Archives: Year C

Think Inside the Box: Discipleship as Creativity By Constraint

In 2019, Harvard Business Review did a comprehensive survey and compilation of 145 empirical studies from academic journals on the conditions that support creativity and innovation.  And they discovered something very counterintuitive.

It turns out that we do our best inventive thinking when we think inside the box. 

The box itself spurs us on to come up with solutions we never would have considered if we had the complete freedom we think we want.  This is the phenomenon of “creative constraints,” and scientists have been finding very consistent results on the positive effects of creative constraints on human innovation.

Why do they work? 

Creative constraints take the focus of our thinking from wide to narrow, and the creative challenge increases our motivation to innovate.  Having endless options both increases our decision fatigue and makes us want to default to the most obvious, path-of-least-resistance answer. 

(Side note: the psychological peril of endless options doesn’t only refer to overwhelm when looking at 5000 Amazon choices for a can opener.  It’s also why online dating can increase alienation.  We do better with fewer choices in a lot of arenas in life.)

Creative constraints drive people to become remix artists, pulling in multiple unexpected sources, methods, and ideas to create solutions that remain within the confined boundaries. 

Now this isn’t an infinite phenomenon–too many or too harsh constraints start to limit creativity.  Companies such as Google and Apple deliberately orchestrate and carefully calibrate constraints to stimulate innovation. 

Think about the famous scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the NASA ground crew literally has to make a square peg fit into a round hole to create a carbon dioxide scrubber using only non-essential equipment already onboard the imperiled spaceship.  They thought they couldn’t do it, but knowing that their colleagues’ lives depended on it, they used those very strict constraints to spur their creativity, using what seemed like a few extra pieces of junk on the rocket to make a life-saving device.

People are more willing to accept and even enjoy working within constraints if they feel supported and feel like they have others to lean on and collaborate with.  There’s a lesson for Christian community in that last point that we probably want to keep in our back pocket as we explore this further.

For us post-modern thinkers, it can be difficult sometimes to understand the value of some if not many of the texts of the Bible. Why do we keep anchoring ourselves in this ancient, outdated text?

Because God has used it to spark creativity within restriction.

The Bible itself functions as a creative constraint for our entire lives.

We often think that we’ll be better off with total freedom to do whatever we want. “Think outside the box,” is a better known gospel these days than “love your neighbor.”

But the scientific evidence proves that we’re more innovative when we think inside a quite restrictive box, and I’m making the case that our prayer life and our service to God function the same way.

This is not some reactionary call to live within unjust laws and rules that foster oppression and repression. But it is a call to examine our assumption that structure always means stuffiness.

Our liturgy is highly structured, and that reliable framework is here to lean on when we’re in grief and trouble, and to support us when our spirits want to fly free.

The whole spiritual life could be described as creativity through restriction. Consider the experience of the monastics. They took on some of the most restrictive lifestyles imaginable, and they had vivid experiences of God to show for it.

So let’s test this hypothesis, in good academic investigatory practice.  If we document correctly, we might even make Harvard Business Review

Our first lesson is from Acts, the story of Peter’s vision of animals and his learning about clean versus unclean. 

What is the constraint we take away from this story? 

At first it’s misleading.  We think it’s about a lifting of constraints, the dietary laws that God’s people had functioned under prior to that point. 

But Peter, and we, are being asked to function under a new constraint, and that constraint is a restriction from our old paradigms. 

We have to give up our authority to decide what God’s laws are, and accept them as they’re revealed to us—which we find right here in this text, might change over time. We’re not allowed to use our comfortable categories we’re used to, for either what to do or who is acceptable to God and the community.

We have to conform to God’s view of who is saved, and it will not match what we think. 

By accepting this creative constraint from God, Peter and the others find a new mental and spiritual flexibility.  God gave them a new box to think inside of, and they found it very roomy, very interesting, and a place for new experimentation in building Christian community.

In our gospel lesson from John, our creative constraints are even clearer, and they’re quite harsh. 

“Little children, I am with you only a little longer,” Jesus says.  He’s leaving.  Having Jesus gone is a pretty significant creative constraint for the disciples. But there’s more. 

“Where I am going, you cannot come,” Jesus continues.  The constraints are really adding up now.  The disciples are being told they can’t go to where he is.  They’re confined to a space without the physical presence of Jesus.

And then here comes the big one.

“Love one another just as I have loved you,” Jesus says. 

The disciples are now being told, “Here are the boundaries for your conduct.  Here is the box that I’m asking you live in.  Your actions and your decisions are now constrained.  You can’t do whatever you want.  You don’t have perfect freedom.  I’m asking you to live within the constraints of loving one another just as I have loved you, with me having ascended to the Father.  Whatever solutions you come up with, whatever plans you make, whatever decisions or actions you consider, they have to adhere to that standard of love, without me here physically with you to guide you.”

That feels a bit overwhelming.  “Love one another” feels so big, but it also feels so small.  It feels like a big job within a tight restraint. 

But science tells us what God already knew: those are actually the conditions that lead directly to human flourishing, to innovation and discovery.  By giving us the creative constraint of loving one another as he loves us, Jesus is giving us a massive creative push into new growth and freedom.

Consider your experience at your own congregation.  Your church has been a full-on laboratory of creativity within restrictions during the pandemic.  You found yourselves with quite a lengthy list of things you couldn’t do.  You had to find a way to do ministry inside a box of limitations, restrictions, and constraints. 

How have you used prayer to make your way through that?  What courageous actions did you take to keep ministry going?  Because you have kept ministry going, and more than that, you’ve continued to grow ever deeper into the core values that make this congregation the rich and beautiful tapestry of love that it is.  You are living proof of how the Holy Spirit comes alive within and among us when we have to or choose to live within creative constraints.

So start reflecting on the experience of your community in this time and continue to explore how creative constraint can function in your own spiritual walk. 

What creative constraint is Jesus inviting you to in this season? 

What limitations will you deliberately accept in your life, not just for the well-being of others, but for the chance to see how God can help you experiment and grow in completely new and unexpected directions?

As followers of Jesus, we choose to impose certain restrictions on ourselves, like giving up time for prayer and for service, like not returning hatred for hatred, like loving our neighbor.

Spend some time this week looking at your restrictions, both voluntary and involuntary, and explore how the Holy Spirit  is inviting you to go wild with joy and creativity by means of those restrictions.

“My boundaries enclose a pleasant land,” the psalmist says. I think we’re only at the beginning of exploring it. 

It’s hard to believe that we’re more free with slightly less freedom, but the scientific evidence backs it up.

And don’t tell Harvard Business Review, but God knew it first.

If you liked, please share!


 

Christ Belatedly Crowned King in 1925, Sources Say

I have been misinformed.

That’s nothing new, I get confused and mixed-up and proceed on the basis of faulty assumptions all the time, but it doesn’t often happen to me liturgically.

Most of the time I know what’s going on in terms of worship and liturgy, it is what I get paid for, after all, but I had the wrong end of the stick on this one.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the church year.

I have always thought of Christ the King Sunday as an archaic feast.

It seems ancient, or at least medieval–old, anyway–to take an entire Sunday to talk about Christ as our Almighty King.

It would make sense that it comes from a time when most people who were Christians were in fact functioning in a system of government in which they were subjects of an actual, earthly king of some sort.

It makes sense that people who lived under a monarchy might need a reminder that there is a higher, more powerful king who trumps their current earthly king or queen, particularly if that earthly king or queen was oppressive or stupid or both.

But lo and behold, the Feast of Christ the King was not celebrated in the year 325 or 825 or 1125 or 1525.

The first time the church celebrated the Feast of Christ the King was 1925.

There’s still a lot of colonialism going on in 1925, but many, many Christians are living in democracies or locally governed tribal societies or even underground in communist regimes—fewer and fewer people had a king anymore.

So why celebrate Christ the King?

It turns out that the feast of Christ the King was declared by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as an anti-nationalist, anti-secularist statement.

Now, consider what was happening in Europe in 1925.

Fascism and totalitarianism were on the rise. Continue reading

Heavenly Sweepstakes Cancelled Due to Lack of Interest

One of the things I love best about Jesus is how tricky he is.

Jesus is a sneaky, tricky person!

How do I know that?

Well, he’s laid a trap for us in this gospel parable, and ten bucks say every last one of us fell right into it.

Let me explain.

So we begin with the tax collector and the Pharisee.

This is not a subtle parable; we know whose side we’re supposed to be on.

In fact, Jesus tips his hand with the opening explanation from Luke: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good. I hope I don’t end up in that group.

And the Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

“What a dirtbag!” we think. “Seriously, does anyone pray like that? Thank God I’m not that arrogant! Thank you, God, that I am not a self-righteous jerk like this Pharisee! Thank you that I know that I am an unrighteous sinner like the tax collector. Thank you for making me more humble than anyone else!”

Oh. Wait a minute.

I think I just accidentally prayed a prayer identical to the Pharisee’s.

Jesus, you got me!

I fell right into the trap! Continue reading

Being Gratitude

Today I want to put two things together that might seem an odd match: healing and stewardship.

How do they fit together? Well, let’s turn to our gospel story from Luke and see what we can find out.

We read of ten lepers who band together and seek healing from Jesus.

The number ten in the Bible signifies completeness—think of the ten plagues of Egypt, the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb on the tenth day of the month, or the Ten Commandments.

So we could read the ten lepers as representing a complete picture of humankind.

That’s a bit jarring, isn’t it?

Even today, we would think of lepers as “the other,” someone different than we are.

We know that leprosy in the Bible could represent any number of different medical conditions, but these people were ostracized from society, driven out and forced to live in sub-standard, isolated conditions.

When we think of lepers in the Bible, we are likely to think, “Those poor people. That’s awful.”

We are not so likely to think, “That’s me. I’m a leper. I need healing.”

But that’s exactly where I want us to go. Continue reading

Banned Books, Banned People, Banned God

The Washington D.C. public library system did a fabulous project for Banned Books Month.

They constructed a scavenger hunt for banned books all around the city.

They took books banned by various jurisdictions over the years and put fake covers on them. These covers are plastered with labels that state the grounds for having banned them.

So for example, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye has a cover that says “ANTI-WHITE,” because that is why it was banned in Columbus, Ohio in 1963.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles has a cover that reads “FILTHY TRASHY SEX NOVEL.”

Who wouldn’t want to read that?

It’s a fun project that draws attention to a serious issue. Censorship is alive and well all around the world today.

For centuries regimes, governments and dominant majorities have tried to maintain oppressive statuses quo by controlling what people read and see and hear.

And if they control what we read and see and hear, they can control what we think and do.

It’s very comfortable to place all blame and responsibility for censorship on some far-off blank-faced Big Brother figure we call “The System.”

But a dear clergy friend of mine asked me a painfully insightful question as we talked about the gospel lesson this week.

“Aren’t we censoring our own worlds all the time? Isn’t that what the rich man in the story was doing his whole life?” Continue reading

God, The Lost Sheep

The parable of the Lost Sheep is one of the great parables in the Bible because it is simple, understandable, and we recognize God and ourselves so vividly in it.

It is tremendously comforting to be reminded in such clear terms of God’s unending love for us.

When we are lost, God will stop at nothing to find us.

When we go astray, God will search to the ends of the earth to bring us back.

We cannot be reminded of that too often, because sometimes in our heart of hearts we find it difficult to believe that the Almighty and Everliving God would care that much about us.

As beautiful and important as I find that traditional interpretation, I’d like to try a different one today.

One thing you’ll find out about me is that I can’t stand the obvious sermon. I do not feel like I’ve really lived into studying a Bible text, and certainly haven’t preached on it well, unless the Holy Spirit helps me see a new and unique angle I’d never seen before.

And as my clergy friends will tell you, I sometimes play a little fast and loose with exegesis when I do that.

But I don’t care—if it helps us see God in ourselves and each other more clearly, than I’ve done my job.

So all that wind up is to say that I know I’m going way out on a limb with the interpretation I’m bring you today, and I’m asking you to join me just for the next few minutes.

If it leaves you cold, you can forget it during the Nicene Creed. But if it awakens something new in you, then thanks be to God.

So here is me bending this parable as far as I think it can possibly go.

All of Jesus’ parables function as analogies.

We read about the mustard seed and realize that it symbolizes our faith.

We read about the treasure hidden in the field and realize is symbolizes union with God.

And in this story, we traditionally picture ourselves as the sheep and God or Jesus as the shepherd.

But what if we flip that on its head?

What if God is the sheep and we are the shepherd?

Continue reading

The End of the Reign of Goody Two Shoes, Or, Start Breaking Some Rules

What a scene we have in our gospel text today! I love it!

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and everything is going great.

The leader of the synagogue seems to be on board—it’s nice to have a guest speaker who brings a little prestige to your local congregation.

But then a woman in need shows up to spoil the party.

Can we be honest with ourselves for a moment here? Have we ever felt uncomfortable when someone clearly in need, someone who definitely doesn’t fit in with our crowd, shows up at worship?

I’ll confess to my shame that I have.

But Jesus, instead of dismissing or marginalizing her, or even waiting until after the sermon to take her aside and care for her, brings her right into the heart of the worship service and heals her.

The crowd loves it.

The leader of the synagogue is furious. But notice that he doesn’t quite have the guts to confront Jesus himself.

Instead, Luke says, “the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.’”

Rather than reminding Jesus of the rules and thus risking a confrontation with a clearly powerful spiritual leader, he tries to intimidate the vulnerable people seeking out Jesus’ care.

Jesus creates the confrontation anyway.

He calls the man out as a hypocrite, and “when he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

Okay, so here’s the thing you should know about me. I am a professional Goody Two-Shoes.

I spent the entirety of my childhood, teenage years, and the vast majority of my adult life following the rules.

I’ve always been a good girl. I’m on time, I’m nice, I never wear white shoes after Labor Day, and I always send thank you notes.

If there is a box to be checked to get approval, I check it.

If there is a social custom to be followed to adhere to etiquette, I follow it.

The best I could do for my rebellious phase as a teenager was cop an attitude with my parents every now and then. I was so boring I never even drank before I turned 21.

I’m the prim and proper, teacher’s pet, snot-nosed Goody Two Shoes you loved to hate when you were in school.

But the thing I’ve begun to realize as I’ve studied the gospels over the years is that Jesus is not a Goody Two Shoes. Jesus is a red-hot rebel.

Continue reading

Actually, It Is a Laughing Matter

We have a very serious set of scriptures today, and I assure you I am going to take them very seriously.

Really. I promise.

But first I just have to share with you the verses from our Hebrews text that make me laugh.

The author is talking about the sacrifices our forebears in faith made for the sake of God, and he says, “They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented– of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

I mean, that sounds pretty bad.

But look at that first sentence: “They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented…”

Being stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword—I get why those three are grouped together as terrible fates.

But that last one—“they went about in skins of sheep and goats.”

I understand he’s probably alluding to poverty.

But it makes me think that the people of God counted fashion faux pas right up there with swords and saws and stones as a fate worse than death.

I mean, with everything else we have to deal with, now God is forcing us to wear sheep and goatskins? I wouldn’t be caught dead in that!

Continue reading

Saying Yes to Judgment

“Someone in the crowd said to Jesus…”

Someone in the crowd. That’s our first indication that things are not off to a great start in our passage from Luke today.

Throughout the gospels, “the crowd” is often a code word that stands for “people who don’t get it.”

(I would love to teach a class that traces the experience of “the crowd” through the entire gospel narrative, right up to Palm Sunday and beyond.)

But anyway, we know from the beginning that this person who is questioning Jesus is probably going to be off track. And he is.

Following up on our sibling rivalry conversation from a couple of weeks ago, we have a person angry with his brother. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

But Jesus is not having it.

“Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

Now this is one of the most fascinating of the Questions of Jesus, another really interesting way to trace our way through the gospels. Jesus asks 307 questions and only answers 3. It’s worth wondering what he’s asking you, today.

But this question in particular, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” puts a major chunk of Christian orthodoxy in a bit of a pickle.

It is a foundation stone of orthodox theology all the way back to Nicaea and beyond that Christ is our Eternal Judge.

At the Last Day we will stand before him and be divided as sheep and goats if the Church Fathers are to be believed.

And to be fair, there is ample scriptural evidence for Christ as Judge.

But here Jesus tells us directly that he is not here to judge us.

Continue reading

Siblings: Fighting With Them, Fighting For Them

Everyone loves a good dose of sibling rivalry.

Mary and Martha are among the most famous sibling rivals in the Bible, and Christians for generations have wondered what to do with them.

Many of us identify more strongly with one or the other of them, and then feel slightly guilty about it.

Team Martha feels like she gets a raw deal, being gently corrected by Jesus when she complains about Mary not helping her. “Where’s the love for Martha?” we ask. “Marthas make the world go around, especially at church!”

Others of us know we’re Mary. We love being spiritual and contemplative, thinking deep thoughts and feeling very religious, but sometimes we’re hard to be found when it’s time to get down to real work. Oops.

As often as I’ve wrestled with this text and its clear call away from busywork and into the peace of God’s presence, I heard it differently this time as I thought about it in the context of the whole Bible.

And what I realized is the Bible is all about sibling relationships, and most of those relationships are troubled at best.

Continue reading