Last Sunday, I visited a church in my neighborhood for the first time. This wasn’t a church where I had been working. These people didn’t know me. I was an honest-to-goodness first-time guest — a “seeker.”
When the service was over, two people approached me to introduce themselves and thank me for being there. The first lady was warm and genuine and sweet. The second man was equally genuine, but didn’t seem to think about the words he was saying.
“I want to thank you,” were the first words from him mouth.
“Yes, I want to thank you for giving me permission to wear jeans to church.”
[I hadn’t given a second thought to my sweater-and-jeans combo — until now.]
“Well, I’m glad I could help,” I said as I scanned the room.
Yep, I thought — I’m alone.
My new friend and I laughed at his comment and tried to rescue the attempt at small talk.
I then I left.
And walking through the parking lot, I wondered how many other people have walked away from this church feeling just as alone.
I posted this a year ago, but I love the poem — its summertime imagery right here in the brown slush of winter’s overstayed welcome –, so I thought I would share it again:
It’s Ash Wednesday. Whatever your religious tradition or non-tradition, you probably already recognize Ash Wednesday in some form.
At the heart of it, Ash Wednesday is a moment to consider the value of life. Our brevity on earth. Our inherent limited-ness as human beings. “From dust you have come and to dust you must go,” says the priest with the ashes.
Most of us observe a form of Ash Wednesday when we attend a funeral. We give hugs to the family. We cry. We search for something to say. We ponder our own life and death.
We observe Ash Wednesday when the doctor tells us we’ll need a PET scan. Who, me? Why? The words come quickly back to mind, From dust you have come…
We observe Ash Wednesday when our loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Our brains, our bodies are carbon and water. Nothing is permanent. …To dust you must go.
On Ash or any Wednesday, we can be struck with that gruesome and necessary fact of life — that it isn’t ours forever. That it’s precious. That it is worth living with our eyes wide open.
It’s not so much a sad observance, but a freeing observance. In the process of confronting our limitation, we may just discover new meaning to our life . . . or take a risk we didn’t think was possible . . . or awaken a part of us we thought was gone.
Christians embody the limited-ness of Ash Wednesday and Lent by disciplining themselves (giving up Coke, or giving away money, or living without any number of interesting things). Fellow blogger Pastor Keith even considers giving up the phone for Lent.
Whatever your tradition or belief, here’s to living life with eyes wide open. . . captured so beautifully in poetry:
The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
(from New and Selected Poems, 1992, Beacon Press, Boston, MA)
Previous posts about discipline:
Dallas died yesterday. He was a theologian, professor, author, lecturer, provocateur. But more than what he did, he will be remembered for who he was: humble, caring, curious, encouraging. Though he was a teacher, he understood daily life to be a classroom where he was instructed by Jesus.
I didn’t discover Dallas until after I graduated from seminary. He wasn’t mentioned in my mainline, liberal school. Dallas came from an evangelical background and I think a lot of people overlooked him for that reason. He was also rejected by many conservatives who found his rational approach too, well, rational. He didn’t fit neatly into a theological box and so he lived as a pioneer for the Church, calling her to leave behind familiar labels and simply live the “with God” life that was offered by Jesus.
I found him at the right time. I was able to hear what he taught. His book, The Divine Conspiracy, offered words for what I understood to be true about God and the Church’s mission. He beautifully, logically wove together a sensible, down-to-earth theology with historic, orthodox concepts. Many of the traditional Christian concepts I had struggled to reconcile suddenly made sense again.
If you’re curious, you can search “Dallas Willard” on Youtube and find a number of his lectures. You can also check out his books. I’d recommend The Divine Conspiracy, particularly Chapters four and eight. I think these are the most inspiring and personally transformative chapters of any book I have read.
I attended any conference I could where he was a guest speaker. He was brilliant and confident, but he never appeared condescending to people. I appreciate that, because there are times when I read (and re-read) his books and struggle to understand what he is saying.
Here is a little sampling of the scribbled notes I took from a recent conference where Dallas was at the podium:
The greatest liberation in life comes when we learn to say, “I don’t have to have my way.”
The aim of spiritual formation is not behavior modification. It is character transformation into Christ-likeness (out of which all our behavior comes).
Job and ministry are two things. Life is still a third thing and the most important.
‘Leadership’ is a matter of bringing the activities of many into coordination for a common end or good. A leader enables people to love and honor the role they play in the organization they serve.
You cannot go directly into servanthood. You enter servanthood through the Kingdom of God, by following Jesus.
People will forget about everything we say, but they will not forget who you are. THAT is the lasting result of leadership.
And while I believe that last line to be true, I hope it is a good, long while before the Church forgets the things Dallas has said.
In worship last Sunday, I noticed some fine print in the bulletin.
“The first four rows on the west side of the sanctuary are designated as a ‘perfume-free’ zone.”
Reserved for people (like me) with heightened sensitivity to “manufactured” scent. No cologne. No perfume. No lingering traces of a cigarette habit.
I was grateful to see a church offer that. And it made me wonder: How many other ways do we accommodate people in our worship spaces?
I’ve seen notches cut from pews to make room for a wheelchair. I’ve seen large-print hymnals and child’s play areas set up on the floor. I’ve seen rockers at the back for nursing moms. What else have you experienced?
Yesterday, I described the behavior of scapegoating that happens in many congregations.
So what can we do when we notice this is happening?
Well, as my wise friend Trisha Taylor said yesterday on Facebook, “The best way to work on a relationship is to work on yourself.”
Self-awareness is not easy. But it is probably the most critical skill for a church leader. Where do you notice yourself assigning blame in various situations? When have you thought, “If only so-and-so would. . .,then the situation would improve.”? These questions can help us see whom we have formed into a scapegoat.
It’s also important for us to reflect on our role in the church’s relational system. We use a scapegoat to avoid feeling pain. So when we notice a scapegoat being used, we know that someone — somewhere in the church — is feeling pain. Look around the church and ask a few questions. Or, better yet, take these questions with you to a small group gathering where people trust each other enough to be honest.
- Where do I notice tension in the church or In what settings do I feel anxious?
- What worries me about our church and with whom do I share that worry?
- What words do I use when my guard is down and I’m talking with my friends?
- What do I do when some complains to me about someone else? (Do I keep it to myself? Do I tell my friends? Do I encourage that person to speak to the person with whom they have a complaint?)
These questions can help reveal our role in scapegoating. And to discuss them in a small group will empower others to see their role, too.
You can also address the projection of a scapegoat whenever we see it. For example, the next time someone tries to blame all the church’s problems on the former minister, you could say, “I wonder what our role as a church was in creating that unfortunate situation. How could we have handled that differently?”
Another way of doing this is to ask people to “stay in the room.” This means, instead of assigning blame to someone who is not here to represent him or herself, let’s focus on the responsibilities that we (the people in the room) have. How can we change our behavior? How can we lead differently? How can we express our attitudes to others?
What else? What have you found helpful?
Permit me to be a little honest today.
Its not every time. But I know many times, when a church wants a consultant (or help from their region, conference or denomination), what they are really looking for is a scapegoat.
And why not?
Churches are extremely complex social networks of personality and power and expectations. Our culture today is complex and doesn’t favor church participation the way it used to. It makes our congregations very difficult places to lead. Pastors feel this pressure everyday. Lay leaders struggle with this. Even in growing congregations, there aren’t enough people to do all the things we want to do. Add in a couple of oddball characters. You can see why anxiety is through the roof!
And one very “successful” method to deal with anxiety is to use a scapegoat. We project our worries and our anger onto one person (or group) and pass them the buck.
Pastors are frequently treated as scapegoats. When anxiety becomes too high to manage, a few leaders begin to target the pastor:
- “She doesn’t make enough personal visits to our elderly members.”
- “His preaching is not what it used to be.”
- “We need to hear some new ideas from the pulpit.”
I sometimes hear lay leaders treated as scapegoats:
- “We are one funeral away from being a healthy church.”
- “Our treasurer is too tight-fisted.”
- “I don’t want that elder on the committee. She disagrees with everything.”
We can find scapegoats anywhere we let our eyes look:
- “People out there just don’t respect the church anymore. That’s why visitors don’t attend our service.”
- “Those street kids tore up our basketball goal. Why should we bother to replace it?”
- “That new church across town is encroaching on our territory!”
- “That book study was too controversial. That’s why Ethel left the church.”
And consultants make good scapegoats, too. Someone comes to the church and helps identify issues that need to be faced, or changes that need be made. And instead of doing the hard work of change, we accuse the consultant of having an agenda or not understanding the situation or being greedy or working for the denomination or . . . or . . .
Identifying a scapegoat allows us to minimize our responsibility and blame someone else. That way, when the scapegoat is gone, the problems appear to be are gone, too. Order is restored. We are content again. Everyone’s happy.
But not really. In fact, the anxiety is still there. A few people have just managed to avoid seeing it for a while.
Scapegoating provides us a temporary relief, but the pain/conflict/problem/anxiety is still there.
So what’s the alternative?
I’ll offer some options in my next post. But for now, join the discussion: Where have you seen scapegoats used in your setting?
A few of the insights I heard during last week’s Leadership Academy:
- “Any pastor with a two-year plan for church transformation will find, after two years, the only change is the pastor’s name on the church’s sign.”
- “Courageous leadership is about being OK with people’s uncomfortable questions.”
- “80% of churches in Anytown USA insist on suppressing women in leadership. We need more Disciples churches to show the world a different way.”
- “A leader is a person who takes a group of people to a place they would not have gone.”
- “Pastors, why not find a cushy church job somewhere that you don’t have to rock the boat? Because those jobs no longer exist.” Read more…