Gossip As Moral Discourse And Why We Should Let It Happen

I just finished reading Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets, a memoir of his pastoral experiences in the small town of New Cana, Illinois. The whole thing is really good, but the chapter that challenged my imagination the most was the one titled, “Gossiping The Gospel.” It’s an unforeseen approach on the presence of gossip in the life of the parish and how it’s better to (mostly) embrace it than to try and stop it.

If you’re a pastor then you already know that your people talk about you. If you don’t know this or if you think you’re immune to such a thing, you may have an elevated view of yourself and your leadership abilities. Be sure to do a check-in on that.

People also talk about the goings on within the parish and what they think about certain people or programs or decisions that have been made. Every new idea or program is met with some level of resistance, and resistance motivates people to find others who feel the same way. It’s similar with preaching. Once we say something from the pulpit, it no longer belongs to us; our words are now in the hands of the people and those words can often get reshaped and passed on in various, sometimes strange and destructive, ways.

What makes gossip gossip is that it never involves the person at the center of the discussion. They aren’t around. There’s a circle of critique holding court without a witness. This is uncomfortable and scary for most people, and rightly so. No one likes to be the subject of a discussion they weren’t invited to.

But what is the right response to gossip in the life of the parish? Well, Lischer makes a case for allowing it to happen rather than shutting it down. (In light of the recent story coming out of the Dave Ramsey organization, this notion comes as a stark contrast.)

Lischer writes, “Gossip is the community’s way of conducting moral discourse and, in an oddly indirect way, of forgiving old offenses. In our town all desires were known, no secrets were hid, and every heart was an open book. Every life was gossiped by all, and all were gossips.”

Lischer peers into the practice a bit and finds what most of us can’t, which is the real possibility of something good emerging from gossip. And instead of jumping on it right away, we ought to allow it the space it needs to work its way back towards grace and empathy and understanding. Just give it time. Let it breathe. He carries a belief that most people want the best for others and that eventually the conversations will find their way home.

This is not to deny that some forms of gossip aren’t harmful. Far from the truth. There are discussions that take place in the life of the parish where hatred is the driving force and where ill-intent is the goal. These realities are painful and often hard to deal with. And when they are dealt with (I’ve never seen an effective system of doing so), it often creates more distance, more tension, more anger, more distrust, and predictably enough, more gossip.

Lischer also talks of gossip being a form of “continuing education.” He tells the story of his wife, Tracy, and their two-year old daughter, Sarah, visiting Tom and Lottie’s neighboring farm. Sarah wanted to see their baby chickens. When they walked into the chicken house, Sarah said, “lello!”, her word for “yellow.” He writes: “Lottie quickly turned to her own five-year old, Wendy Sue, whom Lottie always called ‘Miss Mouth’, and, making as if to box her ears, said, ‘Look there, Miss Mouth, and you don’t even know your colors. What’s wrong with you?’ Then she asked my wife, ‘How does that child know her colors? How does she know those chickens are yellow?’ Tracy said, ‘I teach her. You know, Lottie, I point to things like apples and rag dolls and name their colors. Then we repeat them together. See, I would say ‘apple, red; wagon, red,’ and so on.’ ‘Oh’, Lottie replied with a mixture of wonder and resentment.”

The obvious implication here is that Lottie would vent to her husband and friends about this, while also mulling it over and wondering if she ought to give a try herself.

This is how it goes with us, isn’t it? Change is always preceded by frustration and, sometimes, resentment towards the new idea. Most of the time we fight our way into something new. We have to shed old skin. I often find that when people are regularly venting about a new idea and making a case against it, they are also wrestling with whether or not they should also accept and embrace it. Often times, part of embracing something new is in the discourse of resistance, and we have to allow people that space and freedom to “work it out.”

Finally, Lischer see how gossip exhibits historical, moral, and pastoral dimensions. To illustrate this, he shares the story of (again) his wife, Tracy, hiring a teenage babysitter. The babysitter, of course, relays to her grandmother that Tracy doesn’t actually leave the property at all, but instead puts on a swimsuit and sets up a chair behind the garage, out of view, where she spends the afternoon reading books.

He writes (and this is long):

The grandmother takes that story to the weekly quilting session held in the church basement and effectively disseminates it to the mothers of the entire community, who in turn report it to their husbands, who may be trustees or members of the cemetery committee, as well as to their daughters and daughters-in-law, who in turn convey it to their husbands, who will confer on the matter in the feed store, the post office, the church parking lot, or the poker game in Buford’s Garage. If there is a switch-master in this process, it is Burley Means, not because he gossips more than anyone else but because he is in a position to gossip more than anyone else. He is the postmaster. From the same concrete-block building, he operates the post office and a tiny grocery store with tins of ham dating from late in the Truman administration.

By eleven o’clock one morning in the post office, Burley repeated verbatim to me something I had said in exasperation two hours earlier on the parsonage porch. Some trustees with chain saws had shown up unexpectedly at the parsonage. The trustees had a weakness for chain saws. They revved them up and banked them down like hot rodders on the Snake Road. Put a chain saw into the hands of a God-fearing trustee, and he becomes a Visigoth. The trustees proceeded to “trim back” the trees until they were, to my eyes, grotesquely disfigured. By the time I got out on the porch, they had finished their work, and I was fuming. “They look like hell!” was all I could say, a phrase that Burley repeated back to me with pious accuracy two hours later.

“I hear your trees look like hell,” he said.

Burley was the figurative successor of an actual switchboard operator, a woman named Hilda Semanns, who opened a telephone line for anyone wishing to place a call and monitored all conversations. Hilda Semanns really did know everything.

Anyway, Mrs. Lischer hides behind the garage and reads books. The community first asks the historical question, “Have we ever seen anything like this? Have any of our other ministers’ wives hid behind the garage to read? Have we ever heard of this type of behavior?”

Morally, the community wonders, “What are we to make of her actions?” Does such behavior indicate anything about her fitness as a mother or a pastor’s wife? Must one leave the premises if one hires a baby-sitter? The community attempts to attach a positive or negative valence to the behavior. It weighs this habit against other perceptions of Mrs. Lischer as mother, church member, and helpmeet: “She pedals those kids all over the county on that old bicycle Percy Heins sold her for five dollars. Yellow hair flying in the wind, the little girl on the bar, the baby in the basket. The three of them carryin’ on like songbirds.”

On the other hand: “When we invited her to join the altar guild, she asked what we do, and I said we wash and iron the paraments. She said, ‘Oh no, an ironing club!’ ”

And yet: “She asked Wilbur to plow for a garden—a big one. Says she wants to learn how to put up beets and corn. We can teach her something about that. We’re starting her on zucchini.”

And this: “The minister’s wife has a beautiful voice. She belongs in the choir.”

“We don’t have a choir.”

“With her, we could.”

Gossip is always a painful business but, when it functions as speech in the community of the baptized, it can serve a constructive end. In my wife’s case, the sifting stories led to grudging appreciation of a peculiar sort of prairie wife.

I agree with Lischer, especially on the grounds of practicality. As I mentioned above, I have never seen an effective means of dealing with gossip that doesn’t end up as an unhealthy display of control and authority. I’m also not ignoring the negative impact of hateful gossip on the life of the pastor or the church. That is all very real.

But this chapter isn’t about that sort of gossip. Lischer’s challenge is that we learn how to give people the room to work things out among themselves, even if we (and our leadership wins and losses) are the subject of their angst and frustrations. As well, that we allow the space for people to discover pastoral solutions in the midst of their meddling. He says, “Gossip is the de-centered speech that belongs to the entire community. A newspaper’s article cannot sift the stories and come up with a pastoral remedy for a delinquent teenager or a financially careless farmer.”

There was a time when I equated religion with an intensely private faith. Sticky Lutheran piety suited my own introverted nature just fine. But I didn’t find much piety in New Cana and certainly no privacy. Instead, I got myself apprenticed to a community, and this odd little warren of friendships, stories, rivalries, and rumors turned out to be my ministry itself.

Richard Lischer

Zoom Fatigue For The Win: Final Thoughts.

Over the past few days, I’ve shared a little about why the staff at Atlanta Christian Church decided to move to Zoom services instead of weekly videos and why we have leaned into it for the foreseeable future. You can read more about that thought process here and then read about what we noticed happen in our congregation as a result here. Today, I want to close the discussion with some odds and ends. Buckle up, because this is long.

Aside from Zoom meetings during the week, we have also gone low-tech with some of our other ministries, and handed more responsibility to our congregation in others. For example:

We have monthly deliveries of our children’s curriculum so that families know that we are looking out for them, and so that children and parents can engage with Scripture together. We call them Kid’s Crates. Every 4-6 weeks, a team drops off boxes that have the next month or so of material in them. It excites the kids to know that they are getting mail, and it gives them something to talk about in the Sunday morning Zoom calls that we do for families with children.

We have held over a dozen different classes, book clubs, and small groups throughout the year. Some are long-term, 8-12 weeks. Some are short term, 4-6 weeks. Some are Sunday morning meetings. Some are during the week. This flexibility allows for people to attend no matter what their schedule. Since we do them virtually, we’ve seen more involvement than before because people can do them from the comfort of home.

We have also started hiking and biking groups for people to get out in the fresh air and spend time together without having to be inside.

We also noticed that other churches around us who have tried to restart in person gatherings have had to start, stop, restart, reconfigure, over and over and over again. This sort of inconsistency burns out and often disheartens the staffs of those churches, and it disrupts any sense of continuity or consistency within the congregation. By committing to one thing and digging into it, we’ve had a chance to thrive and grow in ways that we could not have expected. It turns out that Christ can even do his work on people through online services. Go figure.

Don’t let any of this discussion fool you. We long for the time when we can get back together in person and worship Christ in the same building at the same time. But one thing that it is important to remember is this:

Christ’s Church has never been dependent on a location. It also tends to thrive in adversity.

I’ve had conversations with people who think that churches should just get together anyway. Either because some people’s perception of the pandemic is less severe or because they simply don’t like the idea that they aren’t allowed to worship Christ together or because they believe that we should meet and simply trust God to protect us. This conversations require more time than this space allows, but I will address them broadly.

“It really isn’t that bad, churches should get together and lead by example of courage rather than fear.”

I understand the thought behind this, and I don’t altogether disagree. However, Christians are called to be compassionate as well as courageous. We have held a few in-person gatherings, and while they were very meaningful, they were not widely attended. On the other hand, nearly everyone who came to the in-person gatherings still attend our Zoom services week to week. If the choice is between courageously holding gatherings that 75% of our congregation are uncomfortable attending and are therefore left out of the fellowship, or holding Zoom services that rival the attendance of our pre-Covid gatherings—and in fact, have seen growth—so that everyone can engage and attend, we’ll go with the latter. Christ does not live in the sanctuary, he lives in the hearts of people. Courage is not always about facing danger. Courage is also about doing things that are unfamiliar and trusting that the God who spoke light into the universe can also sustain a community that can’t meet under the same roof. For more on that, read the Exodus story.

“This is America. They can’t tell us that we can’t worship.”

No one is telling anyone that they “can’t worship.” Yes, there are places where lockdowns prohibit gathering, and if you want to argue whether that is right or wrong, go ahead. But that topic is tangential to the real one: You can worship Christ anywhere, and in fact you should have been doing that all along. If your worship of Christ is only defined by a building, then maybe expand your idea of worship. Worship isn’t singing songs. That’s just, singing songs. Worship is glorifying and praising Christ with every breath of your life. It is not, nor has it ever been, confined to a space or a building. The fact that congregations can’t meet in person is not a prohibition on worship. Our church worships together every single Sunday. If you ask me, the greatest miracle is that we live in a time and a place where everyone can worship in their homes and yet still see each other’s faces as they lift the name of Christ together.

If you want some perspective on this, I suggest you look up the underground church. Quick example, in China, where Bibles are confiscated and pastors are imprisoned for their faith, Protestant Christianity has grown from 22million adherents to an estimated 38million adherents in the last decade. In the United States, where religious freedom is something we say we care deeply about, the number of people who identify as Christian has declined.

Again, another topic for another day. The point is, the health and vitality of Christ’s church is not, and has never been, tied to the freedom to gather in houses of worship. History tells the opposite story. Lockdowns have not done anything to the Church that wasn’t already happening. Whatever the Church had been doing in the U.S. was not working. Maybe it’s time we let go of that and see what else can work. Now’s as good a time as any.

“Churches should meet and trust God to protect them.”

Yes, this is a real thing that real people have said. I’m not going to go into the problematic theology that undergirds a statement like that, other than to say that I trust in God, but I still lock the door to my house, I still wear a seatbelt when I drive my car, I still look both ways before crossing the street, and I still wash my hands.

What I can say for certain is that if there are availably ways to effectively engage with a congregation in worship, ways that allow for the largest number of people to attend and be a part, ways that open the door for people across the world to participate in the same service at the same time, then we should pay attention to that and se what Christ can do with it. That isn’t a lack of faith that God will protect us, it’s a deep demonstration of faith in God to do unimaginable things in impossible circumstances.

“In conclusion.”

We at ACC recognize that what we are doing may not scale up to churches many times larger than ours. We also recognize that every congregation is different. It took a lot of trial and error and yes, faith in God, to land on what we’re doing. But this has worked for us, and so I merely offer it up for other pastors to reflect on.

If you’re a pastor or on staff at a church that is struggling, I encourage you to try things that don’t seem to make sense. I encourage you to reach out to your congregation and see what they tell you. I encourage you to speak with other church leaders and share ideas. We’re all serving the same creative God, the same remarkable Savior, the same impossible Spirit. Let’s help each other thrive, let’s keep pointing people to the One who we serve, and let’s believe that there are better things ahead than what we have left behind.

The Church has left the building.


This is the final entry of a series written with the help of Derek Sweatman and Lindsey Self, my partners in church leadership at Atlanta Christian Church. You can learn more about ACC here

Zoom Fatigue For The Win: What We Noticed By Picking a Format and Sticking To It.

Yesterday, Joel Mooneyhan shared some reflections on the train of thought that led the staff at Atlanta Christian Church to ditch pre-recorded worship services in favor of live services over Zoom. Today he’ll share what that has looked like and what the results have been in their faith community.

It’s worth pointing out right at the start that the decision to commit fully to weekly Zoom services was made somewhat reluctantly. The handful of Zoom services that we had done had been glitchy, a little awkward, and it just felt weird staring at a screen full of people. (If you’re reading this, obviously I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.)

And while our pre-recorded videos weren’t done with top-shelf production equipment, they were consistent in quality. We felt a little uneasy with all the ways a live service online could go sideways (for example: one Sunday, Zoom crashed worldwide for the morning and we just didn’t have worship.) Doing pre-recorded videos allowed us to follow the same Order of Worship we had used in person, and we thought that it would take the pressure off of people to do one more thing on Zoom during an already stressful and shifty time.

But, as I said before, our congregation said they preferred the Zoom services we had done, so we circled up as a staff and figured out a blueprint. Here’s a basic rundown of what we did, why, and what the impact has been:

First, we stripped the service to the bones in order to see what we needed, what we didn’t need, and even what had been missing.

  • We cut back how many songs we sing in worship from four to two. We did this in part because we didn’t want to stretch people’s ability to sit still staring at a screen when most people are doing that all week anyways. We also did it to take some strain off of our entirely volunteer driven worship team.
  • We shortened the average sermon time from around 25 minutes to about 10-12 minutes. This again respects people’s time on Sunday morning and also gives more space in the service for…
  • …The addition of Breakout Rooms. We added two spots for Breakout Rooms. One comes at the beginning of the service and tees up the message with a broad discussion topic, the second one comes after the sermon and gives space to discuss the sermon in more practical terms. These are led by a rotating team of church members and are anywhere from 6-8 people per group, sometimes more, sometimes less.

This has had some predictable and not so predictable outcomes for our congregation.

  • Research done during the first 3 months of the pandemic (March-May) indicates that nationwide, church engagement in every denomination dropped off by about 30%. We were no exception to that. However, once we switched to weekly Zoom services, our attendance leveled out, and has remained consistent ever since.
  • We fought burnout at first, but once we committed to a weekly live service, however glitchy, things began to feel less aimless. Doing videos week to week felt like sending out a message in a bottle, and the analytics of our engagement were frightening. Zoom services have given us a sense of rhythm and a sense of connection to our people.
  • Because Zoom puts faces with names, and because we added Breakout Rooms to our services, more people know each other better than ever have. It’s easy to park your car, go into church, say hello to one or two people, and then take off when it’s over, having not spent any meaningful time with anyone. This new format has given people the chance to get to know each other and encourage one another in ways that they may not have done otherwise.
  • Because services do not require in-person attendance, we have seen newcomers and returning members visit in from literally all around the world. Some of our guests are people who have been invited to attend from across the country, some are members who long ago moved to other parts of the world and can now reconnect with their old friends from church.

Yes. Online gatherings are glitchy and weird.

Staring at a grid of faces on a computer screen is no substitute for being face to face with people. Then again, neither is watching a Youtube video, and at least on Zoom, we can interact in real-time. It isn’t perfect, and we of course would rather meet in person. The reality is that it isn’t feasible for us at the moment, for a number of reasons.

And that is where we’ll leave this discussion for now to pick up again tomorrow.

Zoom Fatigue For The Win: Why We Chose Glitchy, Live Services Over YouTube

NOTE: The following post was submitted by Joel Mooneyhan, Community & Formation Pastor of Atlanta Christian Church. It is the first in a series, so stay tuned!


Like many churches, when the pandemic first emerged our small staff set to recreating a full, one-hour service in the form of a video that we would post to YouTube. We had volunteers send in video segments of music, Scripture reading, liturgy, and so on. The thinking behind this was that it gave people a chance to remain involved and it approximated the order of worship on our regular Sunday morning gatherings. I think we also thought things would return to normal before too long.

What happened was alarming. The analytics from the videos showed a sharp drop of total engagement after only a few weeks. On top of that, the average watch time was something around 11-12 minutes. After pouring a few hours into production each week to cut a 55 minute video, that was more than somewhat disheartening.

We had already baked into our plan a once-a-month live Zoom service (the first one was Easter Sunday), and after 10 YouTube videos and a few by-weeks spread across March-May, we held a virtual townhall to ask our congregation what they wanted from us a staff in the midst of this. 

We were a little surprised to hear from almost everyone that they would prefer a Zoom service to a weekly video. Though they appreciated the effort and the thought that went into the videos, there were a few reasons they said they’d rather have an awkward Zoom call than tune into a video each week.

First, people missed the sense of community more than they missed the “programming.” We are made for social interaction, whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert. Watching a video created a strong sense of disconnect from the larger community. Zoom calls, however tired of them people were, at least fostered a sense of being with other people, face to face, and engaging with the same thing at the same time.

Second, people lost accountability when they weren’t expected to show up. We are all guilty of getting a link to a funny video or an interesting podcast from a friend and saying, “I’ll watch/listen to that when I have time.” Rarely do we follow-through on that. Expecting people to sit down and tune in to an hour-long video worship service, no matter how well-produced, is a tall order. By moving to Zoom and doing service live each week, people felt a higher sense of accountability to attend. 

Third, doing videos to recreate what we had been doing felt disingenuous. Like everyone else, when it all began, we just wanted it to be over. In the absence of what we had, we tried to recreate it the best way we knew how. In doing so, it also sort of felt like putting our head in the sand. Not that we as a staff weren’t aware of what was happening, but trying to force the old normal onto the new one didn’t ring true to us given the circumstances. 

Over the next few days, I’ll share what exactly this looks like for us now, why we think it is the better way, and what we believe it tells us about the state of Christ’s church in 2021.

Why Epiphany Matters

Across the street from our condo building there is a small church with a big front lawn. Every December they set up a live nativity scene staffed by volunteers from the parish. It’s a lo-fi production with little concern for accuracy or theater: there are dogs dressed as sheep, Joseph is wearing glasses, Mary is like 42 years old, and the Magi are in costume robes, plastic royal crowns, and dad sneakers. (But there’s free hot chocolate inside, and hot chocolate has a way of rendering all the anachronisms insignificant.)

Today is January 6, the day on the Church Calendar known as The Epiphany. It is the day after the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and it marks the beginning of something new in the story of Jesus. In a technical sense, Epiphany refers to the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentile world, exampled by the story of the Magi making their way to see the Christ Child, Epiphany’s central text. And the Magi, as we’ll see, do not belong to the religious tradition of Mary and Jospeh. They are outsiders, dressed in strange and foreign ideas about the universe, exotic and suspect; yet, they hold a place in the story, they have a seat at the table. Joan Chittister describes the scene, saying, “The world recognizes the heavenly in this tiny Child. And the Child recognizes the people of God in them. This is not a Christian child only; this child belongs to the world.” (The Liturgical Year, p.92)

What do we do with the story of the Magi, and why are they important to us as pastors?

Outsiders

NOW AFTER JESUS WAS BORN IN BETHLEHEM OF JUDEA IN THE DAYS OF HEROD THE KING, BEHOLD, WISE MEN FROM THE EAST CAME TO JERUSALEM, SAYING, “WHERE IS HE WHO HAS BEEN BORN KING OF THE JEWS? FOR WE SAW HIS STAR WHEN IT ROSE AND HAVE COME TO WORSHIP HIM.”
Matthew 2:1-2

The Magi weren’t kings.

We don’t know if there were 2 or 20 of them at the scene.

And we certainly don’t know their names.

These are all inventions with their own origin stories within Church history, and they’ve played a significant role in muting what was really going on in the narrative.

The Magi were an ancient sub-group of Persian priests, serving in the cabinet of whoever the ruler of the day happened to be. They had access, like a press pass, to various centers of power (which helps makes some sense of their ability to walk right into Herod’s presence). Their affinity with astrology has made them famous, but their use of such a practice often left them shunned and even feared. They interpreted the movements in the skies against events here on earth, making predictions about the rising and falling of rulers and kingdoms, and ancient historians and philosophers weren’t always convinced.

Tacitus (56-120 CE) called them “absurd.”

The Stoic philosopher Seneca (c.4 BCE – 65 CE) said of the Magi, “On even the slightest motion of heavenly bodies hang the fortunes of nations, and the greatest and smallest happenings are to accord with the progress of a kindly or unkindly star.” He made fun of the Magi’s ongoing prediction of Emperor Claudius’ death, pointing out that they had been calling it “every year, every month.” For some, the Magi’s future-telling ways were unsettling. Emperor Tiberius (42 BCE – 37 CE) had the Magi expelled from Rome, a move to eradicate the annoyances and fears that come with bad news.

The Magi’s worldview was not looked upon with great approval from within many of the ancient Jewish communities, either. These were strange and off-centered people, with weird views of how the universe worked; and to see the stars as divine messengers was not something the Hebrew people involved themselves in. (The sun, moon, and stars were considered gods in the ancient world, each with its own proper name. In the Genesis 1 narrative, they are simply called “lights”, a humorous and subversive demotion of their cultural and religious significance.)

And yet, here we are.

Right here in the nativity scene Matthew tells of how something in the night skies caused these religious and cultural and national outsiders to caravan themselves to Bethlehem to see Jesus. Something in the skies caught their attention and they acted on it. And most remarkably, Matthew retells the story not in a negative light, but in a positive one.

Windows

Every one of us sees the world through a certain window, a certain view of reality. The panes on the glass give framing to how we interpret the world around us, and how we experience what we see during our days here on earth. And the windows are innumerable. We see and interpret the world around us through windows of science, philosophy, religion, atheism, wellness, fear, control, politics, and too many more to mention.

The Magi lived with a particular view of reality, they gazed at the world through a certain window. In the story, God knocks on their window. It’s that simple, and that scandalous. There was no correction of thinking or a call to change what they believed to be true about the world – God simply tapped on their lens, saying, in their own cosmic language, “I want to show you something.”

I imagine a group of local psychics turning up in my church building on Easter, saying, “We got a strange reading in the cards, and it brought us here.”

God knocks on windows.

Not just on church windows.

Let Them In

By the time Matthew’s Gospel account was written, the early Christian communities were becoming a kaleidoscope of people, a socially mixed-bag of class and race and gender and political leanings. What started out as a solely Jewish movement soon became a more multi-layered testing ground for relationships across all sorts of societal dividing lines. As beautiful as that sounds on paper, it was not (and is not) an easy venture. The learning curve on community with others who were different – even disliked – was steep and arduous. (So much of Paul’s correspondence with churches focused on the practice of learning to live together in grace and in peace.)

In its history, the Church has done much to bring separation to the world. In so many ways she has been an agent of division instead of peace, birthing a general distrust in her ability to welcome all people. In the face of this, Epiphany arrives as a disruption and a reminder of a different calling.

The Church Year is not random. Its seasons flow together. The paving stones of Lent that take us to Easter Sunday lay at the bottom of Epiphany’s stairs, a descent through the story of the universal Jesus and his open-door policy for all who seek him. Before we even take one step on the Lenten road, we are handed the implications of the coming resurrection. We are clothed for the journey in the colors of love and invitation, of good news for all the people. In a wonderfully challenging way, the Magi stand as a reminder to let the people in.

Let them all in.

Being Honest About The Bible, Part 3

Note To The Reader: This is the third post in a series on being honest about the Bible, especially as a pastor. To keep things simple, each post will have thoughts about only one aspect of the Bible and its use in our congregations. The first two posts are here and here.


These posts are reflections from my years of teaching the Bible to undergrad students. For most of my students, engaging with the Bible from an academic perspective is a new experience. And most common to this new experience is the process of un-learning. There’s a certain amount of deconstruction that happens in the classroom as students look more closely at the Biblical text. Students are encouraged to probe, ask questions, and to be skeptical of their previous understandings of certain texts and teachings. It’s fun. And sometimes unsettling.

One thing we explore are the intended audiences of the Bible. It’s not a shocking revelation to students, but it is one that requires some readjustment in their reading practices.

No. 3 – The Bible Was Written For Us, But Not To Us

My party line in class is, “Much of the New Testament is someone’s mail.” I recognize that it’s more complicated than that, but at its core it’s true: so much of what we’re reading in the New Testament is correspondence between people from the past. (It is remarkable to think that we even have these letters in the first place. We have no idea whether someone like Paul even imagined that his writings would survive beyond their intended destinations, much less be copied, stored, and even passed around. And though obvious, it is still somewhat unsettling for my students to learn that twenty-first Americans were not in Paul’s mind when he wrote his letters.)

John Walton was the first person I heard use the phrase, “The Bible was written for us, but not to us.” It is a simple reminder of an important truth: we are not the original recipients of these ancient writings. We are all peering through ancient windows into the other peoples’ worlds. And those worlds were dynamic and situational, each with its particular cultures, languages, world views, social structures, and belief systems. The more my students learn about those worlds, the more foreign and removed (and even barbaric) those worlds seem. When we read the Bible in an honest way, we are not permitted to transfer its words immediately in our world or even to find its relevancy to our experiences too quickly. We are instead asked to consider the very realtime situations in which its words and stories were written and then do the work of application. (Important here is the admission that some things we read are not applicable to our world or personal experiences because they were originally written to address very particular circumstances in a world that no longer functions in the same ways.)

Whether or not the Biblical writers envisioned future generations of people thousands of years removed even having these writings is unknown. There seems to be some indication that the stories themselves would be told and retold for years to come, but remember that something like a fully formed and contained Bible was hundreds years away from the days of Jesus. And when we look closely at the historical process of collecting all these writings, it almost feels like a miracle that we even have them in the first place.

As pastors:

  • We can be more upfront about the worlds in which these writings came to be, pointing out the cultural stories behind the texts. Tell people that Paul wrote during a time when women were seen as property and when slavery was a given. Show people how the Noah story is similar to other ancient flood stories (frighteningly so with the Gilgamesh Epic!) and how we might read and understand it in light of those truths. This helps people better place Biblical passages in their own context, which ends up helping them with a healthier experience of personal application.
  • While I recognize that “Study Bibles” are not always encouraged in academic settings, we can provide recommended versions for our people, especially ones that provide good historical and theological information on the books and stories of the Bible.

While the Bible is truly one of a kind—largely because it is God’s kind—it bears clear marks of humankind. Divine truth is inextricably interwoven within human culture, which means the categories of thinking, the expressions, the imagery, the motifs are drawn from the cultures in which God’s truth became incarnate. It couldn’t be any other way: it was necessary for God to speak in ways humans could understand, and he specifically chose the Greco-Roman-Jewish world of the first century for revealing the New Testament.

– John H. Walton –

Being Honest About The Bible, Part 2

Note To The Reader: This is the second post in a series on being honest about the Bible, especially as a pastor. To keep things simple, each post will have thoughts about only one aspect of the Bible and its use in our congregations. You can read the first post here.


This series of posts was inspired by my years of teaching Bible to university students. And since mine is the first in a run of required courses in the Biblical Studies program, I have had a front row seat in watching students engage with the Bible at an academic and theological level, many for the first time. It has taught me a great deal about the various ways students learned the stories of the Bible in their home churches from their pastors, youth leaders, and friends. And what I’ve found is that most students enter my course with a binary view of the Bible’s place in the world, seen as something of a dividing line between sinners and saints, of who’s in and who’s out. And with somewhat of a careful tread, this always leads us into a discussion of Biblical interpretation history that is both uncomfortable but necessary, which is how the Bible has been used as a tool of division, oppression, violence, and hatred.

No. 2 – The Bible Has Been Used As A Weapon

When people in my church tell me they’re going to read straight through the Bible, I usually respond with, “Call me when you get to the Book of Joshua.”

More than any other book of the Bible, Joshua has repeatedly been the muse for all sorts of unneeded violence and oppression in the world. In 1099 C.E. Christian Crusaders mounted a Jericho-style attack on the city of Jerusalem. After a failed attempt at circling the city with hopes that the walls would come down (cf. Joshua 6:15-20), they took matters into their own hands, breaking over the city walls and killing Muslims in the streets. Jews were locked into the synagogue and burned alive.

The Conquistadores of the sixteenth century used Joshua as a justifying text for subjugation of indigenous peoples in the Americas. Their guiding analogy was: “Just as Joshua was willed by God to destroy the people of Canaan because they were idolaters, thus God willed Spain to destroy the Indians.” Scholar Ellen F. Davis points out how the English settlers of the seventeenth century identified America as “The New English Canaan”, and how at the 1783 inauguration of George Washington, Yale College President Ezra Stiles identified the nation as “God’s American Israel” and Washington as “This American Joshua.”*

It’s not just the Book of Joshua. We can move well beyond those stories and list off all the ways Christians have used the Bible to marginalize people based on their race, gender, sexual identity, ethnic origins, and more. (Lest we forget that even slavery in our own nation was seen as a justified system, one that was largely based in the Bible’s teachings.)

While this is not an exhaustive essay on interpretation practices, I will offer a few ways forward for how pastors might better help people navigate these issues:

  • We must first acknowledge the ways the Church has gotten so much of this wrong, and to be honest with our parishes about those dark places in our past. On a small scale, this can even take place in preaching when you’re working through a potentially difficult text where you might say, “This passage has been at the root of many different tragic misreadings.”
  • We can help our people understand the differences in how the Bible describes certain realities of its time versus how it prescribes a way of life in the world. Just because the Bible describes things doesn’t mean those things are to be normalized. Helping people learn to distinguish between the two is a worthy task. Remember: the prophets had a way of pointing backwards and saying, “Hey, we got those things wrong.”
  • We can, in our own personal study, do the work to better understand such troubling passages. We live in a time of extraordinary scholarship and advances in Biblical exegesis. The resources are out there for all to use, and if the hard work of study on my end can help turn down the energy around weaponizing the Bible, it’s a win.

A final word about power versus weakness.

The very first crisis in the Bible is around the desire for power. The temptation at the base of the tree in the garden was rooted in a fear that God was holding out on the couple. “You will not surely die”, the serpent says, for “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)

In my reading of the Bible I have noticed that it carries almost no concern for a person’s weaknesses. Not in the sense that it denies personal weakness, it doesn’t. It’s just not as concerned about it as we tend to be. We focus quite a lot of energy on dealing with what’s less-than in our lives. But the Bible’s concern appears to be with a person’s handling of power, or worse, their unmitigated desire for power. The pursuit of power and influence and a stronger social platform is at the root of so many downfalls. Power, not weakness, is humanity’s problem. In Biblical parlance, it is through weakness that grace comes alive and makes most sense; power, on the hand, has a deafening influence on grace – we can no longer recognize it.

The church must recall and retell the story of Jesus’ dealings with power, seen most visually in his death at the hands of power. God’s response to a world unhindered by advancement and cruelty and unreserved power was, in fact, an act of weakness: an uncontested dying. Perhaps this is some of what Paul meant when called followers of Jesus to be “living sacrifices” in the world.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

– 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 –

*From Opening Israel’s Scriptures (Oxford Press, p.129)

Being Honest About The Bible, Part 1

Note To The Reader: This is the first post in a series of musings on being honest about the Bible, especially as a pastor. To keep things simple, each post will have thoughts about only one aspect of the Bible and its use in our congregations.


For many years I have taught an undergrad course in the Bible, mostly to freshman as part of a required run of classes within the College of Biblical Studies at the university. Mine is also the first class students take within that required list, making it their first academic engagement with the Bible. This has given me a front row seat in watching students learn new things (and often disorienting things) about the design and storyline of the Scriptures. The experience has also informed the way I think about the role of the Bible in the local parish, and about the mistakes we pastors have made in how we so often present its stories and teachings and messages to our people. Furthermore, and most uncomfortably, there are ways that our presentation of the Bible has been the cause of all sorts of confusion, disillusionment, and, in many cases, of people giving up on it altogether. Our willingness to be honest and upfront with our people about the Bible just may be a positive way forward. And so, what follows is the first of a run of personal epiphanies that I’ve experienced in being both an instructor of the Bible to college students and also as a pastor of a local parish.

No. 1 – The Bible Is Complicated

My running joke is that the Bible shouldn’t be read without supervision. The reason is simple: the Bible is quite complicated. Yes, there are running themes and storylines throughout the Bible that help us latch on to its overall purpose(s) – which can help us survive the journey – but when we read closer and more attentively we find ourselves dealing with very complicated writings.

It reminds me of the beginning of each new semester when I have students open to Genesis 1:1-2:3 and instruct them to count the words (in the Hebrew version), to find the repeated words and phrases, to see if they can “see” the patterns and even graph the story. There’s also the work of reading Genesis 1:1-2:3 alongside the much older Babylonian creation story – Enuma Elish (“When God On High”) – and to compare the similarities and differences of the two stories, and to begin to figure out what the writer of the Genesis creation story may have been trying to accomplish.

It gets complicated. Students find themselves swept up in a current of study that pushes them well beyond the familiar shores of simple devotions and sermon series. They’re thinking now. They’re processing past understandings. There’s an un-learning that’s taking place.

The role of preaching in many traditions has become a sales pitch to get people on the right side of eternal history, and a sales pitch is famously simplistic by design: here’s the problem, here’s the solution, sign here. To be fair, these three ideas do run through the pages of the Bible. It does not hide its belief that the world is broken, that God is working to bring healing, and that all people are welcome to join in the work and the life of God here and now, and forevermore. (There is a great line from Duke University professor and theologian Stanley Hauerwas that reads: “Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bullshit.” I will talk about this in a future post!)

A lot can be said about the limitations of preaching and its inabilities to house all the necessary elements needed to gain a fuller understanding of the Bible. And that may not be preaching’s role anyway – it may instead be but a piece of the fuller liturgy, a thing that leads us to the Eucharist where we see and hear and taste the Gospel once again.

  • What we can do, however, is help create a parish environment where hard questions about the Bible are welcomed and embraced, and also where we provide educational spaces for people to engage with the Scriptures at various levels.
  • We can also be honest from the pulpit and name the ways that the church has gotten certain passages wrong and how it has used those in destructive ways.
  • We can do a better job at pointing out the different genres that exist within the Bible’s writings, teaching our people how to understand the differences of application between poetry, parable, history, apocalypse, prophecy, wisdom writings, correspondence (the epistles), and the Jesus biographies.
  • We can invite professors in to lead workshops on various topics related to the Bible.
  • We can provide reading lists and theological essays for people to access.
  • We can get better at saying, “I don’t know.”

The Bible tells a wonderful story, but it is also wonderfully complicated. As preachers we can learn to take complicated things and say them simply, but with enough depth to shine a light on those untraveled paths of learning that many have been afraid to take. And that begins with us.

“There is perhaps hardly a theological student who has not been earnestly and emphatically warned by some pious soul against the dubious undertaking taking of approaching Holy Scripture with scientific tools, against studying all “doubtful questions,” and against casting himself into the arms of that omnivorous octopus, the unbelieving professor. Here I need only to appeal to your memories. What lies at the root of these warnings, these anxieties of the quiet in the land that forever trouble us?”

– Helmut Thielicke –

The Pastor’s Faith, Part 2

What do you when you don’t believe something anymore?

It happens. Former ideas and understandings get discarded, be them around traditions, theologies, certain readings of particular texts. Sometimes the theological floor moves a little (or a lot) and the pastor stands inside certain biblical passages with a different point of view. It’s a not a discarded faith, but one that has been rearranged.

How do you navigate a change in faith and belief while leading a congregation.

A few things to consider:

Is your new perspective a necessary one for all people? Does your newly adopted way of reading Genesis 1 matter all that much in the life of the church? Probably not. It’s good to remember that everyone doesn’t have to see and understand things in the same way in order to be a faithful and loving people. People can read Genesis 1 as literal or they can read it as a polemic against the Babylonian text of Enuma Elish or they can simply read it as a wonderful work of Hebrew poetry and the church can still come out alive and well. When teaching, it’s better to say something like, “Now, there are multiple traditional readings of this text…” and then offer them up for people to hear and process. (This is better done in classroom or group settings than in the sermon.) You don’t have force people to take your side, especially in readings that don’t really move the needle for the life of the church.

There will be times, however, when a different understanding does impact the life of the church. Take the role of women, for example. If your perspective has shifted from women having a limited role in the life of the church to one that involves them at every level of leadership, then you have some work to do with your people. But that work will take time and patience as you lead through the change. Remember: when there are visible changes in a church due to a shift in belief, it can be hard for people. Those changes account for moments when your people recognize the differences in traditions and theological understandings in the room, and that can be uncomfortable territory for some, as church is supposed to be a place of community and sameness. And when there are newly marked differences, social tension can arise. The trick is in how you usher in change while maintaining a culture of difference and perspective.

One final thing: I recommend sitting quietly with your change of belief for some time, maybe a year. Before applying new theological rhythms to the life of the parish, we must allow those to take root in our own lives first. To cross one of the many lines of options for the Genesis 1 reading and then to get up the next Sunday to share your wisdom will be hollow at best and self-serving at worst. Take the time to develop the fluency you need to offer additional understandings. Well-informed theology is rarely fit for Twitter.

Grace and peace,

DS

The Pastor’s Faith, Part 1

Does the faith of the congregation mirror that of its pastor?

Yes, but also, not really.

Yes, in the sense that the pastor must model an evolving faith. She must be honest from the start that she, too, will experience changes in ideas, understandings of certain texts, and that she will go through stretches of theological realignment. It’s just not feasible to stand by a static faith in such an organic and dynamic environment as a congregation. The ideal first sermon would be more of a confession of ignorance than anything else. She could stand among her people and say something like, “Look, this journey of faith is one for a lifetime and there are many trails I have yet to explore. I assume it’s the same for you. I did not leave seminary with all the answers, but with more questions to explore, with more things to work out in the settings of real, everyday life. What I do know is that the Bible – and all its surrounding ideas – are not easy, but difficult. This book can be both freeing and frustrating, as you already know. So, together we will walk. We will learn new things and discard old things. We will not grow weary or decide that we are done. We will, together, ‘continue to work out’ our salvation.”

Not really, in the sense that the pastor cannot decide how people will believe what they believe. If she thinks this is possible, she is not in touch with her congregation. The truth is more complicated: in a crowded church house there are multiple opinions and beliefs about things like the virgin birth, the miracles, the way prayer works, the story of Jonah, even the resurrection. Just because the website is succinct and the sermon is well-crafted and logical doesn’t mean that the entire congregation is in the slipstream of the pastor’s faith. Further, the design of the church ought not be a place where certain levels of faith are required, but rather a place where there’s an ongoing conversation around the both the facts and the mysteries of all that faith entails, and where people are free to learn at their own pace.

The trick with both of these is for the pastor to remain comfortable with the tensions of faith and formation. Not everything moves in a sequential order; the same people who appear to be growing one year can go sideways the next. But it’s all part of the lifelong journey of being a disciple.

Grace and peace,

DS