Friday, July 29, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup

Still reading Cutting for Stone. I'm much deeper into the book, but for whatever reason I can't come up with a whole lot to write about it. As I think I've already said, it tells the story of twins born to a nun in Ethiopia, and is the story of their being brought up in a hospital culture. I don't think I have a lot to say about it yet because I don't find myself really reacting to it one way or the other. It's just a story that I'm reading; I haven't really formed an opinion about it. In fact, I've been incapable of doing that so far. So I'll just keep reading in the hopes that that'll change.

The eighth and final season of Entourage started this past Sunday. Vince is just getting out of rehab, Eric and Sloan apparently aren't engaged anymore, Ari and his wife have separated, Drama is working on his new show, and Turtle is doing whatever with his tequila business. As is the MO of this show, we weren't treated to the hard stuff involved in Vince's recovery, we just have him getting out and everybody wanting to throw him a party in a house full of hot Hollywood women. It's the standard for this show to never get in too deep with drama or complexity. No doubt, the show will end with these four the best of friends, everything looking up, nobody sad for too long. And yet I must see it through, so what does that say about me?

I was sad to hear about the death of Amy Winehouse. She clearly had some major problems, but at the same time was incredibly talented. I always enjoyed her music. Here's her first single off of Back to Black, "You Know I'm No Good:"



And here's the first Michigan football hype video that I've seen this year:

Monday, July 25, 2011

Stirrings

"If you’re the pastor, you’ll probably find yourself saying, “I can’t believe it’s been seven years!” And if you’re anything like those four pastors who came to me for spiritual direction, you’ll start feeling some stirrings that will blossom full-blown next year." - Israel Galindo, Staying Put

I've become somebody's mentor. I didn't mean to. It happened completely by accident.

I remember the first time he walked into the church. Young guy, mid-20s, tall, well-kept. He wandered in behind his family who'd been attending off and on for a few months by that point. Politely and pleasantly, he shook my hand and said "good morning," and took his seat in preparation for worship. After the service, I clearly remember him saying "thank you" as he moved through the greeting line. The next week, he said "thank you" again. This happened for at least the first month that he attended, eventually on his own and without prompting from others.

A few months later, he sent me a letter saying that he wanted to join. For the first time of many, we met for coffee to talk about it. He'd never been baptized to his knowledge, so we determined easily that that would be the way it would happen. The day came, and his extended family joined in on the celebration, expressing thankfulness to me that he had made this decision. As a side note, I learned that I went to elementary school with one of his cousins. She'd even attended the baptism and commented to him afterward that I looked familiar. Small world.

Anyway, his curiosity abounded. He had all sorts of questions about theology, the Bible, Jesus, the church, the UCC. I happily engaged him, all the while sipping from mugs in area coffeehouses. At some point, he began to discern a call to ministry, so we started talking about that process as well.

Eventually, he found an apartment in a nearby town. It was simple, which fit his life philosophy. He's a simple guy; he appreciates a lot of things that many of us don't see on a daily basis because we're so caught up in our own stupid trivialities. What we ignore, he embraces. It's been but one of his gifts to me. Anyway, one of the first times I visited his place to talk about the Gospel of Mark, whatever passage we were studying inspired him to launch into story after story about his background, becoming so animated and passionate that he needed to stand up in order to express himself properly. So I'm sitting on the floor of this apartment, Bible open in front of me, watching and listening to some of this young man's life history. And it was sometime during this moment that I realized that I'm doing exactly the sort of ministry that I want to do.

Our meetings continued. I helped get him started in a lay ministry program. I guided him as he prepared to preach to our faith community. I began to consider how the church may create a short-term apprenticeship position for him. I don't know when exactly it happened, but I'd become a mentor. I still don't completely know what to do with this realization, other than to treat it with care. But that's the only conclusion I've reached so far.

Some time later, life became difficult for him. And I don't want to say too much about this because it's not my story to tell. Setback after setback after setback. The church helped. It wasn't enough. At perhaps his lowest point, we lost contact for a week or so. The church helped again, this time in a bigger way. Combined with some other things, it was enough. Things are getting better, and he and I praise God together for it.

It was during that week of silence, however, that took me on my own journey. I was hating his situation, I was hating that I couldn't do more, I was hating that he was out there dealing with it, not knowing what to say or how to reach out. But I was also wondering. I was surprised by the depth of loss that I was feeling alongside him, in part because we were out of contact for a time. On one level, it was a friendship thing. Pastors inevitably befriend church members, boundary training be damned. Call me out on that, advise me to be careful, right, I get it. Thanks. But as a pastor, I wanted to do more because he was one of my people, and I've reached a point where when something happens to one of my people it causes my heart to ache in a way that may not have been possible five or six years ago.

I think that these are the type of "stirrings" to which the above cited article alludes. You stay in one place long enough, and the relationship changes and deepens. In my case, I freak out. I freak out because I'm not used to being around the same people for this long. I freak out because I realize that we're still together doing our thing, and what do I do to keep it going if that's what I'm supposed to do?

The last kid from my first confirmation class just graduated high school. Some things I started years ago are going well; others, not so much. We're doing well here, we're not doing well over here. This person has moved more into the center of my line of vision, this other person has moved more to the perimeter. I've started preaching through the three-year lectionary cycle...again. A thing I thought had resolved a need is now on shaky ground. In a few more years, this other thing is going to be in major trouble; am I the one equipped to deal with it when it happens? I invent, I re-invent, I envision, I re-envision, this works, this used to work, this worked for a year and no longer works. And all of it has been done with the same people, the same shifting and deepening and frustrating and uplifting set of relationships.

The longer I stay, the more likely I am to be stirred when a relationship goes bad or disappears for a while. The more likely I'll be stirred when something I thought worked, doesn't. The more likely I'll be stirred when so-and-so, whom I've now known for so long, dies and I have to officiate her funeral. The more likely I'll be stirred to joy and reflection by something that bears fruit.

The beginning of May of this year, we started using Powerpoint in worship. It started on Easter during one small portion of the service, and it went over so well to the point that many suggested, "Why don't we just put the whole service up there?" By the end of spring, we were and are. People can read along with prayers, scriptures, and songs, and I hunt down a half dozen or more pictures every week for slides where no reading is required. Finally, my visual learners have more to hold onto during worship. We're just beginning to explore the creative possibilities with this medium.

It took 6 1/2 years of laying the groundwork for that to happen. 6 1/2 years of deepening relationship and building trust and planting seeds. It was the sort of move that I never would have expected to be possible, and after that long it became so. It's the sort of major worship change that signifies how far we've come together, our collective comfort level.

It's also brought a feeling of arrival for me. I have these from time to time, but this is a big one that I don't totally understand yet. A projector in worship is a significant shift for this church, and a significant shift for my ministry where I am. It's the type of shift that has caused me to take stock of where we've been and what we're currently doing: embracing technology, becoming more modern in philosophy, engaging in mission. I'm now burying people I've known for a fairly long time. I'm watching kids I brought up through confirmation and senior high activities graduate and get married. I'm watching older church pillars step away from activities and struggle more and more with canes and walkers. I'm wrestling with faith issues alongside others in coffeehouses, pubs, and sometimes while sitting on an apartment floor.

I consider all of this and feel stirrings. They're stirrings about how long I've been at this, how long I've been in relationship with these people, what has become possible as a result. And I can only give thanks and see what happens next.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup

I'm a little further into Cutting for Stone now, which is about the lives of twins born to a nun in Ethiopia. While the book will focus on their relationship, I'm still at the part recounting the life of their mother and their birth. For me it's been slow reading, not because the story is slow but just because I haven't devoted much time to reading. So until I can make it deeper into the novel, I still can't really say too much about it.

We ordered WWE Money in the Bank this past Sunday, so named for the two featured eight-man ladder matches where wrestlers compete to climb a ladder and pull down a briefcase containing a contract for a World Title match (Did that make sense?). These two matches were decent enough, although I never would've guessed at Daniel Bryan winning the one match; Alberto Del Rio winning the other was to be expected, though. But the big anticipated match, the reason I and probably most others ordered the show, was the CM Punk vs. John Cena WWE title match. I posted one promo from Punk the other week; here's the one that aired the week leading up to the event:



Long story short, after an awesome match in Punk's hometown of Chicago in which he was the clear favorite, Punk ended up winning the WWE Title, running out through the crowd to celebrate. He has since tweeted pictures of the belt in his refrigerator and at a Cubs game. And THEN, he crashed the WWE discussion panel (featuring HHH, Rey Mysterio, and Bret Hart) at Comic-Con:



And thus continues one of the greatest storylines in years. I haven't felt this excited to be a wrestling fan in quite a while. In recent years, the Hart and Rock returns have been great and I'd rank my excitement for those being pretty close, but this is something else.

A recent article in Entertainment Weekly made the observation that nearly everyone in True Blood has undergone a big character change, and honestly I think that's why I've been liking this season more. Tara is hardcore rather than whiny, Bill is a little more sinister instead of Southern Edward Cullen, Sookie is more just fed up with everything instead of a nag. At the same time, I pretty much hate the Jason werepanther storyline (which the other week included a gang rape scene) and for me the jury is still out regarding the witch storyline. Getting more of the head witch's backstory will help with that, I think.

The eighth and final season of Entourage starts this Sunday. Here's the extended trailer:



And here's the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," parodied by 4-year-olds:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Prayer for Difficult Times by Ignatius of Loyola

This prayer is shared by RevTrev, which he linked specifically to depression. Between that link and my preparations to be immersed in Ignatian thought over the next few years, I share it here:
O Christ Jesus,
when all is darkness
and we feel our weakness and helplessness,
give us the sense of Your presence,
Your love, and Your strength.
Help us to have perfect trust
in Your protecting love
and strengthening power,
so that nothing may frighten or worry us,
for, living close to You,
we shall see Your hand,
Your purpose, Your will through all things.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The UCC and God the Father

One of the big outcomes of the United Church of Christ's General Synod 28 at the beginning of July was its approval of changes to the Constitution and Bylaws to move toward unified governance for its boards at the national setting. There are currently five such boards, and these changes will slim those down to one board of 50 members. The 27th General Synod in Grand Rapids approved making this move, and this vote was approving the details of how that will happen. There were, of course, objections to the overall concept that people voiced at this latest Synod, while others focused on the specific makeup of the board and whether minority groups would be adequately represented. Nevertheless, it passed, and we move toward this new model.

In addition to those changes in the Constitution and Bylaws, there was one other change that has received a lot of attention, both during debate at Synod and since:
Delegates at the United Church of Christ's General Synod 28 recently voted overwhelmingly in favor of amending the denomination's constitution so that the phrase “heavenly Father” will no longer be present anywhere in its text.

Instead of reading “A Local Church is composed of persons who, believing in God as heavenly Father,” under the proposal, Article V of the church constitution would read, “A Local Church is composed of persons who, believing in the triune God.”

Delegates passed the proposal 613 to 161 in favor of the changes to the text, as reported by UCNews. Ten delegates abstained from voting.
Okay, right off the bat, notice how this change is being represented. This article, for instance, presents this as if it was the main change that was debated. The article does mention the unified governance changes later, but it's as if that was just a minor discussion held after the fact. Many other online articles present this in similar fashion, as if the UCC, in its latest act of liberalest liberalism, has rejected (some say "banished") the image of God the Father.

The perpetuation of this version of events has helped along by Biblical Witness Fellowship, a reform group within the UCC:
The Biblical Witness Fellowship, a group of UCC pastors and church members that was formed in response to “UCC's theological surrender to the moral and spiritual confusion of contemporary culture,” made their disapproval of the decision clear. David Runnion-Bareford, executive director of BWF and a leader who supported keeping “heavenly Father” in the language of the constitution, spoke out on the organization's website before the vote was taken in Tampa, Fla., last weekend.

“Rejecting God as Father in an age of fatherlessness is unthinkable,” he said. “God acted toward us in amazing grace when He offered to be our Father through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ who offers us life in his name. This is not something we as humans made up in some other time. Rejecting our Father is act of arrogant rebellion in the name of cultural conformity that only further alienates members, churches, but more importantly God himself.”
The reasoning given for the change to begin with is the multitude of images for God both in scripture and tradition, both male and female. Father is one among many, though it has been given prominence down through the ages particularly because Jesus used that image quite often, to say nothing of implicit and explicit patriarchal reasons. But in addition to masculine imagery there are many feminine images as well, such as mother (Isaiah 42:12, Numbers 11:12, Isaiah 46:3-4), seamstress (Nehemiah 9:21), and hen (Matthew 23:37), among many others. At various points God is also a tower (Proverbs 18:10), an eagle (Deuteronomy 32:11), a rock (Psalm 95:1), a fortress (Psalm 31:3), light (Psalm 27:1), and a bear, lion, & leopard (Hosea 13:6-8). Yes, they really are in there. So charges of arrogant rebellion are greatly exaggerated.

Besides that, nobody seems to be looking at this in terms of what the language was changed to, that being the triune God. Think about this: a single image among many for God was removed and a doctrinally traditional description of God held by many Christians--including, no doubt, the members of BWF--replaced it. God is now explicitly referred to as triune instead. Considering how often I've heard the ABSOLUTELY HILARIOUS joke that UCC really stands for "Unitarians Considering Christ," people like Runnion-Bareford should be jumping for joy about this affirmation of the Trinity, of whom one member is God the Father (or, if you prefer, Creator, Parent, etc.). God the Father is implicit in this language change, just as the Trinity is implicit in his complaints about the change. The UCC is charged with parting ways with historic Christianity, so surely somebody can explain how affirming the Trinity does that, right?

If that wasn't enough, let's consider for a moment Runnion-Bareford's specific charge about moral and spiritual confusion. Somebody from BWF can correct me on this, but I presume that this has to do with the smorgasbord of spiritual options available in American culture, from which many pick and choose at will. As a result, among other things, the identity of the Christian God can become murky. Thus God as Father becomes important in this age because it it gives God a specific identity that is faithful to traditional Christianity, the same identity that Jesus often gave God. It is a very clear definition of who God is. This is the argument as I understand it.

Well...the Trinity gives a very clear and more narrow definition of God as well. In fact, the UCNews article linked above mentions that an objection was raised to this change for that reason: perhaps some individual members and churches would find this doctrinal description too constricting. This change still gives God a clear and historically-held Christian identity that includes God as Father among other images.

From where I'm sitting there really isn't anything to complain about here. But people like Runnion-Bareford will complain and the UCC will continue to be presented as the most liberally liberal denomination, even when it's not really acting as such.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup

I just started reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Vergese, though I'm not very far into it yet so I can't say too much about it.

I watched Chaos Theory this past week, starring Ryan Reynolds as Frank, an efficiency expert who is incredibly organized and punctual for everything. His wife, meaning to set the clocks ten minutes forward in order to help him be on time for a big presentation, sets them back instead and makes him late, which starts a domino effect of events that disrupt his entire life outlook. Or at least, that's the premise. First off, reading that description caused me to expect something along the lines of Yes Man: overly cautious guy learns to let go and try new things. I was pleasantly surprised that this is a far more weighted film: it does have some humor, but what happens to Frank is far more upsetting and serious. Reynolds, of course, pulls it off very well. Second, the fact that he's ten minutes late is not necessarily the reason why what happens next happens - it could have happened whether he'd been on time or not, but that didn't bother me too much. At times, there isn't really a likable character to be found, but that's part of the messiness that the movie portrays. It was a great piece of dramedy, probably one of the best movies I've seen so far this year.

We went to the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 last night/this morning. I write this in a bit of a haze since I haven't had that first (second, third, and fourth) cup of coffee yet. Regardless, this was a great finish to the franchise. It had a lot of action, mostly consisting of the final battle at Hogwarts. But it also managed to hit the right dramatic notes when presenting Snape's background, Harry's preparation to meet Voldemort and accept his initial fate, and the overall chaos of battle that includes the loss of beloved characters. It managed to be a well-balanced movie that way, never feeling slow but also never feeling bogged down with the action sequences. As a bonus, there's a trailer for next summer's The Dark Knight Rises shown beforehand, which I was as excited to see as the movie itself.

The artist formerly known as Real Live Preacher, Gordon Atkinson, has re-emerged at a new blog called Tertium Squid. I'm very glad to be able to read his writing again.

I came across this praise song the other week, called "Revelation Song." I like this version despite the 4,297 people on the stage who don't understand the concept of "less is more." I like the tune itself, and plan to bring it to a certain rural Ohio UCC church in the near future in a much simpler, more stripped down manner:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Speak the Good - A Prayer Based on Genesis 1

Before time, nothingness.
Before form and shape, before light and shade, a void.
Before fullness of life, empty.

And over the nothing, through the void, into the emptiness, you breathed.
The waters of the void, once twisting and crashing unrefined, began to separate.
And something took shape.
Light and dark.
Sun and moon.
Ocean and continent.
Salmon, dove, lion, cow.
Us.

You breathed into the black, and through your breath you spoke, and through your speaking, it began.
Swirling galaxies, rotating planets, and blazing comets responded to your speaking, and became.

As you commanded, you also blessed.
What you deemed would be, you also deemed worthy of being.
Into existence, you spoke good things.
The light and dark is good.
The sun and moon is good.
The oceans and continents are good.
The flora and fauna are good.
You spoke the good, and it was so.

You spoke the good, but we don’t always remember.
We can’t always hear you speaking the good…
…over the cries of children with bloated bellies.
…over the immolating explosions of war.
…over the accusing words of fear and degradation fired like bullets into another’s flesh.
It is as if the waters of the void continue crashing unrefined, and we wonder if you’re still speaking at all.

As Earth moves and spins, your speaking the good is still needed.

Over the nothing, through the void, into our emptiness, breathe.
As you command, bless.
Speak the good. Let it be so.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Roots

As a pastor, I've visited a lot of cemeteries.

It's an inevitable part of my vocation. Somebody calls me to let me know that their wife, husband, father, mother, grandparent, sister, brother, or whomever died. I get a call from the funeral home maybe a day later, at which point they tell me when and where the service is taking place, and where the burial will be. The location of the service is usually a predictable choice between the soft pink lights and soothing piano music on CD of the funeral home, or in the sanctuary of the church. It makes no difference to me, really. Funeral home services are much shorter due to the general lack of hymns and corporately read prayers. Every once in a while somebody would like a favorite song sung together, or at least as much as people are up for singing. But for the most part, they're about half as long as a church service which, as you might expect, is normally held at the request of member families who couldn't imagine the one for whom they grieve not being commended to God from the pews in which they sat for decades.

No, the place where one's life is celebrated, stories are shared, scriptures and prayers and songs are lifted is a fairly predictable choice for me. In that sense, I know what to expect and plan for as soon as I know what the people want. The place of burial, however, is almost a guessing game. I've been to perhaps a dozen or so such places in the area, and it could be any of them, or some new place I've never experienced. Depending on where we end up, we may say final goodbyes in a chapel, under a pavilion, or under the green tent with minimal padded seating. We may stand near a vault or over a rectangular hole. There may already be the stone memorializing a spouse, parent, or child close by, to which the departed will now be enjoined at least in a symbolic way.

My favorite to visit is probably the nearby national cemetery. Like any military cemetery, the word that defines one's entire experience there is "precision." When the funeral caravan arrives, it must stop next to a front office building where the funeral director delivers papers and waits for the Go signal. Then, on the half hour, we make our way through the perfectly-aligned rows of markers and vaults to a pavilion where a small group of veterans awaits. Military honors are conducted first, and before I open my prayer book I am reminded that I'll be cut off if I go too long in order to prepare for the next group when the half hour hits once again. I always approach this with an extra sense of honor and privilege that is much less due to the strict schedule and much more for the simple pageantry and elegance of it all. I can say this about all cemeteries that I've experienced, really. But this is a unique place for me.

The church has its own cemetery of respectable size whose residents go all the way back to the congregation's founding. Ours is typical of most non-military cemeteries: smaller markers of faded limestone are generally relegated to the side closest to the road, overtaken more and more by larger, modern works of granite and marble. Brass stars slowly turning green from age mark where our veterans are all year, but small American flags are added just before Memorial Day and remain through Veterans Day. Familiar names that go back generations litter the landscape, inviting questions of relation to those still on the rolls. Decorations are modest, usually featuring a few floral arrangements or, in some cases, a tree or bush planted in one's honor. More recent markers are personalized with pictures of the deceased, familiar quotes, symbols of favorite hobbies, beloved civic groups, or one's faith.

I could tell you stories about our residents. As the years go by, I know more and more of them. I could tell you about the 34-year-old woman who died of lung cancer, for whom I officiated her baptism, wedding, and funeral within the same year. I could tell you about the time she shared that one of her friends at her wedding thought I was "hot". I could tell you about her then-9-year-old son who must be in his emotional 40s by now. I could tell you about the woman who lived to be almost 102, who'd fill me in on the church's history every month that I brought her communion. I could tell you about the chocolates she almost always had waiting for me when I arrived.

There are people whom I've never met that I could tell you about as well. I could tell you about the other woman, clearly one of this church's beloved saints, who lived past 100 and who stood all of four feet tall. I could tell you about the father who was never the same after his wife died and, according to those who knew him best, "gave up" shortly after. I could tell you about the young track coach who suddenly collapsed at a meet and whose funeral saw a sanctuary bursting at the seams with people reeling from his loss.

And I could tell you about the pastor. We have at least one buried in our cemetery, and his memorial identifies him so. He ministered to our church for over 25 years, a mark that no other pastor has even come close to meeting. The name is recognizable because no less than four generations of his family still attend and serve in various roles, though not in the stereotypical way one may associate with big families and small churches. He's buried right next to the church, clearly visible from both the sanctuary and office windows, almost as if he's keeping watch over whomever fills the pulpit forever after.

I think about this pastor often. I never met him, so I don't think about his life so much as what it took for him to be buried here in our cemetery.

Where you are buried is your last identifying gesture. You are forever linked to the nearest community, and even long after people's memories of you fade, that is still where the remnants of your physical self will reside. You will be visited by loved ones who will decorate, clean, stop to remember; wherever they live, they will always need to travel to that spot. Later on, that same spot may be visited by genealogy enthusiasts searching for ancestors and constructing family trees. Eventually children may hold a piece of paper up to your gravestone and rub a crayon over it, and they probably won't know you at all. Whomever comes to visit, they'll visit you right here. And in most cases, you're buried where you are because it's close to where you lived, where people knew you and valued you and could tell embarrassing stories about you. More often than not, you are buried close to home.

Except in the most tragic circumstances possible, I don't anticipate being buried in my church's cemetery. It would only be some unexpected event that would dictate my final resting place being close to this other pastor. Something would have to happen to me, or something would have to happen to Coffeewife or Coffeeson that would automatically cause me to decide that this is where I will rest when my own time comes. Barring that sort of thing happening, though, I have no idea where that plot will be secured. I don't know where life, let alone death, will take me.

I sometimes wonder where my final stop will be. I wonder if it will be a place that I've known and that knows me, where we valued each other and where people will tell embarrassing stories about me. I wonder if I'll be buried in a place that I could come to know for years or even decades, where there will be people to leave flowers for me and linger to remember who I was for a while. I wonder if it will be a church cemetery after all, where my memorial will say "Pastor" and generations of members will be able to tell children and grandchildren about me, how maybe I was a trusted friend or how I always wanted to drink the regular coffee or how I always had weird ideas about church and worship and Jesus. I wonder if I'll be known that well close to where I'm buried.

I wonder if I'll have grown roots before I'm in the ground.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Summer Activity Meme

It's been a while since I did a meme, so why not:

Share five things that are happening in your life, personally or professionally or some of each, in this season of life.

1. Vacation brain. I just spent a week in Florida, and I don't feel like I've re-adjusted to being back yet. It's also July, so there isn't a ton of stuff happening around the church at the moment at least in terms of activities. I'm just in "summer mode" like everybody else.

2. Spiritual direction. I'm continuing to anticipate the beginning of my spiritual direction program, which will begin either later this summer or in the fall with experiencing Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises. I'm still waiting to hear from the program director about finding a spiritual director to guide me through this.

3. Coffeewife's graduation. She will earn a Nurse Practitioner degree in mid-August, and both of us are ready for that in multiple ways. I'm incredibly proud of her and happy for her, but I'm also looking forward to our household not being on a school schedule any more. My SD program will come nowhere close to what she's had to do, and honestly I don't think I'm interested in pursuing a program as intensive as hers any more. I was once, but not now.

4. Congregational health. Not in the "dysfunctional church" sense, but in the sense that a lot of members are dealing with health concerns right now, mostly age-related. Honestly, it's caused me to think a lot about what's down the road for us as a church, a question that has no answer yet.

5. Landscaping. Due to both our careers and Coffeewife's schoolwork, we haven't done a lot that we'd like to be doing with our yard other than me mowing the lawn. It's an eyesore, and I'm embarrassed by it. But we've been doing more to shape things up the past few weeks, and it's gradually looking better. This'll hopefully be the only summer where we fall behind the way that we have.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Slow to Emerge

It's worth noting before you delve in that 1) this is really long, so make sure your coffee is topped off, and 2) all book quotes are from their hardcover versions, just in case you look for it in a paperback and things don't quite line up.

In a recent Pop Culture Roundup, I reported on finishing Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity. In that review, I said this:
If you're already familiar with McLaren, nothing will be tremendously new here. Also, if you're familiar with 200+ years of modern Biblical scholarship and theological traditions besides fundamentalism and neo-Calvinism, nothing will be tremendously new. I understand that McLaren is writing to an audience within Evangelicalism disillusioned with the same old, same old, but emerging/emergent really are behind the curve theologically.
On Twitter, somebody picked up on the comment about being behind the curve, and I ended up getting in a whole discussion about what that meant. Of course, that discussion was limited to 140-character bursts and seemed highly inadequate to my explaining myself, so I hope to offer a more in-depth explanation here.

First, Heaping Praise and Appreciation

Before I even get started, however, I think that I need to offer some clarifications and caveats right off the bat, since this is the type of post that may get passed around Facebook and wherever else and people will debate and in some cases grossly misunderstand what I'm saying. So allow me a few paragraphs to set things up.

My first brush with the emerging/emergent church was the summer after I graduated college, when I read McLaren's A New Kind of Christian. I didn't know that that was the movement it was a part of back then; the book just caught my eye. This is considered by many to be one of McLaren's foundational books, in which he tells a story of a pastor named Dan who meets a new spiritual companion in Neo (not to be confused with the Keanu Reeves movie character) who helps introduce him to new ways of thinking about God, Jesus, the Bible, the church, and so on. There's a lot of discussion about postmodernism, deconstructing traditional views that no longer work, and revisiting theological concepts in order to relate them to this new cultural moment, sometimes simply by re-reading the scripture texts in which they're based and discovering things about them that have been glossed over or ignored previously.

A passage from this book that has always stuck with me, and that I've paraphrased several times in my ministry, is one during which Don and Neo discuss Jesus and the kingdom of God:
My tone was intentionally calming: "OK then, how would you define the gospel?"

Neo said that it couldn't be reduced to a little formula, other than the one Jesus used, which was "The Kingdom of God is at hand," and he didn't recommend using that exact language today. I asked why not.

"Dan, everything is contextual. No meanings can exist without context. Language only works in a context, since words mean different things at different times. In Jesus' day, the biggest issue was that the Jewish people were subordinated to the Roman Empire. This was agonizing for them: How could good people who truly believed in the One True God be under the heel of bad people who believed in a pathetic pantheon of little false dieties? Jesus' use of the expression 'kingdom of God' in that context is so dynamic and full of meaning that even though I see only a little sliver of it, I can hardly put it into words." (p. 106)
Later in the chapter, Neo makes some comments that I've always loved suggesting that if Jesus had been born in a different time and place, he'd have used a different term for the same concept according to context. And the larger concept of Jesus' overall message being about the kingdom of God rather than anything solely about himself was helpful, if not familiar to me. And why was it familiar? Because at that time I'd just completed a four-year Religion degree that featured discussion about the historical Jesus and Biblical criticism that had featured extensive discussion about the same topic, including the hosting of Dr. Stephen Patterson, then professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary and fellow of the Jesus Seminar, who'd been making it a point to analyze and re-emphasize Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God. Dr. Patterson's book The God of Jesus, which further expounds upon this theme (particularly Jesus' kingdom message), was an eye-opening book for me during those years.

So by the time I read McLaren's book, I'd already become familiar with scholarship that had in some form been around at least since the days of Albert Schweitzer over a century ago. This didn't minimize or render pointless McLaren's point; it just helped supplement and even put into popular terms what I'd already studied.

I've gotten ahead of myself slightly. The point is that that was my introduction to emerging/emergent, even though I didn't know it. And the views presented in McLaren's book didn't surprise me much, because I'd just spent four years hearing the same thing.

Years later, I'd just begun full-time ministry in my present call. That first year was a year of disillusionment, in the sense that whatever illusions about the church and pastoral ministry I had left after graduating seminary were finally and fully demolished in that first year. It was also during that year that I began to sense that something is wrong with the way many of us "do church," whether in terms of outdated forms or an overall complacency held over from the mainline heyday, or both.

Books by authors considered emerging or emergent helped name these issues for me. I largely couldn't articulate what was wrong until reading books like Gibbs and Bolger's Emerging Churches, Mark Driscoll's Confessions of Reformission Rev, and Doug Pagitt's Church Re-Imagined, among others. These books offered images of church life that engage culture in new ways by reading this contextual moment, which includes the decline of Christendom and the assumptions that come with it. I found this stuff edifying, helpful, exciting, and refreshing, and I decided that I wanted to be a part of it.

So this is all to say that I have a great appreciation for the emerging/emergent movement, and its effect on my ministry. In fact, I consider myself one of those hyphenated types, UCCmergent. And look, I don't even need the hyphen.

So. Can we move on? You good? Okay. Because what comes next is going to include some criticism. I'm just sayin'.

First Component: Church Stuff

From where I'm sitting, there are basically two components to the emerging/emergent movement. They're interrelated, but depending on who you read he or she will likely focus on one or the other.

The first component is all about ecclesiology. That is, how to do and be the church: structure, emphasis, outreach, community-building, disciple-making, and so on. This strand, I think, is how emerging/emergent gained its reputation for being hipsters who hold Bible study in coffeeshops, hold worship in bars, sing U2 songs rather than hymns, and use movies as jumping-off points for preaching as much as scripture. It's because...well...some actually do these things. Emerging ecclesiology is largely based on reading and engaging the culture in which these churches find themselves. Since it is particularly a movement geared toward Generation X and younger (though some will push back against this point), it will reflect the culture of these generations. It embraces technology, isn't afraid of people with tattoos and/or who smoke, and often meets in places far away from white-washed sanctuaries.

This cultural engagement is one aspect of what has come to be known as being missional, as opposed to being attractional. To be attractional, the bulk of what you do involves offering programs in your church building and hoping that people just magically pull into your parking lot to attend them. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't. On the other hand, being missional is going where the people are, engaging who they are and what they like, and building relationships.

The other aspect of being missional is, unsurprisingly, engaging in mission. Emerging/emergent greatly emphasizes service and, in some cases, social justice. Again, depending on who you read, you'll find writers and speakers advocating for the poor, the immigrant, the environment, Third World poverty, and for the acceptance of various minority groups. Parts of this movement have made the connection between the gospel and service; have discovered or rediscovered how much Jesus interacted with and helped the poor and marginalized, and have embraced his ministry as their own.

Okay. To you who are familiar with emerging/emergent, none of that was new information. You've read about it or have even participated in it. I acknowledge that, and apologize for the pedantic nature of the last few paragraphs. What I really wanted to do by mentioning all of this is to point you to all the mainliners and "liberal" Christians over there who also just read the last paragraph while mumbling things like, "Of course" and "Duh" and "Finally." You see, while they probably didn't invent a lot of the missional things you're doing, they've been doing it for decades and even centuries already. As one example, the Social Gospel movement, while admittedly a bit lacking in theology when it began (and still is hit-and-miss on occasion) is over a century old and was started and picked up by many mainline denominations, churches, and pastors very early on. It was a much earlier movement to link the gospel with social issues, to say nothing of movements before that that had no label applied to it. As a result, many mainline churches would welcome emerging/emergent's delving into this area in a more serious way, some while wondering why it took them so long.

In Tony Jones' book The New Christians, he tells the story of how emerging/emergent began. Essentially, a group of younger pastors, most from evangelical churches, got together to see how they could best reach people ages 18-35. What resulted was a major shift in a lot of their thinking in terms of how to do and be the church, including the realization that we're in a postmodern, post-Christendom world. One of the conclusions reached was that they/we probably need to do more than offering a few new church programs. What resulted was the beginning of the emergent movement, or conversation. After yelling "the Bible is propaganda!" (meaning to him that the Bible is meant in part to make the case for Christianity's truthfulness whether each story is factual or not) during a meal with these folks, Jones realized they're onto something new, or new to them:
These kinds of thoughts about the Bible had been burgeoning in me for years, but I didn't have people to talk to about them. And that was true for the others at the Dallas meeting as well. Brad [Cecil] was not quoting Jacques Derrida at the weekly staff meeting of Pantego Bible Church. New Zealander Andrew Jones, though financially supported by the Texas Baptist Convention, was doing off-the-map ministry with street kids and organizing 2:00 a.m. rave parties in warehouses during which eople danced their way through the biblical narrative. Chris Seay, an assumed future star in Texas evangelicalism--destined for one of the "big steeple" churches--had forsaken that promise to start small churches in inner cities. And Doug [Pagitt] had left Wooddale Church when it became clear that his theological adventures into things like "open theism" meant that he'd never be allowed to plant one of Wooddale's daughter churches.

We were, in some sense, a group of church misfits and castoffs. Surely, this was a group of competent people, convinced of their strong opinions, but many of them felt they were working without a net. They'd opted out of the systems that had nurtured them, and the relationships that would become "emergent" were the beginnings of a new way of being Christian and a new way of leading churches. (p. 45-6)
Here the other component to emerging/emergent thought comes up, but I want to hold off on that for a moment. Early in the story of emerging/emergent (that slash thing is annoying, isn't it?) these evangelical pastors part ways with the company line of their churches and denominations because, in part, they've discovered that the intellectual and political structures in which they used to operate won't allow for them to do what they feel called to do, which in part is to practice radical mission & evangelism and also to embrace theology that doesn't meet the higher-ups' approval.

Now, let's acknowledge something. In terms of technological and evangelistic innovation, evangelicals have been light years ahead of mainliners. It has taken and is taking mainline churches an incredibly long time to realize that their social dominance from decades ago is long over. This dominance included an assumed True Way of worship (traditional, with organ, hymns, and a three-point sermon), as well as an assumption that they would always have political clout in society. More recent social justice movements such as civil rights for women and African-Americans, championed by some mainline churches, seemed to reinforce this thought, at least for a time.

At the same time, these assumptions stilted innovation. Most mainline churches didn't feel the need to try new methods of worship or outreach because they didn't think they needed to. They were the mainline, after all. That thought has persisted long after their designation as "mainline" ceased to be accurate. Meanwhile, evangelicals were the ones using Powerpoint, screens, worship bands, and so on. You may not like these methods, but nevertheless they're working for people.

I bring that up to acknowledge that these emerging/emergent churches have continued that innovation. And again, that's what I've been drawn to the most. But in terms of social justice and service, I as a mainliner am already familiar with that. On the other hand, as Brian McLaren said in a recent appearance at Malone University, emergents--largely being people who have moved on from evangelical contexts--have just recently made those sorts of connections, including its eventual exploration of feminist and liberation theologies some eight or ten years after the "conversation" began. The social justice and missional components of emerging/emergent Christianity can be celebrated, even if they're late to the party.

Second Component: Theology Stuff

The second component of the emerging/emergent movement has been theological, as alluded several times already. McLaren is probably the best-known purveyor of this part of the movement through books such as A Generous Orthodoxy, A New Kind of Christianity, and his tag-team effort with Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point. In these various books, he revisits traditional Christian doctrines and concepts and wonders aloud about their credibility in light of our postmodern age. Ultimately, he recasts some of them and holds certain others in tension with his and others' experiences, which has received mixed reviews at best from those who read him. Some have simply cast him as a heretic, while many others have credited his books for their being able to remain in the faith.

Of course, as with the movement's social justice component, some of his stuff is going to sound very familiar to certain readers.

Take McLaren's book The Secret Message of Jesus. The tagline for the book is "Uncovering the truth that could change everything." Both the title and the tagline are unfortunate: they imply that McLaren has come up with something brand new that will rock Christianity to its foundations. What the book turns out to be is a treatment of Jesus' earthly life, particularly his parables and other teachings, in order to discover that, hey, Jesus talked a lot about something called the "kingdom of God:"
Imagine a busy street crowded with people. A young man has gathered a crowd in a corner of the local market. Someone shouts out, "What's your plan? What's your message?"

He responds, "Change your way of thinking. The kingdom of God is available to all. Believe this good news! The empire of God is now available to all!"

The kingdom of God, the empire of God? What could Jesus mean by this? One thing is sure: he did not mean "heaven after you die." Maybe the meaning would be clearer if we paraphrased it like this: "You're all preoccupied with the oppressive empire of Caesar and the oppressed kingdom of Israel. You're missing the point: the kingdom of God is here now, available to all! This is the reality that matters most. Believe this good news and follow me!" (p. 14)
What follows is an analysis of what that kingdom of God is about: essentially, seeking justice and living by a different set of values in our present age, and an anticipation of the fulfillment of that kingdom at some future moment, all based on a call to discipleship based on following Jesus' teachings about how to do it.

Foundation-rocking? To those who think Christianity is mostly about going to heaven after you die, yes. Brand new? Not so much. The $64,000 theological term for the concept that McLaren is exploring is "realized eschatology," popularized by Biblical scholar C.H. Dodd, and was also in some sense developed by modern liberal theologians such as Albrecht Rischel and Adolf von Harnack. In more recent times, Dr. Patterson and John Dominic Crossan, among others in the Jesus Seminar, have been proposing this view of the kingdom of God for quite some time, not to mention theologians such as Methodist Stanley Hauerwas and Anabaptist John Howard Yoder. And this is to say nothing of 2000 years' worth of individuals and movements proposing that one of the Christian's main tasks is to follow Jesus' teachings and example while waiting in hope that God will finally and fully bring a new way of existence into view. There is no "secret message" here, except maybe to those who prefer mainly to read Paul and Revelation, those who are sick of only reading or hearing about Paul and Revelation, and those who have been spiritually abused by those who mainly read Paul and Revelation, which admittedly comprise a good chunk of McLaren's intended audience. The analysis of Jesus' abundant use of kingdom language may indeed have a certain novelty to it for many, but again, such analysis precedes emergent by at least a century.

And then there's Jones. Ah, Tony Jones...over and over and over again criticizing mainline churches, pointing out their continual decline, and calling liberal theology "impotent." Consider, for instance, his critique of Marcus Borg's view of the resurrection:
Thus, since the resurrection of Jesus is his defeat of death, evil, and grief, it’s important to me that it really happened. Without a resurrected Jesus, Christianity is impotent. (Exhibit A: liberal Christianity) And I don’t mean a Jesus who was “resurrected” in the Disciples’ hearts, and in my heart. I mean a real resurrection in the space-time continuum by a physical being known as Jesus of Nazareth, as 99.99% of Christians for the last two milennia have believed.
Indeed. Liberal Christianity is impotent. Congregationalists freed the slaves on the ship Amistad and threw the Boston Tea Party, the abolitionist American Missionary Association was founded by mainliners, Antoinette Brown Blackwell was the first woman to be ordained in American Christianity by Congregationalists (she later joined those even more liberal Unitarians), not to mention again liberal participation in the rights of minorities in other ways down through the centuries. Today, as in times past, mainline denominations have been striving for diversity in their community life, both in terms of radical welcome and in terms of who can lead and be ordained. And it is a theology of love, justice, and faithfulness that led them--and still leads many--to take these stands, a theology based on the type of kingdom language and notion of discipleship that McLaren writes about. Meanwhile, as McLaren admits, the emerging/emergent movement has struggled with its mono-cultural image. So who's further along here, and who's still trying to move past limited theological views?

Here's another quote from that same article by Jones:
As often when I’m with liberal groups, Marcus Borg’s name came up early in the conversation. And, as I usually do, I took that opportunity to affirm my belief in the actual, physical, historic resurrection of Jesus, something that Borg notoriously does not do. (I wrote about my experience with Borg in my book.) Many times over the rest of the weekend, I was approached by participants on the retreat who wanted to challenge me on that — why do I think it’s so important that Jesus actually rose from the grave.

And I understand where they’re coming from, because I don’t feel the same way about the historic facticity of Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, Jonah living in the belly of a fish, or Job’s family and cattle being wiped out by God. So it might seem rather arbitrary that I draw the line between some accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures, which I consider mythological (but nonetheless “true”), and the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ miracles, death, and resurrection.
First off, Jones affirms some commonality with more liberal and mainline Christians in his views of the Bible, to which he alludes in that quote from his book found earlier in this post. Of course, that earlier revelation ("The Bible is propaganda") was shared in a context where it really would have been a majorly scandalous sort of statement. As he explains in the above quote, the Bible's truth can be affirmed without adhering to its facticity. And modern Biblical criticism--again, something devised by those impotent liberals--gives permission for Jones to make such a statement, to explore what it means, and to differentiate between fact and truth in scripture. So on this point once again, I and many others would say, "Welcome. You're late."

Jones and other emerging/emergent types affirm these sorts of statements and beliefs about God and scripture, but then some also have to take shots at the people who've held them and taught them for many, many years. He and others contrive ways to call liberal and mainline Christianity "impotent" while also lauding things like social justice and Biblical criticism as if the emergent movement discovered them by themselves. Mainliners and their predecessors have been shedding blood, sweat, and tears in these areas for centuries, long before a handful of disillusioned evangelicals finally caught on that Christian faith can be deeper and more diverse than what they were taught at Bible College.

(As an aside, Jones' experience with Borg that he mentions in The New Christians is a very brief treatment of Borg's view of the resurrection. Borg is one who believes in the truth of the resurrection without necessarily believing in its facticity, which Jones stops short of affirming even as he seems to take that line with many other Biblical narratives. In the book, Jones accuses Borg of having a "faith in reason" (p. 154), a view which a reading of The Heart of Christianity might cure, as in it Borg shows himself to be quite spiritual, deeply rooted in faith, and justice-oriented. Jones' decision to stop short of affirming other interpretations of the resurrection shows an inconsistency in his viewpoint. Unless the consistent point that he wants to present is that those liberals who helped develop the tools and permissions that he is now using are awful or less-than.)

If that wasn't enough, do you know how and why classical Liberal Christianity began? It was in response to the Enlightenment, where guys like Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rischel, and von Harnack realized that the truth claims of Christianity as conceived in pre-modern times could no longer be held in the forms known in that period in light of new emphases on science and reason, so they went about the task of re-casting many traditional Christian beliefs in ways that they thought made more sense in the new modern era. This should sound familiar, because it is exactly the same agenda being undertaken by emerging/emergent types in light of these new post-modern times. And to do it, some are incorporating methods and beliefs already proposed by liberal thinkers. And just as liberal Christians were and are being denounced for such an agenda, people like McLaren and Jones are as well. One would think that Jones might find more allies among liberals instead of accusing them of being impotent.

Conclusion and Awards for Reading This Far

As much as I can give credit to the emerging/emergent movement for its innovations and rethinking of ecclesiastical models, I'm tired of its theological component being presented as some awesome newfangled thing, especially when the traditions that gave birth to them or that have been touting them for so long are ignored, downplayed, or marginalized in the process. It's true, mainliners are behind the times on some things, and have been slow to realize some truths about themselves. But before that, they and their predecessors helped pave the way for some other things that emergents have been embracing only recently.

I fully acknowledge that emergent figureheads like McLaren and Jones are primarily writing and speaking to other evangelicals wondering if there can be something more to faith and church. As they do so, they've also caught the imaginations of many mainline liberal types like me, in part because we're already on board with many things being espoused by this new movement. There's much more room for partnership, respect, and acknowledgment than the pretense of theological novelty and air of ecclesiastical superiority that I and others sometimes detect from that corner of Christianity. Both "sides," as hesitant as I am to use that concept, have innovated some things, and have much to learn from each other.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Flash Communion

Here are some of my colleagues from the United Church of Christ's 2030 Clergy Network engaging in a "flash eucharist" at General Synod:

Friday, July 01, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup


I'm reading a book called Driftless by David Rhodes, about a tiny Wisconsin town's collection of characters as they interact with one another. As I've read, I've waited for some overarching story to emerge, yet after a while it became clear that the overarching story is the entire town: how the characters support one another, live with each other, bump into each other for better or worse in a place that hardly anyone purposely travels to except out of necessity. In that sense, the feel of the book is very much like living in such a place - those small towns where everybody knows everybody, where people try to stay afloat or are too rooted to move or are living a type of fatalism or are longing to escape. Whatever their demeanor or motivation, here they all are together, to some degree stuck with each other, with lots of little beginnings and endings weaving in and out of each other, much like life itself.

We watched The King's Speech this week, starring Colin Firth as Prince Albert, the eventual King George VI, who suffers from a stutter that makes public speaking nearly impossible. With the aid of failed actor and amateur speech pathologist Lionel, he tries to overcome this defect. The impending of WWII makes this all the more urgent, as George must give a speech to the British people to reassure them in such a troubling time. Firth is excellent as George, Geoffrey Rush equally so as friend/foil Lionel. Helena Bonham Carter is also particularly strong as George's wife Elizabeth...it's actually a bit strange yet pleasant to see her in a relatively "normal" role, as I'm so used to seeing her in Bellatrix LeStrange/Marla Singer/Tim-Burton-movie-character-type roles. It was a good film with an ending that is triumphant, yet that portrays that triumph as occurring in the midst of a struggle that will be with the lead character his whole life.

We also saw Cars 2 this week; it was Coffeeson's first movie theater experience. The movie itself finds Lightning McQueen, now one of the most successful Piston Cup race cars ever, competing in the inaugural World Grand Prix against champion cars from around the world. McQueen's top rival is Italian Indy car Francesco Bernoulli, voiced exuberantly by John Turturro. Meanwhile, Mater finds himself assisting international spy Finn McMissile (voiced by MIchael Caine...and of course he's an Aston Martin) in foiling a plot by some evil cars to sabotage the race. Eddie Izzard and Bruce Campbell were other notable new voices for me. The movie wasn't the character-driven plot of the first; instead it was a more straightforward action film that brings Mater more to the forefront. It was still fun, it just wasn't the carefully-balanced sort of story that Pixar usually produces.

The fourth season of True Blood began this past Sunday, with Sookie discovering that the fairy world to which she escaped wasn't all it was cracked up to be. When she left (escaped) that world to return home, she discovered that she'd been gone for over a year even though it'd only seemed like a moment. As a result, she discovers--and in some cases, has yet to discover--that a lot has changed. For instance, Bill is the new king of Louisiana, meaning that he's the vampire in charge of that state according to their hierarchy. Also, Lafayette is just beginning to discover his mystical side thanks to his witch boyfriend, Tara has begun a whole new life elsewhere, and Jason is a full-fledged police officer now. All this episode really did was set up where the characters are as the season starts. the people with whom I watched were disappointed with the lack of action, but I understood that it merely told us what everyone is up to. And the "one year later" aspect of it was a nice touch, I thought...it helped to distance the characters from the happenings of the last season and hit "reset" on some things.

Brant Hansen, formerly of Letters from Kamp Krusty and more recently of Brant's Blog, has resigned from his current radio position. Hopefully he starts a new blog after he lands in his new position.

CM Punk is probably one of my current favorites in WWE. He gave a promo this past Monday on RAW that reinforced that for me: