Good Intentions and Good Friday (eCrozier #217)

But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good

Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood
- Eric Burdon and the Animals

I’ve sung this song out loud with Eric Burdon many times, sincerely believing the words, and making them my own. I do believe I approach my life and my experiences with others with the best of intentions, at least most of the time, I think I do. I know I want to believe I do. Yet, Burdon’s self-delusional “prayer” is one that all of us sinners pray to some extent: But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood. It’s as if he’s trying to convince himself that what he’s singing is true. St. Paul’s lament puts it in a related, but slightly different way: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

We all long for others to truly understand us. We want others to recognize that even when we “do the very thing [we] hate,” we weren’t intending to hurt them, or make them angry, or cause them problems, or at least we think we weren’t. We all suffer from misunderstood motives, hurt feelings, and eroded trust in our relationships that come from just trying to be understood, and even trying to understand ourselves and our own confused actions at times. St. Paul’s shockingly self-revealing statement about himself reveals the truth about ourselves as well. It’s a verifiable truth for all humanity.

For over 100 years in western culture, we’ve sought to understand human identity and why we do the things we do, some of which are acts of great compassion and courage, while other acts reveal what our Ash Wednesday liturgy refers to as simply the “pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives.” Jonathan Haidt and other moral psychologists have helped us understand all this better, but at the end of the day we’re left with much of our human identity as a mystery to ourselves (“Why indeed did I do the very thing that I hate? Maybe this particular soul’s intentions weren’t all that good after all?”).

And that’s where the saving act of Jesus meets us on his cross. Thanks be to God that our intentions, good and otherwise, aren’t determinative to God. The Gospel of Jesus isn’t about our good intentions or lack thereof. It’s actually about our recurring failure to have good intentions. It’s about how everything about us, even when our intentions (we hope) are truly good, can become just another opportunity for sin.

And that’s where the Church of Jesus Christ meets us on Good Friday with a witness; for we witness that the Church isn’t a community who has been called together for good intentions. Rather, we’re a community who has been called together by God to proclaim God’s amazing grace in the cross of Jesus. In spite of all we are and aren’t and all we do and don’t do, God loves us on the cross. Now that bears repeating, because many need to be deprogrammed from a worldview that sees God as out to “get” us. Jesus didn’t come into the world to “get” us. He came into the world so long ago to love us (see John 3:16). His cross assures us of that truth for eternity. That’s why this Friday is so Good.



The organizational theorist, Edgar Schein, has studied for decades how organizations function, particularly around their specific culture’s capacity to adapt to new learning in a changing context. His work with the Harvard Business School on these issues has gained him lots of attention among chief executives. He argues that there’s a built in contradiction in organizations: anxiety hinders the ability to learn, but anxiety is absolutely necessary if any kind of learning is going to occur. Anxiety about the way things are motivates one to learn something new. But anxiety has a negative cognitive affect on our ability to learn. In other words, we don’t learn well when we’re anxious.

Schein goes on to argue that there are two kinds of anxiety associated with anything new: learning anxiety and survival anxiety. Learning anxiety is associated with the fear that we’ll fail at the new thing we’re trying to do, or that it’ll be beyond our abilities, or we’ll appear foolish to others, or that we’ll have to jettison our old patterns that used to work for us. Survival anxiety is the fear that if we’re going to make it, to literally survive the context we’re in, then we’re going to have to change behaviors. In his studies of how businesses operate, Schein contends that most of the time learning anxiety is more powerful than survival anxiety. So, most people will opt to not learn new ways of business even though they know their professional survival depends upon it.

How might we see Schein’s insights applying to the leadership of our congregations? In a post-Christian context, we need to learn new ways of engaging God’s mission to bring others to Christ and to serve people in our communities. We know we must do this, but we experience the learning anxieties that come from fearing that we might fail, or that we might not be gifted enough to do it, or that we might appear foolish to others, or that we might have to give up some of our old ways of doing things. So, what happens? Many congregations are choosing to die rather than learn new missionary skills.

Congregational leaders face huge challenges here. Using Schein’s constructs, how do we help people lower their learning anxiety so it’s less determinative than their survival anxiety? One could argue that we could work from the other end by trying to increase survival anxiety, but that would be through the via negativa, i.e., increasing their fear that if they didn’t learn new ways of mission then the congregation would die or be closed. I find that approach repugnant because it’s based on threats and fear.

That means congregational leaders need to create supportive opportunities for their people to learn new missionary skills working with those in the congregation who have shown some motivation to learn. I think it’s a mistake for leaders to expect everyone to overcome their learning anxiety or even come to recognize that they need to do so. Leaders can work to develop a critical mass of willing learners, people who are ready, even if tentatively, to learn new ways of reaching out in mission. That seems to me be the primary missionary task for leaders: identifying those disciples who are capable of learning new skills and then focusing their energy on working with those disciples.



Dr.King and the Silence of Race (eCrozier #215)

My German ancestors were carpenters and brick masons. They arrived in the Over the Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati in 1872. By the time my grandfather was born in 1898, German was no longer spoken in the family home. They were thoroughly Americanized. My grandfather worked on the line for General Motors assembling cars.

One of my earliest memories of him was on August 28, 1963, when I was six years old. My parents had dropped me off at my grandfather’s house while they ran a few errands. I spent the day with him. I remember him giving me a booklet to read. I recall vividly sitting on the back stoop of his house and looking at the wild pictures in the booklet: men dressed in white sheets, burning crosses, and the like. My folks pulled into the driveway and saw what was in my hands. My father and grandfather exchanged loud, angry words and I was placed in the car’s back seat and we drove off. The whole incident was never talked about in my family.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned that my grandfather was a member of the Klan and that day, August 28, 1963 was the day of the March on Washington when Dr. King delivered one of the most important speeches in our nation’s history. I share this with you because my story is no different than millions of other white people. This is part of our cultural DNA. It’s America’s original sin passed on to each generation.

Years ago I was working as a consultant with a large parish. I asked the parish leaders to take a roll of newsprint and stretch it horizontally across the wall of the parish hall. On one end I wrote the date of the parish’s founding in the 18th Century and on the other end I put the word “today.” I then asked them to fill in their history. Many knew details of what happened centuries ago. They even listed a Revolutionary War hero buried in their parish cemetery. When they finished, I noticed there was a decade gap in the 1960s. Many in the room were members of the parish then. Why was it, I asked, that they had no history to record about that time? There was stone silence.

During a break, an older member took me aside and said in a hushed tone: “That was when Father [Name] was rector. He was an alcoholic. We don’t like to talk about that time in our history. It was unpleasant for everyone. We’d just as soon forget it.” I felt like sending them all en masse to an AL-ANON meeting. They were in total denial and in co-dependent silence about how that period in their history had continued to adversely affect their common life even to the present day.

America is like a large alcoholic family when it comes to race. We’re complicit with one another in our silence, or when we do talk, we talk past one another and don’t listen. To preserve the family peace, we just don’t talk about it when it begins to hurt, or when it hits a little too close to home. 46 years ago today Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. was martyred because he insisted America face this peculiar and particular original sin in our national life. As Mark Twain famously said: “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” We, as a people, are still a work in progress with a lot of unfinished work left to do.



Malcolm Gladwell wrote a significant piece in a recent New Yorker called Sacred and Profane: How Not To Negotiate with Believers. In it he describes how U.S. government negotiators totally botched ending the armed standoff with the Branch Davidian group nearly 21 years ago in Waco, Texas. You may remember that the Branch Davidians are an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, one that’s even more apocalyptic and millennialist in their theology than the parent church. The standoff ended in tragedy with over 70 people, including 25 children, consumed in a fire caused when 400 canisters of CS gas shot into the compound came into contact with oil lanterns.

I don’t wish debate the U.S. government’s actions or whether they were right to have laid siege to the Mt Carmel compound. That’s for another time. What I find most interesting here is how one group, in this case the FBI, can so completely misunderstand another group like the Branch Davidians. The FBI assumed they were dealing with a typical hostage negotiation, such as when a robber holds hostages in a failed bank heist. So, “we’ll send in some food if you let four of the hostages go,” was the script for how the FBI approached this case. But they were dealing with people who had strong religious beliefs. The Branch Davidians held convictions that made complete sense to them, but they could only be understood as rational within the context of their theology. The FBI had a different rationality and they profoundly and tragically misinterpreted the deep beliefs the Branch Davidians held.

The U.S. government has made similar repeated failures throughout recent history, especially in its dealings with Muslim religion and culture. U.S. government rationality assumes that all grievances, threats, or concerns are based solely on social, political, or economic desires and therefore can be negotiated. But people who hold deep religious beliefs won’t negotiate them away no matter what “deal” they’re offered.

As we enter even further into a post-Christian, polyreligious culture, we followers of Jesus would do well to learn this. This doesn’t mean that all religious beliefs are equally true. Everyone can have her/his own religious beliefs, but not everyone can have her/his own truth. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. We should never shrink back from that faith conviction. And yet, how we stand with that conviction in the midst of wildly different religious beliefs matters. It matters, and this may come as a surprise to some people, for how effective we will be in our evangelistic witness to other people.

We’ll never convince those who have different religious beliefs about the truth of our witness through the barrel of a gun, the coercion of political power, or by majority legislation mandating or forbidding certain behavior. Those won’t lead people to change their religious convictions. The Crusades of the Middle Ages, the Puritan’s coercive laws in early America, and the more recent efforts in some jurisdictions to ban Sharia Law all failed to change the target population’s beliefs. The truth we bear and are also called to share can only be conveyed through sacrificial love, grace, and mercy. After all, that’s how Jesus embodied eternal truth, so it ought to be how we do it as well.



Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took
- Sam Cooke

There are many things I need to know in order to be a disciple of Jesus, as well as a husband, a father, a friend, and, at least, a semi-decent bishop. You can imagine what those things are. Things such as forgiving unconditionally, showing mercy, living gracefully, being compassionate, listening attentively, empathizing with the other’s lot in life, etc. These are all virtues that one can learn with practice and experience over a lifetime. One might say, with a nod to T.S. Elliott, these are the “knowing” virtues that come with the acquisition of some wisdom and a humble reliance on the grace of God.

There are still other things one needs to know in order to be a competent adult. These are less a knowledge of being and more a knowledge of doing. For a J2A (Journey to Adulthood) Group 15 years ago, I put together a list of 100 adult competencies that teens should know how to do before they could call themselves adults. The premise of J2A is that manhood and womanhood come as a gift from God (if one lives long enough, one leaves childhood), but that adulthood isn’t a given. It’s rather based on achieving a level of mature competency (we’ve elected presidents of the U. S. who, in my semi-humble opinion, never achieved adulthood). My list of 100 things included: how to change a flat tire on a car, how to show respectable etiquette at a dinner table, how to paint a room (neatly), how to explain the second law of thermodynamics, etc. There are real things we need to know if we’re to be mature, competent adults in this world.

But there are things that we don’t need to know. And yet, we do. We do because we live in an age of useless knowledge. And we’re bombarded with this knowledge as we read or listen to what amounts to the news these days. We can’t avoid it. For example, I’m pretty sure I don’t need to know anything about Miley Cyrus’ body gyrations or Justin Bieber’s latest adolescent alcohol-induced escapades, except I do. This flood of needless knowledge presents us with a literal and figurative headache as we try to process all the things we now know and then try to discern the important from the immediate.

Lent is a season for the important where we purposely place the immediate aside. It’s a time when we ask ourselves hard questions about our lives and not run from the answers we discover. It’s a season for us to remember, and not forget, that we know the first, important things about life, and all the other things we know just because we know them, must take a distant back seat. Lent is a return then to our core knowledge about ourselves and about God; that it’s only by the merciful grace of God that we have life. All the useless, distractive, immediate knowledge we face each day means we’re swimming against a strong tide. But swim it we must lest we forget the important knowledge of our unmerited redemption in Jesus Christ.



Fear’s a powerful thing; it’ll turn your heart black you can trust
It’ll take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust
- from Devils & Dust by Bruce Springsteen

Fear drives much of human behavior: Fear of failure, fear of being rejected, fear our sins will become known to others, fear we won’t have enough, etc. Our fears then drive us to mitigate these effects by accumulating defense mechanisms, like power, status, or money, usually at the expense of others. If it becomes our prime driver, then fear, as Springsteen notes, hardens our hearts, filling our souls with “devils & dust.”

St John wisely instructs us about fear, writing: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:18). If our fears come from our ever striving to avoid rejection, truthful exposure, or being in want, then our fears are really about us running away from the “punishment” we believe those would cause us. Of course, it does us no good when well-meaning friends tell us not to live by our fears. That just confirms for us that we’re pretty sorry Christians leading us to more fear that we’ll be rejected, revealed, and ridiculed. The antidote actually comes, not from some courage inside ourselves, but from God’s grace outside ourselves. God’s grace is the “perfect love” that “casts out fear.” This doesn’t mean that by ourselves we can ever reach “perfection in love,” but rather it means that God’s “perfection in love,” AKA, Jesus, reaches us through his cross.

Kevin Richardson, a South African zoologist who literally plays with wild lions, is called the “Lion Whisperer.” If you’ve not seen the video of him playing and resting with wild lions, then by all means view them. They’re awe-inspiring and presage the Prophet Isaiah speaking of a time when the lion will lie down with the lamb (11:6). When asked about being called the “Lion Whisperer,” he responded: “If it’s a phrase people coin because of the relationships I have and the ability to interact with these animals without having to make them to submit through fear, then yes” (emphasis mine).

Animals can recognize grace when they receive it. Even human animals can, but less often because it’s not the normal practice of our lives. Since we so prevalently live by our fears, we dish it out to others as well. We make others “submit through fear;” fear that we won’t love them if we don’t get our way, fear that we’ll expose them to ridicule for their sins, fear that we won’t share with them what we’re blessed to have. And so it goes, spiraling ever downward. That’s why grace is such a counter-culturally dangerous way of living. It undermines the status quo as we wage our fear mongering wars.

What if we called a truce in our fear mongering war and invited others to do the same? What if we risked living gracefully by extending to one another compassion rather than judgment, mercy rather than ridicule, generosity rather than greed? If we lived in such a way, then we’d come to experience the very nature of God with one another. That’s the truth of God in Jesus. And, please pardon me: I’m not lion.



Gun free zones that are created by well-meaning laws are gun-free to the good guys only. The bad part of our society does not care. – A Georgia State Representative

The thought behind the above statement exhibits a binary anthropology. Anthropology is simply the study of human beings and our behavior. Being clear on our anthropology is a necessary first step so we can have theological clarity. A “high” anthropology would assume that people are always good. A “low” anthropology would assume just the opposite: that people are always bad. The above quote is binary, separating people into two camps: the good guys who are always good and the bad guys who are always bad.

Of course, as the Church, we should learn our anthropology from Jesus, who knows us from the inside out (John 2:25) and who forgave those who crucified him because they were ignorant of what they were doing (Luke 23:34). In his parables, Jesus also commends our human capacity for virtuous behavior (e.g., The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, etc.). So, Jesus has a nuanced anthropology. On one hand, he calls us to live by the divine virtues of the Sermon on the Mount. On the other hand, he recognizes how quickly we all are to cast the first stone (John 8), show contempt for another person (Luke 18), or leave the one we love to face death alone (John 18).

Jesus teaches us that we’re all mixed bags, capable of great courage one minute and complete cowardice the next. Humanity, at least as the Bible shows us, can’t be neatly bifurcated into good guys and bad guys, human sin being what human sin is. Every biblical figure, except Jesus, proves this truth. Good guys are only good guys until they aren’t. All people “fall,” biblically speaking, into that category many times during their lives. It does us no good to adopt a “mythic anthropology” gleaned from TV shows, movies, and other media where good guys can do no wrong and bad guys are always bad. From the perspective of the Bible then, sensible laws would attend themselves to the anthropology of Jesus, recognizing the need to account for our mixed bag nature.

Almost all of the mass shootings at schools and houses of worship over the last 20 years or so have been perpetrated by people who didn’t have criminal records and who obtained their guns legally. In other words, they were good guys until they weren’t. Our laws pertaining to where people can carry guns should recognize both the right for people to own guns as well as the right people have not to be killed by them. Preventing the presence of guns from public places like schools and houses of worship acknowledges the truth of a nuanced anthropology, the kind the Bible teaches us.

We would all do well to adopt such a nuanced anthropology because it would keep us clear-headed and honest about what we can expect from ourselves and our fellow sinners. Laws alone can’t solve the “original” problem of human sin. Or, as James Madison put it from another angle: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Laws, however, can sometimes deter what some might call a “good guy” from doing a bad thing. All good guys are only good guys until they aren’t.



I feel in my heart, because God opened it up to me, if I stopped taking up serpents I would die and go to hell. It is in the Bible, and we tell people because it’s in the Bible you must believe it. – Jamie Coots, dead at age 41 from a venomous snake bite

He died Saturday night after refusing medical treatment from a rattlesnake’s deadly bite. Jamie Coots was a pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky, a town near where I met my wife, Kelly, just a few miles away on the Tennessee side of the Cumberland Pass. It would be easy for anyone of us to condescend about Pastor Coots’ death, rolling our eyes and saying, “what an ignorant fool!” He may have been foolish, but he was true to his faith as he received it. Yet, his death has given license for people to make fun of him and his fellow travelers, and thereby also furthering a misunderstanding of what the Gospel of Jesus is all about.

So, I won’t make fun of him. I attended a snake-handling church once in the summer of 1979, north of Middlesboro in Leslie County Kentucky. Just in case you were wondering, I sat in the back of the church right next to the unlocked door (O me of little faith). It was a powerful experience and the people’s faith there was real. While I disagree profoundly with fellow disciples of Jesus like Pastor Coots, I don’t question their whole-hearted commitment to what they believe, nor their faith in God.

No, I won’t make fun of him, but I’ll certainly question his theological assumptions. As Pastor Coots said: “if I stop taking up serpents, I would die and go to hell.” Think about that statement: That’s just the same works righteousness snake oil the Church has been struggling against for centuries. There’s a clear path from Pastor Coots’ theology to the warped theology of the “prosperity gospel,” which says that if you just follow certain biblical principles and have enough faith, then God will shower you with wealth. Joel Osteen and Pastor Coots are just two sides of the same misguided, theological coin. Both hold that our particular actions can manipulate God’s decision about us in Christ.

The Gospel begins not with what we do, such has handling snakes, following biblical principles, or even trying to be a good person, but what God has done for humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel isn’t primarily about what we believe, but what God in Jesus did on our behalf. Our salvation is an unmerited, free gift from God bought and paid for by Jesus on the Cross. It isn’t a reward given for any particular behavior on our part that tries to influence or force a decision by God.

So, we should be careful when rolling our eyes at the likes of Pastor Coots. Many of us have our own version of snake-handling: Proving to God we’re better than other people, showing God how we’ve achieved success in life, or believing God must share our clearly correct political convictions. While we publicly acknowledge living by God’s grace alone, many of us in the Church live as if our lives are actually in our own hands; that God must give us our desired outcome based on our performance. We’re figuratively snake-handling our own self-righteousness. Pastor Coots just did it literally.



Special Valentine’s Day Edition (eCrozier #208)

We use the word “love” to describe our relationship to many things – everything from ice cream to a car to another human being. But can we really love a thing? Does love require another living being as the subject of our love? These are the questions that Spike Jonze explores in his recent movie, Her, where a man falls in love with a Siri-like computer intelligence. There’s a pathetic quality to this where the filmgoer has to wonder whether the character is at all capable of having a loving, human relationship, or can he only love that which is programmed to cater to his proclivities, whims, and desires?

Love has often been defined as something we fall into. Once cupid’s arrow gets us, we’re goners. And since love is something we fall into, we assume that there’s nothing we can do about it. After all, the image of falling is an image of being out of control. There’s some truth in this. Love isn’t simply a matter of rational will that can be reduced to a rational choice. Love is full of emotion with wildly dancing neurons in our subconscious. In order for it to be powerful and true, love has to have an irrational quality to it. Few would actually choose to love if it were reduced to only a rational choice. But if love is going to last, it has to be more than the falling variety, because if love is only something we fall into, then we just as easily can fall out of love. No effort needed. All we have to do is fall. Lasting love is holistic. It requires our emotions and passions, but it also necessitates our intellects and wills.

The way our culture has come to define love shortchanges the Gospel definition embodied by Jesus, the kind that can’t be summed up by a cute verse on a Hallmark card or incarnated in a box of chocolates. Jesus shows us that while love does involve our passions, it also has to be an act of will on our part. We must decide that come what may, cost what it will, we’re going to love the other. When we reduce love to only our sentiments and feelings, then it will only be superficial and fleeting. Such fleeting superficiality does often generate passion, but it can never generate lasting love.

Love becomes the kind of love embodied by Jesus only when it’s put it into action. As long as we accept the cultural definition of love that limits it to falling, then we won’t see any reason to make love tangible in the sharing and sacrificial way Jesus has shown us. So much of human love is wrapped up in our misguided need for dominating power and total control as well as our selfish desire for complete affection and undivided attention. Of course, love can be much more healthy and whole than that, and thus truer to the heart of Christ, but so often it isn’t, sin being what sin is with our messy humanity.

In looking at Jesus for a definition of love, we must be careful not to put our own definition of love on his lips or try to define love apart from Jesus’ cross; for it’s the cross that defines love for Christians. Jesus says: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34b). He doesn’t say: “Do as I say, not as I do,” rather he completes the circle by saying that we are to love as he loves us. That leads St Paul to say: “Love does not insist on its own way…It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13)



If we refuse to let the subject come into view, it may occasion suspicions, which, though not well founded, may tend to inflame or prejudice the public mind, against our decisions: they may think we are not sincere in our desire to incorporate such amendments in the constitution as will secure those rights, which they consider as not sufficiently guarded. – James Madison to the House of Representatives, 8 June 1789.

As this quote from Mr. Madison indicates, trust has always been an issue between people and the leaders of institutions. But today, such suspicions, as he acknowledged, seem to be on steroids, and not without justification. The government spying on its own citizenry, financial institutions reaping questionable profits on shadowy deals with other people’s money, worker productivity up by 90% in the last forty years while income percentages during that same time only up in the single digits, all lead people to lose trust in public and private sector leadership and the institutions they lead.

In the Church we’ve had our share of behavioral, financial, and other issues that have eroded trust. And it doesn’t really matter if personally we’ve been free of such things or that our congregation hasn’t had some of these issues. We’re all tarred with the same brush. Once someone loses trust in leadership, my experience says there’s a 1 to 10 ratio going on. For every year of mistrust, it takes ten years worth of hard work to recover it. That’s why developing trust is never fully accomplished. It’s always a work in progress.

From the emotional perspective of a new person in a congregation, most bring with them both our historic and current cultural suspicion, if not distrust, of leaders and institutions. So, even after their sense of safety, acceptance, and inclusion (last week’s eCrozier) are reasonably satisfied, congregational leaders still have to earn the basic trust of people and then both develop and maintain it. While clergy leaders set this tone, it has to be a full commitment and partnership of the clergy with the lay leadership.

That’s why clergy and vestry practices such as financial opaqueness, decisions made without input or feedback, or changes that appear to be arbitrary will always undermine people’s trust, especially those people who are relatively new to the congregation. They don’t have a long enough personal relationship with the leaders that might mitigate such distrust. Empathy and the “Golden Rule” are powerful tonics to cure leaders of the above self-destructive behavior. So ask: “If I were new to the congregation, what might help me better understand how we’re stewards of financial resources here, how would I like to be included when leaders make a decision, what processes could we put into place so people wouldn’t perceive a change made by the leaders as merely arbitrary?”

Put simply, such trust development is about maintaining the free flow of truthful information and a feedback loop that listens to the concerns of the congregation. This doesn’t mean that no decision can be made until everyone agrees, but it does mean that we honor and respect everyone enough to be transparent and truthful in how we lead. Trust is the primary currency of every leader.