Comment, Complain, Critique, Contempt - The Subtle Steps to the Fires of Hell

You may have heard the following scripture from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew:

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
— Matthew 5:21-24

You may have noticed there are four movements that Jesus highlights. I translated these four postures into the following four movements:

  1. Comment
  2. Complain
  3. Critique
  4. Contempt

Notice that anger/comment are nether good nor bad. We place values on the emotion anger, but really anger (like all emotions) is amoral, it is what you do with that anger that qualifies the anger. Comments are just that - amoral comments. Comments are observations and helpful for build relationships. For instance, "the meeting lasted 90 minutes." is a comment. 

Issues arise when we do not address comments and allow them to build up. At that point, we're stepping toward Complaining. Complaining is a subtle shift from Commenting. Complaints are Comments with qualifiers. Sticking with the example above: "The meeting lasted 90 minutes but should have been done in half as much time," is a complaint. 

The look of contempt?

The look of contempt?

As complaints are left unchecked, they too can bundle up into critiques. Critiques are qualified comments with an evaluation. So you can see how "The meeting lasted 90 minutes but I could have run that meeting more efficiently so it would have only taken half the time." is a critique. It is nefarious to bundle complaints because they become the fuel for scathing critiques. 

Finally, critiques that are not addressed in healthy ways can build into Contempt. Contempt is that feeling that the other is worthless. The contemptuous might say, "that meeting was a waste of time and we should not have to ever attend another meeting and if I were in charge I would do it better." 

Once we arrive at contempt toward someone or something we have a very hard time coming back from it. The next post will give a suggestion on how we might move away from contempt. 

The above is an abridged version of a sermon delivered on 2/12/17 (listen here).

A Difference in a Sermon and a Speech

It is important that preachers pay attention to their context. For instance, if your ministry is in a college town and the parishioners are college-educated people who place a premium on learning, then you know that you are going to have to have a teaching element in the sermon or no one will listen to you. If you are in a context where people value being a church of "Go" then by goodness, you need to be sure to have a call to action in the sermon. 

Context matters, but it is not king. Christ is King. In this sense that means the contextual must be in service of the transcendent. A sermon that is trapped and cannot transcend the context is not a sermon in my book. 

Sermons are those declarations of Good News that speak to the context but then transcend it. So if your community values learning, then the sermon must not be only about teaching. It must include a teaching element and then transcend it so that there is a call to service. The church of "Go" needs to hear the sermon that calls to action but transcends that call to include a call to worship and be still. 

Sermons that are trapped in their context are just that - trapped. There may be a good word shared, but it is not Good News. It may make the community feel good, but if the proclamation does not include and transcend the context then it is a public speech, not a sermon.*

*This post is specifically directed to all the preachers named Jason Valendy.

Racism - "My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them..."

Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. gave an interview to Krys Boyd of KERA Think on February 6, 2017 that was worth listening to for a number of reasons. Within in the interview was a metaphor offered up by Dr. Glaude that struck a chord with me about racism. 

Dr. Glaude stated that he was not a climate change denier and he believes that the climate is warming and that we are in a climate crisis. However, he notes, that if you look at the actions of his life, you might think otherwise. He lives his life as though he believes the world's climate is just fine although he intellectually believes otherwise. 

I do not think that I am a racist. I firmly believe in equality and I abhor acts of hate and injustice between people. However, if you look at the actions of my life you could string together a case that I don't care that much about injustice. For instance, I purchase things that I know are built by people living in inhumane conditions.

I do not believe that I am a racist, however (as this little video highlights) not being racist is different from being anti-racist.

I am beginning to come to terms that just because I do not believe that I am a racist or do things that are traditionally thought of as racists actions, I unknowingly do things that cause harm. I am reminded of the great story of Abba Moses that goes like this:

One of the brothers committed a sin. Moses was invited to attend a council about this, but he refused to go. Then a priest sent someone to say to him, “Come, for everyone is waiting for you.” So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, “What is this, Father?” The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” When they heard that they said no more to the brother, but forgave him.

I live unaware of the sin that runs out behind me. I am unaware of the messes that I make. This does not mean I am an evil person only that I am human and ought to strike a more humble posture in my life.

Clergy Isolation and Superchickens pt. 2

(For greater context, you may want to read part one in the previous post.)

In her TED Talk, Margaret Heffernan shares a study led by evolutionary biologist William Muir who was interested in productivity. Muir wanted to know if anything could be done to create more productive chickens, so he created an experiment. Heffernan explains,

"Chickens live in groups, so first of all, he (Muir) selected just an average flock, and he let it alone for six generations. But then he created a second group of the individually most productive chickens -- you could call them superchickens -- and he put them together in a superflock, and each generation, he selected only the most productive for breeding. After six generations had passed, what did he find? Well, the first group, the average group, was doing just fine. They were all plump and fully feathered and egg production had increased dramatically. What about the second group? Well, all but three were dead. They'd pecked the rest to death. The individually productive chickens had only achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest.

We know that human beings are not chickens, but according to Heffernan, for the past half century, many organizations operate like the superchicken model. She says, "We've thought that success is achieved by picking the superstars, the brightest men, or occasionally women, in the room, and giving them all the resources and all the power. And the result has been just the same as in William Muir's experiment: aggression, dysfunction and waste."

Heffernan's talk goes on to share additional research done by MIT researchers who ran studies to determine what makes groups successful. Their research identified three characteristics. First, really successful teams showed "high degrees of social sensitivity" or what is sometimes called "empathy". Second, successful teams were mindful to give equal time for everyone to share so that no one or two voices could dominate the conversation. Finally, the more successful groups in these studies had a higher number of women in the group. It was unclear what it was about women specifically. Some say the since women typically score higher on empathy tests they brought more empathy to the group. Others say it may be that women add to diversity of view and groups benefit from diverse points of view. Regardless of the reason, what this study shows is that social connectedness matters in the success and productivity of groups. The more socially connected the greater chance of success. Or as Heffernan states it:

"What happens between people really counts, because in groups that are highly attuned and sensitive to each other, ideas can flow and grow. People don't get stuck. They don't waste energy down dead ends."

The reality is that the many UMC conferences are like other organizations, we build our leadership around the "superchicken" model. We direct resources and energies toward superchicken pastors and even superchicken local churches. The tragic irony is the more we elevate the superchickens, the more we unintentionally affirm the model that implies that one's "success is the result of suppressing the productivity of the rest."

For instance, local churches and even local pastors are not rewarded to collaborate. Each year local churches and pastors are asked about the ways that local church is bringing people to Christ and helping them mature in the Spirit of God. The local church/pastor are incentivized to speak about how they are doing that in unique ways. We reward individual creativity, we applaud individual effort and we ask the same individuals we think are successful to be the dominate teachers of our conference. There are explicit and implicit incentives to strive to be a superchicken church or superchicken pastor in ways that are perhaps leading us to peck ourselves to death. Conversely, there are too few incentives for local churches/pastors to connect, collaborate, and share. There is a fear of what will happen if the local church/pastor proves to not be creative or innovative enough on their own. The pastor may move or the church may be deemed as less successful or vital and receive less support. What makes superchickens successful is to out-think or out-do the other chickens with superior individual gifts and graces. If the superchicken were to share the secret ingredients of their "success-sauce", then superchickens become vulnerable to no longer being seen as a superchicken in a system that rewards superchickens! 

 Most leaders have thoughts on "how to fix" the problem. There are strategies and tactics to be sure that might be employed. However, the heart of the matter needs a better diagnosis. We need to seriously examine the emphasis on the "superchicken" model we have embraced.

Otherwise we will peck ourselves to death.