Teaching Faith?

Today’s question comes from Stevie.  She writes: “Pastor Craig. I remember having faith in God at a very young age. It has built over time as life experiences have happened. I don’t know how I could live a day without my walk with God.  I understand how different religious paths can be taught to people, and lessons on right and wrong, but do you think one can ‘teach’ a person to have faith? Thank you for your time, which is precious these days.”

Thanks for the great question, Stevie.  The short answer to your question is, “No.  I do not believe you can ‘teach’ someone to have faith.”  I do believe, however, that you can teach people spiritual disciplines like prayer practices, how to engage the sacred texts of one’s religious tradition, provide opportunities to help/connect with people (i.e. missions), etc.  And a pastor can certainly model what one model of faith looks like.  At the end of the day, however, an individual must make the decision to live a life of faith for her or himself.

Your question provides me with an opportunity to talk briefly about an important shift that’s taken place within me recently as I help people engage this notion of “having faith”.

There are a lot of folks these days who perceive faith in a pretty black and white way.  They believe you either “have faith” – which means you embrace spiritual notions that look like the religious traditions with which you were raised, or you don’t have faith.  A lot of folks who say they don’t have faith (especially those who weren’t raised in religious traditions) are tortured by this black and white approach.  They want to “have faith” – but have no idea of what it takes to let go and embrace faith.

Here’s what I tell such folks these days.

Every human being on the planet already lives a life of faith.  That’s true of atheists; agnostics; and people of every label on the planet.  So the real question one should ask oneself is this: “What is my faith in?”

For some, their faith is in their reason or intellect.  For others, it’s in science.  For some, their faith is in a particular political party or candidate.  For others, it’s in the wisdom of a particular author.  For some, their faith is in the connection they feel to the universe when they are out in nature.  For others, it’s in the warmth and goodness of their family.  To use the language of the 12-Step movement, each of us as “a god of our understand”.

The key, then, is to help people first realize where their faith lies.  Once they do that, they can begin to understand they already have a great deal of experience in living a life of faith.  The remaining question they must wrestle with then becomes this: “Does the thing in which I place my faith provide me with a life of peace and serenity that connects me to a world larger than myself?”  If so, then the person can continue to live her or his life as usual.  If the source of faith is NOT doing that, then it is time to talk about exploring something new.  And that’s where I’m happy to step in and help them begin that process of spiritual exploration.

Those are a few of the thoughts that Stevie’s question raised for me.  I would love to invite you into the conversation.  And for those who don’t want to join this conversation, what question would you raise for our online community today?

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New Announcement for the New Year

This past Monday I notified active participants in the congregation I serve that I will be leaving parish ministry in 2020.  My last Sunday as the pastor of a local church will be Sunday, April 26, 2020.

As I told my congregants, my primary reasons for leaving parish ministry are personal.  As a person who struggles with issues of codependency and establishing healthy relationships, the parish setting is not the healthiest place for me to be.  I have often told friends that asking a codependent person to serve as the pastor of a local church is much like asking a recovering alcoholic to be a bartender.  It can be done – but it takes a LOOOOOOOOOOOT of effort, and it never gets easy.

I look forward to the next stage of my ministry.  I am not sure in what vocational setting – or in what geographical location – my next position will be.  I am completely open to going wherever God calls.  All I know is that the right position will be one that allows me to establish a healthy balance between my personal and vocational lives.

I look forward to the adventures that lie ahead.  I would also ask that you hold the people of the congregation I serve (Woodland Hills Community Church) in your prayers during this time of transition.

May God bless you will a wonderful year – full of your own adventures – in 2020.

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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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