Thursday, August 30, 2012

Vintage CC: A Helicopter on Noah's Ark

The reflection on fatherhood that I included in Monday's Small Sips caused me to remember this post that I wrote back in January 2011. This is probably one of my all-time favorites, and I hope you enjoy reading it again or for the first time.

A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with a good friend who lives in another state. It was a typical phone call for two guys who've known each other since college, who pledged the same fraternity, who'd become somewhat notorious around campus for their clownish behavior. When we talk, it's like stepping into the clothing of familiar roles no longer worn regularly, but the voice of the other brings it all rushing back. We're married and have careers and houses, but whatever domestication we've taken on over the years is at least temporarily shed when we talk.

We talked about the usual sorts of things, catching up on whatever we'd missed out on since the last time. The big topic for him at the moment is his impending fatherhood: he and his wife are expecting their first child in April. In fact, their due date is Coffeeson's birthday, so it's really easy for me to remember. He's described feeling "disconnected" from the pregnancy, which I think is a typical thing for husbands. We're not the pregnant ones. We attend the classes, help paint the nursery, go to the appointments, and so on, but we're not the ones living with the developing life the way she is. Even though we can see the expanding belly and feel and hear our child-to-be through its mother's skin, there's still a certain physical and emotional distance with which we have to cope at least until the birthing moment.

It was New Year's Day, so I ended up saying something about the night before. Specifically, I mentioned that we were in bed by 10:30. We had every intention of sitting up to watch the ball drop, having no illusions that witnessing such a thing would really have any impact on our lives whatsoever, and yet the ongoing responsibilities of careers and a toddler had caught up with us and we opted to sleep instead.

It was the toddler part that I emphasized. I ended up passing along what an older woman, her own kids grown and married, had said to me earlier in the day: "You won't get to enjoy New Year's like you used to for at least the next 20 years." This story and quote collectively was met with a terse and sarcastic "Thanks."

As I've looked back on that conversation since, I feel bad about how it went. It seems as if I'd only shared those things about parenthood that drain energy, or alter one's schedule, or change the type of freedom one had before. Without realizing it, I'd become one of those parents who just tell horror stories to other people planning on having kids; who start every other sentence with "Oh, enjoy it now, because..." I know what: let's inject as much pessimism and fear into the hearts of parents-to-be as we can. These are the type of people to whom one wouldn't want to go for advice down the road if all you're going to get are anecdotes about how awful having a kid is. Thankfully, I don't think that I've done this to too many people, or at least this was the first instance of which I was conscious about what I did afterwards.

What I should have done instead is tell my friend about the helicopter on Noah's ark.

We were invited to an early evening get-together at a friend's house for New Year's Eve. They have two small children, the oldest perhaps six months older than Coffeeson. We'd been trying to get together for months, but hadn't found a good time until this holiday. Knowing that the rubrics involved in a more typical observation of that day would be incredibly difficult with toddlers and infants in tow, we opted for dinner and some playtime instead. This is what set up that older woman's quote so well.

Coffeeson had a blast. Any time that he comes upon an opportunity to play with new and unfamiliar toys, he greets it with excitement and curiosity. This, of course, was no exception. His contemporary is especially into Thomas the Tank Engine, so he had quite a good time playing with trains. Of course, that wasn't the only featured toy by a long shot: there was a Sesame Street play kitchen, markers and crayons to draw and color with, a race track, and a Noah's ark playset. Coffeeson has a thing about toy animals, so he really enjoyed the ark: he'd pull out all the animals, naming them, making their designated sound as he knew it, shoving them back into the boat, closing the door, opening the door, and repeating the entire exercise again.

At some point in between this exercise with the ark, he found a small toy helicopter. Coffeeson seems to have a special fascination with air-based vehicles: he loves toy planes and helicopters, he rushes to a window whenever he hears the real thing flying overhead. He also loves looking at the moon and stars, so very early indications are that he may be a pilot or astronaut. I am sure that this sort of projection will change 78,000 times before he graduates high school, and perhaps still after that.

At any rate, the helicopter eventually landed on the deck of the ark, and I couldn't help but chuckle at the juxtaposition. Obviously these two things did not belong together, unless I missed something in Genesis about the means by which the dove brought back the olive branch. There was no sense in correcting him: he's almost 3 years old, and besides him probably not understanding the explanation, who really cares? He had an idea that a helicopter should come be a part of Noah's ark, maybe to give joyrides to Ham and Shem or to transport the animals over to suitable habitats after the flood waters subsided. Or maybe it just seemed fun. It didn't matter because he was in his own playworld, and he was enjoying himself, and I was enjoying watching him.

There will eventually come a time where Coffeeson will understand that, at least in a contextual sense, there couldn't possibly have been a helicopter on Noah's ark. He'll eventually be told about the limits of time and space, of logic and possibility. He may even run into teachers or other people in his life who outright scoff at such ideas and who love to point out flaws in any creative portrayal to the contrary. These people may tell him in kindergarten that there's only one correct way to draw a flower, or tell him in junior high that if he wants to play an instrument he can only play the notes on the page, or they'll tell him in high school that he needs to go out for football or basketball rather than the school play if he wants to count for something.

When I was on the phone with my friend a few weeks ago, I should have told him about that helicopter landing on that big 300-cubit boat and how it scared the hell out of all those pairs of animals, and how I was loving every minute of it because Coffeeson didn't care, and because he could imagine it happening, and because I hope he can always imagine stuff like that happening. I should have told my friend about how the real thing he should be scared about is not the fact that he may feel the urge to fall asleep at 10:30 on New Year's Eve, but of the day when his kid first discovers that his imagination won't always be appreciated or desired. I should have told him that the joy that I feel when I watch Coffeeson interact with the world around him, whether it's wanting to help with some chore around the house or becoming engrossed in an afternoon of play, it validates all the early bedtimes and the limitations on socializing and the changes in schedules and finances.

I'd much rather tell him about that, because he's probably getting plenty of that negative stuff already. It's the other stories that really end up mattering.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Small Sips GO BLUE WOO

We don't need no thought control. Apparently I can add this to my list of worries about what my kids will experience growing up, resulting in emotional trauma. Well, it sort of already was, just not in this specific form:
A 5-year-old boy learned the hard way that Columbus, Ohio, isn't the only place that hates Michigan -- apparently Oklahoma does too.  
Young Cooper Barton wore his favorite Michigan shirt to Wilson Elementary in Oklahoma City and was told it violated the Oklahoma City Public Schools dress code and was asked to turn the shirt inside out. According to the dress code, students are only allowed to wear Oklahoma, Oklahoma State or apparel from another Oklahoma state school. Everything else is a violation (especially Texas).  
"They should really worry about academics. It wasn't offensive. He's 5," Cooper's mother Shannon Barton told News9.com.
Remind me never to live in Oklahoma, for this and many other reasons.

I remember last fall right before The Game, Coffeeson's school encouraged kids to wear shirts supporting their favorite team on one side or the other. Well, of course, he has a Michigan shirt, so I put it on him figuring two things: 1) He'd be outnumbered by fans of the other school, and 2) Surely there'd be at least one other kid wearing maize and blue. I of course was right about the first, and as to the second I was very wrong. And thus I spent most of the day worrying about what would be heaped upon him by his classmates.

What I didn't take into account was that he and his classmates were 3 and 4 years old, and thus didn't really care. It probably won't be until sometime in elementary school when kids consciously realize the meaning and obligation behind wearing clothing supporting one school or the other. So, you see, I have a few more years before I have to worry for real.

All this is to say, I guess, that school administrators shouldn't be piling on as well.

Oh but wait, here's the reasoning behind making little Cooper turn his shirt inside out:
According to the television station, the Oklahoma City Public Schools dress code was created in 2005 as part of a way to rid schools of gangs and gang apparel.
Um...

Sports teams count as gangs now? So you only support gangs that like Oklahoma teams? A bit overboard, no?

A happy ending! There is a good postscript for this story:
The Michigan football program will have a rather special guest on Sept. 15.  
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon told AnnArbor.com on Thursday that the program will host five-year-old Cooper Barton and his family when the Wolverines take on Massachusetts at home this season.  
Barton, an elementary school student at Wilson Elementary School in Oklahoma City, was recently forced to turn his Michigan football T-shirt inside out due to a violation of the institution's dress code. 
On Wednesday, Brandon announced that he planned to invite Barton and his family to a game this season, and also had plans on presenting him with an inside out Wolverines T-shirt.  
In addition, Brandon says he'd like to publicly recognize Barton and his family during the UMass home game.
Good on Dave Brandon for this gesture. Too bad it'll be UMass, but hey, he gets to go to a Michigan game. Actually, I take back the "too bad it'll be UMass" statement. We make sure to take EVERY opponent seriously nowadays, I'm sure.

Video. College football starts this weekend, so I'm a little giddy. Here's the end of last season's Under the Lights game:



I've watched replays of that game...um, let's say a couple times over the past year (read: pretty much any time I knew they were showing it on TV, plus clips on Youtube), along with replays of the 2011 Game and the 2012 Sugar Bowl, much to the eyerollingness of Coffeewife. Hey, last season was awesome, especially given what 2008-10 was like.

I'm bracing for 2012 to be a bit of a step downward, what with facing Alabama right away, then Notre Dame, Nebraska, and the Akron State Urban Meyers on the road, plus losing a few keys from last year's team. And for the love of Pete, can we please beat Sparty this year? At any rate, for the next 3-4 months my Saturdays are spoken for.

Okay, fine, I'll talk about something else. Rachel Held Evans reflects on realistically following Jesus:
I’ve recently discovered that my Christian faith tends to fall into a sad and predictable cycle, complete with five phases:  
Phase 1: My commitment to Jesus is primarily an intellectual one. He is an idea I believe in, not a person I follow.  
Phase 2: I read through the Gospels again and realize that Jesus doesn’t want me to simply like him; he wants me to follow him.  
Phase 3: I buy the latest Shane Claiborne book, read it in two days, and resolve that following Jesus means selling all my things, sleeping with the homeless, and starting a monastic community. I begin looking into the cost of apartments in inner-city Nashville.  
Phase 4: I remember that I have a job, a mortgage, and a spouse (who hasn’t read Shane Claiborne).

Phase 5: Heavy with guilt and overwhelmed by the insurmountable nature of my own convictions, I give up and revert right back to Phase 1.  
Following Jesus, it seems, just isn’t realistic. This cycle has been repeating itself for about three years now, but I think I may have figured out how to stop it…or at least make the ride a little less bumpy.
Hey. That sounds familiar to me. Probably because I go through this kind of a cycle as well.

The rest of the post reflects on what ordinary Christians with ordinary lives and responsibilities can do to be more faithful disciples, including a lot of small changes and substitutions that can add up to something much bigger.

This sounds familiar, too. Brant reflects on what fatherhood actually is, and how others present it to new parents:
Your wife is expecting. "This is going to be pretty exciting," you say. 
They say, "You just wait." 
"You just wait, because you won't be getting any sleep anymore, once that baby's born. It's all over. It gets harder. It gets worse."
Read the whole thing. He has one of these for every stage of a child's life, and then the last few lines come and you have to pretend you're wiping away dust from your eyes if you're reading it in the middle of a busy coffeehouse. Uh, that may happen, for instance.

Misc. Jan on The Nuance-Savvy Pastor. Tony Jones compiled the results from his progressive blogger challenge on a Storify page...or at least some of them. Mine's not on there. What's up, Jones? Fake historian David Barton had one of his books pulled off the shelves because the publisher "lost confidence in the book's details." Score one for sanity.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Pop Culture Roundup

We watched the movie Beastly this week, starring Alex Pettyfer as Kyle, a shallow, rich high school kid who gets on the bad side of classmate/witch Kendra (Mary Kate Olsen), who casts a spell to make him as ugly on the outside as he is on the inside, with the exit clause that if he can get someone to tell him "I love you" within a year, he'll be turned back. Due to his appearance, his TV personality father sets him up with an apartment elsewhere on Manhattan where he'll have a private tutor (Neil Patrick Harris). Vanessa Hudgens plays Lindy, a cute book-smart hopeless romantic who's always had a crush on Kyle despite himself, and who eventually ends up having to live in Kyle's apartment due to being threatened by a street thug. If you haven't figured it out yet, this is Beauty and the Beast set in a rich New York City private school, except with a rushed plot, underdeveloped characters, and mostly bad acting. As you might expect, Harris is a bright spot even though he doesn't have a whole lot to work with.

The season finale of True Blood is this Sunday. I'm still having trouble figuring out how they're going to wrap up some of these plotlines over the span of an hour. The Lilith devotees--oh, Lilith was the first vampire and there's a group of fundamentalist vampire followers seeking to abolish coexistence with humans--are self-imploding, with Bill not yet getting that he's worshipping a hallucination. Since he seems to be in it so deep, I'm actually wondering whether he'll make it to the end of the next episode. But we'll probably see the end of Salome--the girl who danced for and manipulated Herod into killing John the Baptist, who as it turns out is also a vampire and the head of the fundamentalist group--instead. I'm still hoping that Christopher Meloni's character somehow comes back, but alas, his was a glorified cameo.

At any rate, I can at least look forward to the new season of Boardwalk Empire, now that I think I'm finally over what happened last season. Here's the trailer:



I heard a song by Imagine Dragons the other day called "On Top of the World," which I really enjoyed:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Helping Others Seek

The cartoon on the right is by nakedpastor, who shared it a few weeks ago. There was something about it that resonated with me as a pastor, particularly in this time as my understanding of the role seems to be shifting a little.

For several years now, I've been wanting to be the pastor who Makes Stuff Happen. Whether on a programmatic level or on a pastoral care level, I can look back and see just how results-oriented I've been at points.

What this cartoon really stimulated for me was reflection on the pastoral care level. I can point to instances where I've wanted some visual change to take place in the person for whom I'm providing care. I've hoped for some "Aha!" moment to happen for them, perhaps even as I sit talking to them.

I should have known better from the beginning.

I should have known better that human nature doesn't work that way, and that ministry doesn't work that way, and that God doesn't work that way.

I should have known better that my vocation as a caregiver is about planting seeds, not forcing them to grow. I should have known better that, like Moses, my job is not to get people to the Promised Land, but only to point out the daily manna that God is providing for people.

But now I do know better. Or at least I've been reminded again. So that must count for something, right?

I think that I have some things to repent for. At times I've tried to force people to find when I should have just helped them seek. This cartoon was a good reminder for me.

I look forward to beginning my spiritual direction program this weekend. Surely it will help remind me of that as well.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Post About God

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, everything was formless; a swirling, chaotic void. But God interacted with the void, shaping and ordering it. God commanded the light and the darkness, the waters and the sky and the land, the birds and the fish and the animals, and eventually humanity. God took that swirling primordial soup and fashioned something from it. And God called all of it good.

Was God finished? Did God never create anything after calling it all "good?" No. God kept creating, shaping, and ordering. Stars and planets and entire galaxies formed, and some eventually burned out or began again after ice ages or collisions. God created a dynamic universe, full of novelty and change, our own galaxy expanding and contracting, our own earth experiencing shifting plates and the circle of life that is basic to all of existence: life, death, rebirth. Change.

Humanity, it turned out, is a dynamic species. We learn, we've developed, we've advanced in technology and knowledge. Some may argue that we haven't advanced in wisdom, others--maybe the same ones--will argue that we've certainly advanced in sin. As we've discovered how we may ever better make use of this world's resources, we've also discovered how much more efficiently we may oppress each other. And as we've come to value our advancements for good or for ill, we each in our own way have elevated some of them to god status: money, power, violence, technology, and on it goes.

In one case when this was so, God was on a mountain with Moses. Moses, it turns out, had been on this mountain for quite some time. He'd been on that mountain with God for so long, in fact, that the Israelites began to worry, or forget, or become bored. They decided that they wanted a new god, one that they could see and that would bring them joy. So with the help of the priest Aaron, they fashioned a calf out of gold, saw that it was good, and began to worship and revel.

God saw the calf and decided then and there to wipe out these people, this fledgling nation, for their disobedience. God decided to start over with a different people; God would find a new nation through whom the world would be blessed.

When Moses heard it, he stood up to God. He said, "You made promises. You made a covenant. They're not keeping their end at the moment, but you must not forget your end. You brought these people out of Egypt, and it can't be for nothing."

God looked again at these people dancing, singing, drinking. God looked at this aspect of God's dynamic creation and still saw that it was good even though they'd taken their own path. This was always a possibility: this turning away, this disobedience, this waywardness, this elevation of the wrong thing.

And God changed God's mind.

In the Hebrew: "repented."

Turned around.

Reoriented.

Refocused.

God changed what God was going to do.

The people didn't get off scott-free that day. They still had to answer for what they'd done. But it was due to God changing in order for that to happen. Rather than being wiped out, God changing made it possible for them to change and for their formation to continue.

Some want to believe that God only seemed to change God's mind that day. Or that maybe God was just testing Moses' leadership or had set up the people to teach them a lesson. But none of that is in the story. The only detail that is actually in the story is that God changed. Those that have certain theological interests to protect try to argue otherwise, read back into what's written, quote confessions at length as if sheer density of words will make up for what they want to be there but isn't.

But all that is there is that God changed.

In this shifting, dynamic, expanding and contracting world, there are new ways for God to remember God's promises. There come new ways for God to apply these promises in the midst of three-dimensional situations filled with joy, suffering, healing, wonder, anger, injustice. There is no one way to address the swirling mix present in each moment. There come new ways for God to interact and keep covenant with this creation which God still calls good.

The concern is that if God changes, then there is nothing constant about God. If God is not outside of our world, not the great Immovable Mover, then it's not really God. And in a world that is always shifting, always changing, seemingly every bit as chaotic as it was before creation began, we cry out for something constant, sure, and steadfast.

Is there anything constant about God? How can it be otherwise?

There are things constant about God. Two chapters after the golden calf incident, it is proclaimed that God is a God of steadfast love. Constant, unchanging, steadfast love.

God's love for creation is constant. God's concern for redeeming what seems lost and restoring what seems broken is constant. Every situation calls for this love and concern, but not every situation calls for it in the same manifestation. At times the Israelites needed love in the form of manna to eat, at other times they needed love in the form of being forced to face their idolatry. Love does not look the same in both of these instances. God needed to change in order for love to be made known.

I know people struggling with mental illness, others with addiction, still others with regret. God relates to each in a particular way to bring healing, restoration, salvation. But there is no one static path through these problems. Imagine reading the Four Spiritual Laws to someone in rehab struggling through alcohol withdrawal. Imagine trying to guide a schizophrenic through AA's 12 Steps. Imagine constantly hammering away at the one feeling regret constantly reminding them of what they're trying to resolve, or tiptoeing around the one who refuses to do so out of concern for their comfort. Would any of these be appropriate or truly loving?

Even proposed treatments and programs need to be adapted to the individual's story in order for the journey back toward wholeness to be taken. Some may argue that it takes the same kind of faith, the same kind of belief, to save. But whatever our suffering, whatever our struggles, whatever our golden calves, God relates to each of us in perfect, unchanging love in order to give us what we need most.

God changes some things in order not to change others. God may relate to people in different ways, but showing the same, steadfast love in all.

And so it continues in God's dynamic creation, which God still calls good.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Pop Culture Roundup

The other week I read If The Church Were Christian by Philip Gulley. Gulley lays out a vision of church that is focused on helping the poor, inviting diversity, and following Jesus rather than only believing things about Jesus. I found it to be much in the vein of Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity or pretty much anything by Brian McLaren. For me, it was a lot of familiar terrain and thus not very challenging; another "What if we lived Jesus' values rather than what we've concocted as a church institution" sort of book. It's an important message and one that I value. This just isn't the first time I've heard it. All the same, this is a very accessible book to use in a church study of some kind in order to help others work through some of these themes. I might consider using it for that, although Borg and McLaren would also be good.

True Blood continues to roll along. By this point in the season, the vampire Authority has been taken over by purist zealots seeking to make vampires superior to humans rather than coexist with them. Bill has been swept up in what they're doing, although he seems to have little moments of doubt along the way. At first I thought he was faking in order to spring a trap on the others, but it is clear that he's more conflicted than that. So now the TruBlood factories have all been destroyed in an effort to get vampires to feed on humans. I'll be interested to see how they resolve this, especially with only three episodes left for the season.

A lot of my pastor friends on Facebook have been enjoying a Tumblr page called Ev'ry Day I'm Pastorin', which features .gif images used to illustrate what various ministry-related tasks are like from a pastor's perspective. I find it hilarious and often true.

Mumford and Sons released the first single off their upcoming album, entitled "I Will Wait:"



I've also been enjoying listening to Kelly Hogan this week. Hogan has collaborated with many artists over the years including Neko Case, Mavis Staples, and The Drive By Truckers. Many of the artists with whom she's worked over the years wrote songs for her to sing, and her latest album "I Like to Keep Myself in Pain" is the result. Here's "We Can't Have Nice Things:"

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

A Challenge!

So, remember all that stuff I wrote about Tony Jones on Monday on my latest Small Sips entry? Some may argue that I was a bit excessive focusing on not one, but two of his recent posts criticizing liberal Christianity/mainline denominations. But I thought they were both worth commenting on, and I was in the sort of mood where that stuff was causing strong reactions.

Well, yesterday Jones added a new wrinkle to his ongoing commentary regarding these subjects as he laid down a challenge for liberal/progressive theo-bloggers:
These have prompted me to think that progressives have a God-talk problem. That is, progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.  
You might say the same thing about conservative Protestants (i.e., “evangelicals”). But the thing is, their people pretty much know what they think of God. It’s well-known and on the record.  
Progressive/liberal/mainline theology, on the other hand, has a PR problem. We might think that people know what we think about God, but they don’t. It’s clear in the comments on this blog and elsewhere. 
It really struck me yesterday, when listening to a recent edition of the TNT podcast, in which Tripp repeatedly and forcefully said things about who God is and how God acts. He didn’t relativize those statements with qualifiers, and he didn’t cowtow to political correctness or academic jargon. That was jarring to me because it so rarely happens.  
Thus, I have a challenge:  
I challenge all progressive theo-bloggers to write one post about God between now and August 15.
I get what he's doing, and I like it. So I'm going to participate. The thing is, though, that I want to take a little bit of time to think over what specifically about God I want to write about...that, and the next few days are crazy busy.

But my goal is to have something for you, dear reader, on Monday. So look for it then and no sooner.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Small Sips (Too Often) Sucks

Oh. This again. Tony Jones has chimed in again about the state of liberal Christianity. He uses the recent Douthat/Bass back-and-forth as his jumping-off point, and ends up being as blunt as he's probably ever been regarding his views on liberal/progressive faith. Interestingly enough, this time he even hints at self-identifying as a progressive Christian, which is refreshing. At any rate, he makes three points about what he thinks is wrong with liberal Christianity, by which of course he really seems to mean mainline denominations:
1) Contrary to the Tea Party narrative, the US is the most “Christian” that it’s ever been: persons of Africa descent can sit at lunch counters with everyone else; women can vote; evangelists can stand on street corners and ply passersby with tracts. Liberal Protestantism is largely responsible for the freedoms we enjoy today, and we should trumpet that truth loudly. “If you love America” we should preach, “You should love the Congregationalists and Presbyterians and Anglicans and Unitarians and Quakers who built America.
So...how does this show that we suck? We have a publicity problem? We're not taking enough credit or trumpeting our accomplishments enough? Have you been to a UCC wider church meeting lately? We fall over ourselves repeating our "firsts" over and over! Still, this is a strange thing to present as being one of our fundamental sources of suckitude.

What else you got?
2) Douthat basically equates “culturally and politically conservative” Christianity with “orthodox and theologically rigorous” Christianity. That’s the form of Christianity that’s growing, he states. The implication is that liberal Christianity isn’t producing vigorous theology. Progressives would argue vociferously, saying that they’ve got more theologians in more seminaries and universities than you can shake a stick at. Maybe they do, but no one gives a shit about the theology that’s coming out of progressive Protestantism
By “no one,” I don’t mean me. I actually do care about and read progressive theology.But what progressive theologians have FAILED at is producing populist theology. In Scot’s post, he isn’t able to name a single populist progressive scholar on par with NT Wright.
Again, a problem of publicity, except in a different form. But this one, I kind of agree with. First, I'd submit that Marcus Borg and Rob Bell and, if I really have to acknowledge him, John Shelby Spong are probably progressive Christianity's big populist voices. Bell would probably go on about eschewing labels, but Love Wins is the type of thought-provoking writing that progressives would claim more readily than conservatives, if the hubbub surrounding its release was any indication. Spong is also problematic due to his extreme abrasiveness and his rush to throw out the baby, the bathwater, the bath toys, and while we're at it let's just burn down the house. Borg is probably our best bet...heck, Wright even co-authored a book about Jesus with him. Other possibilities may be Brian McLaren and *gasp* Tony Jones! That's a long way of saying "they really do exist."

Finally:
3) Finally, mainline Christianity is committing suicide, plain and simple. By gathering every summer at their national conventions and killing each other with friendly fire, they are rapidly precipitating their own demise. No one gives a shit about the survival of your denomination. 
By “no one,” I don’t mean the people who go to those meetings and fight and argue and vote. Those people care. But they can’t see the forest for the trees. No one back at home cares. 
No. One.
Okay. You got me on this one. I agree. Not many at the local church level seem to care too much about the wider denomination, to say nothing of those outside denominations. I've been making this same point for years: local church initiatives to connect with and serve their communities need to be the focus of denominations, not getting local churches to pay more attention or give more support to wider church issues.  However, I don't think that denominations necessarily need to be blown up...they just need to be streamlined and refocused on what can be done in local communities as much as possible.

OKAY WE GET IT GIVE US A BREAK. At the risk of seeming obsessive, Jones wrote another post a few days later regarding a recent statement made by prominent liberal Christians against the failure to extend improvements to certain tax credits. He cites a blog by someone else commenting on it,  which in part laments that major news outlets didn't report on this statement. He then adds his own commentary:
Well, Fred, it’s not newsworthy because it’s not interesting. It’s boring. I mean, seriously, just watch the video. 
That doesn’t mean it’s not important. But importance doesn’t translate to newsworthy. Just ask Neil Postman. 
And not that there’s anything wrong with boring. Lots of things that we do every day are boring, and un-newsworthy. But this was meant to be newsworthy, and it wasn’t. 
If a few dozen evangelicals meet on a Texas ranch to decide whether Mitt Romney is a real Christian, you can bet there’ll be news choppers circling overhead. 
Liberals are boring because they’re predictable, and predictable isn’t newsworthy. Also, liberals tend to be more nice, civil, and genteel. Those qualities, also, don’t work well on the nightly news. 
So, fellow progressives, I ask you to be interesting, then you’ll be newsworthy.
Maybe they should've had U2 perform before making their statement.

The reason there'd be helicopters circling over that evangelical gathering is because for 30+ years those evangelicals have had the ear of one of the two major political parties. When they make a decision, it affects how that party campaigns and governs. What they decide about Romney's faith or whatever has implications for our political process. Liberal Christian groups don't have that kind of pull, at least not any more.

Second, what constitutes "interesting?" Sensational, like Michele Bachmann? Outright delusional, like Pat Robertson or Terry Jones? Offensive and hateful, like a certain Kansas "church?" I was watching a debate on gay marriage not too long ago, and do you know who CNN brought on as the evangelical Christian voice? Stephen Baldwin. These are the kinds of "interesting" Christians who get airtime on the news.

I've never really seen many hard and real solutions offered by Jones when he posts stuff like this. It's mostly tearing down or generic unhelpful stuff like "be more interesting." If you as an outside observer want to have a serious conversation about the way my denomination or those like mine are handling their business, then bring more to the table than what you've been bringing.

Kitten.


Kitten.

Do I really have to mention this? You may or may not have heard about the recent "Chik-Fil-A Appreciation Day" held on August 1st. Rachel Held Evans tries to stay as middle-of-the-road about it as possible, addressing people on both sides. She does a pretty good job of naming what each group may be dealing with, and then she wraps it up thus:
In conclusion, we would all do well to remember that the genius of the culture wars is that they convince us we change the world through bumper stickers, boycotts, and ballot boxes. They mobilize us around insignificant "wins" that, in the long run, only make things worse. The truth is, this whole Chick-fil-A storm will probably blow over in a few weeks, and when we come out from our hiding place in the basement, I fear that the only thing that will have changed is the unnecessary divide between the Christian community and the gay community will have grown wider.   
And as much as we might like to, we can’t turn around and head back to the basement. 
As Christians—conservative and progressive, gay and straight, activists and slacktivists—we must direct our efforts instead toward bridging this divide, which is going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of disappointment, a lot of tears, a lot of compromise, a lot of honesty, a lot of mistakes, a lot of apologies, a lot of listening, a lot of forgiveness, a lot of meal sharing, a lot of gospel.  
In other words, it’s going to take a heck of a lot more effort than either eating or avoiding a chicken sandwich. 
On the one hand, it's a good statement on unity and dialogue, as well as calling the back-and-forth about Chik-Fil-A what it is: a distraction from the deeper issues involved.

This isn't about eating or not eating a chicken sandwich. I think that too many on both sides think they did their duty by acting one way or the other on Wednesday. What we really need is healing and understanding, which Evans acknowledges won't come easily or quickly.

On the other hand, how much understanding and healing is possible, and should understanding be the ultimate goal? I'd argue that those boycotting Chik-Fil-A aren't seeking understanding, but instead full inclusion and authentic love. And I'd question what kind of understanding those who flocked to Chik-Fil-A on Wednesday desire. I think boycotters are perfectly clear, for instance, on what the other side's stance is regarding their orientation and desire for equality, and that this stance is largely based on religious grounds. It seems to me that one side needs space to be understood much more than the other.

I guess I'm not as close to the middle of the road as Rachel is.

Glorious. I'm getting pumped about a new Michigan football season. So here are 100 Michigan touchdowns from over the years. Go Blue!



Misc. Brant on calling evil for what it is. I'd argue that there still are factors that can contribute to evil acts that can be treated, prevented, or acknowledged, though. Matthew Paul Turner on how the church failed last Wednesday. Nadia Bolz-Weber's sermon after the Aurora shootings. Greg also on chicken sandwiches, particularly pointing out that the issue isn't first amendment rights.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

A Week in Appalachia

I've been on a lot of mission trips. Ten, to be exact. I've helped on a farm, served in soup kitchens, sorted clothes in thrift stores, cleared urban lots overcome by weeds, cleaned out an abandoned inner-city house, scraped paint in an old convent, helped maintain a campground for troubled youth, assisted in building a church on an American Indian reservation, and helped restore a house in the Lower Ninth Ward. And to be honest, there has come a point before most of these trips, no matter how used to the packing, the general flow and structure of a typical week of service that I am, when I've felt a tremendous sense of anxiety. There have come points along the way when I've wondered how else to spend the week, whether I really should go, fretting about the unknown before me.

But I've always ended up going, and I've always been the better for it.

Last week, I traveled with over 70 people from at least four congregations down to Jonesville, Virginia to work with Appalachia Service Project, a mission organization that helps restore homes in arguably the poorest region of the United States. After I got back, several people asked whether we had gone because there had been some kind of natural disaster there; some tornado or flood or other event that necessitated aid. The answer is that, no, there's been no extra-tragic event, no horrendous happening that causes people to flock there in droves, hammers, saws, and compassion in tow. Houses without insulation or with roofs caving in or with no protection from the elements is tragedy enough, and that's why people go. "Warmer, safer, dryer" is the organization's motto. It's all they want to do.

Typically, once I was on the road toward Virginia the butterflies vanished. Before this trip, it had been five years since my last outing of this kind. Perhaps the anxiety I felt beforehand was about my being out of practice, or simply not being familiar with this particular organization or area of the country, or all of the above. Whatever it was, I began to forget those reasons as soon as we made our way there.

On Monday morning, we met the family for whom we'd be working: an older couple whose house was in need of insulation and drywall in two rooms. One of those rooms would need a new floor before getting to the walls. That at least was our project. There were other things that we or others could have done, but we didn't have the time. Their own bedroom clearly had been fixed up by previous workers, sporting wooden laminate flooring and a soft eggshell color on their walls. By the end of the week, their living room would match, thanks in no small part to our crew leader who'd basically grown up hanging drywall his whole life.

I did a little of everything: drilling in screws, mudding, sanding, painting, putting up trim. As one who doesn't hail from the "carpentry-since-birth" school of manhood, I was just glad to be competent at the tasks I was given. The jobs themselves weren't hard; I just needed to be directed on the wheres and whens. For me, it was enough. This sort of thing is not something I feel a need to be in charge of.

We got to hear pieces of our family's story while there. A recovering alcoholic, the husband still managed to do his best to see that his five kids graduated high school. There were strong undertones of continued and sustained guilt about his disease that permeated through what he shared with us. The wife, sweet and kind, would check in on us every day, a gentle smile adorning her soft face. There was such love and grace that shone through both of them. They admitted faults, but it was also clear they'd been doing the best that they could manage. When poverty has a face, a voice, and a name, its complexity is much harder to dismiss.

The week passed quickly. It was time to leave before I knew it. But the trip had done what I hoped it would do.

There are some who dismiss mission trips like these, referring to them as "service tourism" and the like. What difference does a week really make, they ask. What can one really learn in such a small amount of time? The argument goes that these sorts of trips are mainly just a bunch of comfortable suburbanites doing a few days' work to ease their guilt or to come back with a few stories. I can only speak for myself, but I hope that I'm not just doing that.

I think that mission trips are meant to be the beginning of something. They're meant to open one's eyes to a world beyond the bubble one has created for oneself. The idea is that when you go to serve in such a way, you begin to break out of that bubble and ask yourself what you could be doing closer to home to ease the suffering around you. Sometimes it takes traveling a few hundred miles to get you to ask what you could be doing in your own neighborhood.

For me, it was about remembering something, and ultimately that's what kept quieting my inner voices of anxiety and second-guessing.

When I began serving in full-time ministry, mission was one of the main planks in my platform, even built out of sturdy hickory for extra resilience against the minutiae that inevitably would begin beating against it. No matter what else we as a church would be doing, I told myself, we would need to be serving in mission. Whether changes in worship would be possible, whether a youth group could be sustainable, whether my dreams of other "emerging" activities could be fulfilled, we at least would do mission work, and do it well.

And that has happened, I'm glad to say. I'm not seeking to puff out my chest, but there has been a consistent sense of mission in our congregation over my tenure here. Some of that already existed, but we've made great strides forward in other ways.

But at some point, I must admit, I began losing sight of that. Against my best efforts, the plank began eroding. I have my theories about how it happened, most having to do with becoming distracted by other priorities or disillusioned with certain things, which I'm not sure I want to get into here. The point is that the arc had made its way from its energetic heights to the downward slope toward indifference, and I needed a boost; to remember why mission is so important to me and why it is so crucial to the church's identity.

I left the routine of church work for a week to pound some nails, paint some walls, drink plenty of water to keep from dehydrating, and meet some wonderful people. And I began to remember. I began to remember that the fruit of God's kingdom is grown in the dirt and sweat of mission work. Correct fonts on bulletins and making decisions about new mission statements and a new projector system have their place, but these trips, these days and weeks of service are what have ingrained in me what the church ultimately needs to be concerned about.

I returned with a renewed sense of purpose and joy, snapped out of my stupor and with a fresh plank in place. Time to get back to work.