January 2015 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for the first month of 2015...

1. I admit that I only have a passing acquaintance with Belle and Sebastian. I mostly know them as the "sad bastard music" that Dick plays in the movie High Fidelity. This month they released Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, which is certainly something other than how it's described in that film. This is almost a dance-pop record, with liberal use of synthesizers and upbeat tempos seemingly borrowed from the 1980s. I'm normally not big on this sort of sound, but Coffeedaughter and I had a good time dancing to this. I'd especially recommend the peppy "Enter Sylvia Plath" and the whimsical "Perfect Couples."

2. One of my most-anticipated albums of the year came pretty early, as The Decemberists released What A Terrible World, What a Beautiful World last week. They slowly released a few songs in anticipation, including "Lake Song" and "Make You Better," which are quite good. But really, as expected, the entire album is wonderful. "Anti-Summersong" is upbeat and playful, "Carolina Low" is pensive soulful bluegrass...the whole thing is just incredible. The lyrics are vintage Decemberists in their cleverness, and the instrumentation fits each perfectly. I've already deemed this one of my favorites of 2015. Here's the video for their first single, "Make You Better," starring Nick Offerman:

3. I recently read Sobriety: A Graphic Novel by Daniel D. Maurer. You can read the review here.

4. I also recently read They Call Me Dad by Philip Cameron. That review is here.

5. I recently ran across this cover of Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" by Michigan hardcore band I Prevail. I like it much better than the original:

Vintage CC: Slow to Emerge

I have some fresh words that I intend to share about Emergent before too long, but while I'm still sorting out how best to say them, I figured I'd re-post this entry from July 2011. It references Marcus Borg quite a bit, which was a nice bit of happenstance given his passing last week. Be forewarned that this is the longest post I've ever written.

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

First, Heaping Praise and Appreciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Component: Church Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Component: Theology Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion and Awards for Reading This Far

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

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

Giving Thanks for Marcus Borg

This morning, I woke to the news that scholar, author, and speaker Marcus Borg died yesterday. I was shocked and saddened by this news. I hadn't realized that he was in ill health, let alone that he'd been so close to leaving this earthly life.

My first encounter with Borg's writing was the summer after I graduated college. I was well familiar with the work of the Jesus Seminar by that point, and I took a copy of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time with me to my job as a staff camp counselor with the Ohio Conference Outdoor Ministries. There, seated on a cot and in between shushing 8-11 year-olds who were supposed to be napping, my sense of how the Bible can serve as a window into how my faith ancestors viewed God and Jesus, and how I myself could think about these things in new ways, was challenged and deepened.

Years later, I had the opportunity to meet Borg when he and J.D. Crossan spoke at Eden Theological Seminary. By that point, they'd just penned their latest joint venture, The First Paul, but their lectures focused on the figure of Jesus: reclaiming who he was both for his original ministry and for the purposes of following him today. One of the things that most struck me during these talks was the gentle and passionate spirit with which Borg spoke. It was clear simply by the way he shared with us that this was a man of faith, not a distant and cold scholar. He spoke of Christ genuinely and personally. Since then, whenever I've read his writing, I still hear that voice.

I am very thankful for the impact that Marcus Borg has had on my faith. He's one of many who indeed have helped me see Jesus and the Bible again, as for the first time. My prayers are with his family and others who knew him best. May the church continue to learn from and be challenged by his witness.

Loving the Struggle

The first time I engaged in the spiritual practice of walking a labyrinth was the opening retreat of my seminary career. My class traveled out to a Catholic retreat center, and there was one on the grounds, an 11-circuit Chartes-style set by larger stones around the path and gravel on which to walk. After a brief explanation by one of our retreat leaders, we were released to give it a try.

I've walked labyrinths many times since, although the experience has always brought mixed results. In those times when I'm too conscious of what I'm doing, when I'm willing something to happen, I get nothing out of it. I'm just walking a bunch of twists and turns and I'll have burned a few calories for my trouble. On the other hand, when I give myself over to the practice, when I free my mind and spirit and just let the path happen to me, that is when I receive something from it.

This realization was made no less clear to me than one of the times I walked the labyrinth during my sabbatical in 2010. That day, before entering, I posed a question for which I was hoping for some direction related to ministry at that time. After a few moments, I began my walk.

That particular walk started as one where I wanted to force an answer out of the practice. At first I made each turn deliberately, wanting each step to bring me closer to what I wanted. I started to notice this about myself, and began reflecting on how sometimes I seem to like the idea of the labyrinth more than the practice of it. I'll turn to it for a way of seeking God's direction, but then try to bend it to my control, my parameters, my desires. And then I leave disappointed.

After a few moments of thinking about this, an internal voice said, "Maybe you love the idea of ministry a little too much, too."

By that point, I had been a pastor for just over five years. Before beginning at my first church, I did love the idea of ministry. I had grand dreams of what I would be able to do, the creative muscles I could assert, the traditions that I could help bring to life among my people in new ways, the opportunities for mission and service that surely would be all around us, ready for us to accept.

Of course, ministry in practice is a whole different experience. It involves real people with hangups and idiosyncrasies and schedule conflicts and priorities and ideas about the church that differ from yours. It involves a much slower process of adaptations and change than what you might be prepared for. It involves more limited resources and convincing the right people of new concepts and weird systemic stuff that takes years to understand, let alone work with.

A lot of people love the idea of ministry, less so the particulars. That's why so many pastors leave ministry within the first five years. It wasn't what they expected. The idea and the practice are too far apart to be reconciled. I've wondered about that for myself at times. Is what I'm doing worth any of our while, let alone God's? Is any of this remotely close to what Jesus had in mind?

There's an episode of the show Parks and Recreation where the main character, Leslie, is complaining to her colleague Ron about how hard public service is. She's considering leaving everything behind after years of stonewalling and lack of appreciation from her fellow citizens. Ron replies with a story about fixing a radiator, saying he did it because he enjoys fixing them. He applies it to Leslie's situation thus: “You like fixing this town, Leslie. You always have. You know it’s an uphill battle, but you love the struggle.”

To serve in ministry, you have to love the struggle. You have to love the struggle of bringing individuals into a new understanding of what the church can be. You have to love the struggle of helping families deal with the emptiness of loss. You have to love the struggle of wrestling with Biblical texts and how they may apply to the complicated, anxious lives of those hearing you read them each week. You have to love the struggle of reconciling the needs of a community with what your people are willing and able to do, as well as gently challenging them to do more. You have the love the struggle of loving the people to whom you are called before they'll allow you to lead them. Not every pastoral visit will end in a tidy bow and not every program will manifest the kingdom of God right before your eyes, and that's okay. The struggle, like all of life, continues. And those moments of grace that happen along the way, big or small, make it worthwhile.

January 23rd is the tenth anniversary of my ordination. Ten years ago, I made vows to, among other things, speak the truth in love while maintaining the peace of the church. The tension between these two has always brought a struggle. At times I have been called to one more than the other, and I have had to discern when each has been necessary. I have far from a perfect track record, but the struggle is more about being present than being perfect.

In ten years, I like to think that I've been disabused of my love of the idea of ministry. What I have to love instead is the struggle, the God who has called me and the people with whom I do so. The idea was never real, anyway. I am daily reminded that the others are, and living and ministering in that reality has brought many more blessings.

Book Review: They Call Me Dad by Philip Cameron

The fall of Communism had come only months before. The iron curtain was finally destroyed, and detailed news from the Soviet Bloc was finally being reported to the outside world. Before the fall, no one in the Western world knew that mass orphanages, filled with babies living in horrible conditions, littered these countries. Suddenly these children were featured on one television news report after the other. My dad had had a steady diet of these reports for days, and he was like a man possessed; nothing else seemed to matter to him.

"Philip, are you there?" he started again. "Did you hear me? Babies are dying, and you have to do something!" - Philip Cameron, They Call Me Dad

The letter from James in the New Testament has this take on what religion is really about: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress." (James 1:27) Statements like this tend to rankle some Christians, because it seems to put something other than belief in the driver's seat of the essence of the Christian life. Throughout his letter, James deigns to suggest that service, rather than creedal adherence, is the more important thing, the "pure and undefiled" thing.

One of the implications of passages like this is that when Christians serve alongside one another, belief doesn't really matter all that much. I who identify as more on the liberal end of the spectrum could be serving up soup next to James Dobson's biggest fan, and it doesn't matter in that moment because we're feeding some of God's beloved children. The people we're helping aren't checking our theological ID. They just need someone to notice them and to serve.

In They Call Me Dad: How God Uses the Unlikely to Save the Discarded, we read the story of Philip Cameron: a successful pastor, preacher, evangelist, and singer whose life takes a dramatic turn when his father insists that he help children across Romania and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. These children are living in what could be called worse than squalor: mold-infested buildings with no heat, little to no food served each day, workers who withhold affection, and no prospects for the future other than homelessness and, for many of the girls, human trafficking.

Cameron's description of these conditions is vivid and, I think, one of the most convicting features of the book. Even since the fall of the iron curtain, what children are facing in these places is perhaps not well known. My wife, who is a psychiatric nurse practitioner, has had firsthand experience with a few who have been adopted out of Romania and has seen the lasting effects that such trauma has on them. If I were to recommend this book to anyone, it would be primarily for this reason.

This is certainly a very personal narrative for Cameron, as he describes first his conflicts with and later his grief over his father, as well as his struggle to help the orphans and, in particular, to adopt one of them. The emotion he feels in each chapter as he reacts to these events is apparent, as are his accounts of the process by which he organizes projects and raises money to improve the quality of life in these orphanages. This includes haggling with government workers, dealing with Christian celebrities who co-opt his cause for their own purposes, and building relationships within neighborhoods.

There are times when Cameron's theology of God's guidance may be seen as problematic. There is one story, for instance, when Cameron is looking for guidance and prays for God to send a fox across the road as a sign of what he's supposed to do, and sure enough, one appears. At other times, he talks about praying for people to come around to his point of view so that he can carry on with his sense of mission. I certainly wouldn't dispute that Cameron's story or cause is saturated in the type of love and justice that God wishes for him and others to pursue, nor that God isn't with him every step of this journey. But how he frames this for the reader seems to trip up the narrative more than help it along.

For some, this will seem like a minor quibble. And if one is able to see past the theology--or even if one is served by it--to focus on the main narrative, then perhaps that is more critical to begin with.

Ultimately, Cameron's story is one of taking on the seemingly impossible to see what he can do to help others. Fortunately for him, he is also aided greatly by his status and his connections, which also assists him in fulfilling some of his prayers. This was, after all, not a simple man from Alabama being called to do amazing things in eastern Europe, but a well-known evangelical pastor being aided in his work by well-resourced allies.

Cameron is wise enough to acknowledge this, however. In more than one instance, he reflects on the toll his newfound calling takes on his schedule and on relationships within the evangelical world. Where once he was traveling across the country to speak or sing in big beautiful churches and TV studios to the adoration of so many, he is now driving on dirt roads to deliver food and supplies to some of the most dire and desolate places in the world. At times he worries whether he'll be asked back, not just because he had to break commitments, but because he's now serving in a role much less palatable to those audiences.

Some will have a hard time with the theology, but the story is much bigger than that. God indeed calls all people no matter how we image the one doing the calling. Widows and orphans don't check theological ID. They just need someone to notice them and to serve.

(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.)

Book Review: Sobriety by Daniel D. Maurer

The solution to our illness isn't something meant to drag us down. In the same vein, twelve step recovery is really about waking up to what our condition is...a spiritual problem. Remember, spiritual things aren't the same as religion. Religion can have spirituality connected with it, and many people do find their spirituality in a church. What I'm saying is that our difficulty as addicts is connected directly with our dis-ease. We alcoholics and addicts are not "at-ease"--not at all! To feel "at-ease" we need either: 1) drugs and alcohol, which eventually kill us, or 2) a spiritual path to serenity and wellness. So the twelve steps are really about life! - Daniel D. Maurer, Sobriety: A Graphic Novel

I admit that I only have a passing familiarity with recovery groups and 12-step programs. I've attended a few meetings as an observer and have a copy of the "big book"--largely untouched--on my shelf. I have several friends and acquaintances who are making journeys through recovery and have heard small pieces of their stories. Thankfully, I have never had to make this journey myself, although I do recognize certain tendencies in me that could necessitate such a thing if I'm not attentive.

That is pretty much where my knowledge ends. I'm guessing that many in helping professions who may encounter such issues could benefit from a better understanding. Even more importantly, there are many seeking recovery or hesitant about such programs--as well as those seeking help for a loved one--who'd like to know more about what it entails. Fortunately, Daniel D. Maurer and illustrator Spencer Amundson have given us Sobriety: A Graphic Novel.

Maurer, a former Lutheran pastor and person in recovery, clearly wanted to provide a simple and accessible way to explain the ethos of Alcoholics Anonymous. I'll be up front here and say that he succeeds in several ways.

First, the driving narrative is the interaction between a diverse group of people at a treatment center. I mean "diverse" both in terms of age, ethnicity, and orientation, but also in terms of what brought them together and where they are in the recovery process. The oldest and most experienced, Larry, acts as a guide for the others, who have questions or who are having difficulty or disagreements with parts of the program.

Second, these difficulties and disagreements seem to be included because they are quite real for many who are going through such programs, and they are presented with integrity and addressed accordingly. A few other characters, for instance, have a hard time with all the references to a "higher power." Another disagrees with having to go through treatment at all and thinks the steps don't seem like a big deal to manage. These concerns, mainly via Larry, are taken seriously and explained in terms of one's individual path. That is, no two people will interpret the steps the same, and the journey with be different for everyone. The program will be for each what he or she needs.

Third, the twelve steps are intentionally included and presented one by one, with commentary by different characters to help one another understand. Again, one character may embody a certain common objection, and others will help explain and interpret what it could mean for them.

Finally, there are a few intermissions where comic versions of the author and illustrator talk about what has happened so far and present a more straightforward explanation of certain concepts. These include brief anecdotes about and thoughts from figures like AA founder Bill W., Carl Jung, and Viktor Frankl that help flesh out the philosophy behind the steps.

Sobriety: A Graphic Novel is a fantastic introduction to this program, and I think it would be helpful for those needing such a program for themselves. I'd certainly recommend it for them, as well as people like me seeking a better understanding in order to help others if or when the need arises.

(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.)

Small Sips Isn't Surprised By Much

Hopefully people know this by now. Carey Nieuwhof observes that the church needs to keep up with the changing times. That part likely isn't surprising:
You might think “things will never be the same again” is a conversation reserved for people over 70.

But my guess is you’re struggling with that in ministry leadership right now.  
Even if you don’t realize it. And you’re probably struggling with it more than you think.  
Wise leaders pay attention to those instincts and jump on any insights right away, because the key to the future lies within them.  
Even if you’re a young leader, the change you’re seeing around you is radical. And it will require a radical response from you.
From there follows five church-related things that will never be the same again. Some are more helpful than others (my tradition tends not to have revival meetings), but the others are good reminders of what the church is likely to face if it isn't already facing them: having kids isn't an automatic guarantee of young people returning, ministry leaders will come from educational and experiential backgrounds other than seminary, etc.

Hopefully many churches and denominations are having these sorts of conversations by this point, but I wouldn't be surprised if people still found articles like this surprising.

This is also not very surprising. You may have heard of Ryan Bell, the former pastor who decided to conduct a year-long experiment in 2014 where he'd completely give up believing in God and religious practice. Near the end of the year, he was set to decide whether to stick with atheism or to head back to church:
When interviewed recently by the LA Times, Bell said he was waiting until the last moment to announce what his decision is – if only to avoid the awkwardness of letting people in his life down. Should he give up religion, it will mean leaving a great deal of his life behind him. However, it seems unlikely that he will be ready to embrace religion after all he’s been through. For example, listen to the way he talks about the agony of choosing a “side.”  
“I do think I’ve now seen both sides of the coin,” he said on a recent day. “Being with the atheists, they can have the same sort of obnoxious certainty that some Christians have, and I don’t want to be a part of that. It feels like I’m stuck in the middle. I want to be for something good, but I don’t want boundaries, and religion just feels like a very bounded thing.  
“The question I am asking right now: Why do I need religion to love?”  
That’s the language of doubt, if there ever was one.
At the very end of the article, it's revealed that he did decide to remain an atheist. Given how he seemed to have little support from his denomination or the "faith-based" schools at which he was teaching, those would put religion and religious practice in a hole for me right out of the gate. But beyond that, it sounds like Bell really studied the issue throughout the year and came to his conclusion through intentional thought, not just via reactionary anger as is the stereotype.

Sunday School class idea. Jonathan Alsop, a teacher at the Boston Wine School, is developing a class on what Jesus would have eaten and drank:
Alsop founded the school 14 years ago and has taught food and wine classes on everything from pairing wine with meat to tasting the wines of Tuscany. Alsop came up with this latest idea after reading the Gospels.  
"This picture of Jesus as a foodie and a wine lover, slowly but surely, starts to emerge. I mean, his first miracle was turning water into wine," he says.  
As Alsop opens a bottle of Italian wine, he explains to his students that the wine they are sampling bears little, if any, resemblance to wine during Christ's time.  
"It's clean. It's clear. It's in a bottle," says Alsop, holding up the wine glass and examining it. "These wines were shipped around the Mediterranean in ceramic or wood casks; they would have taken on that flavor. This is almost certainly different."
Obviously it wouldn't be an exact replication, but for those who want to experience something akin to what Jesus would have done during his life without planning a trip to the Middle East, this would be pretty interesting.

Something to think about for the next year. Last week, Jim Harbaugh was officially named the new head coach at the University of Michigan. I am just a little bit excited about this. Maybe more than a little. I AM VERY, VERY EXCITED ABOUT THIS.

Anyway, someone posted this image on Twitter courtesy of the Ohio State blog Eleven Warriors:

Oh my goodness, will this be fun.

Misc. Paul Wallace thinks Ryan Bell kind of has a pointHappy ten-year blogiversary to PeaceBang. Oh hey, I made the Christian Century's CCblog network's list of top blog posts for 2014. So I raise another mug to that.

Turning Ten

We write to discover ourselves, to connect with other people, to explore language, maybe because we don’t know what else to do with ourselves and we know suicide isn’t a good option, or we don’t want it to be an option, and so in this way we write to save ourselves, to record ourselves, to root ourselves — whatever the specific reason, always always writing is a reaching towards, a rearranging of words to understand something better, to make something feel more precise. It is a fumbling in the dark. It is a belief that there is something worth fumbling for.

The above quote comes from a blog post I stumbled upon called After All, You Feel Alone Because You Are: Writing As Compulsion. It references an essay by Joan Didion that I've read several times in recent years entitled "On Keeping a Notebook," which explores the strange compulsion a certain segment of the population feels to write. Some journal, others keep less organized scribbles in spiral notebooks, and many have taken advantage of one or more of the options that social media has provided for expression through writing.

I myself have had an on-again, off-again relationship with notebooks and journaling over the years. I kept stacks of notebooks of drawings through my school years, which are now lost to history. I surely did plenty of writing in college and seminary, but less of the self-reflective variety. I tried, but to say it was sporadic would be generous.

But I always liked the idea of it. Even when I wasn't regularly writing recreationally, I knew I'd pick up a pen and notebook again someday, because I wouldn't be able to stay away. The experience of writing was too enticing to ignore forever. Even those early notebooks of drawings had helped me make sense of my world. It was only a matter of time.

It was when I entered ministry that I decided that I needed to get serious again. About six weeks into my first settled pastorate, I set up a blog. Quite unexpectedly, it's been a companion throughout my professional life, even bringing me occasional wider affirmation and notoriety along the way.

Over the years, I've wondered whether this medium would be worth keeping. And yet the compulsion moves me, nudging me to keep reaching toward something I can't quite grasp but believe writing can help me find. This blog has helped me make sense of what I am fumbling toward as a pastor and spiritual director, as a husband and father, as a person of faith and as a person in general. I'm still far from discovering whatever it is that I'm seeking, but I'm closer to it because I write, and because somebody out there is reading.

I gave myself an early blogiversary present. You might have noticed it already, but I figured that it was finally time to get a custom domain name. My Blogger address has been fine, but I feel a little more legitimate this way; a little more established and independent. This seemed an ample way to celebrate.

Aside from that, I thought I'd raise a mug to the blog, and to you, whoever you are (as you see me doing above). As I keep fumbling along, reaching, and rearranging words, it's been wonderful to have someone follow along, even if it was by discovering a single post from years ago that you found helpful. Such a person might not be back to read this, but I toast them as well.

So here's to my first ten years. Here's to the continual search for something worth fumbling for.

One Word 365: Venture

At the beginning of 2014, I discovered a different take on making New Years resolutions called One Word 365. This was thanks to Katherine Willis Pershey, who has been doing this for a few years now.

The basic gist of One Word 365 is that you try to live according to a single word for the entire year, as opposed to a whole list of good intentions. At the beginning of last year, for instance, I chose the word "Share:"
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. 
On top of that, it took me needing to tell people I needed to talk; they weren't going to read my mind. Being able to share a Five Iron Frenzy concert with an old friend was good for my soul. Even sharing books off of my bookshelf with people whom I thought would enjoy them was important for me to do. 
So, the seeds are planted. Now for this year, I plan to nurture it further, to share myself more with others in a way that I really haven't for a long time. 
So this is my word for 2014: share. To share more of who I am, what I need, and what I have.
Before I go any further, I should probably tell you that Share went...okay. I started the year with a Grand Plan, and it went well for quite a while. During Lent, I took on the discipline of communicating/reaching out to someone every day via phone calls, texts, or social media messages (Facebook birthday greetings didn't count). This part went well. I was regularly in touch with good friends and relatives, and it was a great experience of connecting or re-connecting with loved ones.

After that, I had a plan to have a big giveaway of books I didn't want any more during the summer months, which never happened. I did give away a few individual volumes to people, but I never got beyond that. The fall picked up a little, as I reached out to a few newer pastors in the area after realizing that all my usual local sources of collegial support had moved on. There's some great potential for deeper relationships here, and I'm quite excited for the future in that sense.

So, in summation: it could have been better, but it at least got the ball rolling in getting me out of my self-imposed shell and there are great prospects for continuing along the path I started.

My word for 2015 has been taking shape for a few months now, due to a couple factors:

  • A book I reviewed a few months ago entitled Made in the USA, detailing the plague of human trafficking in this country, which caused me to consider how I could get more involved in this important justice issue, even if it would be an incredible leap outside my comfort zone.
  • An article by Carol Howard Merritt about pastors intentionally doing work and making connections outside the church, and how transformative it can be for ministry.
  • A general restlessness to get out and do stuff: play an open mic, join a Friday night round of Magic: The Gathering, whatever.
All of these things together inspired my word for the new year:


At least once a month, I plan to venture out to do...something. Anything. I could call up a friend for coffee or drinks. I could more actively participate in a justice cause that I care about. I could be more intentional about making connections in the community of which my church is a part. I could play my guitar on a stage somewhere. Whatever the particulars, I'd be venturing out to just be a bigger part of the world beyond the walls of home and church. Consider it the logical next step of Share.

Ideally, this would happen much more often than once a month, but that's the absolute basement-level requirement.

For my continued development as a person and as a pastor, I need to venture. So I shall.