Nov 24, 2014

Beware Church Smarm


Last week my friend, colleague, and occasional partner in crime, Laurie Brock, wrote a post on her blog Dirty Sexy Ministry titled "A Spoonful of Smarm Makes the Manipulation Go Down."

Smarm is one of those wonderful words that sounds like what it means. Kind of like those descriptive Yiddish words such as "kvetch" or "schmuck" or "klutz." Today it means "obsequious flattery" or "behaving in an ingratiating way to gain favor." The word itself derives from a 19th century verb meaning to smear one's hair with grease or pomade. Which is no doubt why, when you encounter it, you want to take a shower afterwards.

Laurie wrote of the emergence and dangers of smarm in church culture. As she defines it, smarm "may be false niceness, haughty condescension, or manipulative smugness." It's a way of getting what we want through less than authentic means -- saying the right things so people like us or think better of us, projecting an aura of impenetrable holiness, raising our ecclesiastical street cred by talking or writing about things people in positions of leadership "should" be talking and writing about.

Smarm is often seen on social media and blogs -- for some it's the language of the medium. The problem is that when church leaders become fluent in smarm, the whole institution is weakened. True dialogue is sacrificed on the altar of one-sided communication; conversation devolves to the lowest common denominator of the inoffensive; and pleasant conflict averse niceness replaces the prophetic voice.

There are two real dangers of church smarm in the public arena:

1) It's boring. Who wants to join a church where every other Facebook post is a holier-than-thou prayer ("Look at me! I'm holy! I care!") or an insider, secret society selfie of me in church ("Look at me! I'm wearing vestments! I matter!").

2. It runs counter to the Gospel. If we truly believe that Christ's "power is made perfect in weakness," then it's okay to be our broken selves even (gasp) in public. We don't have to pretend to be perfect or inoffensive. God is the one who brings us, in all our imperfection, to perfection through faith in Jesus. Not us! Which both takes the pressure off and holds smarm in sharp relief with the life of Christ (who, by the way, was not smarmy. Ever. Not even once.)

Want some examples of church smarm? Here are a few:

1. Parish Profiles. Your parish is not God's exclusive gift to the world. Yes, there are some exciting ministries, many faithful people seeking to follow Jesus, and much effort goes into worship each week. But most parish profiles have devolved into marketing documents. "We're amazing! We've always been amazing! We want an amazing rector!" I'd be much more drawn to an honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses and issues that have hindered growth than the usual gloss.

2. The sudden increase in social media presence by bishop nominees. Oh, suddenly you want to be my friend on Facebook? What a coincidence! Wow, I had no idea you were so passionate about climate change. Thanks for sharing all the prayers for your newfound passion.

3. Convention Resolutions. Not all resolutions proposed at diocesan conventions are self-serving or grandstanding for future political considerations. But many are. What's a good test? Applying the Gunn Rule to church legislation. The basic premise being, rather than offering irrelevant resolutions, such as decrying nuclear testing in North Korea, "Let us tell the world what we are going to do about political problems, rather than telling the world what they should do about political problems."

4. Bishop Selfies. Yes, I know these are popular and many bishops and others truly believe they are being hip and "of the people." And there's a time and a place for them. But you know what? No one else on social media cares that you or your bishop was "in the house" last Sunday. I hosted our new bishop, Alan Gates, this past weekend at St. John's in Hingham and I'm here to tell you that it is indeed a valid episcopal visitation without a single selfie being taken.

5. Liturgical Puppets. The liturgy of the Episcopal Church doesn't need help to convey power and drama and the incarnational presence of Jesus Christ. It certainly doesn't need glorified Muppets to make everybody feel better about themselves and turn liturgy into the self-help section of Barnes & Noble. This goes for any other "creative" ideas that emasculate the powerful human emotions of life, so movingly conveyed in the psalms (anger, grief, isolation) but always in relationship to God. The divine is not an emoticon!

6. Church Conflict. Remember that whole thing about how when someone in the church wrongs you you're supposed to go to them directly and confront them? The Culture of Nice (which is a first cousin to church smarm) is all about conflict avoidance. "Oh, I can't be mean or speak the truth because that wouldn't be nice and, you know, Jesus was always nice." Um, no he wasn't. Forgiving, yes, but not "nice" in the Major Frank Burns "it's nice to be nice to the nice" sense. He called it like he saw it and if we want the church to be something other than a bunch of quaint buildings, we need to go and do likewise.

7. #tweetlikeabishop. Not to pick on bishops (some of my best friends are bishops) but using phrases such as it was a joy to be with the "good people of St. Whatever" this weekend is smarm personified. I'd rather see a picture of their rusty boiler or some other sign that your visit was "real" instead of another banal tweet letting the world know that you go to a different parish every weekend to hang out with random "good people." And I should be clear: you don't need to wear a miter to #tweetlikeabishop. Clergy and lay people do it too. All. The. Time.

Sorry if I have offended anyone with this post. Actually, I'll be authentic here: I'm not sorry. But I do hope it leads to some broader conversation. The point is, we're human. Let's embrace that in order to let Jesus more fully into our hearts and minds and souls. We can be honest, candid, authentic, wounded, and faithful -- indeed we must be. The Church needs to allow room for our true selves so that with healing on our hearts, we can pray with conviction, "Come, Lord Jesus."


Nov 16, 2014

Collect of the Day

One of my favorite collects in the entire Book of Common Prayer is the one appointed for Proper 28, the Sunday closest to November 16th. 

[Note for non-Episcopalians: the word "collect" in this context is simply Anglican-ese for "prayer" and is pronounced with the accent on the first syllable].

Here's how it reads in contemporary language:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The idea of "inwardly" digesting Scripture is a delicious image -- and I couldn't resist pulling out the good silver for this photo.

The collect itself was written by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, author of the first Book of Common Prayer, for the Second Sunday in Advent. The original 1549 version was composed thusly:
BLESSED Lord, which hast caused all holy Scriptures to bee written for our learnyng; graunte us that we maye in suche wise heare them, read, marke, learne, and inwardly digeste them; that by pacience, and coumfort of thy holy woorde, we may embrace, and ever holde fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast geven us in our saviour Jesus Christe. 
In the Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, Massey Shepherd points out that the reference to "all holy Scriptures" hearkens to Cranmer's criticism of the medieval service books -- namely that they did not include readings from the entire Bible. Cranmer makes this very point in the Preface to the 1549 book (which you can read on pages 866-867 of the current 1979 Prayer Book). Cranmer's first Prayer Book remedies this situation by including the reading of "all holy Scriptures" via a cycle of lectionary readings.

All of which is simply to say, let the feast begin!


Nov 11, 2014

In Good Faith: Drawing it Up

In my latest monthly In Good Faith column, I write about things that don't always go according plan. So, pretty much, life. Along with a shout-out to a certain cocktail you should consider whipping up when your boiler dies.

Drawing it Up

Things don’t always go according to plan. That’s no great newsflash to anyone who’s lived for more than, oh, about two minutes. You might have just preferred to keep that umbilical cord intact, thank you very much. But that’s just the first of a lifetime of challenges to preferred outcomes.

We tend to create a vision of how we see our lives unfolding and then it plays out the way it plays out. That’s not to say we have no control at all, but unforeseen circumstances are part of life and our ability to adapt and improvise and be flexible are often what separates personal satisfaction from bitter disappointment. 

After a busted play ends up going for a long gain, football commentators often say, with the un-nuanced irony of the ex-jock, “Well, that’s just how they drew it up.” Sometimes a pass hits a receiver in the helmet and bounces right into the hands of a teammate. Great! But you can’t put that identical play into next week’s game plan.

We don’t “draw up” things like the death of a loved one or a divorce or a child with special needs or financial instability or addiction or a mental health crisis. That’s not part of the vision for our life that we have so carefully laid out. But these things do happen and the first perfectly understandable response is often shame or anger.

The unexpected, the painful, the busted play of life is inevitable -- it’s part of the human condition. The good news for people of faith is the knowledge that God is present through it all. Standing beside us, comforting us, strengthening us, weeping with us. That doesn’t make painful things magically disappear but it gives us the confidence to move forward, however haltingly. 

The boiler at my church breathed its last this month. Great timing, right? Just as it was starting to get cold in New England, just as we were initiating the annual pledge campaign to fund our ministries for the coming year, just as...okay, there’s never a good time for the boiler to die. But we were hoping to get another couple of years out of the old beast before having to fund a new one. 

The point is, again, things don’t always work out the way you drew them up in the locker room of life. And sometimes you just have to shake your head, laugh at the absurdity of the situation, and host a Boilermaker Party to raise money for the new boiler (that’s a shot of whisky dropped into a beer, if I remember correctly from my fraternity days).

In the end it all comes down to “Is this my plan for God or God’s plan for me?” It’s human hubris to think we’re in charge of things because, frankly, we’re not. And the sooner we recognize this, the more peace and perspective we’ll have when the inevitable darker moments of our lives arise. 

So go ahead and plan. Why not channel the former Soviet Union and make a five or ten-year plan? But then take the detours that come and the obstacles that arise and live your life fully and joyfully. Even if you have to put on an extra layer when the boiler dies.


Oct 27, 2014

MTV -- Church Edition

Dan Fickes in action with Ocean One Productions
One of the great joys of parish ministry is when parishioners offer their gifts in service of the church. This comes in a variety of ways from fixing a leaky toilet to offering healing prayers to cooking a meal for a homebound parishioner. It is the very essence of stewardship -- sharing our talents and resources with the community.

This year, as part of our annual campaign, parishioner Dan Fickes offered his professional talents to help us create a video to tell the St. John's story. Dan runs his own production company, Ocean One Productions, that has done work for both non-profits (Boston Symphony, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, Museum of Science) and corporations (Reebok) over the years.

About six months ago I asked if he would be willing to help us put together a little video as part of our fall stewardship drive. Dan enthusiastically agreed and spent some time interviewing a number of parishioners and shooting "B-roll" video (I learned a hip production term for secondary footage!).

What transpired was Spirit-filled and I thought I'd share it here on the blog. It's really in two parts -- the first being an introduction to the parish that will end up on the front of the home page; the second is specific to financial stewardship. So it's "What do you love about St. John's" paired with "Why do you give to St. John's?"

I love how it came out and I'm very grateful to Dan and his team for pulling it together on budget ($0) and on time! Check it out. It may inspire you to undertake a similar project in your own parish.

(The 'ask' starts at 4:50 -- which is actually quite compelling. In fact so much so that I'm sure you'll want to fill out our online pledge card!)


Joan, a longtime parishioner and newly minted nonagenarian, is not thrilled with the YouTube generated screenshot but I told her not to worry since it makes her look "prayerful."

Oct 20, 2014

Ecclesiastical Mud Slinging

It's hard to turn on the television these days and not be bombarded with political ads. Specifically, negative ads. 

I've always been fascinated with campaign mud-slinging from Willie Horton to Swift Boats to Dukakis in a tank, there have been some classic ones over the years. Granted, "classic" can mean tinged with racism, mean-spirited, half-truths, etc. But, still, it's an interesting window into what moves or fails to move the human soul.

I did play an active role in a political attack piece back in the (pre-seminary) day. Some of you know that I worked on and ran political campaigns for a living for 3 1/2 years after I graduated from college. I worked on the federal, state, and local levels in several states across the country -- everything from city council to U.S. Senate.

After I made the conscious decision to leave politics, I had one last hurrah as a consultant doing "opposition research" for a state senate candidate in Maryland. He was running against a long-serving, do-nothing, back bench incumbent and we knew he'd missed a number of votes over his many years. So I was dispatched to Annapolis to spend a couple of weeks painstakingly researching his record.

It turned out it was worse than we could have imagined -- he had missed literally thousands of votes including ones on key issues. So the campaign sent out a direct mail piece (pre-internet age) in the days just before the election with nothing but an empty chair on the cover. Inside were the details but the message was clear and effective -- and the reformer went on to win the seat.

After the election, the losing candidate sued us -- I had to give a deposition for the first and only time in my life -- but there were no grounds. It was all true and the case was thrown out.

Anyway, this has naturally made me think about what negative ads would look like in bishop elections. So, for your enjoyment, I've written a few scripts. If you're IN an episcopal election right now, consider going negative against your fellow nominees. I'm certain it would be well-received among convention delegates.

Soft on Sacrament

Did you know…

The Rev. Bob Carter never attends church [picture of padlocked church building] while vacationing (in the Virgin Islands)? [blurry picture of someone drinking beer on a tropical beach]

Nearly 1/3 of his baptismal candidates eventually become atheists? [picture of children dancing around a may pole]

Fr. Carter often delegates the early service on Sunday morning to his cadre of curates? [image of cassock-wearing cleric snoring in bed]

58% of the weddings he officiates end in divorce? [picture of bride and groom torn in two]

The Rev. Bob Carter. Soft on Sacrament.

Give it Away Now

Mother Joanne Bond loves to spend other people's money. [background music: "Give it Away Now" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers]

As a parish priest she never tithed, yet pleaded for others to increase their pledge every single year.

Now she wants to be your bishop and has said she'll work to increase the diocesan assessment for all parishes. Why? To give it away to "the poor."

If you consider the diocesan assessment just another "tax," you cannot in good conscience vote for Mother Bond. Keep Bond where she belongs: on Diocesan Council.

Mother Joanne Bond. Just another tax and spend liberal cleric.

Angel of Death

[video of deserted, run down cemetery] In the last 10 years Fr. Bill Simpson has done twice as many funerals as baptisms.

He might call this "pastoral care." We call it killing the church. [ominous organ music]

If Fr. Simpson is elected bishop, churches will die and parishes will become little more than funeral factories. [black and white picture of pre-labor movement, industrial revolution era factory; cut to picture of mass grave]

We need a bishop, not an angel of death. Don't let Fr. Simpson kill your grandmother [picture of sweet grandmother knitting in rocking chair]. Her blood will be on your hands.

Sing a New Song

[grainy video of priest butchering the singing of the sursum corda] It's been said that those who sing, you'll be the one praying twice -- for her to stop singing.
pray twice. If Mother Kim Stanley becomes your bishop,

We expect horrible noises during the Blessing of the Animals when a pack of dogs attacks the lone hamster. But the church is not a zoo [picture of cock fighting] -- screeching from the altar each week kills the soul and defames the sacrament.

Don't let the words of the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil be changed to "This is the night…that will never end."

If Mother Stanley is elected, the money in the diocesan budget dedicated to the poor will instead be spent on ear plugs.

We've come too far to elect a tone deaf bishop who insists on singing.

Don't let Evensong become…Evensuck