Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Michigan Allegations

I woke up this morning in the usual way. I made the coffee. I got some breakfast for Coffeeson. I turned on the TV. And since there weren't any of Coffeeson's shows on yet, I turned it to Sportscenter, figuring that I'd watch it for just a couple minutes.

And then this happened:
The NCAA, which governs college athletics, has strict limits on how much time coaches can require players to spend on their sport. But Rodriguez's team has routinely broken the rules since he took over in January 2008, people inside the program told the Free Press.

Numerous players on the 2008 and 2009 teams said the program far exceeded limits intended to protect athletes from coaching excesses and to ensure fair competition.
Well, crap.

I leave most of the analysis to people who know more about this than me, and who have more time to deal with it than me. And they've made some good points, such as:
You're naïve if you think every FBS program practices for no more than 20 hours a week or no more than four hours a day. You're naïve if you think members of the coaching staff don't attend voluntary 7-on-7 scrimmages during the offseason -- or receive direct reports about what happened. You're naïve if you think players aren't strongly encouraged to spend more than the required eight hours a week working out during the winter and summer.

These "violations" happen everywhere. They don't leak out publicly for two reasons.

1. The NCAA-mandated time limits for practices and workouts aren't exceeded in excess.

2. Players aren't motivated enough to speak out against their coaches and trainers.
Colleague Bruce Feldman recently conducted a confidential players' survey for ESPN The Magazine in which he asked players: What's the one thing that you never realized about being a college football player until you actually became one?

Almost all the players talked about it being a full-time job.

"I never understood that you were signing your life away when you sign [that Letter of Intent]," one FBS quarterback told Feldman. "They control everything you do: When you wake up, when you go to bed. I get told I'm going to birthday parties for kids. You don't have a choice. You have a dictatorship. Every time we don't show up to a voluntary workout, we've got [to run] stadiums and hills. And there's no money to show for it. You definitely don't realize it when you're getting recruited and they're being all nice to you."
And then there's this entire post at MGoBlog, which analyzes the rules and which may or may not have been violated.

I don't like the timing. I don't like the possibility of exaggeration or ignoring context. I don't like that this has seemingly sucked a little of the wind out of my and probably other fans' sails leading up to the season.

I'm still digesting it all myself. I hate that this has tarnished the start of the season. I was ready to watch the start of the big comeback, and I get to hear and read about this this week instead.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Small Sips: Tornado Judgment, Death Panels

It's a sign! Or not. Michael Spencer has a lot to say about John Piper's tornado commentary, including this:
It’s an evangelical specialty to jump in and out of the scientific world view as needed. It really irks me. One moment we sound like people who have no idea what storms and earthquakes are all about meteorologically and geologically then the next minute we’re off to the doctor to get more of the benefits of medical science with no reference to God’s decision about whether we should get well or not. I know these understandings of reality aren’t exclusive, but who is your audience when you talk about a storm in language not too far off from animism and then next minute you’re looking down your nose at someone who says that grandma’s blindness is caused by demonic attack, not macular degeneration?

We’re just fine telling kids that God sends X and causes Y, but if our children are scared of that God and don’t want to cross the bridge or go to sleep during a storm we tell them that everything is OK. How does that work? If you say that storms are the result of the way the atmosphere operates as a system and that bridges hold up if the engineers build and maintain them right are we confusing the kid, contradicting ourselves or just operating in two entirely different universes.

If we are going to start saying that comets and eclipses and asteroid strikes are messages from God, then I think we owe it to someone to explain how that interacts with the fact that we also understand these things scientifically.
Exactly. John Piper's tornado is a sign from God if we ignore the weather patterns tracked that day, the second tornado that ripped the roof of an elementary school 50 miles away, downplay the fact that this is simply the time of year for tornado-producing systems in the Midwest, and the general factors that lead to tornadoes to begin with. No, if we just focus in on the ELCA's plans for that day and point out that the tornado broke a church steeple, that's all we need.

What I appreciate about Spencer's commentary here is that it doesn't need to be this dualistic. People of faith should pursue a holistic worldview, incorporating theology and science, rather than deciding that this was God's judgment, and this other thing was the result of the weather.

A Death Panel By Another Name: Jan at A Church for Starving Artists bypasses the absurd claim about "death panels" being bandied about in the current health care debate, by pointing out that they already exist:
Insurance Companies already sit in judgment deciding who will live and who will not live, who will be relieved and who will not, who will get surgery and expensive meds and who won’t. They base their assessments on several factors from pre-existing conditions to lifetime spending caps.

Businesses (and churches) which do not provide health insurance for their paid workers are part of the Death Panel chain: we make it possible for our people to receive the most basic preventative health care. Or not.
Let's be honest: insurance companies are more about protecting their bottom line than helping you get better. So if you have a chronic condition, you're out. If you can't afford their co-pays or premiums, you're out. If you exceed their cap, you're out. It makes sense. Not to mention rises in such rates or new lists issued every month as to what is or isn't covered.

Jan goes on to describe other workers and programs already engaging in Death Panel-like behavior, and also provides a brief theological reflection on the matter.

Monday, August 24, 2009

John Piper Makes Me Rub My Eyes and Say, "Aaaaah"

Via The Paris Project, I had the opportunity to read Reformed speaker/author John Piper react to a recent tornado touching down in Minneapolis the same day that the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America took its vote on the issue of accepting openly gay clergy:
"The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction. Reaffirm the great Lutheran heritage of allegiance to the truth and authority of Scripture. Turn back from distorting the grace of God into sensuality. Rejoice in the pardon of the cross of Christ and its power to transform left and right wing sinners."
I have several reactions to this, some of which are incredibly snarky.

First, one can find theological reactions like this to any sort of disastrous happening. Consider, for instance, Hurricane Katrina and the legions of prophets who came out of the woodwork proclaiming that it was God's judgment on New Orleans for its debauchery. Michael Spencer makes the same comparison, along with the observation that the French Quarter was left largely untouched. So maybe it was God's judgment on poor people for being lazy.

It's been notable to me that whenever these proclamations are made about such tragedies, it's by someone removed from the situation looking in and playing "Where's Waldo the Sinner?" God's judgment almost always happens where All Those Awful People Are Over There. I would have been interested in hearing whether anyone in the Lower Ninth Ward or in downtown Minneapolis had reached the same conclusion as the enlightened theologians comfortably watching from afar.

I do need to acknowledge that Piper is a Minneapolis pastor, but he's the exception that proves the rule. And it remains that his statement is about Those People Over There. If we just look hard enough for the people we don't like or disagree with, we can come up with an explanation for why these things happen.

Second, I'm reminded of an ill-advised argument that I got into a while back on the now-defunct Wesley Blog with a guy who shared his story of being in ministry, and getting caught one day in the middle of a drive-by shooting. He'd concluded that it was Satan trying to stop him from engaging in ministry. In a not-so-pastoral moment, I disagreed that such an event was set up just for him; that it seemed to be an incredibly self-centered view of the world, but that it did make sense to think that Satan did not cause the event but could use the event to breed discouragement.

When we consider the tornado, it is dubious to think that God inflicts suffering just to send a message to an individual or smaller contingent within the affected area, or that God afflicts someone with a disease to get at one of his or her relatives. The amount of suffering or the contingent that suffers rarely matches the alleged "message" being sent, such as the Katrina example above or Robertson and Falwell's explanation that God killed over 3000 people in New York to send a message to liberals and feminists. Piper argues that this tornado was very specific, and thus more of an indication that it was meant just for the ELCA. And yet other area businesses and homes were caught up in the destruction as well, not to mention another tornado striking an elementary school 50 miles away. Why didn't God just cause a power failure in the convention center or cause the entrance doors to stick? That would have been much more precise.  And what was happening at the elementary school that invited a second tornado?

Whether God causes suffering or works through suffering to enact redemption are two different things. In the former, God is vindictive and almost always leaves a lot of collateral damage. In the latter, God works out of a place of resurrection to bring strength and wholeness.

Finally, is all suffering caused by God? Is every child suffering from leukemia being punished? Or every person who is injured or killed in a car accident? Or every couple dealing with a miscarriage or stillbirth? Did the people of Rwanda do something to deserve genocide? If one dug deep enough in each instance, one could probably strain to twist something into a sin-related reason for the affliction to have occured. But how adequate would such an explanation be? And are you going to be the one who tells them?

Piper cites a passage from Luke that I do find applicable, but for different reasons:
Jesus: “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:4-5)
His explanation is that the tower falling, and likewise the tornado, may not have been deliberate for the specific victims (which counters his whole argument about the ELCA), but is a reminder that we all need to repent or perish.

And yet, to begin with, Jesus doesn't offer an explanation for the tragedy. He explicitly states that the people killed by the tower weren't worse sinners than anyone else and we shouldn't make such conclusions. You know, like the conclusion that Piper makes about the tornado. Except it was a general message to repent, not just for them.

And once again, I rub my eyes and say, "Aaaaah..."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Pop Culture Roundup

I finished Leaving Church (again), and I've already written about that.

To get psyched for a new college football season and a blank slate for a certain team that didn't do so great last year, I've been reading Game Day Michigan Football, which gives an overview of the history and traditions of the Michigan football team. The book is slightly dated, as it still has Lloyd Carr as head coach, and the book is more of a coffee table book than an in-depth history. Nevertheless, it's good for what it is.

We went to see G.I. Joe this past week. I thought it'd be a big dumb action movie, which it certainly was, but it also strove to give enough backstory to the characters that it was slightly more than that. In fact, the bad guys seemed to have more backstory than the good guys; a motivation for their badness, which I didn't really expect for a movie based on a popular toy. We meet Duke and Ripcord pre-Joe transporting missiles filled with little tiny electronic bugs who eat metal, and they're attacked by Cobra. The already-Joes save them, and they eventually are invited to join. This leads to car chases through downtown Paris, lots of explosions, flashbacks for various characters, and even a conflicted bad guy. Oh, and we're left wide open for a sequel...WIDE open. I instinctively compared this movie with the other big dumb action movie of the summer, Transformers 2, and I have to say that I liked G.I. Joe more. The action was more balanced out with actual story, and it's also easier for me to take human actors more seriously than CGI robots, even if some of the humans showed just as much depth.

I've been listening to Modest Mouse's latest album this week, entitled No One's First and You're Next. It has the sound and style that you'd expect from Modest Mouse, but so far it's pretty forgettable to me. Their other albums have a little more zip and eccentricity, but this one seems more reserved; more cautious. Maybe a few more listens will change my mind.

From around the web, here's a lady whose laugh sounds like a car horn:

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Leaving Church

The first time that I read Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church, I was pretty cynical about the whole thing. By that point, having been a part of the blogosphere for around two years and a poster on various Christian forums before that, I'd read many stories from ex-churchgoers and ex-Christians, so Taylor's story wouldn't seem incredibly novel. In addition, I was annoyed at the thought of Taylor's built-in fanbase raving about how incredibly insightful and groundbreaking and revelatory her story is, when to me it would be one more after so many others. In other words, part of me was determined not to like this book.

Of course, a point of irony that would be lost on me until later: Why'd I end up picking up the book myself? Because Taylor had written it. Yeah.

I was drawn back to this book due to my sabbatical planning. I think that Taylor's story is about a sabbatical in its own way, as she recounts her extreme Type A personality that eventually leads to burnout. She tells of being a busy priest who discovers after a while that busyness has become her god, and has left her spiritually bankrupt. The second section of her book, "Losing," is all about forsaking that god and figuring out who she's really meant to be as a minister (in the "priesthood of all believers" sense of the word) and as a human being.

The institutional church takes some hits along the way, but I think that they're familiar hits to many pastors and laypeople. The central critique of the church is how it expects people to give of their already-busy schedules to the institution, equating itself with the work of discipleship. While I believe that the church can and does enact ways to encourage and inspire discipleship, there remains a notion that faithful membership is the same thing; that you aren't being a faithful disciple if you're not serving on a committee or volunteering to be liturgist or helping with the youth or maintaining a table at the bake sale. These things are the work of the faith community, sure, but they aren't the sum total of the Christian life.

Anyway, what drew me back to Leaving Church this time (my third time through, for what it's worth) is one brief account near the beginning of "Losing:"

On that first Sunday, even the prospect of public worship was too much for me. I could not go back to Grace-Calvary, and I could not fathom going anywhere else. I felt like a religious invalid, still weak from my recent fever and embarrassed by how I looked. I did not want to be touched. I did not want to be asked how I was feeling. I did not want to endure any real or imagined questions about what I was doing sitting in a pew instead of standing up front where I belonged. Once the sound of Ed's car had disappeared in the distance, I took a prayer book out on the front porch and read the morning office with the birds.

No one complained about the hymns. I did not sweat the sermon. The best part was the silence--mountains and mountains of it between the populated valleys of the words--with no reason to hurry for fear of holding anyone else up.
I envision a moment like this during my sabbatical; even during my upcoming vacation time this fall. I want to step out onto my porch (I don't have a porch now, but I will soon) with a cup of coffee and fully realize and appreciate that I am at sabbath; that my only task is to reconnect with the truth that my larger vocation exists in all of creation and not just in and around a church building.

I find ways to do this already, of course. Mondays are Coffeeson days, where my only responsibilities are to walk around with him outside, discovering all the rocks and flowers and pinecones and leaves, to feed him, to rock him to sleep, to watch Sid the Science Kid with him lounging on my lap. There are other times for re-discovering that larger vocation, but this is the clearest one to me.

I think that this is why Leaving Church remains on my short list of books that I read again and again: I appreciate the need to recognize one's call to ministry outside the institutional church, but I don't want to recognize it the way Taylor did. But it is her story that has become for me a guide for my own reflection. While I maintain certain criticisms about this book, the food for thought that it has provided has greatly outweighed them.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Wisdom Calling" - A Sermon for August 16

Proverbs 9:1-6

There’s a movie that came out a few years ago called Idiocracy, where two subjects of an Army sleep experiment who end up sleeping for 500 years. When they wake up, they find that somehow the world is completely populated by morons.

Crowds are easily riled up and manipulated by someone yelling or by explosions. There’s a courtroom scene that looks more like a Jerry Springer episode than a place of reasonable judgment.

A Gatorade-type corporation has taken over the FDA and heavily influenced what people eat (even used to irrigate crops, and people wonder why nothing will grow).

Luke Wilson's character takes an aptitude test that includes questions such as, "If you have one bucket that holds two gallons, and another bucket that holds five gallons, how many buckets do you have?"

We also find that Costco has become as big as a city and that most chain restaurants now feature prostitution.

This future world is excessive, violent, overtaken by a handful of corporations, and the population has become so incredibly lazy that they're unable to consider what's really happening. It’s a place where wisdom is absent.

This is the future world that the movie envisions – a world without wisdom. Sure, it’s an over-the-top, fictional vision, but what if, little by little, we used less and less wisdom to make decisions? What would a world without wisdom look like?

Many things might come to mind when the word “wisdom” is mentioned. We may think of right judgment, or discernment, or knowledge, or common sense. All of these may be used to describe wisdom, or at least some aspect of wisdom.

We may be able to think of specific people whom we think of as being wise. What about them do we consider wise? What sorts of characteristics or actions do we see them having or doing that makes them wise?

We may think of them as being incredibly seasoned by life – they’ve experienced so much and can offer advice out of that experience. When they talk, they aren’t just talking – they’re saying something.

We may think of them as having an incredible common sense; a knowledge of what works in a given situation.

We may think of them as more deliberate in their thoughts and actions – more hesitant where, as the saying goes, “fools rush in.”

However people whom we consider wise may exhibit that wisdom, we may simply be able to point at them and say, “Whatever wisdom is, they’ve got it.” And what if we didn’t have people like that around? What would a world without wisdom look like?

This passage from Proverbs doesn’t exactly give a definition, but it does give a description.

First, wisdom is depicted as a woman in this passage, as Proverbs does several other times. It’s not meant to be taken literally, but a helpful metaphor regardless. Wisdom has built her house and is preparing a feast. And the house has seven pillars, a reference to creation: God setting the world on pillars in Genesis and the allusion to seven days.

So wisdom is tied to creation; what God truly intends creation to be. God created the world with wisdom, with a certain pattern of order and goodness, and a sense of God’s presence. God used this wisdom to create the universe, and with this wisdom that God continues to move through it. And she’s inviting anyone and everyone to this feast: “You that are simple, turn in here! Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

There’s something about that word “simple” – a word sometimes used to describe people who’ve done something unwise. But specifically when we talk about a person or action being simple, there’s something being implied about the inability to consider anything very complex.

The “simple” person to whom Wisdom is calling always wants to do what is easy, or most convenient, or acts out of desire, lust, hunger, laziness. Like the world of Idiocracy, is perhaps more apt to solve problems with violence or out of a place of emotion with no reason to balance it out; decisions based on what is popular or the feel of the crowd at any given moment.

This could also be known as the house of Folly described later in this chapter of Proverbs: people are invited in to eat and drink, not knowing that “the dead are there.” There’s something about a world without wisdom that features death; that isn’t life-giving – that is only destructive. We see one vision of that world in Idiocracy, but we can easily spot real-life visions of it as well.

Whenever we see or hear news about the millions upon millions of children throughout the world who are starving, we see glimpses of a world without wisdom.

Where it’s estimated that 12.3 million people worldwide are trapped in underground human trafficking in various kinds of forced labor, we see glimpses of a world without wisdom.

Where there is genocide or ethnic cleansing; countries carrying on decades or centuries-old wars because of religious or ethnic differences, we see glimpses of a world without wisdom.

Where governments or corporations consider the bottom line much much more than human lives, we see glimpses of a world without wisdom.

The house, the world, of wisdom is much different. People who are called in to eat, to lay aside immaturity and simpleness, are also invited to live. Wisdom is life-giving – there’s a reason she’s connected to creation in this passage.

Wisdom’s house is one where enriching, nourishing life may be found. It’s a house where life in all its complexity is appreciated and considered in all its depth. It’s a house where hard decisions need to be made, but aren’t avoided. It’s a house where what is right is not always what is simple, but where what is right IS life-giving. It’s a house where emotions and desires, as far as they bring life joy and enhancement, are right and good, but tempered by reason.

A world with wisdom, God’s wisdom, is a world constantly beckoning to us: “You that are simple, turn in here! Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

Lay aside violence as the first option, and walk in the way of peace.

Lay aside seeing other people as objects to be used, and walk in the way of compassion.

Lay aside prejudice of all kinds, and walk in the way of loving your neighbor.

Lay aside greed, and walk in the way of self-control so that others may live.

This is the world that God’s wisdom is calling for. It’s the world that God is working for. It’s the world that God calls us to work for as well.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Pop Culture Roundup

I started re-reading Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor, but I'll have more to write about that in a few days. I was reading All That's Holy, an account of a road trip to encounter a wide variety of faiths. I may return to it, but I've been meaning to re-read Leaving Church and this felt like the right time.

We watched Definitely, Maybe this past week. Ryan Reynolds plays a soon-to-be-divorced dad telling his daughter the story of how he and her mom met. The bulk of the story takes place in the early '90s, as Reynolds' character works for the first Clinton presidential campaign in New York City. His love life swirls between three women: his college sweetheart (Elizabeth Banks), her former roommate and friend (Rachel Weisz), and a free spirit also working on the campaign (Isla Fisher). As he tells this story to his daughter, he changes names to get her to guess which one turns out to be her mom. There's also a humorous early-'90s sentimentality, such as references to Kurt Cobain and the rise of cellphones. It's a cute story.

Entourage seems to be treading water at the moment. One of the main overarching stories is Eric's on-again, off-again relationship with an old girlfriend. A few weeks ago, he finally got fed up with waiting for her and has been with one of his neighbors ever since. So this past week, his ex once again pops into the picture as the co-organizer of a celebrity golf tournament (Hey look, it's Mark Wahlberg and Tom Brady and Jeffrey Tambor!), where the head of a major management company asks Eric to come work for him. Eric turns him down after finding out that his ex set it up, accusing her of trying to make him "acceptable" before coming back to him. This doesn't go very well. And this has been one of the main stories this season. I thought it'd be more of "the boys are branching out," but they all seem to be sticking pretty close to Vince and his success.

From around the web, here's another graph from GraphJam that I thought was timely:

song chart memes
see more Funny Graphs

Sunday, August 09, 2009

"I'm not even supposed to be here today!"

This morning I led a worship service and preached.* Typical Sunday for a pastor, yes? Sure. However, I wasn't originally supposed to do it this Sunday. The plan had been to spend a week at a cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and by this time we'd almost be finished with our drive up. But Coffeewife wasn't able to earn enough time off for the whole week, so it was not meant to be.

I'm okay with it. What happens, happens. We've already been assured by the cabin's owners that we can reserve a week next summer. And instead of taking this next week off, I'll save that week for a week in mid-November right before Thanksgiving. I took this same week off last year, and it was a nice break before the activities of Advent. Incidentally, this will also be the week of The Game, which last year of course prompted people to tease me about not wanting to face the music the day after. It was a perk, yes.

The other thing I've been thinking about has been how strange it may look to others: I'll be taking three of my four allotted weeks' vacation this fall. So many people take off during the summer, but I'll be spending the bulk of my vacation time during a time of year when church programs are getting back into the swing of things. The best explanation I have to offer is this: I like the fall months better than summer. I'll find this time off more relaxing than if I'd taken off more in June, July, or August. I'll get to spend time in the cooler weather, walking through dried leaves with Coffeeson, picking out pumpkins and getting ready for Halloween and Thanksgiving. It'll be way more refreshing for me personally.

Anyway, the week ahead will be nothing special church-wise: Consistory, Bible study, a few visits...nothing really out of the ordinary, especially for the middle of August. No big deal.

But today, I'm simply going to sit back, digest my Buffalo chicken salad, hang out with Coffeeson, watch Entourage, and go to bed.

*It was entitled "A Church for Starving Artists," with apologies to Jan, and was about God's call to artists in Exodus 31 and God's continued call to artists today to help create space to experience the holy. I also borrowed from the church's mixed history with art thanks to Christianity's Dangerous Idea.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Pop Culture Roundup

I finished the sixth Sandman, Fables and Reflections, and moved right on to the seventh, Brief Lives. Morpheus has six siblings, and all seven are usually referred to in easy alliterative format: Dream, Death, Desire, Delirium, Despair, Destiny, and Destruction, who have domain over the areas of life that their names indicate. In the previous books, it is referenced several times that Destruction up and quit, hasn't seen or spoken to any of his siblings in centuries, and everyone is pretty pleased with that arrangement. In Brief Lives, Delirium decides that she wants to go looking for him, and drags Dream along for the journey.  There's a lot of philosophical discussion in this one about identity and purpose and change.

We watched The Pink Panther this week, as in the 2006 version with Steve Martin. Martin has few comedic equals, especially when it comes to an oblivious buffoon like Inspector Clouseau. I enjoyed his performance, as I often do. But I really could take or leave this movie as a whole. A soccer, sorry, football coach (Look, it's Jason Statham!) is murdered and his big freaking Pink Panther diamond ring is presumably stolen. Clouseau is appointed to the case as a cover for the real investigation being headed by a glory-seeking chief inspector played by Kevin Kline. And there's also Beyonce, because...uh...why not? It's a film full of classic slapstick comedy in the mold of every "bumbling idiot shows flashes of brilliance and earnestness" film or TV character, including the original Clouseau, Maxwell Smart, Austin Powers, Inspector Gadget, and Johnny English. If you like that sort of thing, you'll like this movie.

I listened to Scream by Chris Cornell this week, and very quickly thought I'd made a mistake. Had the wrong CD been placed in the case? And then I realized, no, this really is the former lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave using techno beats, synthesizers, and what sounds like the Backstreet Boys singing backup. I couldn't make it through the third song before shutting it off.  It's fitting that the album cover is a picture of someone smashing a guitar.  This was awful.

Maize N Brew has been re-added to the blog list.

This week I came across a site called GraphJam, where people can create graphs of hilarity and amusement. For example:

song chart memes
see more Funny Graphs

And also:

song chart memes
see more Funny Graphs

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Big Fish, Small Pond?

I got into an argument on Facebook the other day with some Buckeye fans. It wasn't really an argument...I voted in this online poll "Which is better, Ohio State or Michigan?" and there was an adjoining comment thread, with such witty banter from OSU fans as "App St." and "Rich Rod is a f**." Thankfully, there was actually more intelligent discussion happening as well, and I was dumb enough to give my two cents, knowing full well what little good could come of it.

It actually went fairly well. I exchanged a few comments with an OSU fan about history not really being on people's sides when they make comments that Michigan football is dead and buried based solely on the 2008 season, as if RichRod isn't eventually going to bring in his own recruits and build up his system, and based on his success despite typically poor showings his first year at each school at which he's coached.

A friend noted my comments, and made a comment of his own to me:
Michigan will come back when RR is gone and they actually hire Les Miles...RR's rise at WVU coinsided [sic] w/ the departure of Miami, Va Tech, and BC from the Big East.
Oh, really? So RichRod was merely a big fish in a small pond in the Big East, with no real big wins or competition to speak of? Let's do some detective work...

2001: 3-8. Sounds familiar.
2002: 9-4, with wins over Boston College and #13 Virginia Tech.
2003: 8-5, with wins over #3 Virginia Tech and Boston College, and shared the Big East Championship with Miami.
2004: 8-4 and shared the Big East Championship with, among others, Boston College.
2005: 11-1, Big East Champion, and beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
2006 : 11-2, beat Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl.
2007: 11-2, Big East Co-Champion, beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. RichRod did not coach the Fiesta Bowl, as he was on his way to Michigan at that point, but it was arguably his team that won that game.

So while WVU never beat Miami with RichRod at the helm, they did beat Virginia Tech and Boston College several times each, along with several perennial powerhouses in bowl games, and shared the Big East Championship the last two years that those three teams were a part of the conference.

It is probably worth noting that some of his early teams had a home-and-home with Wisconsin, losing both times, but that shouldn't be seen as an indication of how generally RichRod's scheme will fare in the Big Ten, especially since Michigan's improbable win over Wisconsin was one of the few bright spots of the 2008 season.

So, what have we learned here today? We've learned that the "big fish, small pond" argument is bunk. This is shown both in and out of the conference while RichRod was head coach in the Big East. Whether Michigan can bounce back this year the way WVU did in 2002 remains to be seen, but it's going to, nay, has to get better. And history shows that it will.

Go Blue.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

You Might Be Emergent If...

Via iMonk, I found this long book quote on Tim Challies' site offering up the usual list of what critics deem emergent:
After reading nearly five thousand pages of emerging-church literature, I have no doubt that the emerging church, while loosely defined and far from uniform, can be described and critiqued as a diverse, but recognizable, movement. You might be an emergent Christian: if you listen to U2, Moby, and Johnny Cash’s Hurt (sometimes in church), use sermon illustrations from The Sopranos, drink lattes in the afternoon and Guinness in the evenings, and always use a Mac; if your reading list consists primarily of Stanley Hauerwas, Henri Nouwen, N. T. Wright, Stan Grenz, Dallas Willard, Brennan Manning, Jim Wallis, Frederick Buechner, David Bosch, John Howard Yoder, Wendell Berry, Nancy Murphy, John Franke, Walter Winks and Lesslie Newbigin (not to mention McLaren, Pagitt, Bell, etc.) and your sparring partners include D. A. Carson, John Calvin, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Wayne Grudem; if your idea of quintessential Christian discipleship is Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, or Desmond Tutu; if you don’t like George W. Bush or institutions or big business or capitalism or Left Behind Christianity; if your political concerns are poverty, AIDS, imperialism, war-mongering, CEO salaries, consumerism, global warming, racism, and oppression and not so much abortion and gay marriage; if you are into bohemian, goth, rave, or indie; if you talk about the myth of redemptive violence and the myth of certainty; if you lie awake at night having nightmares about all the ways modernism has ruined your life; if you love the Bible as a beautiful, inspiring collection of works that lead us into the mystery of God but is not inerrant; if you search for truth but aren’t sure it can be found; if you’ve ever been to a church with prayer labyrinths, candles, Play-Doh, chalk-drawings, couches, or beanbags (your youth group doesn’t count); if you loathe words like linear, propositional, rational, machine, and hierarchy and use words like ancient-future, jazz, mosaic, matrix, missional, vintage, and dance; if you grew up in a very conservative Christian home that in retrospect seems legalistic, naive, and rigid; if you support women in all levels of ministry, prioritize urban over suburban, and like your theology narrative instead of systematic; if you disbelieve in any sacred-secular divide; if you want to be the church and not just go to church; if you long for a community that is relational, tribal, and primal like a river or a garden; if you believe doctrine gets in the way of an interactive relationship with Jesus; if you believe who goes to hell is no one’s business and no one may be there anyway; if you believe salvation has a little to do with atoning for guilt and a lot to do with bringing the whole creation back into shalom with its Maker; if you believe following Jesus is not believing the right things but living the right way; if it really bugs you when people talk about going to heaven instead of heaven coming to us; if you disdain monological, didactic preaching; if you use the word “story” in all your propositions about postmodernism—if all or most of this tortuously long sentence describes you, then you might be an emergent Christian.
At least half of this list applies to me. But I didn't realize that tastes in music, drinks, and beanbag chairs constituted being emergent. Granted, a lot of emergent authors and speakers cite U2 ad nauseum, but so do...oh, I don't know...U2 fans. People who like lattes and Guinness drink lattes and Guinness. What's that have to do with emergent? So evangelicals or Calvinists or Baptists (heh) don't drink those things?

As for the theological ideas mentioned, as well as what amounts to their broader application to political issues, I can see how the author might have been trying to imply that the emergent movement is the Democratic Party at prayer. This could be said of most "liberal" Christianity: every time I attend General Synod, it feels this way at times. But gee, there are other issues that Christians should be concerned about besides, according to evangelicals, The Big Two. Since when is "following Jesus is living the right way" a bad thing? Or being the church instead of going to church? After all, the book this quote comes from is entitled Why We're Not Emergent. So these guys aren't emergent because they'd rather go to church than be the church, believe stuff about Jesus instead of follow Jesus, only care about two political issues, and they don't like Guinness?

This is why I've always been somewhat perplexed at the critiques of themes raised by emergent. First off, all the cheap jabs about goatees and lattes are useless...what, nobody liked those things before emergent Christianity came along?

Second, I don't understand the disagreement with issues such as caring about poverty, actually reading the Gospels as often as (if not more often than) Paul, seeking relational community, and many of the other things listed. I get the doctrinal disagreements about the nature of the Bible, but disagreeing with some of the other stuff seems absurd, and even makes the one disagreeing look bad, i.e., "Christians shouldn't care that much about AIDS. Only those liberal emergent people do." That's effectively what's being said.

But hey, maybe this list is in fun, like Jeff Foxworthy for Christians. Given the context of the quote, it seems to be in fun at emergent's expense, but maybe emergent folks can laugh as well. Maybe people who take offense are just taking this too seriously.

Yeah, maybe. Or maybe there's a more worthwhile way to dialogue with the movement than creating lists like these...or at least discerning what's really worth including in them.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

"Take This Bread" - A Sermon for August 2 (Communion Sunday)

John 6:24-35

There were so many of them. So many following, so many wanting to hear one more word, so many wanting to see one more miracle.

There were so many of them. 5000 or so, in fact. And they’d become incredibly curious about this man who’d been curing the sick. They wanted to see him do it again, not sure what it meant, but knowing that it meant something. And maybe seeing it again would help it all make more sense. Maybe this time it’d be their own father, or mother, or brother or sister or child, who’d be healed.

The crowd had been following him for so long that it was close to meal time. He knew that, and he knew that they’d need something to eat. He asked his disciples, “What are we going to do about this? Where are we going to buy bread for all these people?”

Notice that sending them away wasn’t an option.

Notice that simply telling them, “Tough luck, you should’ve brought something with you” wasn’t an option.

Notice that telling them, “Go find a job to earn some food” wasn’t an option.

“Where are WE going to buy bread for all these people?”

Of course, in the Gospel of John Jesus already knows the answer to his own question. He always does. He just wanted to see what his disciples would say. One says, “We’d need half a year’s pay to buy food for all these people!” Another says, “Well, this kid has a couple loaves of bread and a few fish. But it ain’t much.” That’s the best the disciples can offer.

Jesus says, “Make everyone sit down.”

And he took the bread, and gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them. Maybe he said, “take and eat.” But if he did, he could just keep saying it: “Take and eat, take and eat, take and eat,” over and over and over again until everyone had to loosen their belts a little. This was truly a miracle!

As I read this story, I’m reminded of something that one of my seminary professors said more than once: “You’re loved not because you’re loveable, but because of the One who loves you.”

See, most cultures, including ours, tie in who is deemed loveable with food. We use food to welcome people a lot, to show our love. We set out snacks during an afternoon visit, we prepare special meals for guests, we prepare hors d’oeuvres for parties. Because we want to fully welcome others, and food is a big way to do that. Implicitly we declare, “I do this because to me, you are loveable. You are worthy of love, so I prepared this for you.”

But Jesus has a different way of doing things; we should know this pretty well by now.

I wonder about the makeup of this crowd – Who exactly was Jesus serving? What kinds of people made up the 5000 that afternoon? How many, for instance, were single, or married, or divorced? How many had children with them, or were estranged from their own parents? How many were foreigners looking to make a new life in a new place, and looking to be accepted? How many were getting sidelong glances by others in the crowd because they were of a different ethnicity, or living with an incurable illness, or living a frowned-upon lifestyle? How many were pre-approved to receive the bread because they’d recited the proper statement of faith beforehand?

We’re not told any of those things, of course, mostly because Jesus didn’t seem to care too much about it. He simply broke the bread and passed it out: “Take and eat.” He shows that he’s not doing this because he’s deemed the crowd loveable, but because of the One who loved them. He provides, because God provides. He loves, because God loves.

And when some from this same crowd follow him a few days later, they say, “Do it again. Provide food for us. Show us another sign like when Moses provided manna for the Israelites.” And Jesus responds, “It’s not just about food, you know.”

The bread isn’t the point – the manna, the bread from heaven back in the day, wasn’t the point then and it’s not the point now. The point is where it comes from . The point is who provides it and why. God provided that manna in the wilderness, and God is showing you now where truly life-giving bread comes from. This bread of life will always be there for you – you’ll never be hungry again. And it’s for everyone to enjoy - because of the One who loves you.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of a very unique Lutheran church in Denver, tells of getting a phone call at 11 in the morning one Sunday. A church member, Rachel, was calling from her hometown church, sobbing. When she was finally able to compose herself, she said, "I'm at my parent's church....they are doing communion.....and I'm not allowed to take it." She wasn’t used to being barred from the table, after being part of a different church community for so long that wouldn’t think of doing such a thing.

Nadia asked if it was okay for her to share this story with a few other church members, and she agreed. When Nadia shared this with others, one immediately responded, "Well then we'll have to take her communion at the airport when she gets home.” It was a no-brainer.

So when Rachel got off the escalator she saw a sign reading "Rachel" on one side and "Child of God" on the other. Nadia, trying to be sly about the whole thing, asked if Rachel wouldn't mind if they just popped upstairs because someone had asked her about the chapel and she wanted to make sure she knew where it was.

So at 10 pm on a Wednesday night, 8 people were waiting in the chapel at Denver International Airport to share communion with one of their own, to show that she was welcome at the table. To show that she wasn’t welcome because she was loveable, but because of the One who loves her.

We set out this bread that the Bread of Life may be experienced through sharing it. We set it out so that all may be welcomed and be transformed through that welcome. We offer it because Christ offered and offers it, that all may be changed through a realization of God’s love and presence, whether it happens here this morning, or at an airport at 10 at night, on a Friday evening with friends or a Tuesday afternoon with coworkers.

Making yourself worthy of welcome wasn’t how Jesus did it, and it’s not how this table is meant to work. Come because of the One who loves you. You don’t have to make yourself loveable first. The Bread of Life is for all, whenever and wherever.

Take and eat.

(HT to Sarcastic Lutheran for the story)