Keep this in mind when you bring your children to church: You may not be prepared for the consequences. It can be dangerous to have your children hang out with Jesus because, if they do, someday they might just hear his voice. They might drop their nets and follow him, and then one day head out into a world that doesn’t want to hear what they have to say about how God wants to see the world work.
They start talking about things like loving gay people and trans people the same as everyone else, and looking out for poor people (even the ones everyone else says don’t deserve it), they start talking about things like refusing to be silent when black men and women die in the streets—just because of the color of their skin, and not cooperating with authorities who want to split up the families of undocumented immigrants . . . they start talking about stuff like that, stuff they hear in this place in the middle of Sunday morning worship . . . and take it from me, they’re going to run into people who don’t like it. They’re going to make respectable people uncomfortable. They’re going to make the people in charge nervous.
By Derek Penwell
I remember those times when I would get an email from my dissertation advisor, telling me that she had finished marking up another chapter. It’s difficult to describe that feeling, that strange mixture of dread and hopeful anticipation.
Why did an email give me such anxiety, you may ask, dear reader?
It was all that blood on the page. And don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about either. Everybody (even little kids) fear the dreaded red pen—the one that announces to the world what an abject failure you are. You’ve harbored secret doubts about your abilities all along. Then you see a cataract of red ink washing over your work, and your incompetence is reified—a reminder that you had no business ever presuming to do something so clearly out of your league.
You know what I’m talking about, right? You look at the red marks, and all you can see is defeat. Writer’s instinctively fear the editor’s pen. Nobody likes to be judged; and editorial corrections feel like the incarnation of judgment. You produce something you care about, and along comes a critic to help remind you just how limited your gifts really are.
But, you see, that’s where I have to stop myself, slow my breathing, and take a step back. Generally speaking, a professional editor isn’t the same thing as a professional critic. An editor’s job is primarily constructive, an attempt to make your work better, whereas a critic’s job is help determine the value of a piece of work in relationship to a larger tradition of work.
Editors care about making something better; critics care about letting an audience know whether a piece is worth further attention, relative to other pieces of the same genre or medium.
That’s why I feel both dread and hopeful anticipation when I receive news that my work has come out the other side of the editing process. My first thought is that I’m being judged a failure. (My first attempt wasn’t good enough.) It’s difficult for even the most seasoned author not to feel defensive in the face of all that red ink. But after all this time, I know that the red ink is an attempt not to humiliate me, but to help me see how I might do my job as a writer more effectively. And it’s offered up by someone who cares about my work. (If not, I need to find a new editor.)
Every writer needs a good editor—if only because writers are, at best, too close to the work to look at it objectively, and at worst, writers are amazingly adept at lying to themselves. Good writers understand that good editors make their work better. Full stop.
Therefore, what looks initially like failure to a writer is actually an opportunity to do better work. If all you can see is judgment when you get an email from an editor, your work will never improve. In fact, many people who might have developed into fine writers quit trying altogether because they fear—what they wrongly assume is—judgment. But failure in writing usually has more to do with being too afraid to try than with trying and coming up short. Every writer comes up short; that’s why the editorial process is so important, and why it’s essential that the writer get comfortable with the fact that good writing almost always requires revision.
Art can’t be produced on an assembly line, because assembly lines require precision and replication. Art requires the freedom to regularly try something different—even if it may not work the first time.
Many congregations are also afraid of failing, of trying something that doesn’t turn out quite right after the first draft. These congregations labor under the sad conviction that they don’t really have that much to offer anyway. So when they finally do try something and it’s not immediately successful, they seize up with fear—taking their failure as a commentary on themselves and not as a prompt that they need to revise their work.
Some congregations take the need for course correction as further proof that they didn’t have any business getting wrapped up in something so obviously out of their league. Stick to what you know. Don’t get too far out on any particular limb. Otherwise, you just open yourself up to criticism. (And who needs any more of that?)
But congregations, like writers, need revision. They need to be able hold on more loosely, to see failure simply as information about what not to do next time. They need to face the fear of having someone point out that not everything went as planned, but that success is more a function of perseverance than perfection.
So, here are a few thoughts for writers and congregations:
- Don’t give into the fear of failure by not trying new things. Lean into it.
- Learn the difference between constructive correction and destructive criticism.
- Actively seek out editors who can help you do better work.
- Avoid expending energy on critics who believe their job consists only in telling you what you did wrong, without offering any insight into how to improve.
- Learn how to embrace failure as an essential part of doing good work.
- Laugh at the voices that seek to shame you, to keep you from daring to do something creative, different, interesting.
Ministry, like writing, is art—not industrial production. Editors are the friends of creative endeavor—not supervisors on an assembly line.
I’ve spoken with Christians who’re convinced that it’s not politically expedient to call for a beloved community that protects African Americans and LGBTQ people, that includes our Muslim neighbors, our refugee neighbors, our immigrant neighbors—even though this constituency recognizes, as Dr. King reminds us, 'the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized.' These timid folks believe that taking any kind of a stand will be heavy-handed and disruptive, while failing to realize that, if the Holy Spirit is in our midst, heavy-handed disruption of the existing unjust order is not the thing we wait for the right time to pursue, but the very thing we lead, empowered and emboldened by the Holy Spirit who breaks in on us with an apocalyptic mini-tornado, the one who sets the shape and trajectory of our ministry.
The prophet Joel says to all the people made prophets by God's Spirit: 'And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.' And there’s nothing politically expedient about that."
Apologies for the sound hiccup.
We live in a world where people of color need someone to stand up and take some blows for them from a world that has too often focused its violence and hatred on their bodies, where undocumented immigrants need someone to stand between them and a system designed to devour their families, where Muslims need people like us to stand arm-in-arm around their mosques to keep out the forces that want to consume them, where LGBTQ people need someone to stand by their side as they seek to make their way through a world that too often would rather they just go away, where people need all of us to stand up for their children and their parents with pre-existing conditions.
You want to know what the Holy Spirit looks like? You want concrete instead of abstraction? Look for the advocates.
But I would like to suggest that it is impossible to live the Christian life correctly without making any enemies. In fact, if I’m a Christian and I haven’t made any enemies, maybe I’m not doing it right.
Why do I say that? Because we’re struggling against the powers and principalities. The very existence of a people who serve the Prince of Peace in a world defined by its ability to wage war puts us automatically in the cross-hairs of those who have a vested interest in promulgating war as a way of achieving peace.
In a world that specializes in putting locks on doors to keep people out, we cannot but appear to be threatening when we go to the doors, tear the locks off and invite everybody to come in.
By Derek Penwell
Saying that budgets are moral documents, though a commonplace, is still instructive. Where you spend your money is how you signal your priorities. Or in the words of Jesus, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart also be.”
That whole budgets-are-moral-documents thing came to me as I listened to a summary of on of the recent budget proposals offered to congress. Cuts to the EPA, to HUD, to international economic development, to the arts and public broadcasting, to scientific research. But the thing that really exasperated me were the cuts to services for the most vulnerable among us—the poor, the elderly, the unemployed. School lunches? Meals-on-Wheels? Community development block grants? Legal aid? Seriously?
And when you add that dramatic budgetary gut punch to the stunningly generous tax cut for the wealthiest Americans masquerading as healthcare reform, to the mean-spirited crackdown on immigrants and refugees, to the hate-mongering against Muslims, to the targeting of hard-won civil rights for African Americans and LGBTQ people … well, the picture is grim—especially if you happen to be a person who takes Jesus anything like seriously.
But in the midst of my despair, looking for a little spiritual and ethical insight, I ran across a set of documents I didn’t know existed—which is saying something, because I try to keep up on that sort of thing. But there I was, poking about the dusty corners of the Internet and I happened to run across an ancient manuscript.
Now manuscript dating is not my area of expertise, so I won’t attempt to put a date on this one. All I’m going to say is that it looked really dang old. (I realize that lacks a certain amount of academic precision, but you’re just going to have to trust me on this one.)
So, I blew the digital dust off these files, broke out my Greek lexicon and went to work. And what I discovered, I think, provides a bit of insight into our current situation.
Here for you, for the first time translated into English, is the manuscript I found, entitled, Things Jesus didn’t say.
Things Jesus didn’t say:
”Love your friends, bless those who bless you … and screw everybody else.”
“If you had the faith of this mustard seed … you wouldn’t need all that fancy ‘affordable health care.’”
“Blessed are the racists, for they will rise to great heights in the new administration.”
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? I mean, look at all these liberals, and their un-Christian ‘caring for widows, orphans, and the stranger.’ Why can’t they care about Christian stuff, like the 2nd amendment or school prayer?”
“Go, sell all you have and give it to the richest one percent.”
“Blessed are those who hate immigrants in my name, for they shall inherit all the jobs white people don’t want to do.”
“Follow me and I will make you fishers of … people who look just like you.”
“Give unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and give unto God only what you can’t hide on your 1040.”
“Let the little children come to me … unless they’re in Head Start or need help with school lunches, then cast them out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of their tiny little teeth.”
“Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden … and I will make sure you have no union to watch over you.”
“Go ye therefore into all the world … and make sure everybody hates Muslims. Because obviously.”
“My God, my God, why do women not see that men should have the last word about what they do with their bodies?”
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery, but I say to you … unless she’s a lot younger, prettier (like a model or whatever), and you’ve had enough foresight to sign a prenup.’”
“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you … what the hell? They’ve got it coming.’”
”You have heard it said that healthcare should be a right for everyone, but I say to you, ‘If you can store up for yourselves another new Benz, even though it comes from money meant for poor people’s chemotherapy, then you should totally do it.’”
“You cannot serve God and mammon … which is why it was important to have the Supreme Court rule favorably in Citizens United. Helps us keep to keep who’s who straight.”
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven … but if you have a suitably large investment portfolio, that definitely won’t hurt.”
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Marginalia—“This only applies to People of Color and women in abusive relationships.”)
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but I say to you … just kidding. That’s for suckers!”
“And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all straight, cisgender, middle class white guys unto myself.”
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … except refugees. They definitely do not count.”
“So therefore , none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Wait. Actually, he did say that, but he probably shouldn’t have.)
The church has been inhospitable to a wide range of folks over the years, excluding people because somehow they aren’t right the way some church folks figure right ought to look.
But it’s not right. If there’s one thing following Jesus teaches us, it’s when strangers and wayfarers come among us, we’d better make room at the table. Because it’s in those acts of hospitality—the sharing of food, the loving embrace of those who’ve been turned out, the kind word to the one whom the world has beat down, the hand on the shoulder of the grieving—it’s in acts like these that we can finally see Jesus for who he really is. It’s precisely in these welcoming gestures that we find Jesus.
Jesus, as God did back in Genesis, breathed and brought forth new life—transformed lives, no longer in need of worrying only about existence and comfort and survival, about success and wealth and fame, about avoiding the hard demands of the presence of God . . . but about truly living—about being there for others, about binding up the wounds of the sick and the dying, about going out into the world and feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, liberating the oppressed, and finding those who’ve been forgotten and cast aside.
'As God has sent me to give you new life,' Jesus says, 'so I send you to give new life to the whole world.'
The emphasis in Matthew’s Gospel seems to be less on what happened than on what happened next. That’s why Matthew has Mary and Mary burning up the road, not sitting around talking about it.
What work does the resurrection achieve? Victory over death. Freedom from fear. Salvation from sin.
However you want to talk about it. But the real question to us is, 'Now that you’ve got this shiny new resurrection, what are you going to do with it? Are you going to hang out with it, set up a shrine to it and serve lattes, thinking all the work’s been done two thousand years ago? Or are you going to realize that the freedom the resurrection brings is the freedom to back out of the tomb, walk down the road, and get back to work?
So, you’ve done your homework. You’ve looked up DBCC on the Internet, went to our web site, poked around the FAQ and About Us pages, Facebook stalked us. And maybe you’ve thought to yourself, “This seems like an odd and interesting group of people,” and decided to check us out in person. Maybe you’ve heard about us in some other way, but you’d like to know a little bit more about us—who we are, what we’re passionate about, what kind of role we believe we play in making the world a more peaceful and just place, or why we think the Marx Brothers are superior in every way to the Three Stooges. (Sorry, the last thing was a bit of editorializing. ~Derek)
Well, we’d like to buy you dinner and a drink, and answer your questions. We’re going to have a “Get to Know DBCC Thing.” The first will be on Sunday, April 30th at 12:30. The second will be on Wednesday evening, May 3rd at 6:30, downstairs in The Commons. Bring your questions and your appetite. And if you don’t have either of those, come anyway and meet some pretty great people.
By Derek Penwell
“What’s the one thing you’d like to do before you die?”
That’s what I asked them. Five of us sitting around a table in a bar after a wedding. You know how those conversations usually go. Besides my wife, I hadn’t met any of the other people until the day before. But having learned that one woman was a marathoner who expressed no interest in running another one since she’d already accomplished her goal, it got me to thinking. I wondered if she had other big-ticket items on her life to-do list. So I asked everybody what big thing they’d like to accomplish before shuffling off this mortal coil.
One person said, “Play the piano.”
Another said, “Do a hand stand in yoga.”
Still another said, “Be published.”
All of these seemed like reasonable aspirations—not outrageous, like becoming an astronaut or becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon (which aspirations aren’t outrageous either, unless you happen to be on the downward side of middle age). “Doable,” I thought.
So, we talked in a meta-way about accomplishing goals—about how hard you have to work, and how consistently you have to show up. Generalities. It was a bar conversation, after all.
But if it had been in another setting—one that didn’t include a long day, a night of dancing and drinking—I probably would have said, “Ok. So, how are you going to accomplish your goal?”
Look, I’m nobody’s life coach. But I know how this stuff works. Having a goal and accomplishing a goal are the same distance apart as fireflies and fire.
Usually, when I ask that question, “How are you going to accomplish your goal?” what I get is the econo-size box of hesitation. “Um … well … ”
So, the next step (there almost always has to be) is to ask, “What’s the first thing you’d have to do to achieve your goal?”
More hesitation. People find abstraction much more comfortable to live with, since it doesn’t really cost anything to think big thoughts. “Well, I guess, I’d have to … um … well … “
Simple. Just keep it simple. Practical. What’s the first physical thing you’d have to do to start following through on your goal?1 If you’re going to learn to play the piano, what’s the first thing you’d need to do?
“Find a piano teacher?”
How? You need to be specific. Ask a friend? Call the local music shop?
“Call the local music shop.”
“On the phone.”
You’ve got the number of the local music shop on speed dial?
“Oh, I’d have to look it up.”
How? In the Yellow Pages? Google it?
There you go. If you’re going to learn to play the piano, the first step is to Google the phone number of the local music shop.
Now, you think I’m a pedantic twit. You’re not alone. Believe me.
But until people get that specific, they’ll never learn to play the piano. Because playing the piano is hard. You learn step-by-step, day after day. Most people know that, which is why they either put it off, or they keep the idea of learning to play the piano conceptual (which might just be the same thing).
Congregations are really good at abstraction. What would your congregation like to accomplish?
“We’d like to grow.”
Without getting too deeply into what you mean by “grow,” how are you going to accomplish that? (What congregations mean by “grow” will generally be evident in their answer about how they intend to grow. Usually, they mean something having to do with bodies and cash.)
“Um … well … we could get some young families.”
How do you propose to “get” these young families?
“We could hire a young minister.”
What do you suppose your “old” minister would say to that?
“Good point. We could have more programs that appeal to young families.”
Ok. What kinds of programs? Vacation Bible School? Upward Bound Soccer League? Day care?
“A family movie night. And we could invite people from the neighborhood.”
Now we’re cooking with gas. What would you have to do first?
To show a family movie?
“Fine. We’d need to decide on a movie.”
“The fellowship committee.”
I would think choosing a movie wouldn’t need a motion in a committee meeting, but it’s your church. How are you going to get the committee to decide on the movie?
“I guess I could just email them and ask.”
So, at least in this person’s mind, the first physical act necessary to help your church grow would be writing an email.
I know that sounds overly fussy, but ideas (even good ones) will remain ideas until somebody bothers to pick up the phone, or send out an email, or shop on the Internet. Worthy aspirations are even worthier if you actually pursue them. And to pursue them you need to break down a big idea into manageable actions.
The larger point, though, is that congregations are notorious for keeping things vague. There’s safety in vagueness, in never starting. It’s difficult to fail at something you never actually try.
The secret: If you’re ever going to do anything interesting, personally or corporately, you’re going to have to plod through the valley of abstraction and set up camp in the world of actual work, where practical things like attending to details actually matters.
- Just so we’re clear, I’m not an organizational genius. I get this “first step” thing from David Allen’s, Getting Things Done. Do yourself a favor, and read it. It’ll change your game.
We heal the sick, we bind up the broken-hearted, we comfort the grieving, we pick up the downtrodden, we fight for justice . . . not because it makes for good strategy, but because we follow Jesus, which means we're prepared to walk with him down any dark alley he enters—in search of those the rest of the world would just as soon leave behind.
We do it because it's right. And because God loves us enough not to let us stay where we are, because we’re the blessed who come in the name of the Lord, and because we don't know how to do anything else.
Those who follow Jesus have a weird way of looking at blessing. We see blessing as a struggle, as the courage to fight in the face of almost certain defeat, the determination to look death in the eye without turning tale and running.
The recording was compromised, so we're skipping out on the audio portion this week (oops). We'll be back next week. It turns out the words are still good.
'Oh come on, preacher. Pie in the sky. We need to be realistic. Face facts. It’s a grim world. You’re just whistling past the graveyard.'
If you trust me even a little bit, then hear this: Hang on. God is still breathing. The spirit still comes from the four winds. Life my seem to be having a rough go of it in the valley of the dry bones. But God’s isn’t finished yet.
You see, in two weeks we’re going to have a party—a little thing we call Easter. It’s where we really get to see what God thinks of death and despair. You don’t want to miss that one.
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'It’s not us, it’s them' is a more palatable take on society for many people, but it’s one, I imagine, Jesus would take issue with.
That’s my principal objection to the now-dead healthcare reform. It scrambled desperately for ways to soothe people’s consciences, by implying that we should feel no responsibility to help other people find adequate healthcare, because it’s their fault for not having it in the first place. But, this is church, so let’s be honest: booting 24 million people off of healthcare should pose a problem to people who follow a guy who spent a great deal of his ministry roving about the countryside dispensing free healthcare to people who didn’t deserve it. Just ask the man born blind in our text for this morning.
Being born blind is the definition of a pre-existing condition. But according to Jesus, it should never be a pretext for finding an excuse for why helping that person to find healing is wrong."
And this isn’t just any unsavory Samaritan woman either. She’s at the very bottom of the social heap—a Samaritan woman whose domestic life has been epically, unthinkably, impossibly unstable. John wants us to know that she’s the first century Guinness Book of World Records-holder for powerlessness. Social status doesn’t get any worse than this poor woman.
Jesus, incapable of making good choices, goes out of his way to have an encounter with the last person on the earth he should be talking to.
But that’s Jesus, isn’t it? You can’t take him anywhere, because he’s got really bad social instincts. He spends all his time talking to the wrong people.
Where does that kind of courage from—the kind that drives you to leave Ur and take a hike when you can't even see the path?
You know what I mean, right? What kind of store do you have to go to to pick up the econo-size box of audacity that will allow you to launch out into the unknown, with only the knowledge that doing so is a risk that might blow up in your face?
You could play it safe, of course. Nobody would really blame you. But somehow you know that to do so is to turn your back not only on who you are, but on the kind of world you almost don’t even dare to imagine is possible—but from which you can’t afford to avert your gaze, for fear that it will all just disappear.
By Derek Penwell
When I got to the office one time, I had a voicemail from a young man I’ve never met before. The message began, “My name is Benjamin. You don’t know me, but one of your colleagues referred you to me.”
He went on to say that he’d done some research on DBCC, and the ministry we’re involved in advocating for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. He wanted me to know how much he appreciated our efforts, and how encouraging it is to hear about a church that actually cares for folks who’ve traditionally experienced only heartache at the hands of the religious establishment.
Felt good. Nice to have your work affirmed by a stranger … unsolicited. Put a smile on my face.
He proceeded to relate a bit of his story. He came out to his parents when he was twelve. Being religiously conservative, they did what they believed best—they put him in “reparative therapy”—”pray away the gay.” The whole thing damaged him so badly that he’s assiduously avoided church ever since. I could hear the bitterness in his voice.
Over a very short period of time, I went from feeling, perhaps, a little too self-satisfied at the initial compliment to feeling awful for this young man’s trauma.
Then he said something that struck me as both profoundly sad and strangely hopeful: “I can only wonder how my life would have been different if there’d been a church around that had loved me for who God created me to be, instead of trying to change me from what it feared I represent.”
I started thinking about the Suicide Prevention Workshop we held a couple years ago. Turns out LGBT young people are two and a half times more likely to contemplate suicide than their straight counterparts. More frighteningly, I found out that those same LGBT youth are eight times more likely to attempt suicide.
Why the significantly higher rates?
Bullying, of course. But bullying is something that frequently happens … to a lot of kids. Perhaps even more deeply than bullying, though, LGBT kids experience rejection and isolation at the hands of the very people kids are supposed look to to love them and keep them safe.
Their parents kick them out of the house at alarming rates, making homelessness among LGBT youth twice as likely as among straight youth. The churches they attend often brutalize them in the name of “love.”
Young people are dying at an alarming rate, in order to allow some folks to retain the purity of their personal sense of integrity. That this integrity costs the lives of children is apparently a price they are more than willing to pay.
I realize that the motive for this stringent vision of purity is rooted in what its possessors would term love. And, I should point out, there is something to be said for saying “no” in the name of love—addicts, for example, often require the love found in “no.” And those who affirm reparative therapy, I suspect, would prefer to see same gender sexual orientation as an addiction to be conquered.
Unfortunately, though, reparative therapy is not “AA for the gay.” For one thing, AA actually works, whereas reparative therapy, at least according to the medical and scientific community, does not.1 But the problem has less to do with the fact that reparative therapy is ineffective, than with the fact that it does damage.2
LGBT young people having to find their way without the people and institutions charged with caring for them struck me today as I spoke with a pastor about his church. It seems there are some young adults in the church who would like to have conversation about how the church can become a place of welcome to LGBT people. Apparently, the older people in the church think such a conversation would be dangerous, afraid people will get angry and leave. After all, there are so many more important things in the world.
As the pastor spoke, I thought about Benjamin. I thought about all the LGBT young people going through hell because the people they trust to watch out for them have belittled and abandoned them. And I wondered how life would be different if there were churches around that loved these kids for who God created them to be, instead of trying to change them from what church people fear they represent.
I pray to God we find out.
To wit: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychoanalytic Association, American Psychological Association, American School Counselor Association, National Association of Social Workers, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO): Regional Office of the World Health Organization. ↩
See above note. ↩
The idea that Jesus wasn’t political is a fiction typically maintained by middle class white folks who’ve more or less benefitted from the political status quo—who have the luxury of not thinking about politics, because politics has typically been pretty good to them—and they have no reason to fear that that state of affairs won’t continue for the foreseeable future.
But if you’re among that increasingly large group of Americans who haven’t fared so well as a result of how our political systems are designed, the idea that Jesus had no interest in politics is most likely unintelligible to you. If you’re among that group of folks who have historical reason to fear the power of the political class, then maybe you feel like you can’t afford to sit back and see how everything will shake out. You’ve seen how things have 'shaken out' in the past, and you have little confidence that if you just shut up about politics things will work out fine for you and yours.
Have you ever been to a church in which justice is not just the securing of individual rights, but the pursuit of a vision of the reign of God in which there is no justice until it gets extended to everyone? Where the people who live in fear of what an uncertain world holds for them are more important than the people who are making laws to oppress them?