Friday, May 30, 2008

Two More Things and Then I'm Really Gone for a Week

First, an announcement:

Today, Coffeepastor weighs 190 pounds, back down from 198 two weeks ago.
I met the goal that I'd set for myself a few weeks back.

Here's my secret: fish, chicken, salad, fruit, exercise. No fast food, limited sweets and soda.

Boo yah. Slightly leaner me.


The next goal is 185.

I rule.

And now, to mark the beginning of summer, here's a meme:

1.) What first tells you that Summer is here? Memorial Day. My church has a cemetery, and our local American Legion does a brief service to mark the occasion, with me playing a part. I usually attend a cookout somewhere after this. It's a good and distinctive way to kick things off.

2.) Name five of your favorite distinctively Summer habits or customs.
Baseball - Tigers and Indians on TV, and hopefully a game or two at Jac...uh...Progressive Field.
Sitting on my back stoop looking out amongst the slowly sprouting corn and the setting sun, usually with a book and some kind of beverage.
The Sweet Shop - the local ice cream stand. I love me some Reese's Cup blizzardy-type goodness.
Daytona - a week at a condo owned by the CoffeeInLaws.
Dave Matthews Band - it's not an every-summer thing, but we do it when we can...and we will this year. It'll be my third time seeing them.

3.) What is your favorite smell of Summer? Even though it usually causes me to sneeze, I love the smell of freshly cut grass. This is closely rivaled by the smells at the ballpark.

4.) What is your favorite taste of Summer? Either the Reese's Cup ice cream thing, or a beer and a dog at a game.

5.) Favorite Summer memory? My cousin and I used to spend nearly the entire summer at our grandparents' house in New Jersey. Usually in the midst of this, we spent a week at Long Beach Island. But mostly it was the two of us on bikes all over the neighborhood, listening to music, buying comic books and baseball cards, drawing, watching girls, camping out. I'd look forward to this trip all year.

HT for the meme goes to Nachfolge.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Black Coffee

For the next week or so, I'm taking a breather.

You may have noticed that the content has dropped off a little. I've been preoccupied.

Lately I've rediscovered my long-neglected Moleskine notebook, so I'm going to spend some time with that and hopefully come up with some good stuff for this place. That, and I'm just going to recharge and focus on some other things.

I shall return.

Peace.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Taps

Day is done,
gone the sun,
From the hills,
from the lake,
From the skies.
All is well,
safely rest,
God is nigh.

Go to sleep,
peaceful sleep.
May the soldier
or sailor,
God keep.
On the land
or the deep,
Safe in sleep.

Love, good night,
Must thou go,
When the day,
And the night
Need thee so?
All is well.
Speedeth all
To their rest.


HT to Moleskinerie.

Friday, May 23, 2008

"Simply Christian" and God's Restoration Project

No Roundup again today, so instead I'll argue with N.T. Wright a little more.

In his book, Simply Christian, N.T. Wright spends the second section of the book with specific themes related to Christian history and theology. He first talks about God, and follows up with a chapter on Israel. This chapter provoked a few thoughts. First...


It is fundamental to the Christian worldview in its truest form that what happened in Jesus of Nazareth was the very climax of the long story of Israel.

The two words that get me in the above sentence are "fundamental" and "climax." I'll take them in reverse order.

First, after some 4000 years of history, it is strange to think of Jesus as the "climax" for Israel. God really took God's time leading up to that, especially with so many false starts, setbacks, and choosing of imperfect guys like Abraham, Moses, and David along the way. To say that Jesus was what all this finally led to begs a few questions. First, why not just make one of those other figures the anointed one? It would have saved the Hebrew slaves some 40 years in the wilderness at least, and may have gotten them out of Babylon later on, too. Second, what does this "climax" do with those 4000 years? Is it merely background to which we can point out where we think we see shadows of Jesus (a popular way to read some of the prophets, for instance...which Wright proceeds to do later in this chapter).

Thankfully, Wright clarifies this a little by suggesting that we can't understand Jesus apart from the history of Israel. However, his reading of the prophets to point out "predictions" of Jesus is not where I'd go with it. I agree with his assertion, but not his conclusions on this point: I think that we need to understand the history of Israel in order to provide context for Jesus' heritage, culture, teaching, and life. A.J. Levine is a good scholar to consult on this issue.

Obviously, "climax" assumes a particular reading of the Hebrew scriptures, particularly the prophets. Wright adheres to this reading.

Second, he says that it is "fundamental" to believe that Jesus was said "climax." In other words, you can't adhere to true Christian belief unless you believe that Jesus was the culmination of 4000 years of history. Never mind that believing anything to be a "climax" doesn't say much for what happens afterwards, like, say, today. The notion of "climax" lessens the work of the Holy Spirit--on which he'll later spend two chapters--and the church, to which he devotes his third section. So if believing Jesus was the "climax" of history is fundamental, that greatly affects how we live today as his disciples. Not to mention that Wright spends so much of his book trying to argue against too much emphasis on the afterlife and arguing for how relevant this life is to Jesus' message, that such a notion of "climax" seems to work against the case he's been trying to build.

Okay, that's out of the way. Now, God's restoration project.

In this same chapter, Wright lays out some of his case for reading the prophets as alluding to Jesus. In conjunction with one of his first chapters on justice, wherein he states that God is seeking to "put the world to rights" (I really like that phrase), Wright talks about God wanting to rescue and restore creation:

The theme of a new Eden (the thorns and briers of Genesis 3 replaced with beautiful shrubs) picks up one of the main subtexts of the whole biblical story. Ultimately, the real exile, the real leaving-home moment, was the expulsion of humankind from the Garden of Eden. Israel's multiple exiles and restorations are ways of reenacting that primal expulsion and symbolically expressing the hope for homecoming, for humankind to be restored, for God's people to be rescued, for creation itself to be renewed.

I find trouble here in a couple different ways.

The first assumption here, of course, is that Eden literally existed. I'd rather not get into an entire creation/evolution thing here, because that wouldn't really be the point anyway. I see the Eden story as a parable written, as much of the Torah was, during the Babylonian exile: a time of prosperity gives way to a time of hardship due to humanity's sin. This is not unlike Wright's take on the story. If, however, Eden was not a factual place, then Wright's point about God restoring creation to a state like that earlier factual place becomes problematic.

There are references in the Hebrew scriptures to God desiring to restore Israel to a state "like Eden." However, these are explicit references to Israel during points when Israel was enduring specific hardships at the hands of oppressors such as Babylon. In these passages, then, God is making promises that this shall pass, and Israel as a nation shall be returned to the prosperous state that it once knew.

The overall concept of restoration and rescue for all creation, however, shouldn't be negated. I'd suggest that it just be tweaked. Reading through the New Testament, there are numerous references for a coming age, hope for the coming of God's kingdom, visions of a new heaven and a new earth. To say that God isn't doing this kind of work at all is to miss a good portion of scripture...on this, Wright and I agree. However, where Wright would say, "God wants to restore creation to a new Eden," I'd simply say, "God wants to progress us toward a new Eden-like state."

Maybe for some, the differences in these statements are minor. The latter removes the problem of whether there was a real Eden while acknowledging that creation is in serious trouble and is in need of restoration and renewal.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Um...what?

"You two are truly amazing. It's odd that it's called the finale when it's anything but the final — it's the beginning of the start of the destinies of your career. I'm so proud. And just remember sometimes you think it's all about winning but it's the things sometimes that we lose that remind us of how truly special we are as people."

-Paula Abdul, before the American Idol winner was announced

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My Weekend

I thought I'd write a little about my weekend.

I had a wedding on Saturday. Normally, this fact does not thrill me. Many couples treat weddings like big stupid Cinderella cultural events, and thus Getting The Church and Getting The Pastor become just two more items to check off a big stupid Cinderella list, and organizing the wedding party during the rehearsal is like herding deaf, greased-up cats.

I might be exaggerating a little. But sometimes, this is just how weddings feel for pastors.

Anyway, I said normally, this fact does not thrill me. This weekend's wedding was one of the exceptions that I've enjoyed during my ministry. I've become very close with this family over the past year, and really met the bride during somewhat of a chance encounter: she's been undergoing treatments for lung cancer, and her future in-laws asked me to visit her one evening while she was in the hospital. A few months later, I baptized both her and her 9-year-old son, ministered to her after her mother's death, and have continued to support the entire family during a poor prognosis. I was also able to come to know the groom--who hadn't been much for religion or guys like me beforehand--very well.

On Saturday, they got married. For insurance purposes, there was no legal document involved. It was solely in the eyes of God that these two were married, with all the genuine love that they both had in their hearts for one another. The ceremony saw a couple mishaps, but I could tell that these would simply become part of their history together rather than The Ultimate Ruination of The Perfect Day.

Coffeeson came to the wedding, and slept through the whole thing. He slept through the reception, too. They'd ordered two kegs of beer for the reception, which I avoided because 1) it was Bud Light, and 2) I'm trying to stick to my new discipline (5 pounds lost and counting).

The CoffeeInLaws were up for a brief stay this weekend, as they had their own wedding to attend in the area. Between my duties on Saturday and my duties on Sunday morning, I actually didn't see too much of them. But what I did see was good.

Sunday morning was a full day. Our vocal and bell choirs combined to end their musical season with a piece called "Lord, I Stretch My Hand to You." It was a beautiful piece. I recommend it to certain Ohio-dwelling singing and bell-ringing pastors who may be reading this, if they haven't heard of it.

And then I had a baptism. I love baptisms. I love the potential that we celebrate together, the celebration of new life, the prayers and promises made. This little guy was all of four months old, and was a little fussy until the water touched his head. Then he got this wide-eyed look on his face and became very still. As I walked him down the aisle, I told him that we'd pray he'd never lose that look of wonder about the world. And I couldn't help myself: while he was still fussy, I jokingly let it slip out that "you remind me of someone."

That someone had been up half the night with no end in sight. So the Coffeefamily didn't make it to worship that day.

My sermon, by the way, did not feature any sort of "sacred conversation." With it being a baptism Sunday, it didn't feel right layering the UCC-recommended subject matter over top of it. I used Matthew 28:16-20 to tie baptism and the Trinity together, and I said a lot about how the Trinity isn't about trying to solve a math problem, but about three different kinds of experiences of the same God, and then praying that the one baptized has and claims that experience for himself.

Finally, I closed out the program year for the senior highs with our monthly after-worship discussion group. After a strong fall together, spring had hit a few snags due to snowy weather and Coffeeson's arrival, so I wanted to make sure to close out our year properly. I've taken a "Gospel According To..." approach to this discussion time, using movies, TV, and music as jumping-off points for discussion, and this past Sunday I used the Family Guy episode where Peter pretends he's a miracle healer and God visits the plagues on him.

Looking back, I probably won't use Family Guy again. Even though this was a tamer episode, it still had a couple points that made me cringe sitting with our youth. The Simpsons by comparison is much more age-appropriate.

I asked the kids to name all the Ten Commandments, and they did it with little trouble. So how about that?

That was my weekend, more or less. It was a good one.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Small Sips: Racism Alive and Well, UCC Article in U.S. News, No More Internet Monk?

What Racism Problem?: An article on MSN reports on some of the discrimination and hate that local Obama supporters are running into...
For all the hope and excitement Obama's candidacy is generating, some of his field workers, phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed -- and unreported -- this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces. They've been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they've endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can't fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president.

The contrast between the large, adoring crowds Obama draws at public events and the gritty street-level work to win votes is stark. The candidate is largely insulated from the mean-spiritedness that some of his foot soldiers deal with away from the media spotlight.

Huh. You don't say.

So, for every Pollyanna anecdote about how people are much more racially tolerant nowadays and how race couldn't possibly factor into whether some people vote for a black candidate, there's a story like the above (and the rest of the disgusting stories in that article) to help keep our heads out of the sand. Whether Obama wins the election or even the nomination, at least he's helped expose, or re-expose, one of this country's enduring problems.

UCC in U.S. News: U.S. News and World Report has a very well-done article on the United Church of Christ in light of the Jeremiah Wright fiasco. The article provides a brief history and recap of more recent trends within the denomination, and mostly focuses on the conservative/liberal battles that have become increasingly heated. Eventually, the article reaches this conclusion:

Whether an unabashedly progressive church can become a growing part of the American religious landscape is still an open question. "They may become the refuge for liberals from all sorts of denominations, " says University of California-San Diego sociologist John Evans, though he sees no evidence that the UCC's liberal branding campaign has worked. In the meantime, just as leaders of evangelical churches tend to be more politically conservative than most people in their pews, so the leaders of the UCC will probably continue to be to the left of most of their flocks. And that may only contribute to the view, particularly among many younger Christians who are leaving both mainline and evangelical churches, that overly ideological leadership is one of the weaknesses of contemporary institutional Christianity.


Does a "liberal brand" have a long-term future in American denominationalism? I've reflected before that, while more "conservative" churches have left the UCC, more "liberal" churches have joined or have been planted. So while older branches are falling away, new branches are being grafted on or are budding. It'll look like a much different tree, but it'll still be standing.

The Still Speaking campaign, in part, has always been about attracting disaffected churchpeople from other places, or encouraging non-churched believers to give our church a try. I think that it'll take a lot more than a commercial and a website to do that (personal invitations and local community interaction, for starters). But that has been the goal, and there hasn't been much to dispute that. The trick, especially in light of denominational trends in general, will be less to say, "Look how 'liberal' our national office is!" and more, "We welcome you right here in this particular church, and if that's 'liberal,' then whatever!"

Yes, very articulate. My kid was up half the night.

A Monk-less Existence?: Yesterday, Michael Spencer (aka The Internet Monk) posted this on his blog:

Dear Internet Monk Readers,

Over the next few weeks, while I am on sabbatical, I will be deciding the future of this web site.

As of today, it is quite likely (though not certain) that this site will come to the end of its almost 8 year run this summer. I am not resolved to this at this point, but I am considerably persuaded that the time may have come to bring Internet Monk.com to a close.

Should that actually be the decision, this site would go inactive in early July, and a new blog would begin, with an eventual redirect of all IM traffic to the new blog.

That blog would be a much more focused exploration of Jesus-Shaped Spirituality, i.e. the intersection of Jesus studies and spiritual growth and formation. This subject is animating and working in me right now, and I can see much good fruit and practical help available if I pursue that direction.

The first thing that I need to say is that the new blog focus he's thinking about greatly intrigues and excites me. I'm greatly interested in the same subject matter, and have been for a year or two now. So I love the fact that, if he decides to take on this new venture, I'll follow him to his new space with no problem.

That said, this is potentially an end of an era. The iMonk has been around for 8 years. I've only been reading him for about 3 1/2 of those years now, but he has been a staple on my sidebar, and a great jumping-off point for my own thinking on more than one occasion.

I re-read two of his entries fairly regularly, and I commend them to you:

When Loving You is Killing Me: Thoughts on Pastoring the Small Church (and his follow-up, Four Years: Reflecting on a First (and Only) Pastorate)

The Temptation to Quit

Friday, May 16, 2008

Friday Five - Destinations

Haven't done enough to warrant a Roundup, so I'm playing along today...

Name five places that fall into the following categories:

1) Favorite Destination -- someplace you've visited once or often and would gladly go again I had an awesome time in New Orleans last year, between the work I did and The Best Cup of Coffee Ever at the Cafe du Monde. I keep waiting to hear if another trip is being organized, but nothing yet. Honorable mention goes to The Big House in Ann Arbor...anyone got some extra tickets?

2) Unfavorite Destination -- someplace you wish you had never been (and why) My junior high school. I pretty much hated every minute that I spent in that place. My hometown has been tearing down a couple of the old elementary schools, and I hope that place is next. I'll set up a lawn chair, pop a beer, and gleefully watch every second of it.

3) Fantasy Destination -- someplace to visit if cost and/or time did not matter I've never been to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame. My more exotic choice would be Sweden or Greece.

4) Fictional Destination -- someplace from a book or movie or other art or media form you would love to visit, although it exists only in imagination Well, I gotta go with Eternia on this one. Gotta go meet He-Man and Teela and Man-At-Arms and visit Castle Grayskull. Grayskull would be the centerpiece of my trip, really. I hope they'd let me have a tour, what with it being enchanted and mysterious and not well-lit and all.

5) Funny Destination -- the funniest place name you've ever visited or want to visit I've been to Hell, Michigan. There's nothing there but a novelty souvenir shop with things like baseball bats (bat out of Hell) and t-shirts that say, "I've been to Hell and back." It was quite silly.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Back on the Wagon

When I graduated high school, I weighed 150 pounds. It was pretty much all metabolism, as I didn't necessarily eat the healthiest. Portions weren't huge, so maybe that helped.

By the time I graduated college, I weighed 185 pounds. There were many late-night runs to Burger King. There were also many meals obtained from the pasta bar, because 1) it was really freaking good, and 2) the stuff on the line usually looked so unappetizing to the point of making me angry. My tuition was paying for this nasty crap?


Uh...anyway.


After a while in college, I realized how unhealthy my diet had become, so I tried to take steps to rectify it. Walking around campus to classes and other activities was a plus, but I knew that I needed to do more. I tried working in more salads, and I began exercising during my senior year: first semester at the new fitness center twice a week, second semester in my on-campus house with standard push-ups and sit-ups. I still didn't cut out Burger King, and still gravitated toward the pasta bar a lot.
To my shame, I think that part of the problem was that I'd rationalize that, since I'd worked out that day, I could then have fattening food. At best, of course, these things would just cancel each other out.

The summer between college and seminary, I was a camp counselor. The combination of the summer sun and walking all day caused me to lose 10 pounds. By the time I got to Eden, I weighed a nice lean 175.


Then I blew up in seminary. More late night runs (and regular meals!) to fast food...I actually would guess that during my first two years of seminary I probably ate McDonald's 3-5 times a week. Admittedly, some of this was "emotional eating:" it took me a while to adapt to my new digs. This was complemented by a lot of sedentary time reading books and writing papers. I had a couple false-start attempts to establish an exercise routine, but these petered out within a week or two.

Entering my final year of seminary, I weighed almost 210 pounds. I hated how I looked and how I felt. I had another couple false-start exercise attempts my first semester with plenty of fast food.


My final semester, I decided to get serious. I flat out cut myself off from fast food, I cut way back on soda and alcohol, and I went to the gym 3-4 times a week.

Guess what started to happen.


I saw myself backing down toward 200, then toward 190. In fact, I decided to make it my goal to weigh 190 by the time I graduated. After a while, it was nothing to spend 30-45 minutes doing cardio. After a month or two, the sight--even the thought--of a McDonald's cheeseburger made me nauseated. I easily met my goal by the time I was handed my diploma. I had lost 20 pounds by not half-assing it any more.


To cut down on the story, I started to stray after a while. A new ministry position and a move upset my routine. I tried taking regular walks around the cemetery and we even bought an elliptical machine, but I couldn't get anything established. Still, it had become apparent that 190 had become my new "plateau weight."


A little over 2 years ago, Coffeewife and I embarked on the South Beach Diet. Between the diet and finally making good use of the elliptical machine, I got myself back down to 175. But through various compromises since then, I gained it all back.


The reason that I'm writing all this out is because in recent months I've started to creep back up toward 200, and just the thought of it makes me angry at myself. So over the past week I've been climbing back on the exercise machine, and have cut out crap food. The best part about it, I think, has been that I feel the same determination that I felt back during that final semester of seminary. I'm taking this in 5-pound increments: first 190, then 185, and if I'm ambitious enough, all the way back down to 175. But I'm not getting ahead of myself.


I suppose that all of this is to tell you two things: 1) it can be done, and 2) I want to do it. It seems to me that this has become all the more important with a new baby around, because dealing with him has involved plenty of sitting around and plenty of quickie, unhealthy meals.

So far I'm back down to 194 from 198 after a week and a half of this renewed ambition. I've already noticed steady improvement in how much I can push myself on the elliptical machine. Eating well has come fairly easily as well: we just don't buy a lot of the crappy stuff.

I hope that I can stick with this. So far, it's working.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

No One Comes Near

In my haiku post from the other day, I included what may or may not have been an eyebrow-raiser for some folks:

Father McKenzie
Sermons for non-attendees
Yes, no one comes near
I thought that I might offer an explanation for this one, lest it be mis-interpreted. I don't know how or if anyone will mis-interpret it, actually. But I wanted to give an explanation anyway.

First, maybe you got the allusion to The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby:"

Father McKenzie, writing the words
of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near

Now, at a glance, the above haiku coupled with the lyric may seem to indicate one of two things. First, it's a complaint that no one showed up to hear my sermon. Second, it's a complaint that people showed up but no one paid attention. It's actually a little more complicated than either of those things, and I don't want to give the impression that I wrote this poem to complain about my church.

When pastors write sermons, they sometimes have specific people in mind when they develop particular points. They may question how something will sound: a reference to death, for instance, to a recent widow. Or they may write particular lines in the hopes that particular people will hear them. This may sound a little passive-aggressive, and it probably is. Nevertheless, it's this later point that I mean.

Take my Pentecost sermon. The original title for it was "'Church is Boring,'" which is what confirmands have indicated to me in word or body language. When Pentecost rolled around this year, a day to celebrate the Spirit's work in the church and in believers, this phrase came back to me up against a story of an experience that had to have been anything but boring for those who were there (suspend your thoughts about factuality for the moment...I'm trying to make a larger point).

Then I began thinking about moments in the church's history that were anything but boring: the Reformation, the Boston Tea Party, the Confessing Church, and so on. These events where people of faith took action that was so much more than viewing the Bible as another textbook or putting up with those slow plodding hymns would indicate that a church where the Spirit is truly moving, felt, or responded to is anything but boring, and I wanted to say something about that in the hopes that people who feel dragged to this boring building every week could hear it and understand that there's more to faith than what you assume, and it can be much more exciting.

Well, most of those people stayed home this Sunday. They didn't hear this message. No one came near. The sermon still worked as a call out of complacency for the rest of us, but when originally conceived it was to throw a bone to the people who don't see the church as a very worthwhile place.

No one came near. Not the people I wanted to really hear it.

Maybe other preachers can relate to this. I don't know. But I wanted to flesh that out, anyway.

P.S. I have one member who was born in England, and for the past two Sundays she has had friends visiting from across the pond. I couldn't help but wonder how they heard my Boston Tea Party comment. But Coffeewife told me not to worry about it. So I haven't.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Haikus

Diaper change again
That's the seventh one today
Stop sniffing that, cat

Trying to slim down
Eating well and working out
Three pounds lost so far

Six days' work this week
Wedding, and then baptism
There could be worse things

Father McKenzie
Sermons for non-attendees
Yes, no one comes near

Sunday, May 11, 2008

"A Different Kind of 'Exciting'" - A Sermon for Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

Throughout junior high and high school, I went on a lot of mission trips through my church’s youth group. These were week-long work trips to inner city Philadelphia or Cincinnati, or more “outer reaches” type places in Illinois and Massachusetts.

The place in Massachusetts is called Heifer Project – if you’ve never heard of Heifer Project International, this is an organization that raises various animals to send to Third World areas to help their economy or their food supply. So essentially, Heifer Project is a farm, so we basically did farm work for the week when we went there.

I’ve been to Heifer Project twice. The first time I was a newly minted confirmand, and took the trip with some fellow confirmands (it was my first mission trip ever, actually). The second time I was a junior in high school – and my mom signed up as one of the chaperones. Actually, she’d become the youth group coordinator by this point, so there was no escaping being on that trip with her.

So during this week of farm work, we’d put up electric fences, clean the barn, feed the animals, milk goats and a cow – typical farm chores. Every day we’d be divided into subgroups to take on these different tasks, and one day my little subgroup was assigned the task of fixing up an overhang that housed lumber and other materials: cleaning it out, nailing up some tarps to keep out the rain, and so on.

My mom and I were in the same group that day, and I remember that morning very clearly. I remember it being hot and muggy. I remember my sinuses violently protesting the pollen count. I remember the bugs: flies and mosquitoes both. And I remember that it had come close to lunch time, and everyone else in my group had already headed back to get cleaned up. I’d wanted to quit for the morning as well, and come back later even though we’d only had a little more to do. I was standing on a ladder nailing up those tarps, and my mom looked up at me on the ladder and handed me another nail, and said, “Come on, let’s finish this. This is the hardest I’ve ever seen you work.”

I tell you this story about my mom for two reasons. One: it’s Mother’s Day, so it seemed appropriate. Two: it’s Pentecost, so it seemed appropriate.

The second reason probably sounds strange. What does a story about a mother’s encouragement to finish the job through sweat, discomfort, fatigue, and bugs have to do with Pentecost?

Believe it or not, it has everything to do with Pentecost. Here was a 17-year-old kid who was more interested in popping on his headphones than hammering nails. Here was someone more interested in air conditioning than the hot humid morning air. Here was someone more interested in being back with his friends than out alone finishing the work that everyone else had abandoned. Here was someone to whom music seemed more exciting, cool air seemed more exciting, laughing with his friends seemed more exciting. And the work that he was doing to help others didn’t seem so exciting. It was hard and tiring – but not exciting in the sense that he enjoyed it. It took someone else’s prodding for the task to be completed.

The story in Acts 2 of the first Pentecost can be called exciting – after all, it’s certainly not boring. Here we get the sound of a rushing wind; we get the disciples all speaking in different languages so that everyone who heard them could understand their message. People who hear and see them are amazed, confused, cynical, but nevertheless interested. This is not something that anyone – the disciples or the observers – is able to ignore.

Finally, Peter stands up in order to offer an explanation, and you can bet that he had an attentive audience by this point. He quotes the prophet Joel as he lays out what the work of God’s Spirit is about. It’s about men and women prophesying – in other words, calling people to own up to unfaithfulness. It’s about people receiving visions and dreams about what God truly wants out of God’s people – faithfulness, trust, love – and at the same time condemning people’s actions to the contrary.

These prophesies, visions and dreams couldn’t have been tremendously popular. The people at whom they’re directed probably got a little upset, to say the least. The people charged with delivering them probably didn’t want to give them because it would damage relationships; create tension and awkward moments.

The ability, the drive, the courage to do all of this through the sweat and discomfort had to come from someplace else…it had to come from Someone Else. In order for this work to be accomplished, in order for us to finish the job, we need the Holy Spirit to swoop in and light the passion within us and to say to our hearts, “Come on. Let’s finish this.”

When people talk about how exciting any particular church is or making the church more exciting, this stuff isn’t what they usually mention. When talking about an exciting church, people may talk about the upbeat music, or how many jokes the pastor told that day, or Sunday School classes that don’t weigh themselves down too much with that boring book called the Bible. There’s nothing wrong with these things – they can actually help engage different people in different ways; help them learn how to follow Jesus (except maybe the “Bible study with no Bible” thing).

But there are some other exciting things that the Holy Spirit may have in mind – a different kind of “exciting.” The Holy Spirit may have in mind some stuff that might make us sweaty or uncomfortable.

Think of some of the exciting things that church members have accomplished over the centuries.

Think about Martin Luther opposing practices of the Catholic church that he thought were oppressive or unnecessary, making him a pariah and drawing the ire of his church in the process. That’s not boring.

Think about New England Congregationalists who were responsible for the Boston Tea Party – church people sneaking onto ships in the middle of the night to chuck tea into the harbor! That’s not boring.

Think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer helping to organize opposition to the Nazi party. That’s not boring.

Think about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he organized churches to combat racial discrimination. Think about the nights he spent in jail and the opposition he faced. That’s not boring.

The Holy Spirit helped inspire church people to these actions – hard, uncomfortable actions; actions that strained or broke relationships. This is the kind of exciting stuff (because it’s certainly not boring) to which the Holy Spirit calls the church, prodding us, speaking to our hearts while saying, “Come on. Let’s finish this.”

The Holy Spirit gives the church the passion and drive for justice, for God’s kingdom to come into view more fully through our actions: Actions like fixing up a needy person’s home. Actions like reconciliation between enemies. Actions like confronting our own prejudices.

Exciting actions, because they certainly weren’t boring.

Actions where people saw visions and dreamed dreams and prophesied faithfulness.

Actions that would have a much longer-lasting effect than the most exciting music or the most joke-laden sermon.

Actions where the Holy Spirit poked and prodded, and keeps poking and prodding, saying, “Come on. Let’s finish this. This is the hardest I’ve ever seen you work.”

Hard work, but not boring work.

Exciting work.

Spirit-filled work.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Pop Culture Roundup

As I mentioned the other day, I started N.T. Wright's Simply Christian, and since writing that entry I haven't made it any further into the book. That other entry may make it seem like I don't like the book too much, but that wouldn't be accurate. In the first two chapters, Wright has first argued that all humanity has an internal compass of justice (basically the philosophical Argument from Morality) and that all humanity has certain spiritual tendencies as well. I never really bought into the Argument from Morality (the notion that our natural sense of right and wrong proves that God exists) because I don't think it adequately addresses environmental factors in which people are nurtured. Unless one whittles things down to a very bare argument that people tend to believe that certain things are good and other things are bad without getting into specifics about which things fall into either category, this argument doesn't always work that well. Anyway, the book is doing what I want it to do, namely getting me to argue with it.

We watched I Am Legend this week, and to be honest, I didn't really like it. This is the Will Smith movie about a scientist living alone in a post-plague New York, trying to find a cure for the virus that has turned people into animalistic cannibals (some reviews call them "zombies," which is wrong because they aren't dead...or undead...or whatever). The other important thing to know is that these infected people can't go out in the light because it burns their skin. I think that my biggest problem with the movie was the portrayal of the infected. We're supposed to think of them as very devolved, lower-brain creatures, and yet in certain scenes they seem to have a leader and one of them sics attack dogs (also infected) on Smith's character [I've since learned that in the book the creatures are more intelligent, in which case the movie can't seem to make up its mind]. Besides that, they're computer animated, which would have been easier to buy into if they weren't supposed to look so human. The mummies in
The Mummy? Okay. The skeletons and fishpeople in the Pirates movies? Fine. But these are supposed to be still pretty close to human-looking, and they come off very cartoonish. The best scenes are the ones with Smith all by himself, when the movie explores his loneliness and his desperation to find a cure.

We also watched Futurama: Bender's Big Score, which is the feature-length DVD that just came out within the past year with the reunited cast. The professor is tricked into signing over the delivery service to some internet-scamming aliens. The aliens find a Bender-shaped tattoo on Fry's butt showing binary code for time-travel ability. Bender, meanwhile, is reprogrammed to do the aliens' bidding, so he goes back in time repeatedly to steal famous treasures for them. The time travel stuff is also used to re-attach Hermes' head to his body, and Fry goes back repeatedly for various reasons as well. After a while, the time-traveling stuff started to grate. The writers did manage to cram most of the regular side characters into the plot, so kudos for effort there. I read on Wikipedia that this movie was actually the first of four that will be produced, which is good, because the ending was pretty bleak.


I discovered a TV show last night on Animal Planet called Creature Comforts. It originated in Britain; this is the U.S. adaptation. The concept is that they interview people all over the country, and then match up what they say to Claymation animals. Of course, the animals give the interviews a totally different context. In one, an ant complains that her supervisor never notices her. In another, two cockroaches talk about how hard it is to live in an urban environment. It's great. You have to watch. Seriously.

Around the web, here's a game
where you tranquilize runaway sheep.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

"Simply Christian" and Spiritual Thirst

Last week I picked up Simply Christian by N.T. Wright for three reasons: 1) It comes highly recommended in various corners of the blogosphere, even touted as a new Mere Christianity, 2) I've never really read anything by Wright, except perhaps an article here and there in college or seminary, and 3) I wanted to argue with it.

It didn't necessarily need to be this book that I could have argued with. I've been meaning to re-read Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity, and I just as easily could have started arguing with that instead. But I chose Wright because of the first two reasons listed above, but mainly to use it to discover where I stand nowadays on this or that theological issue. So there'll probably be an occasional post here and there as I look through this book...like now.

The second chapter is entitled "The Hidden Spring," in which Wright presents a somewhat tedious allegory of a dictator who cements over all natural water supplies except the ones he pre-approves as being best for his people. Eventually, the springs break through the concrete, and chaos ensues. I just took two sentences to do what he feels the need to do in a page and a half. Anyway, here's his conclusion:
We in the Western world are the citizens of that country. The dictator is the philosophy that has shaped our world for the past two or more centuries, making most people materialists by default. And the water is what we today call "spirituality," the hidden spring that bubbles up within human hearts and human societies.
In other words, Wright argues that we've lately been experiencing a great rise in spiritual thirst that has been suppressed by things such as secularism, skepticism, materialism, and a relegation of belief to the sidelines of public life. The "official channels" such as institutional churches, have provided inadequate means to quench this thirst, and thus people have been searching outside traditional forms. Wright cites various New Age religions, among other things, as signs of this new quest undertaken by so many. But then he draws a strange conclusion:
[A]ll this fundamentalism, with militant Christians, militant Sikhs, militant Muslims, and many others bombing each other with God on their side. Surely, say the guardians of the official water system, all this is terribly unhealthy? Surely it will lead us back to superstition , to the old chaotic, polluted, and irrational water supply?

They have a point. But they must face a question in response: Does the fault not lie with those who wanted to pave over the springs with concrete in the first place? September 11, 2001, serves as a reminder of what happens when you try to organize a world on the assumption that religion and spirituality are merely private matters, and that what really matters is economics and politics instead...What should we say? That this merely shows how dangerous "religion" and "spirituality" really are? Or that we should have taken them into account all along?
Wright's main point is that if a society tries to pave over "spirituality," people will seek to quench their thirst any way that they can. People will look outside "pre-approved channels" for this water if they are dissatisfied with what is offered.

The problem is with where Wright takes this argument in the quote above, arguing that fundamentalism is one answer to this thirst. Even more absurd is the implication that if "spirituality" hadn't been suppressed the way that it has, if people had been more free to explore and question and believe, an event like 9/11 wouldn't have happened.

This almost smacks of Falwell's "if only the secularists hadn't taken over this country" explanation.

As it was originally conceived in the 19th century, fundamentalism was a certain reaction to perceived "paving over" of religious belief, but it was and is much more a movement from within religion rather than a reaction to a larger societal problem. People who subscribe to fundamentalism of various forms don't go looking elsewhere to satisfy thirst; they seek to purify the water supply they already have--perhaps even one "proper channel"--and then seek to cut off all other supplies while claiming theirs is the one truly pure source.

In other words, fundamentalism isn't one more example of a larger spiritual thirst...it ultimately seeks to be the pavement. Wright is correct that the pavement may begin as a reaction to this mindset, but fundamentalism only seeks to use their own brand of concrete. To suggest that secularism led to 9/11 is, to me, both to misunderstand the specifics surrounding that event and to misunderstand the causes and aims of fundamentalism.

This larger movement to satisfy spiritual thirst that Wright describes looks outside the usual means if it has to. Fundamentalism defines more narrowly what one may drink, and who may drink it. The latter, in my view, is a completely different movement.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

"Age of Anxiety" - A Sermon for Easter 7

As a sort of epilogue, here's what I ended up preaching this morning. In order for certain things to make sense, the title that appeared in the bulletin was "That They May All Be One," and it was a communion Sunday.

1 Peter 5:6-11

The first thing we need to do is change the title. After two weeks away and some mild sleep-deprivation, I’ve been slow to come up with something to say. And since the bulletin had to be run by Thursday, I was feeling a little pressed for time.

Likewise, even though John 17 appears as the focus text this morning, we need to back up to 1 Peter 5. This is a chapter—an entire letter, really—about suffering. The writer has a lot to say about suffering, as he addresses the actual suffering that his community was going through.

When times get really hard, one understandably wonders a couple things. First, you may wonder whether you’ll eventually crack under the pressure. One may try to resist breaking down completely in frustration, anger, or depression. One may try to resist complete emotional shutdown.

You may also wonder how long any particular hardship will go on; you may wonder how long you’ll need to endure it. At times, there’s a clear limit: perhaps the end of the day, or someone coming in to relieve you somehow. At other times, there seems to be no end in sight.

Finally, you may wonder where God is in all of it. How is God helping? IS God helping? When will God help? WILL God help? These are all ways that we become anxious about hardship, about difficult moments.

After acknowledging the hardship, the writer of 1 Peter also has a lot of encouragement in the midst of it. He has a lot to say along the lines of remaining steadfast in faith. He has a lot to say about trusting God’s presence. He has a lot to say about trusting in the one who raised Christ. He has a lot to say about trusting that the community is set aside for God’s mission, and thus God has not abandoned them.

And then we come to this chapter, where he returns to the theme of hardship when he says, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”

There was a lot of anxiety in that age, and there’s a lot of anxiety in this age as well.

That’s our new title, by the way: “Age of Anxiety.”

There’s plenty of anxiety to go around.

We may have anxiety about the state of the world. We may feel anxiety about wars and rumors of wars, tensions between countries or entire regions. We may have anxiety about people of different religions seemingly always at odds, with extreme fringes of those religions resorting to violence.

We may have anxiety about the state of the country. We may have anxiety as the presidential election becomes increasingly divisive and heated, as it always seems to do. We may have some anxiety over a byproduct of this year’s election being the topic of race, and how much misunderstanding and anger still exists between different racial groups.

We may have anxiety about church-related things. The United Church of Christ has come under increased scrutiny over the past few weeks because of the inflammatory words of Jeremiah Wright. Some may have anxiety about how that affects other local churches such as ours and members such as ourselves (by the way, if you want to talk about that, stop by the office or buy me coffee or something…I need coffee these days).

We may have anxiety about any number of personal concerns: life transitions such as graduation, employment, finances, disease, birth, death.

There really is plenty of anxiety to go around. And what does the future hold for any of it? What can we expect tomorrow, or even an hour from now? Will we crack under the pressure? How long will this anxiety last? What is God doing in the midst of all of it?

Then here’s this verse again: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” I wonder how his original community reacted to that. How many took it to heart, and how many blew it off, saying, “Do you really know what we’re going through?”

Surely the writer didn’t mean it in some sort of dismissive way. He didn’t mean to minimize the hardship and anxiety they were feeling. He didn’t just throw it out there like a pithy piece of advice to “just pray harder” or “just believe more.” Here is a community trying to stay together, trying to maintain their trust in God and each other. The writer knew that.

Here is a community with plenty of anxiety, plenty of opportunity to crack under the pressure or abandon their faith. The writer knew that, too.

This piece of advice to entrust our anxiety to God doesn’t happen by itself – it doesn’t stand alone as something to print on flowery greeting cards at Hallmark or Berean. It comes after a long description of suffering, a long acknowledgment that yes, there are some bad things happening; some real gut-busting kinds of things that we can’t shake by trying to think good thoughts. These are things that may keep us up at night or that we carry through the day.

But we don’t need to carry them by ourselves. That’s what the writer of 1 Peter is getting at. He encourages his audience to trust God with their anxiety. He also encourages them to trust each other with them. He reminds them that their brothers and sisters in Christ are going through hard times and anxieties as well.

This community is told to share anxiety with God – to share, to commune. They’re told to share anxiety with each other – to share, to commune.

That’s how this table works. We are sharing ourselves – our joys, our sorrows, our anxieties, our dreams – with God, and with Christ our host. And we are also sharing with each other. We are sharing the good news that Christ is present and resurrected.

Here we are given these real, tangible elements. Here are things that we can chew and things we can feel in our stomachs. Here are physical things that can show us spiritual things. Here are gut-filling things to help us through gut-busting things.

Here we are told that God is with us, and that our fellow believers are with us. Here, we are told that our anxieties are meant to be shared just as we share Christ – that we may all be one.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Saturday Special

I hate writing my sermon on Saturday, but that's what I'll end up doing this week.

I do my best to avoid this predicament. In fact, my routine usually sees the notes finished on Wednesday or Thursday, and then I can spend the rest of the week thinking about the moment itself: how to flesh out a particular point more, or the tweaking of words or phrases so as not to be misunderstood.

This week has been a shorter week. Due to officiating a funeral over my paternity leave, I came in on Wednesday rather than Tuesday. And ever since then, I've been wrestling with what to say on Sunday.

It's not for lack of material. This week I've become increasingly aware that Jeremiah Wright is on the collective mind of my congregation. Questions of how it all relates to us, or how someone like him is a part of our denomination, or whether there are different "branches" of our denomination have been put to me recently. Wright has been on my mind besides, because I've still been trying to figure out what parts of his message and ministry I support and what parts I reject. And with all this in mind, I've been trying to figure out whether addressing any of this in a sermon is a good idea.

The original plan for this Sunday was to do just that. Following the lectionary, I was going to use Jesus' prayer in John 17 "that they may be one" to talk about UCC polity, what it means to be united without being uniform, disagreeing with Wright without leaving the table, and so on. I wondered whether giving Wright this much time in the pulpit was a worthwhile thing, a needed thing. My main angle was to explain our polity in order to answer some of those questions above. I intended it to not even really be a discussion of Wright, but a discussion of how we do things in the UCC.

So I began my outline just yesterday. I talked out loud to an empty sanctuary. I began thinking about words and phrasing so as not to be misunderstood. And I still worried and wondered, and still worry and wonder, whether this is a worthwhile thing, a needed thing.

And then late last night and early this morning, Coffeewife and I sat up with Coffeeson, trading our wide-awake child back and forth. His refusal to go to sleep confounded us both: was he hungry? gassy? frustrated? bored? The minutes ticked away with seemingly no end in sight. It gave me plenty of time to consider what a sermon on John 17 in this cultural moment should contain.

Eventually, however, something else happened.

My sleep-deprived self started not to give a damn.

I suddenly didn't care who won the election, and I didn't care what anyone anywhere thought of Jeremiah Wright, and I didn't care what I would say on Sunday. I didn't care because it was freaking 1:00 in the morning and I had other concerns at the moment, and I didn't care because I'd thought about all of it for so long that I was just fed up with thinking about it.

It was at that moment that I remembered what I originally planned on preaching about from 1 Peter: "cast all your anxieties on him because he cares for you." People are anxious about Wright and people are anxious about our election, but they're also anxious about babies who won't go to sleep and whether they're good parents for not knowing how to deal with it. People are anxious about a lot of things, like what to say in a sermon or what they might hear from their pastor on a given Sunday.

I don't know whether it'd be more or less responsible to say something about that instead, or whether people really need to be better educated about how a guy like Wright is part of a church like ours.

I don't know. It makes me anxious.

Still, I'd better come up with something pretty soon.

Pop Culture Roundup

I finished Gilead this week. At one point, I was about to give up on it, thinking, "What made this so special for me the first time that I wanted to read it again?" I hit that point, and then the moments of grace begin to happen between characters. The narrator, after hearing his story, blesses his best friend's son in a train station, and then goes to keep vigil with his friend as he awaits the end of life. These are both such beautiful moments that answer my question. Gilead is about fathers and sons: estranged, reconciled, repentant, unsure of how to be one to the other, one giving the other second and third chances, and so on.

In the midst of finishing Gilead, I started reading Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner. Winner converted from Judaism to Christianity, and yet retains a strong appreciation for Jewish spiritual practices and seeks to appropriate them to her new Christian context. She seeks to do this not only out of a love for her heritage, but also to seek how to make Christianity more of a lifestyle rather than a set of beliefs. Each chapter briefly explains a Jewish practice and its purpose (basically variations on "it helps you focus on God"), and then muses on ways she's trying to practice it as a Christian. The chapter on keeping kosher sticks out to me at the moment, as she describes eating in general as a spiritual practice, and even an act of justice (i.e., buying fruits only when they're in season to save on the expenditure of oil that it takes to bus out-of-season fruit from wherever...sounds better than wasting it all in ethanol). What Winner ends up describing is a life of attentiveness: attention to how we manage our time, or to what we eat, or to how we mourn in community, and so on. The book is small: around 150 pages, but smaller dimensions. I'd have finished it already, but certain other things have been demanding my attention lately.

I watched American Gangster this week, based on the true story of Frank Lucas, the drug kingpin of Harlem in the early and mid-70s. As I watched, I tried to remember details from the essay on which it was based. The film clocks in at over two and a half hours, but I thought that they needed all of it to set up both Lucas' character and Detective Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe. There is a subplot involving Roberts trying to gain custody of his son in his divorce, and I questioned the inclusion of this, but it adds to how dedicated Roberts is to his police work as he eventually decides that he couldn't provide a healthy environment for his child. The principal focus, however, is Lucas: his rise to power, his dedication to family, his wrestling with when to get out of the business. The film muddles the traditional "good guy/bad guy" lines by having both Lucas and Roberts frustrated with and threatened by a group of dirty cops, and portrays Lucas in some sympathetic ways besides.

I felt a strong urge this week to listen to "Not Just Anybody" by Rae & Christian, which will only mean something to two people who read this. I know the song from a Chill Out compilation that I own. So eventually that just led to my listening to the entire album. This music always takes me back to St. Louis.

Around the web, the United Church of Christ Blog Network added its 40th blog this week. Celebrate.