Sunday, January 30, 2005

Meanderings on prayer

There are some good thoughts on prayer both at The Grace Pages and The Parish, and I jumped in on the discussion. Basically, both struggle with what prayer is and why the model of asking God to do stuff (a little crudely put I admit) can be unsatisfactory.

Marjorie Suchocki has a book called In God's Presence that describes a larger view of prayer. She speaks of seeking God's presence rather than seeking God's intervention. That reasonated with me as God With Us is a cornerstone of my theology. If God is always present, then God does not have to especially intervene upon our asking. God is already intervening, yet our seeking and acting on that presence can affect that intervention as well. As I said in the discussion at the Parish:

"If, for instance, one prays for an uncle's healing, and the uncle does make a full recovery, does that mean that God was only working in the uncle for healing, and only because of that prayer, and now God is just waiting for more orders? What is God doing between interventions and if prayer is all about intervention, what do we pray for if we don't need any?

That's why I think seeking God's presence is a better model. Instead of asking God to be present, one asks how God is present."

For the most part I don't do a whole lot of prayer for intervention nowadays. I lift names and situations to God, but sans flowery talk about how I want God to handle it. Now it's more about hoping that an awareness of God comes (however appropriate to the situation), questioning how I or others may act on or be transformed by that awareness, and a lot of 'thy will be done.'

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Weekly recommendations

It's been a slow week in the blogosphere, mostly because it's been a busy week elsewhere. But shame on me if I don't get my weekly list of recommendations to my loyal readers....all three of you....anyway....

I picked up Jim Wallis' book, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, yesterday. I hope to start it soon. I'm guessing it'll provide some good fodder for future posts.

I also just recently started listening to Radiohead. I'm not sure why, but I was never really interested before now. They're really good. I've got The Bends in the player right now.

For television I'll recommend to you one of the few shows I make a point to watch any more, ESPN's Pardon the Interruption. It provides a quick rundown of the top stories in sports every day. It's like Sportscenter, only a half hour shorter and with more arguing. Plus you get to watch those great Guinness commercials. Brilliant!!

Two movies for you this week. The first is Napoleon Dynamite, which is apparently becoming a cult classic very quickly. It is quite a ridiculous little film about a high school nerd who really doesn't care what anyone else thinks. I quote lines from it around the house and it drives my wife nuts. The second is Anchorman, which I found more hilarious the second time. I'm still trying to decide if Wil Ferrel will end up going the way of Bill Murray or Chevy Chase. I don't know that there's middle ground on this.

Around the web, check out Guitar Chord Finder. Brilliant!!

Enjoy. Have a good week.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Ain't that the truth...

“Preaching is one of the greatest privileges of the pastorate. It is also one of the most fearful responsibilities. In all honesty, to stand before the congregation and proclaim ‘Thus says the Lord’ seems a bit ludicrous to me. Who am I to offer these people God’s Word?…I think about the people in those pews with whom I have fallen deeply in love. I think about those who are overworked and those who have been worked over by the hardness of life. I remember the woman who has filed for divorce, the young man who is afraid he may have AIDS, the older couple that didn’t want to move into a nursing home. The [choir] anthem ends. I make the long walk to the pulpit, begging God to use my words to bring some of his hope into their lives.”

From Yearning by M. Craig Barnes

I don't know, either

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

God Got a Hold of Me

On Sunday afternoon I was ordained into Christian ministry of the United Church of Christ. It was a wonderful service, well-attended by both my home congregation and the congregation I am serving, in addition to a large part of my family. To look over the congregation to give the benediction and see people from my entire life gathered in one place was wonderful. The gathering reminded me of my wedding in some ways.

The pastor of my home church preached, and he was in rare form on that afternoon. There are two things about his sermon that struck me in particular.

First, he kept stating that I would be a 'keeper of the word of God and its integrity.' In my mind I linked this to one of the ordination vows in which I promised to 'remain faithful to the truth of the gospel while maintaining the peace of the church.' No small task, I'd say. But this is what I took keeping the word of God and its integrity to be. As a minister of Word and Sacrament, the integrity of both is something with which I must always be concerned. What a fearful and exciting call!

Second, the highlight of the sermon that you could tell he was so proud of, was his accurate description of my call journey (and most people's, I'd venture) as a wrestling match, recalling the story of Jacob at the riverbank. I've used the wrestling description many times when referring to how to approach scripture and how my faith journey has progressed, so I was in complete agreement.

God got a hold of me, he said. When God calls, God finally gets a hold of us and we respond. At the end of the day when we are finished wrestling we may be walking with a limp, but we also walk in God's call for us. God and I have had some knock down drag out matches before, and we probably will again. I am thankful that God got a hold of me, and I'm also thankful that God is always up for another round. It keeps me limber and honest, two things I need to be to maintain the gospel's integrity.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Snow Day

As we gear up for a snowy weekend in northeast Ohio (and I gear up for my ordination), here is my weekly list to get my loyal readers through to next weekend.

In the CD player is 'Home' by Keller Williams. He's an acoustic guitar player with a sound similar to Dave Matthews or Jack Johnson, only more quirky.

For a fun DVD, watch Bubba Ho-Tep. Here's the plot synopsis: the real Elvis and a black guy who thinks he's JFK battle a mummy in a nursing home. Interested? Plus it's Bruce Campbell, so it's gotta be good.

I'm currently reading The Faith We Proclaim by Elmer Arndt. It's been sitting on my shelf for a while and I started it on the recommendation from a listserve I'm a part of. The tagline is "The Doctrinal Viewpoint Generally Prevailing in the Evangelical and Reformed Church." So it's a work of historical theology on one side of what came together to form the UCC. Arndt used to be the church history professor at Eden, and listed on the Theology Committee that helped put it together is John B. Noss, who taught Religion at Heidelberg years ago. The book is out of print, so good luck finding a copy. But it's an interesting read if you're into church history at all. If not, go watch Bubba Ho-Tep.

I have no television show to recommend, because television generally sucks.

Read this blog post. I know it's from my own blog, but it was sitting in my drafts folder for a while and I didn't realize that it would publish where it did.

Enjoy. Have a good week.

Friday, January 21, 2005

God's Politics

Jim Wallis has a new book out called God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. Wallis came to Eden to speak while we were still living in St. Louis and I passed on an opportunity to see him, but I did catch him on The Daily Show the other night plugging the book. Anyway, Chuck is also talking about him today, and I thought I would as well, because books like this and Tony Campolo's Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat?: and 14 Other Polorizing Issues give me more hope for 'fair and balanced' looks at America's theological and political landscape than people who actually claim to be 'fair and balanced.'

One important issue to be considered here is the 'imagination' (Curtis White is shuddering right now) of those currently running the government. Those who oppose policies and proclamation from the UCC's national office partially make their argument on the grounds that in opposing war, for instance, no alternative is suggested for dealing with terrorism 'besides talking about it.' Does that give Mr. Bush credit for having all the imagination? Not necessarily. It's not like war is a brand new concept to the world. But at least he's doing something that 'works.' That's the point. Of course we can debate how well war really works on a case by case basis (Crusades, Vietnam), but let's move on, shall we?

This quote from Mr. Wallis in a recent issue of Christian Century is appropriate for the discussion as well: "The conventional liberal political wisdom that people who are conservative on abortion are conservative on everything else is just wrong. Christians who are economic populists, peace-making internationalists, and committed feminists can also be 'pro-life.' The roots of this conviction are deeply biblical and, for many consistent with a comitment to nonviolence as a gospel way of life." The larger truth in this quote is that one issue does not a 'conservative' or 'liberal' make.

So first we hear that perhaps one 'side' of the debate on some issues need to offer up more than pessimistic platitudes claiming the moral high ground, and second that taking a stance on one issue does not guarantee that some sort of party line will be towed in every case. Ultimately Campolo will say that Jesus is neither Republican nor Democrat. I have yet to read Wallis' book but have every intention of doing so. From the excerpts included on Chuck's site, however, it looks to me like the basic argument is that 'liberals' have allowed 'conservatives' to co-opt God without issuing a response for fear of stepping on theological toes, dictating right and wrong to a pluralistic public (I speak more in political terms now, as 'liberal' Christians--at least the ones I know--have plenty to say about right and wrong this day and age). The Right is not afraid to wear its faith on its sleeve. The Left either avoids it or mumbles something about it and then changes the subject, immediately alienating millions of Americans (see Kerry, John). This is one of many reasons I, among millions of others, am hoping for nothing but good things from Barak Obama (a proud UCC member!).

I've intertwined two different issues here. First is the idea that The Left avoids taking a theological stance (not without some understandable concerns). The second is that for some time The Left has also been unable to offer true alternative solutions other than to say that current methodology is wrong (ironically a moral stance). The latter, I think, should not be ruled out. It's a good start, anyway. What those of us who lean left on more issues than right (you like how I worded that?) need to do in addition to naming what is wrong is naming how to do better. In some cases we have. In others, we're still seeking.

Consider this Part 1 of a two-part commentary. There's a third issue concerning what I've talked about in this post and I don't want to let it slip by unaddressed. Remember how I mentioned a growing divide in the UCC? Yeah, it has to do with that, too.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Going Back to General Synod

This past week I was unofficially named a delegate to the Twenty-fifth General Synod of the United Church of Christ, in the Clergy Under 30 category. This will be my second term as a delegate, having served previously as a Youth delegate (even though I was 22 at the time) at the Twenty-third Synod in Kansas City. Delegates actually serve for a term of two Synods, but I was unable to attend the last one in Minneapolis.

I experienced General Synod as a great time to meet UCC members from across the country and see how the process at the national level works, along with experiencing some wonderful and diverse worship. Resolutions drawn up by various church bodies (or multiple bodies) are brought to the floor to be considered, and in turn the resolutions that pass are recommended to be acted upon by local churches. However, local churches (in my experience) do not often act on these either because they don't ever hear about them or they don't agree with them. I'll sit down and type up something about our polity (and perhaps something else about a growing divide in the church) some other time.

In the meantime, I'm happy to have been considered. Although I'm not sure how many other Clergy Under 30 types are in my Association at the present time. It may just be that I was the only one left.

Part 3 Under a Microscope

While writing my posts briefly chronicling my faith journey, I had a feeling that some pieces of it would evoke stronger responses than others, most of all Part 3. As was the case with all four of these posts, it was chopped up by my Pampered Chef Selective Memory and served back in easy-to-swallow bites. Or so I thought. It was pointed out to me earlier today that perhaps this piece especially is chopped too fine to really be considered a full meal. You ever hear someone talk about not liking hot dogs because one day when they were little they ate one too many and threw up? That's what Part 3 was, except I forgot to mention how good the ice cream was beforehand.

I'm mixing food metaphors. Here's what I'm getting at. I remember my junior year of college being very intense and dark, faith-wise and in certain cases relationship-wise. There were other things that I didn't mention (and some things I won't mention) going on that year, some of which contributed to and some of which counterbalanced my overall experience of September 1999-May 2000 being the year I swore off hot dogs forever. And I hadn't realized until this afternoon just how amazingly despicable I consider that time to be, at the expense of all that ice cream.

My memories of Campus Fellowship are not frequently positive . The reason for this is because the negative ones get played back more often. My intent while writing Part 3 was to convey the contribution Campus Fellowship--more specifically, the actions of a few people in Campus Fellowship--made to that year being considered so dark. What I realize now is that in conveying that contribution I've overlooked other moments and other people's actions that were not meant to be impugned during my impugning.

Were there some nosy strangers around me at that time? Yes, there were. There were also many loving friends who only wanted the best for me, and still do.

Were there judgmental and mean things perpetrated by some CF members toward others on campus? Yes, there were. There were also many loving things expressed by many CF members toward others on campus.

Was there opposition to my mini-presentation to the leadership team? Of course. Did others stand with me? Very much so.

I cite these things to show that in the midst of great darkness there were some very bright flames that kept me from cursing it completely. I overlook those flames a lot of the time, and that's at my own expense.

I still can't bring myself to eat another hot dog, but that's not all I ate that day.

Thanks for reminding me.:)

P.S. Part 3 has also been modified to be fair to the ice cream.

This post has been modified.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Worship vs. Entertainment

Ultimately, this is about preference. The pros and cons weighed between traditional and contemporary worship are not new. And let's bypass the debate about the adequacy of these two terms to begin with (doesn't all worship in some way stem from a tradition and can't all worship currently used in churches be considered contemporary?).

I begin with Curtis White's book The Middle Mind, which goes to great lengths to differentiate between 'entertainment' and 'art.' The latter, he suggests, wishes to make a statement about or counter to the larger culture. In particular he discusses Radiohead's album 'OK Computer' and one particular review which gave it a lower grade due to it not having mass appeal. White's conclusion is that it is a mistake to evaluate art by how entertaining it is.

This past Saturday I attended a workshop on multimedia in worship. We opened with a worship service (the pastor leading us called it 'contemporary,' but not 'contemporary' the way you think of 'contemporary'). The church in which this workshop was held was a smaller church, the sanctuary of modest size in its own right. It was a typical sanctuary you might see anywhere, save for the large screen and projector hanging from the ceiling. This was not my first encounter with this sort of setup by any means, so it didn't shock or surprise me that a church hosting a multimedia workshop would itself be rigged to incorporate multimedia elements.

So onto the service. With one click, we watched the screen for the next 15 minutes as first a few powerpoint slides popped up with messages such as 'Come, let us worship' and the like. Since it was Martin Luther King weekend, there was a rather long montage of scenes from various demonstrations that King had led or inspired with U2's 'In the Name of Love' playing in the background, immediately followed by two 'hymns' we were encouraged to join in singing (The Byrds' 'Turn Turn Turn' and Joan Osborne's 'One of Us') while more scenes flashed by.

So in effect we had this block of time where we watched TV. When the two songs clicked on there was finally an interactive element.

The question in my mind, now that I am far enough removed from a service like this being a Sunday routine, is this: Is it worship or entertainment? And how much weight should mass appeal carry in making the distinction? Megachurches like Ginghamsburg near Dayton, Ohio and St. Louis Family Church attract AT LEAST 1000+ visitors a weekend, offering large screens and full worship bands. At least part of their success (for lack of a better word in describing church attendance) stems from the use of multimedia in worship. It has mass appeal. It attracts the unchurched. It 'speaks to more people' than hymns and reading liturgy off a page. It's 'vibrant, alive' worship.

Now I'll be the first to tell you that a worship band and praise music are not bad things. There are bad praise songs, but praise music is not bad. As there are different genres of 'secular' music (try making that distinction with the pastor of the church I was at this weekend), there are different genres of 'sacred.' We don't do Gregorian Chant in many American churches, but we can find hymns, spirituals, praise choruses, southern gospel, and folk, among others. So praise songs are one genre among many. What's the point of my mentioning that? Well, some legitimately feel 'vibrant and alive' in the Spirit through praise music. Every Sunday the church I serve incorporates praise songs and CDs into what would otherwise be called a 'traditional' service.

Now we must consider that given the population of megachurches and non-denominational churches (who are more prone to use praise music) greatly outweighs the population of mainline churches nowadays, and that some of that trend has to do with the music stylings, can it truly be said that because praise music attracts more people that other forms of worship are inferior or to be discounted due to its mass appeal?

And here we are at worship vs. entertainment. Do more people truly feel moved by multimedia worship, or are they merely blinded by the flash and pop?

I think that to truly begin to answer this question, we need to look beyond the method toward the content. What's being offered besides video montages and electric guitars? What's being offered if 'more appealing' means are being utilized? Are worship leaders content to remain with these items, or does something more get communicated either during or after the service? I think that's how we begin to test whether something is worship or entertainment. The other piece is much more individual: does one come to church to worship or see what cool video the tech team has put together?

God knows what is in our hearts. The best we can do in the meantime is plan and lead worship with integrity and depth, and hope something is sinking in.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Countdown Continues....

Seven days and counting. A week from today I'm gonna be a made guy. ;)

What's that mean, exactly? What's the big deal about ordination? What's it symbolize?

One colleague recently explained it as being an act of calling one out of a community, recognizing gifts in that person for ministry, and entrusting him/her with the responsibilities of the office. He was careful not to use the word 'privilages' or 'rights' (contrast that with my M.Div), he said responsibilities. In other words, one who is ordained, first off, is no better or holier than any one else. Instead, s/he has discerned his/her gifts within a community, and that community determines whether that call is genuine. It's not just the person who makes that call.

Fast forward to next Sunday, where at one point during the service the congregation will be asked what they think about the promises I will have just made. As we'll be to the ceremonial part by then, they'll respond, 'Let him be ordained! Come, Holy Spirit!' This will come after the church I serve requests my ordination on my behalf, the Association says some words about being the ordaining body, and so on.

So community discernment is important.

What else? Well, I'll be able to perform the sacraments, which is kind of the stock answer people would give in seminary. It actually is an important component, being able to administer those two acts especially set aside as signs of God's work in and with people. The larger truth here, I think, is that as a minister of Word AND Sacrament, people will look to me to retell the stories of God interacting with the world, casting them in the light of how those stories are being retold and rewritten in the one being baptized and among those partaking of the meal.

This is what I am trusted to do: relate the stories of faith to those stories just now being written. The various communities from which I come have recognized, for whatever reason, God's call to me to relate to them new ways of being based on ways of being from our faith ancestors.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

My journey (so far) - Part 4

Earlier installments, including the ever-present warning, can be found here, here, and here.

2001-Present: My experiences at Heidelberg left my theology in a weird place. In part, the theology with which I graduated was in rebellion against some of the beliefs and practices I'd experienced in Campus Fellowship. By this time I had read Stephen Patterson's The God of Jesus, which had opened my eyes to Jesus' teachings on the kingdom of God, a kingdom where all are welcome and equal in God's eyes, a kingdom antithetical to the kingdom of Caesar which was based on power and wealth, and a kingdom of NOW rather than later. I had also heavily studied the work of Karl Barth for my senior honors project, and I had especially reasonated with his Christ-centered system of thought, complete with his version of double predestination: we are all through the cross rejected, and then we are all through the resurrection accepted. And eventually we all realize God's love for us. It was, I thought, a brilliant little argument for universal salvation.

And so with Patterson and Barth under my arm I was a believer in radical grace, the kind where God loves all over and against what was being preached in some areas of Heidelberg's campus, either in word or deed. It amounted to the 'I'm O.K., you're O.K.' theology, really. Although both Patterson and Barth's arguments ran deeper and implied more than that, it's what I clung to in order to counter any real or percieved judgmental behavior by myself or other Christians. By grace we are saved, not your list of works and certainly not by your 4-step tracts. Take THAT.

Well, I entered seminary clinging not only to this 'theology' but also to what I learned from Patterson and Barth's books. I also went in thinking two things: I was called to ministry and my Religion degree made me smarter than most of my classmates. Only one of these thoughts would make it through to graduation.

My Religion degree made things easier, but it didn't stop me from getting smacked down within the first few weeks. I quickly discovered that constructing a theological argument was much more difficult than I thought. You had to do things like identify assumptions and recognize the different sources (Bible, experience, etc.) from which you pull to construct them. I was proud of myself when I got an A on the first theology paper I turned in. I wouldn't see another A until the very end of the term. Rats.

A week into classes was 9/11. This set the tone for my entire seminary career, including my thought process regarding both faith and politics. God loved the terrorists....right? But God didn't approve of their actions....did He? Remember, this is 'I'm O.K., you're O.K. To Spite All Fundies' Jeff thinking about these things at this point. Two days later Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell would basically say God DID approve. So they helped me decide that God actually DIDN'T approve. But in the meantime I, whether naturally or because it was the general train of thought in the classroom, began to consider how people are oppressed to the point that they decide to blow up buildings. See things from their perspective. That's the key.

By the end of my first year, I'd constructed a theology based on two things: experience and community. Basically it was an alteration of the 'Wesleyan quadrangle,' only instead of the four areas of scripture, reason, tradition, and experience all sharing equal footing (in college I believed scripture was a thicker side to the quadrangle), experience actually engulfed the other three. Think about it: our experience informs how we read scripture, how we reason, and what tradition we're born into/continue to uphold, and likewise these three things influence our experience. I thought it was bloodly brilliant myself. At the same time, one must live in community to discern the credibility of one's experience, lest destructive behavior result (perhaps the reader is beginning to see that the 'I'm O.K., you're O.K.' train of thought, along with this little tidbit about experience, were actually selectively used in order to continue my rebellion against all things 'conservative.' Damn, there's one of those antiquated words again).

So....where was I? Ah yes. So the end of my first year I was under the impression that in order to truly understand the sins (a word I was boycotting at the time) of others, we must understand their experiences. They're just acting on their experiences. So what have they experienced? Experience, experience, experience, experience.

What you are about to read is something I have never shared with anyone, save for only one or two people. As far as I know, only a handful of people anywhere know of the following episode occurring. But I feel we're far enough removed from this crummy happening that I can share it with all of you now.

Between my first and second years I took a summer placement at a UCC church in Florissant, Missouri. I would start two days after my wedding (boy was I stupid), and ride out the rest of the summer, then remain at the church through the school year. One requirement for this placement was the completion of a service learning contract that stated my learning goals for the unit and some other stuff. I had the contract sitting on the counter and every day I'd glance at it and say, "Yep....gotta do that." Then I'd go to the church and do work. Fast forward to near the end of the summer. Andrea and I had returned late one night from a week-long trip to Daytona with her family. There was both a letter and a voicemail message waiting for me essentially telling me that because I never turned in my service learning contract, I had failed my summer unit. The next few days would be spent groveling in the the field education office and writing a letter of explanation to the Academic Dean. My grade was switched to a 'pass.'

This is where that whole 'I'm O.K., you're O.K., we don't have to change' crap was thrown out the window. Of COURSE you have to stop doing stupid things. You need accountability! You need to turn in your service learning contract! You need to take the implications of God's kingdom seriously! My 'experience' didn't help me that week (other than to show me that experience does not equal excuse). Grace did. "While I'm holding you accountable for this, there's also grace in the gospel, Jeff." That's what the director of field education had told me.

I don't know if I feel better for letting that story slip out or not. I include it to illustrate the point where my theology began to take a major turn. But it still really sucks even to think about. Academically, nothing like that had ever happened to me before (and never did again, believe you me). Well, anyway....

So the pendulum begins to swing back the other way away from making excuses for actions to trying to call things like they really were, and that included reclaiming words like 'accountability' and 'sin' that I had wanted to drop like bad habits after college. There were plenty of sins I was learning about through scripture and my new seeking of the kingdom of God: oppression, racism, a whole bunch of other -isms, exploiting the poor, violence, hypocrisy, and so on.

During this time I discovered two more major influences on my theology: Friedrich Schleiermacher and process theology. The former was a theologian from the 19th Century with Reformed leanings who spoke at length about one's 'God-consciousness' and a 'feeling of absolute dependence.' It played both to my belief that God is ever-present with the world and to my mystical leanings. The latter is a somewhat new movement that suggests that God reacts to and with each new happening in the world, relating to it in new ways accordingly without necessarily changing God's nature.

I graduated seminary a liberal evangelical Reformed process kingdom seeking mystic. I proudly claim all those titles, although in the case of the first two I have to majorly clarify for people. Wouldn't it be so helpful if instead of saying, 'I'm a liberal' or 'I'm a conservative,' everyone could rattle off all their theological influences like that? It'd be more confusing, but at the same time we wouldn't be able to pigeonhole each other so easily.

That's basically the story of my faith so far. As you can see, it's heavily grounded in experience, but as time has passed (especially after that learning contract debacle), I've been much more careful about bringing those other elements back into serious discernment. Not that I ever really stopped. I just wanted to battle The Fundies.

I like to think I'm a little more mature about that, trying to be ever mindful of when I'm really staying true to my faith and when I'm letting my bias do my thinking for me. Consistency, that's the key. Consistency to Jesus and the kingdom, and consistency to myself.

Well, I hope this big long story wasn't too painful. I'll get back to 'musing about life and faith' tomorrow.

Intermission

I'll have the 4th and final installment of my faith journey up soon, but in the meantime I wanted to get up what will hopefully become a weekly list of recommendations.

I finished the book on St. Francis. It's awesome.

Currently in the stereo: The Sopranos Soundtrack. A good mix of older and newer tunes from one of the best shows on television. There, two plugs in one.

We've watched 50 First Dates a couple times since we bought it. Not my favorite from Adam Sandler, but one of his deeper roles (you be the judge of that statement's worth).

Check out Ian's blog. He's doing some cool stuff in N. Ireland that you should read about.

Here's hoping any or all of these things make your upcoming week more enjoyable. Cheers.

Friday, January 14, 2005

My journey (so far) - Part 3

I hadn't planned on writing this until later, but my car is currently sitting on 2 1/2 tires so I've got some time.

Right, then. Same warning for Part 1 and Part 2 applies here.

1997-2001: The college years. I entered Heidelberg College already determined to major in Religion. It was my life's call and I would keep my eyes on the goal (my primary regret since graduation has always been not double majoring in either Literature or Theatre, but that's for another time). I was signed up for Old Testament my first semester and was on my way. In addition to my classwork, I connected with three Christian organizations on campus: B.U.C.C. ('Berg UCC, a UCC group), Campus Fellowship (a more evangelical group with loose ties to Campus Crusade for Christ), and the H.O.G.S. (House Of God's Servants, an on-campus house program). By the end of the first few weeks I had already decided I'd be a HOG next year, was the B.U.C.C. chaplain, and was playing drums in the Campus Fellowship praise band. I was on my way.

Old Testament had also begun, and I delved in with great interest. The professor began in Genesis (where else?) and pointed out within the first few class sessions the discrepancy between the two creation stories. The first story has plants before humans, the second humans before plants. He continued by drawing a diagram of the picture of creation that Genesis paints: a flat earth with a dome with stars stuck in it. When it rains, windows in the dome open. The weeks went on and I learned about the theory that the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible) had 4 authors, each editing their material into those that came before.

Um....what? My literalist brain didn't like this. This class was supposed to be an interpretation course. The weeks wore on and I resigned myself to the defense mechanism that the first five books were metaphor. No big deal. So they didn't get all the details right. It was still fact. So there.

Fast forward to second semester and a little course called "Topics in Biblical Literature." The topics for this course would be the historical Jesus, creation, and the apocolypse. I signed up eager to learn, still continuing with all three groups to varying capacities. We spent the first half of the course on the historical Jesus, first reading through this little book. Immediately in the introduction warning signs flashed in my head as the author wrote about how we know little tidbits of what actually happened, but we can't be sure of all the material in the gospels. Class discussions and lectures presented similar issues, including which gospel came first and how others fed off it. Discrepancies began to appear, differing details, missing accounts in some places. Suddenly my 'well, some of it is just metaphor' excuse was beginning to crack. But I did my best to move along in my happy evangelical way....until it all came crashing down.

I remember the exact moment. I was at a Campus Fellowship gathering and we were having a discussion around a couple tables. People were talking about what some gospel passage or another had to say, and suddenly I admitted to myself, "I don't think this is true any more." I went through the motions the rest of the meeting, packed up, and left. It would be a long night. I tried going to sleep and watched as midnight came and went. Then one o'clock. Finally I got up and took a walk around campus. After this didn't help, I called a friend from B.U.C.C. who happened to be up chatting with her boyfriend, so I wasn't actually disturbing her sleep either. She was also in my 'Topics' class, so we talked about the material for a little while. During this conversation she admitted her own doubts and questions. It was good to know I wasn't alone. Then I was finally able to get some sleep.

I credit B.U.C.C. with helping me through the rest of that year. I gained an appreciation for my denomination as I sat around with other UCC members discussing this material. Suddenly I was giving myself permission to think through my beliefs instead of believing what someone else said to believe. It was exhilarating. I couldn't put the material down. It was fascinating to study, to question, to wrestle with my beliefs. I felt alive in my faith. Suddenly for me the Bible didn't have to be taken literally, but the Holy Spirit could still speak through any passage at any time. Jesus was still an atoning sacrifice but it was because the Romans put him up there, not because God told him to. Hell was looking more like being absent from God rather than some literal place under the earth.

The trick for me at the time, in addition to wrestling with these questions, was finding how to wrestle with this AND remain active in Campus Fellowship. I still considered myself evangelical, just a slightly different brand. The UCC has an evangelical background, after all. But I had already heard from some in CF how much they didn't like what was being taught in the Religion program. It was threatening. It didn't teach literalism. It didn't teach The Truth. I'd engage some in discussion about these claims from time to time, but didn't want to ruffle feathers, lest I lose a couple friends. I still very much wanted to remain with the group as I found it spiritually uplifting despite my theological differences with some members.

Fast forward to my junior year, where things went to hell. Again. By this time I'd gained a great appreciation for Calvin and Reformed thought, was back to slightly right of the middle. I needed more faitih and less thinking. A thinking faith was good, but it didn't save you. Just trusting did. So I was a slight Calvinist, had become president of the HOGS, was heavily involved with the Campus Fellowship planning team, and unfortunately B.U.C.C. had all but dissolved (actually it had taken this hard social justice turn under a new campus minister that I wasn't into at the time).

The fit really hit the shan second semester of that year. First, over Christmas break I picked up a book by John Shelby Spong, which threw me for a violent loop. My faith started crashing down around me with each chapter as at the time I couldn't reason through a counter-argument. I had a thinking faith but for whatever reason this book left me feeling stupid. Couple this with a few articles I'd read later in the semester citing various similarities the story of Jesus had with other religious god-men. All this left me depressed, downtrodden, hopeless. I'd have bright spots, but they'd give way to doubts in a few days.

This was only one piece of the whole, though. Various actions by some Campus Fellowship members toward non-Christians (and even Christian non-attendees) were beginning to really test my patience. I was becoming angry at some of the judgmental and mean things I was witnessing. Of course it was all in the name of Preaching the Truth in Love, but I didn't see anything loving about it. By this time CF was also becoming much closer with Campus Crusade, obtaining 'witnessing tools' such as tracts which I found to be overly simplistic and trite as I read through them. "Pray this prayer. You're saved!" Some members were following non-Christians around telling them they'd go to hell if they didn't accept Jesus.

My real breaking point was twofold: first, a biologist came on campus to speak on the topic of whether Christians can believe in evolution (ultimately he'd say yes, they can). Some in CF decided that they wanted to counter this presentation with a creationist speaker. Still being a member of the leadership team, I raised questions and doubts about the integrity and credibility of this presentation. I was accused by some of 'being afraid of offending people.' It was like talking to a brick wall.

Second, a very good friend of mine related her personal experiences with some members of the group. Genuine pain and spiritual abuse was being inflicted on this person (not coincidentally she was another who was greatly appreciative of the Religion curriculum).

So during one CF meeting I made a small presentation in the form of a list of 10 things I thought the group needed to change about itself, among them "We are not God, so we shouldn't judge," "Religion courses and science can both be your friend," "Follow Christ, not doctrine," and so on. I'll admit now that some of these could have been worded better and the tone was probably more confrontational than I would have liked, but the presentation was of course met with opposition from some people. In retrospect, I wanted a non-denominational group (which is actually pretty denominational) to be ecumenical (recognizing multiple faith viewpoints), and some did not agree.

It didn't take long for me to notice that some thought very different of me after that meeting. Cold shoulders, snide comments. Some even took it upon themselves to delve into my personal life, spreading rumors, lies, and half-truths between one another without coming to me to confirm any one of them. Not that I wanted them to. By this time I didn't trust some people in that group, and no matter how often someone tries to Preach the Truth in Love to you, if you don't trust them, it doesn't mean squat. They aren't seen as a loving friend when that happens. They're just a nosy stranger. And at that time some were quickly becoming nosy strangers.

There were also many in CF who agreed with me and supported me to varying degrees. I leaned on them during this time, specifically for my difficulties with other members. But I could not bring myself to divulge to anyone other matters that were greatly disturbing me at the time.


Well meanwhile these Spong-inspired doubts were dragging me down even more, to the point where I couldn't bring myself to pray. I was once again disillusioned with belief, and it didn't help that I was also becoming greatly disillusioned with the church on campus. Finally I hit rock bottom late one night. I remember this exact moment also, even the date: March 29, 2000. I was sitting in the hallway on the second floor outside my then-girlfriend's (now wife's) room with her NIV Bible. It was a moment of desperation, a last resort. I was about to give up on my sense of call, resign the HOGS, switch majors. I just closed my eyes and said, "This is it. Please show me something."

I flipped open the Bible, and opened my eyes.

"It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon!" Luke 24:34. The road to Emmaus. Two men deeply depressed because their Lord is gone, only to recognize him and proclaim: "It is true, the Lord has risen."

Wow. I'd have that verse tattooed on my arm a year later. And you wouldn't believe how well I slept that night.

I graduated with Honors in Religion, already enrolled at Eden. I still had a thinking faith, but now with a more mystical edge. I had also smoothed things over with some CF colleagues with whom I'd had differences.

But to this day I've never apologized for what I said the night of that meeting. And I'm still not a big fan of Campus Crusade.


This post has been modified.

My journey (so far) - Part 2

When we last left our hero, he had just been confirmed and was about to enter high school. This one probably won't be nearly as long. The same warning from Part 1 applies.

1993-1997: So. High school. Nothing of note really happened (faith-wise, anyway) until my senior year. Well, the summer before my senior year. My girlfriend at the time was much more devoted a Christian than I was. I still had questions, was kind of a Thomas Jefferson-brand believer (basically, God exists, and Jesus' teachings are good things to follow). Well, she would push the faith conversation from time to time, in which I was moderately interested. I'd usually mumble something about 'yeah, I believe, let's watch a movie.' My junior year she invited me to the FCA (Fellowship of Christian Atheletes) group that met at the high school on Friday mornings. I went for the donuts and to compensate I could sit through a 10-minute chat that was basically no different than what I'd heard my entire life.

Well, here's where I really began to think a little more seriously about questions of faith. What did it mean to believe in God? What did it mean to follow Jesus? And what did that have to do with the [people] from my dad's last church?

That summer a few of the local churches hosted a picnic at a campsite, complete with a performance by a group called Brian White & Justice (I tried looking them up online; I don't know if they're still together or not). Well anyway, they sang this one song called 'Livin' in the Sight of Water,' based on a story about a man wandering aimlessly through the desert who ends up dying of dehydration despite water being over the next hill (can you spot the analogy? It ain't hard). Well, that night I was moved. My entire life's hearing about God and something finally clicked. There was no 'sinners prayer' prayed or anything like that (I shudder at such things, but that's for Part 3), it just all made sense. God DID really love me. So let's go back to church and FCA and really figure out what that means.

And so I did. FCA, I haven't mentioned, is a fairly 'conservative' group (great, there's that word again). But it's where I got the first answers to some of my questions: the Bible was dictated by God, Jesus' death was a sacrifice, unbelievers go to hell, and homosexuality is a sin (of course people had to especially point this one out). Period. Now go be righteous.

It was a wonderful time of concrete answers, stuff I could hang onto. It was simple and straightforward and I didn't need anything else.

Around the same time I was wrestling with a call to ministry. Despite my rather slim commitment to faith up until that point it had nagged me for a while. But a more serious commitment to being a Christian in general meant I could seriously commit to this call to ministry as well. So as I applied to Heidelberg I decided that I'd major in Religion and afterwards pursue seminary. I'd get more than I bargained for in college, though. And that's for Part 3, where the rollercoaster is about to do some major twists and turns...

My journey (so far)

I was inspired by Dave to briefly recount the stages of my spiritual journey...so far. It may have a few more hills, with many more to come. And since recent posts have dealt with the inadequate labels of 'liberal' and 'conservative,' perhaps this will thoroughly confuse you as to where I fall, if you aren't already.

A fair warning. Various people who read this blog are intimately connected with some or all of these events, and may encounter a few thoughts they didn't know I was having at the time. Should be fun, eh?

So right after I pour myself a second cup of coffee, we shall begin. Hey, the blog title is no joke.

1979-1992: A preacher's kid gets moved around a lot. I live in three different locations around Michigan before moving to northeast Ohio. As a PK I am in church every Sunday whether I like it or not, so I mostly settle in during Sunday School and learn the stories. I have little to no grasp as to their relevance, but they're nice stories. I remember really liking to hear about David and Elijah in particular.

In retrospect, our last stop before Ohio had me color blind, that is, I didn't notice or care about different races as the church's population was very integrated. I note this because soon we move to mostly white rural Ohio where any deeper appreciation for this is squashed for the next five years. Subtle hints at unchecked prejudice exist at our new location, but I remain largely indifferent to it. Why am I sharing this tidbit? Just interesting to note the radical change in cultural makeup.

I continue to learn the stories eeeeeeeeeeveryyyyyyyy Sunday, this time with a greater appreciation for Jesus. He was a really nice guy, I thought. He cleansed lepers and talked about guys helping other guys who got beat up on the side of the road. I could get behind someone like that. This is to note that things were beginning to stick and a real faith is starting to form.

Well, before too long things went to hell at that church. I'm in 6th grade now, and it's a lazy afternoon spent doing whatever a 6th grader is doing. My dad's out calling or doing whatever a pastor is doing. The phone rings. Being the dutiful phone-answerer that I am, I pick up. It's an older woman asking if my father is around. No he's not. Can I take a message?

"You tell him that if he doesn't change his tactics, he's not going to have a church."

...........

Now explain to this 6th grader who heard all those stories about people helping each other from Jesus how someone professing to be a Christian could act like this. I get to relay a threat from some anonymous church member to my father who I knew to work hard at what he did.

Well, needless to say we moved soon after. I'm still trying to figure out why any of this is happening, why Christians do this to each other, but we move to another northeast Ohio town and begin attending the UCC church. My dad begins exploring other career ventures, and I end up in the church's confirmation program along with a new school system which is notably more ethnically diverse than the one I just came from. At this point I'm not totally sure why I consider this piece important, but somehow it is.

Confirmation is what it is for most junior high age kids: a boring chore that your parents make you go through. I was legitimately wrestling with faith questions, especially after, as a seminary professor would later put it, my family "just got clobbered." Despite the incident at the other church and despite confirmation (let's be honest, hardly anything from that year stuck), I still have a faith that I'm trying to figure out. Jesus was still a really cool guy who talked about really cool things like loving each other. "So," I kept asking myself, "how come people don't actually do that?"

Let's call this the end of part one. I didn't realize that I'd go into this much detail and there's much more to come. On this timeline I'm not even in high school yet.:)

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Okay....so what's a 'conservative' Christian?

Recently I've realized that we're all conservative...it's just a matter of what we're trying to conserve. Some wish to conserve the rights to which all human beings are entitled, some wish to conserve the present form of their worship service, some wish to conserve spending or eating. And some wish to conserve 'traditional moral values,' whatever those are (how far back do you have to go to cite something as 'traditional?' And whose tradition?).

Well anyway, I've been thinking recently about what Jesus was 'conservative' about, just to give the other half of my readers a fair shot after recently considering 'liberal' Christianity. So we begin much the same way that the other post did: with Webster's definition: "tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions."

Now I have to admit that I really had to rack my brain (and scripture) a little bit before I could figure out what 'existing views, conditions, or institutions' Jesus was trying to maintain. He plucked grain and healed on the Sabbath. He hung out with the ritually unclean. He didn't wash his hands before sitting down to a meal at a Pharisee's house. And he didn't attempt to maintain the existing condition of not angering the Romans or preaching against Caesar's kingdom (see God, kingdom of and Cross, The).

So what does this leave us with? Surprisingly, quite a bit. We read of his attending the Festival of Booths and the Passover meal, two very important Jewish feasts tied to the Exodus. We read of his citing the law on occasion, usually to answer what is required of people to serve God. Love of God and neighbor can both be found in Leviticus and Numbers, respectively. And he got angry with people defiling the Temple. Here are a few instances of existing views, conditions, or institutions that Jesus wanted to maintain, to say nothing of the many, MANY places in the prophets where Israel is urged to care for the widow and the orphan, the poor, etc. The funny thing about that is that in order to follow the commands to love God and neighbor and to care for the poor, Jesus had to break down some traditions in the process.

So here we are on the other side. Jesus was in some aspects 'conservative.' He kept the law and various other Jewish traditions and recognized the importance of the Temple to faith and practice. He sought to conserve the importance of all people in the eyes of God (ironically something I mentioned he was also liberal about). To this end, he was conservative about practices that affected others, citing various commandments in the process. In other words, he was pretty conservative about his tradition when it came to others' worth.

Jesus disrupted the status quo just as much as he kept it. Sometimes in order to keep it he had to disrupt it. How else can you explain conserving the prophets' call to care for the poor by breaking the Sabbath? How else can you explain disrupting Temple practice in order to conserve its true purpose?

Jesus was 'conservative,' but sometimes to be 'conservative' he had to be 'liberal.' After all, it depends what he was trying to conserve. His approach was sometimes more subtle than any term could properly express.

John Thomas' Epiphany Letter

Rev. John Thomas, president and general minister of the United Church of Christ, wrote a letter at the beginning of Epiphany. You can read the entire letter here, but I wanted to lift out this paragraph:

"The deeper danger for us is that we will grow content with a message of inclusion and welcome. An invitation to a community of amiable tolerance is certainly to be preferred to the mean-spirited exclusion around us, but as our prayer suggests, the hands we reach forth are to be an embodiment of the outstretched arms of Christ in his passion. The welcome we extend is to a baptism that names us children of God and members of the church, a baptism that does not bless us and the culture in which we live, but reshapes us for costly discipleship, resisting those elements of our culture that demean, diminish and destroy. The invitation we give at the Table is not an offer of friendly dinner conversation, but an encounter with Jesus, crucified and risen, and with a vision of the realm of God that contends with the violence and injustices of our day. The Jesus who never turns anyone away is the same Jesus who asks us to take up the cross."

For me that's Christianity in a nutshell. Radical welcome to a table that transforms us, exhibiting love of God and neighbor always.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

To Whom Are You Pledging Allegiance?

Over the past year or so (perhaps longer, I can't really remember), a lot of ink, pixels, and breath has been spent on the issue of whether to keep "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. "This is a Christian nation! This nation was founded by Christians!" come the shouts from those who wish to keep the pledge the way it is. "The phrase 'under God' excludes those of differing religions or no religion at all," opponents shout back. And both sides shout. A lot.

Frankly, on the whole I don't give much of a fig whether 'under God' stays or goes. My relationship with God is not hurt if the phrase is removed. Much as I could try to muster them, feelings of persecution or that the American Church has been dealt a mortal wound by such an action evade me. Would the founding fathers roll in their graves if it was decided that the phrase needs to be removed? I doubt it. Here's why.

First, let's take a brief journey through time to watch the evolution of the pledge. Thanks to this forum for the info:

October 11, 1892: I pledge allegiance to my Flag, and to the Republic for which it stands:one Nation indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for all.

June 14, 1923: I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for all.

June 14, 1924: I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands:one Nation indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for all.

June 14, 1954: I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America,and to the Republic for which it stands:one Nation under God, indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for all.

In 1954, the pledge was made to include the phrase "under God," a result of the Red Scare. Americans needed ways to battle against and distinguish themselves from Those Godless Communists, so we put God in the pledge. It was a political action as much as anything else. And considering that the pledge was not written until 1892, I don't think our founding fathers would have a hugely difficult time with this matter.

Whether "under God" stays or goes, I must point out something that hasn't been considered, or at least not when I've been paying attention to these proceedings: remember the Declaration of Independence, that document that the founding fathers actually DID write? Let's take a look at the first few lines:

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..."

Within the first eight lines of this document crucial to the history of our nation, we read two references to God. For those who at the very extreme wish to defend the keeping of God in public places (as if George Bush dropping God's name every so often, "God Bless America" being sung during baseball games and other gatherings, references to God made by past presidents and dignitaries etched all over Washington and other major cities, churches being recognized as tax exempt institutions, "so help you God" is still a part of swearing in during court sessions and the presidential inauguration, etc., etc., etc.), I highly doubt that, even if all these other things were somehow erased, banned, crossed out, painted over, or whatever, someone would take a black permanent marker to the Declaration. So those preoccupied with such matters can rest a little easier.

Now let's take a step back for a moment and consider something else. First we have to revisit those opening lines of the pledge: "I pledge allegiance to the flag....and to the Republic for which it stands..."

Let's visit another text: "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them;" - Exodus 20:3-5a

Quite simply for me, this is what it boils down to: What is the pledge of allegiance? To whom or what are you pledging allegiance when you recite those words? It isn't God. When one says those words one is pledging allegiance first to a flag and then to a nation, neither of whom, ultimately, are God. Furthermore, no matter how much one believes the mindset or actions of said nation's government are aligned with God's will, the nation still isn't God.


Perhaps, at least on this one issue, Christians across America should reconsider what this pledge business means. As followers of Jesus we aren't called to pledge allegiance to anyone but God and anything but God's kingdom. To that end, "under God" should not be something we should spend too much time and energy on because ultimately it's part of a recitation that gives sovereignty to something other than God. Instead of pledging allegiance to America or trying our hardest to carve God's name in as many places as possible, we as Christians should spend more time urging America to regard the poor, the hungry, the widow, the orphan and all the other "least of these." (Matthew 25)

We as Christians SHOULD strive to make America better. Saying God's name in the pledge doesn't do that. Force-feeding Christian beliefs to a large non-Christian population doesn't do that. But actually heeding Jesus' call to love does.

Monday, January 10, 2005

A Working Sabbath?

Yeah, the term sounded funny to me, too. I conjured it this morning while planning out my week at the church. Tonight and tomorrow night are a couple meetings. Tomorrow and Wednesday I meet with ministerial colleagues for different reasons. A couple visits, a few phone calls, and planning for Sunday's service which actually won't demand a lot of my time this week. A representative from Habitat for Humanity is speaking during the sermon time and a layperson is doing the children's sermon. So other than a confirmation lesson, I'll have a pretty laid-back Sunday morning.

So what's that have to do with the oxymoronic title of this post? Well, not having a sermon to plan this Sunday means I have some time to plan ahead, take an afternoon or two for Biblical study and see if God speaks to me through any particular lectionary (or non-lectionary) texts. What makes this particularly relieving for me is that such time won't feel like work in the least. It's work-related, but it'll feel much more like leisure, even my own time for spiritual growth. It's my own time for replenishing, for Sabbath. Only kind of not. Maybe that'll make sense to someone besides me.

So in beginning this time of reflection, I noted that the lectionary readings for January 30 are as follows: Micah 6:1-8 ("What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, etc."), Matthew 5:1-12 (The Beatitudes), and 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 ("God's foolishness is greater than human wisdom...") Three of my favorite texts all designated for the same Sunday!

The 1 Corinthians text in particular has stuck with me over the years. My first brush with it was while at Heidelberg. At the time I was heavily active in a Methodist congregation and had a couple opportunities to preach. On one of those occasions I chose this text. My reason for choosing it was based on something I had just read in one of Tony Campolo's books where he talks about "God's left hand," that is, using that which is weaker or considered unclean for God's work. It's still one of my favorite sermons.

Fast forward a year or two to the beginning of seminary, where the lifelong UCC member with the Religion degree quickly began to feel small and uncertain about why he was there. That first year was a greatly humbling experience in many ways, and some moments were spent questioning how I'd get through. Second semester rolled around, and with it came New Testament Foundations, where the assigned texts included Paul Among Jews and Gentiles by Krister Stendahl. In one essay, Stendahl writes of a possible physical affliction with which Paul was wrestling, how frail and weak and small he may have looked compared to other "super apostles" like Apollos. The 1 Corinthians text is in part a justification for his own ministry: "I'm weak, yet God chose me, just like God chose you." So I was re-introduced to the text at a time when I myself was feeling weak.

It is for this reason that maybe I should purposely choose a different text for that Sunday. After all, with so much baggage attached to this text it might be worthwihle to explore another one. The others are familiar enough, yet new insight can always be brought forth from them. In any case, I'm overdue to begin my work. Or Sabbath. Or both.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Comments & Other Sundry Items

Okay, new comments system hosted by haloscan were up and running, but then I realized that long replies get screwed up, and that annoyed me. So old blogger comments are back.

So now that that's out of the way, here are a couple recommendations to get your week started.

If you haven't done so already, go out and rent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As a Jim Carrey fan, I was surprised I'd waited this long to see this movie, and it was well worth it. There isn't a whole lot of Carrey's usual rubberfaced wackiness in it, but that probably won't be enough to convince anti-Carreys. So to everyone else, go see it. It's fun.

Newest CD in the player is 'Rubber Factory' from The Black Keys. This is some good blues-rock fusion recorded in....a rubber factory. They're from Akron, are you really that surprised?

I'm currently reading the book to the side on St. Francis, but before that I read The Middle Mind by Curtis White. It's an indictment of the American imagination (read: we collectively don't have one). He talks about how our culture pays the entertainment industry to imagine for us. He also takes great pains to differentiate between 'entertainment' and 'art,' which is a fun chapter. Not a bad read, if you can be patient with his writing style.

A fellow blogger reflects on having a theodicy in light of recent world events.

That's all I got for now. Hope you enjoy any or all of those someday, if not RIGHT NOW!!

Comments under construction

I'm trying to work out Haloscan. Should be fine soon, if it isn't already.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

"I haaaaaaave the poooooooower!!!"

In preparation for my ordination, I bought a robe yesterday. It's your standard black academic robe that the Reformed guys in Geneva would have worn. I keep trying to picture myself in a white alb, and I look silly.

Anyway, the shoulder pads in this thing are huge. I tried it on in the store and it definitely added an inch or two to my physique. I jokingly thought to myself that by putting it on I've become Pastor He-Man. I held aloft my power sword and shouted, "By the power of Cokesbury....I haaaaaaave the pooooooower!!!!" Please tell me people who read this know who I'm talking about. I know the show's been away for a while and for some reason Cartoon Network isn't showing the new version right now. There's at least one entirely new generation who wasn't around for it. Well, whatever.

So I was thinking on the ride home about this business of becoming Pastor He-Man, and thought about how some church members really do expect you to wield your power sword, riding Battlecat right through their problems and committee meetings, perhaps even wrapping everything up in neat 30-minute installments (in the case of committee meetings, this would truly be a blessing and an accomplishment). To some extent you expect yourself to fill this role as well. I've had the training, I can do this. Right?

There have come some pastoral situations, both in and since seminary, where I was clearly not going to do any of this. My Battlecat was more like Cringer and I was too baffled to do or say much more than, "let us pray."

These have been humbling experiences that have revealed to me that I am definitely NOT Pastor He-Man, and I do NOT have the power. Those shoulder pads are an illusion, a cruel trick played on me AND my congregation. I learned to talk the talk in seminary, and due to their excellent field education program and my Association's requirement to do a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, learned a lot of ways to walk the walk. But now that I'm nearly ready to don the robe, all the power that I think Eden and the UCC have given me (well, the certificates say "rights and privileges") withers in the face of genuine pain and suffering.

But....praise be....God DOES have the power. God transforms situations by God's presence and love, gives me reassurance to do what I do and every once in a while our minds sync up just long enough for me to say something helpful. More often, though, God works in the situation despite me, maybe even around me. A rabbi friend of mine in St. Louis once told me, "To do what you need to do, many times you need to get out of the way."

It makes things a lot easier when one stops pretending to be He-Man. Indeed, I've found that the best thing I can do for anyone is admit my humanity. That's when relationship, between me and the congregation, between me and God, can actually happen. Amen and amen. And amen.

Hey, before I forget. Check out Matt's Blog. He gave me a plug the other day and I wanted to return the favor. Plus he likes David Sedaris and Reel Big Fish, so you know it's gotta be good.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Disaster Relief

I wanted to get a post up to point people toward various places helping with the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia:

American Red Cross

Catholic Relief Services

Church World Service

Habitat for Humanity

UCC Disaster Relief

United Way

World Vision

There are many more, of course. Please consider giving, if you have not already.

The Bible: Faith's Family Album

Before too long (if it hasn't already), the question of how I view scripture will pop into a reader's mind. In my traditionally lazy way (and in an effort to quickly beef up my post count here), I've dug up some ramblings from Xn, which will at least get us started.

One another note: I can't claim the 'faith's family album' metaphor as my own. I wish I'd thought of it first, but this guy beat me to it.

So here it is, edited severely so it'll make sense in this context. Also keep in mind that the original post was made in response to an avowed non-Christian:

At various points in my life, both on and offline, attempts to explain how I'm a Christian and yet don't believe the Bible to be inerrant have been met with comments such as, "Well, if you don't believe all of it I don't see how you can really call yourself a Christian," "Oh, you're just picking and choosing to suit your own preferences," "You actually sound more like a Buddhist than a Christian," "If you don't believe those things, you must still call yourself a Christian because you're weak/in denial/stupid." And in some cases, nothing had to be said. Actions spoke much louder.

I'd expect some of these comments from those of a more fundamental persuasion, but it surprised me that skeptics, atheists, and "free thinkers" would say them as well. Some of those with whom I've conversed (believer and non-believer alike) assume that one brand of Christianity, that is, the fundamental/literal crowd, are the only authentic form of Christianity because they believe "whole-heartedly" in "the whole thing." Never mind that these terms and phrases are rarely parsed out very well by those who use them, and when I make an attempt it gets shot down with comments such as those mentioned.

Quote from another poster: "Do you take the "nice" teachings from the Gospels, and find fault with all the barbaric teachings from the old Testament, and Paul, and even the more harsh or belief-specific teachings from the Gospels? Even the much-beloved John 3:16 promotes the necessity of the undeniably harsh requirement of "belief" in order to be "saved" - and I must ask, saved from what, exactly, if the whole notion of original sin and innate sinfulness is nothing but a myth?What is it, precisely, that causes you to define yourself as a Christian?"

First of all, let me say that it's not about "picking and choosing" for me, and of course not about "accepting the whole." It's about constant wrestling. God cannot possibly be contained in a 66-volume work, and yet this is the work selected by a Christian council centuries ago, dictated as authoritative.


Authoritative how? I answer that question by saying that of all the manuscripts from the ancient Hebrews and early church, these are the recorded experiences of people, my faith ancestors, that they believed were the most authentic brushes with the divine, brushes that did not end in the 4th century. Perhaps the Bible does not contain fact, but it can contain truth. My spiritual ancestors wished to preserve truth, to share truth, to tell the truth that they knew to future generations, and now comes my generation to hear these truth claims.

Looking at the writers as ancestors does not allow me to reject certain passages out of hand, but it does allow me to question, reflect, even tell an ancestor that s/he was wrong on some occasions, perhaps only for that same ancestor to show me something new down the road. Above all else, I experience the same God that the Jesus Movement and early church experienced in Jesus, both from what I read and through my own experiences. His command to love God and neighbor is the highest truth I find. It is a universal truth that I experience particularly in Jesus. And to that end I ask my ancestors how well their beliefs or actions about God stand up to these commands. I ask my Christian brothers and sisters whether theirs do. I ask myself if mine do.Yes, I really am a Christian. Jesus calls me to love and I do my best, because that's the call and caller that I hear the clearest. It's deeper than that, of course, but I've typed enough.

End of post. I say again that it IS deeper than that, but words currently fail me to express how that is. I've only had one cup of coffee.:) But it makes for a nice potential follow-up post, yes?

Thursday, January 06, 2005

What is a 'liberal' Christian?

Some can already find this tidbit in a few places around the net. It can be found in one form at Xn and another at Chuck Currie's blog. But here it is again for those who've never been to either of these places and have no intention of ever visiting:

The definition of 'liberal' from Webster's dictionary reads as follows: "broadminded, tolerant, not bound by authoritarinism, orthodoxy or traditional forms."Some labeling themselves as 'liberal' Christians (and some who wish to impugn 'liberal' Christians) cite especially the first two: broadminded and tolerant, and seek to justify the holding of all points of view as equal and good. Furthermore, the phrase 'like Jesus' is tacked on to give it more authority. So 'liberal' Christians claim to be 'broadminded and tolerant like Jesus.'

Then Jesus himself throws a monkeywrench into this whole thing by going after the Pharisees and some of their practices. 'A brood of vipers' and 'whitewashed tombs,' he calls them. So Jesus is suddenly less broadminded and tolerant than some may think.

So what WAS Jesus broadminded and tolerant about?

Well, this is the answer I've come up with so far: People, to be sure. Jesus loved people of all walks of life: lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, those physically afflicted, and even the rich (one Gospel account of Jesus' encounter with a rich young ruler says he "looked on him and loved him"). So he was broad-minded about people.

Was he broad-minded about beliefs? He doesn't seem, at least in the synoptics, to be that overly concerned. John, on the other hand, has him saying "believe in me" at every turn. A few basics, of course, are lifted up such as belief in God, certain beliefs about the law or the kingdom, and whatnot, along with his asking, I believe in all three synoptics, "Who do you say that I am?" But he doesn't spend a whole lot of time (if any) with a lot of specific doctrines or systematics.

So for sure we have one thing Jesus was definitely broad-minded about, with a second up for dispute. A third, practice, is something that he was NOT as broad-minded about. He condemned practices such as false piety, shunning the poor, and not loving one's neighbor (the basic reasons for yelling at the Pharisees).

So if one says that one is broad-minded just like Jesus, one can for certain say that one is broad-minded about people, perhaps less so about beliefs (this is the one I'm still wrestling with), and as a result of being broad-minded about people, much less so about practices that affect others.

Very Soon.

Yes indeed, friends. It's happened. I've plunged deeper down the spiral into my web addiction and have found a new way to hide from the sun.

Why a blog, you ask? I don't know. I've never been tremendously dedicated to journals in the past. The gaps between dates are ridiculous. But here I am with a new toy, a new outlet for the same stuff I've spouted on about from one forum to another, composing my thoughts to edify people with names like Macfan and BobtheMule.* But if you've seen some of the pseudonyms I've used over the years these will seem pretty tame.

Anyway, what gems can you expect from this trifle of a site? Well, who am I to promise gems? I'm just a guy trying to condense his internet time down by a few hours a week, but my interests remain the same: faith, life, music, books, and of course coffee. Loooooots of coffee.

So pour yourself a cup and stay a while. Welcome to the blogosphere to me. I hope it's worth our while.

*I can personally vouch that both Macfan and BobtheMule are interesting people to talk to and I in no way mean to make light of them. Except their names. Just a little.

Coming Soon.

Very soon. Mwah ha ha.