Category: christian formation

Sermon: You Didn’t Build That.

Joshua 24:1-25
Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 12, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon

obama-you-didnt-build-thatEvery presidential election is always kind of a silly season in America.  People hear what a candidate says and it becomes fodder for the opposing side for weeks.  Certain phrases enter the body politic and are remembered for years after the election.  And this is not a modern phenomenon.  In 1884 as Grover Cleaveland was running for President, allegations surfaced that he had fathered a child out of wedlock.  His opponents began chanting “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?”  After Cleveland won the race his supporters fired back: “Gone to the White House, ha,ha,ha.”

In 2012, there wasn’t any chants like that, but there is one phrase that stuck out above all the din.  It was something that President Obama said, something that supporters of Governor Mitt Romney picked up and ran with.  The phrase is “You didn’t build that.”  If my memory serves me correct, the phrase came in a speech reflecting the role of government in our society.  The GOP milked that phrase for all it was worth.

Now, this sermon is not, I repeat, is not about the role of goverment or a rehash of the last Presidential election.  I’m wary about being partisan in the pulpit, so I’m not interested in talking about politics, at least from this vantage point as a pastor.

That said, this phrase is interesting to me, not because of politics, but because how it lines up with today’s passage.  The phrase reminds us that we are not where we are becuase of our smarts, but because God has been with us all the time.

Continue reading “Sermon: You Didn’t Build That.”

Birth Control And The Sham of Theological Diversity

One of the things that Progressive Christians like to say about themselves is how welcoming and tolerant they are.  Compared to their more conservative cousins, progressives can pride themselves in being able to think for themselves and to have a place where all ideas and beliefs can be shared without fear. Why, your progressive church even welcomes Republicans!

But in reality, all of this talk of diversity is a complete shame.  We are no more tolerant of other viewpoints than our conservative relatives.  What we are good at is lying to ourselves about how good we are.

Case in point is the current discussions over birth control and the new federal health care law.  Catholics and Evangelicals were upset at the initial rules which came out a year ago that mandated birth control in all health care plans.  The exceptions were religious places for worship like churches or mosques.  However, religious bodies such as a hospital or university would have to include birth control in their health plans regardless if they found such things goes against their faith as they understand it. The Obama Administration has offered a compromise solution that seems to fall of deaf ears of the opponents.

Now, I need to say straight up here is that I support people using birth control.  I think it can help prevent unwanted pregnancies, which is a good thing.  That said, even though I think birth control is a good idea, that doesn’t mean that I think anyone who has a problem should just shut up or that the government should force groups to go against their beliefs.  If people of faith have really discerned the issue and they believe that mandating universities or hospitals to include birth control in their health plans goes against their faith, the those of us who might have an other position should within reason stand to support them.  Not because we agree with them, but for the simple reason that Christians should be able to express their faith without the state forcing them to go against their beliefs.

Very few progressives were up in arms about the proposed changes a year ago and not much has changed.  Methodist pastor Morgan Guyton shares in his somewhat overly candid Huffington Post piece his satisfaction that the United Methodist Church covers birth control.

Apparently, the Obama administration just announced a rule change in the contraception mandate to allow broader exemptions for religious employers beyond churches themselves. Well, that’s fine and all, but I’m actually grateful that my health insurance through the United Methodist Church pays for my wife and me to have our IUD that keeps us from having more babies. And I think it’s time someone named the fact that family planning is a legitimate part of the equation of Christian sexual ethics rather than always being a demonic conspiracy against God’s will for humanity. Birth control is part of how my wife and I try to be faithful stewards of our bodies and our relationship for the sake of both our family and the ministry to which God has called each of us.

I’m very attracted to Roman Catholic theology for a lot of reasons. The Roman church’s theology of the body is derived from a lot of principles I agree with: a sacramental understanding of human existence, an affirmation of God’s sovereignty over modernist individualism and a suspicion of the worship of science. At the end of the day though, I’m a pragmatist. My wife and I are at the age where we would risk having a child with serious health problems if we did not use birth control. We would receive a child like that as a blessing from God and love him or her with all our hearts, but it would result in our relative lack of availability for ministry beyond our family, which is why having an IUD is appropriate stewardship for us.

Again, I’m not personally opposed to having birth control as part of a health care plan.  Good for the United Methodists for including it.  But not everyone thinks that way.  Should we just ignore them because they get in the way of our pleasure?

Guyton says birth control is part of Christian sexual ethics.  I’m not saying it can’t be part of a Christian sexual ethic (it should), but how?  Guyton doesn’t say.  He keeps saying that having his wife use an IUD keeps them from having another baby that could be subject to health issues.  He then lifts up a Latino couple who are low income and might not be able to afford the IUD.  Okay, but why are we acting as if this is the only option?  Has Morton ever heard of a condom?

Guyton then goes to focus on the evangelicals who oppose the mandate and basically says their opposition is probably racist and very selfish:

Fifty years ago, the threat that black male libido posed to white girls was the main justification for the social order of segregation (if they come into our neighborhood and our schools, how will we keep our women safe?). Though the racial dimensions have been sublimated (somewhat), the threat of sexual transgression has carried over into our era as the primary underlying anxiety behind middle-class evangelical family decision-making whether it’s about homeschooling, suburban living, or finding a church with a strong youth program so my kids won’t go to the drinking sex parties that every non-Christian high school student attends every weekend.

The irony is that the culture war over sexual purity is not at all the counter-cultural stand that it purports to be; it’s completely accommodating to the mythology about the underlying causes for the social order that privilege needs to tell itself. It reassures a population of middle-class parents that focusing on their nuclear family to the exclusion of everything else is exactly what Jesus wants them to do (the same Jesus who said, “My mother and brothers and sisters are those who do my Father’s will” [Mark 3:35]). This reassurance is one of the most important obstacles to kingdom living among Christians today.

So, it’s pretty obvious that the kingdom of God includes IUDs and selfish conservatives should wake up and smell the coffee.

The problem with Guyton’s piece is that he makes no attempt to even understand the other side.  He has made up his mind that the other side is profoundly evil and if they want to be good Christians they need to give up their upper middle class priviledge and support birth control coverage.

A year ago, Episcopal Priest and commentator Frederick Schmidt wrote about the contraception mandate issue.  He wrote:

What should be troubling to Protestants is that there aren’t more people in our circle voicing support for the Catholic bishops. It is true that the intersection of secular government and religion poses peculiar tensions and the church cannot afford to treat the government as if it were a surrogate for Christian activity. But, for the same reason, no part of the church can afford to compromise its freedom to take specific religious positions—regardless of what other churches or even its own membership might think. The issue of precedent is at stake here, not just the specifics of this particular policy decision.

Furthermore, simply because Protestant churches may not completely share the Catholic position this time around, does not mean that they will manage to avoid jeopardy at some point in the future. Presidents come and go, but precedents are forever—unless the Supreme Court reverses them—and religious leaders everywhere would do well to remember that. What would the same progressive Protestants argue if some future administration reinstituted the draft and eliminated conscientious objector status?

Schmidt continued to note that Progressive Christians have lost the theological language to speak on issues, especially those dealing with sex and marriage:

So, is there any other reason that progressive Protestants aren’t more actively engaged? Yes, there is one: We don’t have any language for the presenting issues of contraception, choice, and abortion, except for the political vocabulary that we’ve been using all along. So, while the administration has run a coach and horses through the First Amendment, we find it hard to explain why that might be a problem, because we are convinced that what the administration just did was strike a blow for what is not just politically, but theologically appropriate.

Shame on us. The right to choose, control over our bodies, and access to treatment are all political issues–and they have a place in the conversation.

But in using that language alone, we have neglected the hard theological work that is properly the church’s task. From the theological point of view the stewardship of the bodies that God has given us, being made in the image of God, giving birth to those made in the image of God, chastity, the sacrament of marriage, and the purpose of life are all in play as well. How those values are honored in a complex world is the stuff of Christian conviction and practice.

Progressive Christians who are dead sure that the Catholic bishops have conflated church and state should remove the beam in their own eyes before reaching for the microscope to help others. Far too often Protestants have bought the so-called Erastian notion that the church is subordinate to the state and that faith, therefore, is a private affair. Now we are in danger of taking those notions to their logical, self-destructive conclusion: The only theological vocabulary we have is the vocabulary that the state gives us.

Sociologist Peter Berger notes that many secularists and their liberal Christian counterparts, want to defend the gains in sexual liberation made in the 1960s.  Here’s what he said relating to two legal cases on the public display of religion:

I do want to make a general observation: In all these cases the authorities accused of violating the plaintiffs’ rights operate with a definition of religion as a private matter to be kept out of public space. There is here a general issue of government overreach, as clearly illustrated by the (still unresolved) attempt by the Obama administration to force Catholic institutions to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ health plans. Beyond that, though, there is a very ideological view of the place of religion in society. In other words, religion is to be an activity engaged in by consenting adults in private. The attorney for the Judeo-Christian side in the aforementioned American case had it quite right when he compared the treatment of his client’s religion with measures of disease control. This is not an attitude one would expect to find in a Western democracy. It is curiously reminiscent of policies toward religion in Communist countries and toward non-Muslims under Islamic rule….

Let me venture a sociological hypothesis here: The new American secularism is in defense of the sexual revolution. Since the 1960s there has indeed been a sexual revolution in America. It has been very successful in changing the mores and the law. It should not be surprising that many people, especially younger ones, enjoy the new libidinous benefits of this revolution. Whether one approves or deplores the new sexual culture, it seems unlikely to be reversed. Yet Christian churches (notably the Catholic and Evangelical ones) are in the forefront of those who do want to reverse the libertine victory. Its beneficiaries are haunted by the nightmare of being forced into chastity belts by an all too holy alliance of clerics and conservative politicians. No wonder they are hostile!

Now, I benefited from that sexual revolution.  If that never happened, I would never be able to be an openly gay man.  So, I’m not against the loosening of sexual standards.  But why are they good?  Why should we use birth control?  What is does marriage mean for the Christian community?  What about divorce? What about sex outside of marriage?  The answer doesn’t have to be no (though sometimes it can be) but we need to do some thinking theologically as to why Christians can take these stances instead of just baptizing any left-wing idea as holy and good.

Which brings me back to the subject of theological diversity.  If we really have a spirit of discernment and an openness to what God might be saying, then there will be room for other views and a willingness to allow for space for different views.  However, when we adopt the language of politics, we divide folks into like minded groups and hinder any chance of diversity.

Which is what Guyton is doing here.  Instead of trying to understand the other side and explaining in theological terms why he thinks his view has merit, Guyton wades into demonization.

If Progressive Churches are basically suppose to be chaplains to the Democratic party, then let’s be honest about that.  Just don’t dress it up in religious garb.  I’ve had enough of that, thank you.

Why I Like Lillian Daniel.

I really like Lillian Daniel.  Really.

Why, you ask?  Because in 2011 she said something that many mainline Christians have been thinking, but were too afraid to say outloud.   In 2011 Daniel wrote an article with the very provocative title: “Spiritual, But Not Religious?  Please Stop Boring Me.”  If you think this was a rant, well, you’re right.  Daniel basically tore into those folks that have been called “Spiritual But Not Religious” or SBNR.  The article went viral and it’s easy to see why.  Here’s what she said reflecting on a visit with a gentleman on an airplane:

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

After this article and a longer one written for the Christian Century, Daniel wrote an entire book on the subject which just came out: When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough.”  Her article last year drew some criticism from younger pastors such as Adam Copeland.  Now that the book is out, we are hearing more criticism, this time from Presbyterian minister Landon Whittsit.  He thinks Daniel is just being mean to the SBNRs and only focusing on Church Folk:

Does she truly believe that an SBNR/None is going to read her book? I would be surprised if she did. I doubt that those who are (in her words) “shunning faith” are going to be bothered to obtain a copy. And even if the marketing machine gets the book some press in the media, what does she expect the net result to be? That they will see the error of their ways and come running home to Mother Church? I think not.

I contend that she wrote this book for Church Folk. And, in so doing, she is giving a wink and a nod to those who Tripp Hudgins eloquently calls “religionists.” While ostensibly calling the bluff of the SBNRs/Nones, she is actually shaming the very people she is purporting to want to help.

And this is where my beef with Rev. Daniel truly lies: She is shaming the very people that would benefit from what the Church has to offer. It is one thing to preach this to your own people, whom you know and trust and who know and trust you. It is entirely another thing to go on a media spree of mean.

Whittsit says that Daniel has the SBNRs all wrong and links to an SBNR to prove his point.  Actually, I think he proves Daniel’s point much better, but here is what Rachelle Mee Chapman says about her task in life:

After spending tens of thousands of dollars getting a master’s degree in Theology. After fighting to get ordained as a woman. After 30+ years in the church, and 15 years serving at one particular, belov-ed church. After all of this, I said goodbye to ordained ministry.

The practices of my youth stopped working for me. My beliefs had sprung links. The religion I once wore as my most prized possession started to pinch around the middle. It was sad, and I felt lost.

Magpie Girl helped me find my way. While I was living in Copenhagen, eight black magpies nested on the rooftops outside my studio window. The cawed and they cried. They were bright eyed. They were not silent. “Eight for a wish…” says the old nursery rhyme, eight for a wish. And I was wishing. For a new way. For a new home. For a new tribe.

I gather the people who are creating a new way, and I give them a place to call home.

Listen friends, what I want to tell you is this:

  • I believe you can write your own creed.

  • I believe that art + spirituality are good bedfellows.

  • I believe the institution doesn’t get to call the shots.

  • I believe you deserve a spirituality that fits. One that is authentic to who you are today, rooted in the best parts of your heritage, and creative enough to grow with you.

  • I believe you don’t have to bite your tongue, my bright-eyed magpie, because you have a voice. (And the world needs you to sing from the rooftops.)

Okay.

There is so much wrong with this that I don’t know where to begin.  I could probably write a series of posts on this, but I will leave it at this: what I read seemed to be proof of Daniel’s criticism, that some of these SBNRs are repackaging hyperindividualism as some kind of grand mysterious faith.  No, it’s not.  You just went to the WalMart of spirituality and borrowed from a few different faiths (the parts that make sense to you, of course) and then made it sound like it was all your own doing.  Please.

I don’t get why some pastors are so enthralled with the SBNRs.  I’m all for engaging those who are seeking something larger them themselves, but I am not interested or willing to engage someone who is only interested in their own words.  In a post from 2011, I share my own frustrations with SBNRs:

In my encounters with folk, I’ve met people who will tell me their interest in church.  They might include that they have been excluded for some reason, more often than not, sexual orientation.  They seem interested in being part of this faith community or at least a faith community.  But when it comes down to it, they never delve any further and seldom come back.  In my earlier days I might think this was the soley the congregation’s fault, but now I think some people are just lazy when it comes to faith.  I’m more than willing to present a tolerant and inclusive faith.  As a gay man, I want to show that yes, we are part of the church and that we are loved by God.  But I am not interested in playing games or in trying to make the church fit someone’s shallow faith.  Following Jesus is a challenge and not for the faint of heart.

On the other side, I’ve met people in church who are not perfect, whose lives are falling apart and who come and encounter Jesus and be the church.  They may not have all the answers, but they have a sturdy faith.

As a pastor, I want to be open to those who are interested in following Christ.  Christ did welcome all, but he had no patience for excuses.  When a potential follower wanted to follow Christ, but said he would come after he buried his father, Jesus told him to let the dead bury their own dead.  Not nice, but Jesus was serious.  He didn’t have time for niceties.

This has probably made me sound like the most bigoted pastor around and that’s not my intent.  I want to welcome all as Christ did, but I don’t have time for games anymore.  I’m too old for that.

I get that God can be found in places other than the church.  I get that the church has done some terrible things.  I get all that.  But God can also be found in a church.  God can be found in the imperfect people who make up that church and who care for each other and those outside of the walls of the church because they learned about how Jesus cared for others.  I see God in those same people when tragedy strikes.  When a wife dies in a car accident.  When they get a diagnosis of cancer.  When their month old baby dies.  I see their faith in action in those dark times and I can tell you it ain’t no faith in sunsets.

For some strange reason, Jesus entrusted the church to people.  He entrusted it to us.  As flawed and even hurtful as the church can be, it can also be a place of warmth and healing.  We see God at work in and through these fragile, broken people, the ones that have a faith that is ancient and able to withstand the storms of life.

As I said in 2011, I want to present those who have felt left out by the church with the love of Jesus.  What I won’t do is tolerate those who are so wrapped up in themselves that they can’t think straight.

And if someone starts talking about seeing God in sunsets in the airplane seat next to me, I’m asking to be moved.

How Sunday School Made Us Biblical Dummies

Interesting read:

One of the places where America began to become theologically illiterate was an odd one: Sunday school.

I believe the introduction of Sunday schools truly has caused the American church to know less about what they believe.

Read the whole thing.  He’s not saying we should junk Sunday School, but he shows how it may have created a generation of people who sat in Sunday School and yet know nothing about the faith.

Planned Parenthod vs. Susan G. Komen: Same S*%!, Different Day

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the whole Komen controversy because its been done ad nausem.  But I do have one question: where should the Church be in all this?

The whole mess concerning the two groups was one more annoying incident in the culture wars.  Each side, including many a Christian, took their usual sides in this forever battle.  We slunged mud at the other side with equal ferocity, all in the name of being on the side of right, of course.

But how should followers of Jesus respond?  How do we handle issues in ways that aren’t aping what we seeing the wider culture?  Why are we so quick to turn even an issue that everyone agrees is a major problem: breast cancer, into war of words?  Why are people so willing to paint everything as black and white and not try to see another viewpoint or veiwpoints?

What is sorely missing in the life of the church today, no matter what side you are on, is how to think theologically and engage culture.  What we tend to do is hold on to our positions, convinced they are God’s instead of sitting down and trying to discern things.  Instead of trying to find God’s will, we have already decided we know God’s will and need to tell those other guy how stupid and evil they are.

The Church, liberal and conservatives, have acted like asses in the last few days.  When it comes to showing a “more excellent way” of being in the world.  We fall short.

Epic. Fail.

Personal Jesus

One thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that mainline Protestants don’t seem to take God very personally.  Growing up as I did in the evangelical world, God and Jesus was up close and personal.  A lot of the songs we sung in college intentionally changed the words of some songs from something like, “God is so good to us,” to something like “God is so good to me.”

 In many ways, Mainline Protestants tend to think of God in more communal or corporate terms.  We tend to use words like “us” and not focus on a personal Jesus.  Our belief in social justice makes us wary of something that might be considered private and not beneficial.  So, we might make fun of those who talk about a personal Jesus thinking this is  rather silly and behind the times. But do we lose something when we see Jesus in a more personal way? First off, I think Mainline Protestants, (myself included) tend to confuse “personal” with “private.”  Personal is something that is intimate; like a relationship- private, is something that is for you and only you.  The God that we serve is a public God that judges the nations , but God is also one that is in relationship not just with the whole of humanity, but each and every one of us. The thing is, the Bible is full of examples where God and a specific person spoke to each other face-to-face- sort of.  One example is from Exodus 33 where Moses and God talk about life- their relationship and what really bugs them at times:

7 Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, far away from the camp. He called it the meeting tent. Everyone who wanted advice from the LORD would go out to the meeting tent outside the camp. 8 Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand at the entrance to their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. 9 When Moses entered the tent, the column of cloud would come down and stand at the tent’s entrance while the LORD talked with Moses. 10 When all the people saw the column of cloud standing at the tent’s entrance, they would all rise and then bow down at the entrances to their tents. 11 In this way the LORD used to speak to Moses face-to-face, like two people talking to each other. Then Moses would come back to the camp. But his young assistant Joshua, Nun’s son, wouldn’t leave the tent. 12 Moses said to the LORD , “ Look, you’ve been telling me, ‘Lead these people forward.’ But you haven’t told me whom you will send with me. Yet you’ve assured me, ‘I know you by name and think highly of you.’ 13 Now if you do think highly of me, show me your ways so that I may know you and so that you may really approve of me. Remember too that this nation is your people. ” 14 The LORD replied, “ I’ll go myself, and I’ll help you. ” 15 Moses replied, “ If you won’t go yourself, don’t make us leave here. 16 Because how will anyone know that we have your special approval, both I and your people, unless you go with us? Only that distinguishes us, me and your people, from every other people on the earth. ” 17 The LORD said to Moses, “ I’ll do exactly what you’ve asked because you have my special approval, and I know you by name. ” 18 Moses said, “ Please show me your glorious presence. ” 19 The LORD said, “ I’ll make all my goodness pass in front of you, and I’ll proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD .’ I will be kind to whomever I wish to be kind, and I will have compassion to whomever I wish to be compassionate. 20 But, ” the LORD said, “ you can’t see my face because no one can see me and live. ” 21 The LORD said, “ Here is a place near me where you will stand beside the rock. 22 As my glorious presence passes by, I’ll set you in a gap in the rock, and I’ll cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by. 23 Then I’ll take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face won’t be visible. ”

-Common English Bible

Note how Moses wasn’t relating to God as something far off and distant, but as a personal being that is right here, right now and in relationship with him. This wasn’t a private God, but it certainly was a personal God. In the Gospels, we see that Jesus also had this kind of relationship with God. Here’s and example from Mark 14:

32 Jesus and his disciples came to a place called Gethsemane. Jesus said to them, “ Sit here while I pray. ” 33 He took Peter, James, and John along with him. He began to feel despair and was anxious. 34 He said to them, “ I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert. ” 35 Then he went a short distance farther and fell to the ground. He prayed that, if possible, he might be spared the time of suffering. 36 He said, “ Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want. ”

-Common English Bible

Jesus is facing the cross and his death. He pleads to God, using the Abba, a very intimate term for God (akin to calling your father daddy). The God we serve is not some mysterious force that is far away or distant, but very near. So why do we liberal Christians try to keep God at arms length? We don’t have to talk about God and Jesus in the way evangelicals do, but it does seem like we should be able to talk about how this God of the universe cares for us and knows us. Conservative evangelical Timothy Dalrymple wrote last fall about his experience while at Princeton Seminary. He shares what was going on his life as he prepared for a upcoming surgery and how that strengthened his relationship with God:

Let me tell a little story — for this series on The Future of Seminary Education – that illuminates some of the critique I’ve already shared, but also some of why I nonetheless enjoyed my seminary years. I’ve mentioned that there came a time, one month before a spinal fusion surgery, and about halfway through my M.Div., when I was confronted with the fear of death.  Recently married, I was lying in bed beside my wife after she had fallen asleep.  I thought of how much pleasure it brought me, simply to lay beside her.  I envisioned lying beside her as the seasons, the years and the decades passed by, as our bodies changed and we grew older together.  Then, I thought, we would pass away, and eventually we’d be buried beside each other as well. That’s when I sat bolt upright with waves of scalding heat rolling across my skin and a heart that felt like it would pound its way through my chest.  It literally felt as though the sky was falling down toward my head.  I was suffering a panic attack.  I had thought of a wall of earth separating me in my coffin from my wife in her coffin — and the thought of the separation death would impose filled me with terror.  I had not been afraid of death for years.  Yet now I was married.  Now I had something to lose, something from which — or someone from whom — I did not want to be separated. By then, my spiritual life had already been in decline.  I had strayed from God in my first couple seminary years.  I had largely abandoned my vision of intimacy and faithfulness with God.  But when life was easy, the cost of my infidelity to God had not been apparent.  Yet now I needed God, and it felt as though he were miles away, not because he was unfaithful but because had been unfaithful.  I had neglected the fundamentals of my faith, the spiritual disciplines, the basic everyday faithfulness, the impassioned pursuit of God and not merely the study about him.  I never had sex or did drugs in those years, but when it came to drinking I was very much a part of an unhealthy, un-Christian culture.  Even as I ministered in my internships, as a youth pastor and a prison chaplain, I partook in the drinking culture at seminary, and in foul language and unclean talk.  Those internships were the most spiritually edifying parts of my seminary experience, but they were not enough. Suddenly that decline became a steep and dizzying downward spiral.  The month before my surgery was filled with doubt and fear and more panic attacks.  Was God trying to tell me that I was going to die?  That I needed to prepare my heart?  Then came the surgery, and a horrific recovery experience that was badly mismanaged by my medical team.  I spent the first two days after the surgery with no pain medication, and then got so much medicine that it proved toxic and plunged me into severe dysphoria.  It was the most profound experience of hopelessness and godlessness that I had ever known.  It felt as though my faith was broken into a million pieces and I had to put it back together again — or else leave it behind. I sought encouragement from the professors.  They were kindly available, and offered answers that were nuanced and theologically respectable — but missed the mark.  I sorely missed the extraordinary James Loder, one of the professors I had grown close to, but who had died by then from a brain aneurysm. But the benefit of my PTS years was not only in the faculty I came to know, but also in the students.  At about this time, one of my best friends, J., had gone to a month-long Ignatian retreat.  When he returned, we got together.  As he described his retreat, I kept hearing a particular word — a word that surprised me, a word that I had not heard or spoken so openly and frequently for years. Do you want to know what the word was?  Jesus. I had stopped saying the word “Jesus.”  95% of the time, I only spoke of “God.”  Or if I had to speak of him, I referred to God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, the Logos…names that sounded intellectual and sophisticated.  If I had to speak of the Son incarnate, then I spoke of Christ, or the God-man.  Never Jesus Christ, and certainly never just Jesus.  Loving Jesus, following Jesus, seeking Jesus — these were the province of fundamentalists, Bible thumpers, Jesus Freaks, crude Christians who wore WWJD bracelets and listened to Michael W. Smith and read Max Lucado instead of Jurgen Moltmann.  We had even begun to subtly mock Jesus by talking of “Jeebus” or mocking the way certain preachers shouted “Jesus!” in their sermons, or by laughing at Jesus action figures and the other strange cultural artifacts emanating from Jesusland. But now, here was this friend of mine, whom I admired, and he couldn’t stop talking about walking with Jesus and talking with Jesus.  He spoke of Jesus telling him something, or showing him something, or holding him.  It was striking only because I had not heard language like that since I had come to seminary. As I sat there and heard my friend talking about Jesus-this and Jesus-that, I realized that Jesus was speaking to me through him.  Wasn’t there a time when I, too, walked and talked with Jesus?  Wasn’t there a time when I lived in fellowship with Jesus?  And wasn’t that, after all, the very point of Jesus?  That he is “God with us,” God made present and available and redemptive among us?  Because of Jesus, God is a Person-for-us, God is personally available, and we can indeed have a personal relationship with him?  Isn’t that the point of the incarnation?  Isn’t that, in some sense, the point of our faith — that God came to us in Jesus, and bids us come and die with Jesus, and calls us to be Jesus in the world and to love Jesus in the least of these? For two years I had scoffed at things like this.  It seemed simplistic and sentimental.  But really, it’s the simple, heart-changing truth, a truth that confounds the wise and lifts up those the world calls fools.  I had left behind the language of Jesus, the spirituality of Jesus, and I had certainly left behind the imitation of Jesus. That was the beginning of my long climb out of the pit.  I began once again to talk with Jesus throughout the day, to find him sitting in the chair beside me, or walking with me down the side of the street, or speaking to me in the words of a stranger or in the music played at a youth group meeting or in the sunlight that filtered through the trees or just in the stillness of my heart.  I had to trust my imagination, put aside my corrosive skepticism, and just experience Jesus (and God in Jesus) again.  And I would never have known J., never would have heard his story, if it were not for PTS and the extraordinary group of men and women it brings together.

Tim’s experience at Princeton is not necessarily a normative experience in mainline seminaries, but I do think it sheds light to something I’ve noticed in the circles I run in: a tendency to keep God at a distance. God and Jesus are something to be studied and maybe to follow as a nice leader, but they are not considered to be as close as a friend or lover . But that seems to go against what we see in the Bible and have learned through the Trinity and the Incarnation. There has to be a way that we can have the corporate God that loves all of creation and the God that cares for each us personally, not privately. Because a God that is kept at arms length is a God that we can’t reach for when we are at our darkest hour.

Discipleship in an Active Age

Presbyterian Pastor John Vest wonders if we need to rethink what it means to be active in a faith community:

As a downtown church that draws on individuals and families from all around the Chicagoland area, our youth ministry has always faced some interesting challenges. Our youth come from a variety of schools, so creating a sense of community in this context is different from a situation in which all or most of the youth go to the same school. We also focus the majority of our energy on a short window of time on Sunday morning, which we’ve found is our best chance to gather a critical mass of young people. Busy schedules and the difficulties of traveling to and parking near our church make midweek activities almost impossible.

Historically, we have also lost a lot of youth between confirmation in eighth grade and high school. As they move through high school and their lives become more and more complicated, retaining them as “active” members becomes increasingly difficult. We’re getting much better at this, but a quick comparison of our “active” participants against the number of youth in our database reminds us that we have a lot of work yet to do.

But, perhaps we need to think differently about what it means to be an “active” member of a faith community in today’s world, especially for young people.

Recently, I discovered that a student who I pretty much never saw after confirmation faithfully volunteered at our tutoring program every Wednesday night for all four years of high school. He was not an “active” member of our youth ministry, but he was clearly actively involved in the mission and ministry of our church. How many more students like this are there? Or, how many more could there be if we helped youth find alternative ways of engaging?

It’s not just youth, even adults are far too busy these days to be involved in the life a congregation in the ways that people used to be a generation ago.

But then how do you do things like discipleship in such a busy world? Faith formation is something that takes time, even in this crazy age.

People are busy with a lot of things. Where does God and the faith community fit in?

Repost: The Social Network

From February of this year. I’d love to find out what other people think about this.

Via Scott McKnight, I came upon this blog post by Richard Beck about how Facebook is killing the church. Yes, you heard me: Facebook is killing the church.

The difference between Generations X and Y isn’t in their views of the church. It’s about those cellphones. It’s about relationships and connectivity. Most Gen X’ers didn’t have cell phones, text messaging or Facebook. These things were creeping in during their college years but the explosive onset of mobile devices and social computing had yet to truly take off.

So why has mobile social computing affected church attendance? Well, if church has always been kind of lame and irritating why did people go in the first place? Easy, social relationships. Church has always been about social affiliation. You met your friends, discussed your week, talked football, shared information about good schools, talked local politics, got the scoop, and made social plans (“Let’s get together for dinner this week!”). Even if you hated church you could feel lonely without it. Particularly with the loss of “third places” in America.

But Millennials are in a different social situation. They don’t need physical locations for social affiliation. They can make dinner plans via text, cell phone call or Facebook. In short, the thing that kept young people going to church, despite their irritations, has been effectively replaced. You don’t need to go to church to stay connected or in touch. You have an iPhone.

Sure, Millennials will report that the “reason” they are leaving the church is due to its perceived hypocrisy or shallowness. My argument is that while this might be the proximate cause the more distal cause is social computing. Already connected Millennials have the luxury to kick the church to the curb. This is the position of strength that other generations did not have. We fussed about the church but, at the end of the day, you went to stay connected. For us, church was Facebook!

I think this post exposes one of the weaknesses of the modern-day church, and reminds us what church is all about. Churches are of course made up of humans, so they are social communities, places where people connect with one another. Friendships are made at church. People find their future husband or wife at church.

The problem isn’t that churches are social communities; the problem is when that’s all they are. In the heyday of mainline churches, congregations could get away with being a religious Elks Club. But what happens when new communal spaces like Facebook come around? Well, people don’t need to go to a church to meet other people when they can do that on Facebook or Twitter or someplace else.

Churches have to be places where we can connect with each other, but also remind us of the holy. They have to be places where we are formed into the likeness of Christ. Yes, they need to be places of social connection, but that can’t be the main thing anymore. It never was supposed to be.

"The Table Reveals Who We Are"

Disciples like to call that thing that’s up front in the sanctuary a table.  Lutherans used to call it an altar, but more and more they’ve started following us and calling it a table.  Far more humble and fitting in my view.

Disciples Pastor Lee Yates reminds us that the Table reveals who we really are.  If you want to know something about the life of a church, then look how they deal with the table, which means a lot of our churches are in trouble:

While much of our church rhetoric includes the table, I’ve been
thinking a lot lately about our casual conversation around the table.
When people complain that worship is too long, we often point to how
long it takes to serve communion. When we plan a Youth Sunday there is
concern about how the kids serve, making sure they know the proper way
to line up. Deacon and Elder training is often about where to line up
and when to move. Unfortunately, much of our conversation on being
church follows suit.

We talk about numbers and programs. We talk about what music will
attract people to our buildings. We talk about what program will bring
people to our church. We talk about how to structure committees to
better be the church. We talk more about the institution of church than
how to better live out our faith. We worry about numbers and structure
more than passion and purpose. Again, the table reveals who we are.

For Disciples, if something new is going to emerge, it will probably come up at the table.

Since we Disciples place such a centrality on the Lord’s Supper, maybe we need to take a good, hard and long look at how we do communion.  Who is it for?  Who do we welcome?  Who do we exclude?

But I think we also need to examine how we feel about communion.  Is this just something we do every Sunday because its been done this way forever and ever?  Is it something we want to do, to take part in?  Are we reminded about the life death and resurrection of Jesus?  Do we leave the table wanting to serve Christ more, or are we waiting to meet up with our friends for lunch or catch the opening of that football game?

“The table reveals who we are.”

Truer words were never spoken.

Super Simple Sunday School

I’m starting a new Sunday School class at First Christian that’s called Super Simple Sunday School.  It’s basically morning devotions/morning prayer.  The class goes a bit like this:

  • We read one of that Sunday’s lectionary text.
  • We have a brief discussion of the text.
  • We share prayer concerns.
  • We pray.
  • We leave.

That’s it.  The whole point of the class is for folks who might want a bit of quiet time during the week or those who for whatever reason, don’t want to get into the big time Adult Sunday School class.  We aren’t discussing major bits of theology, but just coming for some quiet time with each other and God. 

The first event was great.  One person showed up, but it was a holy time nonetheless and that made me feel glad.

So, if you are in the area, please join me Sundays at 9:15am for a time of devotion with a good cup of coffee.