Wish I could explain it that well...

RealLivePreacher answers someone's question about judgement. Quite a gem.

And an awesome post about the Bible here.

Why do theology?

From Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy:

“Defenders of orthodoxy were seen more like referees than basketball players; nobody cared if they could pass, dribble, or shoot, as long as they could blow a whistle and name an infraction in their black-and-white striped shirts…You want to know the rules, not so you can blow whistles as a referee, but so you can have a lot of glorious good clean fun as a player, throwing passes and making assists and sinking three-pointers and layups without fouling out.”

Font of Every Blessing

I've decided that baptism is one of my favorite things to do in ministry.

Yesterday was the first of two that we'll be celebrating during Advent. I've only officiated two others during my time here. Actually, for this church perhaps that's just about right.

The weeks leading up to it were a little nerve-racking, as I haven't yet perfected the art of properly instilling the importance and meaning of such an event in the family. Pastors like to do lots of instilling. It may be one of our favorite things, after taking a nap on Sunday afternoon. We like to instill in people that events such as baptisms and weddings aren't just cultural relics that churches still perform; they are living breathing events where God is present and active in relationships between couples, families, congregation, and so on. We MUST instill this in people, or they will enjoy the day for all the wrong reasons. And so we try our best at instilling.

I was worried that time was running short for my instillation opportunity. I kept calling and missing them, chewed my fingernails waiting for them to call me back. We finally set up a time for an early evening, and on that particular night a massive snowstorm started to blow through. Would they make it? Could we go through with the baptism without such a meeting? Ah, here they come.

We talked about the service: who would approach with them, any prayers or words they'd like to be included, that sort of thing. I then directed them to the part where the parents and congregation make their promises to help raise and nurture the child a certain way. 'This,' I said, 'is really the heart of the baptism service.' I actually cringe a little at that now. While a case can be made that those promises are the heart of the liturgy, I think I'd missed it just slightly. After all, my tradition views baptism as the point where the child is entrusted to the care of parents, family, and congregation to be raised in the faith, that s/he might one day claim that faith through an imperfect program known as confirmation. One can easily say that the promises are what drives the service.

Of course, the real driving force behind baptism is God's grace being made known through the sign-act of water. Yes, I was surprised at this myself. God is the One actively working in and through us and through the promises we make. It's not us after all.

He'd been sleeping comfortably in his father's arms right up to the point where I asked to take him. He fidgeted a little as I adjusted myself so he'd have proper head and neck support. Right before I reached into the bowl, he opened his eyes and just looked at me. He didn't make a sound. He just wanted to check out this new face for a moment before closing his eyes again. 'Oh...it's you. I remember you from the hospital. You may proceed, Reverend.' And so I did. In my nervousness I baptized him in the name of the 'Water, Son, and Holy Spirit.'

And then we took a walk. We walked down the center aisle, during which time he seemed to start wondering what was going on. I told him about his new church family, how they'd promised to nurture him and tell him the stories of the faith. He looked on in the wide-eyed way babies do. I wish I'd told him to never lose that curiosity, but I was more concerned about not dropping him. There will be other opportunities. To say the curiosity thing, I mean.

Now I have to admit slightly moist eyes on my part during this walk. There is a certain 'Aw, ain't he cute?' vibe that the congregation enjoys in infant baptism, and I was a little caught up in that. But as I told him about his new life in the church, some part of my subconscious was saying a prayer. It was praying that he'd always have proper support for his head and neck now, as well as later on when he needs it in other ways. It was praying that he'd truly get to know these people and discover the love of Jesus through them. It was praying that he wouldn't disappear thirteen years later after being confirmed. It was praying that God's love would capture him and transform him in real and wonderful ways.

Baptism is such an exciting moment for faith communities. It is a moment where we can all discover the presence of God's grace in others' lives. It is a moment of hope for an infant who won't even remember that the event took place. It is a moment where we can discover how important the promises we make really are.

God is slowly instilling that in me.

A Week to Remember, Epilogue

You might have caught a rant of mine last week about the Borders Religion section...a place where pop psychology masked as spirituality and countless theories on what the church needs to be more or less of rules the day. In retrospect, it might have been a little overstated. Among all the Osteen and Meyers and Warren there are deeper thoughts to be found. I was also gearing up for two funerals over a four-day span and a little burnt out on theory. Maybe you noticed.

I then attacked the blogosphere. Maybe attacked isn't the right word. But I used the words 'bored' and 'oversaturated,' so I could have been attacking it. Most of the blogs I read have something to do with wanting the church to be better at what it's supposed to be. Last week, in the midst of a time of grief and pain and shock for two families in particular and our little church in general, I said that I was a little tired of reading about what the church needs to be and somewhat prayerfully shared that the church just needed to be The Church for those families and to one another. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but there's no time to look behind you in the moment, lest you miss the moment altogether or get clotheslined by a low-hanging neural tree branch.

I appreciate the blogosphere for how it has aided my faith journey the past year. Scott names what we do in a particular way:

blogs and podcasts and webmeetings and google talk and chat rooms are a place to ask the big questions, not guard the truth. we are not powerful enough to legislate orthodoxy so don't be afraid. i wouldn't want someone like me making those kinds of decisions anyway.

the gist of this rant is to remind us that many of us are doing pseudo-theology on the web. many of us are looking for outlets to vent our frustrations and ask dangerous questions. we band together to try to figure things out. most of those i read are dedicated to transparency, to honesty. they have no desire to destroy the church. most post-moderns i know are not desirous of disbanding anything, let alone turning people from faith. most of these people do hold to lesser amounts of absolute truth, defendable claims and faith credos. simply stated, they want to be real. they want to follow god like the rest of us.

This is pretty much what many of the blogs listed on the sidebar do: ask tough questions and discuss one another's ideas. One aspect of last week's rant was to ask how we might live those questions while sitting with a mother speechless at her daughter's sudden death. Or maybe that's just one of the tough questions.

Blogs only do so much. But maybe bloggers know that already. Or maybe we ought to better know the limits of this medium, while loving it just the same. Or maybe I'm just rambling.

Maybe It's the Tryptophan...

Once upon a time, a young pastor started the silly little blog that you are now reading. It was, as he has said, to serve as a focus for some of his writing endeavors. You see, he can't help but write. And he's always wanted to write well. The internet has served as an outlet for this need in various ways, which he has also explained before.

One day as he offered one version of this explanation, a fellow blogger left a comment that read as follows:

Let me suggest that next place to move to: I went from Forums to Blogs to.....books. So should you. You write with great accessibility, sensitivity, and clarity. The world is full of publishers.

The pastor chewed on that comment for a day or so, wondering if such a thing was possible; wondering if he was truly capable of such a task. To publish? Nay, that is for more serious writers than myself, he thought. How could I...publish?

From afar, another blogger announced the publishing of essays from his blog. From afar elsewhere, a group of pastors and their friends announced the publishing of an Advent devotional. From very near, a voluptuous goddess of a woman who had joined him in marriage just 3 1/2 years hence gently suggested such a project as a way to focus his creativity. These announcements and words of encouragement sparked something within the young pastor that he had attempted to snuff out previously. Could it be possible? Would he truly be capable? Would he bury himself in second guesses and endless editing in the name of absolute perfection? Or would he allow the inspiration provided by online colleagues and the suggestion of his hot wife to lead the way toward an unthinkable and ever risky project: the compiling and publishing of an honest-to-God BOOK?

What if the unthinkable was not so unthinkable after all?

To be continued...

For Your Advent Devotional Needs...

Songbird at Set Free is part of a webring known as the RevGalBlogPals. A few weeks ago I found out about an exciting thing that she's a part of.

The ring has published a book together called A Light Blazes in the Darkness: Advent Devotionals from an Intentional Online Community. As if that isn't enough, the foreword is by RealLivePreacher. All proceeds from the book go toward Katrina relief, which makes it even cooler.

Check it out.

Pop Culture Roundup

Another early edition for Thanksgiving...

I've returned to Devil in the White City, which I'm actually starting to enjoy. It took me a while to really get into it, but now that I 'get' the writing style and the overall flow of the text, it's a much more interesting read. It's a slow build, though.

Of course we went to see Harry Potter 4, and this will be the last time I mention it for a while. This was my favorite book, though I found Half-Blood Prince to be excellent as well. Anyway, the movie is as good as it can be given how much they had to pick and choose what would make it to the screen. There are a lot more special effects and while the actors have certainly matured in their craft, the character depth that makes the books so interesting is not as apparent as it could have been. The movie centers around the action of the Tri-Wizard tournament and sometimes the cast's personality complexities get lost in the shuffle of CGI. Ralph Fiennes is an excellent Voldemort. And I hadn't noticed until seeing the movie that Fleur Decoleur was a bad representative for her school. She put up a horrible showing the whole tournament.

I enjoy The Decemberists' Castaways and Cutouts.

Internet Monk is the newest addition to the blog list.

Blue Christmas...Before Thanksgiving

I woke up this morning to find the light dusting in the field that I had wanted so badly a month ago. It's perfect for today, two funerals and two grieving families in ten days. We'll celebrate two baptisms in Advent, so hope looms on the horizon as it creates an irenic scene in my backyard that Thomas Kincaide couldn't match on his best day.

I've never felt the holiday crunch the way I do this year. We'd ventured to the mall the other week and I couldn't bring myself to take more than three steps into a women's clothing shop my wife was sure would contain a gift for a relative. I stood by the entrance sipping my caramel coffee, noting a few ladies' vibes of discomfort with my standing near a rack they'd meant to explore. No problem. I'll move sideways (not forward) to another rack. There you go. Make someone's spirits bright.

Have you seen that JC Penney commercial where the disembodied voice promises that your family's Christmas will be 'made magical' after you buy them stuff? Seriously. That's what they say. Is it possible to have Seasonal Affective Tourette's? Does that happen? I'll ask my psychology major wife later.

We of course live among smaller towns in our piece of Ohio, and a lot of them host nights where you can wander downtown while they pass out hot chocolate, leave their little shops open late, you can hear caroling and even join in. It can get really cold, but you can also run into old friends from high school, close your eyes as Little Julie sings the second verse of O Holy Night on her own (and boy do you hope she'll major in voice when she graduates in 2012), you're far away from constipated parking lots and manufactured cheer.

We're hosting a Blue Christmas service this year. It's the first time many have heard of such a concept. It's the first time I've led one. I can appreciate its need now. I grow increasingly tired of 'merchandise makes magic' advertising and yearn for more homegrown 'hey neighbor how are ya?' spirit that Jesus truly advocated. If you're unfamiliar with Blue Christmas, here's the abbreviated vernacular: the holidays suck for a lot of people because they're lonely, depressed, mourning a loved one, or stressed out. Blue Christmas is to provide reassurance and comfort. I ask myself how someone who feels more befuddled than ever by the world's version of Christmas could be in a position to lead this service, and then some voice to which I don't pay attention often enough says, 'Well, it's for you, too. They're not messed up. You all are.'

So I look back out to my field and look at the pure untouched layer of snow covering it. If only it could always be like that. If only Christmas could be as pure. If only I could be.

I can't wait to hear Little Julie sing. She's the only one keeping me sane.

God works through everyone.

Monday Morning Playlist

Five songs I've been enjoying over the weekend, in no order:

1. Vince Guaraldi Trio - Christmastime is Here (Instrumental)

2. The Decemberists - Eli the Barrowboy

3. Celldweller - Frozen

4. Sneaker Pimps - Walking Zero

5. Circle of Dust - Waste of Time

Seacrest Out.

A Week to Remember

A church member had been preparing for knee replacement surgery this past Sunday. She walked through the greeting line after worship, asking for thoughts and prayers. I answered that I and others would do so. Monday morning, she suffered a heart attack and died. She hadn't even made it to the surgery.

The week would be spent in conversation with her family about arrangements. I'd take a break from the proceedings by seeing Harry Potter, which I'd enjoyed, with a few friends. Nearby was a Babies 'R Us. The girls went there. The guys went to Borders.

I had no agenda, no special book I was seeking. I rarely do, but can end up with a handful anyway. Twisting and turning through cookbooks and cat care, I found the Religion section.

Here's the thing about the Religion section in stores like Borders. One doesn't (or shouldn't) puruse this section expecting to find the same amount of depth one might find in a seminary bookstore or library. Go to Borders if you want to read everyone's take on the Church of the New Hotness. The current crop of big players are all there and are of all stripes: Osteen, Borg, Spong, Meyers, Dobson, a handful of Emergent types, people sharing their megachurch success stories, people lamenting the megachurch phenomenon, all calling for the church to be more passionate or more intellectual. They call for the church to 'go back to the Bible' (and THEN what?) or to 'take the Bible more seriously' (a different statement altogether). Or, maybe the problem is individual in nature. Improve yourself! Go back to the Bible! Take the Bible more seriously! Don't be gay! Be accepting of gays! Just be positive! Quit being prideful! A decent chunk of these Christian celebrities put their pictures on the front to help recognize where their section is.

I waded through everyone's $.02 (that they charge $12.00 for) and realized something: I'm bored with all of it. I discovered a few gems that I thought deserved a second look, but how many more 150-page 'How to Make the Church More [Something I Think It Needs to Be More] can one possibly read before getting oversaturated?

I'm currently oversaturated. Maybe it's the daily blog reading where authors and commenters hash this out a thousand ways that helped get me to this point. If you look at my bookshelf devoted to what the church needs to do more or less of, it's really not an extensive collection. There are blogs dedicated to what individual denominations need to do better. There are blogs in favor of and against the Emergent movement. There are blogs from former supermembers wishing they'd done something better with their time, and if only the church had done this and this and this I wouldn't have left. I read this stuff on a daily basis now. Why would I want to spend money to read more?

I came home a little disheartened by my revelation to find a voicemail waiting for me. Another member had died that morning.

I held the phone receiver to my temple and closed my eyes, slumped back in my chair. Here was another family that needs the church to be its best. No book or blog is going to properly dictate what that was. There wasn't time to consult what the appropriate response should be, the proper theological Ps and Qs, the lists of church institutional sins to avoid.

Whatever the church needed to be for them, it just needed to be it immediately.

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes had a good point when he wrote, 'Of much study there is much weariness.'

I looked up the number and dialed...

John Cooper, Where Art Thou?

A well-played game on both sides.

But still...dammit.

Pop Culture Roundup

The Roundup comes a day early this week, as tomorrow morning I see Harry Potter, tomorrow afternoon I stop by calling hours for a funeral at which I'm presiding Saturday, and I'm going to try to stay off the computer otherwise. So here we go...

Devil in the White City has fallen by the wayside, as I sort of expected it would. I just can't stick with history books for too long. I end up losing interest. Maybe I just need to intersperse it with other reading. I cruised through Borders while Christmas shopping and picked up Al Franken's latest, The Truth (With Jokes). I couldn't help myself as I had enjoyed his last book so much. He's a little more serious in this one, although it works for him. How is it that I can breeze through a political book, but not history? Interest in the subject, I guess.

As mentioned many times the past 24 hours, I'm seeing Harry Potter tomorrow morning. It's not the only movie I've seen this week, though. We sat down to watch Spanglish, which is a decent dramatic effort by Adam Sandler (although his trademark mannerisms are still there). Tea Leoni plays a neurotic wife and mother WAY too well. While these two actors headline the movie, the heart of the movie is Paz Vega's Spanish housekeeper and her daughter, played by Shelbie Bruce. The movie touches on themes of parent/child bonds, cross-cultural differences, and success. It's about equal parts drama and comedy. A good film, I thought.

TV-wise, there is some bad news and some hopefully good news. Bad news: I recently read that the order for episodes of Arrested Development got cut from 26 to 13. That's a sign that it might be cancelled. It's a much better written show than most comedies on TV right now. But when Fox focuses most of its marketing energy on Stacked, The War at Home, and all its dramas rather than a show that has won multiple awards, that sort of thing could happen. The hopefully good news? Michigan-Ohio State is Saturday. Michigan wins, I look forward to a peaceful year. Michigan loses...I have to face a bunch of gloating Buckeye fans on Sunday morning (if they wait that long).

Still listening to Klank.

Around the web, Wesley Blog hosts a discussion on 'inclusive' language* for God. It's a blast.

*I put it in quotes for a reason. Tune in soon for some elaboration.

Harry Potter and Christianity

Apparently, the debate has flared up again about whether Christians should read the Harry Potter books. This comes up in varying intensity every time one of the books or movies comes out, so this is to be expected.

The basic argument is thus: the kids engage in magic, so somehow the franchise promotes the use of magic which is prohibited in the Bible. Some replace the word 'magic' with 'paganism' or 'wicca' or something more sinister-sounding to rouse more emotional reactions. It glorifies such things, some say, and for that reason we as responsible Godly people should refrain from reading/watching them. An excerpt from the article:

Wohlberg denies he is a zealot bent on trampling other Americans' freedoms of religion and speech, and admits Rowling's talent.

"I can be marginalised really quickly as somebody that is an extremist, as someone that is rabid," he said.

"I am not a witch basher, I don't believe in stoning witches, I believe in religious freedom -- I also recognize that JK Rowling is a very good author.

"Ms Rowling has a right to write those books, .... there are people like me that have a right to warn society about them."

Wohlberg sees a link between Potter's popularity and what he says is the rise in the pagan wiccan religion in the United States.

"When parents and educators think there is no connection whatsover from the fictitious world of Harry Potter to the real world of wicca witchcraft ... I just think they are naive."

In other words, to rephrase Wohler's last statement, there IS a connection between the fictitious world of Harry Potter and the real world of wicca witchcraft. Potter promotes such things. This is the argument. Here's a part of the counterargument that is presented:

Rowling has said parents must decide whether a book is for their child, but condemned banning her works from libraries.

"If we ban every children's book that makes a mention of magic -- or witches and wizards ... what are we going to be doing -- removing three quarters of the children's classics from the book shelves," she said on WAMU radio here in 1999.

Let me give you two book series that would be included if the fantasy magic-using genre were banned from libraries: C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. These two series also contain heavy references to magic and sorcery (both good and evil). However, they are also cited as being heavy on Christian religious imagery. Lewis and Tolkein were/are both noted Christians who wove their faith into stories of...wait for it...MAGIC. And yet one never seems to hear much uproar from Christians about these books. Is it because they were pre-empted for being authored by Christians and thus we know they couldn't possibly have had intentions to turn our youth to dark lives of Satan worship, or because there is simply a double standard at play?

All three of these series are stories chronicling the classic fight between good and evil. I find them all to be well-written and enjoyable (though Tolkein might be a little more dense). Furthermore, they all happen to use magic. This is nothing that a few 'you DO know that this fantasy, right?' types of conversations with your kids wouldn't fix. I grew up watching He-Man, Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and, yes, professional wrestling, and that's exactly the talk I got, and I'm relatively unscathed. I'll admit a few bumps and bruises from emulating Ric Flair's figure 4 leglock, but we've taken care of that. Nobody's perfect.

Potter 4 comes out this weekend. Perhaps somewhat coincidentally, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe comes out in a few more weeks. I'm seeing the former on Friday morning and hope to see the latter soon after it opens.

And Here He Is...

Chris T., formerly of Progressive Protestant, now resides at his new home.

Even the Devils Believe

Provocative title, to say the least.

Loving These 'Just Writing About Stuff' Posts

I love fall...but we've moved past nice fall and now we're into brown not-quite-winter fall, which is not as fun. It's a rainy morning. I'm a fan of rainy mornings. I'm generally a fan of precipitation in its non-threatening forms, which is a reason I want to visit Seattle. My wife doesn't think I really have any other good reasons (my best one is 'I've never been there') and she thinks that the rain is a reason NOT to visit. We've been together almost seven years and married almost 3 1/2 and we haven't taken a honeymoon yet. Seattle is not on that list.

At the same time I don't want to go to one of the cliched places: Hawaii, Bahamas, Florida Keys, any place mentioned in a Beach Boys song...wow look, another sunny beach. Hey, we can hang out with some of the other 5,000,000 honeymooning couples at our campy 'we have to appease the tourists' pig roast.

You know where I want to go? Stratford, Ontario, Canada. They have a Shakespeare festival that we've attended before, and it's a beautiful town besides. We could spend the week there, see some plays, wander through the little shops. My parents took an Alaskan cruise for their 25th anniversary, which I thought sounded equally as fun. Or Maine. We could hang out in a nice little New England port town, have some lobster, see more little shops. Sigh....

I'm a fan of professional wrestling. I've been watching for over 15 years. Call it a guilty pleasure (To recap: Pastor Jeff likes The Sopranos, The Sneaker Pimps, Professional Wrestling, Family Guy...). Perhaps you've heard about the recent death of Eddie Guerrero. Every once in a while, a wrestler's death is high-profile enough that mainstream media picks it up for a few minutes, sometimes during the sports segment, sometimes right before the waterskiing squirrel. There's always speculation about steroids, and there is pretty solid precedent for that. From what I know, Eddie had cleaned up. But certain effects linger, and that could have contributed.

Anyway, people have held vigils for musicians like Elvis, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain. People mourned River Phoenix, James Dean, Marilyn. They grieved JFK Jr. and Princess Di. People rallied when Pope John Paul II fell ill. Why? Because, even though people never met them personally, they connected with what they sang, how they acted, what they said, how they lived. It should not be that surprising, therefore, that wrestling fans are truly grieving Eddie Guerrero. Some poo-poo it because it's wrestling. Why grieve Reggie White? It's just football. Why grieve Lennon? He just wrote some songs.

If you mourned any of these people, you know why. People who mourn Eddie know why, too.

Begin Again

A year ago this week, I had my trial sermon at the little church I serve. They have a tradition that they've been observing the past few years in conjunction with one of their mission projects. They pack shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child,* and the second Sunday in November is when they dedicate them. As part of my trial date (interesting phrase), I was asked to lead this part of the service as well. I had the children gather around the shoeboxes and stretch their hands over them and led them in prayer. Two weeks later, I officially began my time as pastor of the church.

It's the second Sunday of November, so that means we once again piled the shoeboxes in the chancel, and we once again prayed over them. This was my first 'once again.' As time goes on we'll celebrate Advent once again, and then Christmas, and Lent, and Easter. No more firsts. Now it's once again. Once again. Once again. At least in terms of the church year. There are plenty of firsts to come.

I sometimes wonder how pastors are able to come up with a fresh message to share during the big Jesus holidays, or perhaps it's better to say how they're able to come up with a fresh way to share the same message, a fresh way to recognize Jesus' birth, life, death, resurrection. Is there ever the temptation to just 'tweak' last year's Christmas Eve reflection? When Year A in the lectionary rolls around again, how great is the temptation to revisit that year's Easter sermon and recycle the story you used? And if the fit hits the shan the week before--Gertrude dies, Cecil is diagnosed with cancer, something happens in the family--how much more tempting is it?

I get to find out soon. After next Sunday, which is my last first of the church year, it's back to the beginning of the circle. Things will certainly be different, but I anticipate moments when it'll feel the same. There's something there about experiencing things anew rather than experiencing new things, and that'll be a great sermon once I draw it out a little. What the heck, I'll give it its own line to emphasize it because I think it's pretty good:

There's a difference between experiencing things anew and experiencing new things.

Maybe we don't need to do the latter all the time. Something to keep in mind.

*Let's not get too hung up on the theology of Franklin Graham's organization. I say this with my new webring membership in mind. Those shoeboxes serve a wonderful end, whether one completely agrees with Graham's theology or public statements. Luther started the Reformation, but he also persecuted Jews. Nobody gets it 100% right.

An Online Colleague Re-emerges...

Actually, he hasn't ever really left, but heck if I knew that.

His (temporary?) livejournal is

His old blog is

His new digs will be

Which to put in the sidebar...?

Pop Culture Roundup

I've started Devil in the White City, which is different from what I expected. I thought it was going to be a piece of historical fiction, but instead it details the seedy underbelly of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. It doesn't need to be fictionalized. There's plenty of non-fiction to make it interesting.

Lately I've been rediscovering a Christian hardcore act called Klank. As far as I know, they only ever released two albums (technically three, but the one was a bunch of remixes). They're a healthy mix of Nine Inch Nails and Korn: a little industrial, a little electronic, a little metal, and then some undertones of faith (do NIN and Korn have undertones of faith? Well, anyway...). A lot of Christians don't like bands like Klank because they aren't explicitly Christian enough. If you're looking for another 'O Jesus, you are Jesus, thank you Jesus for being Jesus' album, this won't satisfy. Klank asks the hard questions, expresses anger. It's like if the book of Lamentations were set to music. I talk about this kind of stuff more here.

Lately School of Rock has been on TV a lot, which I've enjoyed. Jack Black is perfect in the lead role. I believe the script was written with him in mind, so that makes sense. It's just a fun movie.

Around the web, Joseph Barsabbas has a modern metaphor for the kingdom of God.

'Religious' and 'Spiritual' and Why Anyone Should Care

I ran across this quote on a trip through the blogosphere this evening:

"A religious person is trying to avoid hell; a spiritual person has already been there."

I found this quote interesting. I can't fully articulate why. You always hear people talk about how they're 'spiritual, but not religious,' and others like to say that Christianity 'isn't a religion, it's a relationship.' The above quote must be one of the latest spins on trying to distance yourself from institutional religious life and move more toward this alternative way of being that forsakes the regular, the traditional, the confining, the ritual. Usually, that's what people mean when they say they aren't 'religious.' The best scenario when considering the 'spiritual, not religious' connotation is that one acts out and explores on some form of faith or belief, but does not feel a need to be a part of a formal organization. My inner cynic tends to think that 'spiritual' in this instance also contains shades of lazy trendiness: I believe in something, but I don't go to church. Or mosque. Or synagogue. I've never even cracked a theology book or meditated. There's something out there, but I can't be bothered to go beyond that, so I'll light a stick of incense, say I'm 'spiritual,' and hope people think that's deep enough to leave me alone about it.

Like I said...inner cynic.

The other part that bothers me about this phrase is that it implies that those who ARE 'religious' (read: church/mosque/synagogue/whatever-affiliated) have no true spiritual dimension to their lives. It's all stale ritual and confining tiresome tradition. While there is some truth in that--tradition is certainly capable of taking all the meaning and depth out of the journey--there are plenty within the walls of the institution seeking something more, CRAVING something more...and they're fully comfortable engaging in that search while pushing the boundaries of the 'religious.'

So let's take a look at the quote that started all this. It looks to me like a 'tradition vs. experience' sort of context, which is what the original 'spiritual, not religious' crowd (the genuine ones, anyway) are striving for anyway. If 'religious people try to avoid hell,' this lends itself to the usual charges of legalism, which have plenty of merit. Where's the depth when all you have is a list of dos and don'ts and God in turn has a list of naughty and nice and you're trying to stay on the nice one? The 'religious' can be self-conscious this way. The goal is to avoid a place instead of to draw closer to the Divine.

'Spiritual people have already been there.' This part of the quote seems to say something about a faith that has been put through the fire and yet remains. 'Spiritual' people, by this quote, have been tested in some way and have drawn from their faith to see themselves through it. A 'spiritual' person, therefore, knows firsthand that ritual by itself is tissue paper holding a brick.

This version of the quote is, I think, very helpful in determining what true faith is. It's a better version than the original because it describes the difference between the 'religious' and 'spiritual' much better. The deepest a 'spiritual, not religious' person might go is to study at St. Mattress of the Springs. His or her 'spirituality' could amount to praying the home team wins at football. At least the above quote is more concrete and tries to better differentiate between these two ambiguous sets of people and tells why such a differentiation is considered important at all.


Here William Willomon preaches a sermon on one of my favorite texts, 1 Corinthians 1:18ff. An excerpt:

One of the dangers of being in church as often as I am is that it all starts to make sense. I speak of the Christian faith so casually and effortlessly that I begin to think, “Fine thing, this Christianity. Makes good sense.” And then I find myself believing all sorts of things in church that I wouldn’t let anyone put over on me in the real world. That which people would choke on in everyday speech, they will swallow if it’s in a sermon. That’s a blessing for those of us who get paid to preach Christ crucified.

And so Kierkegaard could say, “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd,” and again, “Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.”

It’s when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry. “Blessed are the meek. . . .” “Thou shalt not kill.” “Love your enemies.” “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor.” Be honest now. Blessed are the meek? Try being meek tomorrow at work and see how far you get. Meekness is fine for church, but in the real world the meek get to go home early with a pink slip and a pat on the back. Blessed are those who are peacemakers; they shall get done to them what they are loath to do to others. Blessed are themerciful; they shall get it done to them a second time. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; they shall be called fanatics.

Thornton Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination is a comedy about a poor soul who attempts to put the Beatitudes into practice. The results of his piety are predictably disastrous. He causes a run on the bank by refusing to accept the interest on his savings account because he does not believe in usury. Other customers, overhearing his argument with the teller, suspect that something is amiss at the bank and begin demanding their money. The implication is that adherence to the Beatitudes results either in comedy or tragedy, depending upon your sense of irony.

As Paul says, when you hear the gospel not with Sunday-morning ears but with Monday-morning ears, it can sound foolish indeed -- tragically foolish or comically foolish, depending upon one’s point of view.

Worthwhile Reading

Meg at Bridget Jones Goes to Seminary is having some run-ins with sexism.

Scott Williams reflects on measuring success in churches, both traditional and otherwise.

Jason at TheoSpora proposes a metaphor for theological reflection.

The 'Word of God'

Every time the prophets say 'the Word of God came to me...' they don't mean the Bible.

The Psalms equate the Word of God with God's instruction, but doesn't relegate it to scripture or the Bible.

John 1 describes the Word of God as Jesus.

Hebrews says the Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword, but again a specific reference to the Bible as such is nowhere to be found.

Somewhere else the phrase 'Word of God' was linked to the Bible only.

About here is where 1 Timothy 3:16 comes in. I'm guessing that a Christian who cites this verse does not then cite a verse in the Koran which contains similar verses about scripture being 'God-inspired' and uses it to prove that the Koran is what it says. It's circular logic for starters (the Bible is God-inspired because it says it is). Secondly, which scripture? The apocrypha? The Gospel of Thomas? The Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant Bible? The Old Testament?

The Word of God is living and active. The Bible DOES say that. And we keep listening with the words of our spiritual ancestors at our side to make sense of what it might be saying to us. But as a text where genocide is endorsed among other things, that's much harder to swallow.

Related entry: The Bible: Faith's Family Album

Making an Impression

A couple months ago, a young family began attending worship with us. They'd just built a house on a development nearby and wanted to check out some local churches. On one Sunday in particular, I did a children's sermon on prayer, where I satirically likened it to a magic trick. I first had a huge buildup where took out my wallet and said that with one little prayer it would suddenly fill with money. With another, a Porsche would appear in my driveway. With another, my muscles would grow. So I prayed my magic prayer, and of course nothing happened, the point being that these are not the types of things that we should be praying for. To close this little demonstration, I jokingly asked if anyone wanted to be sawed in half for my next trick. The daughter of this young family wildly and enthusiastically waved her arm, begging to be picked.

We didn't see this family for a few months, and I'd figured that they had found another church home. I'd even sadly and somewhat insecurely theorized that they had ended up at Gigantor Church down the road. But then this morning they showed up again, to my surprise and delight.

'Hey! Welcome back!'

'We're glad to be back. We asked the kids where they wanted to go to church today, and our daughter answered that she wanted to go to the church where she could be sawed in half.'

I'm willing to bet that this little girl has other memories already associated with our church, but the one point of reference was that children's sermon. So many moments at a particular place stick with us, and that was one of hers.

You Can Tell That It's a Slow Day

I picked up this meme from Emerging Grace. In a manner of speaking, I have a 6-day work week this week, so I have no problem looking like I did absolutely nothing today. That was my intent. So without further ado...

Ten years ago
I was just starting my junior year...of high school. So that means that I was playing a snot-nosed British kid in a murder mystery, was cheering my school's football team to a (failed) run at the championship, and dealing with the ups and downs of my first serious relationship with the opposite sex. You know, teenager stuff.

Five years ago
Senior year of college. I'd all but completely quit on the evangelical college group, was writing my Honors thesis on the theology of Karl Barth, was engaged to my now lovely wife (she's now my wife, she's always been lovely), and wishing that I'd tried out for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. I believe that it was in the fall that I'd made my first visit to Eden Seminary as well.

One year ago
I was living in an apartment in St. Louis preparing to give my trial sermon at the church I now serve, eagerly keeping up with the presidential debates, and doing my best to keep a trimmer waist.

Five yummy things
Vanilla bean cheesecake
Skyline chili
French fries

Five songs I know by heart
Amazing Grace
I Heard it Through the Grapevine
Some other old hymns

Five things I would do with a lot of money
Pay off my wife's student loans
Pay off other debts
Give a large chunk to mission projects (mental illness and AIDS both come to mind)
Give to scholarships
See Europe

Five places I would to escape to
Coffee house
My car (just driving wherever)
An empty church sanctuary

Five things I would never wear
Leather pants
High heels

Five favorite TV shows
The Sopranos
Arrested Development
Family Guy
The Simpsons

Five things I enjoy doing
Playing music
Enjoying the company of friends and family

Favorite toys
CD burner

Five people who get this meme
Whomever wants to carry it on. I'm not sure how many in my particular audience would be interested.

Gotta Bone Up...

Thanks to Dwight at Religious Liberal Blog for pointing me to this Bible quiz.

Topic % Right



I'm a little disappointed in myself for my results, especially my Gospels and Pentateuch scores. It just means I have to keep studying.

Thoughts Not Tied Down

~I've often been told that a pastor doesn't hit his/her ministerial stride in a particular setting until somewhere in years 3-6. That gives me hope as I look back almost one year in, on everything I could have done better and hope I do better next time.

~This afternoon my wife and I got into an argument (well, a discussion during which I got increasingly defensive) about legalizing and regulating drugs. She seems to think that it would eliminate a lot of the Prohibition-esque problems we're facing with substances such as cocaine, heroin, and so on. I think it's a bunch of crap. My only problem is that I can't articulate an argument much better than that right now. But I'm working on it. I can't come up with anything other than moral outrage, and logic says you need more. However, considering the act of CD bootlegging is a start, I think. People do it because prices are high, not because it's illegal. If someone can get an ounce of crack on the corner for a cheaper price than whatever the FDA would charge for it, it's still gonna happen, and probably with murder and mass organization still behind it. So I'm working on that.

~I can only respect tradition so much before I find myself bowing down at its altar.

~I've been writing a lot on here since I came back from my little break. I have to do that more often. Just a heads up: I'm thinking about giving it up as a Lenten discipline. I know, I know, stock up on supplies in your bunker now.

Pop Culture Roundup

I've been working my way through The God-Bearing Life: The Art of Soul-Tending for Youth Ministry. This book suggests an alternative form of youth ministry to the traditional Wednesday meeting model. Instead of enticing youth with pizza, invite them with the gospel. Instead of preoccupying them with games, involve them in life-changing projects. It's been a good theory book so far, but at times a little lean on practical application. But the theology of ministry the authors use is spectacular.

For Halloween we had a mixed bag of young adults from church and college friends over to watch a few Halloweenish movies. The first we saw was Shaun of the Dead, which is easily one of my favorites. It belongs in the same sub-genre (if there is such a thing) as the Evil Dead trilogy in terms of having Joe Average as the hero and the overall wit of the script. We then watched What Lies Beneath, which I'd also seen before but up until now hadn't realized that it was so long.

Before our movie-watching got underway, we hung out and talked with some music in the background. At one point one of our guests turned to me and said, 'This music is crazy.' I replied, 'It's a band called the Sneaker Pimps.' The pastor listens to a band called the Sneaker Pimps. Yeah.

Around the web, Monday Morning Insight hosts a long discussion about why young pastors leave the ministry.

Back and Forth

Last night at Bible study we discussed the exodus from Egypt, and had a great conversation about where the Israelites actually entered the wilderness, what body of water they really crossed (the Hebrew translates 'Reed Sea' and not Red Sea and if you read the text while consulting a map of the area one easily sees that there's no way they crossed the actual Red Sea) and how much it matters what actually happened. The general consensus was that what happened is not as important as that it did happen, and the meaning behind it. I likened it to the resurrection. So many place the specifics of the event above its meaning for our lives. One attendee astutely pointed out that usually the reason behind that is that evidence about specifics will help others come to believe. I agree. It's a large part of why some Christians bend over backwards to seek evidence for creation, Noah's ark, the exodus, the resurrection...that others might believe.

We also talked about the Israelites preferring the familiarity of slavery to new life in the unknown wilderness. I likened it to the movie 'The Shawshank Redemption,' where two released prisoners find it extremely difficult to cope with newfound freedom after being locked up for so long. 'If only we could go back,' the Israelites think. 'If only I could go back,' Brooks and Red think.

And what familiar words in the church! If only we could go back 'to the way things were,' 'to the faith handed down,' 'to how we did it before.' If only we could turn around. This isn't just brought up in the usual hot topic issues, it's brought up in one form or another in every aspect of church life. If only we could go back to the way we used to worship/teach/study/fellowship. Remember those days of yore? Those memories that look a lot more rosy than reality probably was? We need to go back. It was safe and comfortable. If only we could.

There's a brave new world out in that wilderness, a world unexplored, a world of endless possibilities for faith and mission. We can't go back now. We have to move ahead and address what's coming up. New life is possible. Jesus tells us and shows us, even if we don't know all the specifics.

We've come this far by faith. We can't turn back now.

Unity? Justice?

Some disjointed, somewhat frustrated, semi-tired, quasi-irritated, nominally hopeful musings from the UCC forum:

GLBT people are accepted, 'conservatives' feel shunned.
'Conservatives' get their way, GLBT people don't feel welcomed.

I've come to accept that unity (at least the definition of unity that is being used here, that is, holding together despite glaring differences in ideas) is largely an illusion to which we can aspire with all our might but ultimately is not possible. Chalk it up to our sinful nature, chalk it up to people placing more importance on 'being prophetic' (liberals) or 'speaking the truth in love' (conservatives), chalk it up to [the group you don't agree with] just being a bunch of poopyheads.

It just all gets absurdly tiresome, doesn't it?

I was a little frustrated in my last post. I've since gotten out of the house and feel better.

I vaguely recall a line from Neibuhr's 'Christ and Culture' that roughly went like this: 'Some point out Jesus' citing of the commandment to love God and mistake it for a commandment to love love.' When, I wonder, do we come to a point where we love justice or unity more than we love God?

Perhaps that's just a bit of semantics. OR, perhaps there comes a point when something gets sacrificed that God would have wanted us to hold onto...where justice is sacrificed for unity or unity for justice, or when God wants us to sacrifice when we choose to cling. And when in all our bickering and fingerpointing do we lose both?

'That they may all be one.'
'I haven't come to bring peace but a sword.'


I was probably a little too cynical. Unity in some form is possible. I give thanks for the moments when it appears.


For those who are newer to the blog and thus haven't heard me write about it recently, I serve a smaller church surrounded by open fields, and live right next door. We've deduced that the owner of said fields planted soybeans this year, and spent the past two weeks harvesting them, so now the fields are left bare until summer. The other morning I woke up, glanced out the kitchen window, and experienced a rapid sensation of my hopes getting way up and then being let down all within a few seconds. I had thought by the way the daylight was hitting the ground, that the field had recieved a light dusting of snow. Such a sight would have brought peace to me, like a painting that you wish you could crawl into. But of course it was October and no such thing was really possible.

We all crave those magical pictures or moments in time. We crave to hold onto them, to somehow capture them on film and just hit 'repeat' for a few hours. They soften the harder moments, they balance them out. The fall foliage does that for me, as does the sight of a snowy field. There are reasons that people just sit and stare at the ocean, at a sunset, at a mountain range. While that's going on, something else isn't.

Another Worship Post

Scott is soon starting a new entity called Club365. It's a church/nightclub hybrid borne from an emergent mind. I really wish that there was more to the club's page because I'm curious as to what this place will entail. Obviously your grandparents' church, it ain't. One can inquire about the definition of church. I'm fairly certain that this place won't gather on Sunday mornings and if it does it won't look like anything that one would think to find in a worship service.

In an earlier post I mentioned a candle that I used during late-night meditation sessions where all I did was watch the shadows bounce around the walls, maybe sip a drink, pluck a bass string, talk out loud. This might not be considered an act of worship. To even think of proposing this as the new format for Sunday mornings would already assure its failure. It wouldn't die in committee, it would be tied to a cinder block and thrown into the river. We need our 3 hymns and a lecture. We need our repetitive choruses and a pep talk. To just sit in a room staring at a flame while pondering the universe's meaning? To think of a nightclub atmosphere as a church, as an act of worship? That last question piques my curiosity and that's why I check the website an absurd amount of times every day to see if any more explanation is given!

Why not? David danced before God. Heck, he danced NAKED. No three-piece for him! I wouldn't advocate for such a thing on Sunday morning, but there are more...ahem...freestyle forms of worship in the Bible, let along throughout history. Consider the Taize community in France where they just keep singing until the last person decides that it's enough. Consider the setup for a Quaker meeting where silence is observed with the possibility of it going completely uninterrupted.

Maybe what I'm calling for is the broadening of horizons. Maybe I'm just thirsty for a worship experience where I don't have leadership responsibility. Maybe I just felt like rambling about worship for a little bit.