Monthly Archives: July 2013

Butts and Bills: Changing the Metric System

ImageNote: I did NOT say changing TO the metric system! This is not about arguing the virtues of centimeter and deciliters over the arcane English distances and amounts. I already have a functioning grasp of using the other side of the ruler.  I know how to calculate area and circumference. What I am no longer as clear about is how to measure ministry.

A number of years ago I was confronted with the reality that I struggle to connect with adolescents (I know this comes as a surprise to all those people who continue to describe me as being rather adolescent!). I was leading a Confirmation Camp, who purpose was to engage young teens in the spiritual questions of life. It was at best a miserable week. I had one young man who was a consummate bully and I had to pull him out of the community in order to assure that he did not ruin the experience for those he selected as victims. That was just the largest example of a series of mishaps and disappointments that clouded that week for me. I couldn’t see how any participant could have survived that week and come away with anything like a holy or spiritual experience.

Years later I was back at that same camp, having coffee with that summer’s staff. I told this story of the most miserable week of camp I ever had when one of the counselors looked at me with disbelief. She said, “I was at that camp and it changed my life. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that week!” Obviously the metrics I was using did not measure everything that occurred in that week long ago.

This comes to mind because I think a lot of churches are using the wrong metrics. We count people in the pews, and dollars in the plates or on the pledge cards. We count it as success when one or both increase and use it to diagnose malady when they don’t. I think the accusation of the non-churchers is accurate when they say we are obsessed with numbers.

Instead of filling seats and meeting budgets, what if we measured our attempts at fulfilling our purpose? How have we offered to our culture a positive alternative Christian spirituality? How have we embodied the radical hospitality of Christ for our neighbors? When did we seek a deep understanding of our spiritual neighbors of other faith traditions? Who (besides ourselves) have we engaged in conversations of meaning and hope?

These metrics are less quantifiable than butts in pews or bills in baskets. Nonetheless, I think as we seek to go boldly onward through the fog they are far more important. Butts and bills are about maintenance. How and When and Who are about being faithful to our calling: why are we here as a community and how are we living that out? We desperately need to change the metric system.


Meddling in Policy and Politics

ImageWe seem to live in an era where we in the US are ever ready to protect our own God-given (we believe) rights. To stand our ground, so to speak. We are vehemently ready to safeguard our own rights, but not so much someone else’s. In these past few weeks where we have seen the SCOTUS gut the Voting Rights Act, the outcome of the Zimmerman trial, and even Paula Deen’s almost inexcusable gaff of exposing the mangy underbelly of racism in our society everyone is feeling imperiled and embattled: the majority culture, the minority culture, and the vast center that just wishes we could stop talking about all these uncomfortable issues and get back to watching Jeopardy. And it makes trying to talk about (much less trying to enact) hospitality a tough sell indeed. So I’ve been trying to think of things we can do to nudge us all a closer to caring more about our neighbors whoever they are, whatever color they are, whatever accent they speak with, whatever headscarf or hoodie or necktie they choose to wear.

  1. I will never use the “N” word, and I will make sure that anyone using it around me knows I think it is unacceptable. Not for political correctness, but because I cannot imagine how that epithet ever builds another person up. It is almost always destructive.

  2. A gun used in a killing should always be confiscated and destroyed. Even if it was justifiable, even in self-defense, if it was used to kill a human being that gun should be removed from society. If it deemed that the killing was not illegal, the gun’s owner still caused a death and should have to forfeit that firearm. They can get another one if they desire. But a gun used in a killing should be gone.

  3. As long as I’m meddling about the 2nd Amendment, can we work toward a consensus that my right bear arms never trumps another person’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness? I’m not saying that we can’t ever own guns, but our technology is such that I don’t think we necessarily have right to own every kind of arms.

  4. Can we create a society where even if you think what I said in #3 is the looniest thing you’ve ever heard, you can still sit down and drink a cup of coffee with me? All I’m asking is that we somehow are as ready to see each other as neighbors as enemies.

I was watching an old episode of “Cadfael” recently where a minstrel is being chased by a mob accusing him of murder. He runs into the church, right up the main aisle, grabs the cloth on the altar and cries for sanctuary. The brothers intercede themselves between the minstrel and the mob, offering him their safety and protection.

That’s exactly what I see the Urban Abbey doing. When someone is being pursued by mobs of anger, violence, prejudice, and fear they find sanctuary in our midst. We ponder, practice, and offer different ways of existing in our culture and community. We are the people ready to intercede on behalf of peace, healing, and unconditional justice and love. We want to be the place that nurtures these kind of crazy ideas, ideas that can change the world.

Let’s Go Get Shwarma

ImageAfter the climactic battle scene in the movie “The Avengers,” Tony Stark (a.k.a. Ironman) thinks it’s  a good idea if they all go out for shawarma. He’s not sure what shawarma is, but he’s heard that it is good.

Well, I know what shawarma is! I was raised in North Dakota where food was not exactly adventurous. But at the age of eighteen I headed off for college in Minneapolis. I was experimenting with all sorts of new food now that I was on my own. I discovered that bell peppers were not poisonous,  and that there were more spices worth using than just salt and pepper. Feeling quite daring, I noticed  an interesting-looking restaurant a couple of blocks from the college. It was called “Abdul’s Afandy.” And the very first thing I tried at Abdul’s was a chicken shawarma sandwich.

It was a totally new flavor experience for me. That sandwich was the first food I had ever tasted that I could not compare to something else. It didn’t taste like meatloaf, or pot roast, or scrambled eggs. It tasted like shawarma. And it was great!

I’m told that more and more people are abandoning Christianity because of the bad taste it leaves in their spiritual mouths. Sexual abuse and cover up, misappropriation of money, closed mindedness, willful ignorance of scientific knowledge, and the inconceivable demonization of homosexuality all seem to epitomize Christianity in our day. All the voices and faces of Christianity that the mainstream media seems to show are either the charlatans and their televised circuses or the narrow minded “experts” espousing hatred and intolerance on what used to be news shows. I believe most people don’t know that there is more than one flavor of Christian. They think it is all meatloaf or pot roast. They’ve never had shawarma.

The Urban Abbey celebrates a shawarma kind of Christianity.

  1. It is not built on dogma or doctrine.
  2. It is based on Jesus’ teachings that love of God and love of neighbor (and implicitly of self) are intertwined and the beginning and goal of the journey.
  3. It can be embodied in billions of different ways, just as there are billions of people.
  4. Its flavor is that of hospitality and peace and deep, unconditional love.
  5. It is open to the movement and inspiration of the Spirit doing new things, creating new flavor combinations, so to speak.

One of the great challenges for the Urban Abbey and all voices of a different flavor of Christianity is to tell others  that we can go get shawarma and that it is great. Our silence simply reinforces the impression that there is only one kind of Christianity and it is all judgmental and angry. In the Christian universe there is indeed meatloaf and pot roast but also shawarma and sushi and more. The Urban Abbey is a full flavor experience.

You Might Be a Museum

ImageA few years ago I was the pastor of a beautiful old church in Omaha, Nebraska. It was built in 1888 and had weathered the years very well.  It stands as a great example of Romanesque and Neo-Gothic architecture and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Landmarks. The congregation, though, struggled over the years.

One morning we were out sprucing up the yard and the trim when one of our neighbors wandered over. It was pretty much a “Whatcha doin?” conversation. We replied that we were getting the church ready for our Fall Rally day. I was devastated by our neighbor’s response: “This is a church? I thought it was a museum!”

The “Outward Mission” component of the Urban Abbey is an antidote to museum syndrome. People go to a museum every so often to view exhibits of things that have happened in the past: art, social events, music, archeology, dinosaurs, and occasionally religion. They quietly walk through and read the displays (or more often these days they listen to the pre-recorded narrative on individual headphones), learn about the past, maybe buy something in the giftshop and then go get lunch. But museums struggle to engage in a conversation about what is happening today, much less tomorrow. Outward Mission gets us out into our community and our world where things are happening today and hopefully tomorrow.

Here are the warning signs of Museum Syndrome:

  1. People are expected to come to you. If all you do and the only ministry people can engage with is in your own building, you might be a museum.
  2. The art on your walls is more than ten years old. If you have nothing new to display, you might be a museum.
  3. Every item on every bulletin board talks about something that has previously happened. If you have no new activities to announce, you might be a museum.
  4. The reading of scripture in worship is all about what God has already said or done. If the Spirit is not in some way still speaking and still challenging you, you might be a museum.
  5. When gathered for conversation or prayer, all the talk is about us. If your own aches and pains, issues with your building, your own likes and dislikes about each other or the pastor or the janitor are all that you talk about, you might be a museum.

The idea is that there are no docents in the Urban Abbey. Part of the concept that the Urban Abbey exists out in the community is that we are charged with finding people who are seeking deep meaning in life. They are not charged with finding us. We have no docents, we have ministry agents. Outward Mission means that we go to the world. There are more than plenty of places to see fossilized bones. I believe there are people hoping to find signs that life is indeed worth living. They are hoping to find others willing to engage in conversation and struggle together to explore that. It’s all about today and tomorrow. If all your energy is directed at yesterday, you might be a museum.

Once Upon Our Time


watercolor by Doyle Burbank-Williams, 2011

My spouse has been attending a family reunion this past week so among other things I have been crawling through the Netflix vaults watching films that intrigue me but that I would never inflict on others. There are a few gems buried deep in their catalog but for the most part there are obvious reasons that I’ve never heard of a lot of these films. Some are hilariously bad, but most are just bad. They make me wonder why anybody ponied up the money to make them in the first place.

I was once told that every story we tell is, in one way or another, a redemption story. We tell stories to make sense of our lives, our world, and how we fit into the world. The writers of the Bible told their stories in this attempt. John Steinbeck, Euripides, Mary Shelley, Ursula LeGuin, and thousands of others have told their stories searching in their various ways to find meaning and truth. To say that all our stories are redemption stories does not mean that they all are great stories or are successful at it.

Some of these bad movies I’ve been watching seem to think that violence and vengeance are paths to redemption, if that premise holds any water. I started a couple films that seemed to be explorations of the way we humans can be cruel to each other. If every story is a redemptions story there are a lot of screwed up visions of redemption in the world.

And even when the redemption story of Jesus gets told, too many times people have fallen back on the same twisted themes of violence, cruelty, and vengeance as the means of that redemption. Lots of research and statistics are showing that as long as “religion” relies on those themes then more and more people are going to search for redemption elsewhere.

So here’s where I’m going with this. We who find redemption in compassion and peace and art and in things that create and build up life need to be telling our stories. We tell them in the ways we live and love and worship and paint and dance and maybe even make movies. I don’t mean that somebody needs to make a movie telling the story of a progressive Jesus like some kind of celluloid tract.

The Urban Abbey is an attempt to write a redemption story using the lives of people living in the real world, trying in every way we can to make sense of all the pain and joys, tragedies and celebrations we encounter every day. Theology is a creative art form. There are plenty of buffoons and hacks making lousy redemption stories out of anger and fear and they get plenty of airplay. It’s our turn to start telling our stories.