Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Peace amidst the storm

Many of you all know how chaotic having a baby is, particularly for first time parents. I've blogged about it, I've preached about it, I've even published an article about how impending parenthood has given me new appreciation for the Advent story.

Jessica and I have been tremendously blessed through this pregnancy with only relatively minor discomforts for her such as nausea and heartburn. Sometimes it becomes very easy to take our good health and that of our baby for granted.

My dear friend and mentor Will Penner and his wife, Christine, just gave birth to their fifth child, and while everything and everyone is fine now, there were some very scary moments. You can read about them on Will's blog.

If you are inclined toward such things, take a moment to offer up a prayer for all parents who are uncertain about the health of their children. It can be a very scary thing, and they all need a special awareness of God's grace in the midst of their anxiety and fear.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Shameless Self Promotion Continues

I've published another article on Worship Connection. This one is about the place of the Offering in the liturgy and an example of a creative way I've engaged it in the past. Comments and feedback are always welcome.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Indulging my inner child

I was born in 1980, so I was a child during the golden age of Saturday morning cartoons. Say what you want about classic Disney and Looney Toons, but nothing beats G I Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Thundercats. These were cartoons in the post-Star Wars era, so merchandising tie ins were standard. So my childhood friends and I had our favorite shows, and the massive collections of action figures that went along with loving those shows. I'm sure it was torture to our parents paying all that money for action figures, but we didn't care. We had guys with cool little guns, awesome vehicles, and karate chop action.

The coolest cartoon of the early 80s is without a doubt He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

I spent my preschool and early elementary years thinking that He-Man was the coolest thing ever. And thanks to my generation's never ending appetite for nostalgia and things that are ironically cool, the old He-Man episodes are now online at Hulu. Watching these episodes 25 years later I have concluded that, yes, He-Man is in fact the coolest thing ever.

I had all the action figures and the playsets, I dressed up as He-Man for Halloween one year (my little brother was Orko), and I would run around yelling "I have the power!" I even loved the live action move with Dolph Lundgren, which was so cheesy that only a true He-Man devotee could sit through it. 

(Total sidenote: How cool would it have been if there had been a scene where Lundgren, playing He-Man, had stared down Skeletor and said "I must break you" Ivan Drago style?)

Yes, some if it is cheesy and unintentionally funny. He-Man himself is interesting. He has a blonde "Prince Valiant" hairdo, red fur topped ugg-boots, so many muscles that Jose Canseco thinks he does too many 'roids, and an outfit that would only be appropriate in a European sex club.

My favorite thing about these 80s cartoons, though, was that at the end of the episode, one of the characters would show up on screen and give some kind of moral message. The best was on G I Joe, where some kids would be doing something stupid like swimming when it was lightning out or playing with firecrackers. Then one of the characters would show up out of nowhere (insert inappropriate child molester joke here) and explain why that was bad. The best part, of course, was the tag line (say it with me): "Now you know. And knowing is half the battle!"

Cartoons today don't do that kind of stuff. But then again, maybe that's a good thing. I mean, what moral message could Sponge Bob give kids other than "I'm a lot funnier when you're on drugs"?

Anyway, this post is totally non-theological, but I and my fellow children of the 80s are enjoying reliving our childhoods online. Hopefully they will post other shows, too. I'm going to go dig around in my parents' attic and see if they still have any of these action figures. My inner child is loving this.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Hermenutics of Newsweek

There's an interesting and unexpected new voice in the gay marriage debate: Newsweek magazine. While most mainstream media coverage of religious issues demonstrates a pathetically weak understanding of the complexities of the issues at hand (one would expect a business reporter to understand something about business, so why not religion?), this Newsweek article is surprisingly articulate.

The cover story (which you can read here) correctly points out that nowhere in the Bible is marriage explicitly defined as only between a man and a woman. It also rightly points out that many biblical marriages included multiples wives, children conceived with slaves, women stolen from guys you had murdered, and enough other scandalous things to fill several seasons worth of prime time soap operas.

This article has, of course, made a lot of conservatives angry. Politico has a pretty good article surveying the reactions of several leading conservative voices.

While I thought the Newsweek article was pretty insightful, I do take issue with one of their conclusions. In the middle of the article the writer says that "religious objections to gay marriage are not rooted in the Bible at all, but in custom and tradition". The writer has very ably demonstrated that the subject of marriage between two people of the same gender is never specifically brought up in the Bible, and that homosexuality as an orientation is not, either. But just because a specific issue is not mentioned in the Bible does not mean that one cannot turn to the biblical text for guidance on it.

Let me pause for a moment and "out" myself, so to speak. Those who know me and/or read this blog can probably guess that I'm for marriage equality. I disagree with the official position of my denomination, even though I uphold the Discipline as part of my covenant as a pastor. The fact that I fall on the side of this particular issue that is usually labeled as liberal or progressive does not mean, however, that I don't see the merits in the other side's position.

The biblical texts are ancient documents written by ancient people and concern the issues of the ancient world. The modern/postmodern world is very different, and thus has very different issues and conflicts, yet many of the same human tendencies remain, so these ancient texts still have something to teach us. We have to understand the context in which they were written to understand what they might have to say to us today.

For example, I care greatly about the issue of climate change, which is also not specifically mentioned in the Bible, nor are any environmental issues, but that does not mean that the Bible cannot provide guidance for people of faith when dealing with the environment. In Genesis 2 God tells Adam that he is responsible for the earth. Some versions translate this as "fill the earth and subdue it", others say "care for it". The Hebrew words can legitimately be translated a number of ways, so an interpretive choice is involved. I choose the latter translation not just for the heck of it, but because I see in the broad scope of the biblical witness that God cares greatly about how we treat all the things God has created: people, plants, etc. So I take the "care for the earth" command as a kind of biblical support (but not a proof text) for the idea that we should be aware of and actively minimize our negative impact on the long term health of the planet.

All this is to say that those who oppose same sex marriage can certainly cite the Bible in their arguments even though the issue is never explicitly mentioned in the biblical text. Most people in this camp would disagree and say that it is explicitly mentioned, of course, and they certainly have the right to make that interpretive choice.

And that's really the point. We're all making certain interpretive choices when we read and apply the Bible. Let's be honest about that and say which choices we're making. That way we can discuss these issues on a level playing field instead of retreating into our trenches and lobbing rhetorical bombs at one another. We'll make a lot more progress if we will.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Prop 8- The Musical

I'm sure this is going to offend somebody, probably a lot of somebodies. But if we can't laugh at ourselves when we're the most heated in our disagreements, then we're really in trouble.

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Looking into a crystal ball?

The Episcopal Church is facing a split. This is not news to anybody, of course, since disagreements over doctrinal issues have been wreaking havoc in the Church for quite some time now. But it looks as though the split may be formalized in a matter of weeks. An article in the New York Times today reported how the bishops of breakaway dioceses are formally organizing a competing province in North America. The strange irony of this is that the formal announcement was made at an evangelical church in Wheaton, Illinois- hardly the place one expects to find a bunch of high church prelates. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

Since Anglicanism is the mother church of Methodism, I'm curious what this latest development has to say about my own church's future. The United Methodist Church also has a number of theological conflicts that, while they involve a plethora of issues, tend to separate into camps based on views concerning sexual orientation. Unlike the Episcopal Church, we have not yet consecrated an openly gay bishop, and our official stance on sexual orientation in ordained ministry is more clearly defined, but the disagreements are the same.

So what does the formal split along ideological lines in the Episcopal Church mean for the United Methodist Church? Will we, too, eventually have a small but significant minority split off from the connection and form a group that considers themselves to be an ideologically pure remnant? Or will we learn from the struggles of holy mother church and recommit ourselves to ongoing dialogue?

What do you out in the blogosphere think? Discuss...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The War on Christmas?

It happens every year around this time. You hear it from preachers, people on the radio, and even from talking heads on cable news stations. Every year right around this time they start talking about the "War on Christmas". Who's waging this war, you may ask? Apparently the "War on Christmas" is waged by pagan greeters at WalMart who dare to say "Happy Holidays", heathen municipalities who remove nativity scenes from city halls, and anyone who dares to write "Xmas" instead of "Christmas". 

There may well be a war on Christmas, but I highly doubt that any of these people are combatants. WalMart greeters and local governments are just doing their best to be inclusive of other religious traditions, and I for one am not threatened by the lack of a nativity scene outside the local courthouse. As for "Xmas", X is the Greek letter "chi", which is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ. So "X" is kind of like saying "JC" for Jesus Christ. Scary.

Like I said, there may well be a war on Christmas, but like any other serious threat to the Christian faith, it doesn't come from outsiders. Our own worst enemy is ourselves. We are commemorating the day when Jesus was born into poor, humble circumstances, and at the same time we go further and further into debt to buy a bunch of junk nobody needs anyway. We remember the night that the holy family could find no room at the inn, but the most we'll do for someone without a home is toss some change in the Salvation Army bucket (that's a good start, though). We recall the violent purge by a jealous King Herod that forced the holy family to flee to Egypt and live as refugees, but we ignore the foreigners within our own borders just because they might not have all the right documents. If anyone is destroying Christmas, it's us.

This doesn't have to be the case, though. We can still enjoy the decorations and the parties, and yes, even the gifts and still keep Jesus first. A number of churches are participating in a movement called The Advent Conspiracy that focuses on substituting compassion for consumption. The idea is simple: we can worship Christ more fully during this season by spending less and giving more to those who really need it. 

Imagine how much good we could do if we decreased the amount we spend on presents by 10% and used that to help dig a well in a village in the desert or provided mosquito nets for people who might otherwise die of malaria. The Advent Conspiracy is a way for us to move beyond feeling even more guilt to actually doing something to spread God's grace in the world.

Friday, November 21, 2008

An Inconvenient Hermenutic

Friday is my sermon writing day, and as usual I've been writing paragraphs, deleting them completely, rewriting them, deleting, (lather, rinse, repeat, if you will)...

This particular sermon should be a fairly easy one for me. This Sunday is Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday in the lectionary cycle, and the gospel passage for this week is Matthew 25:31-46, which is the very famous "Sheep and Goats" passage from Jesus' final discourse in Matthew's gospel.

This should be easy because this is one of my favorite passages and it allows me to go off on one of my favorite rants against holding up some kind of confessional act (the "sinner's prayer", etc.) as the measuring stick for salvation. This passage contains the only last judgment scene in the New Testament, and there isn't a hint of confessional orthodoxy in it. Instead, the chief difference between the sheep and the goats is how much they went out of their way to help those who are most vulnerable and have been left behind by the rest of society.

That should give me more than enough license to preach a sermon where I thumb my nose at my friends in the personal salvation camp and tell people to get off their butts and start serving the poor. And my sermon will no doubt contain some elements of that.

But I'm starting to wonder if I like this passage a little too much. I know, I know, it's not possible to like the Bible too much, blah blah blah. Hear me out.

I like this passage so much that I'm all too eager to shove it in the face of someone who has a different viewpoint than me. When I do that I'm guilty of the kind of thing that pisses me off when I see other people shoving Leviticus 18:22 in my face to "prove" that homosexuality is a sin or throwing John 14:6 in my face to "prove" that everyone who doesn't accept Christ goes to Hell when they die.

In other words, I'm all too happy to proof-text Matthew 25.

Proof-texting is always a bad idea because it shows that you're not critically engaging a text, and that you're cherry picking  your favorite verses to buttress your own previously held viewpoints. When you proof-text, the Bible becomes one more bloody glove in your evidence pile. It also suggests that you view the Bible as a list of commands handed down from God instead of the witness of people's experience of God in the language and symbols of their day.

So even though this particular passage communicates many of the things that I consider to be important in the Christian faith, I can't take the easy way out and use it as a proof-text. I have to interpret and preach it in light of the rest of the Bible, not just the stuff that I like. It's especially important that I be hermenutically consistent, even when it's not convenient. So I guess this sermon won't be as easy to write as I'd thought.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Review: The Faith of Barack Obama

Stephen Mansfield’s The Faith of Barack Obama, like his earlier works on George W. Bush and The American Soldier, respectively, seeks to provide a short, accessible theological biography of an important figure in modern American history. Much treatment, scholarly and otherwise, has been given to Obama’s racial background, his educational influences, and his early political career in Chicago. But very little serious treatment (i.e. not scare-tactic propaganda) has been given to his faith background.

Mansfield attempts, and largely succeeds in, examining Obama’s varied religious influences in as objective a manner as possible. His first chapter explores Obama’s childhood being raised by his mother and grandparents who, while being more or less agnostic themselves, nevertheless respected the value of religion in others’ lives and exposed young Barack to a variety of religious traditions. Mansfield also dives into Obama’s time living in Indonesia with his step-father, where he attended a secular school and learned about Islam as a civil religion, much the way children in the United States are exposed to aspects of Christianity as a civil religion. Mansfield does a very skillful job in refuting the largely discredited charge that Obama is a Muslim, since he left Indonesia before reaching the age when young men would choose to embrace the faith for themselves.

Perhaps the most valuable part in the entire book is the chapter where Mansfield explores the influence of the black church, and specifically of Jeremiah Wright, on Obama’s faith development. Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama attended for more than two decades, was uniquely able to nurture Obama’s faith journey because of its deep commitment to political activism and social justice- concerns Obama shared when he came to the church. As for Wright, Mansfield paints a very nuanced picture of him as a man of his generation, shaped by the struggle for civil rights, harboring deep suspicion of the government because of grave injustices like the Tuskegee experiments, and greatly influenced by the rise of the Black Liberation Theology of James Cone. Obama is a man of a different generation that, sharing the same concerns of their predecessors and carrying on their struggle, is not as angry and thus more able to gain acceptance in white society. Mansfield sums up the influence of Wright on Obama by saying, “To be a member of a church is not necessarily to descend into mindlessness, and a mind as fine as Obama’s is less likely to accept ideas unexamined than most.” (pg. 67)

The journalistic skill and subtlety with which Mansfield examines Obama’s background makes most of the book excellent reading. It is also what makes one particular chapter, “Four Faces of Faith” so disappointing. This chapter feels extremely out of place and makes this reader wonder if it is something of a last minute addition to the book. In it, Mansfield takes the four most prominent figures of the 2008 election cycle, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, and paints a picture of them as representatives of the different approaches to faith, largely defined by generational identity, in America today. (The book probably went to press before the sudden arrival of Gov. Sarah Palin on the national stage, and it would be interesting to see how Mansfield would incorporate her into this chapter).

It’s not that this chapter is not written without the usual research and insight that Mansfield generally brings to his subjects, or that the chapter contains a gross amount of political bias (even though one does sense that Mr. Mansfield was a strong McCain supporter). This chapter is disappointing because it does very little to give us a picture of who Barack Obama is as a religious person in the way the rest of the book does so skillfully. This material would have been better suited as a long form feature article, or as preparatory material for books on the faiths of Hillary Clinton and John McCain, respectively (books I’d quite like to read).

This particularly unfortunate and out-of-place chapter aside, The Faith of Barack Obama is an excellent book. Mansfield closes by suggesting that, as a representative of his generation, Barack Obama will be a transformative figure as coming generations move past old divisions and conflicts and form a new mold of racial and religious identity.

(Sidenote- Mansfield heavily references Obama’s books Dreams from My Father, and The Audacity of Hope, which many readers will want to pick up after reading The Faith of Barack Obama if they have not already. These books are also well written and worth your time.)

This is the first review I'm doing as part of a blog ring for Thomas Nelson Publishers. I was provided a free copy of the book in exchange for a review on my site.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Great Emergence

I'm currently reading Phyllis Tickle's The Great Emergence, which, according to all the buzz, promises to be among the greatest works on the church and emerging culture. I've only made it through one section thus far, and this isn't a full review by any means, but one of Tickle's assertions in the first section really intrigues me.

Tickle claims that the church (and to a lesser extent, most major world religions) have a kind of major house cleaning every five hundred years or so. She calls these house cleanings "rummage sales", in which people rethink forms of religious expression. Old forms of expression remain, but even they rethink themselves. The most convincing example of this is the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Roman Catholic Church continues to exist, but as a result of Luther's Reformation, the Church of Rome undertook a counter-reformation that was ultimately beneficial for them in the long run. Tickle points to the Great Schism of 1054 and the coming of the Dark Ages and the preservation work of the monastics in the sixth century as other examples of these "rummage sales" in this history of Christianity, and she contends that the current "Great Emergence" is the semi-millennial incarnation of Christianity's house cleaning.

I find this metaphor very compelling because it serves as a powerful legitimation of the emerging church movement against frequent charges of heresy. Comparisons of the emerging church  to the Protestant Reformation are not unheard of, and her analogy makes the case that God is at work in these new movements.

However, I have to wonder about the implications of following this metaphor to its full extent. Why exactly is it that these rummage sales occur every five hundred years? Is it (as Tickle seems to suggest) that the very temporary nature of the forms of cultural expression we use to communicate religious truths requires us to rethink them as language and cultural forms change? In other words, is it because we keep confusing the medium with the message (that assumes they are two separate things, which I'm not sure they are)? Given that Reformed theology (a product of the last rummage sale) still argues persuasively for God's sovereignty in all things, is there an implication that God causes these rummage sales to happen on a somewhat regular basis?

Furthermore, what does this argument about cyclical nature of rummage sales say about the ultimate future of the emerging church movement? Will it crystalize into a new orthodoxy that will eventually have to be deconstructed? Does that mean that what is going on now will ultimately fail because the focus is on continual questioning and rethinking, and innately opposed to rigid orthodoxies? 

Like I said, I haven't read the whole book yet, and Tickle may address these questions. Either way, I'm guessing that these questions I've raised would be valuable for discussion. So post a reply and tell me what you think.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day

It's Election Day here in the USA. Get out there and vote if you haven't already!

On a related note, I'll have a review of Stephen Mansfield's new book, The Faith of Barack Obama, up in a few days. I'm part of a new blog network through Thomas Nelson Publishers where they send bloggers free books in exchange for reviews, plus they link our pages on their site, which hopefully sends more traffic this way. It's a brilliant concept, and my wife, who works for Abingdon Press (one of Thomas Nelson's competitors) wishes she'd thought of it first. I think they're still taking applications, so if you have a blog and like free books this would be a good opportunity.

For those that don't know, Mansfield is the author of The Faith of George W. Bush and The Faith of the American Soldier, among other books. I got the book yesterday, and I'll be interested to see how he treats issues like Obama's background with Islam and his relationship to Jeremiah Wright. While these issues have been used in negative attacks by Obama's detractors, they remain interesting issues that are worthy of rational exploration. I hope that Mansfield will treat them as such. Check this space soon to find out if he does.

Once again, GO VOTE!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Spreading the Wealth"?

This year's Presidential election (which has lasted the better part of two years and is, blessedly, almost over) has had its fare share of sound-bytes and applause lines from all sides. Most of these are distortions of facts, half truths, and outright lies. As a Christian who strives to know the truth it bugs me whenever any candidate resorts to these tactics, even though my candidate for whom I voted has used them to great effect.

One of these sound-bytes that has emerged as a theme in the last few weeks has been the phrase "spread the wealth". The phrase was used in Barak Obama's now infamous exchange with "Joe the Plumber" regarding Sen. Obama's tax proposals. The Republican establishment, particularly Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin, have picked up on this phrase and used it as evidence that Sen. Obama is a socialist. (According to the Socialist Party USA, Sen. Obama is not a socialist, but that is beside the point)

There's nothing wrong with being against socialism. Redistribution of wealth through tax policies is a complex and controversial issue that deserves a fairer treatment that can be given here. The bald hypocrisy of this sound-byte lies not in the opposition to socialism as a political and economic philosophy, but in the fact that this line has become a favorite of the Religious Right.

James Dobson, leader of Focus on the Family, recently published a letter entitled "Letter from 2012 in Obama's America", in which he uses the "spread the wealth" line (the bulk of the letter is devoted to hate speech against persons of non-heterosexual orientations). 

Mr. Dobson is a hypocrite for using this line of attack. He opposes "spreading the wealth", and yet he frequently argues for returning to "biblical values", particularly advocating that the church return to the ecclesiological model laid out in Acts 2. But Acts 2 describes the earliest Christians sharing their wealth with one another. In fact, there are many people who describe Acts 2 as the basis for what they call "Christian Socialism"!

In Acts 2:44-45, the author describes how the Jerusalem Church shared their wealth from the beginning: 

All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.

If Mr. Dobson is, as he frequently claims, committed to a "biblical model" and an "Acts 2 Church", then why does he use the phrase "spread the wealth" as a negative attack against a presidential candidate?

The answer is simple. He uses certain Bible verses as a means to an end to support his conservative philosophy. His loyalty is to these conservative principles, and particularly to the Republican Party, first and foremost. Christianity is a means to an end for him, not the end unto itself.

James Dobson is grammatically correct when he calls himself a "Conservative Christian". "Conservative" is the adjective, dictating how the noun "Christian" behaves. 

He is lying, however, when he claims that he is a biblical literalist, because if he truly was, he would not be so opposed to "spreading the wealth".

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Some new writings

A couple new things I've written have just been published. I'm including links below. Peruse them at your leisure and comment if you're so inclined.

Sermon Starters for the last six weeks of ordinary time in Circuit Rider (requires Adobe Acrobat to access)

An article on Worship Connection regarding how impending fatherhood has changed my perspective on Advent. The article includes a sermon, too. I'm really proud of this one!

Monday, October 13, 2008

"Muddy Water" exclusive premiere!

OK, not really. It premiered on CMT a few days ago, but that's beside the point. This is the country music video that was shot at my congregation in Clarksville about a month ago. Everything is on location at and around Bethlehem, including the creek where we've baptized a number of people. We're really proud of how it turned out. Thanks again to Trace Adkins and everyone involved in the production!

Here are some photos from the day of the shoot. I would have posted them earlier, but I had to promise the producers we'd wait until the video was done.

Shooting Trace performing the song by the creek.

Stephen Baldwin heading into the creek for the baptism scene amidst a congregation of extras (and the boom guy).

Stephen and the actor playing the pastor doing the baptism scene. I spent the better part of an hour coaching them on how to do a realistic looking immersion baptism, so that's my handiwork in the video!

Trace, me, and Stephen at the end of a very long day on set. 5am to 11:30pm!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Messy Communion

When I began serving my current congregation, one of the first changes I made was to begin serving communion by intinction. Intinction is also known as "rip n' dip", where the communion server tears a piece of bread off of the loaf and hands it to you, which you then dip into the cup of grape juice and consume it together.

Needless to say, as with any change in a church, no matter how minute, there were people who were unhappy. Some folks prefer to tear off their own piece of bread. Some miss the little shot glasses of grape juice out of the tray. Some people are so averse to germs that they want individual wafers (I call them "cardboard Jesus"). Others don't like doing communion by intinction because crumbs and juice drops tend to get everywhere. You would think, though, that if anyone had cause to complain about flying juice drops it would be me. I'm wearing the white robe, after all!

It's true: communion by intinction is messy. There are cleaner, easier, faster, and more efficient ways to do it. But the life of following Jesus is rarely clean, easy, or efficient. Being a follower of Jesus means getting dirt under your fingernails and stains on your shirt because you're never too busy or too important to help out another one of God's children. Being a follower of Jesus is messy, so should we be surprised that sharing Jesus' Holy Meal is messy?

Too often in the church we've scrubbed and sanitized everything because we've co-opted the cultural metanarrative of modernity that says that we can and should tie up all the loose ends, smooth over all the rough edges, and that those who don't (or, more accurately, can't) are somehow deficient. It's easier to pretend that the universe is this seamless, harmonious singularity instead of a messy jumble of parts that God is somehow weaving together over the course of eternity.

We're going to keep taking communion by intinction because we need to be inconvenienced.We need to be made uncomfortable. We need to be constantly reminded that we're called to step out of our nice, tidy comfort zones and find Jesus amongst the mixed up, messy beauty all around us.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Last Best Hope?

As we enter the home stretch in this year’s election season (which is a strange phrase because “seasons” don’t often describe a period of eighteen months or more!), cable news junkies like me start to grow tired of lots of things. The negative ads are getting boring, as are the talking points. The vast majority of people have all more or less settled on a candidate, so our eyes start to glaze over when we hear the candidates’ standard lines, kind of like when your grandfather starts telling the same story you’ve heard a million times.

One of these standard lines that we hear from all sides is becoming more and more distressing to me. The latest person to use it has been Sarah Palin, although she’s certainly not the first and won’t be the last. It’s a line that comes from people of all parties, but perhaps it sounds so unsettling coming from her because she wears her faith on her sleeve.

The line goes something like this: “America is the last best hope for good in the world”. It’s a line that generates tons of applause because it recalls eighteenth century rhetoric about America being the “new Israel” or the “modern promised land”. It makes the voters feel good because it lets us believe that we are somehow fundamentally better people than all those other countries out there, and because of that superiority we will be able to fix the world’s problems through the exercise of our natural righteousness. This line particularly resonates with those who feel America is somehow a “Christian nation”.

As a follower of Jesus I take great exception to the idea that America, or any other human kingdom, for that matter, can ever be “the last best hope for good in the world”. Human kingdoms, no matter how much good they may do (and I believe that America has and continues to do many great things around the world) can never be the hope of the world.

Jesus Christ himself is the hope of the world.

Jesus is the one who promises us the possibility of a world where injustice, violence, exploitation, and even death itself are no more. Jesus is the one who helps us to believe in a kingdom where no one is superior to another simply by accident of birth, but where all work together for the betterment of the whole world, even for those to whom they owe nothing.

The greatest changes in the world for the better have never come from the grand initiatives of human kingdoms, which ultimately seek only their own glory. The greatest changes in the world for the better have always come from those people who follow in the way of Jesus, perhaps not confessionally but in actual practice. It comes from those who aspire towards the flourishing of all of God’s children: people like Mohammed Unis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, and Mahatma Ghandi, to name a few. These are people who have dedicated themselves to making a better life for the poorest and weakest amongst us, and in so doing have inspired the fundamental goodness and decency that resides in each of God’s children. This fundamental goodness comes from the fingerprints of our creator, and it cannot be taken away, even by the stain of Sin.

There is a “last best hope for good in the world”, but it is not the United States of America. It is not any candidate or the platform of any political party, nor is it any church or religious group. The last best hope for good in the world are those people that listen to God’s still, small voice whispering to their hearts, calling them to live in such a way that proclaims that there is more to this life than accumulation and consumption.

The last best hope for good in the world is the Spirit of God working through normal people, maybe even you and I, if we’re only willing to listen to the call and act upon it.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Banned Magazines at Lifeway

I heard a story recently about an issue of a magazine called “Gospel Today” being pulled from the shelves at Lifeway Christian stores because the cover featured five female pastors. The Southern Baptist Convention, with which Lifeway is affiliated, is officially opposed to women in ministry, so avoid offending the SBC, Lifeway agreed to take the magazine off the shelves, although they would still sell it in their stores.

Being the curious person I am, I did something I rarely ever do. I darkened the door of my local Lifeway store. For those that don’t know me personally, I have this rather sarcastic and rebellious streak, so I get a cheap thrill out of going into a Christian book store and asking for a magazine that has generated controversy. So that’s what I did.

I walked up to the counter, and in a voice that was probably louder than necessary if I was just talking to the clerk, I asked for the copy of “Gospel Today”. The clerk’s eyes grew noticeably, and she replied, “Sure.. I’ll be right back.” I expected the issue to be under the counter like the porn magazines in the book store I worked at in college, but she had to go to the back room to get it. Scandalous, indeed!

When she returned she was carrying the magazine almost at arms length from her body, lest the heretical material suddenly catch fire and burn her with God’s righteous anger. I asked (again, in a voice that may have been too loud for a one-on-one interaction), “Gee, why are you guys hiding it back there like it’s a porn magazine?” “Umm,” she replied sheepishly, “I think it goes against Baptist doctrine.” She clearly thought this was silly, too.

While she was in the back room I had noticed a biography of Sarah Palin on the new arrival shelf. So after inquiring why “Gospel Today” was hidden like porn, I figured I’d ask about the book, too, since I was already being a nuisance. Why, I wondered aloud, weren’t there books about Joe Biden, Barack Obama, or even John McCain? “Because she’s the only one of the bunch that’s actually a Christian!” said a nearby customer, who was clearly irritated with me. “Oh... I see...” I said with no small twinge of sarcasm. Figuring I had done enough for one day, I paid for my magazine and left.

At home I opened my copy of “Gospel Today” and found noting remotely objectionable. The article even acknowledged that not everyone approves of women in ministry, demonstrating the kind of objectivity one rarely finds in Christian media.

What really amazed me is that “Gospel Today” is aimed largely at urban, African-American, charismatic/Pentecostal audiences. I’m clearly not their target demographic! So by pulling the magazine from the shelves and attempting to avoid controversy, Lifeway actually succeeded in getting people like me (the smug, elitist theological “liberals” they so detest) to go in their store and buy the magazine. I haven’t seen the numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the circulation of “Gospel Today” actually increased because it was pulled from the shelves.

So congratulations, Lifeway. Congratulations, Southern Baptist Convention. All you’ve accomplished is giving more motivation to people like me who support the full inclusion of all people in all phases of life in the church, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, or any other factor they didn’t choose. You’ve given extra inspiration for people to speak up and work for justice.

Let me encourage everyone out there who cares about these issues to drop by your local Lifeway store and ask for a copy of “Gospel Today”. You don’t have to make a scene, but by shelling out a few bucks for the magazine you will be actively making a statement in support of everybody being able to live out their calling from God, no matter what some people interpret a couple of Bible verses to say.

Go buy an issue and take a stand for equality.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Read, read, read, read, we're pirates who love to read!

A post I recently read claims that the average American adult has read only six of the top 100 books ever written. I'm not sure who put this list together, or what (if any) significance there is in the numbering, but I thought this would be fun. Try your hand at the list.

The Rules:
1) Look at the list and put one * by those you have read.
2) Put a % by those you intend to read.
3) Put two ** by the books you LOVE.
4) Put # by the books you HATE.
5) Post. (Don't forget to tag me.)

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen# (she's just so freaking whiny!!!)
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien **
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling **
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee*
6 The Bible **
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte* (Monty Python's semaphor version was much better, though)
8 1984 - George Orwell**
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens*
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott*
12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare**
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien**
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger%
19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell# (I'm sorry, Jessica, I just can't stand Scarlet...)
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald**
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy%
25 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams%
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky*
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck*
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll%
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy%
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens%
33 Chronicles of Narnia- CS Lewis**
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis** (although this is part of the Chronicles of Narnia)
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini%
38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the pooh - AA Milne*
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell*
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown* (Angels and Demons was better)
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood%
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding*
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan%
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel%
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens*
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley*
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck*
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas*
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac**
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville*
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker*
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett *
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce 
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens*
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker%
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web - EB White *
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle**
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad *
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery*
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare ** (again, this was already included in Shakespeare's "Complete Works")
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl *
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo **

36 of 100. Not bad. I guess this makes me one of those arugula eating, snobbish, elitists that's not in touch with real Americans...

Please feel free to argue with the composition of this list. I could list a dozen or so books that should have been included, and quarrel with a few that are on there. Do we really need this much Jane Austin? Really?...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Growth in the Small Church

I just read an interesting article by Lewis Parks, who is a professor at Wesley Seminary, on the types of people who visit small membership churches.

Church growth can be a touchy subject for clergy and laity in small membership congregations because most of the rhetoric among the church growth crowd tends to have a "bigger is better" mentality, where people not-so-subtly suggest that if your church is small you're doing something wrong. That's kind of like saying "you're not rich because you don't work hard enough" to someone with a back breaking minimum wage job.

At the rick of oversimplifying Dr. Parks' argument, those who need the small membership church are often those who are turned off by and/or have been hurt by mega-churches where they have felt lost in the crowd, and who seek the type of intimacy that it can be difficult (though certainly not impossible) to find in large churches.

It bears mentioning, of course, that not all small membership churches offer the kind of intimacy that these people are looking for. Lots of people visit smaller churches where they are obviously the only non-member, and yet no one says hello to them. Some small churches are comfortable being their own little religious club and have no interest in helping others grow in their relationship with God.

What Parks' article does do is remind us that not every church visitor (I intentionally avoid the term "seeker") is looking for the same thing. Perhaps before churches decide they want to advertise themselves they should evaluate their strengths, have a good sense of who they really are as a community, and seek to put that image out there instead of simply trying to replicate miniature versions of mega-churches.

Friday, September 19, 2008

It's time for more shameless self promotion

My latest article is up on Worship Connection. You can check out out here.

If your browser doesn't like the link, here's the text to cut and paste:


Friday, September 12, 2008

An Open Letter to Governor Sarah Palin

Dear Governor Palin,

First of all, congratulations on your nomination for Vice President. Your candidacy is truly historic.

But as glad as I am that your candidacy represents the great steps toward gender equality that our society is making, some of your recent statements give me cause for concern. OK, I’ll be honest. Some of your recent statements flat out scare me.

In your recent interview with Charles Gibson, he asked you about your view of your fitness to be Vice President. This is an especially important question given the age and previous health problems of Senator McCain. To his question, you said, “You have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we're on — reform of this country and victory in the war. You can't blink. So I didn't blink then even when asked to run as his running mate.”

I find this disturbing given the practices of the administration you are seeking to replace. President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, and those who serve them have demonstrated their “commitment to the mission” (to use your words) of preventing any future terrorist attacks on this country that they have authorized the invasion of a country that posed little threat to us based on evidence that we now know to be flimsy and intentionally misleading. In their “commitment to the mission” they have authorized torture on individuals to extract information, something which you as a Christian should oppose.

I appreciate and celebrate your commitment to keeping our country safe, but “not blinking” seems to suggest that you will continue the policies of the current administration, and not bring the change that you and Senator McCain are promising.

If you aspire to be one of the leaders of this nation I would hope that you would want to be a moral leader, as well. A true moral leader holds themselves to the highest standards in how they treat all people, especially those to whom they owe nothing. A true moral leader asks difficult questions of themselves and those that follow them to make sure that they are, indeed, doing unto “the least of these” as they would to Jesus Christ himself. A true moral leader considers the complexities of the issues they face and thinks through their decisions before committing to a course of action.

If what I have just described is what you consider “blinking”, then I hope you, Senator McCain, Senator Obama, Senator Biden, or whomever else may sit in the Oval Office will “blink” and think through their decisions in a timely manner befitting the seriousness of their duties and respecting those whom they serve.


Rev. Matthew L. Kelley

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

"Reveal"ing our assumptions

Our congregational visioning team has begun its work, and one of the things we’re doing is studying books about what other churches are doing to work with cultural changes. Two of the books I’ve been considering for our group are from the Reveal series, detailing what Willow Creek Church has been up to in the last few years. Although I ultimately decided against using these books for our visioning process, they brought up a lot of interesting issues for discussion.

My biggest issue with these books is that they’re fundamentally rooted in the assumptions of modernity. Specifically, they work under the assumption that something as abstract and subjective as spiritual growth can be quantified, the variables identified, and that a one size fits all program for furthering people’s spiritual growth can be created. This isn’t terribly surprising, since Willow hired a top marketing consultant for the study they describe in the books. In this conversation, “Christian spiritual growth” is the product in question, and they are using the assumptions and tools of the corporate world to assess how well they are selling said product. When the questions are set up in this way, it’s no wonder that they concluded that spiritual growth could be measured and its implementation managed.

To give an example of how these assumptions play out, in the course of the study they “discovered” what they call a “continuum of spiritual growth” with four components: exploring Christ, growing in Christ, close to Christ, and Christ centered. People can answer a few questions and quickly tell at what point they are on the continuum. But anyone familiar with the theology of Willow Creek knows that the assumptions about definable stages of spiritual growth were already present before this continuum was “discovered”. Senior Pastor Bill Hybels frequently talks about people crossing “the line of faith”, where one goes from being damned to saved, from no faith to having faith. When their soteriology (theology of salvation) is already set up in linear, definable paradigms, is it really a surprise that the conclusion of their research revealed a measurable continuum of spiritual growth?

The questions used in this study to gauge people’s levels of spiritual growth also lead one to question the objectivity of the study. In short, if one responds positively to statements of evangelical orthodoxy, they are judged to be farther along the continuum of spiritual growth. Someone who is absolutely sure that the Bible is authoritative in all areas of their life and absolutely sure that receiving Christ is the only way to salvation is judged to be more spiritual than one who is not sure of such statements. But what if wrestling with those questions is a significant part of someone’s spiritual growth? By this measure, they are still in the “exploring Christ” stage until they come to what the authors see as the “correct” conclusion.

Another one of the modernist assumptions present in this study is the ability to place everything into definable categories. The books frequently talk about “spiritual attitudes” and “spiritual behaviors”, and discusses how one’s spiritual life affects other areas of life. This understanding of compartmentalized spirituality (however influential said compartment may be) ignores belief systems that see the spiritual life as integrative and holistic.

The problem of modernity when it comes to talking about theology is that we assume (falsely, I believe) that one can speak the same way about every field. A proposition can be tested and sufficiently proven or disproven in physics, so it must be the same with theology. The problem is that the laws of physics can be observed and tested using the five senses we have. The subject of theology is something that fundamentally transcends our ability to fully perceive with those five senses, so the language and assumptions in conversations about physics will, consequentially, be fundamentally different than the language and assumptions in conversations about theology. This is why Jesus taught in parables. He would say that the Kingdom of God is like a pearl or like a farmer or a fisherman. He didn’t say, “here are the seven principles to understanding what I do in people’s lives”.

To their credit, the authors admit that it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. They admit that spiritual growth looks different for each individual, even though they stick to their arguments about definable categories. They say that their thinking is not linear in nature, even though their frequent use of graphs showing linear progressions suggests otherwise. It raises the question of whether the writers are simplifying complex concepts for the sake of clarity or merely giving lip service to the idea that God is mysterious.

These critiques should not be taken, to say, however, that the Reveal volumes are totally without value. Far from it. The books have several very important correctives to problems that exist in many churches, evangelical or otherwise. First of all, the books point out that attendance and participation in worship services is not the chief catalyst for spiritual growth. Churches often assume that the more one participates in church activities, the more one grows spiritually. The Reveal study insists (rightly, I believe) that relationships with others is the most important factor to spiritual growth. The books also emphasize service to those less fortunate as a key factor to spiritual growth. These emphases help correct the inherent ecclesiocentrism (everything being focused on the Church) present in most large congregations, and reminds us that Christ is everywhere.

So while I clearly disagree with many of the fundamental assumptions present in the Reveal study, there are a number of valuable things to be learned from it. These books are very interesting and would make for good reading for pastors and congregational leaders, although I’d recommend taking it all with a few grains of salt.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Protestant Sacrament

Lately my dissatisfaction with much of the Christian lingo we toss around with little to no thought as to what it really means has caused me to consider the whole subject of salvation. It’s impossible to bring up the topic in church or anywhere else without everyone getting very uncomfortable because the fire and brimstone preacher they heard as a kid still echoes in the back of their head. “Be saved or go to Hell” seems to be the paradigm most people are familiar with, even if they don’t totally buy into it, and as such they see this as the central tenant of Christianity, or worse, of all religions.

In much of my reading and discussion in the emerging church conversation I find pretty much the same thing, even if it’s talked about in a more sophisticated way. We’re afraid to express any definitive opinion because we’re afraid of who we’ll offend or whose painful childhood memories we’ll awaken. Perhaps this is not an entirely bad thing, because for us to rethink what these things really mean we actually have to spend some time thinking about them and not just race to an answer for the sake of having one. Still, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve become so comfortable with sitting with these questions that we’re afraid to take the next step and test out some ideas.

That being said, I have a theory I’ve been working on for a while that I’d like to share and get some feedback on. It’s not an explanation of what it means to be saved or how the process (if it is, indeed, a process with definable stages) works. Instead it’s a working hypothesis on the central problem of our conversations on salvation in modern American Protestantism.

My theory is this: American Protestant Evangelicals have turned the concept of “accepting Christ” into a sacrament. I will hereafter refer to this as “The Protestant Sacrament”.

I use the word “sacrament” intentionally because of how the meaning of the term has evolved over time. In the Roman Catholic Church the term has classically meant a means through which one receives and partakes in the grace of God (the Council of Trent did refine the definition somewhat, but the council was in response to the whole Protestant problem). Protestants changed the definition somewhat because of the desire to get away from the perceived ecclesiocentrism of Catholicism. Definitions differ depending on who you ask, but most Protestants would tell you that a sacrament is a tangible manifestation of God’s grace, but that grace is not confined to these rituals and can be experienced in many ways.

It is the classical Catholic understanding of sacrament that leads me to speak of the Protestant Sacrament (the definition I just gave is grossly over simplistic, of course). In our efforts to package Christianity as a consumable product on par with the Big Mac we have reduced being a Christian into whether or not one has had a saving experience with a specific time, date, and place. If you’ve come forward at the altar call at church, at the Billy Graham crusade, or prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer” after someone walks you through the tract, then you’re a Christian. You’ve accepted Christ, you’ve received the Protestant Sacrament, therefore you’re saved and are going to heaven.

That’s all I’ll say for now. I’ll put up another post soon and talk about some of the reasons I think this is a huge problem. What I’m trying to sketch out right now is how this came to be. I have a general idea, most of it having to do with frontier revivalism in the respective Great Awakenings in America (leading me to think that I, as a person of Wesleyan persuasions, have inherited some of the blame for this) and the gradual decline in the regular practice of Communion at many camp meetings.

What I need right now is feedback. Is this small seed of an idea something worth pursuing? Has somebody already fleshed this out and I just haven’t picked up the right book? Let’s discuss.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A glimpse into the future

Baby Preacher

This is what my son, Wes, will probably be doing about two years from now, trying to act like Daddy.

The Never Ending Countdown

I really loved the show "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip", not because the show was that great in and of itself (although it was good), but because it provided the weekly fix of intellectual fiction I had been missing since "The West Wing" ended. Either that or I just like Aaron Sorkin's writing a lot.

The main reason I loved this show was because I so identified with Matt Albie (played by Matthew Perry of "Friends" fame), who was the head writer of the fictional SNL type show. He was a very gifted writer but he was often distracted from his work by his personal demons. He was obsessive about the quality of his work and endlessly self critical. Truly a guy after my own heart.

In his office, Matt had a clock counting down the hours and minutes until the show went on the air. No matter how good a show had been, he began each week with a blank piece of paper and 158 hours to fill it. 

One of these days when I have some money to burn (which will be right about never since I have a baby on the way) I'm going to get a clock like that for my office to count down the 158 hours I have each week between Sunday mornings. No matter how good or bad a sermon may have been, I'm essentially facing a blank piece of paper on Sunday afternoon. I have lots of help filling it, of course, from books, colleagues, Roundtable Pulpit participants, and a very intelligent wife who won't let me cut corners in making an argument.

This probably makes me weird, but I get very energized by the challenge this presents. If I preached well, I get to turn around and try to do it again the next week. If I was just OK or flat out bad, I get to try to redeem myself in just a few days.

Now before I sound too narcissistic, preaching is clearly a different pursuit than giving a political speech or performing in a play. The sermon is not simply the sum total of my preparation and abilities, but instead is supposed to be a medium through which the Holy Spirit speaks to and blesses people. Some people say that the best preaching happens when the preacher gets out of the way and lets the Spirit do its thing. But I know myself well enough to know that if I'm unprepared, if I'm too nervous, or if I'm not in the right headspace, then I'm going to stand up there and stammer, tell bad jokes, and generally get in the way of the Spirit moving. Getting the heck out of the way takes a whole lot of work!

I'm writing this post on Tuesday morning at about 10 am. That gives me a little less than 110 hours before church on Sunday. I've got a lot of work to do so I can get out of the Spirit's way. 

Tick tock, tick tock...

Friday, July 18, 2008

Not of One Mind

Some interesting news from the recent Jurisdictional Conferences of the United Methodist Church, which meet every four years to elect and assign bishops for the coming quadrennium: 

The Northeastern Jurisdiction voted to affirm the actions of California pastors who choose to bless same sex marriages, even though they are prohibited to do so by the Book of Discipline (you can read the UMNS story here). The delegates also encouraged leniency on those who choose to practice this kind of civil disobedience as a prophetic witness against what they believe to be an injustice.

In the Western Jurisdiction, Rev. Frank Wulf took the very courageous step of being the church's first openly gay candidate for bishop (UMNS story here). Although he was not elected, Rev. Wulf showed both tremendous personal integrity by being honest about his sexuality and tremendous pastoral sensitivity by his concerns over the backlash from people filled with hate should he be elected.

Also in the Western Jurisdiction, Bishop Beverly Shamana of the California-Nevada Conference issued a "ruling of law" declaring same sex marriages performed by UMC clergy to be "null and void" according to the Discipline, even though they are legal under California state law (UMNS story here). Any ruling of law issued by a Bishop is automatically reviewed by the Judicial Council (our denomination's Supreme Court), guaranteeing a very interesting a controversial meeting of the JC this fall.

I bring this up because earlier this summer at General Conference a legislative committee recommended adding some additional language to the Book of Discipline regarding our official stance on homosexuality. While this language did not change our official position, it did acknowledge that the church is "not of one mind" on the issue and that "good and faithful Christians" are on both sides. This majority report went to the floor of GC and was narrowly voted down. The debate over this language was described by many in attendance as one of the most divisive and hate filled exchanges they had ever seen.

But whether the Book of Discipline says so or not, we are clearly not of one mind on the issue of sexual orientation. Perhaps it's time we laid aside our rhetoric and sound-bytes, came out of our armed camps, and actually had some dialogue with one another. We're not of one mind, and the sooner we admit that, the sooner we can deal with it.

Friday, July 04, 2008

It's a Boy!!!

This morning we took the Intelligender test to determine the sex of our baby, and it turns out it's a boy! (Well, technically it's a 90% chance) I am extremely excited to have a son!

We posted the video of us seeing the test results on our joint blog, which you can see here.

PS- Wish Jessica a Happy Birthday today!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Church and State in Tension

The 4th of July holiday is coming up, and many churches are getting very elaborate in their celebrations. These celebrations unfortunately do not include acknowledgement that my wife, Jessica, was born on this day, but I digress...

Many churches are choosing to hold special worship services celebrating America's Independence Day. Some are even advertising these "Patriotic Services" in hopes of attracting those who feel strong national loyalties but don't often attend church.

A fellow Methodist pastor recently talked about putting together a Patriotic Service on his blog and he said that some people had objected to including the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the service. He argued that saying the pledge was acceptable for Christians because loyalty to one's country does not negate one's commitment to Christ.

I agree with his sentiment, but I don't think it's a good reason to include the pledge as part of the worship service. Clearly national loyalties and confessional loyalties are not mutually exclusive from one another, as we can see from the many faithful Christians who serve as members of the armed services. But just because these loyalties are not mutually exclusive does not mean that they never conflict with one another.

Such generalized discussion, however, doesn't really address the issue of including the pledge as part of a worship service. For the record, I don't think the Pledge of Allegiance, or any other national oath, should be part of a Christian worship service. I don't even think national flags should be present in sanctuaries or other worship spaces. 

A worship service is supposed to help us grow in our adoration and praise of God, and anything that distracts from that central goal should probably be left out. A pledge of loyalty to a nation, a national flag, or other symbols of human kingdoms might be nice ways to pay tribute to the nation, particularly a nation like the United States where we have the freedom to worship as we see fit. But would including those elements distract some of the people attending the service and confuse them as to what loyalties and values are being extolled in the time of worship? Does saying the Pledge of Allegiance or having a flag in the sanctuary help us to love God more? Does seeing the Stars and Stripes and singing "America the Beautiful" increase our devotion to Jesus Christ? 

No, they don't. So they should be left out. 

Let's have those things in the 4th of July Parade and the fireworks display. That way we can celebrate how great America is without accidentally implying that our loyalty to our country should be even remotely equal to our loyalty to Christ.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Waking Up to the Reality of Pluralism

A recent article in Time Magazine points out something that people of my generation have known for quite some time: the fact of greater diversity in American society has had a tremendous effect on people's theological views. 

According to a new survey from the Pew Research Forum, 70% of people (and even 57% of Evangelical Christians) agreed with the idea that "multiple religions can lead to eternal life". The basic reason for this, according to both the Pew Forum and nearly every single person I talk to about these issues, is that once you meet someone of a different religious tradition and begin to understand that they are basically a good, moral person and not that different from you, it becomes much harder to believe that they are headed to Hell simply because of a different confession of faith.

It's been interesting to watch reactions to this survey over the last few days. The nearly universal reaction in Evangelical circles is that the survey should make us take a very hard look at the status of evangelism in the church. And on this point I'll agree with them, but probably for very different reasons.

Most churches don't address the subject of other religions in a substantive way. Many of them that do tackle the subject do so to promote Christianity via negativa. That is, they try to prove that what they believe is true by attempting to show every flaw in the other system of belief. We see this in the political arena in pundits like Bill O'Riley, who would rather make their opponents look stupid than argue the merits of their own positions.

If the issue of religions pluralism is raised at all, it's usually for the purpose of evangelism. Once we've sufficiently (we think) debunked other "false" religious traditions, we go in for the kill and ask people to accept Christ by praying a quick prayer that magically ensures their eternal salvation, keeping them from burning in Hell with the infidels. In this mode of evangelism, Jesus is reduced to a "get out of Hell" free card in a cosmic game of Monopoly.

These approaches to other religions and evangelism work just fine when you live in a place where everyone is just like you and you rarely, if ever, need worry about actually interacting with that awful, scary "other". My dad grew up in a small town where this was the case. One of the biggest scandals when he was growing up was when one of his Baptist friends started dating a Catholic girl. He never met a Jewish person until he was in college, let alone a Muslim or a Hindu, so it was easy to see these "others" as godless heathens marching straight toward the lake of fire.

So maybe what the Pew Forum shows us is that building up your own religion by tearing down another is the act of a bully, just like kids on a playground. If there's no other reason to be a Christian than not going to Hell, then Christianity is a religion based more on the fear of God than the love of God. 

The Kingdom that Jesus preached about was one where no one need fear exclusion based on any criteria, confessional or otherwise. What if the evangelistic programs our churches engaged in were based less on "I'm in, you're out" fear mongering and more on the radical good news that says, "congratulations, you're in. Now live like it!"?

Just a thought...

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Big Announcement...

Jessica and I are pregnant!

Well, technically it's just her that's pregnant, but you know what I mean.

We're about ten weeks along now and glad that we don't have to keep it a secret anymore. Jessica has a full report posted at our joint blog, The Parsonage Family, which you should read because she answers all the FAQs.

My brother, Andrew, who's a bit of a degenerate gambler, has set up an online poll where you can predict the gender of our baby. You can vote here, but if you're using the link from my blog you'd better vote for a boy!

Also, here's a picture from our first ultrasound earlier this week:

We'll post more info and pictures as we get them!

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Space Between

We just wrapped up the latest meeting of the Annual Conference here in Tennessee, and the clergy and lay delegates have returned to their respective congregations. I don't know anyone who will tell you that they find Conference to be fun (without a heavy dose of sarcasm), but we'll all agree that the business of the Conference is important. Some might even say they find it enjoyable. I had a genuinely good experience at AC this year because it was an opportunity to reconnect with friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in months, or in one case, nearly ten years. Reports on the church finances, setting of apportionments, learning about the different ministries of the Conference, and the Service of Ordination (in which I hope to participate next year) are all important, of course, but maybe the best reason for us to have Annual Conference is those times in between business sessions where we get to hang out with one another.

Conferencing is a major part of our Wesleyan heritage. John Wesley  even put "Holy Conferencing" up there with scripture study and regular practice of the Eucharist on his list of important spiritual disciplines he called "means of grace". In contrast to his Calvinist friends, Wesley saw the church as more than a mere "gathering of the elect", but an absolute necessity in the life of a follower of Jesus because we are much stronger when we work together than we ever could be on our own.

So perhaps the most important reason to spend hours on end sitting in pews with 1,200 others voting on apportionments and authorizing committee actions is not so much the business at hand but the space between those meetings that are left open for us to connect with one another and tend to relationships that we are often otherwise too busy to enjoy. 

Maybe this is even something that is really important about our churches, even if we often forget it. Perhaps the most important thing we do at church is not committee meetings or Bible studies or even weekly worship (although all those things are crucial), but the spaces between these things where we sit down with a cup of coffee or with covered dishes (something Methodists are famous for) and share the joys and sorrows of our lives together. Maybe its that space for relationships that truly bond us together and one family in Christ.

To borrow a phrase from one of my mentors, it's something to ponder.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Obama and his church

We found out this weekend that Barack Obama has resigned his long time membership at Trinity UCC in Chicago after his affiliation with the congregation has caused him one too many political headaches. It’s a sad ending to what from the beginning has been a very sad and unfortunate story.

Before I go on, a disclaimer is in order. I am no expert in the Black Church. I’m a white, suburban male who has not spent a significant amount of time worshipping in the Black Church (a term which is itself far too generalized). While I don’t have much firsthand experience in these issues, I have a number of friends, colleagues, and teachers who do. I was very fortunate to have friends and professors in seminary who were raised in and are active in the Black Church and can talk about these issues on intellectual, spiritual, and emotional levels. My view on the whole situation with Obama and Rev. Wright is largely formed by what I have learned from them, so take my views for what they’re worth.

I first heard of Jeremiah Wright several years ago when I heard audio of some of his sermons in a preaching class. Of the half dozen or so sermons I heard in their entirety (and many other short clips), I’d say 90% of the time he wasn’t yelling the way we’ve seen in those sound-bites that have been ripped out of context and run in endless loops on cable news channels. Rev. Wright actually has a very rhythmic, mesmerizing speaking style that almost makes you forget how good of a biblical and theological scholar he is. He puts forth a tremendous amount of substance in a very attractive speaking style.

That being said, he does yell and speak off the cuff in the heat of the moment, as do many African American preachers. And as happens sometimes when preachers go off script, he says things that, in retrospect, he wishes he might not have said. No one who preaches regularly, myself included, wouldn’t take back some of their impromptu comments if given the chance.

But even more important than the realities of the occasional gaffes that are part of public speaking is the tradition of prophetic speech in the Black Church. From what I’ve read and what I’ve been told by friends and teachers, the church occupies a very different place in African American culture than it does in the Caucasian culture in which I was raised. The difference is chiefly in terms of empowerment. White, educated, reasonably affluent people have a plethora of venues in which we feel safe to express our hopes, dreams, frustrations, and general opinions. We’re on top socially and economically, so we have the tremendous privilege of being heard whenever and wherever we want. As the great philosopher Homer Simpson said, “I’m a white male aged 18 to 45. Everyone cares what I think!”

This is largely not the case in the African American community. In the average white church you can find business leaders, civic leaders, and other people with tremendous influence in society at large. In the Black Church there is a tremendous sense of disenfranchisement, and the church is one of the few places where African Americans feel truly free to voice the frustration and anger that comes from this sense. As the spokesperson for the community, the preacher has the opportunity (some would even say the obligation) to give voice to these frustrations. So when Jeremiah Wright or another African American preacher yells about oppression they are not just giving voice to their feelings, but to those of their whole congregation. Is it any wonder that the congregation roars back? It’s cathartic!

So it’s simultaneously unfortunately and unsurprising that the media has jumped all over the whole Jeremiah Wright story. Some say that it’s indicative of the latent racism in America’s white majority culture. I think that’s true insofar as it demonstrates our willful ignorance of how important the church is as an institution in African American culture. But the main reason the story has been so big is simply the reality of a 24 hour media culture. Broadcast media is big business, and most of it is controlled by corporations whose singular goal is to keep their stock price high. Clips like the ones of Jeremiah Wright yelling seemingly anti-American sentiments from the pulpit grab people’s attention and can keep it for a period of time, enabling CNN, MSNBC, and Faux News to charge higher ad rates.

Barack Obama is a major player in a game whose rules he did not make, and to win he has to pick his battles carefully. I believe him when he says this was a painful decision for him, and that he felt it was the right thing to do. And neither I nor anyone else can say if the pain he has caused himself and others by leaving the church will be outweighed by the good he might be able to do as President. That will be for historians to judge long after all of us are gone. In the meantime all we can do is pray for him (and John McCain, and Hilary Clinton, and George W. Bush) as he faces many difficult decisions in the days ahead. I hope he will be able to find a place to worship where he is welcomed and treated not as a symbol for one cause or another, but as a beloved child of God.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Jesus Christ Superstar

Last night Jessica and I went to see "Jesus Christ Superstar", the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. It starred Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the movie that came out in 1973. I was really excited to see this because several years ago I saw a production that starred Carl Anderson, who had played Judas in the same film, and he was absolutely amazing. (In said production, Jesus was played by Sebastian Bach, who was the lead singer for Skid Row, and he played Jesus like a guy in a hair metal band. Surprise, surprise)

I was disappointed in Ted Neeley's performance, although in retrospect I guess I shouldn't have been. He played Jesus in the movie that came out 35 years ago, and I think he had played the part on stage before that. So the guy has been playing this same role for nearly four decades, and it clearly shows. He knows every word and note by heart, and I think he was just going through the motions. 

Neeley is a ridiculously talented rock singer. When he hits the high notes he blows every eighties rocker off the map. But going through the motions the way he did, seeming kind of bored with the part, made the character of Jesus seem very etherial, almost like a divine ghost inhabiting a human shell. The strength of JCS is that it reminds us just how human Jesus really was. The scene in the second act where Jesus is praying in Gethsemane just before his arrest is one of the most powerful pieces of musical theatre I've ever seen, and when it's really performed and not just sung, no one in the audience is unmoved, regardless of their religious affiliation.

So although this wasn't the best performance of JCS I've ever seen, it's still an amazing show that I never tire of, and I'm glad I went.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Further Shameless Self Promotion

Worship Connection, an online worship resource by Cokesbury, published an article I wrote on collaborative preaching. Check it out if you have a few minutes. Comments are always appreciated, of course.

For those who can't access the link above, copy the following into your browser:

Friday, May 09, 2008

General Conference wrapup forthcoming

I haven't fallen off the face of the earth, I promise. I have, however, been quite ill the past few days. It's an occupational hazard when you shake hundreds of hands every Sunday (I wonder how presidential candidates keep from getting everyone's germs?), but I'm better now. Over the next few days I'll take some time to collect my thoughts and give my overall assesment of General Conference. I can say this much right now: it's a mixed report card, as I expected it would be. We succeeded in some ways and failed in others leaving our denominational future a very open question. More specifics in a few days.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

General Conference- May 1

I'm disappointed, although not really surprised at the way many things have turned out at the 2008 General Conference. Perhaps no issue encapsulates the stalemate we find ourselves in as the issue of sexual orientation.

I saw one report that said there were more petitions submitted to General Conference on the issue of sexual orientation than on any other single issue. They ranged from one petition that wanted to make it unconstitutional for any person to try to change the denomination's stance on sexual orientation (thus making it necessary to change the Constitution before any changes could be made), to petitions allowing homosexual persons to serve as clergy and allowing for clergy to perform same sex unions. We have seen at this General Conference, and at many previous ones, that some of the strongest lobbying has gone into this issue by all sides.

So I am not surprised that no real progress was made on this issue at this General Conference. I am disappointed, however, that the delegates chose not to take a step that might at least relieve some of the tension. A majority report from one of the legislative committees recommended adding a clause to the Social Principles that said, “faithful and thoughtful people who have grappled with this issue deeply disagree with one another; yet all seek a faithful witness.” It would not have struck the clause that said that the UMC "considers homosexual practice incompatible with Christian teaching", nor would it have changed the fact that we exclude people from ordination and marriage based on their sexual orientation.

I don't see what would have been wrong with at least acknowledging that we're not all on the same page when it comes to this issue. The United Methodist Church prides itself (sometimes too much so) on that fact that we are a diverse, global church. Would it not have been in the spirit of "Holy Conferencing" to officially admit that we may not all agree but that we acknowledge that people with differing opinions are still good and faithful followers of Jesus?

It's even more unfortunate that when the issue came to the entire assembly that such hateful language was used in the debate. I received an email from one person who was present at the session in question who said that the tone of the debate was even more hurtful than the outcome of the vote. Again, how is this practicing "Holy Conferencing"?

This is especially sad in light of the sermon that Bishop Violet Fischer preached on the same day as this vote was taken (I think the video is available online). While the primary subject of the sermon was on the sin of racism, Bishop Fisher's text was the incident in the gospels where Jesus overturns the moneychangers tables in the Temple courts. She preached very powerfully that for the church to truly be living out the reign of God in the world, some unpopular actions will have to be taken and a number of people made uncomfortable if all of God's children are to be equally welcomed. 

It is unfortunate that such a prophetic message was preached in the same space on the same day that a sad social status quo was upheld by a slim majority who feel we're not yet ready to fully include all of God's image bearers in the life of the church. Hopefully one day we will truly hear this message and act on it accordingly.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

General Conference- April 30

I looked at some of the news wrap ups last night after I published my rather lengthy rant on the General Conference's lack of action on the ordination process. While my central argument remains the same: that more substantive action is needed now and delaying another four years will only hurt us, I want to acknowledge a couple things in the interest of fairness on the issue.

First of all, it is true that the Study on Ministry Commission asked for another four years to study the plethora of issues facing it. These are complex questions and I think a continual study on the issue is a good thing. But it's also true that the Commission made a number of recommendations that could have reasonably been acted upon by this General Conference and not put off for another four years (I'll address one of them below). With an issue as crucial to the life and identity of the church as the meaning and structure of ordination there will always be more questions to consider no matter how many years we study it. The fact that not every issue is resolved does not absolve us of the responsibility to take at least a few steps toward fixing a very broken system.

I have seen one petition that may be voted on that changes some of the language in the Discipline by renaming "Commissioned Probationary Ministers" as  "Provisional Ministers". As it currently stands, one is commissioned as a probationary Elder or Deacon, serves at least three years in said capacity, and is then fully ordained and admitted into full conference membership. I like the change from "probationary" to "provisional" because it softens the language and makes it seem, on the surface at least, less adversarial. In John Wesley's day new preachers were "on trial", so we're making progress. The language still does not show the level of care that our brothers and sisters in other denominations do, who use language like "in discernment", "postulancy", or "under care", but progress is progress.

I feel this General Conference can go one step further in making the ordination process seem much less cumbersome and adversarial. The perception of what the process is is a major problem, so one of the recommendations of the Study on Ministry Commission would achieve a change in perception and retain the oversight and accountability that supporters of the current system value.

This proposal, which was put forth in several petitions to the 2008 General Conference, but was rejected by the legislative committee, separated ordination from full conference membership. In the case of Elders, full conference membership is important because Elders itenerate and are guaranteed a full time appointment. This proposal would have Elders and Deacons be ordained at the time of what is now commissioning, while keeping the three year residency process so that the minister can demonstrate their fitness to have the tenure that comes with full conference membership. As it exists now, the tenure aspect overshadows the spiritual component of ordination. Rather than a celebration of one's gifts and graces for ministry, and an affirmation of their calling, getting ordained is more like a graduation or an initiation where the person is just glad that the hard work or hazing has come to an end. If ordination if a communal affirmation of an individual's God given gifts and a beginning point to their ministry, then ordination must, of necessity come an the inauguration of one's ministry, not three or five years into it.

I believe that this General Conference can and should move ordination to the time of commissioning, keeping the three year residency process intact before full conference membership. This would retain the structures of oversight and accountability necessary to ensure effective ministry by the ordained, and revitalizing the spiritual aspect of ordination by not muddying it up with the tenure that comes with full conference membership. This would help make ministry in the United Methodist Church much more attractive to prospective candidates because it would celebrate the spiritual aspects of ordination and make the process seem less cumbersome and adversarial. There are still a few days left and there is time for the delegates to change their minds. I pray that they do so.