Worst Advice Ever, Take the Emotion Out of It

Maybe not the worst advice ever, just the least practical.

That’s what a former engineer recommended we do at last Sunday’s annual congregational meeting when discussing the uncertain status of the After School Tutoring Program (ASTP).

It’s been a tough year for Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. Maybe historians will point to my being elected to the Church Council as the catalyst for the downturn.

Recently, my fellow Council members and I asked the pastor to resign. Inevitably, that upset some members, some so much so they left. Others stopped attending probably because they had enough conflict in their lives already. Consequently, we have challenging budget decisions to make.

Despite the fact that the After School Tutoring Program represents somewhere between 2-2.5% of the total budget, the congregation spent 90% of last Sunday’s budget discussion debating whether we should continue it or not. This wasn’t a one-off, the church is preoccupied by it. I am totally flummoxed and exasperated by the congregation’s seeming fixation with the ASTP. The attention is receives is totally out of proportion to that of other programs, ministries, and issues.

Which begs the question why. My only conclusion is that my engineering friend has it completely backwards. It’s impossible to take the emotion out of it because it’s  exclusively based upon competing emotions that have formed over its long history.

I am resigned to the fact that the ASTP is our Ford Mustang. Of Ford’s decision to eliminate every sedan except the Mustang:

“. . . the Mustang’s survival isn’t really about numbers. ‘Five years from now, whether Ford decided to keep the Mustang or not isn’t going to be a material factor,’ Mr. Jonas said. ‘It’s more of an emotional thing. They’re trying to preserve the sexuality of motoring the way it used to be known.'”

Apparently, Ford suits gets what my engineering friend does not. You can’t take emotions out of things. At least not completely. And in the case of the ASTP, hardly at all. Resistance, I’m finding, is futile.

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A Life Built on Service and Saving

If my ticket gets punched sometime soon, I’ll have lived a life filled to the brim. Almost disorientingly so. I’ve crouched in the final passageway of a West African slave fort, been drenched by Victoria Fall’s mist, walked on the Great Wall of China, ran around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, hiked in Chiapas, and cross country skied in Norway. I’ve lived in the Midwest, the West, the Southeast, and as one six year old here says, “the Specific Northwest”. I’ve interacted with thousands of young people, the vast majority who appreciated my efforts on their behalf. I’ve cycled up and down mountains in the Western United States. I’ve taught guest lessons in my daughters’ elementary classrooms. I’ve been blessed to know lots of people more selfless than me, some who will read this today. I’ve been loved by caring, generous parents, and been privileged to know my wife and daughters and their friends.

My life has been so full that I tend to think about whatever my future holds as extra credit. Everything from here on out is a bonus.

Maybe I don’t look forward to too much anymore because my cup has been overflowing for some time. Apart from a story well told and nature, not a lot moves me these days.

So getting choked up in church yesterday, during the announcements of all things, was totally unexpected. A guest was invited to the front to make a surprise announcement. A tall, dapper man in his late 30’s began describing his relationship with ChuckB, a member who had passed away a few months ago. He had been Chuck’s financial planner for eight years.

I didn’t know Chuck until I attended a celebration of his life that was planned nine months ago after the church community learned of his terminal illness. He worked as a forester for the Department of Ecology for a few decades and kept a low profile at church, driving the van, tutoring after school, doing whatever was needed behind the scenes. At his celebration I was struck by how everyone described him as one of the most humble, caring, and giving people they had ever known. He lived a simple life in a modest neighborhood that revolved around participating in church activities.

The financial planner announced that Chuck and his wife, who had passed away previously, were leaving the church $925,000, divided four ways, the largest portion for international aide, another for local charities, another for Lutheran World Relief specifically, and about $220,000 in the church’s unrestricted fund to use as the Council sees fit. A Council that has been seeking about $35,000 to fund a half-time position dedicated to strengthening our ties to local people in need.

There was an audible gasp. Two people stood and began applauding and soon everyone followed. My favorite part, and probably what moved me so much, was that Chuck wasn’t there for his standing ovation. Shortly before he died, he confided to one member that he was leaving “the bulk of his estate to the church,” but that person said she had “no idea it was anywhere near that much money.” No one did.

The most beautiful and moving part to me is that Chuck intentionally passed on his standing ovation. He didn’t need it. A life filled with service and saving was more than enough. Blessed be his memory.

 

 

On Blogging—Eight Years and 978 Posts In

By conventional measures, meaning numbers of daily eyeballs, I have not succeeded as a blogger. Here’s why:

• An uninspiring template or graphic interface. I lack the technical chops to improve it and don’t know who might help.

• People seek out blogs that help them with something rather specific—improving their finances, buying personal sports technology, understanding economics and finding other people interested in it. In contrast, I shift topics too much and only occasionally offer any real help. My sporadic helpful posts are my most widely read, which brings me to the crucial third point.

• Pre-PressingPause, I remember talking to a writer friend who has written two very well received books. I told him I’d really enjoy writing a newspaper column. Smiling, he said careful what you ask for, that producing solid content twice a week is way more difficult than people realize. Now I get it. When I look at my most widely read 20+ posts, I realize most of the time I was agitated about something. Typically, the more irritated I am by something, the better. And therein lies the challenge, the older I get, and the more comfortable my life becomes as a result of mounting privilege, the less fired up I am about things. Case in point. Yesterday. Sunday. What irritated me? The people at church who over pass the peace. You know who you are. You’re the person who has to leave the pew and greet damn near everyone in the building with an affectionate hug. That’s not how God intended the peace to be passed. A few handshakes with the peeps to the right and left, front and back. There’s no biblical justification for the irrationally exuberant wandering. That has the makings of a great post doesn’t it? Not.

I will continue because it’s a way for me to connect with other people I know and like, but I’m feeling a need to mix it up. Not sure how yet. You can help by irritating me.

E Pluribus Unum?

I’m keenly interested in how people of different political, cultural, and religious points of view relate one to another.

I first became interested in how people deal with those whose politics are radically different than their own as a high school social studies teacher leading discussions about contemporary issues. I quickly learned to play the “devil’s advocate” since some of my students were right or left-wing ideologues whose positions were highly predictable.

Also, I’ve been fortunate to have two friends whose worldviews are very different than my own. In contrast to most people who tend to keep the peace by avoiding talking about subjects related to politics, religion, race, and sexual orientation, we tackle them head-on.

In the last few years the church my family attends have added two new pastors for two that left. They’ve taken a moderate, fairly apolitical church considerably to the left in a few ways including a gay and lesbian friendly “welcoming statement” and by embracing evolution.

Here’s an excerpt from the “Clergy Letter Project” that was read Sunday. “We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory’ among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. . . We ask school board members to preserve the integrity of science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge.”

I like the pastors and  strongly support the stands they’re taking, but I’m intrigued by how little effort they seem to be making to retain conservative members. Attendance is down a bit, so I assume some have left. My guess is there will be liberal replacements in the months ahead. In a year’s time I expect us to have the same size church, but we’ll be much more homogeneous.

Consequently, the church may lose some of it’s distinctiveness and potential to model the Kingdom of God on earth. Given the choice, people already tend to socialize with, live next to, work with, and recreate with like-minded people. If truly committed to following Christ’s example, it seems as if the church would be a counter-cultural institution, one where people’s faith trumps political differences.

And not one where political differences are swept under the rug, but where people commit to conversation and learn how to agree to disagree when necessary about things like gay rights, the causes of global warming, and the death penalty, all in the interest of modeling “another way”.

Am I too idealistic to think this is possible? The cynic in me can’t help but notice our church, like many, has two services, one formal with hymns and a traditional liturgy, and a hymn-free, informal “contemporary” one. The nucleus divides again.

In the end, will the small corner of the world that is Olympia, Washington end up more religiously, socially, culturally, and politically fragmented?

Religious Life and Leadership 1

In the Torah it is written, “We see things not as they are, but as as we are.” What follows reveals more about me, my life experience, and my worldview than anything else. No one will agree with everything, but I hope something resonates with someone.

This will be a sporadic series and this post is all prelude. 

SOME CONTEXT

• My family wasn’t particularly religious, but my mom often took us to church and it was important to her that my sibs and I get confirmed. In the Lutheran church, confirmation involves a middle school religious education program that culminates in adult church membership.

• In SoCal, in high school, I got involved with a very dynamic church youth group. We spent time in Tijuana orphanages, we took turns leading high school bible studies, and our choir toured every summer. A few of my best friends from this time period are pastors in SoCal and one heads up the largest homeless organization in L.A

• I am a Christian, but as I age, I’m increasingly comfortable with questions and ambiguity. I’m more interested in spiritual vitality than religious orthodoxy.

• My education and international travel experiences have led me to conclude that Western Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on religious truth.

• I identify more with Christians who emphasize social justice than ones who stress evangelism and one set of religious truths.

• Sometimes I feel alienated within the church as a result of literal interpretations of the bible, Republican politics, materialism, patriarchal language, and cultural sameness.

• Solitude, moving in nature (lake swimming, trail running, cycling), the arts, and close interpersonal relations are integral to my spiritual vitality.

CULTURAL GEOGRAPHY’S INFLUENCE

In 2003, I was living in Southwestern China for a few months. My family and I met some missionaries or “English teachers” including a Nigerian citizen. He was the most exuberant and zealous Christian I had ever met. I was intrigued by his story including his facility with the language. He explained to me that his Nigerian mother tongue was tonal and so Mandarin was a snap. Nigeria, like a lot of Central and Northern African countries, is divided by Muslims in the North and Christians in the South.

All I could think about was what would his life have been like if he had been born a few hundred kilometers farther north. My guess is he would have become an exuberant and zealous Muslim iman. That lead me to wonder how different my spiritual journey would have been if I had been born in a predominantly Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, or secular region of the world.

A FEW LIMITATIONS

My wide-angle lens view of teaching excellence informs the limits of my observations/thinking on religious life and leadership. If most people were asked where does excellent teaching take place, they’d said “the classroom, of course.” But I think of excellent teaching as consisting of at least five things most of which are not classroom-based: 1) creative and conscientious planning; 2) the classroom activities that most people focus on exclusively which we could flesh out but don’t need to for my purposes here; 3) thoughtful assessment of student work; 4) purposeful reflection and revision of the original plan; 5) caring and constructive outside of class interactions with students. 

In my faith tradition, leaders are most commonly referred to as pastors. When it comes to my pastors, I typically only see the equivalent of number two, the Sunday morning activities. I suspect the best pastors work especially effectively out of view building leadership teams, visiting people in hospitals, counseling people, conducting weddings and funerals, and doing service in the community among others things of which I’m ignorant. 

If my pastor friends were to come watch me teach, they’d only get a feel for a portion of my professional life. Similarly, on Sunday mornings, I’m only seeing a portion of pastoral life.

Also, I don’t know how religious leaders evaluate themselves. I’m sure there’s wide ranging differences from the easily measurable (e.g., increasing attendance figures, giving, etc.) to the more intangible (e.g., deepening faith and spiritual maturity, positive impact on the community, world, etc.)

RELEVANT EDUCATIONAL BELIEFS

• I believe the educative effect is greatest when students do something rather than when something is done to them. Sounds awfully basic, but is far more radical a notion than you might imagine. Far too often in K-12 schooling, things are done to students. Put differently, the best teachers promote active learning. I believe religious leaders should promote active learning/growth too.

• Teaching excellence takes many forms. Similarly, I suspect religious leadership excellence takes many forms. 

To be continued.

 

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