The Concept of Mu

Feeling frustrated and confused, I went for a walk last week. I had spent the morning trying to imagine the next gathering in this adventure in consulting. The last time we were together, we focused on the numbers. They had gone on Neighborhood Walks and then we looked at the numbers. We looked at the statistics for each neighborhood and repeated those questions of discernment over and over again.

They were frustrated. They didn’t trust the numbers before them and I know that it wasn’t a distrust of the numbers, but a question of who this outsider was that had the audacity to make such claims about a community she did not know. It’s something I’ve bumped into in pastoral ministry before. I’m the pastor. I have some authority that no one else in the congregation has and so I must know something that they don’t but all I’m doing is asking these annoying questions. They aren’t the only ones who are frustrated.

I’m frustrated too and so I found some comfort on my walk with my earbuds warming my ears with wise words from the poet and community leader Pádraig Ó Tuama. I took comfort in hearing Ó Tuama  reflect upon something he’d read in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Like me, he didn’t really like the book but he took away from what he read something I didn’t remember. He told Krista Tippett on OnBeing that he’d held onto the idea of mu. He describes it as a Buddhist concept which acts as a response. When a questions is asked, according to Zen tradition, your response can be mu which Ó Tuama explains to be a way of saying

“‘Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.’ The question that’s asking is limiting, and you’ll get no good answer from anything.”

Whether church member or consultant, it’s hard not to feel like we should know the answers. We should have some clue to where we are going and what it is that God requires of us and I’ll admit that it feels absurd to repeatedly ask the same questions of the same group of people but I believe in the questions.

Just as we find new hope in words from scripture we’ve heard thousands of times before, when we hear the same questions repeated over and over again, new hope emerges. We hear something we haven’t heard before. Some possibility opens that no one saw before not just because we followed the script and committed to the process but because we changed the script. We said mu to each other when a question didn’t work. We asked different questions, but we needed to ask the wrong questions first so we could find the right questions. We had to make our own edits so that we could put this future dreaming into our own words.

I spend a lot of time wordsmithing the questions that I ask. I spend a lot of time thinking about how these words might lead a group of people to dream about their future ministry and it’s frustrating. I’m frustrated by it. I want the answers as much as those I’m leading, but the truth is that I have more questions than answers.

The next time I meet with this church we’ll dive deeper into the questions. I’ll ask a whole bunch of different questions to encourage their imagination and creativity. I hope the questions build on what we’ve already explored. I hope that these new questions resonate with the yearnings of their hearts but open-ended questions like these are just as likely to paralyze as they are to spark new hope. God’s ways are confusing enough and so I think I might start by introducing the concept of mu so that the questions might not overwhelm us but invite us into deeper discernment of what God is doing with this church.

 

 

Recipe for the Future Church

Every time we dare to talk about what the future of the church will be it feels like cooking. It feels like we are trying to divine a recipe — wondering if a dash of this or a pinch of that might just do the trick. In fact, most of ministry feels like that.

Together, as disciples, we are trying to figure out how to create this awesome possibility of the realm of God. Jesus never told us exactly how to do it. He didn’t leave us any kind of cookbook or even a clear set of ingredients. We know that there will be love and there will be justice, but how much? How much will create what God has dreamed could be? Of course, there are other questions that we ask when we are imagining the future of the church. It’s not just the realm of God we’re imagining. It’s whether the institution will survive. It’s the question of whether or not anyone will ever come and if the message we offer is still relevant.

These are tough questions. They are questions that can’t be answered even though we try very hard. The fact is: we just don’t have all of the information. We are not sure what compels people. We are still learning. We may have been set in our ways for a long, long time. Most churches have and many are ready to answer this question. They want to know what the future holds. They want to be given the answers. We all want the answers. But, I gotta say, I don’t have the answers. I’m a professional leader in the institutional church but I am not sure. I can say everything that I think. I can lead a whole bunch of exercises that make the churched among us feel like we’re back in youth group. And I do. I do those things. But, the questions are so persistent and the answers are so illusive that the questions start to overwhelm. It’s then that we need to read.

There is nothing like a book to challenge our hopes and dreams about the future. Ask any librarian. Books challenge us to expand our horizons and allow us to hear ourselves. That’s why I love book studies within congregations. They shift the conversation so the questions are not quite so loud as our answers. We hear what really matters.

That’s when things really get cooking. So that’s what we did at St. Peter’s United ChurBeyond_Resistance_cover_largech of Christ in Knauertown, Pennsylvania. We just finished reading John Dorhauer’s Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World. There are many books that could challenge us to imagine the future but I chose this one because of its author. John Dorhauer is the newly elected General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and he wrote this book about what he has learned about how the world is changing. It is very much written from his perspective. It’s a book that unpacks postmodernism which it may or not do very well. (Some in our group did not think Dorhauer went far enough.)

What I find most compelling about the book is the challenge not just to think about how one individual congregation might choose to define their future and their mission but how we might think about all of our missional resources. The future of one church cannot be separated from the future of the churches that surround it. It can’t be removed from the future of the denomination it claims. This book is a challenge to think about how we might partner. It’s not as simple as whisk or stir. It requires more of us just as reading a book like this one challenge congregations to think beyond their own resistances.

If your church is trying to imagine the future, but find yourselves tripping over the question, try this book. Here’s a simple recipe to follow.

RECIPE FOR MINISTRY

It is indeed a recipe for future.