Monday, March 31, 2014

Me on Moody Radio

This past Saturday morning I appeared on the show Up for Debate through Moody Radio. The topic of the day was when one should or shouldn't leave one's church, thanks to this blog post that I wrote back in January.

You can access the recording of the program on their website under the "Past Programs" tab; just find the March 29th show. It's also available through iTunes.

All in all, I really enjoyed it. I found the host, Julie Roys and my fellow guest Chuck Betters to be very cordial and hospitable, and it was a good discussion. It was actually amazing how quickly the hour went. I could have said a lot more about the subject given more time.

Except I said "Um…" a lot. I didn't realize I was doing it at the time. Then I listened to it again and started yelling at Radio Me to knock it off. I mean, come on, man. Just make your point already. Sheesh.

Anyway, I was glad for the opportunity and the experience. I'd love to do something like it again.

Friday, March 28, 2014

March 2014 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for March...

1. I read a book produced by a few different Baptist organizations called Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, the review for which you can read here.

2. I also read Genesis and the Rise of Civilization by j. Snodgrass this month, the review of which you can read here.

3. There is one more episode of The Walking Dead left in season 4 before it goes away for the summer. On the one hand I'll certainly miss it, as it really is my favorite show currently on TV. On the other hand, I'll need that long to recover from the gut-punch that was the episode titled "The Grove." Those who watch know exactly what I'm talking about. Those who don't aren't getting a word about it here because I could barely get through telling Coffeewife about it. Instead I'll say this: yes, this show is about surviving the zombie apocalypse. But a big part of that is surviving ourselves and the others left alive. And sometimes that survival involves horrible, tragic decisions. Those moments on the show have been very well done for the most part, no less the truly awful development of which I will not speak. I'm very much looking forward to season 5 in October.

4. On a much happier note, we got the movie Frozen pretty much as soon as it came out on DVD at the strong insistence of Coffeeson, and watched it just last week. We meet the sisters Anna and Elsa, the latter of whom was born with powers to create all manner of frozen precipitation from her fingertips. When they are really young, they enjoy playing together with this power until an accident happens and Elsa cuts herself off from pretty much all of existence. When it is time for her coronation as queen, things start to unravel not just for her but for the entire kingdom. There were certain familiar Disney tropes present here, such as a princess pining for True Love, the silly sidekick, the Journey of Discovery, and, of course, the death of parental figures, but this also tweaked a few of them, mostly the True Love one, in several ways. There is also the strong message that you need to open yourself up to and trust others, with which I resonated. My only real gripe is that "Let It Go" had pretty well been worn out for me before this viewing, so when we got to that scene it just seemed like something I needed to endure. But that's not really the movie's fault.

5. My favorite musical discoveries are the ones that come out of nowhere. I recently stumbled across 17-year-old British singer-songwriter Birdy singing "Strange Birds:"

It's off of her new album Fire Within, which isn't yet available in the U.S., so if you're someone who can't wait to get it, you can do one of two things: fork over a little extra to get the import, or find a Youtube video of the entire album. Or both. Birdy at times reminds me of Lorde and at other times of Florence + the Machine. And with her being so young, I'd imagine she'll only get better with age.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review: Genesis and the Rise of Civilization by j. Snodgrass

The core of a creation story is "Why? Why was the world created this way and what does that tell us about how to live in it?" What did the gods want from humanity? A creation story is like a blueprint or constitution, it contains the premise of the story people of that particular culture will enact with their lives. - j. Snodgrass, Genesis and the Rise of Civilization

My senior year of college, I wrote a research project in order to earn honors in my Religion major. I had taken an interest in the theology and writing of John Calvin earlier in my career there, and by the time I was set to start this paper was becoming more intrigued by the work of Karl Barth. To further both of these interests simultaneously, I decided that my paper would compare and contrast their views in a few major areas, drawing mainly from the magnum opus of each: the Institutes for Calvin, and Church Dogmatics for Barth. I even had the grand idea that I would write the paper as if the two of them could somehow be transported to a room across time and space and have a series of conversations with each other.

All things considered, Calvin and Barth are not incredibly far off from one another. While there are differences between them, they are considered to be in the same Reformed ballpark. Contrasting either of them with Luther, Wesley, Ignatius, Tillich, Altizer, and a host of others would have made for a more stark dynamic and probably for a more interesting paper. But this was my interest at the time, and I wanted to see it through.

In retrospect, however, I presented more of a contrast than perhaps was actually there. If you read my paper, I paint Calvin as this staunch conservative, perhaps even fundamentalist. There are undertones to his side of the dialogue that I made to sound rigid and even angry. On the other hand, Barth comes off as the more gentle and thoughtful progressive who tempers himself and his conversation partner. Clearly, my subconscious self wrote, this guy had come such a long way from the days of his predecessor.

It wasn't until later that I could read back over this and notice how I'd set up the dialogue in this way. Not only that, but I could see how the dynamic that I'd constructed between the two was a direct reflection of my own spiritual journey. I'd set up Calvin to represent not only my own earlier, more conservative self, but the viewpoint still taken by some with whom I'd had some conflict after moving away from that stance. In turn, I'd used Barth to represent the new space I was beginning to occupy, which was softer, at least further to the middle, and even a little battle-worn. Careful readers could probably notice the way I'd presented the personality and worldview of each, but it would take some extra work to learn the story behind why I wrote it in that way.

In Genesis and the Rise of Civilization, j. Snodgrass works carefully and deliberately through the first book of the Bible to seek the story behind the story. His working thesis is that these tales of creation and destruction, of wandering nomads and established cities, of individuals, couples, and families, represent the journey of a people, or of competing sets of people, who are trying to make sense of themselves, their relationships with other tribes and nations, and their understanding of God. Through the stories of Genesis, he argues, we can see bits and pieces of how the civilization that produced them understood themselves and their place in the world.

For instance, Snodgrass presents the brothers Cain and Abel as two archetypes. On the one hand is Cain, the farmer, the one who undertakes the work of established agriculture, which would have been associated with a more ordered society. On the other hand is Abel, the herdsman who tends flocks; who would have been more of a nomad, leading his animals wherever there was food and wherever he could find for himself as well. Of course, the end of the story is Cain killing Abel after Abel's sacrifice is deemed acceptable by God while Cain's is rejected. This story is not only about the further tragedy of a post-Eden existence, but the writer or writers in some sense also had in the back of their mind the tension between the city agriculturalists and the rugged wanderers out in the wilderness.

This sort of approach to these stories complicates the traditional "documentary hypothesis," which is the view that mainly four writers, identified by the initials JEDP, authored the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. J, the author traditionally held to have written the Cain and Abel story, for instance, would have written his material during the heights of Israel's monarchy when things were relatively peaceful. Could it be that he saw some tension play out between established methods of farming and outlying groups of wanderers, and that influenced how he told his parts of the narrative? The result would have been that he was offering commentary that God grieved this conflict, and even went so far as to favor the nomads. What does this mean for our reading of such a story?

Snodgrass pulls from a wide variety of sources in this commentary. On one page you'll find a footnote citing Midrash or noted Old Testament scholar Walter Breuggemann, and on the next you'll find a citation of Isaac Asimov. He pulls from history, anthropology, sociology, Jewish tradition, Biblical scholarship, and so many other sources to piece together the possibility that there is a subtext to these stories; a running commentary on what life was like at the time of their composition that the authors had varying degrees of awareness that they were offering.

If nothing else, I found this book incredibly thought-provoking. Snodgrass' approach is mainly one of reading the resulting text rather than spending too much time wondering who wrote which particular piece, although he does make nominal use of those theories. His chief concern is the story as it is, as well as the story underneath. The result is that he is able to bring out details of the text that many may not consider, resulting in a fresh and richer look at these passages that feels brand new.

The layout of the book is like any basic Biblical commentary: a few verses, followed by analysis. It makes for easy reference if one wants to read up on any particular story. Rather than present the material as overarching concepts interspersed with a few verses to back up his points, Snodgrass undertakes to tackle the whole book of Genesis, lingering with each piece, until all has been dissected. The result is a new take on familiar stories and theories as he wonders out loud about the many more stories contained in this book that a basic reading may be able to notice.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Making My Radio Debut

In late January, I wrote a post titled Five Really Good Reasons to Leave Your Church. I wrote it in response to an article that had appeared in Relevant Magazine a day or two before titled Five Really Bad Reasons to Leave Your Church. I figured that the original article needed a counterpoint; someone to give voice to the good reasons that I and others have had over the years for leaving churches.

I wrote it with the same attitude with which I write pretty much everything here: it'll reach a few dozen folks who have me queued up on their browser or who'll see my link to it on social media, and that'll be fine.

Well, something a bit bigger than that happened on that particular day. Among other things:

When someone like Rachel Held Evans is retweeting your article, it's bound to go a bit further than you're used to.

And it did. That post has over 4000 views and counting. I'm still amazed and thankful that so many people have read and appreciated it.

But there was still more. By the end of that week, I'd been contacted by someone from Moody Radio to appear on one of their programs to talk more about this article and to discuss the general issue of why people should or shouldn't leave churches. Given what prompted this contact, I'll likely be expected to give more of the "should" side.

So if you feel so inclined to listen in, here are the details. The show is called Up for Debate, and will broadcast on Saturday, March 29th at 8 a.m. Central (that'd be 9 a.m. Eastern). If you don't have a Moody affiliate in your area or it doesn't carry that particular program, you can listen to it online at the show's website. And if you have more important things to do that morning, it'll be archived on the site and on iTunes for you to listen to some other time.

I'll admit some nerves about this, for multiple reasons. But overall, it should be good. Feel free to tune in.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Small Sips Wants Cookies Shaped Like Keyboards

If only. Jan wonders out loud about what would happen if seminaries taught how to enact culture shifts in churches:
Seminaries have been described as General College for Professional Ministry. Students take Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, Theology, Christian Education, Practical Theology, Pastoral Care, and Preaching. This track has not changed much in the past 50 plus years.  
As I – and many others – have written, seminarians are being trained to serve churches that no longer exist. Or at the very least least, we need seminarians trained to do 21st Century Ministry which is totally different from 20th Century Ministry. Again, this is old news. But I believe that . . .  
Seminaries need to teach future professional ministers how to shift a congregation’s culture.
I learned a lot of great stuff in seminary. But the vast majority of it was academic stuff about the Bible, theology, and church history, along with a small handful of ministry courses. Some electives helped make up for this along with contextual education, but as far as transformational leadership or even basic church administration, there was next to nothing. The best education I got along these lines was my first few years of ministry and a lot of continuing education related to it.

I don't know the answer regarding how to change seminary curricula along these lines. It seems to me that a good amount of this work is contextual. But there still have to be some basic principles that could be taught to prepare people for a changing world.

Cute video is cute. A link to this video was in a recent UCC Daily Devotional, and it made me smile a lot:

the Scared is scared from Bianca Giaever on Vimeo.

Poke people's eyes out…with style. PeaceBang has really inspired me the past few years to up my game when it comes to professional wardrobe. She recently wrote a post about the importance of sharp edges in one's attire. After sharing a picture of Don Draper (see above), she writes this:
Note all the sharp edges? The triangular edge of the collar, the pointed edges of the lapel (you won’t find business people in round lapels). The clipped hair, the slightly squared toe of the shoes (not round). This all communicates “sharp” in a very literal way, and we need to be aware of that dynamic. This man is sharp, buttoned up, clean lines, discipline, elegance and speed. Even in his insouciant posture with a cigarette in hand, he radiates power, authority and professionalism. There isn’t one “off-duty” aspect to this outfit. He is literally ready for business. 
Power, authority and business are not bad values for a religious leader to have. We must stop thinking that they are, and identifying ourselves as having no connection to those qualities. Spiritual work involves power — if we don’t think we’re working on behalf of a powerful God, what are we doing in this work? Isn’t healing a powerful thing? Bet your bippy it is. Do you not wish to be a powerful preacher, a sharp leader, a person who can use authority well and wisely on behalf of the better world we imagine and work toward? If not, why the hell not? You see what I’m saying? “Can I get an AMEN up in here?” as RuPaul would say? 
How many clergy people do I see who are all soft edges, puffy haloes of frizzy hair, sloppy, dragging pants hems, elastic-band floppy skirts. Not one sharp element of their appearance.
One of her key points is in the second paragraph above, I think: the pastoral office has power that comes with it. Some pastors (myself included once upon a time) like to downplay that power through their wardrobe choices. This becomes an even bigger issue for younger clergy who choose to take this route: why give anybody any more ammo to question one's experience or qualifications by wearing jeans and a t-shirt?

So I'm in favor of pointy things. I wear my pointy wingtips, my pointy ties, my creased shirts, and my squared shoulders and am gonna be all like, "Hi, I'm your pastor. How can I help you today?"

#McConnelling. On a recent episode of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart urged viewers to take some footage of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell obviously meant for SuperPAC purposes and adding your own music. So I went ahead and contributed a couple. First up is The Walking Dead theme:

And then there's the theme from Saved By the Bell: The College Years:

So, yeah. That was fun.

Misc. Jan with a little more on teaching culture shifts based on Harvard Business School's model. Gordon Atkinson shares a dream he recently had. He's blogging through Lent pretty regularly, and I recommend catching up on everything he's writing. Jamie on her son hacking her social media accounts, and then enacting payback. Pretty funny read. Rachel Held Evans is looking for your church stories.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review: Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth by Various Authors

This is the setting: you, the readers, are either clergy or lay leaders of a congregation who are wanting to begin or continue a conversation about the explicit inclusion of persons of same-gender orientation in your congregation; and we, the writers, are representatives of thirteen Baptist Congregations who have engaged in that conversation. - Mahan Siler, "The Congregational Response to Gay and Lesbian Persons," Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

When I finally came to the conclusion that homosexuality is not a sin, it was after a long process that included many different factors. The movement started in college, during which the "What Would Jesus Do?" phenomenon was full strength, when I first began wondering how a disciple of Christ really should approach those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans*, the eventual landing spot being something other than with judgment and vitriol, and also not primarily from an intent to "cure" or convert.

There then came a time of studying what the so-called "proof texts" from scripture actually talk about, considering their context and verbiage more closely. I eventually came to understand the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the various Levitical verses, and the lists in Paul's letters very differently: either they were about something else entirely, were not necessarily applicable to modern situations, or were addressing something much more narrow than we think.

The biggest factor, of course, was actually meeting gay people. In particular, I still recall somewhat vividly a car ride with a gay man during General Synod in Kansas City the summer of 2001, during which he shared his experience of self-discovery, the last vestiges of my former beliefs finally snuffed out.

The resource Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth seems to understand that coming to a new understanding of faith and homosexuality is multi-faceted, and addresses the issue accordingly. The original book was published in 2000 by the Association of Welcoming Baptists, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, and the Alliance of Baptists, all more progressive groups that claim a name one may associate with more conservative causes. A new edition, edited by Cody Sanders, was published in 2013.

Let's get this out of the way: the book is not interested in giving "equal time" to those who believe in something other than the full inclusion and affirmation of people who identify as LGBT. Rather, it is a comprehensive--even exhaustive--compilation of different articles and voices, some Baptist and some not, who provide insight and analysis of the many aspects of why such inclusion and affirmation is important and needed, especially in the church.

The book is organized into sections, beginning with a series of articles on the passages used to justify calling homosexuality a sin. While a few of them are dedicated to breaking down these texts, more than one also notes the evolution of interpretation, using as an example how our understanding of texts advocating slavery has changed. The last article in this section introduces the metaphor of Bible as family album, which gives us permission to debate with our faith ancestors about what they wrote.

The next section, a series of articles on theology and spirituality, is one of the most extensive. Many employ a mix of personal anecdote, theological commentary, and cultural observation to demonstrate current oppressive attitudes that LGBT people face, as well as how Christian beliefs and practices such as welcome, caring for the oppressed, the cross, and body/spirit integration and incarnation help people of faith respond in positive ways to these attitudes. James B. Nelson, a noted writer on theology of the body (and no relation as far as I know), provides one of the most helpful articles in this section.

The next three sections offer personal experiences from individuals, families, and congregations who over time learned to accept themselves or integrate and apply a more loving and welcoming understanding of LGBT issues. While the other sections are important, these sorts of stories are the most powerful, and, in my opinion, help make these issues much more human and real.

There follows from here a series of articles on the psychological and biological factors involved in the LGBT community, not only analyzing what causes one to identify as such, but also the damage that negative experiences such as bullying and exclusion exact. In a multifaceted way, this section shows how and why identifying as LGBT is not like flipping a light switch; rather, it is the result of various genetic, environmental, and psychological factors that are normal, natural, and healthy.

The last section is a series of meditations and sermons, which may be helpful particularly for clergy and other church leaders in figuring out how to offer advocacy to their congregations.

I found Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth to be quite a treasury of information and commentary for people and churches seeking to become more inclusive and affirming. Those who compiled this volume understood that such a search involves addressing multiple factors at once: Biblical interpretation, theological application, personal narrative, and scientific analysis. It took reflection in at least three of these areas over a period of a few years before I came to my own new understanding. Likewise, people and congregations certainly may take their time wrestling with what these authors present so that such an understanding may be discerned, as the title says, rightly.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Monday, March 10, 2014

Lent 2014: 40 Days of Communication

This is the time of year when people write blog posts about what they're taking on or giving up for the season of Lent, that 40-day span leading up to the celebration of Easter. It is a tradition for many to observe some sort of practice, whether of altruism, charity, self-denial, or spiritual enrichment, to help one reflect on the similar themes of Jesus in the wilderness focusing himself for what comes next.

Some will do something basic like give up Oreos or Facebook. Others will work through a devotional book or study. Still others will take on a creative project like I did last year. Still others will go for a grandiose, hipster discipline like "giving up church," or "giving up Lent for Lent."

This year, I'm going for something deceptively simple and low-key. It's really an extension of my selected word for 2014, "Share." 

For 40 days, I'm going to engage in some act of communication with friends or loved ones. A phone call here, a text there, an email here, a social media message there.

Like I said. Simple.

The obvious question that many will ask is, "What's so special about that? What are you really doing that is going to help you become more aware of God through such a thing?"

Allow myself to quote…myself:
I was very drawn into myself in 2013. I could really trace it further back than that, but due to all the transition, some strong natural tendencies, and some stuff I was processing related to some ministry experiences at my previous stop, I was very much in a spiritual cocoon for much of the year. The positive moments came when I picked up the phone and reached out to people, whether to talk over some of the stuff I needed to get through my system, to catch up, or just to get out for a night.
In recent times, when I have isolated myself or taken on an attitude that I can deal with certain situations on my own, it hasn't been very spiritually healthy for me. I think I'm still climbing out of the cocoon that was 2013 (and really 2012, too), and so the simple act of basic communication in some form every day for such a period of time is, I think, a needed part of that climb.

In other words, this isn't exactly something that I do regularly otherwise. But when I do do it, it's been good for my soul, especially lately.

So that's it, really. I'm still trying to share myself with others this year, and I see this as a great opportunity to do so.

Whatever you take on, if that is your practice, peace be with you during this season.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

"From What Is Left" - A Prayer for Ash Wednesday

On dark nights,
when worn-out souls long for relief,
we are keenly aware of our loneliness,
our failures,
our doubts,
our smallness,
past moments we wish we could have back.

Our spiritual comforts wither
when the shadows accuse us so.
The old answers are no longer reliable;
the usual assurances no longer soothing.

This new darkness
relentlessly present
reduces us to shrunken incarnations of who we were
before it engulfed our hearts.

We are burned up and burned out,
ashes of former things all that remain.

We cry to you,
mouths full of cinders,
dry throats forcing out petitions,
hoping you will hear us
straining for something just beyond our ability to believe.

We detect a glow at the center of our smoldering,
a light from a divine place deep within
that we didn't ignite.
You point us back toward it,
which is really to yourself:
You who had been there even
when our imperfect names for it fall away.

Mold us into new forms
from what is left,
earthen vessels ever illuminated by heavenly flame,
anticipating resurrection.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

"Transcending our Boundaries" - A Call to Worship

Leader: Have we come to worship only because we say it is time to do so? We who treat time as a possession, gather at this appointed hour.
People: We've decided that we only have so much time to devote to this service. It may take us the full hour to center ourselves right before the day continues.
Leader: We, with ticking watches, pinging smartphones, and calendars smeared with ink are beckoned here. Would we worship without being prompted so?
People: We seek the freedom that Christ gives: from those things that divide our attention and stunt our spirits.
Leader: In the fullness of time, God sent Jesus to show us Eternal Life: a life beyond artificial limits and rooted in divine grace.
People: We are ever in need of the good news of God’s perpetual presence, transcending human-made boundaries of time and space.

All: God has been, is, and will always be with us, moment by moment and day by day. Let us worship and give thanks!