to memes, videos, and articles that I would otherwise not see. Much like the listings of a TV guide, I get to scroll through posts and check out those items I care to see. Those are the two purposes social media serves for me.

What’s missing?

You will notice that I didn’t say social media is a place for me to learn. I don’t, for instance, use social media to tell me which candidate to vote for; which theological or philosophical tradition is best; or how I should feel about social issues. If I find a post that triggers my interest, I will leave social media behind and do my research elsewhere.

Why?

Because in my experience, people post or share only those things that fit their bent on a subject. The material is either incredibly slanted in its perspective or comes from a questionable source. That’s why I don’t use social media platforms as a learning tool.
I can’t tell you how helpful it has been for me to keep these two purposes in mind. It prevents me from getting sucked into conversations and debates that are hurtful.
This takes me to my second point (which is a sort of extension of my first). When it comes to matters of my personal development on various topics, I try to NEVER go through that process on social media.

Why?

For two reasons. First, since social media is largely a platform for entertainment, most folks don’t communicate in ways that are helpful. Rather, their goal is to get as much attention as possible (or – to use Facebook lingo – get as many likes as possible). Because of this desire for attention, people tend to resort to the sort of childish, crass behavior Andrea described above.

And secondly, the kind of sensitivity and support that one needs during periods of growth and transformation is rarely – if ever – exhibited on social media. That’s because that sensitivity and support is the kind borne of intimate relationships between two individuals (or, in some cases, a small community). That’s why I’m careful to use only things like Instant or Direct Message on social media platforms; texts; phone calls; or – gasp! – face to face encounters when I need sensitivity and support from others as I grow.

What saddens me most about social media is the way it brings out aspects of loved ones that I rarely see otherwise. For instance, I’ve seen some of the most kind, gentle souls who are tireless advocates for social justice and inclusion be instantly transformed into dogmatic, raging individuals who embody the very behaviors they are so quick to criticize in others.

So those are my suggestions, Andrea, for how to build a constructive relationship with social media: (1) remember what its purpose is (and ISN’T); and (2) know where to go to find the sensitivity and support you need during period of personal growth (here’s a hint: it’s rarely if ever social media!).

How about you? What issues do Andrea’s comments raise for you?

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Balancing the Inner and Outer

One of the magnificent aspects of being on sabbatical is that a clergyperson has the chance to sit back and reflect on her or his practice of ministry. Unfortunuately, this is an all too rare occurrence since our busy schedules often prevent us from taking time for such reflection on a regular basis.

One of the things I’ve thought about during my sabbatical is how we in the church can maintain a balance between a focus on individual spiritual formation and a focus on the expressions those spiritual commitments through acts of social justice.

It can be incredibly hard to maintain such a balance between our inner and outer lives: and some of the congregations I’ve visited seem to fall on just one end of that spectrum. They either provide worship experiences focused solely on the individual and her or his spiritual formation OR they focus solely on the social injustices perpetuated by society.

So how do you maintain a healthy balance?

I was given a beautiful insight in how to answer that question through a posting one of my friends made recently on Facebook. The posting was from a Guy Rawling WVTM 13 New’s post. It was a picture of Mr. Rogers sitting beside Officer Clemmons (an African-American peace officer) on a hot summer day back in the 1960’. The two men had their shoes off and their feet in a child’s swimming pool.

On the surface, the picture might seem innocuous. If one remembers that at the time that it was illegal for African-Americans and European-Americans to share the same pools, the picture takes on incredible significance!

So as I think about how I feel called to maintain a balance between my inner spiritual life and outward expressions of my commitment to social justice, I think about all of the so-called “little” ways I have worked to hold this balance.

When we give out food and gas cards from our church office to those in need, for instance, we never ask about residency or citizenship status. When I pull together our weekly worship services, I try to be multi-lingual rather than monolingual whenever possible. After the Sandy Hooks shooting, I worked with our Nursery School staff and a mental health provider to ensure we had early assessment and intervention for youth with emerging mental health issues.  When we hired church staff, we keep an eye on diversity. As a result, four of our 7 church staff members are women of color – and three of these four are immigrants. When our Nursery School was asked by a parent years ago to offer English-only classes, I immediately worked to make enrichment resources available that allowed some class offerings in Spanish. When I noticed that many of our written liturgical resources were offered only in language that assumed certain educational levels – I’ve worked to incorporate other ways of worshiping that were more accessible to those with limited educational backgrounds. When a youth from Peru entered our congregation and struggled to find ways of contributing to the life of the community, I worked with our Worship Team to lower the age-requirement for those who served as acolytes to allow the youth to serve.

None of these steps are “big” steps that make the newspapers. All of these steps, however, were taken because they reflected my deeply-held spiritual views of what the reign of God looks like. My fervent hope and prayer is that each of these little steps will help transform the world: one life at a time.

So how about you? What are some ways that you work to maintain a balance between your inner spiritual life and the outward expression of your spirituality through acts of social justice and inclusion? The more ideas we have for how to create visible expressions of our inner spiritual lives, the more just and inclusive I believe our world will be.

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Reaching Beyond “the Choir”

I’ve had a great opportunity this weekend to talk with long-time friends about the issue of immigration and the detention centers that are currently being used by the United States. The issue has been at the forefront of our minds since we were told that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had picked 10 cities for sweeps targeting immigrants – including both Los Angeles (the city in which I live) and Denver (the city I am currently visiting).

In the context of those passionate conversations with loved ones, I was reminded my approach to divisive social issues is a little different than some. The reason for that is that I have two passions that are often perceived of as being diametrically opposed that inform my approach: spirituality and politics. My approach, then, is to deal with hot-button issues by borrowing equally from both fields.

Let me demonstrate how I use my approach using the matter of immigration sweeps as an example. I’ll begin by talking about my spiritual convictions that guide me.
As a Christian, there are two spiritual convictions that guide my life. First, I believe that every human being is a sacred child of God and – as such – needs to be treated with dignity and respect. Second, as a Christian I believe Jesus calls us to mercifully care for others in the way that the Good Samaritan treated the vulnerable man alongside the road (which, ironically, was the assigned Gospel reading from the lectionary yesterday).
Here’s where those two spiritual convictions get me in trouble in unexpected ways. When I say that “every human being is a sacred child of God and needs to be treated with dignity and respect”, that means both the immigrant from Guatemala and the Trumpster that lives next door. Many who affirm the sacred value of every individual mean EITHER the immigrant OR the Trumptster: but not both.

Second, when I say I believe “Jesus calls us to mercifully care for others in the way that the Good Samaritan treated the man alongside the road” – again, I feel a moral obligation to treat everyone well. That means treating both the immigrant with dignity and respect as they seek to enjoy the freedoms and opportunities they deserve AND treating those whom society would label my political opponents with dignity and respect in the course of our conversation about how to best craft immigration policy.

So my spiritual convictions call me to be a powerful force of love that transcends labels like “immigrant” and “Trumpster” – so that I can help create a world where all receive my love, care, and mercy.

So how do my political (and not my partisan) convictions inform my approach to immigration?

As someone who has been involved in the political process for over 30 years now, I learned an important lesson very early. I have little if any desire to “preach to the choir”: meaning pull together likeminded people and whip them into a frenzy by focusing on how bad those on “the other side” are. Instead, my consuming passion is to reach beyond those who already see the world like I do and affect those who see things differently. My experience has taught me that that is the only way in which I can ensure that my views stand a chance at becoming public policy.

So how do I reach those who see themselves as holding radically different positions than I do?

Here is where I use a model that I learned from the Oregon Speak Out project comes in handy. The model was used in the early 1990’s when the states of Oregon and Washington were facing a spate of ballot proposals designed to deny LGBTQI people their basic human rights.

The model they taught their volunteers was called LARA. The acronym stands for LISTEN, RESPOND, AFFIRM, and ADD INFORMATION. Let me give you an example of how this model might work in real life.

Let’s say I’m involved in a conversation with a passionate supporter of immigration sweeps and the detention centers. The first thing I do is take the time to listen to the individual without interrupting her or him. As the individual talks, I listen for at least one point they make that represent common – or shared value. For instance, in their remarks the person might say, “We need the sweeps to round dangerous illegal immigrants up get them off our streets!”

So when the person finishes speaking, I might start by saying something like, “I hear that you are really concerned about the safety of our communities.” A statement like this does two things: first, it demonstrates that you listened; and second, it gives you an opportunity to frame the next phase of the conversation.

Now that you’ve listened and responded, the next step is the most unexpected – and transformative – piece of the encounter. You affirm a shared value. In the above conversation, for instance, you would follow up your opening sentence by saying something like, “I, too, share your concern about the safety of our community.” Once a shared value is identified, the fear and distrust of “the other” begins to disappear – for you establish the fact that the two of you don’t see the world as differently as they might suspect. And with that, the other person begins to breath and actually open their ears and their hearts.

Once that happens, you get to the fourth and final stage of the model: the part where you get to add information. The final part of the conversation might go something like this. “Since we both share a common desire to make our communities safer, here’s something you might want to consider. I was reading that a study by the Cato Institute – a Libertarian (not a Democratic or Republican) think tank – that looked at the rate of crime and convictions per 100,000 residents for three populations: undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants, and native-born Americans. They found that the rate of arrests and criminal convictions for undocumented immigrants was 899 per 100,000; the rate for legal immigrants was 611; and the rate for native-born Americans was 1,797. That means native-born Americans were more than twice as likely to be arrested and convicted of crimes than undocumented immigrants! So if we truly want to take steps to make our communities safe, we need to focus our limited resources on those who are actually committing crimes at the highest rate – native-born Americans.”  (Here’s a link to the article: Cato Study.)

Will such an approach work every time? Absolutely not. There are some people whose hearts are so hardened by their assumptions that they will NEVER change their minds no matter what the facts say. There are many people in a group called “the mushy middle”, however, that will listen. IF – and only IF – they feel as if they have truly been listened to first.

And here’s my favorite part of the LARA model. The model represents both my core spiritual AND political values. The model’s commitment to listening to “the other” and taking the time and energy to identify shared values demonstrates my spiritual conviction that every person (including those whom society would label my opponents) are sacred individuals worthy of being heard. AND it demonstrates my core political conviction that if we ever want to effect policy change, we have to have the strength and courage to reach out beyond “the choir” and change the hearts and minds of those who tend to see things differently than we do.

So how about you? What ideas do you have for reaching out to everyone in the midst of divisive debates that both reflect your core spiritual values AND present opportunities to actually change people’s hearts?

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Acceptance – Part 2

I had a wonderful opportunity to sit down with a friend (and blog reader) from Denver this weekend. In our time together, she asked me to say a little more about the concept of acceptance that I wrote about last week.

Let me begin by sharing the paragraph I had posted that was taken from a source called The Big Book from AA. I’ll highlight in bold italics the part that can be particularly tough to understand.

“And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation—some fact of my life —unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes” (page 417).

Let me start by putting those words into the context of an addiction. Then I’ll step back and see if those words might have anything to offer in other situations as well.
For many addicts, their lives are driven by a thing called expectations. They have a sense of how things are SUPPOSED to be. When things don’t turn out the way they want, those expectations produce something called resentments. It is those resentments that often cause an individual to use their circumstance as an excuse to engage in their compulsive behavior. Let me give you a couple examples.

A person might find her or himself trapped in a loveless or violent relationship. “This isn’t the way things were supposed to be. Everyone else has a good relationship, why don’t I?” They then resort to compulsive behaviors like drinking or eating in order to escape their misery.

Another person might find her or himself stuck in a dead-end job. “My career wasn’t supposed to unfold like this. I was supposed to be running a regional branch by now, not working a stupid desk job.” Their frustration and rage over their situation might get channel in the direction of a compulsive behavior and they act out to reward themselves for having to put up with this situation.

In each circumstance, the addictive cycle began when the individual focuses on how life was supposed to be: not how their life really was. This obsessive focus on their fantasy of how things SHOULD be causes them NOT to be present to their reality. Instead, they use a substance (or an expression of relationship) to numb the pain of their resentments.
It’s only when individuals can summon the strength to first look at – and then accept – their situation that the individual can be empowered to deal with their situation in a head on fashion. Let me return to the examples I used to show you what I mean.

The person in a loveless or violent relationship might say, “The relationship in which I find myself is the product of the decisions I’ve made. So, what is it that caused me to be enter into the relationship (or causes me to remain stuck in the relationship) – and how might I make different choices in order to find myself in a different circumstance?”
Similarly, the person in the dead-end job might say, “Why do I find myself in this unsatisfying situation? What could I do to address my dissatisfaction in my current job – or what would it take to pursue another opportunity that would be more fulfilling?”

You’ll notice that in both instances I laid out, neither individual focused on the other party in processing the circumstance. The person in the loveless or violent relationship, for instance, didn’t focus on their partner; nor did the person in the dead-end job blame her or his supervisor or corporate culture. Instead, the 12 Steps work challenges individuals to honestly focus on the situation and the role she or he played in creating the situation.

“Okay, I can see the value in acknowledge the reality of a situation,” you might be thinking, “but why do they have to take it the next step and say things are SUPPOSED to be the way they are? Is anyone SUPPOSED to be in a loveless or violent relationship? Is anyone supposed to be miserable in a dead-end job?”

On the surface, the obvious answer would be, “Of course not!” But here’s the thing about life. Many of us are unable to learn lessons when the circumstances of our lives are easy. It’s only when the bottom starts to drop out in our lives that we are forced to look at things that we would otherwise NEVER look at. In the 12-Step movement, they call these moments when the bottom drops out “hitting bottom”.

Many program participants come to see those moments of pain and agony as the best thing that ever happened to them: for hitting bottom caused them to first face, and then deal with things they would have otherwise never dealt with. They will say shocking things like, “The best thing that ever happened to me was when I lost my job due to my drinking?” or “My life began to take on meaning when my loved one said, ‘Either you deal with your eating problem, or I’m out of here.’ Those moments forced me to do the work that I would have otherwise NEVER done!”

That’s why the 12-Step literature suggests things are the way they are supposed to be: even when the circumstances of our lives are awful.

As a Christian, I recognize that concept as it sounds a lot like the dynamics of Holy Week. You can’t just run to the Resurrection energies of new life on your spiritual journey. If you truly want to understand and appreciate those resurrection energies of Easter, you have to live through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday (i.e. the pain, the suffering, and expressions of death) first. THEN it’s possible to know new life.

I hope my ramblings this morning helped you better understand those words about acceptance. And if they didn’t resonate completely with you, you can follow the advice of many 12-Step participants: “Take what works for you and leave the rest.”

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Practicing Subversive Self-Care

When it comes to self-care, there are a lot of things that people do that are considered relatively standard. Things like taking a bubble bath, getting a massage, praying/meditating, exercising, and reading or listening to music. There are other methods of self-care that often slip under the radar. I’ll give you one example of the way I do self-care that most folks don’t know about.

We clergypersons are in positions where our lives are open books. In the process of bonding with our congregants through things like pastoral care visits, Bible studies, sermons and the like – they get to know us very well. They know what our favorite foods and restaurants are, they know about our views (theological, social, and political), they know our favorite television shows and movies, and they know a lot about the most formative experiences of our lives. In so ways, we are more open and more vulnerable with folks than most others.

So how do we take care of ourselves and carve out space that is uniquely ours?
Each clergy person does it in slightly different ways. Here’s one thing I have done. As much as I love social media – and talking openly about certain things such as politics and sports – I rarely post about those things that are most important to me: the folks in my inner circle.

One of my friends noticed this recently and asked me why I didn’t post more pictures on Facebook and name the people I was spending time with: the way many others do. I told him, “I’m comfortable talking in general terms about the thoughts, feelings, and experiences I have. But the time I spend with specific people in specific places is incredibly personal to me. That’s why I leave out those details.” That’s one subversive way I practice self-care: by carving out pieces of my life that I keep to myself.

My conversation with my friend this morning made me think about those ways that each of us care for ourselves in ways that fly under most peoples’ radar. Since I’ve shared one of my secret self-care methods, I’m wondering if you’ll take the risk and share one of yours. What self-care method do you use that most people don’t realize is a way of taking care of yourself? The more ideas we have to incorporate into our lives regarding self-care, the better we can get at it!

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