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Posts in Faith
Relationships Are Better Than Religion

Happy Holy Week! Whether you're celebrating Easter or Passover (or neither), chances are good you're doing so in a new or "nontraditional" way.

At least that's the conclusion of new research. Fewer people are attending religious services overall, even on these high holy days meant for hats and prayers, tradition and hymns. 

In their stead are relationships and community. While I don't think this can all be pegged on the younger generations, I do believe we're seeing a shift in religious expression. But, I think it's actually a shift back to religion's earliest roots, and not a turn away from what is sacred at all.

Community, family, belonging, friendship, relationship - this is the context in which love, God, gods, and hope was birthed. Religion or faith did not come about because pipe organs, deacons, or offering envelopes needed somewhere to belong. Faith and hope originated in the context of people being people in the presence of one another.

God is realized more today in the context of community than the context of church, in the confines of family rather than the confines of a pulpit.

So if you want to celebrate Easter with friends while at a restaurant laden with limitless mimosas, may you find God there as equally as you may find God in a church or chapel, a mountain or a monument.

What many are finding is that not only is Jesus not in the tomb, he may also not be at that church. He may be right at home, well, in your home.

FaithSam DavidsonComment
Understanding Young People Today

The following two stories will give you a glimpse into what 20-somethings are like today. Of course, each story is not indicative of every 20-something you know, but if anything, each highlights how things have changed since you (or I) was a 20-something (long ago).

The first story comes courtesy of The New York Times and looks at "courtship" today. I put that word in quotes because if you read the article, you'll see that text messages, group dates, and last-minute hook ups and hang outs may not quite be the same ingredients you're used to in the dating world.

And the second piece worthy of your examination is from NPR, which you can either read or listen to. They recently examined why so many young people are leaving the church and other religious institutions. The entire series is great, laced with interviews and firsthand accounts from young people when it comes to faith and spirituality.

To me, what stands out from each isn't the fact that dating and religion are changing. Indeed each ritual has always been evolving. What I'm interested in is how each is changing. They are changing quickly. Each explores new territory. Our online toys and tools are serving as both catalyst and compass for the changes.

As somewhat of an outside observer due to age and marital/faith status, I merely present these two resources to you in the hopes you'll get a glimpse not into what it's like to date or pray in 2013, but rather what it's like to discover yourself in 2013. The process of self-discovery is multifaceted and sometimes ignored. But learning who one is may be the chief aim of each of us. And how it's done now is very different than how it was done then.

Godspeed to all of us.

Or, LOL - TTYL - BRB.

What Christmas Means

While some would say this time of year is only about a baby born in a manger or a jolly man flinging presents, I think there's more to this holiday. I think the Christmas season shows us something about ourselves, our fellow humans, and what we can accomplish together.

Christmas means that new things can happen when we least expect it.
Christmas means that we have within us the capability to do something nice for someone else.

Christmas means that deep in our core we long for human connection more than we long for anything else.
Christmas means that a year's worth of mistakes and downs can be replaced by hope, optimism, and the chance to do better next year.
Christmas means that we're all getting better, one step at a time.
Christmas means that we have the ability to warm each other, no matter how cold the world may seem.
Christmas means that each of us can do what it takes to make someone else happy, making ourselves a little bit happier in the process.
Christmas means that we're part of a story bigger than ourselves, a story that has been going on for quite some time and will continue to be told long after we're gone.
Christmas means that babies and children have a lot to teach us.
Christmas means that expectation is important.
Christmas means that story and belief are central to our function as humans.
Christmas means that it gets better.
Christmas means that together, we're much better than we are apart.

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Family, FaithSam DavidsonComment
What churches can do to attract young people

I don't write about religion often, but when I came across this new Pew survey, I found several key indicators that show once again, if your church is begging people to come to Sunday morning service, it may as well turn the sanctuary into a condo complex.

Well over one-third of young people are not religiously affiliated today. But, over 2/3 of those people are spiritual or have some kind of faith-based underpinnings. This means that nearly 20 million Americans care about God but don't care about church.

What is the church doing about this?

Mostly, nothing, I'm sure. This report came out yesterday; my fear is that no church in America is discussing it at staff meeting today or gathering its committee on committees to address it this Wednesday night. Rather, they'll continue their descent towards irrelevance over the next few decades and then be forced to decide what to do with their empty buildings.

But, I have hope. I think the church can find a place of meaning and relevance today. But, it will require a colossal shift in business as usual. Not many congregations will be interested in doing this, which I understand. They'll go the way of Polaroid, Circuit City, or Borders.

But, for those pastors and priests willing to make the necessary changes to become relevant again, I offer these five suggestions. None of these water-down your message or detract from your key mission. Rather, they imagine your work and ministry to be more important than ever.

Get social

One key quote from this report is:

Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

Bravo, churches. You've made it all about you and now it's a huge turnoff. The church's original mission was to focus outwardly. Nothing says that you focus on yourself more than tall steeples and fancy windows and pews.

But guess what? Almost 80% of the unaffiliated believe religion and churches can be forces for good, saying "religious organizations bring people together and help strengthen community bonds [and] ... play an important role in helping the poor and needy."

In other words, by focusing on helping others - instead of helping themselves - churches can once again find a place in people's lives.

Marry everyone

This may be the more divisive suggestion, but it's time for churches to wake up. Opposing same-sex marriage today is like having racially segregated seating half a century ago. Times, opinions, and rights are changing. Dying on this hill is fruitless. Embracing equality is the right thing to do.

Frankly, this is one of the more important reasons I currently don't attend church anywhere. The treatment many of my friends have suffered - and the way they continue to be marginalized and mistreated - is shameful. A pastor or church that continues to call love sin is a person or place I can't be in community with.

And I'm not alone on this issue. The data proves it. Therefore, churches should look past orientation and celebrate commitment, regardless of who's making it.

Renovate

Back to the money and power thing: by finding better, more relevant ways to use space, churches can restore legitimacy in the minds of potential congregants. Not only is cleaning, heating, and lighting a room that's only used for one hour a week (the sanctuary) a waste of resources, it's bad stewardship over a precious commodity (space).

Churches that seem to be growing today among younger generations have flexible space. Sunday's sanctuary also holds Monday's conference, Tuesday night's Room in the Inn, Wednesday's children's play space, Thursday's community meal, Friday's AA meeting, and Saturday's rally.

As for classroom spaces, well, calling something 'school' on a Sunday has never sounded fun. And if you really believe that worship can happen anywhere, then you should try worshipping everywhere. Physical space should be an asset - not a hindrance - to your relevance.

New schedules

As the survey points out, there is a direct correlation between one's religious identity and his or her attendance at services. Of course, holding mass or a worship service on a Sunday morning (while historical and traditional) isn't exactly convenient. The notion that community is created by everyone seated and facing the front while someone blabs for half-an-hour seems silly.

What could your church do to shift its schedule or abandon a one-size-fits-all Sunday morning service? Don't simply offer hymns and homilies on a Tuesday night, bur rather reprogram your entire lineup. Ditch the large group listening session and give attendees chances to talk. Rely on small groups that are geographically convenient. Tie programming to social action.

In other words, don't just "do" church on Sunday mornings. "Be" church as often as possible so people have more chances to participate.

Context as text

The survey shows that the percentage of people who think the Bible should be taken literally is decreasing. Good.

What this means for your church is that the Bible can't be your only teacher or text. It can certainly be important, but let's get real. To value it as the be-all end-all authority - when it's open to so much interpretation - starts more fights than it solves. Scripture should be one teacher, along with reason, dialog, culture, community, and science.

As deeply entrenched as all of us are in art, music, television, relationships, and progress, why not draw on examples that teach from other, more relevant areas of life? I half-joke with a pastor friend that he needs more Saved by the Bell references in his sermons. It's not that TV shows are authoritative when it comes to issues of morality; rather it's that using truth wherever it's found can have a deep and lasting impact on the hearer.

Let's name truth where it's found instead of claiming that truth only resides in our opinion of a certain verse or chapter.

What about you?

Whether you're a preacher or a parishioner, I'd love to hear your ideas for making church more relevant to the next generation.

Why leaders need community

This is a great blog post by Chris Yeh about faith and community. He weighs in on quite a bit, namely religion's ability - in the context of community - to really help people.

And when I came to this sentence, I stopped:

I think we all have a need for community--repeated, unplanned interactions with a group of people that accept us--even if the pieces fit together imperfectly.

Earlier in the post, he backs up this claim with research about what it takes to develop deep and close friendships. These unplanned interactions are what lead to long-term bonds, which is why many of us built close friendships in college but may not have since.

The trick, then, is to get to a place where you can have these unplanned interactions. For entrepreneurs and leaders though, it's tough.

Better neighborhoods can help. Now that I live in an urban context with front porches and sidewalks, I notice the same people often and stop for a chat. And then when I see them a few days later shopping for groceries, we have a quick conversation.

Of course, geography is neither the cure nor the problem for unplanned interactions, even if it may have been both in college. For adults, the number one thing that prevents us from having unplanned interactions is our own schedule.

Bump into someone at the store and see how long it takes you to wrap up the conversation. You have to move along, after all. Once you're done shopping you need to get home and cook so you can put the kids to bed and work some more.

We've overbooked ourselves, letting deadlines and deals loom over us. We may not notice it now, but we are sacrificing community on the altar of productivity and it's shameful. We're measuring too much by a bottom line and a time clock. We need to reintroduce the unplanned parts of our day again. We need to go for a walk at lunch, not worried about when we make it back. We should put away our watch when we strike up a conversation with someone we know at a coffee shop.

We need this community, you see. As Yeh details in his article, a group that accepts us for who we are strengthens us, improves us, and centers us. An entrepreneur without these things - even if he has a killer app - doesn't have much. A leader without people to trust can easily become misguided, misaligned, and misinformed. When that happens, they won't be leading for long.

So here's to reclaiming our schedule in order to make way for the unplanned interactions that lead to real relationships. I for one will aim to be better at this. Will you join me?

Why CBS Sunday Morning Has Better Content Than Your Pastor

On Sundays, when I write, I do so at length on some topic of religion, Christianity, Jesus stuff, or faith. Beware. Last Sunday, I fired off this quick one liner on Facebook:

CBS Sunday Morning

As of this writing, 13 people liked the status, which means (I think) they agree with me. The comments were mixed, ranging from a few people who agreed to a few who didn't. Most people let me know that their pastor was part of the 5%.

I'm sure he is.

Have you ever watched a really great episode of CBS Sunday Morning? Or heard a great podcast from "This American Life?" It's like when you've been to a great comedy show, a mesmerizing new art exhibit, or even caught a memorable movie. If you've been wrapped up in a live music concert, been whisked off to someplace else while reading poetry, or you've come to know a topic deeper after a too-short TED talk, then you've felt more than most sermons today offer.

If you want a religious experience, the last place to go is a church.

It wasn't always this way. Sermons used to be intellectual, inspiring, personal, relevant, educational, and informative. Sure, they used to last way more than 30 minutes, didn't come with notes inserted into the bulletin, or weren't available for instant download afterward, but at least they were thought-out.

Believe it or not, time was actually invested in the act and craft of preaching. Pastors honed their skills well before their days became full of budget meetings, hospital visits, and figuring out how to work a tithing appeal into this week's Psalm reading. They used to pore over commentaries, concordances, and cannons in order to arrive at a point or application that would be meaningful to their audience while also being loaded with wisdom for people who would read those words generations on.

Nowadays, when you can get millions of perspectives in the time it takes you to click "I'm Feeling Lucky", there is no sacrifice. There is no point that is hard won. And when the people in front of you have been in the same seat for 15 years and visitors only show up because "First" is on your marquee, then what's the use in getting better at something? Keep it simple and save Saturdays for yard work and iced tea.

And this is why CBS Sunday Morning or everything on TED.com or a great book is better. When you can find a shining example of someone practicing their craft, you feel uplifted. You feel like you see something of God/a god present. You are transported to somewhere else, somewhere you feel like you can be better. You're more hopeful, more kind, more loving, more inspired. You've become a better person.

Church used to do that for us.

It doesn't have to anymore, though. This isn't an appeal to preachers to get better. It's an appeal to everyone to find church where they may. Jesus isn't confined to brick walls, red carpet, three points, and a poem, either. I believe you can glimpse God at a singer/songwriter night, while serving others, in the lines of a great poem, or while watching a riveting documentary.

The challenge for pastors, really, is to understand that competition doesn't just exist down the street at the other church. People are experiencing God in the streets, in between your buildings. And if you can't provide art in its highest form - that which transports us somewhere else - then you will be discounted as a place that can't provide a God experience. I can't think of anything more irrelevant for a church. So stop dumbing down your sermons because you're afraid you can't reach a society glued to Two and a Half Men. In reality, the exact opposite is true.

May you use your Sunday to enjoy someone else's work, someone who works hard, who sacrifices, who thinks, who challenges, who professes, who proclaims, who hopes, and who tries. 

Wherever you see that happening, there is church.

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The Beauty of Human Resiliency

There's a great, redemptive article in this month's Fortune. It tells the story of Leigh Steinberg, upon whom the movie "Jerry Maguire" was (sort of) based. Steinberg was once on top of the sports world and then it all came crashing down, largely due to alcohol addiction.

What I love about the piece is that it doesn't end with Steinberg back on top, counting his millions. He's not allowed (yet) to be an agent again in the NFL. He owes creditors a lot of money. He must submit regular urine tests. His office and apartment are small.

But he's trying.

And this is the beauty of human resiliency. He is trying again.

He is bruised, but not crushed. He is still trying to get up.

We can each do this. The crescendo of our story is that we can keep moving forward, not that we always end up on top. The point isn't to win, although it's nice when it happens. The point is that we can keep playing as long as we can. 

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A Reminder About Your Heart

Yes - you are free to store up as many treasures as you like in your heart. It is your heart, after all. Cram it with memories - good or bad. Select people who belong there. Choose stuff and put it there, too. Seriously - whatever and whoever you want to store up in your heart is fair game.

But please remember that space is limited. You cannot possibly hold everything.

Choice is hard, but it is necessary. The things that stay in your heart, then, must be really important.

And that should tell you something about who and what is allowed in.

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I Believe in Resurrection

On Sundays, when I write, I do so at length on some topic of religion, Christianity, Jesus stuff, or faith. Beware. I believe in resurrection.

I believe that hearts of stone can be resurrected into hearts of compassion.

I believe that communities of poverty can be resurrected into communities of prosperity.

I believe that hate can be resurrected into love.

I believe that despair can be resurrected into hope.

I believe that addiction can be resurrected into transformation.

I believe that broken homes can be resurrection into healthy families.

I believe that betrayal can be resurrected into trust.

I believe that failure can be resurrected into trying again.

I believe that brokenness can be resurrected into vigor.

I believe that anger can be resurrected into reason.

I believe that embarrassment can be resurrected into pride.

I believe that doubt can be resurrected into belief.

I believe that struggle can be resurrected into triumph.

I believe that regret can be resurrected into wisdom.

I believe that the dark night of the soul can be resurrected into the promise that only comes with the dawn.

I believe that the valleys of death's shadow can be resurrected into mountaintops of life's potential.

I believe that loneliness can be resurrected into community.

...

I believe that each of us is becoming something new and different than we were.

I believe that who we have been isn't who we're destined to always be.

I believe that the the temporary-ness of the present pales in comparison to the potential of the future.

I believe that things are not always as they seem.

...

I don't believe these things because some guy woke up in a tomb thousands of years ago. I believe these things because the story of God in Jesus captivates the best within all of us, forcing us to realize that if anything was possible then, anything has to be possible now.

Easter is about beginning again and the possibility that where we are today isn't where we will always be. You don't have to believe that a giant stone was rolled away once; but you do need to believe that whatever stone is blocking your fullest life now can be removed in an instant.

Resurrection isn't about resuscitation; it's about change.

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When Your Heart Speaks

When we're used to mixed messages, subversive advertising, and misunderstood communication, we often don't know what to do when we receive a message that is loud and clear, unmistakable in its instructions to us. Rarely are people direct and concise with us. If we hear something that is, we're not sure how to respond.

This is why it's so hard to follow your heart.

When your heart speaks, it pulls no punches or wraps its intent in veiled imagery or opaque wording. It states what it wants and then expects you to follow.

When your heart speaks, it doesn't use metaphors or similes, illustrations or even hyperbole. It is direct, clear, convincing, and true.

When your heart speaks, you may as well listen. Doing so won't be an adventure in understanding; it will be a challenge in acting.

When your heart speaks, its voice is unmistakable. No other input in your life is so honest with you.

When your heart speaks, you have to listen. To do anything else would be betrayal of the worst kind, the betrayal of who you're destined to become.

When your heart speaks, the voices of competing interests are silenced in a breath. Truth will do that. Your heart doesn't need to scream. It simply whispers what needs doing and every distraction runs at its revelatory message.

When your heart speaks, follow where it leads, for there's no guarantee of when it will say something again.

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It Doesn't Matter What You'd Die For

On Sundays, when I write, I do so at length on some topic of religion, Christianity, Jesus stuff, or faith. Beware. The great tragedy of life is that most of us don't really consider living until we really consider dying. A few country songs have been written to this effect, and we've all seen movies and heard stories about cancer patients or others who face death sooner than they'd hope who return to their lives and communities with a renewed focus to connect, make a difference, and build relationships.

What's really tragic, though, is that we don't have to wait to face death in order to face life. We know this. Yet somehow, we still plod along, devoting more time to TV and jobs we hate instead of spending time with those we love. In this way, education does little to motivate us to change. We know where our time and effort is better spent yet we carry on with habits that add little value to our lives.

Worse yet are Christians who take solace that their faith is strong or vibrant simply because they give lip service to the idea that they would die for Christ, should the opportunity present itself (it won't). It's amazing how we think that we'd be willing to stand up for Jesus in the midst of a crisis when we can barely manage to give to others in his name.

But saying it with our words placates us so we can return to a life of distraction. Because we've convinced ourselves that we would die for our faith, we think we don't have to live for it. Such is the core hypocrisy of Christianity. In addition to so many Christians who live nothing like Christ, so many believers prioritize death (Jesus' and their own) and ignore life.

For me, this is why I don't concern myself much with the death of Jesus. For me, the few hours spent dying on a Friday afternoon pale in comparison to what he did many years prior. Putting up with people who want to be around you all the time, being willing to feed people again and again, teaching your closest friends and followers the same lesson each week because they still don't get it - that kind of love and patience gives all of us hope that we can make it through this world.

As Peter Rollins points out, gods who raise the dead aren't that impressive. Gods who can raise the living on the other hand? Now we're talking.

Same goes for the life of Jesus. His death is overhyped. So are the martyrs'. The only reason their death means something is because their life meant something, too. In fact, you don't get to die for a cause unless you live for it first.

It was Jesus' life that made his death significant. For many people on that Friday so long ago, his execution was just that of another criminal. His life and teachings meant nothing to many, so his death was just a regular political spectacle. But for many followers that day and hence, Jesus' death was tragic and meaningful because his life was so rich and full of love, spirit, and hope.

That's why I don't care what you'd be willing to die for. Such is the conversation of fantasy, imagining that you'll be confronted with a choice (death or a particular admission) and ushered to an early grave rather than being hit by disease or old age, which is likely for most of us. I'm more curious about what you pack into 80 years than what you fit into eight minutes before you take your last breath.

And this is why I care about what Jesus did in his first 33 years of living and why I think it's important to read, learn from, emulate, and share. Glimpses of God are equally present in Jesus' living as they are in his dying. It's time we pay attention to what he said and did and worry later about what the crown of thorns adds to his legacy.

I think all of us can meet God in Jesus before Golgatha, if we're, too, willing to get busy living.

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Jesus in a White Dress

On Sundays, when I write, I do so at length on some topic of religion, Christianity, Jesus stuff, or faith. Beware. When my grandmother died, Sylvia was there at the funeral, dressed better than me and all of my relatives. Her white dress was newly pressed, without a wrinkle to be found. There in my grandmother's living room, her presence was immaculate, both physically and socially. And it was then I learned why Sylvia had come to the funeral.

She was there at the end. When my grandmother came home from the hospital with only days to live, Sylvia was there to comfort her, fetch her water, stay the night, bathe her, clean up, and offer relief to aunts and sisters who were worn out. This was Sylvia's job, of course, to be a nurse and caregiver, but thankfully for the sake of my family and my grandmother she took pride in her work. Each patient was special. Each patient had a name, a story, a family, and a soul and it was Sylvia's priority to make sure her patients were comfortable, clean, and cared for.

She didn't have to come to the funeral. She wasn't on the clock. Maybe she did it for every patient. It didn't matter. She was there.

I introduced myself and heard more about the work Sylvia did. She said nice things to me about my grandmother. She introduced me to her friend and co-worker she had brought along. I asked more about her work and family.

Somewhere in that funeral small talk I saw Jesus. Compassion is rare these days. Our ability to viscerally feel and understand the pain of others is often muted by movies and video games that desensitize us to the reality of pain, suffering, and death. We can love and empathize with those closest to us, but it takes a godlike heart to have compassion upon those we just met.

Sylvia did the dirty work that many of us don't want to do and would never do. And here she was to celebrate a life she only knew briefly, offering sympathetic nods and kind smiles to people who had come and gone throughout my grandmother's life.

Sylvia was one who was there. She was one willing to sit and be. To listen and understand. To offer her presence, ear, and understanding.

I don't think Jesus is coming back one day. I think he's here, now, and I think we're missing him. 

We like to think Jesus will show up one day with trumpets and swords, and maybe an all-you-can-eat buffet, like one of those faux jousting restaurants. We need him to be masculine, chiseled, and strong, like a Men's Health cover model or one of those actors from 300. We want him to take charge and rip the sky in half. But while we're busy waiting for violence and pomp, Jesus is busy bathing people who are about to die and holding the hands of those who have had to say goodbye to people they love.

He's selling newspapers at intersections and teaching kids how to read. He's cleaning up spills and going for walks with the lonely. He's taking care of animals and sending anonymous letters of encouragement. He's not running for president, trying to build a Fortune 500 company, or hoping to get mentioned in USA Today. And he's probably nowhere near a pulpit.

My guess is that Jesus doesn't want to be emblazoned on stained glass or in an oil painting. "Enough with hanging me places!" he's probably thinking. He'd rather quietly interrupt our lives when we expect it the least. He'd prefer showing up as a black woman at a Mississippi funeral, clad in a pressed white dress because he was there at the end.

The Jesus who interrupted fishermen as they were about to get to work and who interrupted a woman as she was going about daily chores also breaks into our days and shuffles past, dressed in a white dress or GAP khakis or a crossing guard uniform. He is completely ordinary.

And we miss him. Our narrow definition of who he has to be limits what we think he can do and who we think he can be. And if he showed us anything, it's that we haven't seen anything yet.

And just like the first being last and how in losing our life we save it, by defining Jesus we miss him entirely. Our attempts to dogmatize or codify who our God can be place restraints on a God who can be everything.

God tends to surprise, I've found. At funerals, in the park, at a coffee shop, or on a long drive. I have no idea where Jesus will show up next, but I do know where I saw him once.

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