No Trap to See

15 October 2019

I spent my first years in ministry helping a small group of people get out of a cult, and then several more years on the much trickier task of getting the cult out of the people. That work, and the subsequent times I’ve been called on to help people recover from cults, has given me an interesting look at how cults operate on their followers.

One of the central dynamics by which such cults flourish is the leader’s secret knowledge, his discernment of things too lofty for the hoi polloi, and especially of dire, dangerous threats too subtle for the hoi polloi to discern.

The dynamic proceeds thus: the congregant thinks Practice (or belief) X is innocuous, perhaps even helpful. The Dear Leader comes along and denounces Practice X, connecting it (by whatever dubious means) to Heresy Y. The People dutifully praise Dear Leader for his wisdom and are confirmed in their conviction that without Dear Leader and his subtle discernment, they would not be able to navigate their spiritual lives.

In the nature of the case, Practice X cannot be something obviously wrong. The people are already avoiding the things that are obviously wrong anyway. It brings no credit to Dear Leader’s discernment to denounce, say, devil worship. But suppose, in a rhetorically dazzling series of sermons titled “What Can Brown Do For Your Soul?”, Dear Leader connects UPS to a worldwide secret cabal of devil worshippers? Well, now you’ve got something. The poor congregants would nver have known–why, they’ve been supporting devil worshippers with every Christmas package they end, without knowing it!

The whole point of the exercise is for Dear Leader to highlight a spiritual trap that the congregant would never have been able to discern, the better to demonstrate how much they all need Dear Leader and his spiritual insights. The intended effect of the exercise does not occur unless the People didn’t see the trap. And it works best of all when they couldn’t have seen the trap, because there is no trap to see.

As long as he can convince them after the fact that there is in fact a connection between Practice X and vilest heresy — using whatever rhetorical trickery is at his disposal — the trick works, and his authority is confirmed. The fewer other leaders agree with him, the more he is elevated above the common rabble of pastors — they are confused, clueless, or compromised in the sin themselves. And so betraying his close allies, whom he paints as compromised with various sins and false teachings he alone is able to discern, becomes one of the key ways in which a cult leader can consolidate control of his people.

It’s an ugly business, one that Christians should steer well clear of.

But the ugliest part is the way in which the same dynamic infiltrates our own churches. This dynamic is also present in a number of groups (both conservative and progressive) that most of us wouldn’t consider cults, although we might allow as how they’re a bit sectarian. In this way, many churches groom their people, especially their young people, in habits of mind that make them easy pickings for cults later in life.

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Letter to a Successful Minister

8 October 2019

This post is a composite of letters and conversations over the years. I’m posting it now because I haven’t had one of these interactions in a while, so nobody will think I’m taking aim at them in particular. I am targeting a general tendency in our culture, not a particular person.

Dear Luke,

It was good to hear from you. I’m glad Janice and the kids are doing so well, and the house is beautiful. Janice has really worked hard on the remodel, and it shows. On the ministry front—wow! It usually takes several years for a pastor to really settle into a new church, but it seems like God is already doing amazing things. I’m happy to see it all coming together for you.

I couldn’t help but notice the rebuke implicit in the way you dismissed my bivocational situation with “we all have to grow up sometime.” I suppose I could just let it pass as one of those things that love covers a multitude of, but since we’re corresponding, and since it stung, I’d like to speak to it.

I hope you will bear with me in a little Pauline foolishness. I will shortly recover my wits and have more sensible things to say, but I need to get this bit off my chest first: You look at the trajectory of my life and see a disaster, a failure to grow up. I say that we have both pursued God—not by any means perfectly, but nonetheless with reckless abandon. What do we have to show for it?

In God’s providence, you have a ministerial career. Now, I want to give you credit where it is due. You have been sensible and disciplined in your finances, and you’ve foregone luxuries and saved aggressively to get where you are. You are now reaping the rewards of your labor, as well you should. But you have also been called to labor in a particular situation: God called you to the suburbs, and you are reaping the material rewards of ministering in an upper-middle class suburban church. I don’t begrudge you that, but I certainly do resent that you think your generous full-time salary is the simple result of growing up.

You grew up in an upper-middle class church, you attended such churches through college and seminary, and you are now ministering in one. In God’s providence, those churches have been your whole world. There’s nothing wrong with that, but lift up your eyes, buddy: that’s a fraction of the worldwide church. Tomorrow, God could call you to a church in a tiny farming community that simply can’t support a full-time pastor, especially one with a wife and kids. You would then find yourself just as grown up, but nowhere near as wealthy–and definitely in need of another job to make ends meet. But right now, in God’s providence, you are where you are.

By that same providence, I am where I am. “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” I’m not quite that much like Jesus, but I’m not living the American Dream, either. I have followed where God led, to the best of my ability. I’ve certainly made some mistakes along the way, some of them errors in judgment and others due to the ways in which I’m damaged goods and I haven’t healed yet. But God makes all things new in time, and I trust His hand in the process.

Although I’ve served in a number of pastoral roles—and still do, in fact—I never achieved the dream that I had in mind when I was first called into ministry: senior pastor of a mid-sized church, with a paycheck to match, which would enable me to buy a house and raise (which in our case also means adopt) children. I wanted to serve God in the role He called me to, and I wanted a family and a house. (Which is to say, I envisioned the same thing you have.) In terms of how we were both raised, that’s not a lot to ask for—and yet I don’t have it. Nor is there any real reason to believe that the dream is lurking just over the horizon, if only I push a little harder, persist a little further. So measured by the bright vision of my expectations as a 16-year-old, I have failed.

But as you said, we all have to grow up sometime. The world is a much bigger place than I pictured it at 16, and God has a lot more variety up His sleeve than we were led to believe. And let’s be honest, what we were led to expect doesn’t match up particularly well with what Jesus and the apostles had, does it? They made a lot less money. I have come to see that there was nothing actually biblical about my dream. 

Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the pastor of a strong and wealthy church pulling in a 6-figure salary has anything to feel guilty about. But God called me to pastor a church of homeless folks; I’ve no reason to expect the same salary as that guy. God calls one man to be Solomon and another to be John the Baptist, and if they fulfill their respective callings, neither has anything to be ashamed of. Nor does someone like Paul, sometimes abased and sometimes abounding. There is nothing inevitable or especially holy about one of these as over against the others. They are each just one way that a life of service can look—one among many.

And so as I sling no recriminations your way, I ask you to return the favor. If you see character flaws in me, by all means speak up. I’m open to correction. But if your criticism is based entirely on my failure to attain the American dream, then I invite you to use some of your paid study time to re-read the Gospels and Acts–not to mention the Old Testament–with an eye to identifying the patterns of ministry that God finds acceptable. I think you’ll find a wider variety than you presently allow for.

Blessings,

Tim


Not Perfect, Just Living

5 October 2019

“People don’t need a perfect example. They need a living example.”

They must have said that a dozen times in the first 3DM learning community intensive 6 months ago, and I meant to write about it, but didn’t get around to it. They emphasized it again in this one, and it reminded me.

Yowza.

Ridiculous as it is, this is actually God’s plan. To use fallible human beings, to use me, to show people how to become more like Jesus. Not just to speak directly to people through Word and Spirit, but to actually use me to guide his Church. Not just what I say; my example. Flawed as it is.

It’s ridiculous. It’s particularly ridiculous right now; my life is a hot mess. Constant financial strain, constant switching from one gig to another to make ends meet, with all the stress that goes with that. I don’t think it’s much of an example.

But then, Jesus was homeless, and Paul was constantly in threat of being murdered by enemies who followed him from city to city…and yet, people did want to imitate them. Jesus said, “Follow Me,” and they did. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ,” and again, they did. Is it possible they will see something they want to imitate in me, ridiculous as that seems on paper?

It seems that’s exactly what Jesus wants to do. And faced with that, there’s only one thing to say.

Here am I; send me.


“Dual” Relationship, or Real Relationship?

1 October 2019

In general, skin in the game comes with conflict of interest.”
-Nassim Taleb

I recently worked my way through Nassim Taleb’s Skin in the Game, a book-length treatment of asymmetries of risk, and it spends a pretty good chunk of text on the question of what’s gone wrong with our class of professional advice-givers. The key observation is pretty simple: a disinterested third party usually pays no penalty for giving bad advice. Therefore, disinterested third parties often give bad advice, because humans are just not as careful when they’re gambling with someone else’s money.

As a culture, we generally prefer that our advice-givers be disinterested third parties. The theory is that experts, a bit removed from the situation and unhampered by any conflicts of interest, will be able to view the situation “objectively,” and so give better advice. But in reality, we’ve created an entire “chattering class” of putative experts who do little else but serve up advice, the vast majority of which is utter crap. (Did you get anything good from the last “Six Ways To…” article you read? Me neither.) What’s gone wrong?

Think about it in terms of financial advice. If your financial adviser owns a big chunk of the stock he’s urging you to buy, then he’s no longer a disinterested third party. Perhaps he needs you to buy that stock to shore up his belief that he made a good investment; perhaps he is helping keep the stock in demand by having all his clients buy it; perhaps he is even in a “pump and dump” scheme. Because he’s involved, his advice is no longer “objective.” And so we will point an accusing finger–he has a conflict of interest.

But consider the alternative. Suppose he’s not at all invested in the stock he’s recommending to you? Suppose that no matter how much he tells you that it’s a great buy, definitely undervalued right now, etc…he hasn’t bought any himself, and doesn’t intend to. How does that look to you?

So these are our choices: either you take advice from someone who put his money where his mouth is, or you take advice from someone who didn’t, and has nothing to lose if his advice turns out to be disastrously wrong.

Me, I want the guy who’s buying the stock he recommends to me. If I’m taking the risk, I want him to be taking it too. In other words, he has skin in the game. Yeah, there’s potential conflict of interest, but that’s the cost of involvement. Those who have a stake in your success always have a potential conflict of interest.

Certain professions (psychotherapy, for example) have actually enshrined in law their suspicion of conflict of interest, prohibiting any form of “dual relationship.” (A dual relationship is any relationship where the therapist is not just the therapist, and the client is not just the client. If the client is also a friend, business associate, hairdresser, relative, student, employee, lover, etc., then it’s a dual relationship.) Of course, real relationships often naturally develop multiple facets. Your sister-in-law can be your hairdresser, your wife’s best friend, a member of your church. This kind of thing is very common in the real world. And actually, “dual” relationship isn’t a great term for it; there’s often more than two. It’s more like “multifaceted relationship,” or better, “natural relationship.”

By prohibiting “dual” relationships in order to avoid conflict of interest, psychotherapy reveals an inherent weakness: if the therapy won’t work in the context of a real relationship, what does that say about it? But also, the prohibition ensures that the therapist also has no real skin in the game. A client’s failure is unlikely to affect the therapist’s life in any meaningful way; the therapist isn’t allowed to be invested or involved in the client’s life.

In ministerial ethics, we take exactly the opposite position. A good minister is fully embedded in the community. The people we minister to are also our dry cleaners, our auto mechanics, our grocers, our neighbors. That’s not just a thing that sometimes happens; it’s expected. (And would you really want a pastor that keeps professional distance, lives in a different community, and is uninvolved in the lives of the people he serves? I wouldn’t.)

We prize personal involvement. We understand that comes with complications. Real, multifaceted relationships can be hard. Developing a difficulty in one facet of the relationship automatically causes ripples in the other areas. You challenge your parishioner to confess his affair to his wife, and three days later–because he’s also your barber–he’s cutting your hair. Can be a bit awkward. It takes a huge amount of character to manage the potential conflicts of interest and inevitable complications that come with a real relationship that crosses multiple domains.

Moreover, doing your work surrounded by people who have all these different vantage points on your life is going to expose places where your personal integrity is lacking. That’s not a bug; that’s a feature. It’s hard to counsel a man to treat his wife better when he heard you fighting with your own wife last week in the grocery store parking lot. So treat your wife better. Duh.

Now please hear me, that doesn’t mean you can’t give advice on something unless you’re perfect at it. It does mean, though, that you can’t retreat behind professional distance, like the addiction counselor who uses an endless series of random hookups to cope with the stress of the job. You have to own your failings and be making honest effort to improve. Because your community will know if you’re not…and they won’t listen to you.

One of the reasons massage therapy fits so well into my life is that in massage, we take a very similar approach to multifaceted relationships. We know that healing happens in the context of relationship, and so we don’t shy away from doing healing work with people that we have real relationships with. If you have integrity, use wisdom, and communicate well, having a real relationship with your client is not a drawback; it’s a force multiplier.

This approach in massage therapy is nearly inevitable, starting in school. There’s no way to simulate doing bodywork; you gotta actually work with a body. Having students practicing on each other and giving each other feedback is the only practical way to do that. So we start off in multifaceted relationships–at minimum we’re each other’s therapists and each other’s clients. Many of us also become friends, and some of us become business partners as well. We grow accustomed to navigating the difficulties of real relationships, and so we don’t need to hide behind professional distance later. It’s a rare massage therapist that doesn’t treat friends, neighbors, family members, and so on, which is a far more natural practice than what they do in psychotherapy.

That doesn’t stop us from having integrity, doing what we say we will, and delivering a high-quality service. Much the opposite.


Which Way The Arrow Points

24 September 2019

In the conservative evangelical world, especially the seminary-educated part of it, we take for granted that there is a particular order to living the Christian life: sound theology drives sound living.

This accommodates our grasp of Christianity to one of our great cultural myths, the notion that theory precedes, and drives, practice. Applying that myth to Christian living, we come to believe that intellectual comprehension precedes and drives action. We give this idea a patina of respectability by linking it to passages like Romans 12:2, which talk of transformation through the renewing of the mind.

But reality is far more complicated than that.

In terms of the general myth that theory drives practice, Nassim Taleb ably takes that on in Antifragile, arguing successfully that most innovation is actually driven by practitioners tinkering, improving things by trial and error, and the theory comes afterwards. In other words, the arrow runs the other way: practice ->theory, not theory->practice. There are noteworthy exceptions, but they are noteworthy precisely because of their rarity. In the real world, trial-and-error practice drives theory far more than the other way around. (If you’d like it stated epigrammatically: “The difference between theory and practice is that in theory, there is no difference….”)

If we’d read Romans more closely, none of this would surprise us. Sure, the renewing of your mind transforms you. But the verse before that, you offer your body as a living sacrifice, which is only possible because the Spirit gives life to your mortal body. Not your mind, note. Your body, directly. God does not only deal with your mind, which then straightens out your body. We could believe that if Romans ended after chapter 6, but it doesn’t.

The Holy Spirit is not some positive thinking guru; He doesn’t just give you holy thoughts. He deals directly with your body, not just with your mind.

***

As a practical matter, we often find that practice precedes theory. God will call us into obedience in an area long before we understand the benefits and ramifications of that obedience. This is how Psalm-singing was for me. I was confronted with three NT passages that said Christians should sing psalms, so I started doing it. It really was that simple.

I had no theory; I had no idea what would happen if I did it. I wasn’t very good at it either, to be perfectly honest. But over time I got better, by God’s grace, and I began to reap the benefits of obedience. I could give you a long speech now about the benefits of singing the Psalms, but that knowledge came long after the practice.

Which is to say that obedience is often necessary in order to acquire eyes to see. The  world is a complex place, and there are limits to how much we can discern about the world by sitting around thinking about it. Going out and trying things is much more productive.

Would that we were obedient more often, instead of just demanding more explanations.


Our Own Elsas

17 September 2019

So I’m sitting in Johnny’s Pizza on my lunch break, and the radio’s playing. “Red Letters” by Crowder. “Play that Funky Music” by Wild Cherry. “Let it Go” by Idina Menzel.

Let It Go?

How many songs from a Disney kids’ movie are getting radio play 6 years later?

The movie came out in 2013. In pop culture, that’s ancient history. To put it in perspective, that’s the same year Planes, World War Z, and Iron Man 3 came out. You don’t see anything off those sound tracks getting airtime.

But here is Idina Menzel on the radio, singing the one thing from that movie that turned out to be an enduring addition to our cultural legacy (enduring in pop culture terms, anyway).

The plot of the film follows princess Elsa through her journey:

  • hiding her ability (and loathing herself because she has it),
  • exposure to the whole kingdom
  • her community fears and rejects her
  • she isolates herself from the community, freezing the whole kingdom and nearly committing murder as a result
  • she eventually comes to terms with her ability, the community receives her, and she’s able to use her gifts for the benefit of the community.

Now, taking a look at that story arc, ask yourself: which one of those story beats is immmortalized in the song that has outlasted every other part of the movie?

It’s not the ending, where Elsa integrates with her community. No, it’s when she’s maximally alienated, inadvertently freezing the whole kingdom, and about to nearly kill a few people. (On that last: if this were an action movie instead of an animated kids’ flick, Elsa would definitely have killed the two assassins, with the audience cheering her on.)

When she doesn’t care about anyone. When she is ignoring everyone else so hard that she’s destroying her entire country–that’s what resonated with the culture so well that we’re still playing it on the radio 6 years later. For that matter, that’s what resonated with the makers of the film so much that they built the musical centerpiece of the film around it (no such iconic anthem adorns the narrative climax of the film, or the resolution). Why is that?

Because as a culture, this is where we are. We identify with mid-film Elsa — alienated, isolated, unwittingly destructive, possibly murderous. And you know what? There are some things to repent of there, but there’s also something to celebrate. Elsa’s story didn’t stop there; ours doesn’t have to either.

We live in a cultural moment when the supernatural is making a comeback. We went through a phase of profound materialism; we didn’t believe in miracles; we believed in electricity, vacuum cleaners, penicillin, and 401(k) plans. But we’re waking up. And waking up, many people—who were told their own version of “conceal, don’t feel” in early life—are now going through Elsa’s teenage rebellion.

They absorbed the culture’s fear and rejection until they couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t hide it anymore, and now they’re done. And they don’t care about a culture that didn’t care about them. My hope and prayer for them is that they recognize this as a stage that will pass, and they grow up and reintegrate, as Elsa did.

We like to think that in the church, none of this has much to do with us. Baloney.

We accommodated the culture, hugely. We suppressed the supernatural in our midst — we were (sometimes) happy to believe in miracles and supernatural doings in the past, so long as we could remain safely insulated by the padding of many centuries. Many of us refuse to believe such things even in church history, still less in the present day. When it comes to supernatural doings in the church, if it’s not in Acts, it didn’t happen, and if it is in Acts, it’s “transitional,” not to be expected today. They get you going and coming — and this is why many people with genuine supernatural gifting find no home in the churches.

But we cannot afford such comforting lies. We have our own Elsas out there on the mountainside. It’s time to go get them.


Leaving Well

10 September 2019

Having left more than a few places, and on a variety of terms, I have a few thoughts to share about what it looks like to leave well.

  • Fighting
    • Most of us find it easier to be angry than sad. When we’re hurt, we default to anger.
    • It’s easier to go out fighting than to just go out wounded. Therefore, you will be tempted to find things to fight about.
    • I have seen massive division and destruction come from succumbing to this temptation.
    • Part of what’s wrong with it is that when you’re finding things to fight about, you will rarely pick the real issues. You will pick the fight you think you can win — or at least the one where you can do the most damage to the other side. And there is no surer road to irreconcilable differences than fighting about things that are beside the point and ignoring the real issues.
  • Learning the wrong lessons
    • We often learn the wrong lessons. Be willing to reconsider the lessons later. It might feel right now, and there may be some truth to it — but the lesson may need to be modified later.
  • Throwing Spears
    • Read Tale of Three Kings. Don’t be a Saul or an Absalom.
    • Understand that your organization may actually value and reward Saul/Absalom behavior. Sometimes it’s accidental, but you’d be surprised how often they know exactly what they’re doing.
    • Determine ahead of time that you will not accept that from yourself, regardless. Membership in an organization is not worth your soul.
  • Severing Ties
    • You need not be hesitant about cutting ties to the parts of the thing that are no longer your business or aren’t productive. “Not my circus, not my monkeys” can be your mantra…internally.
    • Externally, there’s no need to be snarky about it. You can just say, “I’m not sure who’s responsible for that now – why don’t you ask around and find out?”
    • You aren’t required to sever all ties, even if they want you to. Personal relationships don’t just evaporate because the organizational relationship has changed or ended. Keep your friends.
    • You will be surprised at which friendships stay, and which ones evaporate.
    • When a friendship you were counting on evaporates unexpectedly, it’s okay to be hurt — that’s completely natural. But don’t force it, and don’t go to war with the person that hurt you. It’s a waste of effort, and it won’t get you what you want anyway.
  • Loose Ends
    • The more professional the organization, the less this is a factor — the contents of your desk are boxed up by security while HR is giving you the bad news, you’re escorted from the building, and that’s that.
    • In less formal situations, there will often be phone calls later — “Hey, where are the _____?” Or “How did you do _______?” When you get that phone call, don’t be a jerk.
    • That said, those calls can be painful. Try to set it up so you don’t have to deal with that later. Tie up the loose ends. Transfer responsibilities. Tell someone where to find the key to the paper towel dispenser. Then when people call you, refer them to that person: “You’ll need to check with ______. I don’t know what he’s done with it since I’ve been gone.”
  • Tell the Truth
    • You and the other actors involved did what you did. Own your part of it, and let the others own theirs. If they canned you, say so. If they had good reason, admit it. If you think their reasons are nonsense, say that. If they never gave a reason, you can say that too.
    • Hide nothing. Gossip thrives on secrecy and the appearance of secrecy. Defuse it with total openness.
    • Don’t hide your feelings either. If it’s painful, say so. If you’re kinda relieved, admit it. Don’t lie.
    • Care for the People…including the ones responsible for the separation. You don’t get to ignore the golden rule, even if they did.
    • Organizations are totally dispensable; they are vehicles that travel a certain distance in time and space, and then fall apart. Don’t feel at all bad about dropping or walking away from an organization.
    • People are another matter. People are eternal, and are of incalculable value. Don’t make the mistake of treating the people as gears in the organizational machine. Treat them as people, no matter how you were treated.
  • Changing Relationships
    • Some of the relationships you had were built entirely on you representing the organization. Those relationships will go away or transfer to someone else in the organization. If you were a barista, your customers won’t come to your house to get coffee from you instead of the shop. They won’t even follow you to your new shop — they had a relationship with the shop, and your personal identity was largely irrelevant.
    • Some of the relationships were more personal, and they will endure. You may be surprised which are which.
    • The relationships that endure will change, because the rhythms of the relationship have changed. The transition changes when you see each other, in what context, how often, and so on. That will change the relationship, often in unpredictable ways.
  • Unintended Consequences
    • Take a long look at what you’re being spared here. In what ways has the separation liberated you?
    • Don’t assume you know what the separation means for the future. Many things change.

I’m hoping to turn all this into a booklet one day. Let me know what you think — if I fleshed it out, is this something you would buy, read, give away?