Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Thoughts on the Eve of Christmas

I haven't blogged in the past few weeks, not because I haven't had any thoughts, but because I'm having such trouble getting them out in a coherent manner. Perhaps it's simply the busyness of this season, but maybe it's something more than that.

Like most pastors, I find the Advent/Christmas season to be simultaneously joyful and frustrating. It's wonderful because of all the traditions, the songs, and the decorations. They remind us of wonderful memories, and since this is my first Christmas as a parent, we are making wonderful new memories that we will cherish for a lifetime.

This season can be frustrating, too. The sheer volume of activity can be tiring. The stress of getting the "right" gift for someone can quickly overshadow the whole purpose of giving gifts in the first place. And, of course, the annual campaign of the "culture-warriors" who crusade against a perceived enemy (that doesn't actually exist) and turn "Merry Christmas" into a political statement.

In my moments of exhaustion and frustration I wonder what any of this actually has to do with Jesus.

But then, at the moment I least expect it, God reminds me that beneath the rather thick layer of crass commercialism and cultural shmaltz, there remains a deep significance to Advent and Christmas. Brian McLaren shared a Jackson Brown song on this blog the other day, called "The Rebel Jesus"

This Christmas, let us look past the lights and the presents for just a moment and remember how God showed up in the least expected of places and became a rebel who challenged the unjust social and religious practices taught by the leaders of his day, and continues to do so today. Let us not forget the Rebel Jesus whose birth we celebrate.

(Note- at the request of my dear friend and excellent New Testament scholar, Maria Mayo Robbins, I'd like to clear up any confusion about my view of Second Temple Judaism. Judaism as a religion has not ever been unjust, but the way it has been practiced by certain individuals has at times been unjust. Such is the case with every religion, especially my own. One need only casually read my blog to see that I am more critical of my own tribe than of any other. What Jesus challenged was not Judaism itself, as he was a very faithful and observant Jew, but certain practices that were enforced by politically powerful religious elites.)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Least Bad Options?

President Obama just finished giving his speech at West Point announcing his decision to deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The details have leaked out over the last few days, so what follows are a mixture of thoughts I've sat with for a bit and stream-of-consciousness reactions to the speech.

First, a disclaimer: I voted for President Obama, and I actively supported his campaign even though I did not agree with all of his policies. I opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, and I have never quite known what to think about Afghanistan. I also pastor a church in a town connected to a large military base, so people I and my parishoners know will be on the ground for this surge. This is the context from which I am speaking, so take it for what you will.

As a Christian I believe that non-violence is always the most ideal solution to any problem. I believe that Jesus spoke against violence, and that his greatest followers throughout history (people like St. Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King, Jr.) have been fully committed to the path of peace.

That being said, I also recognize the reality of living in a fallen world and that the ideal solution is not always possible. In those situations, faithful, ethical decision making involves determining what is the "least bad" situation. I disagree with the "just war" theory articulated by St. Augustine. Violence is never justified, but there are occasions when it is the least bad option available in the absence of good options.

Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II, and neither of them felt that the violence they engaged in was good, but they understood it achieved a better outcome than doing nothing in the face of aggressive, oppressive forces. In other words, they saw the conflict as the least bad option available to them. Every other combat veteran I have spoken to about these issues has expressed similar feelings.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, wrestled with the idea of "least bad options". Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship, a meditation on the Sermon on the Mount that passionately argues for non-violence at all costs. And yet Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for his participation in a plot to kill Hitler. Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer a hypocrite? Did he change his mind on his core beliefs?

No. He saw an intolerable situation before him and realized that there was no good option available to him, and that doing nothing in the face of evil was worse than acting in a manner that was against his conscience. He said that he felt compelled to act, even if his actions sent him to Hell. Bonhoeffer felt that participating in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler was the least bad option available to him.

So while I'm not 100% sure what I think, it may be that the temporary Afghan surge is the least bad option available to us. Afghanistan is highly unstable, and as an occupying power we have a responsibility to consider the long term well being of the country as we hand over control to its people. The timetable set by President Obama may be the most responsible way to do this.

Should we have gone into Afghanistan in the first place? I don't really know. My sense is that we should have invested more in building infrastructure and schools in Afghanistan when the Russians pulled out instead of leaving the country full of weapons but few tools for long term, sustainable peace. But we can't go back in time and fix previous mistakes. We can only do the best we can given the situation today. So the President's plan may be the least bad option.

So what do you think, dear readers? What did you think of the speech? Do you think war is ever justified? Can it be a "least bad" option? Discuss!

PS- Regardless of what you think, please pray for the men and women on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families. Please also pray for the civilians affected by these wars, and for the leaders of these countries that they will pursue a lasting peace.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What I'm Thankful for this Thanksgiving

Among the many blessings in my life:

I hope everyone out there has a very happy and enjoyable Thanksgiving. To all those who aren't able to be with loved ones today (service men and women overseas, police, firefighters, doctors, nurses, EMTs, and others who work to keep us safe and healthy), know you are loved and appreciated.

Between bites of turkey and pumpkin pie, remember to say a prayer (and maybe even donate a dollar or a can of food) to those who don't have the resources to have a huge Thanksgiving feast or the leisure time to sit around a read blogs ;)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hijacking the Bible

I guess I shouldn't be surprised anymore by the ways people use the Bible for their own purposes, even when they isolate certain verses or passages and twist them beyond the context in which they appear, and even when they go against the core message of the Bible.

(Yes, I'm making interpretive choices about what context and core message are. We all have to do that to arrive at any conclusions about the text.)

But I'm very saddened to see the latest hijacking of the Bible. Some group has started producing T-shirts and other products that say "Pray for Obama; Psalm 109:8"

The quoted verse (in the KJV) says "let his days be few and let another take his office". The following verse, Psalm 109:9 (again, in the KJV), says "let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow".

(sidenote- this is the best, most concise video on the subject I could find. Rachel Maddow and her guest, Frank Schaeffer, are very far to the left, but the interview is very thought provoking, regardless of your political affiliation.)

Laying aside for a moment how awful it is that someone would pray for a person in an opposing political party to be killed, this Psalm 109 fad shows just how dangerous indiscriminate proof-texting really is.

The Psalms are the prayer/hymn book of ancient Israel. They express the full range of human emotions, including anger and even rage against others, as we can see from Psalm 109. This particular Psalm is a prayer of a righteous man who is frustrated at those who are trying to bring him down.

Anger and frustration are certainly party of the human experience. But does the Psalm really tell us to pray for God to strike down the people we don't like? Absolutely not! The Psalm ends with the man having gotten out his feelings of anger and frustration and proclaiming his faith that God will carry him through any situation. It's an example of how we can work out our frustrations in prayer so we can be in a better place to deal with conflict.

Interpretive quarrels aside, this whole Psalm 109 fad is another example of how the decline of Christianity in America is our own fault. People are turning away from the church not because Satan is doing such a great job, but because we Christians are doing such a good job at twisting Jesus to fit the mold of our religious and political idols. And the problem is that everyone else can see it but us. People read the Bible and think Jesus is a pretty great guy, but they look at his followers and want nothing to do with us. When questioned about his faith, Ghandi said he would follow Christ if it were not for all the Christians he encountered.

What if the folks who were producing these T-shirts changed the verse to Matthew 5:44- "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (rightly or wrongly, some folks are feeling persecuted). It probably wouldn't get noticed on the cable "news" shows, and it might not even sell as many T-shirts, but it would more accurately reflect the true message of the Bible and the loving God to whom it points.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Coming Soon...

A new look for the The Truth As Best I Know It!

My lovely and talented wife, Jessica, made this lovely card for my birthday. As you can see, the card is made to look like my MacBook on the outside...

And on the inside (including a full keyboard)!

Jessica got me a blog redesign from
The Design Girl, who gave Jessica's blog a makeover (a prize she won in a contest).

So look for a new layout in a few weeks. Thanks, babe! I love you!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Response to Tennessean Article

In today (Saturday)'s issue of the Tennessean, there is an article that suggests that United Methodist pastors may no longer have guaranteed jobs.

While the article is correct on all of its basic facts, I can see Methodist lay persons (especially those currently attending Exploration 2009) and others reading it and getting the wrong idea. So I offer the following clarifications and responses:

First of all, not all United Methodist ministers have guaranteed jobs. Ordained Elders in Full Connection are the only clergy who itenerate, going where they are sent in exchange for a guaranteed appointment that includes a minimum salary and benefits. Ordained Deacons, Provisional Elders and Deacons, and Licensed Local Pastors do not itenerate are not guaranteed a job.

The first sentence in the article is just plain wrong: "too many ministers, not enough jobs". The UMC, like most other mainline denominations, has a tremendous shortage of ordained clergy. So we make up for the shortage of elders by appointing licensed local pastors to serve in the place of an elder. In the Tennessee Conference, licensed local pastors outnumber ordained clergy in every district except one: Nashville. This is not to demean the service of our local pastors, who serve faithfully and selflessly. It is simply to say that this is what is laid out in our Book of Discipline.

The conversations being referenced by the Tennessean article are part of the Study of Ministry Commission, which was created by the 2004 General Conference and extended for another four years by the 2008 General Conference (I published my thoughts on these least year, which you can read here and here). This Commission does not have authority to make any changes. It only makes recommendations to the General Conference, which is the only body that can change the Book of Discipline and does not meet again until 2012.

The article rightly points this fact out, but they bury it in the very last paragraph where, according to the "inverted triangle" theory I learned in Journalism 101, most people have stopped reading. This may not be "burying the lead" but it's buries the most important fact in the story (this would kill the hype, however, which seems to be the whole point)!

Barring some massive financial shortfalls in the next two years or some other large event that forces a massive change of opinion across our connection, the 2012 General Conference is unlikely to end the practice of guaranteed appointments for Elders. It will end up being disadvantageous to women and minorities in many parts of the USA (as the Tennessean rightly points out), and the denomination is unlikely to change this traditional practice that has so long been at the core of our Methodist identity.

Should the practice of guaranteed appointments for Ordained Elders (which I am in the process of becoming) end? Maybe, maybe not. I can see both sides of the issue.

Guaranteed appointments are good for inclusivity, but only if a Bishop is willing to take risks and appoint people who might not otherwise be accepted because of their gender or race. And it ensures that churches that might otherwise go for long stretches without a pastor are served.

On the other hand, ineffective clergy can keep getting moved around with little accountability once they are fully ordained. This fact has made our ordination process long and drawn out, overly burdensome, and often adversarial and graceless in the way it is practiced.

The Tennessean article is right about one thing. Our system as it is currently constructed is probably unsustainable and some changes need to be made before it collapses under its own weight. Exactly what those changes are should be decided on by smarter and more experienced people than I.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Birds Nests and Emergence

I took a break from sermon writing this afternoon and took Kate for a walk around the neighborhood. On the corner by our house, I saw something interesting, and thankfully I had my phone with me to record the moment:

It's a bird's nest that was either blown out of or physically removed from a nearby pine tree (about five feet away out of frame).

However it got there, it clearly went through quite a jostling, and despite being composed of very fragile pieces like pine needles and leaves, it is holding together perfectly because it's so well constructed.

A bird is a very simple animal, but in many ways it's far wiser than we humans. It takes simple, organic materials and weaves them together (without the aid of opposable thumbs!) and creates a dwelling to raise its children. The nest itself is nothing special, but what happens in it is. It cradles the eggs before the hatch and hold the chicks once they are born. It provides a place for the mother to nourish her young, and it protects them while she is gone.

It serves its purpose for a season, but then the chicks are pushed out of the nest and learn to fly. Once those chicks grow up, one or more of them may come back to this very same tree to have its own family, but it knows better than to try to use the exact same nest. Those organic materials that once sheltered it in infancy have become hard and brittle and wouldn't support the next generation.

So this bird, like its mother, gathers its own materials and constructs a nest that, while nothing special by itself, creates space for amazing things to happen. And so it goes, from generation to generation.

I wonder if our churches are kind of like this. We take organic materials from the world around us: artistic and musical styles, current trends in thinking, technological mediums, etc., and we weave them together to create space for something special to happen. What we construct isn't special in and of itself, but what happens there is. God inhabits these organic cultural forms and uses them to help us grow as disciples.

But like any organic materials, these cultural forms have a life cycle and eventually die. But humans, unlike birds, are often not wise enough to recognize this. We hold on to a dead, brittle bird's nest because it's been there for a very long time instead of looking for what is growing afresh around us.

This is not to say that the Holy Spirit quits using old cultural forms, of course (the Spirit is a bit more powerful than a mama bird), but that the most vibrant, fruitful things start happening outside the bounds of what we've already constructed and dwelt in long enough to get very comfortable.

Phylis Tickle talks about this idea in her book, The Great Emergence. She argues that every five hundred years, Christianity undergoes a "rummage sale" where it finds new cultural forms to bring the eternal gospel to new generations in fresh ways. Tickle says that these rummage sales were/are the first century time of Jesus, the sixth century liturgical reforms of Pope Gregory the Great, the eleventh century Great Schism, the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, and the Emerging Church Conversation of today.

While I find Tickle's semi-millennial construct to be a bit too neat (and, dare I say, too modern?), the way she differentiates the work of the Holy Spirit and the cultural mediums by which we understand that work is very helpful in an age where congregations seem to be at war with one another and even with themselves over styles of worship and means of communicating and understanding the ways God is working in our midst.

If you're a member of a group that inhabits an older bird's nest, that's great. Do what works for you, as long as you're worshipping the God who is working in that nest and not the nest itself (the difference is subtle and not often obvious). But don't discourage those who are finding new materials to build their own nest, even if that nest is right next door to your own. Everything old was once new and was criticized for being different.

And if you're someone who is inclined to seek out new materials for building your own nest, go and do so with courage! But remember not to be too hard on those who are living in older nests. God is still working with them, and even your fresh, green nest will one day be brown, brittle, and sitting on the side of the road, fit only to be used as a quirky illustration on a blog post.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

TransFORM Network

It seems there's no shortage of social networking sites out there, every one trying to be the "Facebook of (fill in the blank)"

I have recently discovered one that I think is worth many of your (y'all's?) time, dear readers. It's called TransFORM, and it's a network for the involved in and/or interested in missional Christian communities. Check out the video below, and if you're so inclined, check out the site. Above all, please pray for those involved in these missional communities. They're doing some amazing Kingdom-work and it's not easy. I'm hopeful that TransFORM will help folks know they're not alone in their journey.

TransFORM: Missional Community Formation from TransFORM on Vimeo.

(Note, TransFORM is not affiliated with Emergent Village, although many of the faces will be familiar to those involved with EV.)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Thoughts on the Signing of the Hate Crimes Bill

This week President Obama signed into law the long awaited Shepard Hate Crimes Bill, which broadens hate crime laws to include sexual orientation as a factor in violent crimes.

When I found out that the law had been signed, I tweeted about how proud I was of our President and our country. Several folks replied that they don't understand why it can be more of a crime to beat one person to death than another person. Isn't every violent crime a hate crime?

(For those that aren't easily offended, there's a fantastic South Park episode about this very question.)

I share their sentiment and I agree that any violent crime is hateful. But I think the importance of the Shepard bill is much greater than the mandate of tougher sentences for physical attacks on certain people. The symbolic importance of this bill is somewhat like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts strengthened protections of rights that were in theory already guaranteed by the Constitution, but in practice they were systematically denied to people based on skin color. The importance of these bills was what they said about where we as a country were and how we were determined to do better in living up to the values we profess.

I believe the Shepard bill fulfills a similar symbolic purpose. As a country we are taking a stand and saying that violent attacks against anyone for any reason is never acceptable.

I am especially happy to see this bill passed because it was stalled for so long in Congress, with much of the opposition to it taking the form of half truths and outright lies clothed in religious language (this is another similarity to the aforementioned bills).

As a person of faith I respect the views of my brothers and sisters who believe that differing sexual orientations are a sin, even though I do not share this view. But I think most of us (fringe groups aside) can agree that violence against any group for any reason is never acceptable.

I am hopeful that the passage of the Shepard bill signals a positive shift toward a more peaceful and tolerant society.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Silent No More

A friend shared this USA Today article recently, and it gives voice to a problem that most people acknowledge on a certain level, but few people really understand. The problem is that being a pastor is a stressful, lonely job, and studies show that most pastors a very unhappy.

The article points out that pastors themselves share some measure of blame for this. The types of personalities drawn to local church ministry are generally people pleasers (guilty as charged), but the reality of leadership is not only that you can't make everyone happy, but real leaders often have to do things they know will make others angry because it is for the greater good.

Many pastors also set themselves up for failure by implying (sometimes in not so subtle ways) that they consistently embody the high ideals they encourage their community to live out. When Ted Haggard was forced out of his church in 2007, I wrote a post about how both pastor and congregation play into the myth of the perfect person, the super-hero pastor, and that the pressure will become overwhelming and the consequences will be disastrous.

This isn't just an abstract issue for me. I've been very open about my struggles with depression and anxiety, both in the congregations I've served and here in the blogosphere. And many of the things I've experienced in ministry have made my mental health struggles worse. The very fact that I've shared these struggles has had negative consequences on more than one occasion. So while I've never been suicidal like some of the pastors mentioned in the USA Today article, I understand what it's like to feel lonely, and even on occasion hopeless as a pastor.

One problem is that most pastors don't have very many "safe spaces" where they can be open and honest about their struggles. Pastors generally work more than 40 hours a week, much of that time spent with people in their congregations, but rarely are those people a safe space for a pastor. Sadly, most pastors can't feel safe with other clergy, either. Often times we're too afraid of shattering people's illusions that we're perfect, or we know that someone will see a point of weakness and use it against us.

Sadly, most pastors are either too proud or too scared to seek out professional help, assuming that if they just prayed or read their Bible more everything would be OK. So we become trapped in a self destructive cycle that everyone sees, but no one wants to talk about. But it's only a matter of time before the elephant in the room charges and people get hurt.

(For anyone in the Middle Tennessee area, I recommend the Pastoral Counseling Centers of Tennessee. I've seen the same counselor there for the last six years and the benefit has been immeasurable.)

If you're a pastor, please take a risk and speak up. Name your fears and your struggles. Sure, you run the risk of upsetting someone or giving a dysfunctional person some ammo against you, but you might also be surprised at who else might be suffering in silence, and at how your example may encourage and empower them.

If you have a pastor, step back and take a look at how you and your congregation treat them. Are your expectations unrealistic? Is your pastor setting him or herself up for failure by letting you expect too much of them? Ask yourself this question: do I pray for my pastor? Trust me, they need it.

Naming our struggles won't solve them, of course. There will always be difficult people and situations. But if more people realize that pastors are people too, including (maybe especially) pastors themselves, we'll all be a whole lot better off.

Monday, October 26, 2009

More Shameless Self Promotion

The new issue of Circuit Rider just came out, and I got to write one of the feature articles. The issue is focused on Ministry with the Poor (one of the four areas of focus defined by the 2008 General Conference), and my article is on "Prophetic Preaching in the Real Pulpit". It talks about preaching on challenging issues in ways that will actually be heard and acted upon by a congregation.

I hope you enjoy the article. Please leave any comments (positive or otherwise) you have below.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Experience and Health Care

As many folks out there know, Kate had the flu last week. She's much better now, and everything went pretty smoothly, but as new parents facing the first illness, having her fever go over 104 degrees was pretty scary! (Jessica wrote a couple blog posts about the experience)

Experiencing the health care system for the first time from the parent's perspective has caused me to reflect on the current national debate about reforming it.

On Monday afternoon, when Kate's fever spiked high enough that we knew we should take her to the doctor, we were able to immediately get an appointment and be seen by someone within an hour. They wrote us a prescription, and we were able to get it filled right away at the pharmacy, and it helped get Kate's fever down. After a few days at home and a follow up visit to the doctor, she was all better and life could return to normal.

Why did all of this happen? Why did we have such a good experience, scary though it was at certain moments? The work of caring and dedicated medical professionals played a large part, of course. But we have the kind of access to them that not everybody has.

The first thing that the receptionist and the doctor's office or the pharmacy technician does is look on their computer to check our insurance information, and when they see that we have good coverage, they smile and are glad to help us. This isn't because they're greedy. It's because they need to earn money like anybody else, and the knowledge that we can pay gets us better treatment.

A quick glance around the waiting room at the pediatricians' office showed us people with kids as sick or sicker than ours, some of whom were unable to be seen or were having to wait a very long time because they had little or no coverage.

So why does Kate deserve better care than these other kids? The idea that we live in a meritocracy, that those who work harder deserve more, doesn't really apply here, because at eight months old, what has she done to deserve better treatment (other than being objectively the most beautiful baby ever, of course)?

The answer is that she gets better treatment because she won the genetic lottery, being born in the United States to an upper middle class family. Jessica and I won similar genetic lotteries back in the early 1980s. We've worked hard and made the most of the opportunities we've been given, of course, but no one can deny that we had infinitely more resources and opportunities than most people in this country, let alone the entire world. All because of the families we were born into.

We're told by some folks that giving all people access to a basic level of health care will somehow hurt us and make our lives worse. But I'm not sure how an infant whose parents both work blue collar jobs (or, for that matter, whose parents are out of work because of the economic downturn) getting the same basic care that Kate gets hurts my family.

Jessica and I are both very fortunate to have jobs that have enough flexibility to allow us to stay home when our child is sick. I don't see how some basic protections allowing people in less flexible jobs a certain amount of days to do the same hurts my family.

I'm still working on educating myself on the specific proposals, so at some point I'll probably be able to say what specific policy I'm in favor of.

So for now, let me simply say that equal access to health care for all people won't hurt my family. In fact, I think it will make it stronger. Jessica and I won't stop working hard and just depend on someone else to take care of us. But if one or both of us were to fall on hard times and lose our jobs or our coverage, at least we'd know that Kate would still be able to be seen by a doctor and not turned away because she picked the wrong time to get sick.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Some Perspective from You Tube

As Jessica and I were hanging out at home today caring for our sick daughter, I came across an interesting blog post.

James McGrath, a professor of mine from college, shared this video, which claims to educate viewers on church history in four minutes:

To be fair, I don't know who produced this or in what context it was originally shown. And, of course, there's only so much you can do in four minutes. That being said...

This is church history from the viewpoint of white American evangelicals. The only mention of Eastern Orthodoxy is when Byzantine culture takes over parts of Italy. Africa only shows up with the mention of Augustine. Roman Catholicism disappears completely after 1517 (when Luther posted the 95 Theses), and its mentioned more for its wars than anything else. The rest of the globe disappears when the USA arrives on the scene (save for the twin antichrists: Charles Darwin and Godless Communism), and there is no mention of the Civil Rights movement in the US!

It's pretty creative, but if you want to really learn some church history, spend more than four minutes on it.

On a lighter note, here's a video that explains the origins of the Swine Flu:

It all makes sense now! This pandemic is part of a holy Jihog against us gentiles and our impure pork eating ways!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Much Needed Push-back

Looking back at my blog posts over the last few months, I've noticed an undercurrent of negativity. I'm generally not a negative person, and I don't think my posts have been overly gloomy but I have noticed a growth in my cynicism (case in point, my post on Frustration with the Political Climate).

For a long time I've been something of a political junkie, and while I tend toward the liberal/progressive end of the spectrum because of my religious convictions, I don't consider myself a partisan person. So I've become frustrated that the hyper-partisan nature of the campaign season, particularly in Presidential years, hasn't receded into the background and been overshadowed by substantive debate.

The thing that has bugged me the most is how the conservative end of the spectrum has been dominated by talking heads like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Bill O'Riley, and Sean Hannity. These guys seem way more interested in tearing down people who disagree with them than in actually accomplishing anything constructive. After a summer filled with Tea Partiers, people making signs of President Obama with Hitler mustaches (I thought it was equally stupid when my fellow war opposing liberals did the same thing to President Bush), scary people carrying guns to protest rallies, and other forms of outrage that seem largely manufactured, it seemed that the radical voice of the right was somehow becoming mainstream.

This is particularly distressing to me because I have a deep appreciation for intelligent, rational conservative thought, and I find that it provides balance and perspective in my own thought. I have a number of friends and loved ones (including both my father and father-in-law) whose conservative leanings challenge and sharpen my own take on the issues. Dialogue with them is extremely stimulating, even thought we rarely end up agreeing on much.

So I was very happy to see some influential conservative voices recently push back against the extremists who have been dominating the conversation of late.

David Brooks, a very intelligent columnist for the New York Times, wrote an op-ed making a very persuasive case for how the Faux News talking heads have significantly less power and influence than they claim.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (who has often pandered to the radical right) recently hit back very hard at extreme voices, specifically O'Reilly and Beck, suggesting that these guys are doing more harm than good. Graham made an especially salient point when he contrasted the willingness of the Founding Fathers (guys who often did not get along well) to dialogue and compromise for the good of the whole country with the current state of political discourse.

I hope these protests from more rational, mainstream conservative voices represents a return to civility in our national discourse. If we can put down the Hitler signs and assault rifles, quit shouting and actually talk to each other, we'll be much better off. We won't always agree or get our way all of the time, but at least we'll remember we're all on the same team here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The lowest common denominator

Part of me is amused, and part of me is distressed at this video. On the one hand I'm not surprised that good 'ol Kirk "Mike Seaver" Cameron is making this video, but I'm saddened by the realization that this argument is actually accepted by a disturbingly large number of people.

It explains why Wolf Blitzer, an otherwise reputable journalist, would waste everyone's time asking Republican presidential candidates if they believed in evolution during a debate last year.

I'm also somewhat amused by this video in response to Kirk. If you can set aside your offense at the plethora of 4-letter words, this woman has some substantive points, particularly when she mentions how Darwin has nothing to do with the big-bang theory.

Ultimately I'm left not really knowing what to think. On the one hand, I don't encounter these issues on a day to day basis, because even the most conservative people in my congregation don't think that science and faith are mutually exclusive (something for which I'm very grateful).

On the other, clearly there is a substantive enough portion of the population with whom this issue still has traction. If it didn't, the Christian-media-industrial-complex wouldn't waste any energy on it because it wouldn't make them any money. And those guys are nothing if not good capitalists.

I hope that the silent majority of rational individuals out there will see the forces using Kirk Cameron as their spokes-puppet for what they are: people who want to scare you into accepting their ideology without questioning. The issue for these people isn't about faith in God or even the authority of the Bible, really. It's about the authority of their interpretation of the Bible. In other words, the authority of them. And that's scary.

I'd like to address one thing Kirk says in the video. He claims that atheism has doubled over the last twenty years. I have no idea if that's true or if he even has any research to back that claim (I suspect he doesn't). But one has to wonder, if atheism (which is not the same thing as non-participation in church) really is on the rise, is Charles Darwin really the culprit?

I say no. Christians have only ourselves to blame for our steadily declining influence in the world. People look at us and perceive us a judgmental, hateful, out of touch with reality, and too obsessed with our own wonderfulness to really care about what real people are going through. And those outside of the church who actually pick up a Bible and read about Jesus only have those suspicions confirmed when they see the horrendous gap between the teachings of Jesus and the practices of those who claim his name.

We can create straw-men out of Charles Darwin and attack them all we like, but our problems are our own fault.

That being said, I hope you'll listen to what Kirk Cameron's puppet masters have to say. I also hope you'll read Charles Darwin for who he is and what he has to say: not as a Nazi or a racist, but as a guy who looked at the world and began to wonder if things aren't more beautifully complex and diverse than we'd previously thought. Darwin is a guy not unlike Copernicus or Galileo before him: someone who dreamed big and was persecuted by the religious authorities of their day, only to see succeeding generations repent of their ancestors' stupidity.

PS- if you're interested in issues of science and the Bible, check out Dr. James McGrath's blog, Exploring our Matrix. He's a first rate biblical scholar who poses challenging questions to all corners of institutional Christianity. You should also check out this great article on Kirk's latest quixotic venture by UCC pastor Chuck Currie.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Moltmann Meditations (part 1 of ?): Theology and Biography

Now that I've had more than a week to digest the plethora of amazing discussions, conversations, and ideas I encountered at the Emergent Theological Conversation with Jurgen Moltmann (one of my heroes and something of a grandfather in faith, but more on that later), I feel like I'm ready to reflect on what I experienced.

Theology as Biography, or Biography as Theology?

At the beginning of the conference, Danielle Shroyer led us through a "Moltmann 101" seminar that talked about Moltmann's major works in chronological order and put them in context of his biography. I had some idea of the order in which these works were written, but I had never given much thought to them, because like most students of theology since Aquinas, I've been taught to read theology as an objective, closed system free of contextual bias.

(I wholeheartedly reject this idea, by the way, but many systematic theologians write with this assumption, and I like to try to give people a charitable reading on their own terms)

Moltmann, however, makes no such assumptions about himself. His can be deceptive in this way sometimes (or, at the very least, the English translations of his writing) because he has a very structured writing style, and he deeply engages his theological predecessors and contemporaries with very little first person commentary. So it is easy to read him in the way someone would read Karl Barth.

Moltmann is very open about how his theology is deeply rooted in his experiences as a young man serving in the German army during World War II, particularly the deep anguish he felt when he learned about the Holocaust as a prisoner in a British POW camp. His work as a theologian is rooted in the reality of the suffering he saw and experienced early in life, and these questions are still crucial to him in his eighties.

In an effort to understand Moltmann's theology better, I am now reading his autobiography, A Broad Place. I am hoping that understanding his life story better will open up new insights when I reread some of his theological works that I read before.

Moltmann's insight that theology is deeply contextual is in need of greater recognition in the American church today. We are killing each other over a host of issues that are preventing us from working together on the larger problems of the world: problems on which we largely agree like AIDS, poverty, access to clean water, and ending child sex slavery.

But we refuse to work together on these issues because we fight one another over who has the "correct" interpretation of the Bible, as if there is one correct interpretation that rises above any contextual bias. We assume that God can't possibly be speaking to those who disagree with us, because they understand the Bible incorrectly.

Moltmann reminds us that we all come from somewhere, and what we bring to the table greatly affects the way we read the Bible and do theology. So maybe we should put aside the issues where we disagree for a moment and tell each other our stories. If we began to understand where we each come from, we might be less likely to demonize the other and understand why we come to the conclusions we do.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Top 10 Reasons Why Men Shouldn't Be Ordained

Joe Bumbulis at collideoscope posted this the other day (it seems to have originated at the Christian Feminism blog, and I just had to share:

Top 10 Reasons Why Men Shouldn't Be Ordained

10. A man’s place is in the army.

9. For men who have children, their duties might distract them from the responsibilities of being a parent.

8. Their physical build indicates that men are more suited to tasks such as chopping down trees and wrestling mountain lions. It would be “unnatural” for them to do other forms of work.

7. Man was created before woman. It is therefore obvious that man was a prototype. Thus, they represent an experiment, rather than the crowning achievement of creation.

6. Men are too emotional to be priests or pastors. This is easily demonstrated by their conduct at football games and watching basketball tournaments.

5. Some men are handsome; they will distract women worshipers.

4. To be ordained pastor is to nurture the congregation. But this is not a traditional male role. Rather, throughout history, women have been considered to be not only more skilled than men at nurturing, but also more frequently attracted to it. This makes them the obvious choice for ordination.

3. Men are overly prone to violence. No really manly man wants to settle disputes by any means other than by fighting about it. Thus, they would be poor role models, as well as being dangerously unstable in positions of leadership.

2. Men can still be involved in church activities, even without being ordained. They can sweep paths, repair the church roof, change the oil in the church vans, and maybe even lead the singing on Father’s Day. By confining themselves to such traditional male roles, they can still be vitally important in the life of the Church.

1. In the New Testament account, the person who betrayed Jesus was a man. Thus, his lack of faith and ensuing punishment stands as a symbol of the subordinated position that all men should take.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Even more shameless self promotion

I'm trying to organize my thoughts from the Moltmann conversation, and hopefully I'll begin posting those in the next day or so.

In the meantime, however, a new book on calling stories just came out, and it includes an essay I wrote about the value of mentoring relationships.

It's called Beyond the Burning Bush, and although it's focused primarily on ministry in the United Methodist Church, I think it would be valuable for any person wrestling with the idea of a call to vocational ministry (ordained or otherwise).

There are lots of really good essays in this book, including pieces by Sara Baron and Sarah McQueen, with whom I had the privilidge to serve in the Young Adult Seminarians Network.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Vicarious Live-Blogging Moltmann

As I said before, I'm not live blogging the Moltmann Conversation (this post doesn't count). I need time to process my thoughts, so I'm taking notes and I'll post reflections when I have time to digest them.

There are, however, a number of folks who are live blogging the event and providing some interesting and insightful commentary.

I'm posting them for the benefit both of those who are here and those who wish they were and want to know what is happening:

Brian Paulson (pastor of Libertyville First Presbyterian, where the Moltmann Conversation is taking place)

PomoRev (Frank Emmanuel)

Anyul Rivas (written in Spanish)

I'll link more folks as I find them

Friday, September 04, 2009

Moltmann Conversation

Next week I'll be attending the Emergent Theological Conversation with Jurgen Moltmann in Chicago. I'm really excited about this because I read a lot of Moltmann in seminary, and one of my professors was a student of Moltmann's at Tubugen. I'm also getting to see some family and friends while I'm there, which will be really nice.

(sidenote- I can't figure out how to get my keyboard to do umlauts, so my apologies to the German scholars out there)

Going to Emergent events is always an experience, because there always seems to be an unspoken competition as to who is the coolest, edgiest, theologically progressive hipster. I'll no doubt be contributing with my Macbook, my corduroy jacket, and my pipe. I don't have square glasses, screen printed t-shirts, artfully messy hair, or creative facial hair (just a plain 'ol beard), however, so I won't be winning any style contests.

One thing I won't be doing is live blogging the event. For one, there will be people there with sharper theological minds than my own who have much more interesting and well read blogs than I do, and when I find out who is doing that, I'll post links to their sites.

But the bigger reason is that theology, particularly the kind of deep theology that Moltmann does that draws from so many different sources in the Christian tradition, is not the kind of conversation that can be related through the kind of first impressions that constitute live blogging.

I will probably tweet a quote here and there, but for the most part I'm going to take notes, let it all sink in, and then I'll post my thoughts a few days after I get back.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Perspective on the Health Care Debate from Someone Who Knows

My friend and colleague Nancy Speas-Hill, with whom I have been privileged to be friends since high school, has posted an article on her blog about the current health care debate. She knows that of which she speaks in a way that few others do.

A bit of background: Nancy's daughter, Becca, was born 13 months ago an was the tiniest premie ever born at Vanderbilt Hospital, only 13 ounces and 9.5 inches long. Her very existence is a miracle, and as you can imagine, Nancy and her husband, John (both United Methodist Pastors), have received quite an education in the American health care system over the last year.

Nancy has both the practical experience and the theological grounding to be able to speak with integrity about the larger issues at stake in the current debate over health care reform. If only more intelligent, informed people like her were guiding the debate, an not angry, misinformed, paranoid people who all too often betray the latent racism that is, sadly, still present in most white Americans.

May we all listen to our better angels and speak up in favor of the Beccas of the world.

Frustration with the Political Climate

This is a very sad video, but I'm posting it because it sums up very well the disdain I've been feeling toward the political environment of late.

I first became aware of Sen. McCain in the 2000 Presidential Primaries, and had he won the Republican nomination, I would have voted for him in the general election.

I did not vote for him in 2008 because I believe he came to represent things that he probably doesn't actually stand for, but I was worried his potential administration (symbolized by his unfortunate choice of Sarah Palin for Vice President) would have allowed those forces that ran the Bush administration to stay in power.

That being said, I have great admiration and respect for the man. His true character came through in campaign events where he vocally rejected trumped up lies about the character of President Obama, and was booed for doing so. This video shows him in a recent town hall meeting doing the same thing, and receiving the same reaction.

It's sad to see an honorable public servant be booed for refusing to participate in the outright lies, smear tactics, and fear mongering of the radical base that is ruining his party. More often than not I find myself aligned with the moderate political left, but I greatly value the positive contributions and balance that the voice of the moderate right (folks like George Will and Bill Kristol before he became a darling of Faux News) has to offer.

Sen. McCain, I don't agree with you much of the time, but I respect your integrity and honor your service to our country. Keep up the good work even if your base doesn't appreciate you.

Addendum- not an hour after this posted, I learned of Sen. Ted Kennedy's death. Kennedy represented the mixture of strong ideological belief and willingness to dialogue and compromise that is sadly lacking in our current political climate. This rare mixture often gets one labeled as "wishy-washy" or a "flip-flopper", but is more properly called "integrity". Sen. Kennedy, and the integrity he represented, will be sorely missed.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Reflections on Calling: Learn to Swim!

As promised, here it is. My reflections on discerning my calling.

In elementary school I was taught to restate the question in my answer. The questions (according to Jenny Smith of UMC Young Clergy) are: What are the struggles, joys, surprises and outcomes? Who helped you along? Where are you now? What do you wish someone told you at the beginning of discernment?

I’m somewhat envious of those who have a specific, precise experience of calling and/or conversion a la St. Augustine. For those who share this type of experience, their certainty of their status before God and what they are supposed to do with their lives is unshakeable.

However, I believe that I am like most people, in that I have not had a singular moment of epiphany, and that my sense of calling has been worked out “with great fear and trembling”, as it were, through a lot of trial and error.

Specifically, God has shown me my calling in life by throwing me in the deep end and forcing me to learn to swim.

According to the most recent theories on parenting (I have a six month old daughter, and I’m, for better or worse, quite well read on such things), many of the “old school” parenting techniques we and our parents grew up with are now anathema and tantamount to child abuse.

I had swimming lessons as a child, but I know a lot of people whose fathers would throw them in the deep end of the pool so they would learn to swim, trusting that there is a fundamental human survival instinct that would lead the child to learn to swim.

So while I am not so presumptuous as to call God an "abusive" parent, I so see God as an “old school” parent who has repeatedly thrown me in the deep end and shouted “Learn to swim!” over my loud and persistent screaming.

When I was 18 years old, God blessed me with a youth pastor named Will who had more faith in me than I did. Will was also the church’s choir director, and one week at choir practice he told us that he wouldn’t be present on the following Sunday. “Who’s going to direct us?” one member asked. Will took one look at me and said, “Matt, get down here. You’re the choir director this Sunday.” I had never directed a choir before, but he walked me through it, and I ended up doing a passable job.

(Splash! “Learn to swim!”)

A few months later I found myself in the summer between high school and college, working at a missions camp. A church from the town in which I would be attending college was at our camp one week, and decided I should come work with their youth. A few days later I got a call from the pastor, asking if I’d be willing not only to work with the youth, but direct the youth program. Remember, I’m only 18 years old.

(Splash! “Learn to swim!”)

Fast forward a few years, and I’m straight out of seminary in my first solo appointment. Three weeks after I’ve begun this appointment, I’m starting to feel comfortable, and I even think I know what I’m doing. Then I get a phone call from an older member: “Matt, (church member)’s daughter was murdered last night. It’s all over the cable news stations!” Long story short, the circumstances of her death were rather sensational, and it led to a lot of media attention. The funeral is that Saturday, and we have to keep the information about services out of the papers, for fear of CNN trucks being outside the church. The next day, Sunday, I’ve already scheduled an infant baptism, so I’ve got a third of the congregation overjoyed at the baptism of a new baby, one third grief stricken over the death of this woman, and another third in between, not sure what to think. And I’ve got to preach one sermon to speak to all of them!

(Splash! “Learn to swim!”)

Two years later, I’ve settled in to my role as a Senior Pastor quite nicely. I’m in Costa Rica on a mission trip, and very early one morning my wife calls me (on the cell phone of the one group member who brought it for emergencies) to tell me our church building was hit by a bolt of lightning and burned to the ground. I spend the entire day getting back into the United States, out of communication, with very little idea as to what’s going on. When I do get back, I have less than 48 hours to plan a worship service from scratch, having to rely on favors from a half dozen other churches for chairs, hymnals, a keyboard, etc. Not to mention, of course, the media attention this draws and the hundreds of people grieving the loss of this beloved, historic building, now looking to their 28 year old pastor for guidance.

(Splash! “Learn to swim!”)

To all the young adults reading this: please know that discerning your calling will likely not be an objective, completely certain thing. It will most likely be worked out through your experiences, with a lot of mistakes, and only having any kind of discernible form in hindsight.

I pray that God lets you wade in gradually, but don’t be surprised if you’re thrown into the deep end and told to learn how to swim. God is a good and loving parent who will let you struggle for your own good, but won’t let you drown.

My prayers are with each and every one of you on this journey. If I can ever be of any help whatsoever, don’t hesitate to contact me by email or through the blog.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Coming Thursday- Reflections on Calling

Jenny Smith over at UMC Young Clergy has issued a call for folks to post their reflections on discerning their calling on Thursday, August 20. I'll be doing this, and I encourage any other young adults in ministry (Methodist or otherwise) to do the same.

Jenny writes:

What are the struggles, joys, surprises and outcomes? Who helped you along? Where are you now? What do you wish someone told you at the beginning of discernment?

Write the post, send the link to and they'll all be posted at on the 20th.

We hope the outcome is two fold:
They'll be shared with young adults ages 18-24 considering a call into ministry
They'll also be helpful for young adults interested in attending Exploration 2009 this November 13-15

I'll be posting some reflections (including both joys and frustrations), which I hope will be beneficial to other young adults considering these issues. This is often a lonely road we travel, and one of the benefits of social networking sites and blogs is connecting with others who are on this journey who may not be physically close by, and knowing that we are not alone.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Health Care Creed

In the midst of the partisan screaming over health care reform, it seems like few people are taking the time to consider the larger theological and moral issues at hand.

As a Christian, I believe that each and every one of God's children is of sacred worth, and that access to quality, affordable health care is a fundamental right of all human beings, not just those who have the means to afford it.

Although I voted for President Obama and my theological and moral convictions generally cause me to lean toward the political left, I don't know enough yet about the specific proposals for health care reform to know whether I would be in favor of a specific bill or not.

What I do know is that in Matthew 25, when Jesus talks about the differences between the sheep and the goats (those who are participating in the life of the Kingdom of God, and those who are not, respectively), one of the identifying marks of the sheep is caring for the "least of these" when they are sick, because whatever one does to any of God's children, they do unto God.

With that in mind, I'd like to share something I received in an email the other day from Tony Garr, director of the Tennessee Health Care Campaign (THCC), which contained a "Health Care Creed" developed by People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO), and Sojourners.

As one of God's children, I believe that protecting the health of each human being is a profoundly important personal and communal responsibility for people of faith.

I believe God created each person in the divine image to be spiritually and physically healthy. I feel the pain of sickness and disease in our broken world (Genesis 1:27, Romans 8:22).

I believe life and healing are core tenets of the Christian life. Christ's ministry included physical healing, and we are called to participate in God's new creation as instruments of healing and redemption (Matthew 4:23, Luke 9:1-6; Mark 7:32-35, Acts 10:38). Our nation should strive to ensure all people have access to life-giving treatments and care.

I believe, as taught by the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, that the measure of a society is seen in how it treats the most vulnerable. The current discussion about health-care reform is important for the United States to move toward a more just system of providing care to all people (Isaiah 1:16-17, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Matthew 25:31-45).

I believe that all people have a moral obligation to tell the truth. To serve the common good of our entire nation, all parties debating reform should tell the truth and refrain from distorting facts or using fear-based messaging (Leviticus 19:11; Ephesians 4:14-15, 25; Proverbs 6:16-19).

I believe that Christians should seek to bring health and well-being (shalom) to the society into which God has placed us, for a healthy society benefits all members (Jeremiah 29:7).

I believe in a time when all will live long and healthy lives, from infancy to old age (Isaiah 65:20), and "mourning and crying and pain will be no more" (Revelation 21:4). My heart breaks for my brothers and sisters who watch their loved ones suffer, or who suffer themselves, because they cannot afford a trip to the doctor. I stand with them in their suffering.

I believe health-care reform must rest on a foundation of values that affirm each and every life as a sacred gift from the Creator (Genesis 2:7).

If you share the conviction that health is a fundamental right of all God's children, regardless of your political leanings, I hope you will share this creed with others on your blog, Facebook page, or whatever other means you have of communicating your beliefs to others.

(Note: the biblical passages cited and linked above are not intended as "proof-texts" to argue that God is in favor of one political position over another. They're simply intended to point to some biblical passages that inform these convictions. If you read and interpret these and other biblical passages differently, I affirm and honor your convictions, just as I hope you will affirm and honor mine.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Truth in "fake" news

Once again, the "fake" news has hit on a profound truth that the "real" news is too busy covering sensational stories to boost ratings and rake in ad revenue to notice.

I think I'm like most folks in that I'm not sure what to make of all the outrage on display over health care reform at these town hall meetings. Is it genuinely grassroots? Is it manufactured? Are that many people really in a blind rage? How can people get so angry when so few specifics have been proposed or discussed?

One of the strangest things these protesters and talking heads on Faux News are yelling about is the supposed "death panels" that will decide if someone is worthy of treatment, hence determining if they live or die. "The Daily Show" hilariously points out that insurance companies already make such decisions.

My favorite line: "the US government should not be running death panels. It's far too big and out of control to effectively run something that important. That responsibility should remain where it is now: with private insurance companies."

We'd all be better off if we stepped back for a second, laughed at how seriously we take ourselves, calmed down, and actually talked with each other instead of screaming sound-bytes so we could get on TV.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Further Shameless Self Pomotion

I just published an article on Youth Ministry Today. It's a piece I wrote a few years back for my Seminary Field Ed class, and we were asked to pick a guiding metaphor for the ministry context in which we were working.

I was a youth pastor, and I chose "shepherd", specifically a shepherd herding cats. Enjoy.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Contemplative Concrete

A few weeks ago I was in Costa Rica on a mission trip. Pretty much all I've written about the trip thus far was how it was abbreviated by the church fire. Initially I was upset that I was out of the country when this disaster occurred, preventing me from being on the scene right away. But in a way it was actually a good thing for me, in that it created a kind of liminal space between the type of everyday ministry I was used to and the new, chaotic reality I came back to.

I also found the trip to be a great opportunity to engage in some contemplative practices and focus completely on the moment I was in, which has been so crucial for me in these last few weeks.

In Costa Rica we were working on the orphanage in Coronado (a town in the mountains just outside San Jose) that the Methodist Church of Costa Rica hopes to open next year. The foundation had been dug, so we were doing concrete work all week. Here in the States we usually see one or more large concrete mixing trucks doing all the work, requiring only a few people and very little time. This was not the case at the orphanage.

The only power tool we had was a cement mixer with a loud diesel motor. Everything else was done by hand.

A massive pile of silt had been taken from a river bed, and we had to sift it, separating the gravel from the sand.

We then had to shovel the sand and gravel into buckets, so they could be poured into the cement mixer in the correct proportions along with water and cement to make mortar to lay block and concrete for the foundation.

Once the mixer had done its thing, we had to take the concrete one wheelbarrow-load at a time over to the foundation to pour over the re bar, which was being hand tied by some other members of our group.

Needless to say, the progress was very slow and the work was as physically strenuous as most of us had ever experienced. And some folks very quickly got frustrated by the slow progress and how much effort was required for the smallest result. "Let's pass the hat and rent us a cement truck!" was frequently overheard, not always jokingly.

I had the good fortune of having brought Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation along with me. The book is a series of essays where Merton is attempting to explain the contemplative life to people who aren't in a monastery. It's not a series of exercises, just reflections.

In one of the chapters, Merton talks about how much we let other things distract us from what is happening in the present moment. We worry about unpaid bills, what our neighbor thinks of us, etc. We let a million thoughts run through our heads and it becomes very hard to focus.

Being one of the younger, stronger guys on the team, I had the "privilege" of doing a lot of the heavy lifting, which often meant pushing heavy wheelbarrows full of concrete up and down the very steep hillside. I quickly became overwhelmed when I thought about how many more loads it would take to finish a certain task, how long it was until lunch, or how badly my back was going to hurt the next morning.

So I decided to try and follow Merton's advice and do everything I could to concentrate on what I was doing at that moment. I only thought about filling the bucket in front of me with sand or gravel, not about how many buckets I would fill the entire day. I concentrated just on the wheelbarrow I was pushing at the moment, not how many I would push all day. I concentrated on each breath I was taking.

A very strange thing happened as I did this. I became very aware of my body and how I was using it as I did this hard physical labor. I quickly realized that when I was pushing or lifting something heavy I wasn't breathing at all, or taking very shallow breaths. This, combined with the altitude, was why I was out of breath all the time.

I discovered that when I was pushing the wheelbarrows up the hill, I was keeping my arms tense unnecessarily, and that I was pushing my hips forward, putting all the pressure on my lower back, instead of letting my legs do the work. Because I was focusing on what I was doing at the moment, I was able to make small corrections and more effectively use my body to do the work.

At the end of each day I found myself exhausted, but not very sore at all. Even though I was burning more calories each day that I probably do in a normal week, I found myself very relaxed and refreshed. It took every ounce of mental discipline I have (which is, admittedly, not very much), but focusing solely on what I was doing in each moment enabled me to enjoy the whole experience more, quiet my soul, and draw closer to God.

In the three weeks since the church fire that forced me to cut the mission trip short, I've had no shortage of things to worry about. Whenever I consider the totality of the task before us, I get overwhelmed, scared, and depressed. But if I can quiet those voices in my head and focus solely on the task before me, it doesn't seem so daunting, and I'm actually able to get more done.

All because I was able to practice some contemplative concrete work! God works in mysterious ways, indeed!

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Gospel According to "Rachel Getting Married"

This weekend Jessica and I watched a film that had been on our Netflix que for quite a while, Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married". It was a pretty good movie, thanks mostly to Anne Hathaway's performance.

I was really surprised, though, to see a tremendous message of redemption and some (most likely unintended) gospel metaphors at the end of the movie.

Anne Hathaway's character, Kym, reminds me of a number of people I've encountered at various times in my life. She's just come home from another stint in rehab, and it becomes clear very quickly that Kym has constructed her entire identity around being messed up. She wants everyone to know all about her problems, and she always has to be the center of attention. It's most likely crippling insecurity masquerading as vapid narcissism, and it works. We find out that her whole family is oriented around her disease. Her father is the peacemaker who will do anything to keep things peaceful keep her from going off the deep end. Her sister, Rachel (who is getting married, hence the title), is getting a PhD in Psychology so she can give voice to all the dysfunctions in her family. This is a textbook case of what addiction does to individuals and families.

Disclaimer- spoilers ahead. If you haven't seen this movie and don't want to know what happens, stop reading!

The night before the wedding, Kym gets in a fight with her estranged mother that gets physical, leaving her with a black eye and a swollen lip. She runs from her mom's house in a very emotional state, drives off, and quickly totals her car. She then falls asleep in the car, only to be awoken by police in the morning. Kym arrives back at the house as everyone is getting ready for the wedding in terrible shape with her father worried sick. Even though this is her sister's wedding day, she is once again drawing all the attention to herself.

Here's where the fantastic gospel metaphor shows up. Kym knocks on the door of Rachel's room and just stands there saying nothing. Rachel is already in her dress, but she takes it off to help Kym get cleaned up, made up to cover her eye and lip, and dressed for the ceremony. Even though Rachel had gotten fed up with Kym's antics in an earlier scene, we see Kym broken and contrite and helpless, so Rachel's actions show her forgiveness in a way words never could.

Kym's silence is significant because she has had the vast majority of the dialogue throughout the film. But from the moment at Rachel's door, she barely has any lines at all. The director, Jonathan Demme, had made Kym the center of almost every shot, but all through the wedding day she is on the margins of the screen. Kym has finally gotten over herself and thought of somebody else for a change. She has accepted that life is not all about her and her problems, and that she truly needs others to help her make it through each day.

This isn't a "Christian film" by any stretch, and I doubt if any of the filmmakers have any particular religious inclinations, and yet we see the gospel shown in the brokenness and humility Kym shows after she crashes her car. She's finally hit rock bottom and has accepted her powerlessness in the face of her addictions and other problems. She understands and accepts that redemption is going to have to come from a force outside herself.

The movie may not have the requisite doctrinal presentation (the only mention of Jesus is when the characters frequently break the third commandment) for some Christians to consider this film as containing a legitimate gospel message, but I think the humility and redemption Kym displays speaks for itself.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Conspiracy Theories and Media

I hate even bringing up this issue, because doing so might somehow indicate that I believe that the people on this particular bandwagon have a point or that is even the slightest bit legitimate. Reticence noted, here goes.

It seems that the so called "Birther" movement just won't go away. This is a relatively small but unbelievably vocal group of people who insist that, in spite of ironclad evidence to the contrary, President Obama is not a US citizen and thus not eligible to be President.

What really amazes me about this whole issue is not that fringe groups make thinly veiled racist arguments driven more by paranoia, prejudice, and an unhealthy obsession with conspiracy theories. Living in the South so close to the home base of the KKK, I see that sort of garbage all the time. What really blows my mind is how members of the mainstream media not only give this issue any attention, but some of them are even keeping this story alive.

I'm not just talking about Faux News, either. They just added Glen Beck to their stable of nut jobs, which tells you all you need to know about their priorities. I'm talking about CNN, the network that claims to pride itself on staying above the partisan fray.

CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, a well known xenophobe (see his almost nightly attacks on undocumented laborers) is one of the chief proponents of the "birther" conspiracy theory (side note: Jon Stewart, as he often does, superbly illustrates the absurdity of this whole thing). In an interview with Politico, CNN President Jon Klein sidestepped any responsibility for this yellow journalism masquerading as legitimate, impartial journalism, by claiming that what Dobbs says on his radio show, part of a different media company, is of no concern to CNN.

I don't believe that for a second. If Dobbs or any other on-air personality at CNN or any other network got a DUI or was accused of a violent crime, the network would suspend them, if not outright fire them. We need look no further than Don Imus or Charles Barkley for proof of that. Saying "This person did X act outside of our airwaves" would not be acceptable, because networks live and die by the public perception of their on-air talent.

Dobbs draws big ratings, hence CNN can charge more to run ads on his show. The same goes for incendiary talking heads like Glen Beck, Keith Olberman, and Bill O'Reiley. As long as the sponsors are happy, they can go on saying any incendiary thing they want. The more outrageous the better, because it keeps us all tuning in.

The majority of us who are sick of this kind of thing passing for legitimate news do have some recourse, however. We can simply turn off the TV, thus negatively affecting the ratings of these talking heads. If we're so inclined we could even contact these networks or even their advertisers and tell them that we expect better of them if they are going to be our voice.

Taking a few minutes to speak up might do us all a lot of good.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lessons thus far

I've learned a lot of things in the nearly two weeks since the church fire. Among them are the grace and resiliency of the people of Bethlehem UMC- a lesson I learn over and over again as I continue with the honor of being their pastor.

Another thing I've learned is how any comment, no matter how small, can generate a lot of buzz. For example, I tweeted the following thing yesterday (which also becomes my Facebook status): "really getting sick of all these sharks using our church's tragedy as a way to drum up business".

This phrase quickly generated a number of questions from folks who read it. So let me clarify/elaborate.

Over the past two weeks I have received dozens of phone calls and emails from businesses whose products and services may be useful to us as we begin the process of rebuilding. Some of these phone calls and emails have evidenced genuine concern, apologies for seeming opportunistic in contacting me, and offers of some kind of discount in light of our tragedy. These are not the "sharks" to whom I am referring.

The "sharks" in question are, sadly, the majority of these phone calls and emails from businesses who express half-hearted condolences for our loss, and immediately launch into a lengthy sales pitch for their products/services. Particularly unsettling are the individuals who have offered legal consultation in dealing with our insurance company. These are probably the same guys who advertise their services during "The Price Is Right" if you've been injured in an accident and can't work. My friends who've been to law school have a term for these people: ambulance chasers.

Before I sound too negative, however, let me say that most of the communication I've had from folks has been messages of support and prayer, along with offers to help with no expectation of reciprocity. The small minority whose behavior is, at best, ethically gray, does not overshadow the majority of folks who have been nothing but loving and gracious.

As to this small minority, I get that these practices may be "good business", but it's pretty poor manners.

PS- today is Kate's 6 month birthday! Check out our family blog, The Parsonage Family, for a recap of the last half year!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Moving Forward

Bethlehem UMC will be meeting at the Montgomery County Civic Hall for at least the next four weeks. All are welcome to join us for Breakfast at 8:30, Sunday School at 9, and Worship at 10.

The Civic Hall is located in Veterans Plaza on Pageant Ln., just off of Madison Street in Clarksville, TN. Here is a Google Map to the location.

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