Thursday, September 29, 2011

Okay, a Rant (part 4)

If you're just now joining this rant, you may want to go back and at least skim the last three entries, to see why the National Back to Church Sunday video made me grumpy. (Actually, I've been grumpy for a couple of months. I'm using this video, which didn't lighten my grumpiness, to illustrate my grumpiness.)


I won't go into the final invitation. It's all very pleasant, as I've said is the whole video. It's great that the congregation in question will welcome you regardless of your past religious affiliation. (I pause to point out that the only non-Christian background welcomed by name is "Jewish," but I suppose we can infer that Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and other world religions are welcome, too. Or we can infer that only converts from Judaism are invited. Hard to tell.)

But then, I'm assuming something here: I'm assuming that this is a Christian congregation that is inviting me to their church. How would I know that? Is Jesus or Christ ever mentioned?

In fact, unless I missed something, the only mention of God was in the somewhat presumptuous statement "right were God wants you."

This is a marketing video that is trying to convince a consumer that they're welcome, that they're okay in their not-okay-ness. It's so pleasant and inoffensive that it completely avoids all offensive things like Jesus.

Throughout, I've been complaining about how unrealistic the answers are to the excuses for why people don't go to church. The final invitation hits on the big unrealism: They're selling a utopia for people not only want to not be okay but also be accepted in their not-okay-ness. And, I know we're never going to be completely well, we're always going to be not-okay, but I kind of hope for some progress in the journey.

There's an awful lot of talk about "authenticity" in church circles. What I think this is after is an acknowledgment that everyone comes to church (or anywhere) with their own set of luggage, and we need to exercise some tolerance and grace with one another. To the extent that this video is trying very hard to acknowledge our brokenness, I can go along with it. But the problem is no matter how hard they try to sell the idea of church as a utopia where everyone feels at home . . . well utopias simply don't exist. I'll go so far as to say it's a false idol.

What would be more realistic?

Come to my church. We're all bumbling, broken people, but sometimes we help each other. We come with a variety of needs, wants, and experiences but we return each week to be reminded that the Reign of God is among us. We get angry, we get hurt, but we also have this place where we're reminded that if we turn away from anger, revenge, selfishness, and actively work with God, respond to the words of Jesus to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, protect the weak and powerless, we we see God among us.

Come to my church, we're trying our best---some days, not all days---but some days, in good weeks, most days we're doing our best to keep up with Jesus, to follow where we hear Jesus leading us. We're going to argue about that. Okay, but we're all going to sacrifice something and lay it at the foot of the cross, and we're going to go away with a blessing.

Come to my church, because during the week, you're going to have some good stuff happen to you and maybe you'll want to come praise God with us. And in the weeks where bad stuff happens, you'll want a place to lament---in community. Yes, we can all be thankful or be sad on our own, but when we're thankful or sad together---well, it's another place where the Reign of God breaks into the world, breaks up the powers of this world. Maybe not every Sunday, but there's an accumulative effect and eventually, you'll have a bad Thursday and a line from the lackluster, boring, emotionless, cold, "I got up for this?" Sunday before will come to you, be with you, sit with you. And you'll remember the life, words, and sacrifice of Jesus and you'll make it through until Friday. And on Sunday, you'll want to praise God in the company of the community.

This is not utopian, and I hope it doesn't sound that way. This is the hard work of faithfulness. All my excuses to not go to church---and I have a few, some in the video, some not---are not going to be answered by one phrase spoken by an appealing actor. I've traveled this road too long to be placated by platitudes. I'm writing this an angry, bruised man (who doesn't air his dirty laundry in public, or at least tries not to). But good things happen and bad things happen. I find meaning in the Good News of Jesus, in the sacraments of the church, and these still outweigh the the ways I feel hurt by the institution of the church (for I do recognize that, for the most part, it is the cold institution of the church---and it's gatekeepers---that I feel have hurt me, not the Church, the Body of Christ).

So, come to my church. Sing hymns and pray with us. We won't promise miracles---we can't control such things. But we will tell you that we live under Grace, that we are loved beyond imagining, and when we gather in praise, lamentation, service, and support---the Reign of God is among us.

That's really all we have to offer.


So, this completes my rant, such as it is. It doesn't really tell you everything, but reveals my mood of the moment. I don't like going to church right now, and this video just pushed some exposed and raw buttons. This writing is an oblique, if not opaque, explanation for why I stopped blogging for a couple of months. Actually, writing through this has give me some catharsis, exposed some over-reaction to myself (if not to you). What does it do for you? I don't know. But Miles wanted something from me and this is what I had to offer for the moment. Blame him if this was more self-indulgent than usual. (Insert smiley face here.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Okay, a Rant (part 3)

If you're just joining this program, already in progress, you may want to start with the two previous posts. The brief catch-up is that, from a rather grumpy disposition, I'm deconstructing a video that you can see by clicking here.


7. "Church is for wimpy girly men."
Thomas says, with Scotty glowering beside him, "You want to say that again?"
tag: . . .

Where to start with this? There's so much that rubs me the wrong way here.

How about: "Real men" obviously are threatening, however good-naturedly or humorously the threat may be delivered. That the threat is the only text to answer the excuse tells us something: we expect men to be violent if their great god, "masculinity," is threatened.

Or maybe I should start with: Does this mean that wimpu, girly men are NOT welcome?

I realize I consort with a minority population. I'm part of that minority population. As a gay man, I cringed at this section. I cringed at the thought of transgendered friends seeing it. It is, quite possibly, the most UNwelcoming piece of the video.

And seriously, what is wrong with straight men that the need this sort of constant reassurance? "Don't worry, going to church won't make you less of a man! See? We have a couple of burly men who could smash you to pulp right here!" Why would I, as a gay man who (I've been told) exhibits a range of gender expression, be enough of a threat to keep straight men away, anyway?

I've tried to imagine a similar section directed at women, but they all come out so offensive that I can't publishe them on my blog. Which would sort of make the point about how offensive I find this particular excuse/response.

By the way, notice how there is no tag line at the end? It's as if the producers of the video couldn't find a polite way to say, "church isn't just for fags!" So we just have a final shot of the manly men with their names. That should say it all, right?

And perhaps what troubles me most---since I'm going on about realistic expectations in these posts---is that this may be the most honest section in the video. The church does lack men, men do tend to see "mother church" as feminizing (as if "feminine" were a bad thing), and men do tend to get threatening if they're accused of being less than "real men." Whatever those are.

What do I want a video like this to say? "All gender expressions are embraced as aspects of the Image of God" would be a lie (never mind creating unrealistic expectations) in the vast majority of churches.

So this section sipmly hits me on all the tender spots. It farily truthfully expresses what most congregations want and makes me realize all over again how far the church is from being a safe place for LGBT folk.

8. "If you knew me and what I've done, you wouldn't want me."
Retired pilot Mike answers: "If you knew me and what I've done, you wouldn't be worried."
tag: Forgiven.

This would be more powerful if didn't immediately assume that what these people had done was maybe had an affair or some other sin not punishable by civil law. As awful as that is, I think that's where churches are with this kind of forgiveness. I think if Mike had told us he'd committed heinous war crimes in Viet Nam or Iraq, we would be relieved that was all that was bothering him when he came to us for for confession and a word of grace.

It would also have been more powerful if we were told that everyone at Mike's church knew that he had molested a child but that their love had turn him from that destructive and life-shattering behavior.

It would have been a lie, but it would have been more powerful.

The sad, likely fact is that Mike may have had a profound, life-changing experience of God's forgiveness, but he probably keeps the particulars from the majority of his fellow church goers. He probably talks to people just like he spoke in this video: "If you knew . . . "

But he's probably not going to let them know, because most of us longtime church members know that it's not safe to tell everything. There may be very close friends who know Mike's past, but not everyone, I can nearly promise you. We're kind of back to the previous bit about how the church is full of hypocrites and preach forgiveness while shunning the forgiven.

I sound very cynical, don't I? Well, here I am. And there's a thin line between being a cynic and just paying attention.


And I'm not done here, yet. I have to stop here for the evening, but I'll try to get the rest done tomorrow. There's at least one more part to this rant. Maybe two. But we're through all the "excuse/response" portions of the video, so we're close to the end of my general grumpiness with this video.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Okay, a Rant (part 2)

Read the previous entry first, if you're just wandering by. The short introduction is I'm ranting for a few days about the video that you can see by clicking here.

Okay, so we're up to this excuse:

3. "All they care about is your money."
Geoff, CFO, replies: "They care about me, not my money."
tag: People are priceless.

You know what? The church cares about your money. Flat out, any congregation is really interested in what you put in the offering plate. In many cases (at least in my denomination), the welcome package comes with a box of envelopes for said offering.

To a certain extent, that's fine. Stewardship is important. Supporting your congregation is important. You want a place to meet, in climate controlled comfort, with a staff to make sure everything gets taken care of, we all have to chip in. Furthermore, speaking again for my denomination, a portion of the money goes to places beyond the congregation. There are local to national to international programs that are supported by our offerings. This is very meet, right, and salutary. The church should not be only looking at the local, at the needs and wants within one congregation's campus, but should, indeed be participating in alleviating the effects of hunger, disease, and disaster everywhere. And so, the offering plate is, in fact, coming to you for your ease of chipping in.

Hopefully, the congregation will care about you, too. Hopefully, the congregation will care about you more than your money. Sometimes, that gets out of balance, though, and at the very least, it sometimes can feel like the church cares more about your money than about you. The church needs to keep aware of this.

I may be splitting hairs here and looking at the subtlties more than any video could address---but that's part of what I'm writing against. This soundbite evangelism too easily creates false expectations.

4. "Is there some kind of dress code?"
Ingrid, a mom, answers: "Yes. The code is: wear some clothes."
tag: Come as you are.

I hope this is mostly true. It's truer than it used to be. The last two congregations I've belonged to saw Sunday morning worshipers in everything from suits to shorts, heels to flip-flops. Some people want to honor the house of God by wearing their very best. Some find the house of God to be the one place where they can relax and dress casually. I think both are legitimate pieties, so long as no one is forcing anything on anyone. I mean, it's just clothes. Wear some and don't worry about what everyone else is wearing.

All of which to say, while individual congregations may vary, I have the feeling that this is most realistic of the video's answers.

5. "Church just makes me nervous."
Mary, a consultant, tells us: "I was nervous at first and then I felt right at home."
tag: Right where God wants you.

I don't have a huge quibble with this, except for the, again, false expectation---or promise---that you're going to fit in and just relax into this new place. Why someone feels nervous by church is more important than any kind of platitude about being "right where God wants you." Cultural, familial, and institutional history for any individual will make this much more complex than the video suggests. And as I suggested in the last post, I've been a church member my entire life and I don't always feel at ease with it. Why would I expect someone to settle in if only they would just give it a go?

6. "I'm not sure I believe everything that you believe."
Donovan, sales manager, says: "But you can still belong."
tag: Doubts welcome.

Wow. I think there exists places where doubts are truly welcome. Maybe. But seriously, who feels safe saying out loud all their doubts in a chruch setting? I've known agnostics who served on church councils, but I'm pretty sure they never expressed it to the whole council.

Doubts welcome? Maybe some places. But, personally, I wouldn't go into a new congregation wearing them on your sleeve.


I'll stop here for tonight. That's enough for a single blog post. These were the less annoying sections of the video, so I may not be sounding like a ranting lunatic as I may feel. Just remember: I'm Lutheran. We have a more subtle ranting style.

And the next section is the one that set me off the most, and if you know me, you can probably already guess why.

But that's for tomorrow.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Okay, a Rant (part I)

If you intend to read all of this, you might want to go get a beverage or maybe something to eat. This might take some time.

As I said in the last post, I'm not a very good mood for talking about churchy matters. The whys are mostly not for public discussion. But Miles has pushed me on this, and it's fair. So I'll start here.

I realized that I was carrying some anger and maybe not fit for blogging on spiritual matters when this fairlyinnocent, pleasant, well-intentioned video set me off. Watch it here and see how pleasant it is.

* * * * *

Okay? Now, what about this pleasant video, a friendly invitation to church, would set me off and make me want to rant for a few pages?

For the most part, I think this video sets up unrealistic expectations for a visitor looking for a church. And . . .

Well, let's just take it piece by piece, excuse/answer by excuse/answer.

1. "I can't come to church until I get my life together."
Lisa, hairdresser, says, "Church is how I got my life together.
tag: A place for new beginnings.

I'll start by saying taht I find this actress really appealing. (I assume it's an actress, not a real hairdresser. I'm willing to be proven wrong.) And I've known people who have the experience of joining a church and it being a very grounding experience for them. Thanks be to God. This is how it's supposed to be.

That's not my experience, exactly. I grew up in the church and it was a great way to grow up. I mean that and stand by it. As an adult, however, I tend to find deeper involvement in the church to be a little . . . I don't have the right word. Stifling? Damaging? Those words sort of work.

I'm reminded of a line from Sting: "Men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one." That's more my experience.

But again, I find the actress to be appealing in her quirky, awkward way. She pulls off a sort of redeemed ledge-sitter. I'm happy for her. I just don't believe it's everyone's experience and I'm not sure it's an expectation that many congregations can meet.

2. "Church is filled with a bunch of hypocrites."
Randy the pipefitter says, "And there's always room for one more."
tag: Imperfect people welcome.

I admit, this always sets me off when people say it. I used to work with a supervisor who always said the definition of "religion" was "hypocrisy." Of course, he was also the supervisor who was constantly telling workers to do more work and less talking while he spent hours most days in spirited conversation about college football.

I can't deny the church deserves its accusations of hypocisy, but that's because it's always easier to preach morals than to preach grace. Once you set yourself (plural or singular "you") as a paragon of morality, you're going to screw up and probably in some really big public way. It's just that simple and we all do it, with or without religion. It just seems the church does it in flashign neon.

So in this case, everyone kind of annoys me, the excuse-maker and the promise of welcome tot he imperfect. You're going to get judged at church. Someone's going to shun you at church. And at work, and at the grocery store, everywhere you meet people.

Maybe---and this is only maybe---at church, there's a mutual understanding that repentance from judgment and shunning is desirable, a goal to move toward. And I do believe that's worth something. It's just a far cry from a promise that imperfect people are unconditionally welcome.


Okay, I see that this is going to go on longer than I even realized. I actually have this written in long hand (which is not how I usually blog), and I think it's best if I break this up into individual posts. I'll try to add some everyday. It looks like it might be a 4-part rant. Feel free to tell me how unreasonable I'm being so far. I feel a little unreasonable, which is why I stopped blogging for a while (even before I saw this video). Just don't stop here. I think I'm going to come to a point . . .

Monday, September 12, 2011


It surprises me more than a little, but I've actually been asked about the lack of new posts here.

Kinda makes me feel missed and stuff.

It has been two months since I posted here. There have been similar "quiet periods" in this blog's history, and I've never even attempted to be any kind of regular with the postings (except, maybe, during some liturgical season, perhaps---and then I think I've always failed).

This one has been a little different in that I'm not exactly without things to say, but I am without much nice to say.

Which is to say, my current relationship with church (the institution) is a bit on the rocks lately. And while that doesn't necessarily have much to do with a relationship with God---well, it kind of does, actually. You can't have a relationship with the Head of Christ without the Body of Christ. Well, I guess you can. It's just awkward. If not unnerving.

Anne Lamott has said that if it happens to you, it's yours, and you can write about it. If the people involved don't like it, they should have behaved better. (I'm paraphrasing or else I'd put it in quotes.) I'm not quite there with that sentiment, despite sort of going with it recently with some things I wrote for a dance film I worked on for Frame Dance Productions. I prefer writing fiction for a reason.

So, my silence here is the result of not wanting to write screeds and diatribes. It comes from not desiring an unfair advantage of having a forum where others do not (although this blog is hardly a huge forum---then again, I'm not particularly interested in dueling blogs, either). I do still believe in kindness, grace, mercy, edification, and loving those you really want to smack. Ranting doesn't help much. And, besides, that's what private dinners with close friends are for.

So . . . yeah. For now, a silence. I've come close to breaking it a couple of times recently. Maybe I will sooner than later. I just thought that since I was asked, I might explain.

However opaque and/or oblique that explanation may be.