An AA Christmas

Rebekah Simon-Peter —  December 23, 2018 — 10 Comments

This Christmas, my husband I will celebrate the holiday surrounded by a variety of family and friends. Most of these folks have an unusualNew Year And Christmas Background. Christmas Candy Cane Gingerbr characteristic in common: they are recovering addicts and alcoholics. Their length of sobriety ranges from 10 days to 30 years. We have found real community with this circle of folks who are members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Transparency and honesty, joy and laughter, friendship and service are their hallmarks.

As I consider our upcoming holiday celebrations, I want to bring to light three ways that AA recovery reflects and enhances the Christmas story.

BEFORE AND AFTER During Advent, we Christians are encouraged to open our hearts anew to Jesus. At Christmas, we rejoice that the birth of Jesus somehow births new life in us. While there may not be dramatic differences year to year, many of us can name what life was like before Jesus was part of our story and how things shifted when—in the words of Eugene Peterson—Jesus “moved into the neighborhood” of our lives. We can even name how this ongoing relationship has positively impacted us and the people around us.

In AA, recovering alcoholics and addicts have a story too: what it used to be like in active addiction, what happened that they chose to get clean and sober, and what life is like now in recovery. Click To Tweet This story continuously evolves as people recover from the devastating physical, emotional and spiritual effects of active addiction. Once people open themselves to a new life, dramatic before and after stories are the name of the game. They are inspiring and faith-building.

GOD AS YOU UNDERSTAND GOD From the time Jesus was conceived and born, no one knew exactly what to make of him. The Magnificat records how Mary supposes a political and societal revolution. Joseph dreams that this surprise baby will save people from sin. The shepherds get an angelic message that a savior has been born. Simeon perceives that Jesus is a messianic figure; he foresees division, pain and suffering. Anna beholds the child and prophesies that the city of Jerusalem will be redeemed.

No one gets the same message. While we have strung these stories together into an overarching narrative, the elements of the story remind us that Jesus is more about possibility than dogma. All we really know is that Jesus is going to make a difference in the world.

In AA, recovery from addiction requires God. But AA’s understand that God is different for each person. In fact, there’s an insistence in the rooms of recovery that no one can define God for anyone else. No limits, definitions or dogma allowed. While this seems unnatural for the Christian, it’s strangely freeing for people in recovery. Here faith is not about orthodoxy or right belief. It’s about orthopraxy or right practice. The proof is in the pudding. Has your life transformed? Are you happy, joyous and free? Are you serving others? If so, nobody cares exactly how or what your Higher Power may be. Only that the fruits of this Power are evident in your life.

UNLIKELY CAST OF CHARACTERS The Christmas narratives place a diverse group of people together: families from the priestly line, shepherds and people of the field, Simeon a devout old man, Anna a prophetess who never leaves the Temple, a rather poor young woman, her older husband, and a surprise baby of divine origin. Let’s not forget angels and heavenly hosts. Later on, foreign dignitaries make an appearance. Oh yeah, and one crazed ruler. It’s a wild story. Who but God could have brought together this unlikely cast of characters?

Similarly, our addict and alcoholic friends form an unlikely assemblage. They include convicted felons, once-respected academics and clergy, school and healthcare administrators, construction workers, carpenters, painters, bikers, oilfield workers, psychologists, former menaces to society, and garden variety down-on-their-luck-just-lost-everything people who are scraping by. These are folks who would not ordinarily know each other, let alone mix. Who but God would but able to put together this unlikely cast of characters?

Wherever you may be this Christmas, and whoever you are with, I invite you to relive your own before and after story, to lay claim to God as you understand God, and above all to appreciate whatever crazy cast of characters you are with. It’ll be a sign that Jesus has been born among us.

As long as I can remember, church leaders have described the world and its peoples as “broken and hurting.” This along with other stock Good News And Envelopephrases such as “the poor and marginalized,” and “the least, the last and the lost” regularly pop up in prayers, Bible studies, and sermons.

Like news media that depend on bad or shocking news to get people’s attention, it’s almost as if churches depend on things looking bleak and bad in the world in order to motivate compassion or to claim relevance.

Before you protest that of course, we’re supposed to pay attention to people’s pain and suffering, please hear me out. While it’s important for churches to surface and address gaps in justice, equity and compassion, our unchanging lexicon hints that the world is a bad place that’s only getting worse. But what if that’s not true? What if—on the whole—the world is actually thriving and progressing? Click To Tweet

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress is a thorough, comprehensive and compelling exploration of the effects of progress on the human condition and the earth we inhabit. It’s 453 extravagant and detailed pages about how life on earth is undeniably better, brighter, fairer and more just than ever before in human history. Pinker’s central finding is that humans live in a world in which all boats haven risen on a long tide of progress.   Even taking into account the Trump effect, we have made progress in every area of human striving including length and quality of life, health, health care, sustenance, wealth, closing the gap on inequality, safeguarding the environment, peace, safety, democratization of the world, equal rights, literacy, education, access to knowledge. Even happiness.

Philanthropist Bill Gates has discovered much the same scenario. He asserts in his 2014 letter: “By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient.” Gates goes on to say, “You might think that such striking progress would be widely celebrated,” but in fact the opposite is true. Persistent myths abound that the world is getting worse. (Pinker ascribes this tendency to believe the worst to the availability heuristic. If it’s in the news, it must be happening everywhere.) These myths harm organizations that effectively problem-solve poverty, violence, injustice, war and hunger.

These myths also harm the church. After all, the church’s primary product, if you will, is good news. Its what churches offer the world. If the world is getting worse, not better, this implies that churches have no impact. Worse, that the God we promote is ineffective. That the main prayer we pray each week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” never gets answered. Most depressing of all, if these myths are to be believed, the Lord’s Prayer can’t get answered.

Heaven knows there are still problems to be solved, evils to be dismantled, and atrocities to be halted. Yet, we must not bury the positive transformations that are taking place in outdated language.

How would church services be different if we found new, more accurate language to describe the world and its peoples? What if instead of “the least, the last and the lost,” humans are described as resourceful problem-solvers who partner with God to co-create new realities? What if instead of a “broken and hurting world” we highlight human resiliency? What if instead of “poor and marginalized” we referred to folks who are experiencing injustice as courageous and persistent?   How might that change our view of things?

The former language casts the world as a victim and the church its rescuer. According to the principles of emotional triangles, this simply perpetuates victimization.   The latter language empowers us to dream up new possibilities.

I say it’s time to lift up all that is going well and right in the world, along with what is not. All the ways God answers prayer as well as the prayers still to be answered. All the ways churches partner with God to make a difference in the world as well as the partnerships we must still take up.  To do that, we must develop a new lexicon and begin new conversations.

“They want me to preach a three-point sermon, finish worship within an hour so they can beat the Baptists to breakfast, and not make any the elderly man prays in the churchchanges they don’t first approve. Above all not to push them.”   Ruth sighed, deeply discouraged. This Native American pastor is a strong leader: compelled by vision, in tune with the Gospel, led by love. “I thought things were going so well,” she continued. “But then they told my district superintendent how they really felt.” She shook her head, eyes not meeting mine. “I’m not sure my leadership style really works here. Actually, I think it’s because I’m Native American. And female.”

“Girl,” I said, “It’s not you.  It’s them. Don’t take this personally.”

How do I know? I had a similar conversation with Veronica, a skilled and talented African-American female pastor. Almost word for word. She, too, took it personally. It’s hard not to. I told her the same thing I said to Ruth.

As both of these conversations unfolded, echoes sounded from my own past. Previous congregants once said the same kinds of things to me. Yes, I’m female. But I’m neither Native American nor African American. But here’s what all three of us have in common: we each serve(d) congregations in the life-stage of retirement.

When a church reaches the retirement stage of development, a living vision is a thing of the past. Dreams of the future no longer guide them. In the post-glory days of the church, it’s all about managing the faded fruits of vision: activities, building upkeep, and finances. On their way down the far side of the bell curve, these congregations feel the pinch of smaller offerings, shrunken worship attendance, diminished possibilities, and the loss of friends and acquaintances. More pews are empty and the congregation is decidedly more gray.

Blame is a defining dynamic of retirement. “Whose fault is it?” is the unspoken question. The pastor is the most visible person to tag. Chances are, though, the decline started several pastorates before you got there, has been unfolding for at least 10-30 years and the congregation has resisted changes suggested by you and your predecessors.

At the time my congregation blamed me, I took it very personally. I figured the decline was somehow my fault.  If only I worked harder, tried harder, was a better Pied Piper I could turn this church around. If only I had the wisdom to say, “Church, it’s not me. It’s you.”

Truthfully, for congregations in retirement it’s not you, and it’s not them either. They’re simply saying and doing what people say and do when they are afraid, uncertain of the future, and resisting the change they know they need. So just like you don’t need to take their comments personally, don’t make it about them either.

Instead, continue to step into your role as visionary leader. Much as they may want you to be a chaplain, your job as a leader is to be brave, bold, and faithful to the Gospel. Stand and cast the vision. A Jesus-like dream is the only thing that has any chance of making a significant difference. Otherwise, they’ll have every right to say: “It’s not us. It’s you.” Click To Tweet

Here are three best practices and two cautions when casting a vision in a retirement stage congregation.

Best Practice #1: Identify your sub-congregations. At this point you have several sub-congregations, even if they all worship at the same hour. Your people have come in waves under different pastorates and that pastor’s particular style, vision or goal. So, each sub-group is expecting something different of the church. Find out who joined when. Discover what they remember of that particular time and pastor. As you cast a new vision it’s important to scout out and address each sub-group distinctly and intentionally.

Best Practice #2: Connect the dots between the past and the future. Help each sub-group see how the new vision fulfills the vision they were first attract ted to. If the old vision was about growing the Sunday school with a promise of more young people, and the new vision is about easing suffering by reaching out to the homeless families in your neighborhood, help them see the common underlying principle: sharing the hopeful story of God’s love to create better lives for people.

Best Practice #3: Provide a strong rationale. Base your vison in a strong rationale that answers these questions: Why us? Why now? How will we partner with God to realize our vision? Include a strong biblical and theological foundation that connects the Gospel vision with your people and your context.

While you’re carrying out these best practices, do exercise caution. To bring retirement folks on board requires heartfelt emotional intelligence.

Caution #1: Be kind. Change isn’t easy. Look, they know they need to change. They just wish they didn’t have to. Give them as much input on the vision as possible. Even if you don’t take all their advice, complete the circle of listening by letting them know you heard them.

Caution #2: Give in on the things you can. I encouraged Ruth to preach a 15-minute sermon and finish worship in under an hour. Instead of fighting it, use that hour to gain their trust, love them, and begin to lead them in prayer for a new vision. Don’t waste the hour. Otherwise, I might say: “It’s not them. It’s you.”

Conflict can take us out when the stakes are high. But it needn’t have the last word. Build your emotional intelligence as you discover how to handle your own anxieties and fears during times of stress. Join me in January for a 2-part online Mastering Conflict workshop.


Rushing Christmas

Rebekah Simon-Peter —  November 30, 2018 — 2 Comments

What to do when your church doesn’t want to celebrate Advent? When they rush into Christmas?Christmas angel - transparent

Let me answer that question by posing another one. Spoiler alert: this is a curmudgeonly response.

Here’s my question: Is it really so bad to sing Christmas Carols for a whole month? After all, it’s one time of year that people are truly into a holiday. Why make them hold off?   There’s something a bit perverse about making people wait to express joyousness, to feel good about life, to bask in wonderful memories and to create new ones.

Maybe rushing into Christmas isn’t such a bad thing. Even the Sundays in Lent, throughout the whole seven weeks of repentance, are not for mourning; they’re mini-Easters.   Let’s remember that Advent and Christmas, while reflective of biblical themes, aren’t exactly Biblical. Jesus never commemorated either one.

So here’s what I have come to believe: if holding off on singing Christmas carols contributes to the spiritual life of you and your people, go for it. If it doesn’t seem to, maybe it’s time to strike a compromise. There are bigger mountains to die on than what hymns are sung.

Yes, highlight an Advent hymn or two each Sunday, but let the sounds of Christmas seep into your worship service. Set the doxology to the music of Christmas carols. Or try this: before you sing a Christmas carol, set the context that it’s a sneak preview of what is to come.

As for me, I’m with those ready to embrace good news now—with profligate abandon.   I know this flaunts tradition, but why not rush headlong into peace, joy, love and goodwill? And do it a whole four weeks early, as though Christ has already been born and lives among us. Because in a world that knows its share of bad news, it’s good to remember that, after all, he does.

In the meantime, if conflict around worship and other ministry matters are draining you, I invite you to join me for a four-hour online workshop called Mastering Conflict. You’ll learn how to interrupt knee-jerk reactions that don’t get you anywhere, and instead, how to approach conflict productively.

Science now confirms what scripture points to: there is a peace that passes all understanding. This peace, researchers have found, couple in conflictemanates from deep within the human heart. It is both measurable and reproducible. I suppose that’s not too surprising. The Biblical traditions equate the heart with feelings like love, peace, and joy.   Here’s what is surprising about the new research: this peace has the capacity to surpass all misunderstanding, too.

You know how being around angry or nasty people can put you in a bad mood?   And how being around laughter is infectious? And how a smile can travel from one person to another? Turns out that’s not just coincidence. It’s the heart’s own emotional intelligence.

Research has shown that emotions emit an energetic wavelength. When our hearts radiate emotions with higher wavelengths—such as appreciation, kindness, compassion, positive regard, joy, delight, and love and peace—we generate more of that into the world. When we radiate emotions with lower wavelengths—judgment, fear, worry, mistrust, suspicion, anger, hate and revenge—we literally create that more of that in the world.   Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Now here’s the cool part. These electromagnetic waves have the capacity to influence others, and to draw them in.   Just as sunlight is made up of waves of energy which travels through air, turning night to day, warming cold bones, and dappling leaves—our emotions influence the people around us. Click To TweetDepending on the feeling we radiate, we can intentionally invite other hearts into either a state of peaceful coherence or a state of jagged non-coherence.

What does all this have to do with church?

First, as a spiritual leader, it is important to make sure your heart is aligned with the energies of peace. The more spiritually grounded and coherent the leader’s heart is–that is, aligned with the peace that passes all understanding—the greater your capacity to radiate that peace to the people and situations around you. You can make a measurable difference.

Second, as your congregation gathers to pray, remember to expand your corporate focus beyond the immediate prayer concerns of your people. Intentionally radiate peace that passes understanding out into the world. This is important on the days that our world reverberates with misunderstanding—outrage, upset, and random acts of violence. Your congregation’s concentrated focus on heart-based prayer can make a measurable difference on a global scale.

Third, teach your people how to stay grounded in prayerful appreciation of all the good in the world. This appreciative stance increases heart-based coherence at every level of society. Notice what is right with the world. Focus on the divine signs and wonders around you. Highlight miracles.

In this way you partner with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit to co-create the highest energies of peace, love and appreciation in the world. Surprisingly, this is an approach that surpass all misunderstandings in the world.

If personal peace is hard to come by, join us in January for a practical, online workshop that will empower you in Mastering Conflict.