Category: Uncategorized

Improv and the Preacher: Bring a Brick

The next series of blog posts will feature the lessons I’ve learned from taking Improv classes at the Dallas Comedy House. In fact, my troupe will be performing its first-ever showcase on Sunday, June 21, 8 pm. Purchase tickets for $5 each here!

2013-11-12-01-57-09-2

PART ONE
For years now, I have been convinced that the closest thing in our culture to the act of preaching is the stand-up comedy act.
Where else will an audience let a single person speak to them, in a monologue, for twenty minutes or so? Where else does this dynamic happen anymore these days?

Various forms of media have shrunk our attention spans, at the same time as the demand for visually-dazzling and sonically-dizzying kinds of entertainment has skyrocketed. Stand-up comedy — and preaching — is just so “old-school.”

Yet, amazingly, stand-up comedy remains a very popular art form. People will still pay money to sit in a room and watch a guy or girl stand on a bare stage with an old-fashioned handheld microphone and tell jokes.

Which sounds a lot like what preachers do every week, though our “art form” appears to be dying a slow death. That’s why I have spent lots of time listening to comedians, studying their patter, trying to figure out their tricks. If they can draw the crowds, why can’t I?

At the beginning of this year, when I began to consider what kind of continuing education opportunities I wanted to pursue, I started looking for stand-up comedy lessons. I stumbled across the website for Dallas Comedy House, saw that they offered a number of classes, and attempted to sign up. However, they weren’t offering any stand-up classes at the time. Instead, they were offering long-form improv classes.

Honestly, I wasn’t real sure what “long-form improv” was, but the thought crossed my mind that I would love to improve my improvisational skills, in general. I am called upon to pray improv prayers all the time, not to mention make extemporaneous speeches or announcements on a regular basis. It occurred to me that I would love to be able to think on my feet quicker.

And since I started in ministry, I have a recurring nightmare of showing up in the pulpit without having prepared a sermon.

So I took a leap of faith … and signed up for Level 1 Improv.

im
COMEDY FREE-FALL
It took two classes before I finally figured out what was supposed to happen in an improv scene. But when I did, it changed everything I know about ministry.

Walking on stage to do improv is every bit as horrifying as it sounds. When you step out into a scene, you have no script, no idea what you’re going to say, nor whom else might step into the scene with you. It’s a complete leap of faith, with no safety net — a comedy free fall.

A complete long-form show is 30 minutes of scene after scene by the members of the improv troupe, with very little thread between scenes, except a desire to entertain the audience and have fun.

My first inclination was to think of something funny — to dazzle people with clever witticisms. I would jump onstage with a snappy first line, but then find myself dumbfounded when my scene partner responded with a line I didn’t expect! Those moments were truly terrifying.

I found myself trying to anticipate what my partner would say, then trying to concoct a clever comeback to each potential response, and then … but by that time, the moment had passed. There’s no time for that in improv.

I realized that what I was doing was trying to act like a stand-up comedian. I thought I had to be funny; yes, I thought it was all about me. I was taking on a burden that, truthfully, I didn’t need to bear.

In fact, that’s exactly what I was trained to do by the old-school method of ministry. I had come to view the role of the pastor as the take-control CEO, the holy role-model, the most spiritual person in the room. When I preach, I have the mic and you don’t. When I do ministry, I do the ministry and you sit there and take it.

But that’s not how it’s supposed to work — not in improv anyway. My teachers continually stressed the idea that the best improvisers were those who offered up “gifts” to their teammates, meaning, they set up punch lines for others, or put themselves in ridiculous situations for others to “slam dunk” the comedy. More than any other kind of comedy, improv is all about teamwork.

One of the sayings we heard repeatedly was, “Don’t try to bring a whole wall; you’re just responsible for a brick.”

And here I learned my first big lesson:

I’VE BEEN TRYING TO DO STAND-UP IN AN IMPROV WORLD
Every pastor is tempted to want to be the stand-up comic; after all, it’s the Jerry Seinfelds and Chelsea Handlers who make the big bucks and draw the biggest crowds. But in reality, the Christian life resembles more closely the chaos that happens in improv.

Pastors who got into ministry in order to make a name for themselves, draw big crowds, and make lots of money don’t deserve the title “pastor.” Pastors get into this work, hopefully, in order to walk alongside folks in their ordinary lives and teach them how to live a little more like Jesus everyday. That’s why I got into this line of work anyway.

My job as a pastor is to help people follow Jesus. That’s it. I know that I’m succeeding when the people I lead are compassionate, loving, forgiving, and working for peace and justice in this world.

Actually, it might be easier to do stand-up comedy. Like traditional preaching, it simply requires that one person sit in a room and write something great, then deliver it with panache. You can be “in control” of the process, just as a comic can write and perfect his or her own routine.

But you can’t do improv by yourself. And you can’t really do ministry by yourself either.

I am learning that I really need to let go of more and more of the burden of ministry which I place on myself. Many of us pastors are workaholics, because of our own pride and ego. We are convinced that the church is dependent on us, on our skills and abilities, on our charisma and magnetism. We have bought into the myth that our “stand-up routine” is what will make our church successful.

Don’t believe it. I simply bring a brick. You bring a brick. One at a time.

At least that’s true for ministry in general. But what about the act of preaching?

Is the sermon obsolete? Can improv be a legitimate form of “proclaiming the Word of God”?

TO BE CONTINUED

Raising Down Leaders

 

 
Having grown up in the evangelical/charismatic subculture, I am sensitive to the unique language, code-words, and cliches of the movement. I could hold my own in a room of faith healers, evolution-deniers, and flag-wavers. 
In other words, yes, I could probably hold my own at a Ted Cruz rally, though I think I’d rather be strapped upside down in a prison cell and forced to listen to Taylor Swift music eternally.
In fact, while reading a New York Times article about Cruz’s campaign to be the “Christian” choice for President in 2016, I came across a familiar cliche that struck me as particularly troubling these days. The statement came at the end of the article, in which an anonymous woman is quoted as saying to Republican contender Bobby Jindal:

“I would love to see you godly leaders pray and fast and see who God would be anointing to raise up. We would rally behind him.”


The phrase that stuck out for me was “raise up.” This is a very popular way of speaking about leadership in the evangelical/charismatic world. It’s not that people grow into leadership positions, nor that they have to learn the skills of leadership through hard work and apprenticeship; they are, instead, “raised up” by God. They are given a special “anointing” (another code-word in the charismatic movement) which enables them to exercise the leadership of a church, nation, or company. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard pastors use this formulation in a variety of ways. Let me give some examples of its usage in my own experience:

“We believe that God is raising up godly men to start a revival in this land!” (Yes, it was always godly “men” … The godly “women” were supposed to stay home.)

“God is raising up godly leaders to take this nation back!” (How far back do we want to go? 1950s Jim Crow America? 1860s slaveholding America? Eighteenth-century Native American-killing America?) 

“I believe that God raising up a generation of godly young adults to turn our society back towards Him!” (I was a young person when I heard this one — over and over again. But seriously — what has Generation X contributed to society except maybe grunge and Quentin Tarantino?)

“God will raise up a godly candidate, and when He does, we should support him with all our time, money, and effort.” (This is what Ted Cruz would like you to believe.)
However, my problem with this cliche actually has nothing to do with Ted Cruz’s politics, or anyone else’s. No, I don’t agree with Cruz on much of anything, but that’s beside the point.
The problem is the insinuation that all of our problems will — and can — be solved by a single person, the shining star, an individual with the “right stuff.” The implication is that we need the right person at the top of the hierarchy, at the top of the food chain, and then everything else would gradually fall into place.
Obviously, this problem applies to Democrats as well as Republicans. Plenty of people thought Barack Obama was the godly leader that God had raised up to lead America into a post-racial, free-healthcare-providing, Guantanomo-Bay-free world. Don’t think so.
You may argue, “Well then, we need godly leaders across all the branches of government to work well. The President may be as godly as Moses, but would be obstructed by Congress and the Supreme Court.”
But this wouldn’t change the fundamental problem that the American system of government is built by, and for, powerful people, who make decisions on behalf of the rest of us, and in such a way that usually benefits them and the corporations they represent.
Evangelical and charismatic Christians have simply fallen into the trap that all of us are prone to jump into — the snare that says that we have to fight within the system. 

Instead, we must recognize that the system itself is ungodly. You can’t have godly leaders in an ungodly structure. And if human civilization has taught us anything, it’s that our systems of government are always ungodly.
The last thing we really need is more leaders; we need less. We don’t need more Senators, Congresspersons, or Presidents; we need more concerned, active, and empowered citizens. We need fewer bank CEOs, and more credit unions. We need fewer large-scale agricultural firms, and more local farms. We need fewer administrators, and more teachers, mentors, after-school workers, youth workers, and mental health professionals.
See, I believe that, instead of “raising up leaders,” God is actually trying to “raise down” our leaders and instead encourage common, ordinary folks to take power of their own lives, own work, own ministries. 
This trend has actually already begun. From the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City to the Arab spring protests, from the indignados of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol  to the aganaktismenoi (outraged) in Athens, there is a new kind of democracy emerging. Rather than vertically-aligned power which streams downward from above, this new democracy is instead “horizontalist,” and strives to be open, leaderless, populist, and consensual.
There is a strain of horizontalism in the house churches, cell groups, and new monastic communities which have sprung up in the last few decades. But this kind of open, communal decision-making still threatens the denominations.
Just three years ago, the United Methodist Church came dangerously close to electing a Head Bishop, someone at the very pinnacle of the hierarchy. Despite our democratic General Conference, we have a fairly hierarchical system in place in annual conferences. Bishops oversee district superintendents, who oversee local churches and their pastors, who oversee the people in the congregations.
Why aren’t we trying to be more horizontalist? As a church, why aren’t we more open about our decision-making, our appointment-making? What would it look like if we de-emphasized leadership and actually empowered people to live out their spiritual gifts? What if we really did make sure every decision was made by consensus, and that there were no winners or losers?

It wouldn’t be efficient. It wouldn’t make anything go quicker. It wouldn’t move us from “good to great.” But it would be worth it if our churches became places where more and more laypeople discovered that they could make peace, do justice, read the Bible, pray  confidently, and follow Jesus without a seminary degree, a certificate from a committee, or permission from a superior. 

Would it be a good time to introduce Jesus into the conversation? I recall that he said once:

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:25-26). 

If Jesus’ government model were put in place, it would be impossible to tell who was in charge! Everybody would be serving each other, and everyone’s needs would be met by someone else in the room. Nobody would be pushing themselves forward to be noticed. There would be no sloganeering, no finger-pointing, no boasting.
Jesus made it pretty clear in another place that we should not get into the habit of using titles of rank and status:

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:8-11).

That seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? Why then do we divide up power among ourselves, give each other titles and honors, and boast about our accomplishments and achievements? Why do we abdicate our own Spirit-given gifts of discernment and initiative to the powers-that-be?
It’s time to dismantle our pyramids of power, and get moving toward an institutional style that is flatter and more just. Not just in our churches but in our governmental bodies, our civic organizations, our families, and our relationships.
Leaders, raise down.
People, get on your feet!

Important Bridge Work in 2013: An End-of-Year Review of Daraja

The following is a year-end review of the work done in Daraja, the non-profit refugee ministry I founded with friends in 2012:

We made it! We survived our first full year as a refugee empowerment agency!

Words can’t express my ap-preciation for your support of Daraja’s first full year of operation in 2013, though maybe a few pictures will help … Your prayers, gifts, and service played a crucial role in getting Daraja off the ground and running. In this brief year-end letter, I wish to not only fully thank you all, but give you a broad overview of what we accomplished, as well as present a quick look at what 2014 might hold for us.

 

2013 IN REVIEW

Daraja began with one simple goal — to help recently-resettled refugees make a successful transition into their new communities and neighborhoods, particularly after assistance from traditional refugee services and agencies has ended.

In the fall of 2012,the Daraja Lead Team organized and started coaching the members of one Congolese family of fourteen. Throughout 2013, we continued to work with this family, particularly the teenage daughters, providing them with extra English-language learning opportunities, field trips to various locations, and friendships.

The experience was so successful that we recruited new volunteers in two different training sessions, and began working with another family of 8. A third family is about to be introduced to their new coaches.

We also began a tradition of monthly Family Outings, in which we invite all the families with which we work. We have been to the Dallas Zoo, watched a 3D movie with refugee children, and celebrated Christmas with the people of Cornerstone UMC.

This basic coaching relationship is at the heart of what we do. We believe that the most important thing that we can do for refugees is to become their friends, and walk alongside them in their new life situation.

But that is certainly not all we do!

Besides these primary relationships, we have found ourselves with the opportunity to expand our services. In the spring, we discovered the need for continued children’s education during the summer. With the help of dedicated volunteers, led by Beverly Lenoir, and the assistance of the DISD Refugee Relations staffperson, Zeljka Ravlija, we sponsored a four-week summer school at the Indigo Apartments, where we averaged over 30 children in attendance per day!

Over the summer, Daraja was honored by being named the official local ministry of the North Texas Conference Council on Youth Ministries, meaning that we will be a recipient of Youth Service Funds, and that the youth of the Conference want to be involved with our work. Led by Brooke Foster, the youth of the North Central District held a district  Mission Day to benefit Daraja. They constructed and painted four Little Free Libraries, and donated books and other reading materials. Those libraries now are situated at three different apart-ment complexes around Dallas which house refugee com-munities!

In the fall, Daraja was invited to become a Service Learning site by Richland College. After sponsoring a table at the college fair, a number of Richland students expressed interest in working with Daraja. Over the course of the fall semester, they helped Daraja hold a series of five weekend Youth Club events at the Indigo Apartments for refugee teens.

And that’s not all we did! Now that Daraja is housed at #611 in the Indigo Apartments, we have found needs popping up around us all the time. We’ve helped a family relocate after an apartment fire, distributed diapers and baby clothes, and spent lots of time sipping coffee with the elderly Iraqi couple next door.

Daraja volunteers attend the monthly Dallas Area Refugee Forum, speak to people about their experiences at conferences and exhibits, and provide transportation for refugees in need.

All of this has happened because of you, and we are grateful.

 

FORWARD IN 2014

Refugees continue to arrive in Dallas at a steady pace, particularly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Daraja believes that we have an advantage in working with this population in particular, thanks to the work of Jacob and Ceciliah, our Kenyan pastor friends.

We are constantly looking for ways to fulfill our goal of helping these newcomers thrive, and in 2014, we anticipate sponsoring our second summer school, improving our English language learning program, and focusing more attention on refugee teenagers. We plan to apply for a number of grants to fund these initiatives.

But we also have a very exciting announcement to make:

Starting January 1, 2014, Daraja will be officially linked to the ministry of Greenland Hills United Methodist Church in Dallas! Pastor Kerry Smith and the church Leadership Team have agreed to handle the accounting and bookkeeping of Daraja funds, as well as provide a number of people to serve on our new Board of Directors, to meet for the first time in February 2014. This announcement comes on the heels of the news that the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church has officially recognized Daraja as a ministry of the Conference.

All of this is incredibly good news for our ministry. Greenland Hills UMC will provide the accountability and stability that Daraja needs to build and grow in the future.

I am also extremely grateful for the service that the Missional Wisdom Foundation has provided us over the past year in managing our funds. Thank you, Larry Duggins and Elaine Heath!

 

HOW TO HELP

To put it bluntly, the best way that you can be a part of Daraja’s success in 2014 is to be a financial partner. We have only a very few financial obligations, but they are large.

Rent for the office costs $475/month, plus approximately $35 for water and garbage, $40 for electricity, and $30 for wireless internet service.

In the past year, my own salary support has come from a variety of sources, including the Missional Wisdom Foundation, FUMC Rowlett, Daraja fundraising, and other contract work. But I face no certain salary as I enter the new year.

I am uncertain about my immediate future, but I have absolute confidence that the work of Daraja will go forward, from strength to strength, from grace to grace.

You are invited to become a partner with the work, by making a one-time gift, or a monthly pledge. You may contribute financially by going to the Greenland Hills UMC website, http://tinyurl.com/mlqs6ol, and creating a simple account to give securely.

Again, thank you for making 2013 a resounding success, and paving the way for a bright future for the men, women, and children who have been displaced and are rebuilding their lives in our midst.

Ramadan Redux: Why I’m Doing It Again

I am blogging through Ramadan again, but at a new site: http://www.forthecommongreat.com.

I hope you will follow me through these 30 days of fasting again. Here is the first post from that site:

 

I’m not a sadomasochist. Really.

I don’t have a martyr’s complex either. I do not enjoy suffering.

With that off my chest, here’s my big news: I’m observing Ramadan again this year.

The experience last year was transcendent; I have never done anything so liberating, both socially or spiritually. (Feel free to peruse last year’s Ramadan posts, at www.newmethofesto.com.)

But there were some, shall we say, “side-effects.” Not everyone in my religious tribe was thrilled about my choice. There was backlash and resistance. That was painful. I have no desire to repeat any of that.

Things have changed since last year. I am in a different phase of ministry now, and am looking forward to observing Ramadan again. Put another way, I am free to pursue justice and make shalom with anyone who wishes to do the same.

I made it known last year that I wanted to fast for two reasons: one, to develop the spiritual discipline of fasting; and two, to stand in solidarity with American Muslims who struggle for acceptance and community. I wouldn’t say I “mastered” the Ramadan fast, but I did survive it. And I would like to go even further — I want to try again to live in the constant presence of God. I want to continue to push myself, to more wholeheartedly embrace the discipline of letting go, giving up, abstaining from.

Even more important, however, I need to continue to stand side by side with Muslims in my community. My experience last year revealed to me that a great number of Americans continue to hold misguided, uninformed, and dangerous opinions about Islam and its practitioners. I learned that too many Americans allow Fox News to tell them who their neighbor is.

If anything, Muslims need our support more than ever. As a person of faith, I have so much more in common with them than practically any other kind of person in our culture. My faith is enriched when I make real and vital connections with other people of faith, no matter what their particular faith looks or feels like.

I’m sad that Yaseen Sheikh no longer lives in my community; he moved to Baltimore earlier this year to take a new position at an Islamic school. But last year’s experience helped me make many new friends, like Nadim Bashir, the imam of East Plano Islamic Center, Amanda Quraishi of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, and countless others.

I will blog about Ramadan, of course, on a daily basis. I hope you will decide to follow along. This year, I plan to focus on the theme of justice and shalom, as they interrelate in Christian and Islamic tradition.

I fast, finally, For the Common Great.

Forward and Back

When Call to Action was released in 2011, as a potential game-changer for the United Methodist Church, I responded by launching a blog which I called “MethoFesto,” in which I laid out the contours of a different vision for the church.

After I said what I wanted to say, I closed the blog down to see what would happen in “holy conferencing.”

Now that General Conference 2012 is over, and Call to Action lays shredded, scattered across the barren landscape of United Methodism, it’s time to go back to basics. I start again with a “New MethoFesto” — portions of the previous blog can be found in the tabs above.