Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Love, not like

As a pastor, one of the things I frequently do is visit people when they're in the hospital. While hospitals are not my favorite places to spend time (I will never understand how doctors get used to the mixture of the smells of urine and sterile cleaning products), I do it because showing up and letting people know you care about them, even if it's only for five minutes, usually helps them feel better on days when they don't have too many things to be happy about.

The other day I was making the rounds at the hospital and one of the people on my list was a person in my congregation who, I'll be honest, I don't like very much. OK, I have an intense dislike for this person. Not many people like this particular individual, and with good reason. I'll just leave it at that. But this person was in the hospital, so I went. I wasn't there for terribly long. I inquired about their diagnosis and treatment, chatted about some unrelated matters, said a quick prayer, and left. To an outside observer this was your standard hospital visit.

I mentioned to a friend that I had visited someone that I didn't like very much. They said that was "very big" of me to do that, and that they imagined that a lot of people wouldn't do that. I shrugged it off because I didn't bring it up to brag. As a matter of fact, I felt a little guilty for having gone into the room with that feeling of dislike for this person in the back of my head and that I had been reluctant to go in the first place.

As I've reflected on this since I've begun to think that this brief visit was more important that I had first thought. In the Sermon on the Mount, the writer of Matthew's gospel has Jesus saying that if you only love those who love you, you're no better than a tax collector (or any other group of people you happen to dislike). We are called to love everyone, especially those who don't love us. Jesus didn't say anything about not liking people. There were plenty of people (mostly religious people) Jesus didn't like, but he loved them and died for them anyway.

I think that if I didn't make this brief hospital visit I wouldn't have any business calling myself a Christian, to say nothing of calling myself a pastor. If I had refused to go to that hospital room (particularly when I was visiting others in that same hospital who I like very much), that would have been proof that I had no integrity and did not practice what I preach. I did go, so maybe there's some hope for me after all.

Before I sound like I'm on my high horse, let me say that this was one brief hospital visit. It only proves that I had integrity and practiced what I preach for about ten minutes. Whether or not I embody these values I aspire to and exhort others to practice is a daily choice. How will I do next time I pass this person in the hall at church? Will I ignore them like I sometimes do? Or will I at the very least say hi and inquire how they're doing? I'm pretty sure we're never going to be best friends or anything(although you never know- stranger things have happened), but Jesus calls me to love this person, even if I don't happen to like them.

Friday, September 01, 2006

"I grew up in a church like that"

When I was six, my family and I moved from Birmingham, Alabama to Denver, Colorado. After we had taken time to get settled, we went out to search for a church. It happened to be Easter Sunday, so we would see these churches put their best foot forward.

We went to one church that had it's own children's service, so my four year old brother and I went in. There was a lady in a pink Easter-Bunny suit who spent most of the time giving out candy to kids. Some guy with a large Donahue-style wireless microphone was interviewing the Easter Bunny and asking her what Easter was all about. She replied that it was all about her giving candy to children, to which all of us kids yelled back, "No! It's about Jesus rising from the grave!" This was the extent of the spiritual teaching at this church. The host then encouraged us to come back the next week because they would have a six-foot tall chocolate bar for us. Obviously, my brother and I were hooked.

Something weird happened after that, though. Our parents came to pick us up after the service and we were all excited from all the sugar they had given us and were dying to come back for the giant chocolate bar. Our mom, however, told us that we couldn't come back. When we asked why, she said, "Because I grew up in a church like that."

This did not compute in my six year old mind. She grew up in a church with giant chocolate bars and she didn't want us to have that experience? Aside from our teeth rotting, what was the problem? This place gave you tons of candy just for showing up!

Instead, they made us go to a church that didn't give us candy very much. This church, and the church we attended when we moved to Nashville a few years later, weren't nearly as entertaining as the church with the giant chocolate bar. Instead, these churches made us read the Bible and made us ask tough questions instead of giving us candy and easy answers. Instead of big church productions, they made us go out and serve people who weren't as well off as we are because Jesus had said something about "the least of these". They made us get to know the people in our church so that we would have meaningful relationships, instead of letting us just sit next to strangers who, like us, were being distracted by a flashy show.

When I was six I wanted to go to the church that was easy and entertaining. Instead my parents made me go to a church that pushed me to take a lifelong spiritual journey. I'm a pastor today because "I grew up in a church like that".

Back then I probably said something like, "You're mean." Twenty years later, all I can say is, "Thanks, Mom and Dad."

Saturday, August 19, 2006


A friend from college recently told me about a new direction he's going in his life. He's joining the staff of an evangelistic ministry that works with college students, and he has to raise his own salary to do it, so he's asking everyone he knows for support. Long story short, relations between myself and this particular organization are not friendly. I was active in it in college because it was pretty much the only Christian fellowship there was at the school. I always had some problems with the theology but I dealt with it for the most part.

Then at the end of my junior year I was kicked out. I was told that I wasn't teachable, that I asked too many questions, had too many ideas that weren't acceptable, and that all of my questioning was dangerous for others who were "young in their faith" because it could cause them to stumble. Needless to say, that experience was pretty bad. I was really wrestling with my sense of calling to be a pastor, and getting rejected from a Christian group did not help matters.

When my friend told me he was going on staff with this ministry, I had to sit with my decision for a while because I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. On the one hand I have such tremendous theological and methodological disagreements with this ministry that I think they often do as much or more harm than good. Should I give money to an organization that I don't support? On the other hand, he feels a very strong calling to do this ministry, and he has a very tough task raising the support he needs. He is a person of tremendous faith and compassion, and I know he will do great ministry and positively impact people's lives, even though I have some serious disagreements with the theology he'll be teaching to students.

I've decided to go with the latter thoughts and support him financially. My contribution goes directly to him and not to the organization generally. It's not a large contribution, but then again, I don't have a lot of money to give. But I hope that my financial and prayerful support of him and his ministry will help heal some of the divisions and bitterness I've experienced in my own life with this organization.

Friday, August 11, 2006


My fellow Nashvillians are by now familiar with the woes of our friends at Bellvue Community Church. For those unfamiliar, BCC is a local mega-church whose pastor was fired very suddenly several weeks ago (click here for the Tennessean story). I've tried very hard to avoid being judgmental of the church and the pastor, because no matter who is at fault, everybody loses by having their conflicts displayed very prominently in the media. But one thing about this incident has been really bugging me, so I need to speak up.

As part of the pastor's severance package with the church, he had to agree to a non-compete clause. Basically, he had to sign a legally binding document saying that he wouldn't go start another church for at least a year. Businesses use these kinds of things all the time and it makes sense for them. Businesses operate in a competitive marketplace where everyone assumes a limited amount of resources and a fixed client pool. I would argue, however, that this makes no sense for a church to operate this way.

Now, I'm not naive enough to just say "churches shouldn't compete with each other, we're all on the same team" and leave it there. I know that some people hop from church to church, attracted by the latest program or the Starbucks in the church lobby. It's an unfortunate fact of life that churches compete with one another, and the best I can do is not to obsess over defining who is "winning" the competition simply by numbers. After all, when it came to first-century messianic movements, Jesus' group was pretty small.

What bothers me about the non-compete clause is not the idea that churches compete with each other for members (that fact bothers me regardless), but that the church board felt that the pastor going off and starting a new church would be a threat to them. It makes me wonder what it was that drew people to this church in the first place. Each member has to answer that question for him or herself, of course, but if someone is more loyal to a particularly charismatic leader than they are to a church community, they have a real problem.

There are too many churches and other ministries that are more focused on following a particular leader than they are on worshiping God. I once met a woman who works for a Christian media-watchdog group who freely admitted that she was more committed to the leader of the ministry than she was to Jesus. I can't help but wonder how many mega-churches would fold the second their founding pastor left.

If the glue holding a church or a ministry together is the public persona of a particular leader, then you're putting all your eggs in one basket. If this person is found to be having an affair, is mismanaging their money, gets fired, or dies, the whole thing more or less falls apart. If, however, the glue that holds a church or ministry together is a bond between all the people in the community based on trust, affection, and a common devotion to Jesus Christ, then the comings and goings of individual leaders won't make or break the success of the community.

To his credit, the ousted pastor of BCC is encouraging his former parishioners to remain loyal to God and to the church, and not to him. I don't doubt his sincerity at all. But I wonder what will happen if he does end up starting a new church in the Nashville area. Then we'll see where people's loyalties lie.

Sidenote: The situation at BCC was part of a sermon on Christian unity I preached on August 6. You can find the audio of that message here, if you're so inclined.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Faith and Politics

I just read a New York Times article where a mega-church pastor got in trouble for speaking out against evangelicals who are a little too friendly with the Republican Party. Apparently he had a mass defection from his mega-church, which is probably a good thing. The whole idea of faith being political is taboo to some, and an absolute necessity for others. A few months ago I preached a sermon referencing Hurricane Katrina, and a church member with whom I often disagree politically complimented me for "not getting too political" with my sermon.

I think perhaps we're not all saying the same thing when we talk about faith being political. Religious convictions can and should lead us to hold political opinions, but that doesn't mean that we have to become a card-carrying member of one political party or another. That's faith being partisan, not just political. I don't believe that our faith should lead us to be blindly partisan, even though my religious convictions end up leading me to vote with one particular party more often than the other.

While I don't believe that being partisan is a good idea, I don't think you can be a Christian and not be political. In the first century it was impossible to be a Christian and a fully loyal citizen of the Roman Empire at the same time. Christians proclaimed "Jesus is Lord", not so subtly implying "Caesar is not". One of the earliest Christian confessions was an unashamedly political statement!

More basic than this historical tidbit, though, is the simple fact that things like politics and economics deal with the messy realities of everyday life. Politics and economics are the means by which we figure out how we obtain the resources we need to survive day to day, how we're doing to use our resources as a community, and how we're going to get along with each other. These things deal with the basic realities of everyday life, so our faith has to be concerned with these things. God wants to be a part of every aspect of our lives, not just relegated to the region of our brains that deal with abstract ideas. To do this would be to keep God trapped in the private parts of our lives. God is personal, but not private.

While our faith should not lead us to blind partisan loyalty, it should get us passionately involved with political issues. One resource I'd recommend to help you think about the interaction of faith and politics is Sojourners. Ask tough questions, think very hard about these issues, and please let your faith motivate you politically.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Invitation to Discipleship

In the church I serve, one of the last parts of the late worship service is called the "Invitation to Christian Discipleship". What we usually mean by that is "Invitation to Church Membership". As we sing the last hymn we invite anyone who wants to join the church forward. It's a pseudo-alter call, I guess.

I can't help but wondering if we're accidentally doing something of a disservice to people by calling the invitation to church membership the "Invitation to Christian Discipleship". I certainly believe that participation in the life of a community of faith is part of being a disciple. Furthermore I believe that the act of formalizing one's covenant with such a community, symbolized in the act of formally becoming a member, is an important part of being a disciple. But I wonder if we unintentionally imply that discipleship and membership are the same thing by doing it this way in worship.

This is the same basic argument I have with my evangelical friends. I think that too often evangelicals get caught up in trying to get as many converts as possible that they stop there and don't follow through. Just like a call to church membership, invitations to one defining moment of conversion seem way too focused on beefing up our numbers. Creating believers or members is an easy process. Creating disciples is something else altogether.

Discipleship involves relationships. A relationship with God and relationships with other people. Discipleship involves a lot of trial and error. Disciples take two steps forward and one step back because they path they are trying to follow is no less than the trail blazed by Jesus, which is incredibly difficult to follow. It's not like a normal road, with one definite path. There are many paths Jesus leads disciples down, and the path that works for one person is entirely wrong for another.

Making disciples is not glamorous. It doesn't yield impressive statistics and its measure of success is not easily measured. It takes hard work, patience, and a bit of faith. Being a disciple and helping others to be disciples is messy, and it's not for everybody.

When we invite people forward to "become disciples" in worship, maybe we should include a disclaimer that people should not undertake this journey lightly. Becoming a member of the church means signing on the dotted line and making a nominal commitment. Becoming a disciple of Jesus means throwing your whole life into chaos, clinging to the hope that all of this mess is one day going to make sense.

When you become a member you hear, "Welcome to the club."

When you become a disciple you hear, "Welcome to the journey..."

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Spiritual but not religious?

"I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual."

That's a phrase we hear a lot now and I'll admit, I'm not a fan of it. Not that I'm a proponent of blind adherence to a doctrinal system or that I'm against personal spiritual quests. Far from it. I've just heard this phrase used too many times and found my BS-meter going off quite loudly.

I once went to a presentation given by the father of a student killed in the Columbine HS massacre back in 1999. He talked about his faith and his church and I really enjoyed the presentation. But then he closed with (exact quotes): "I don't consider myself a religious person, but I do consider myself a spiritual person. So if you'd like to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, pray this prayer with me..." C'mon. You're not just talking about spirituality here, you're talking about religion, too. Be honest about it.

There's a couple presuppositions that go into the "religious but not spiritual" statement that I think go largely unexamined. First is the presupposition that religion is bad. Why? Why is religion such a bad thing? I think we're still operating with a colloquial definition of religion that is basically borrowed from Martin Luther's scathing (and generally correct) critiques of the abuse of papal power in the sixteenth century.

Religion is only a bad thing if we let it be. Being religious does not have to mean that one unquestioningly accepts everything that one's tradition teaches. Being religious does not necessarily make one a fanatic who would strap a bomb to their chest to go blow infidels to the hell to which they're already going.

Being religious can and should mean that one has committed to a relationship with a religious tradition. Like any relationship, there are things that one likes and things that one dislikes about the partner in the relationship. One's annoyance (and occasional anger) at the partner's flaws is outweighed by the love one has for the partner. One is committed to work through these issues and compromise to find a point at which both can be happy. Being religious in the best sense means that you should, in fact, have points of disagreement with your tradition.

The other largely unexamined presupposition is the meaning of spirituality. Spirituality is largely an individual undertaking. One's spirituality largely concerns the emotions and beliefs that one has. Spirituality is the realm of intimacy with the divine. These are great things but we can't stop there.

For one thing, where does one get all these lovely ideas about God that aids one's spirituality? From a religious tradition, of course! Religious traditions are the vehicles by which one generation passes on religious and spiritual knowledge to the next generation. That generation makes its own contributions and passes the whole package on to the next generation.

If I may shamelessly borrow a phrase from Jim Wallis, God is personal, but never private.

If one was only religious but had no element of spirituality then one would not truly be encountering God, they would only have a relationship with a doctrinal system. (Sidenote: I believe this is the exact problem with Christian fundamentalism, but that will be the subject of another blog posting)

Conversely, if one is spiritual but has no engagement with a religious tradition or community then one's view of God will only be as big as themselves. If, instead, one engages with a community, one gets not only the insights of their individual spiritual pursuits, but has the opportunity to have them challenged and enriched by the spiritual experiences of others. We are able to accomplish more as a community than we could as a group of individuals who never engaged the great spiritual questions together. In a religious community the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

I consider myself a spiritual person. I am also unapologetically religious. For it is in the meeting of both religion and spirituality that we truly encounter God.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Katrina revisited

Hurricane season is upon us again and is forcing us to recall images we'd probably rather forget from last year. Hurricane Katrina was in the news again recently. The President of the Baptist Seminary in New Orleans told the Southern Baptist Convention that Hurricane Katrina "washed away the Sin in New Orleans".

I'm actually going to agree with him ever so slightly, although I will take the statement in an entirely different way than he meant it. He meant that the hurricane was God's judgment on the city, a la Soddom and Gomorrah, and that there was now more openness to evangelical Christianity in the city. I can't pretend to agree in the slightest on this one.

I would, however, say that Katrina (which, admittedly, does mean "purity") 'washed away' a particularly insidious sin, or at least made it harder for us to commit said sin. The sin I'm talking about is the sin of omission- the sin of willful ignorance.

In New Orleans, as in most cities in the world, the gap between rich and poor is severe, and as with most cities in America, the racial divide among the rich and poor is very stark. But this was very easy to ignore. When you visited New Orleans you only went to the nice downtown areas, the French Quarter, and saw the nice houses on State Street. We never thought about the poor areas and their mostly African-American population, so it was almost as if they were not there. Out of sight, out of mind.

Katrina changed all that. Those who had the means to get out did so (including, thankfully, Jessica's uncle and his family). Those with the money to purchase adequate insurance were able to replace most of the things that were destroyed. While it was by no means easy, those who had wealth were able to rebuild their lives.

But there were many who did not own cars or couldn't pay for transportation out of the city before the storm. We saw endless news footage of these people standing on the roofs of their houses, pleading for the news helicopters to come in and rescue them. Clean-up crews are still finding these people's bodies in homes destroyed by the flood. They couldn't get themselves out and no one else bothered to help them.

In the Hebrew Bible we read again and again how God commanded the nation of Israel to take measures to provide for those who could not provide for themselves. To allow your neighbor to starve while you had food to spare was a great sin. I believe that is still true. I believe that we as a society sin greatly everyday by allowing our neighbors to suffer while we have become experts at pretending that they're not even there.

So in a sense, Hurricane Katrina did wash away sin in New Orleans. But it wasn't the sin of "those other, godless people". It was our own sin. The flood waters washed away much of our ability to pretend that our suffering neighbor did not exist, and that we had no responsibility toward them.

I would like to believe that there has been some repentance, some attempt at reconciliation. But that remains to be seen. We will see the extent of our repentance and reconciliation when the next natural disaster comes. Jim Wallis summed it up when he said that it took a horrible natural disaster to expose and even worse social disaster.

Now that hurricane season has begun again, the next natural disaster is just around the corner. What will the natural disaster show about us as a society? Will we have turned from our sin of omission? Or will we need another, possibly worse example to show us the depth of our communal sin? I pray that will not be the case, because it is the poor and powerless who suffer because of the sins of those like me who do have wealth and power.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Charles Miller

Jessica's grandfather, Charles Miller, passed away this morning at 2:17am. Plase keep her and her family in your prayers.

Sorry my posts have not ben as frequent of late. One would think that during the summer break I would have more time to blog, but church things and freelance writing activities have kept me busy. Thoughts on ecclisiology coming, as well as an overdue reflection on popular culture.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006


At The Gathering I've experimented with a couple different benedictions to give when closing the time of worship. I've finally settled on one that I found in the March/April issue of The Upper Room. I think it captures what The Gathering (and in my opinion, the whole church should) seeks to be about:

"May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit be and abide with each of you, with all those whom you love, and especially with all those whom nobody loves save for God."

When we give the benediction we want people to feel good about the time they have just spent in worship and leave on an upnote. This benediction is good for doing that while still reminding us that not everyone experiences the love of God in their everyday lives, and subtly pushing us to spread that love.

Thanks to the author of this devotional for the gift of this benediction.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Confession Time

Recently I attended Vanderbilt Divinity School's graduation to see my lovely fiancee, Jessica, receive her MTS degree (side note, Jessica now has a blog, American Eavesdropper, which you should all check out) .

As they do at many graduations, the school gave awards to exemplary students. Some of them were for specific things like highest GPA, achievement in theology, church history, etc. But several of the awards were much more subjective for things like "the student who most embodies the Divinity School's concept of 'minister as theologian'", and things like that. These awards went to the people you would expect, and deservedly so.

During the ceremony I found myself pondering the fact that I will be graduating next year. I also found myself hoping that I would be receiving one or more of those awards, especially the very subjective ones like the 'minister as theologian' award.

On one hand I guess this isn't all that bad. Who doesn't like affirmation from their peers, especially for things at which they work very hard? But I have to admit that I found myself wanting to win an award for the sake of winning an award. Ideally I would want to live up to those qualities and truly embody what it means to be a minister as theologian. And I do want to embody those qualities, so I guess my motivation isn't all bad. But I have to be honest with myself and admit that a big reason that I covet such an award is that I want to win something. I want to be the best and have everyone else know it.

A year from now if I go to graduation and find out that I do not win one of those awards my day will not be ruined by any stretch. I will be proud of my achievement of earning a Master's Degree from Vanderbilt, which is not easy to do. But the prideful part of my self will be disappointed because I was not recognized as the best of the best that day. It might actually be good for me not to win one of those awards. If I do, I hope that I will take it as a sign of my responsibility to strive toward those ideals which others have recognized in me and to be an example to others and not merely add another trophy on my shelf of accolades.

If I was to win an award I would want it to be for the right reasons, even if there is a part of me that wouldn't care if the reasons were wrong. This part of me may never go away but I hope to do everything I can to keep its voice as quiet as possible.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Under Construction

I love church websites. They tell you so much about the real character of the congregation without even meaning to. The church I grew up at recently launched their own website, so naturally I took a look.

Like most churches, they have a "What We Believe" page where they lay out their theology in brief. I clicked over to this page only to find the words "Under Construction". I know that the phrase "under construction" is only there to say that the site is not fully finished, but they may have stumbled onto something without knowing it.

Most churches have a "What We Believe" manifesto of some sort. It usually includes what they believe about the Bible, who Jesus was and is, the exact meaning of salvation, and other doctrines they hold to. These statements of faith are like the blueprints to their house. Everything has already been put together, and all we have to do is follow the blueprints and everything will come together nicely.

This works fine if you're building an actual house. In fact, you'd be dumb not to have a blueprint before undertaking such a project. But constructing our faith is somewhat different. Unlike a regular architect, God does not choose to give us the blueprints up front and let us go at it. After the blueprints are completed, the architect's job is done and the foreman (foreperson?) takes over. God wants the project of our faith to be a relational process, so God chooses to reveal the plans little by little. Sometimes we find out we've worked too far ahead, and when God shows us a new portion of the plans we have to reconstruct something we've already built.

If we believe that the Christian faith is a living tradition, if we believe that God is still speaking to us, then we have to be open to the possibility that God will give us a new understanding that will make us rethink our previous understandings. We never know what God will do next.

So if we're really honest with ourselves, everyone's faith is still being constructed. God is always showing us a new portion of the blueprint and working right beside us to make it all come together. All we can do is trust that the architect knows what He's doing and that the house will stand when it's all said and done.

"What we believe" is under construction. We've got to build this thing together and rely on the architect to show us the way. So come pick up a hammer and let's get to work together. Working together is the only way we're going to make this thing happen.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

How Open Are We?

"Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors"

This is the slogan of the United Methodist Church.

Yet it is sadly something that is not always true of our denomination. Recently our highest court, the Judicial Council, issued a ruling where they declined to reconsider a decision they made six months ago that I and others believe to be in error. Decision 1041 explains the decline to reconsider Decision 1032 (click the links to read them).

The issue here is whether our church truly chooses to be inclusive or not. As it stands now, a pastor can decide whether or not someone can become a member of our local congregation based on whether or not we agree with their beliefs or practices. The case in question involves a pastor who refused to receive a homosexual man into his congregation.

Without getting into a tremendous legal diatribe, I believe that the decision is incorrect because, according to our Book of Discipline, no one may be denied membership based on race, gender, class, or status (Paragraph 4 Article 4; Paragraph 214). I believe that sexual orientation falls under status, but as of yet there is not an official interpretation on the question.

Furthermore, our Discipline contains statements on Inclusiveness, support of Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation, and the basic statement that our church is to live out "Jesus' command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God's reign and realm in the world." (see the full paragraph here).

Furthermore, the rules of the Judicial Council state that "Whenever a decision of the Judicial Council is shown clearly to be in error, or in order to prevent a manifest injustice resulting from the interpretation of a Judicial Council decision, the Judicial Council on its own motion, or on a petition filed by a party to the proceedings, may, by a majority vote, reconsider any ruling or action taken by it." (quoted in ruling 1041)

Denying people membership based upon an aspect of who they are that they cannot change is a "manifest injustice".

Sadly, this issue is not as cut and dry as I or anyone else would like. Our Discipline also says that "homosexuality is inconsistent with Christian teaching" (Paragraph 161G) and does not allow "self avowed practicing homosexuals" to be ordained because of that (Paragraph 304.3). You can easily argue that certain Bible verses say that homosexuality is a sin (I disagree, but it's a matter of scriptural interpretation, not a clear fact) and therefore homosexual persons have not repented of their sin and are not really making the commitment to join the church. That is a position many good, faithful people hold.

(Note: You may notice that I have not included links to reference a position I do not myself hold. This is only because I could not find adequate online access to them. If you know of places where these can be found please let me know so I can fix it, giving both sides a fair shake.)

For those unfamiliar with the issues in the UMC, more info can be found here and here.

To me the issue comes down to the fact that this is a very grey area where there is much disagreement, and in such cases I believe that we should err on the side of grace. In Matthew 25 Jesus does not say the sheep get in because they knew who to exclude. He says they get in because they loved and served everyone, even if they didn't recognize Jesus in those people. If I stand before God one day and God tells me I was too free with grace, I'd prefer that to being told I was too stingy with it. Grace is not my possession. It is something God gives to me and you, so we are called to proclaim it as freely and "irresponsibly" as Jesus did.

This is a sad day for the United Methodist Church but I still believe that there is hope for the future. Judicial Council members and protesters worshipped and celebrated communion together after the decisions were announced (read the story here). They showed that even when we disagree we can still come before the Lord in worship and praise together. I know that one day we will live up to "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors", but that day is a long time coming and there is much hard work to be done. Let us ask God to show us how to do this work together.

Monday, May 01, 2006


I am at a summit this week where leaders from all over the United Methodist Church have come together to discuss how to better attract young adult clergy. Currently the average age for clergy is in the high 50's and the percentage of those who are under 30, the demographic to which I belong, is in the single digits.

Even the concept of such a summit raises a number of issues I could talk about, and probably will over the next little while. I'll stick with one for the moment, though. The question for the moment is what can we really say definitively about "this" generation, of which I am ostensibly a part? What defines Gen Y/ Millennials/ whatever you want to call it?

Sure, there are some broad statements you can make that apply to a large number of people my age, but nothing applies to everyone. We don't all blog, for crying out loud! How far is too far? Do we do too much to pigeon hole young people? For that matter, who gets included? I was born in 1980 but sometimes I can't understand people 5 years younger than me.

On the other hand, it's probably dangerous to say nothing at all in an attempt to respect our individuality. Can we honestly say that none of us can really empirically know anything about another person, that it's all relative and we're completely blinded by the location from which we speak? That's a depressing thought. Young people fell alone and depressed enough as it is.

Ironically, maybe the only generalization we can make about "this" generation is that we want neither to fit into a preconstructed mold nor do we want to be so rabidly individualistic that we can't connect with anybody. We want to throw off the oppressive yoke of either/or dualisms and ask different kinds of questions all together as we attempt to define just who "we" are.

If there is such a thing as "this generation", and to some extent I think there is, then at the very least we have in common the fact that we are going to inherit this world previous generations have created for us. Hopefully we can do our part to make this world a little bit better than we found it. Of course we'll make our share of mistakes, and those will be the things the next generation will complain about.

When they write the history books on "this generation" I'm pretty sure I won't have even a footnote to my name. But hopefully I and all the other uncredited folks can have the satisfaction of doing our part so that future generations can have enough choices to have the luxury of agonizing over what will define who "they" are just like "we" are fortunate enough to be able to do now.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

As Good As It Gets

"This is as good as it gets."

This was the sentiment I heard recently on Easter Sunday. It was the main idea of the Easter Sunday sermon, as a matter of fact. "This is as good as it gets."

If the implication had been that this is as good as church gets, then I'd probably agree. Christmas, Easter, and Mother's Day are usually the highest attendance Sundays at most churches, everybody's dressed up, lots of nice smelling flowers, etc. Yeah, Easter Sunday may be about as good as church gets.

But this is not quite what this person meant. The message was that the Resurrection of Jesus and the fruits of it that we see here today are, in fact, the very best God has to offer us. What we see here and now is, according to this person, the escatological apex of God's creation.

I'm sorry but if the here and now are as good as it gets, if this is the culmination of God's plan then I'm out! If the Resurrection is the end of the story then we're all screwed.

Yes, Easter Sunday is nice. For those of us that get to participate, that is. I can afford a nice suit and tie so I won't be embarassed to show up to church with all the other nicely dressed people. I can celebrate this Holy Day with my whole family, none of whom are estranged, dead before their time, or otherwise unable to join us. I can afford to go out to a nice Easter brunch with more nicely dressed people. It's easy for me to sit back and say that this is as good as it gets.

But what about the person who's just lost a child and seeing happy families together is a painful reminder of their loss? What about those who have experienced a tragedy that makes it difficult for them to even believe in a loving God? What about those who just plain don't feel welcome inside a church building? I don't think that Easter Sunday at a suburban church would feel like "as good as it gets" to everyone.

Thankfully the message of Easter is not "this is as good as it gets", but "this is a foretaste of something so good you can't even imagine". The Resurrection of Jesus is a sign to us that just as violence and death did not have the last word for Jesus, so they will not have the last word for us. As some of my professors are fond of saying, the hope of the Resurrection is the hope of God's "already/not yet" kingdom. Here and now is not as good as it gets. It gets better.

Marx was critical of the "things will get better notion", and rightly so. When he said that religion is the opiate of the masses he was critcizing the government's use of eschatological hope to make the lower classes complacent about their present situation.

To spiritualize the "it gets better" message of Easter and say that the hope is only for a nice place in the clouds after we die is to miss the point entirely. The hope of Easter is that the Kingdom of God can begin today. Jesus' body didn't disappear and leave a note that says "see you in heaven". His body was raised to show that this world will be redeemed. There is, in fact, hope for creation on this side of death!

Yes, Easter Sunday is pretty good for many of us. Perhaps it's even the best we've seen thus far. For those of us that do have it good on Easter Sunday we have the simultanious hope and challenge of Jesus' resurrection. Those who suffer will now begin to see a brighter day, and we are charged to play a part in making that brighter day happen.

This is not as good as it gets. The best is yet to come. Thanks be to God.

Friday, April 21, 2006

William Sloane Coffin

Sorry I haven't been posting much lately. This is the time of the semester when everything comes due. I have some thoughts on eschatology related to Easter Sunday that I'll get to soon.

For those that don't know, William Sloane Coffin passed away last week. He was the Sr. Pastor of Riverside Church in NYC for many years, and a tireless crusader for civil rights. Probably the most articulate communicator of liberal Protestantism of the twentieth century, he will be greatly missed.

Here are links to his obituary from The New York Times and a tribute from Jim Wallis in Sojurners.

If you see any other good articles about his life, please leave links to them in comments.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Easter Greetings

Happy Easter! Here's an interpretation of the scene on the first Easter morning from our friends at The Brick Testament.

Monday, April 10, 2006


Short post this time, I promise.

There are some new developments with The Gathering I want to share with everyone. First of all, we're getting some nice free publicity from Austin Audio, the folks that installed our sound system at church. They ask the pastors of churches they work with to do their radio commericals, so they can plug the company and their church at the same time. I went and recorded one last week, so you should hear our commercial in pretty heavy rotation on 94FM "The Fish" in Nashville.

Also, we've begun podcasting on The Gathering's website. Unfortunately we can't put the entire services online because of copyright issues, but the messages are there for free download. You can check them out here.

That's all for now. Have a blessed Holy Week.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Philosophy of "RENT"

For those that don't know, I'm a rather rabid fan of the musical "RENT". The movie was good, but the stage production is still where it's at. I recently read a memoir by one of the original Broadway cast members, Anthony Rapp. He played Mark and reprised the role in the film. The book is called Without You and I highly recommend it.

But I'm not writing ad copy here, so I'll get to the point. In "RENT" there's a support group called "Life Support" that several of the characters attend because they have AIDS. The affirmation of this group is (sing it with me!)

There's only us, there's only this,
Forget regret or life is yours to miss,
No other road, no other way,
No day but today

We hear this affirmation sung a number of times throughout the show. I really like it because it affirms living in the moment, which is something I believe to mix well with my faith as a Christian. More about that in a minute.

It turns out that Life Support is based on a real group in New York called "Friends In Deed". As I read about this group and its influence on the show I realized that I interpreted "No day but today" in a very different way than it was original intended.

Long story short, this group is very fatalistic. They say there are no accidents in life and that things happen exactly as they should happen. So all we can do when faced with pain and loss is try to accept this reality of the universe and view our hurts in context of the impermanence of all things.

I don't totally agree with this worldview, but neither do I totally disagree. I'm intrigued by the idea that things happen as they "should". Does that imply some kind of master planner behind all of this? The parts of the book that involve Friends In Deed don't ever discuss God, so I'm going to assume that God is probably not a major part of their conversation. That's not necessarily a bad thing, by the way. But fatalism without some master planner seems like a post-modern, Nietzsche-infused brand of Reformed Calvinism. A strange marriage, to be sure.

I interpret "No day but today" as more of a cry of salvation/liberation from life circumstances that imprison us. I hear lots of people say "live like there's no tomorrow" meaning "make the most of today". I totally agree with that.

I believe that Jesus would add to that "live each day like it's your first". The Christian faith understands salvation as liberation from the negative effects of previous separation from God. In Christ we know a limitless future, and each day is our first.

If every day is your first day, then you are not bound by the things from your past: broken relationships, abuse, and other kinds of heartaches and victimization. If today is your very first day then the possibilities are endless. You don't have to cram everything in to today because this is the last one you'll ever get (although that may well be the case). If every day is the first day of the rest of your life, you are truly free.

If nothing else, "No day but today" is a cry of freedom. "There is no future, there is no past." The past is gone, and the future is not guaranteed. If we live each day like it's definitely our first, and maybe our last, there is no limit to the kind of life we can create.

No day but today.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Nickel and Dimed

Here are the highlights of an email conversation between myself, my fiancee, Jessica, and her father (my soon-to-be father-in-law), Jerry. The topic is some issues raised by Barbara Ehrenrich's book, Nickel and Dimed, particularly on the issue of a living wage. For those unfamiliar with the term, a living wage is a wage that covers the basic cost of living in a particular community, which is significantly higher than the current federally mandated minimum wage. Here are some highlights of the conversation:

An interesting aspect of the problem, that I was unaware of, is that many poor cannot afford to save enough of their paycheck from week to week to pay a deposit or one month's rent up front to get an apartment, and end up spending far more in the long run by living in cheap motels, paying by the day or the week. If it were me, I'd probably live in my car for the weeks necessary to save up, and I'm sure some do. The author also marveled at how her coworkers never expressed any interest in demanding more pay, despite the fact that they were missing meals, living in cars, and working two and three jobs. She concludes that this is partly because these low-wage jobs (she worked as a waitress, hotel housekeeper, maid, nursing home cafeteria worker, and at Wal-Mart) are so degrading to a person's spirit that the people come to believe they are only worth $7 an hour, and partially because the companies tend to avoid any sort of negotiation-period in the hiring process.

I'm intrigued by the phrase "so degrading to a person's spirit that the people come to believe they are only worth $7 an hour." Could the reason her "coworkers never expressed any interest in demanding more pay" is they realize they goofed off in school haven't done anything in their life to make themselves more valuable to an employer? The reason "the companies tend to avoid any sort of negotiation-period in the hiring process" is because there are so many people willing to take the job who realize "they goofed off in school and haven't done anything in their life to make themselves more valuable to an employer". It is about what every farmer knows: "the law of the harvest". If you don't plant good seed, fertilize and cultivate, you aren't going to harvest much of a crop. You reap what you sow. Wasn't there a time when you truly valued personal responsibility? Farmers don't get a bumper harvest by negotiating with mother nature. We should all help people on a personal level, but don't ask companies - or government for that matter - to be the "Big Eraser" that wipes away a lifetime of sloth and unwillingness to do much to improve themselves.

I certainly believe in personal responsibility to pursue one's own advancement (though I think you are making a gross generalization to say that those who work for minimum wage "goofed off" in school. Many branches of society, it seems, do not have a status quo that assumes people will go to college. It is just not an option, or one is expected to go straight to work instead.) Still, while personal responsibility is a must for achieving certain goals in life, such as higher education or a more prestigious job, I believe it is the responsibility of a civil society to make sure that those willing to work in the least prestigious, lowest paying jobs can at least feed and shelter their families with what they earn working one full-time job. How can a person better themselves through education if they are working 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, just to have enough to eat and pay for a hotel room by-the-week? Poverty is undoubtedly a cycle, and low standards of education and work ethic in certain communities certainly play a large part in that cycle, but the condition of living chronically hand-to-mouth also prohibits the opportunities one might otherwise seize to advance themselves. What you term "a lifetime of sloth" may apply to some people, but certainly not to those working three jobs and yet still not earning enough to survive. As to your belief in personal aid, but not in more comprehensive or programmatic efforts, an allegory quoted by many activists should apply: If you see a bunch of babies floating down a river, you could pull them out one by one, but you solve the problem by going upstream and finding out how they are dropping into the river in the first place. (i.e. looking at the reason people are poor will rescue more people from poverty than helping on an individual basis.) I tend to think of it in terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. One cannot focus on the next higher level unless the lower, broader needs are met. For instance, people cannot focus on education or intellectual challenges unless they have sufficient food, sleep, shelter, and safety.

I think it's very easy to have these kinds of conversations and take positions that offer simple explanations for these problems when the people who are actually affected by them remain nameless, faceless abstractions. Liberals have an easy time blaming the corporate bigwig when they don't know or appreciate the tremendous responsibility executives of large corporations deal with. Conservatives have an easy time saying that poor people are lazy when they've never actually met one or walked in their shoes. (Even this statement is an abstraction, because no one in this conversation is taking such a simplistic stance) I've been fortunate enough to get to know a number of people who live an entirely different world than I do even though they reside less than 200 miles from where I grew up. The first time I went to Mountain TOP I was 13 and seeing the way some of these people lived caused me to reevaluate much of what I'd always believed. I became extremely grateful for the many advantages I'd been given. I don't have much sympathy for those who've had as many or more advantages than me and have still chosen to engage in "a lifetime of sloth", because they live quite a comfortable life in the White House. ;) Seriously, though, massive generalizations become much more difficult when these complex social problems begin to have a name and a face. Perhaps we should take a break from assigning blame to one group or another for the problem of poverty and take time to suffer with those who suffer from the cycle of intense poverty. In Matthew 25 Jesus didn't say "you saw me naked and hungry and knew exactly who to blame". He said the sheep on his right fed and clothed those they saw in need not because they were victimized by the system or it was the "right thing to do", but because those who suffer are as much of a child of God as are we, and if the tables were turned we'd sure like it if someone was willing to help us.

Regardless of where we are or how we got here as a society, the fact is that we are moving toward a borderless and "flat" world. A government, ours or anyone else's, can't long ignore the facts of the free market. It is, therefore, incumbent on individuals to give of their time, talent and money to relieve suffering. If a government or business or society pays an above-market wage, there is always a cost to be borne by someone. Ultimately, the cost - of either taxes or wages - is passed along to the consumer. If the consumer can buy something at a lower cost from a company based in a country that doesn't abide by the "civil society" standard (e.g. China, Taiwan, Philippines, India, etc.), they will do so. That leaves the company located in the "civil society" at a disadvantage; hence many of our manufacturing, technology and customer service jobs going overseas. Wal-Mart, at least while Sam Walton was alive, tried to buy American. It became increasingly difficult for them to do that and maintain "everyday low prices". They have basically abandoned the Buy American philosophy. It is not in the realm of reason that a government or "civil society" can afford to guarantee "those willing to work in the least prestigious, lowest paying jobs can at least feed and shelter their families with what they earn working one full-time job." I am working in an environment that is a microcosm of that; it is called state government. When the amount of one's pay, including annual raises and benefits, is detached from the quality and quantity of work performed, there is no incentive for anyone to do more than show up and stay out of trouble. The ultimate result of any guarantee is that performance - quality and productivity - suffers. I'm not saying it is the way things ought to be, simply that it is the way things are.

I'm with you on the way things are, Jerry, and I appreciate that it's easier to proclaim lofty ideals from my position as opposed to yours, where you deal with these concrete realities every day. I would only suggest that there may be some as-of-yet un-thought-of 'middle way' between Adam Smith-esque radical free market-ism and the neo-Marxist concept of equal pay for everyone, which has been demonstrated not to work. For people to actually count on being able to make a living wage it will, of course, take more than one piece of legislation. It will take a very serious re-thinking on the part of our society about what value "the market" (which I think is occasionally used as a smoke screen for individual greed) places on certain jobs, particularly those of CEOs, athletes, and entertainers. This rethinking will require people to actually embrace the idea that we are not individual monads, as the modernist project has told us, but that we are in fact in a symbiotic relationship with all humanity and all of God's creation. An idea which, I would suggest, is pervasive in scripture. Will this actually happen in our lifetime, let alone at any point in human history? The cynical side of me says no because the hallmark of sinful humanity is our incredible ability to construct our own reality where we are the demi-gods of our little world. That being the case, I read Matthew 25 as an explicit call from God for us to do everything we can to make this world more like the Kingdom God has promised us "is at hand".

If you're still reading by this point I thank you. Jerry, Jessica, and myself are all people of deep faith and compassion, and we have arrived at our differing viewpoints guided by our faith. Obviously, then, this is not a black-and-white issue. I'd love comments if you have any to share.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Madness in March

The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is upon us once again, meaning that my yearly ritual of sitting on the couch, consuming high calorie snacks and beverages, and tallying up my brackets to make sure that I picked the right upsets this year. I've done this for years, but in the last few years the NCAA Tournament has taken on an additional significance unrelated to basketball.

In 2003 I was a Senior in college, and my friends and I gathered for four straight days of college basketball just as the invasion of Iraq began. We had seen on the news that tensions were mounting and that Bush was going to give the order any day. I was and remain opposed to the war, an attitude my friends did not share with me.

The bombing actually began on Thursday, the opening day of the tournament. Rather than interrupt the basketball action, every time the games went to commerical Dan Rather popped on the screen and began showing us more footage of the bombing of Baghdad. The camera had it's night vision lens on, so everything had this strange green glow to it.

My friends, no doubt encouraged by the "over 21" beverages we were consuming, cheered every time the saw in explosion. They yelled "Oh (expletive), run!" and other cries of fear in mock-Arabic accents to amuse the rest of the guys. I have to admit I laughed a little bit. I love silly voices. And although I didn't actively participate in cheering for the bombing footage, I didn't object to it either. I mostly just sat there, transfixed, because this was all so surreal.

Reflecting on this later I realized that to a bunch of fraternity guys like us, everything we saw that day was one giant video game. We spent a lot of time playing sports video games with one another, and when we got tired of those we'd put in Halo or another one of these battle simulation games were the object is to cause as much death and destruction as possible. All of us, myself included, were living in a matrix of our own making, so removed from reality where we arrived at a point where footage of bombs falling on a large city, no doubt killing more civilians than members of Saddam's regime, was entertaining to us.

None of these people had names or faces to us. We never saw the orphaned children or people with severe burns. I can't help but wonder if we in America have so entertained ourselves to death that we are unable to recognize the suffering of others. Perhaps occasionally we need to pry our overweight butts of the couch and do something to relieve the suffring in our own backyard. When those that suffer greatly begin to have names and faces, the problem is no longer some abstract, giant video game for us to laugh at. The problem involves real humans, fellow children of God who by chance of birth drew a different lot in life than we did. I pray that God will help us to wake up from our self constructed, escapist realitites and recognize not only the depth of suffering in the world, but our part in alleviating it.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


First of all, I have to say that the first Sunday of The Gathering went very well. We had 90 folks, 26 of them visitors, 9 of them first timers. We've hit the ground with good momentum, so we have to work hard to keep it going. Please keep me, the team, and this new ministry in your prayers.

Now to my musings for the day...

I get accused of being young and idealistic at times. Guilty as charged. I'm a 25 year old preacher, what do you expect? The idea of being young and idealistic is not what bugs me though. It's the implication that I'll get over it one day and be a disallusioned "real adult". I'll one day realize that things never change, so don't waste my energy trying.

The problem is that I know plenty of "real adults" who are very idealistic and still believe that things can change for the better. So I have to ask, what's the difference between them and all the burned out people? What did they do that allowed them to keep their dreams alive? I've asked these folks, and none of them has a concrete answer. Everybody's story is different. I don't believe in easy answers for anything, but there has to be some kind of common trait that carried these folks through.

I've sat with this question for about five years now, which is a long time for someone my age. I'm beginning to think that learning patience might have something to do with it. People that are young and idealistic likemyself tend to get frustrated when they realize how complex problems are and/or when they don't see change happening as quickly as they'd like.

But that's not a trait only the young and idealistic posess. Our whole society is impatient. Just look at how we give a new President 100 days in office until we plunge their approval ratings into the basement because they haven't turned the country into the utopia they promised us. We live in an instant gratification society that does not value patience.

What if those "real" adults who lost their idealism are just like the young and idealistic in that they never learned patience? It's true, things don't change as quickly as we'd like them to. Most problems are much more complex than our quick fix solutions would suggest. Maybe those people that manage to be idealistic have learned to be patient and see things through. Maybe they've learned not to pound the table so much and push on through frustration and adversity. Maybe they've learned to pick their battles and maintain their priorities. Maybe these are the people that will ultimately make the difference in the end.

I'm still tossing this idea around in my head, but I think there may be something to it. I feel like I've learned more patience in the last few years, and I know I will have to learn loads more to stay the course in the years to come.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Zero Hour

Well, The Gathering starts tomorrow. No going back now. I'm simultaniously excited and scared to death, as you might imagine. On the one hand I'm finally getting to do what I've wanted for years- leading innovative worship for a community that is not content with the status quo, and getting to preach every Sunday. On the other hand I'm very aware of how much effort has gone into all of this, how many people are personally invested in it, and how Crievewood has taken a major risk in starting this new ministry. I don't want to let any of these people down.

I suppose a healthy dose of fear is a good thing, because I'll be more likely to remember to depend on God to guide me through this rather than trusting in my own abilities (which I tend to think too highly of most of the time).

Here's the link to the site: The Gathering

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Live the Stories

I heard a sermon recently called "Live the Stories". The gist of it was that while the Jews who crossed the Jordan into Israel were not the ones who left Egypt (that whole golden calf incident), the stories of the previous generation were a part of their lived experience because they heard these stories told over and over, and it was very real to them. The application, of course, being that we, too, should make the narratives of the Bible part of our lived experience by immersing ourselves in these stories.

It wasn't so much the content (although it was good) as the presentation that has kept me thinking about this. The sermon was delivered by a PhD student in Homiletics at Vanderbilt who is a very gifted speaker. He did the whole sermon in first person as a child who was born during the 40 years in the desert, and in doing so painted such a vivid word picture that the poetry seemed to seep out of his pores like one who has worked up a great sweat.

While the central message was deep and the presentation artful, I was left unmoved. Perhaps this was just my brain going into academic mode, critiquing his exegesis, or my preacher self sizing up a colleague. Whatever the case, I didn't find myself moved in the way that lets me know I am truly worshiping God.

But when the sermon was over a woman stood up and began to sing "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" a capella (no piano or anything accompanying her). The song paints a very simple picture of Jesus' suffering, and has never really moved me, but this time I absolutely melted. Every inflection in her voice as she sang told us of the pain she felt watching these terrible things happen to Jesus. Even though she was born 2,000 years after the fact, she was there, and she took me with her. I was there when they crucified my Lord.

As God is so fond of doing, I was smacked upside the head with a simple but profound truth. God seems to have given me a gift with words, and I'm usually a little too proud of that fact, showing it off even when no one asks. But in this moment it was not the abundance of artful, poetic language, but the simplicity of an old slave spiritual that transported me back to that day at Calvary. Less turned out to be more.

That day the song was the sermon to me. It was in the song that I began to experience the old, old story as if I had been there.

Monday, February 20, 2006

I must have a sign on my forehead

For the majority of my life I've known I was different, and everyone else has known it, too. It's not what you might think, though. I hope I don't sound arrogant by saying this, but it's as if people have looked at me as a pastor all my life. Even when I was a kid people would come to me if they had issues or were wrestling with big questions about God, as if I had any clue. It was like I had a sign on my forehead that said "The pastor is in" or something like that.

Anyway, as it so often does, life threw me a weird curveball last week. Jessica (my fiancee) and I were headed to a bar in downtown Nashville where we play trivia with a group of friends every week. (Yes, pastors go to bars sometimes. Deal with it.) As so often happens, a homeless man approached us as we were walking from our car across the street, asking for money. If we have cash we usually give something to them, figuring it's between them and God what they do with it. The only thing God will hold us accountable for is whether we helped someone in need.

It became clear to us very quickly that this man was mentally ill, as an overwhelming majority of homeless people are, and that he had not had his medication in a while. We learned that his name was Anthony, and he started telling us about himself, showing us his ID, pictures of relatives, and the pocket New Testament he always carries with himself.

Then all of a sudden Anthony asks us to pray for him right then, and he grabbed both our hands and knelt in the parking lot. We followed suit, and I could feel the weird looks of bar patrons walking to their cars seeing a reasonably well dressed man and woman on their knees in the parking lot praying with a homeless black man. I never mentioned what I do or anything, he said he just seemed to sense it.

I'm not really sure what this means. On the one hand I hate that I felt a little embarrassed kneeling on the ground with Anthony. Was I embarrassed to be with a homeless man, or the fact that I was quite obviously praying in public? I'm not sure. I guess it's just proof that, while I preach to people every Sunday about not being ashamed of the gospel, I'm still human just like everyone else.

On the other hand I feel grateful to have opportunities like this. I don't go seeking them out. I don't even consciously think all the time about how I can witness publicly. But as big as my ego can get, its probably better that things like this just fall in my lap, otherwise I would probably get way too proud of myself for doing something God gave me the ability to do.

While most of the time we have to look for God in the common stuff of everyday life, every now and then something unusual comes along just to keep us on our toes. I don't have meaningful encounters with homeless people every day, so experiences like this one serve to remind me that someone in need is always around the corner. I don't know if Anthony and I will ever cross paths again, but for one moment we were able to be a blessing to one another in the simplest of ways.

I guess I'll always have a sign on my forehead, whether I like it or not. And as a Christian, so do you. Let's wear these signs proudly, because you never know who may need a helping hand.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Truth with a capital "T"?

The other night I attended a lecture by a prominent scholar of religious phenomonology. He talked about understanding religious participation and people's level of commitment to it in market terms. When there is one official religion of the state/culture/whatever participation is low because that religious practice is a given, and the leaders of the practice (preists, whoever) don't have to work to keep it going. However, when there is a plurality of religions in a society, participation and commitment is high because people have more choice and the leaders of the various religious traditions have to work to keep their institution going.

The application for today, of course, is that many mega-churches get lots of people by offering things that are attractive, but not necessarily religious in nature. The big church's youth group goes on cooler trips and has a coffee house in their basement, for example.

During the question time one guy got up and asked if it's possible that growing churches weren't experiencing success because they offered the most perks, but because they offered the most Truth. There was a very audible snicker from the liberal intelligensia in the crowd, as if to say, "Silly little man, he still thinks there's such a thing as Truth!"

While I didn't think that he asked the most well informed question in the world, neither did I agree with those that laughed at him. Those that have completed advanced degrees in humanities disciplies (myself included) are well read in Derrida and other postmodern writers who deconstruct modern notions of absolute Truth and pure objectivity in a very compelling way.

The temptation is to say that there are no absolutes and that everyone constructs their own relative truth for themselves. The problem is, that's a statement that implies an absolute. Absolute relativism is kind of an oxymoron.

The issue is not really the behavior of a group of intellectual snobs, even though I am often accused of being one. The issue is that in an age when we are coming to realize that our social and cultural context puts its own particular spin on how we interpret everything, and the extreme limitations of our language to express things, how can we still talk about Truth in absolute terms? Is there any common groud on which a religious community can stand?

I think so. But it's admittedly harder than I'd like it to be. The short version is, I do believe there is one absolute Truth in the universe: God.

God is the absolute Truth. My ability to understand God is not absolute, though.

All other truths we proclaim are valid and true if they point to the reality of the God who is the ultimate ground of our being, but at the same time is present with us in all times and places, and who is constantly calling creation to be all that God created it to be.

That's a mouthful, I know. And even my flushing out of that long sentence is a series of truth claims, which I believe point to the larger Truth of God. I can only pray that I'm on the right track, and that some day I'll actually be wise enough to really get what it means.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

What is worship?

... is the big question that's bouncing around in my mind right now. Obviously I'm not going to hit it all here. For now let's make the working definition of worship "a transformative encounter with the living God". If this is the case then why do we call our weekly church gatherings a "Worship Service"?

First of all, what does the term "service" mean these days? A service is something you purchase. Hopefully when one is a member of a faith community they do more than just consume services that the church dispenses.

Second, can we really say with integrity that God is going to do something at 11am every Sunday in a particular place? God's not quite that predictable.

Perhaps when we come to church every Sunday (or Saturday, or whenever) we should engage in the activities that comprise a worship service in the hope that worship, the transformative encounter, will happen. I've sat through and led more worship services than I can count where I haven't worshiped one bit. Hopefully others were able to, but I was just putting on a program.

I can only pray that in the programs I put on, something about it will help people connect with God, and that worship will truly happen.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Countdown to The Gathering

Well, The Gathering is only a few weeks away. I'm simultaniously excited and insanely nervous. It's like of like the feeling I had when I asked Jessica to marry me, only I don't know the outcome of this venture. We're having a "tech rehersal" next Saturday, where we'll see how this whole set-up in the fellowship hall will work. Then we have a full "dress rehersal" the following Sunday, and we officially launch March 5. Honestly, it's probably a good thing that I'm scared out of my mind because it will keep me depending on God for guidance, instead of my usual "big-head" routine where I think I know all the answers.

Oh, you can check out our site:www.thegatheringsite.net. Any constructive feedback is appreciated, and I'd especially love it if you wanted to join us for worship.