Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Shameless Self Promotion: Christmas in the UK Edition

Want proof that the internet has made the world a whole lot smaller?

About a month ago, I got a Facebook message from Richard Corrie, the Faith Producer for BBC Radio Cumbria (Cumbria is in Northern England. Yeah, I had to Google it, too), asking if he could use some material I wrote for their Christmas Eve broadcast.

They used some monologues that I wrote for a chapel service a number of years ago at Vanderbilt Divinity School, imagining what it would be like for Mary, Joseph and one of the shepherds, respectively, to tell about their experience of the Nativity story.

I published these monologues on Ministry Matters a couple years ago, along with some thoughts on how churches could produce their own such material, in an article called The Christmas Story in First Person. (The folks at the BBC only used Mary and Joseph. The Shepherd was my personal favorite, but oh well.)

If you're so inclined, you can go to the BBC's website to listen to the Christmas Eve Service from St. Andrew's Church in Penrith. The service is an hour long and the whole thing is worth the listen, but if you just want to hear the monologues, Mary starts at 18:57, and Joseph at 32:50.

I hope everyone had a blessed and peaceful Christmas, however you chose to spend it. Thanks for reading, and as always, any feedback is greatly appreciated.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thomas Merton Day

72 years ago today Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani

45 years ago today he entered the church triumphant after being accidentally electrocuted at a conference in Bangkok

While not officially recognized by any denomination, he is a saint for writers, people who consistently wrestle with their calling, and to all those who crave honesty and authenticity in their spiritual quest

Happy Thomas Merton Day to all

(Icon by William Hart McNichols)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Shameless Self Promotion- Prop Edition

I have a new article up on Ministry Matters- You're a Prop, and that's OK.

I'm responding to a recent episode of the Homebrewed Christianity podcast in which a former pastor says that one of the downsides of this vocation is that "you are a prop" in many events like weddings and funerals that are supposed to be sacred and worshipful.

My contention is that even if people are requesting the presence of a clergy-person for the "wrong" reasons, it still gives the pastor the opportunity to have significant interaction with people they would not normally get to relate to. A pastor may start off as a prop, but they can make the most of the opportunity with the right attitude.

I wrote the article a few weeks ago. It just posted today, but given a recent video of a priest who went off on a wedding photographer (the editor thankfully did a last minute link to the video in the article), the timing works out great!

Read the article and comment here or on Ministry Matters if you're so inclined. If you like it, please share it with others who might be interested. Thanks for reading!

Regarding the pastor in this video, the time to have such conversations with the photographer and or/ videographer is before the ceremony, but for all we know he may have and they didn't respect his request, or he may not have had the chance to. I've never had this problem, and I like to think I might have handled it a little bit differently, but I applaud him for pushing back and claiming his authority!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Remembering September 11

Anyone alive and old enough to be conscious of what was happening remembers where they were on September 11, 2001, when they heard that we were being attacked. For Generation X the Millennial Generation (I am a member of both since 1980 is the overlap), 9/11 is what Pearl Harbor was for the Greatest Generation and JFK's assassination was for the Baby Boomers.

I was a junior in college, eating cereal in a bedroom I shared with two other guys in my fraternity house. I was a couple years into my first youth ministry job, so I spent quite a bit of time processing the events with middle and high schoolers as well as my college peers.

Preachers have to come up with ten to fifteen minutes of new material every single week, so how I process and reflect on many issues usually ends up in sermons in one way or another. How I have reflected on 9/11 and the many issues it brings up is no exception, so instead of writing a lengthy post, I will simply share two messages where I share some of these reflections.

The first one, "The Renewed Creation" was part of a series on Romans. The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks happened to be on a Sunday, and the events were at the forefront of everyone's mind that morning. We reflected how God's sanctifying grace draws us out of being primarily self centered into reflecting on God's other-centered love.

The second message, "Terror and Resurrection", was shared the Sunday following the Boston Marathon bombings. That week also saw the manhunt that killed one of the bombers playing out on live TV, and a huge chemical plant explosion in Texas. The senselessness of violence and death was very much on everyone's minds, much like on 9/11. We reflected on how, in the face of terror and senseless violence, followers of Jesus witness to the God who enters into our suffering and breaks the power of death, claiming "Resurrection" as the last word.

How do you remember the events of twelve years ago today? Where were you that day? How have your memories changed over time?

Monday, September 02, 2013

got questions? The Bible

We've begun a new series of messages at Arlington called "got questions?"

Over the summer, people submitted questions they have about God, church, faith, etc. Each week, we're taking one question (or a group of closely related questions) and addressing it. Most of the questions people submitted are of such depth that we can't claim to answer them, but we hope that in our reflecting together, we'll be challenged to grow and hopefully come away with better questions than we started with.

We got a lot of good questions about the Bible. What is it? How did this collection of books come to be? What do we make of it? What is this whole "taking it literally" thing about and is that the only faithful way to read it? (spoiler alert- NO!!!)

The audio of the message is below. You can listen here, on our website, or subscribe in iTunes.

A few minutes in, we reference a video whose audio had to be cut out because of copyright restrictions. "Our friend, Chuck" is Chuck Knows Church, and the episode about the Bible is below, as well.

As always, questions and comments are welcome as long as they are respectful and on topic.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech that provided a snapshot for an important era in history.

Known as the "I Have a Dream" speech, the most famous part of the address, the ending, was unscripted. It was a version of a set-peice that King had done a number of times in other venues. Preachers do tend to go down rabbit trails, and occasionally something good happens. :)

If you want to read more about this, and about how King's vocation as a preacher was integral to who he was and what he did, read The Preacher King by Richard Lescher. It's a fantastic perspective on the man and the era and culture that shaped him.

While lots of words are being said about the speech, its importance, and how it may or may not have changed the world (insofar as one single speech is capable of doing, which is probably a good subject for another post, perhaps the best way to honor this anniversary is to simply let the man speak for himself:

What is your contribution to this refrain? What is the dream today? Finish the sentence by tweeting "I have a dream that..." with the hashtag #dreamday. I'll be doing that throughout the day, and posting about it later this evening.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Fantasy Football for Preachers

The NFL returns tonight with the Hall of Fame game. Fans can either spend the next month watching pre-season games to cheer for their favorite players for a couple of series running a small portion of their actual playbook, and the rest of the game for guys who won't even make the practice squad, or they can invest way too much time and energy into preparing for their fantasy draft.

Which one do you think I'm doing?

Workin on Sundays is a Fantasy Football league for pastors, lay staffers, or anyone else who might be guilty of glancing at their phone to see how their matchup is going during the sermon. Bonus points if you're doing it while you're preaching!

Shoot me an email or message me on Facebook for the password. This league is for entertainment purposes only. No money or prizes will be exchanged. Only lovingly brutal Christian smack-talk and bragging rights.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

got questions?- an upcoming sermon series

At Arlington we'll be starting a series of messages called "got questions?"

We've invited the congregation to submit questions they have about God, the Bible, church, and anything else faith related. We'll pick the most popular/interesting ones and address one each week in worship from August 18 through September.

I want to emphasize address, not answer. We might be able to provide satisfactory answers to why we use particular colors during different liturgical seasons, but we're setting ourselves up for failure if we assume we can answer the problem of evil or the existence of God once and for all. Hopefully we'll all come away from these messages with more insight and better questions than we came in with.

Because we podcast our messages, I want to give the same opportunity to those who aren't with us physically on Sunday mornings. What questions do you have? Or, what questions do you think would be interesting to others? Leave them in the comments below or send them to this address, then tune in to see what we do with your questions.

Speaking of podcasts, here is our latest message on "Rejoicing for the Right Reasons"

You can listen in the player here, on our website, or subscribe to us on iTunes. If you choose the latter option, please take a moment to rate and review us. Thanks!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Two Invitations

This summer at Arlington, we're reading the New Testament together using a reading plan from the Optina Community in Russia, courtesy of our friends at YouVersion. The plan involves reading one chapter from the gospels every day, then two from the rest of the New Testament, beginning with Acts. At the end of 89 days (which takes us from Memorial Day up to a few days before Labor Day), we'll have read the entire New Testament together.

Click on the links to learn more and participate with us if you're so inclined.

I'm going to occasionally blog about the day's readings if I find something interesting, as I did today.

I'm on day 4 of the plan, which involved reading Matthew 4.

I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this, because I love both of these stories and I've preached on them numerous times, but it occurred to me this morning that these two stories are in the same chapter, and their proximity brings out an interesting contrast.

In the first story, Matthew 4:1-11, John has just baptized Jesus in the Jordan, and Jesus heads out for a long retreat in the desert that culminates in a proof-texting joust with ha-Satan. The absolute best meditation on this story I've ever seen is Henri Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus. In the second story, Matthew 4:18-22, Jesus calls some fishermen as his first disciples.

As I was reading the chapter as a whole this morning, it occurred to me that both of these stories involve one person inviting another to do something significant, and the contrast in these invitations spoke to me about the crossroads we find ourselves at in the church today.

Jesus' verbal sparring match with the devil involved three challenges that either implied or outright promised a specific reward: "You've been fasting for 40 days. Hungry? Make some food out of these rocks. Heck, with that kind of power, you could solve the world hunger problem!" "Want people to listen to you? Do a cool trick so they'll know you're for real!" "Swear allegiance to me and I'll give you the keys to this whole place. Think of all the good you can do!"

Jesus' call to those first disciples simply invited them to act. "Follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people".

In a consumer oriented society, where you can't go anywhere without being bombarded by advertisements, one has to do something pretty special to rise above the din and get people's attention. We in the church spend lots of time and money figuring out how to most effectively answer the "what's in it for me?" question. We say things like "we will strengthen your family", "we'll show you how to find true happiness and fulfillment", or "you can punch your ticket to Heaven here".

None of these things are inherently bad, of course, but the message is fundamentally self-centered. "Here is what this will do for YOU."

Setting aside for a moment that the temptations were from the devil, none of the things Jesus were being challenged to were inherently bad, either. They would have allowed him to accomplish his mission in a much more efficient manner. The problem is that he would have been glorifying himself, instead of letting God work and provide the ultimate glory of the Resurrection.

Jesus' invitation to his first followers, on the other hand, has little to do with their own personal gain. He only invites them to follow with some vague metaphor that helps them understand that their new mission will be at least a little bit like what they already do: fish.

Perhaps the correct response to a consumer driven, ME oriented culture is not to make our message a barely Christianized version of an ad for a washing machine, but to offer a real alternative to all these other things that may promise ultimate fulfillment, but ultimately leave us feeling more empty and more alone.

This is a terrible marketing strategy, of course. We won't promise a stronger family, greater financial security, or certainty about anything, really. We can't promise bigger churches with more people in the pews and more dollars in the plates, who pay their full year's apportionments on January 1 (my apologies to Bishops and District Superintendents).

All we really have to offer is the promise of being part of something bigger than ourselves. We have the opportunity to the never-ending ME addiction of our consumer society and make a difference in the world that lasts after machines break down and clothes wear out.

In the process, we just might find a stronger family, more fulfillment, and all that other stuff, but it's one of the perks along the way rather than the end goal.

Maybe we should drop all the ME oriented marketing. Maybe our logos should say, "Let's get over ourselves and go do something meaningful". That's probably a bad marketing strategy, but it did work for Jesus. It's worth a shot.

Friday, May 24, 2013

What Warms Your Heart? (Strangely or otherwise)

Today is a special holiday for Methodists. Some call it Aldersgate Day, others Heart-warming Day, others simply Wesley Day. We celebrate the anniversary of John Wesley's "heart-warming" experience, which in some ways is unfair because his brother, Charles, had a similar experience three days earlier.

275 years ago, on May 24, 1738, John Wesley had an experience of his heart being "strangely warmed" at a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. It was not a "conversion" experience in the sense that he became a follower of Jesus in that moment. He had been a deeply committed Christian all his life. But Wesley had just arrived back in England after a missionary stint in the American colonies that was a complete and total disaster.

Wesley had grown up in a very pious home, and his type-A personality led him to try to control everything. As a result, he was always trying to earn God's love, and he had finally hit a wall and realized he couldn't be good enough and work hard enough to be worthy (however he defined that) in God's eyes. At this prayer meeting, he was hearing someone read from Martin Luther's Preface to Romans, expounding on Paul's theme of how grace and nothing else connects us to God and makes us whole.

While none of Luther's works, particularly this one, are the most heart-warming things one can read, it spoke to the point of crisis that Wesley found himself in. He finally let go and made room for the Holy Spirit to assure him that he was right with God.

On this Aldersgate Day, I see the church wrestling with itself over how to "get it right". We assume that if we get our theology or ethics correct, if we have the proper stance on human sexuality, if we worship better or make better appointments, or generally achieve any kind of "better" performance (again, however you define that), that God will approve of us and shower us with blessings of more people in the pews and dollars in the plate.

So today, let's "let go", even just for a moment. Let's set aside all these things that we argue about, important though they are, and simply celebrate what we already see God doing amongst us. What warms your heart today?

It warms my heart to see the people in Oklahoma who are helping their neighbors dig through the rubble of their houses, even though their own house was destroyed, too.

It warms my heart to see the people in my church who are the most materially needy be the first to volunteer to serve others who are in need.

It warms my heart to see people reconcile with one another and let go of old grudges when they realize that life is too short to stay mad at one another.

Update: it warms my heart to see this! A Sikh woman's gracious response to a rude post on Reddit actually caused the poster to reconsider his actions, open his mind, and apologize! (there are some 4 letter words, but the heart-warming awesomeness is worth it)

Those are some of the things that warm my heart on this   Day. What warms your heart? Leave a comment and let's bless each other today.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness and Theological Anthropology

Warning 1: SPOILERS to follow. If you haven't seen Star Trek: Into Darkness (you really should, and it's worth the extra few bucks to see it in IMAX 3D) and you don't want to know what happens, bookmark this post and read it later.

Warning 2: major geekiness follows, of both the sci-fi and theology varieties.

You have been warned.

Before seeing the new Star Trek movie, I read a number of reviews that had wildly different takes on it. Some said that it was amazing and the reason you go to the movies in the summer. Others couldn't get over the massive leaps in logic and the rather deux ex machina nature of the ending. Still others fixated on all the references to other Star Trek stories. I figured that someone had to be wrong and someone had to be right.

Well, it turns out that they're all right, in their own way. The effects are incredible, if somewhat overbearing. And there are lots of references not only to other Star Trek stories, but to other movies, as well. A fight scene near the end makes one think of the Mustafar battle between Obi-wan and Anakin in Star Wars episode III. A scene near the beginning where "John Harrison" wipes out many of Starfleet's top officers seems very similar to a scene in Godfather III. I kept waiting for an admiral to protest leaving his lucky coat.

I think this latter aspect of the movie says a lot about the cultural moment we find ourselves in, where we're obsessed with irony and seem to award cool-points for one's ability to make as many clever pop culture references as possible. Family Guy and the Scary Movie franchise are prime examples.

The frequent references to other Trek stories struck some as lazy storytelling. After all, the JJ Abrams reboot found the best of both worlds, blending the established universe and characters with a clean slate/alternate reality thanks to some time traveling Romulans. The photo above appeared in the very first trailers, and I figured that's as far as the reference to the final scene in Wrath of Kahn would go. It turns out I was wrong.

Why not take advantage of the clean slate? Why not introduce new characters and new stories? After all, the alternate timeline leaves them un-beholden to the Trek cannon. Why tempt fate by risking the new Kahn not measuring up to Ricardo Montalban? (no worries there- Benedict Cumberbatch owns it)

We don't know if the filmmakers are making any kind of explicitly theological or philosophical statement. Probably not, as JJ Abrams has said he initially preferred Star Wars over Star Trek because the latter was "too philisophical". Nevertheless, he has created shows like Lost that have all sorts of latent theology, whether intended or not.

But, narrative choices aside, simply looking at all the similarities between the "old" timeline and the "new" raises questions of theological anthropology: how we understand humanity overall and individual personhood in relationship to the divine.

The similarities between Into Darkness and Wrath of Kahn go far beyond the presence of the titular character. A core idea explicitly stated by Spock in both movies is that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", both spoken at times when he was prepared to sacrifice himself for the good of a larger group.

Both films feature a main character entering a lethal radiation zone to fix a mechanical problem that would allow the ship to warp out of danger, saving the crew, but killing the person in the process. In Darkness, Kirk even tells Spock that his self sacrifice is "what you would have done".

Both death scenes feature a conversation between Kirk and Spock through the glass, the person on the outside having to be held back from trying to rescue their friend (again, see the photo above). And, of course, both characters are resurrected sooner or later so the adventures can continue.

Again, putting aside the question of what the screen writers were thinking, how is it that such similar things would happen in two different timelines? The alternate realities were created by time travelers who altered Kirk's life in a major way by ensuring that he grew up without a father. The butterfly effect resulted in Kirk and Spock meeting and forming their friendship under extremely different circumstances.

From these differences, one might conclude that such formative events might have led Kirk to become a fundamentally different person, one with whom Spock would have never developed a friendship. In fact, the first movie heavily suggests that their friendship would never have happened if not for the intervention of Spock Prime (the Spock from the original timeline who ends up in the alternate). But neither of these conclusions turns out to be right.

So clearly, there is the latent idea in the story that one's circumstances only have a superficial influence on who one is at the core of their being- that there is some kind of fundamental created personhood that cannot be undone no matter what happens to us. In other words, nature is more powerful than nurture.

The Arminian aspect of my theological heritage doesn't like the implications here. If Kirk and Spock are fundamentally wired to be a certain way, are they really free to choose these actions that come from their gut? Is their choice to sacrifice themselves to save others really heroic if it's not really a choice?

Then again, there is something appealing about a story where nature trumps nurture. The fundamental goodness in each of these characters, particularly the way they make one another better, can't be changed by those external circumstances. Perhaps that says something about the perseverance of grace in the face of all obstacles.

That would, of course, also suggest that Khan was going to be evil no matter what. But he's genetically engineered to be a megalomaniac, so perhaps the bad hands he's dealt in each respective timeline override the fleeting glimpses of altruism and genuine human emotion he displays at certain moments.

So, do you agree with the theological anthropology inherent in Into Darkness? Are we who we were created to be, regardless of things that happen to us that are out of our control? Or does nurture have a much bigger influence than Abrams and company give it credit for?

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Thoughts on the National Day of Prayer

Today, May 2, is designated as the National Day of Prayer and has been officially observed every year since 1952. There are massive public prayer gatherings all over the nation today, which is great.

Two thoughts as I ponder this day and what it says about our culture:

1. Participate in these gatherings for the right reasons, not just to make a show. Matthew Paul Turner put it perfectly, borrowing the form of Matthew 6:5-6:

And when you pray on National Day of Prayer, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to post about their praying on Facebook and Twitter and take pictures of themselves kneeling beside flags and in groups so they can be seen by others on Instagram. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.

2. Let your prayer motivate you to action. If you attend a downtown prayer rally but ignore half a dozen homeless people as you walk back to your car, then you've wasted your time. Let your prayer open your heart to see the person at your job or in your school who is lonely and excluded. As the apostle James wrote (James 2:14-17), your faith isn't alive unless it leads you to action.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Terror and Resurrection

After wrestling all week to even mention the Boston Marathon bombing in my sermon on Sunday(thinking it might be good to have one hour where we didn't hear about all the bad news in the world), the intense media coverage surrounding the manhunt on Friday made me decide to address the problem of suffering and evil.

We had already planned on reading Acts 9:1-20, which tells of Saul's conversion from early church antagonist to apostle. We reflected on how there are no good answers to the problems of evil and suffering, but how followers of Jesus respond by telling the story of the God who loved us enough to enter into our suffering and redeem it by coming out on the other side.

You can listen to the audio here or on our church website, download it from, or subscribe in iTunes. If you're not into podcasts, a transcript is below. Comments and discussion are always welcome, but keep it on topic and respectful.

Terror and Resurrection 

Since we last gathered here to worship, a lot has happened. On Monday we saw a couple of homemade bombs transform the finish line of the Boston Marathon go from a place of victory and celebration to a place of fear and pain. On Wednesday an ammonia plant in West, Texas exploded, leveling houses and registering as a small earthquake on the richter scale. Then on Friday, we watched a massive manhunt shut down the greater Boston area as it all played out in real time on our TV screens. By the end of that very confusing day, one of the suspected bombers was dead, the other captured but barely alive after battles with police that seemed more like a movie than real life.

The events of this past week would have been hard enough by themselves, but the psychological scars from Newtown and the political football it became are still with us. We only have to say the names of places like Aurora, Tucson, Columbine, or the World Trade Center and instantly we recall many other images of horrific, senseless violence. We watch these things and we get overwhelmed. We wonder aloud, “what is going on in the world? Am I safe anywhere? Is my family safe anywhere?” Or we simply ask, “why?”

“Why?” Why, God, why? Where is God in all this? It doesn’t make sense. If God is good and just, and if God is all powerful, why do these things continue to happen? This awful tension between our basic claims about who God is and the reality of evil and suffering in the world are, for many people, the single biggest obstacle to faith. We in the church don’t help the situation when we give cheap answers to try and make this tension go away. We might try to paper it over with a quaint moral lesson as if that would somehow justify the death of innocent people. “Well, this was God’s way of bringing us together.” Or some preacher climbs into the pulpit or gets in front of a TV camera and says, “God allowed this to happen because of this particular person or group I don’t happen to like.”

In that spirit, I’d like to announce that God has allowed all the violence this week because the Louisville Cardinals won the NCAA basketball tournament. It makes about as much sense as blaming earthquakes on gay marriage. If Pat Robertson can do it, so can I.

Friends, the truth is that there is no way of making this tension go away. All of our attempts fall intellectually flat at best and at worst pervert and blaspheme the name of Jesus Christ. We can engage in some theological conversation about free will and God’s conscious self limitation, and that can help us gain some perspective, but at the end of the day that tension remains with us. So instead of trying to find a quick fix, an easy answer that will make it all go away, we’re better served by seeking ways to faithfully navigate this tension. We’ll let God do the solving and simply ask how do we faithfully live with and respond to the reality of evil and suffering in our world?

Jesus frequently responded to hard theological questions by telling a story, and that’s what the Bible does for us today. A while back we had decided to read Acts chapter 9 today, and here we find quite a story. Acts tells us how the church got its start, and how, much like their rabbi, Jesus, they had a talent for making people mad. One of their chief antagonists is a guy named Saul. Saul is every mother’s dream. He’s a nice boy who never missed church, he graduated at the top of his class in seminary and he’s among the most respected scholars of the Torah at a very young age.

The thing about Saul is, though, that he’s so passionate about his faith, that passion blinds him. He’s vulnerable to having that passion twisted by some very bad influences, and that’s exactly what happens. The high priest and others in the religious establishment encourage him to be passionate about a very rigid form of religious orthodoxy. His passion for that orthodoxy is so great that people who don’t conform to it aren’t simply misguided sinners, they’re evil. They should die.

So there’s this new group of heretics out there- a cult, really. They follow this uneducated rabbi who left his small, hick town, came to the big city of Jerusalem and managed to get himself killed. Served him right- he was leading people down the wrong path. But even after he died, his movement kept going, in fact it was gaining steam. Saul sees this Jesus movement, known as “The Way”, practically spitting on the Torah and the teachings of the elders. It’s such a threat to the true faith that, like their rabbi, these people deserved to die. That’s Saul’s thinking, and that suits the High Priest and the Sanhedrin just fine.

So here we find Saul “spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples”. He’s arrested people and even gotten some mobs together to stone a few of them to death. Followers of The Way know who Saul is and they’re afraid of him. Another way to say that is they’re terrified of him. Saul is a fanatic religious terrorist.

Saul the terrorist is taking his campaign on the road, heading up to Damascus with the men and the means to commit more acts of terror, and out of nowhere, Jesus shows up. Now, this is a little strange because given how Saul has been acting up to this point, the only thing Jesus should be doing is coming down to smite this guy. “You messed with the wrong disciples- now everyone will know who the Son of God is!” But God has this weird way of confounding our expectations and showing us just how powerful he is, not through destroying, but through making something brand new.

Saul is riding along, plotting his next act of terror, and without warning there is a light from heaven so powerful it knocks him off his horse and blinds him. Saul the terrorist is all of a sudden lying on the ground, suddenly very afraid, and he hears a voice. “Saul, you think you are doing my work, but you’re actually persecuting me. You think you are powerful because you can kill and destroy. I’m about to show you what real power is.”

In one blinding moment, he goes from being powerful and in charge to powerless, being led by the hand because he can’t see. The one who brings him healing is the very target of his campaign of terror, a disciple named Annanias. When God tells Annanias to go find Saul and help him, he says, “um, Lord, have you not heard about this guy? He’s my enemy, he’s your enemy. And now you’ve put him out of business. Nice work, Lord!”

God says, “no. Any thug can kill and destroy. Acts of terror don’t make you powerful. I’m going to use Saul to do incredible things, and you’re all going to learn what real power is when you see me make your enemy into your friend.”

God is not in the revenge business. God does not respond to real or perceived slights with acts of divine terror. God does not fight fire with fire. God is not discovered at the root cause of violence and suffering and death. God is the one who comes right into the middle of violence and suffering and death and redeems it by proclaiming that it does not have the last word. Its effects, as terrible as they are, are temporary. God has claimed the last word and that word is: Resurrection.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the cross. It’s the ultimate instrument of pain and suffering, of humiliation and isolation. To the people of the first century Roman world, the very mention of a cross brought terror. Jesus takes the very worst we have, suffers and dies on the cross, then rises again, undoing the ultimate effects of suffering and violence, breaking the power of death once and for all.

So when the reality of a fallen, brutal world gets shoved in our face as it did this week and, I’m sorry to say, will happen again, we don’t respond by blaming the victim or trying to make the tension go away with some cheap excuse. We respond by telling the story of the God who loved us enough to enter into our suffering and emerging on the other side, not unscathed, but victorious. In the face of terror that claims to have the final word, we witness to God’s claim on the final word. That word is Resurrection. Life.

Saul the converted terrorist got a new name, a new identity: Paul. Many years later he wrote a letter to one of the many churches he planted all across the Mediterranean, in a place called Ephesus.

Paul wrote, “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.” ~Ephesians 2:14-16

Hostilities will end. Violence and terror will end. Senseless suffering that causes existential crises and frustrated cries of “why, God, why?” will end. The noise of bombs and guns and sirens will fall silent, and all that will be heard is that one final word: Life. Eternal life.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Two Very Different Anniversaries

Ten years ago today, the Iraq War began.

I was a senior in college, and I remember quite clearly that day as I was watching the opening rounds of the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament with friends. Being college students, there were beverages of various kinds being consumed, and I'd like to blame what happened on the beverages, but I can't. Alcohol only lowers inhibitions, so the reactions I observed and did nothing to challenge were indicative of a sickness already inside many of us.

Knowing that basketball fans would get upset if their games were interrupted by breaking news, CBS chose to insert Dan Rather into the commercial breaks instead. A team would take a timeout, and all of a sudden there would be greenish night-vision footage of bombs falling on Bagdad.

If a blind person were in the room, they would have had no way of knowing if guys were cheering for a clutch free-throw or a bright green explosion that probably meant innocent civilians were, at that very moment, dying because of a disagreement over weapons of mass destruction that didn't actually exist.

I didn't join in the cheering, but I didn't do anything to challenge it, either. The scene was so surreal I didn't know what to say, but I'm certain a part of me didn't want to risk a negative reaction from my friends or get accused of being "unpatriotic". So I sat silently as others cheered on a war that, to them, seemed a mere spectacle playing out on our TV screens, just like the basketball games.

This memory becomes even more tragic when I recall that fifty-five years ago today, Thomas Merton wrote about his famous epiphany of the previous day while on a rare journey outside the monastery walls. Merton records in his journal:

Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut (today Muhammed Ali Blvd.), suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream- the dream of my separateness, of the "special" vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me in a special category, juridically. I am still a member of the human race- and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!

Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being a man! As if the sorrows of our condition could really matter, once we begin to realize who and what we are- as if we could ever begin to realize it on earth. ~Journals, vol. 3 (A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk's True Life), pp. 181-182

I'm not so naive as to believe that one single thing could solve all the world's problems. But if the President of the United States, a bunch of beer chugging frat guys, and everyone else shared in Merton's simple but profound realization that we are all, indeed, one great human family, perhaps we would be much more reluctant to go to war.

At the very least, we certainly wouldn't cheer as bombs exploded on our TV screens during March Madness commercial breaks.

May the epiphany of fifty-five years ago help prevent us from making tragic mistakes like the one that began ten years ago today.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Francis and what his name might mean

Upon yesterday's news that Cardinal Bergoglio had been elected pope and taken the name Francis, a wave of speculation as to what the significance of this name is and what he intends to do as pope. Given how secretive the Vatican is, tea leaf reading is all we have to go on.

Since Bergoglio is a Jesuit, I initially thought he might have been referencing St. Francis Xavier, one of the great early figures in his order and a famed missionary. Although if he was really planning a Jesuit coup at the Vatican (which wouldn't be the worst thing in the world), he might have called himself Pope Ignatius.

It turns out that he is referencing the more well known St. Francis of Assisi. Francis is beloved around the world, even by non-Catholics and non-Christians, because of his love for the poor, his care for creation, and his zeal to reform the church. An early story about Francis is that he heard Jesus saying "rebuild my church", which he first thought meant simply the chapel in which he was praying, but later came to understand it meant the church universal.

Incidentally, it's pretty cool that a couple of seagulls were hanging out on top of the chimney that was being closely watched for white smoke while inside, right about that time, the newly elected pope was taking for himself the name of the saint who famously preached to the birds.

One significance of Francis' papal name I haven't seen referenced yet, other than briefly at the end of Thomas Reese's piece on the National Catholic Reporter, is St. Francis' role as peacemaker and pioneer of interfaith dialogue.

In 1219, in the middle of the 5th Crusade, Francis and his fellow friar, Illuminato, traveled to Damietta, Egypt, and crossed the battle lines to speak with Sultan Malik al-Kamil. While Francis did not convert the sultan or broker peace between the warring civilizations (it's debatable whether he intended to do either), he came back saying that Christians should live peacefully with Muslims and that the two faiths agree on more things than those they disagree on.

The best account of this meeting I've read is Paul Moses' The Saint and the Sultan. The link is to the hardcover edition, but it's available for Kindle, too.

The legacy of mistrust between Islam and the West that began in the era of the Crusades is still with us, so Francis of Assisi's legacy as an interfaith peace-maker is as crucial as it ever was.

Right now there is no way of knowing if Pope Francis had this in mind when he chose his name yesterday. Hopefully, he will sit down for an in depth interview soon and shed more light on which aspects of St. Francis he intends to emulate in his pontificate.

One might be more inclined to read the Christian-Muslim implication into the pope's choice if he were from Africa or South Asia, where Christians and Muslims interact frequently. Francis' homeland, Argentina, is only 2.5% Muslim, according to a 2010 Pew Center report, and South America has the sparsest Muslim population of any continent. Interfaith dialogue in South America tends to be between Catholics and other Christian groups.

Whatever the case, we need more St. Francises (Franci?) in the world. Not just in Rome, but in Nashville, New York, Bejing, and everywhere else. Perhaps this pontiff will inspire a whole new generation to discover the legacy of Francis of Assisi, and perhaps even a few to go and do likewise.

Friday, February 01, 2013

An Open Letter to Senator Stacey Campfield

Note- Stacey Campfield is a Tennessee state senator from the Knoxville area who has sponsored several controversial bills and made a number of inflammatory statements regarding homosexuality.

Dear Senator Campfield,

I am writing to you today as a fellow citizen of the state of Tennessee and, more importantly, as a fellow disciple of Jesus, to encourage you to take a look at some of your recent public actions and ask yourself if they are the kind of witness you want to put out there.

First and foremost, I want to express my thanks to you for serving our state as a legislator. While you and I disagree on a number of issues, I know that you are advocating positions that are informed by your best understanding of the Christian faith and which you believe to be for the betterment of our society.

However, I have to ask if the legislation you are sponsoring is really the best way to advance the causes you care about so deeply.

Your belief that homosexuality is a sin is quite clear. But is forbidding public school teachers from even acknowledging something that children learn at a very early age- that differing sexual orientations exist- really the best way to further a societal conversation about sexual morality?

Furthermore, I have a difficult time reconciling your assertion that public school teachers should not acknowledge that gay people even exist with your proposal that they inform children’s parents if they suspect that their son or daughter is gay. Do you want the reality of differing sexual orientations recognized or not?

While you are not a parent yourself, I know that you care deeply for the well-being of our children, as you have stated on numerous occasions. Requiring teachers to monitor and report evidence of their students’ sexual orientation will only worsen the culture of fear and suspicion that many children experience on a daily basis in school, whether they are gay or not. Bullying is a major problem in our society, and has resulted in many children taking their own lives, which I know you do not want. 

Lastly, I know that you care deeply about serving your constituents, so I am very surprised at your response to a woman who expressed legitimate concerns about how you are representing her. Flippantly suggesting that she has issues with mental health is very hurtful to those who struggle with mental illness.

I struggle with clinical depression and anxiety, for which I go to therapy and take medication. You are right that doctors “are doing some wonderful things with medication these days”. They help people with very real medical conditions live normal lives. In my case, they help me have the courage to speak out against the type of offensive, hurtful behavior that you are engaging in.

In a few weeks, I will be at the legislature for a Clergy Day on the Hill. While I know you are very busy, I hope that you and I can meet face to face to talk about these issues, share our concerns, and pray together as brothers in Christ.

You and your colleagues in the legislature remain in my prayers for your vital work on behalf of our state.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Matthew L. Kelley
Lead Pastor
Arlington United Methodist Church
Nashville TN

Monday, January 21, 2013

Remembering the Real Dr. King on MLK Day

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. day, which also sees the second inauguration of our first African-American President with his hand on Dr. King's Bible, there are a number of interesting discussions on what his real legacy is.

Is the dream fully realized? Is racism over? Some actually say "yes", un-ironically (Stephen Colbert doesn't see race, after all). CNN is featuring an interesting piece on conservatives who look to Dr. King for inspiration. Those in the liberal/progressive camp have long quoted him supporting their policies.

The truth about Martin Luther King is, of course, a lot more complicated than most of us want to admit. He may have said a lot of things that are convenient to use as proof-texts, but also said many things that challenge people all over the spectrum.

Perhaps no word sum it up as well as this picture of Dr. King talking with President Johnson, a man for whom he actively campaigned, but is clearly agitating with his words challenging the President to seek peace and justice.

But words do matter, especially since we spend this day honoring a man who used language so skillfully and powerfully.

Here is a list of King quotes we don't often hear because they make us too uncomfortable.

Here is Dr. King's 1967 speech publicly opposing the Vietnam War- a speech that lost him quite a few friends:

Finally, here is Cornel West with an interesting take on why he didn't like President Obama using Dr. King's Bible to take the oath today.

May we all be appropriately discomforted by Martin Luther King's prophetic speech and do something with that discomfort. Then we really will be honoring his memory.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Biblical and Theological Case for Gun Control

The issue of gun control in the United States is once again at the forefront of our national conversation due to the most recent school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, being one of many similar incidents whose frequency is on the rise.

A lot of people are giving passionate and articulate cases for their particular position, and as I am neither a constitutional scholar nor an expert on firearms or public safety, I will leave those arguments to those that speak on them with authority.

I do, however, believe that the church has a significant role to play in this conversation. I believe that the biblical witness and our theological heritage gives us reason to support restrictions on firearms such as those currently being debated by the President and Congress.

I cite these things not as “proof-texts”, nor do I claim that this is the only understanding one has to arrive at to be a true follower of Jesus. I also want to state at the beginning that while I am not a gun owner, I support the rights of people to posses firearms in their home for protection and for use in hunting or other recreation.

With those disclaimers out of the way, here is what I believe to be a biblical and theological case for gun control. I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.

I have the freedom to do anything, but I won’t be controlled by anything. 1 Corinthians 6:12

Everything is permitted, but everything isn’t beneficial. Everything is permitted, but everything doesn’t build others up. 1 Corinthians 10:23

Twice in his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul talks about the intersection of freedom and responsibility. Long before Enlightenment philosophers spoke about the autonomy of the individual, St. Paul recognized that while a person has the freedom to do whatever they want, not everything is necessarily a good idea. This is particularly true if one is in a covenant relationship with others.

Paul’s immediate context in making these statements is sexual behavior and eating meat sacrificed to idols, respectively, but he is also talking about a broad approach to one’s life.

I can go where I want, when I want, spend every cent in my bank account and pick up a lady for a one night stand. But if I want to stay married to my wife and be a part of my children’s lives, I’m going to choose not to do those things. They trust that I’m going to be responsible with our shared resources. They trust that I’m going to live by the values that we as a family have agreed on and that we’re going to raise our daughters with. I choose to be faithful to this covenant because that web of relationships is more important to me than acting on every impulse I might have.

I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.

What is true of a family unit is also true of the church. We covenant together to live in a certain way that glorifies God and is beneficial to one another. We sometimes choose to defer to others if they have a particular need or if exercise of our freedoms becomes an obstacle to them walking their own path of discipleship. We restrain certain individual liberties for the common good because we value those relationships more than we do our right to do whatever we want, whenever we want.

I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.

An example of this outside of the church is going to the airport. I have the right to buy a plane ticket and fly wherever I want without anyone asking why or wanting to see what’s in my luggage. I’ve never done anything that would make anyone suspect I had intentions to harm my fellow passengers or anyone else. But I take off my shoes and put my laptop in a separate bin in the security line, go through a metal detector or fully-body scanner, and accept that someone from the TSA might mess up my nice, neat stack of undershirts. I gladly accept this because I value the safety of the general public more than I dislike the few minutes of inconvenience this causes me, even though I have done nothing to warrant such screenings.

I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.

I have the right to buy a gun, and I have done nothing to suggest any ill intentions. But I consent to a background check because I value keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people more than I dislike having to wait a few days to complete my purchase. I have the right to buy an AR-15 assault rifle and hunt deer with it, but I choose to use a lower powered rifle with a smaller clip of ammunition because I value lowering the chance of someone walking into my children’s school and killing several dozen kids in a matter of seconds more than I value my right to squeeze off a hundred rounds a minute and feel cool like Rambo.

I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.

At the core of many of the arguments opposing any gun control measures is the concept of “freedom”. I put that in quotes because it’s a word that means different things to different people. Some define freedom as “doing whatever I want whenever I want”, which I have just argued is not helpful for those who wish to be in covenant relationships with others.

Freedom is a recurring theme in the biblical narrative. The Hebrews in Egypt got their freedom when God plagued Egypt into letting them go, and that freedom took the form of a covenant relationship with God and with one another. They had the right to choose whether or not to be faithful to that covenant. And a big chunk of Hebrew scripture attests to how that relationship did not exactly go well, due in no small part to Israel’s leaders, and the society at large, choosing not to be faithful to that covenant. They did “what they wanted when they wanted to” and it wasn’t pretty.

The question becomes, is there a better definition of freedom? Christian theological tradition would say and emphatic “yes”.

(Quick aside- one can’t really claim one single strand of thought as “THE Christian tradition” to the exclusion of all others, as there always have been and always will be a plurality of understandings of what Christianity truly is)

Jurgen Moltmann sees the true definition of freedom in the relationship of God to God’s self in the Holy Trinity. This relationship is summed up in the term perichoresis, which means mutual interdependence and indwelling.

The persons of the Trinity: the Father (who is not exclusively male), Son (Jesus was a human male), and Holy Spirit (which often takes the feminine nominative case), are truly free in their perichoretic relationship with one another because of a mutual trust that because the others are focused on their good, they can focus solely on the good of the other.

What is “good” for one but not for the others is intentionally laid aside, because it is not truly good. Each member is able to feel truly free because they know that they don’t have to worry about their own well being and understand their responsibility to look out for the well being of the others.

Moltmann sees this as not only a description of God’s Trinitarian life, but also as a model for human relationships of loving community: true freedom.

 I am free and feel myself to be truly free when I am respected and recognized by others and when I for my part respect and recognize them. I become truly free when I open my life for other people and share with them, and when other people open their lives for me and share them with me. Then the other person is no longer the limitation of my freedom; he is the expansion of it. In mutual participation in life, individual people become free beyond the limits of their individuality, and discover the common room for living which their freedom offers. That is the social side of freedom. (The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 216)

I willingly give others the space to feel free by agreeing to place a formal societal limitation on my “right” to own any gun because, though I will not walk into a school and start shooting, other mentally disturbed people might. So for the good of the whole, I agree to a legal prohibition of certain guns and ammunition clips. This is the same reason I agree to speed limits, seat belt laws, and blood alcohol limits in the use of my car. This is the same reason I agree to only being able to purchase small amounts of certain cold medicines, so as to help stop the spread of meth.

We are not so naive as to believe that all of our fellow citizens will go along with these societal agreements. That is why we elect representatives who will pass laws to enforce these agreements for the good of the whole.

We do not naively assume such laws will guarantee there will never be another school shooting, any more than we assume there will never be another drunk driver or that meth labs will suddenly disappear. We do believe that such actions will reduce such incidences enough to help us be safer and closer to that true freedom whose full realization is yet to come.

I believe that this is a solid biblical and theological case for gun control laws. May we all open ourselves to the possibility of limiting certain individual liberties for the greater good and progress towards our true, God-given freedom.