Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Stradivarius Syndrome

I don’t watch much network television.  I do, however, have my few guilty pleasures that I record and watch later.  One of those is Shark Tank.  I come from an entrepreneurial family so I love to evaluate the opportunities presented and have bought some of the products pitched on the show.  Today, the episode included a pitch by a father/son team for a guitar with a folding neck.  I immediately called my son in to watch with us since he is a musician and has been obsessed with guitars since age two.  

A couple of the sharks ended up making an offer which the team refused.  It was a licensing deal where they would sell the patented hinge to the established guitar manufacturers.  The father would have had to give up 51% control of the company, however, and so he didn’t accept.  I asked Benjamin if this guitar was on the market anywhere.  He wasn’t sure and he questioned the practicality since the guitar sounded out of tune before and after they folded it (I couldn’t tell) and that folding guitar strings is like folding a paperclip back/forth – not good.  But what inspired me today was the rest of our conversation.  He said plainly, “The guitar industry sucks.”  He went on to explain that the guitar industry is built on tradition so innovation is not valued.  Even if a guitar is designed to address say, the problem with reaching the frets easily, musicians are skeptical.  Apparently, Gibson built such a guitar for a few years, sold the heck out of it, and then discontinued it.  Maybe they are creating scarcity.  Benjamin said the most expensive guitars are the replicas of the older designs. 

This made me think about scotch.  I know what you’re thinking – where’s the Jesus?  Stay with me.  At one time, I really enjoyed drinking scotch.  If you are a scotch drinker, my favorite was Oban, one of the smallest distilleries in Scotland, started in 1794.  When I drank Oban, I expected it to taste consistently the same year after year.  As a consumer, I would have probably stopped buying Oban if they did anything “innovative” with their product.  So it is with guitars, apparently.  Everything about the way guitars are made produces a very unique sound: whether the neck is glued on or screwed on; whether the wood is solid or composite; whether there are three springs or five springs on the bridge, etc.  [I know more than I really want to know about guitars but I totally support my son in his passion.]  As I listened to my son, I understood that so much of the value comes from consistency and not innovation.  The car industry is built on innovation but not guitars or scotch.  I named it the Stradivarius Syndrome – that unless it’s done exactly the same way it’s always been done, it’s not worthy.

That’s when my palms started to sweat.  Isn’t the church something that we value for its tradition and we become skeptical when it doesn’t look/smell/feel/sound like it always did?  When I said this, my husband commented that Jesus and God don’t change – they are supposed to be the same forever.  I agreed.  The Trinity – God, Jesus, Holy Spirit – are constant.  That’s the beautiful and comforting thing.  But how we expand His kingdom is always ripe for experimentation.  There are no limits as to the many ways we can reach out to people and connect them to the church.  God gave us the gift of creation – the ability to create something from nothing.  We aren’t creating the Trinity; we are creating a community.

Does the experience of church look the same as it did years ago?  No.  Does it feel the same from church to church?  No.  And it is still worthy.   As I talk to our younger newcomers at St. Mary’s, I am surprised by their desire for reverent worship, time for prayer, or organ music.  They say they are tired of 30 minute rock concerts.  As I write this blog, I can smell my mother’s communion bread baking for tomorrow’s Holy Eucharist.  Our liturgical tradition is a real and physical experience in a world where we constantly need to filter truth from fiction. 

Traditionally, we have waited for someone to decide they wanted to join the church before helping them connect in any significant fashion.  I believe in the opposite.  People don’t join anything before they have a connection to it.  Our first Seekers Forum concluded a few weeks ago.  This was a blend of some in-person fellowship and a private Facebook group.  Personally, this is not the way I would connect to a new church but it was very meaningful to these participants.  That is one example of innovation and we didn’t have to abandon our Anglican roots to do it.   

It’s scary to experiment and try something new.  But if we try something new because we are truly listening to others and trying to meet them where they are, the church becomes real and relevant.  And that is both traditional and innovative.      

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

An Invitation to the Wounded

This morning, as I drove closer to work (church), I decided to drive in silence.  The prayer we pray at St. Mary’s with our children came to mind:  “Good morning God.  This is your day.  I am your child.  Please show me your way.”  I heard a still, small voice.  

I am an evangelist.  But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I said out loud to someone that I am an evangelist.  I went on to explain that it was a joy to do this work because I knew I wasn’t inviting people to a church to be pounded or punished but to be loved and accepted.  The “E” word tends to be misunderstood.  Often, it is confused with the word “evangelical” which is a description of a Christian faith that is generally more fundamental and conservative than the mainstream.  Not slamming evangelicals, just making the distinction.  Evangelism:  spreading the Christian gospel by personal witness. 

You see, I have not been wounded by organized religion.  Rather the opposite, my experience has been one of love, inspiration, faith, purpose, and community through the Episcopal tradition.  The more people I meet, the more stories I hear about being scarred by the church or by individuals in the name of religion, particularly Christianity.  It is absolutely heartbreaking to hear stories of faithful people who fell away from Christian community or expression because of, in some cases, one deeply hurtful experience.  Some have been disowned because of their sexuality, been excluded from youth group after misbehaving, or grown up in a faith community where rule following was the basis of the faith.  Many of these stories involve being forced as children to attend church as a joyless discipline. They all have a common theme:  these people were judged – and usually harshly.  In the name of Jesus, they were condemned and convicted and deemed unworthy of love or mercy.

A few years ago, we hosted a Faith Dinner at our home.  This special dinner is moderated by a facilitator as we share stories of our faith journeys.  It is an adult evening and when my teenage son came home, he asked if he could share his faith story.  His story involved his recovery from substance abuse.  Here is the important part: he didn’t ask who was in the room.  He instinctively knew that he could tell his story without shame to anyone who was there because they were his church family.  This is what I wanted for my children: a church home that would support my children in their journey, not only when they did all the right things but also accept them when they struggled.  Every year, when Benjamin’s sobriety milestone comes around, he goes to the altar to get a blessing and every year, the congregation applauds.  He was encouraged in his ministries as a camp counselor, a vacation Bible school guide, and a worship leader as well as held in prayer for many, many months.  This is what healthy Christian community looks like and this is what everyone deserves. 

We have members at St. Mary’s who have returned to church after 30+ years to be healed from their various wounding experiences in other congregations.  They never stopped believing; they stopped belonging.  I will never forget the courageous visitor who said to me, “I looked at your website and thought I would be welcome here.  I am not welcome at my mother’s church since I am gay.”  This broke my heart in two. 

I cannot think of a single example where Jesus turned anyone away.  Whatever your assessment of someone’s worthiness, remember that Jesus broke bread with tax collectors.  Tax collectors were the pariahs that people didn’t talk to much less eat with.  Jesus didn’t walk into the temple and ask for the 12 most righteous priests to serve as disciples.  He chose 12 ordinary people who were flawed and imperfect. 

Pointing others toward Jesus is only that – an invitation that has no qualification criteria.  I pray that if you experienced the grace of the loving God, if you have seen the hand of God at work in the world or in your life, that you will share your story with others or invite someone to church.  I also pray that if you have fallen away from Christian community, that someone will help you back into the fold because Jesus is waiting for you and loves you unconditionally.   The Episcopal Church welcomes you.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Being Real, Finding Joy

This morning, we got up early to pick up our middle schooler from Camp Allen.  If you aren’t familiar with Camp Allen, it is an Episcopal church camp in Navasota, Texas.  Nestled in the piney woods, it’s a little slice of heaven. The camp isn’t fancy by any means but it is special nonetheless.  My husband and I attended this camp as kids (though never together) and I admit I was a little jealous that by the time our first son starting going, they had added air conditioning to the cabins.  Summer camp with no air conditioning is my version of walking uphill to school both ways.  

On the way, we chatted about a karaoke party I attended last night.  Ryan was too tired to go but I hadn’t seen this group of friends in ages so I went by myself.  If you like karaoke, then karaoke with a group of actors in a private party room is highly recommended.  I am not as active in local theatre as I once was, but still feel very connected to this community.  I shared with Ryan all the latest news and that a highlight of the evening was a playwright who was in town from New York.  When he chose Joy to the World, he confided to me, “I’m not a great singer so everyone will have to support me.” I assured him we would.  This is the Joy to the World by Three Dog Night – not the Christmas song.  “Joy to the world.  All the boys and girls.  Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea.  Joy to you and me.”  The reason it was a high point is as everyone joined him, it truly was joyful and dare I say, spiritual.  This song took us both back to our childhoods this morning.  I couldn’t stop humming it.

We picked up Caleb, who attended his first year of junior high camp.  He attended camp every prior year with a friend of his from our church.  This year, his friend didn’t go so we were hoping for a good experience since our younger son is a bit shy and keeping faith in the “Camp Allen experience.”  The minute we saw him, he said “This was the best week ever at Camp Allen! I made friends with everyone in my cabin!” On the ride home, we heard wonderful stories of his experience at camp and Caleb radiated joy and confidence.  He said that he now understands the crucifixion better and what it really meant to die in this way.  Joyful and spiritual. 

I later told my husband that the boys’ attendance at Camp Allen is one of the things that gives me the most joy as a parent.  It is turning out to be for them what it was for me.  Camp was a place where I knew I belonged, not just fit in.  It was a place to live in Christian community if only for a week at a time.  Great care was taken to be sure everyone was included and accepted.  Discipline was gentle and the Spirit was present.  Episcopal youth gatherings were an integral part of my formation as a Christian and it is such a blessing to know that in a world where so much has changed since I grew up, this one thing is unchanged.  Sure, Camp Allen has changed; they have archery, horseback riding and air conditioning now.  But the core of the place is the same.  We agreed it was a culture.  This is a great example of culture over strategy.  It isn’t a great experience because the checklists were followed and activities executed with precision.  It is a transformative experience because of the culture of love.

Back to last night.  Interestingly, I experienced true community in a somewhat hole-in-the-wall little karaoke bar.  I realize that my tie to this group of actors is because of the love and acceptance I experience when I am with them.  I imagine it’s different in Hollywood, but your local community theatre bunch is one of the most diverse and real gatherings around.  Conversations aren’t focused on day jobs or dream vacations or “moving up in the world.”  This isn’t because we aren’t connected; it is because the focus of our interaction is, of course, on the art but on other things like family, friends and emotion.  We don’t talk about many material things because things don’t inspire bravery and to be an actor, you must be a risk taker.  You must also be a great pretender.  And actors are keenly aware when someone is pretending in an attempt to guard themselves.  So, combine the acceptance of risk and the awareness of false appearances and you have a very authentic community.  This group knows how hard it is to be vulnerable and is practiced at drawing out the real part of others and then loving who shows up.  And that is when the joy comes out – when the walls come down.  

It is tempting to believe that community can be achieved by being the same, believing the same, doing the same.  However, sameness requires changing or hiding a part of ourselves because we are all different.  Being yourself in a group and being accepted for who you are is true belonging, not just fitting in.  I would say that I spent plenty of my childhood trying to fit in but the bursts of belonging were transformational.  They gave me aspirations.

Are you part of an authentic community?  Can you bravely take those experiences and infuse other places with Jesus’ love?  Are you still searching for a place to be yourself?