A New Beginning

If you are following this blog (I know there’s a couple of you out there) . .  .

I wanted to introduce you to another site which I have started.  As I near completion of my studies, I’ll have a bit more time to write there (and here) and I look forward to working through some stuff that I have long neglected.  This site will remain active and I hope to devote some more time to the things I have traditionally worked on here, but my sports and religion stuff has a new home.  So . . . if you have a few minutes, check it out:  https://sportsandreligion.wordpress.com

The Unkingdom of God: A Book Review

unkingdomOnce in awhile I review a book for Mike Morrell and Speakeasy.  I haven’t reviewed one in awhile, but when Mark Van Steenwyk’s book came available, it looked like something I’d like to dig into.  The Unkingdom of God is, essentially, a reflection of the practice of Christian anarchy shared through Van Steenwyk’s experience as a practitioner as a Mennonite pastor in Minnesota.

Unfortunately, I was not captivated by Van Steenwyk’s prose and skimmed through some portions I found to be somewhat repetitive even though I enjoyed the general thrust of The Unkingdom.  Throughout the book, I found myself unsettled by some of the author’s claims, though I usually realized that I was more put off by the fact that these are things I need to hear more than any issue I had with his message in particular.

A few years ago I went to a lecture by Irish, post-modern philosopher (and consummate critic of Western evangelicalism), Peter Rollins, and I distinctly remember him acknowledging his place at the periphery of the church.  He said something to the effect of, “I stand at the edge of the church beckoning her onward, beyond her complacency and inspiring her imagination.  I don’t expect everyone to stand alongside me.”  I’m sure he even acknowledged that it isn’t a safe place to be.  In the same way, at the Streaming Conference at Rochester College, back in October, the prolific blogger Richard Beck mentioned how he had really resonated with Rollins’ work on doubt and uncertainty.  However, once he began working with a prison ministry, he began to lose his resonance with Rollins.

I  say all of that, because I think Van Steenwyk’s work is similar (though not in content), to Rollins.  Van Steenwyk stands at the edges of the church and beckons the entire church to consider the implications of its complicity with the powers of the world.  In the tradition of the Israelite prophets, he asks the church, “Can’t you see who you’ve become?  Don’t you see what’s become of the mission of God?”  Interweaving his personal story of calling and transformation, Van Steenwyk does salvage conversations of Christian anarchism from the world of esoterism where so much of that conversation often remains, and asks the all-important question, “What if we actually tried that?”

He’s kind of like one of those annoying friends who just won’t let something go.  The kind of friend you need to keep you honest, and make you reflect – even when you don’t want to.  As David Fitch says in the Introduction, I don’t always agree with him, and even in my own anti-institutional leanings, I can still see an upside and the contributions of systems more than Van Steenwyk ever acknowledges.  In emphasizing their fallen nature, the author seems to forget that, as Walter Wink himself emphasizes, the powers and principalities are inherently good.  However, like that annoying friend who just won’t let it go without a concession, throughout his book, Van Steenwyk continued to nag me relentlessly to acknowledge the  injustices I so often ignore.  He emphatically calls the reader to a radical notion of community that we long for deep down, but see unable to allow ourselves to try.

While I haven’t read extensively in the area of Christian anarchy, what I have read often is so far removed from actual practice that it often leaves the reader inspired, but with no practical suggestions to turn toward in order to begin.  Mark Van Steenwyk does succeed in that, I believe – in remaining stringently practical throughout.  I found myself, throughout his book, reflecting on my current practices of “being a Christian” and he pushes me forward to break down more barriers, to overcome more insecurities, and, ultimately, to trust in God.  I think this book is a great offering for someone who maybe completely new to this radical notion of the kingdom, and who needs a kindred spirit to empower them to ask challenging questions.  For others who are better read in Wink, Stringfellow, and Yoder, this may be better set aside in favor of some other options.

2014 – My year in reading

Böcker

A few years back I started writing down all the books I read each year because it was getting difficult to keep up with all of them.  I’d start to forget if I read a book, and if I did, when, and all that.  Plus, it has made it easy to go back and reflect on the best stuff I read over the past year.  I don’t read like most people.  The vast majority of what I read is a few years old.  Did you know if you wait a year or two, books are cheaper?  That’s the gist of my philosophy on reading.  So if I really want a new book, I’ll but it on Amazon, but, but mostly my books come by the whim of a Goodwill store of a Half Price bookstore.

A few notes on the genres in which I spent my time reading.  1 – I finished the bulk of my research for my dissertation, so there I read a whole lot of books on the sociological and theological connection of sports.  That’s becoming the sweet spot in my reading.  That’s where I like to spend my time.  2 – I decided last year that I was going to begin to read all of Stephen King’s novels in the order in which they were published.  As a rule, I don’t read a ton of fiction, but I have long enjoyed Stephen King’s books.  I find him to be a great story teller, and I often resonate with these stories.  Throughout the year, it provided a nice break from nonfiction.  3 – I’m hoping to diversify my reading more this year.  We’ll see what happens.

Best book I read in 2014

they played their hearts out

They Played Their Hearts Out is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  It’s a wonderfully told true story of the grassroots basketball machine in Southern California.  The author, George Dohrmann, was allowed behind-the-scenes access to a coach trying to break into a lucrative, grassroots, corporate-sponsored coaching career as well as about two dozen different players who Dohrmann followed from middle school through college (some of the biggest basketball schools in the country).  It is inspiring at times, disheartening at others, and really eye-opening throughout.  As I discovered in my research, AAU basketball isn’t really thrilled to have journalists probing around behind-the-scenes, and Dohrmann’s book provides an essential perspective.  He goes where few journalists have ever gone before and has provided a realistic insight into the very youth sports machine that my dissertation is critical of.  Kobe Bryant’s recent comments along with LeBron James‘ helped bring light to the same topic even more recently.  Anyone who wants to think seriously about youth sports should read this book.

Best Stephen King Book I read in 2014

the stand

At this point, I think I’ve read about 20 of Stephen King’s books. Next up this year is his work of non-fiction Danse Macabre.  As I said earlier, I’ve taken up Stephen King’s books, because he is one of the few authors of fiction I’ve especially resonated with.  And of all of his books I’ve read, this was probably the one I enjoyed the most (with the exception of the Dark Tower series).  I remember watching the mini-series that was based on the books back in the early 1990’s, and have been rewatching it on Netflix.  I enjoyed the show, but the book was absolutely brilliant.  I lost myself in it over the weeks that I read it.  I read the abridged version, and plan to read the longer version when I get to the point that it was released in perspective of the others.  This novel proves, once and for all, that Stephen King was post-apocalyptic before post-apocalyptic was cool.  While the subject has become a staple in literature, on television, and in the movies, The Stand remains as one of the best of the lot.

Book I Should Have Read Earlier than 2014

sex god

I like Rob Bell, but have never been part of his cult of personality that many others have been.  I read Velvet Elvis and enjoyed it, I read Jesus Wants to Save Christians and enjoyed it even more, I watched the NOOMA videos and thought some were brilliant, and others were weird, but it wasn’t until this past year that I finally got around to reading the copy of Sex God and wondered why I waited so long.  I read it as I was studying to teach a class on the controversial topic of homosexuality (you can check it out online here) and it really helped provide me a framework to teach the class.  I wish I was as creative as Rob, and I appreciate his out-of-the-box way of seeing things.  It’s a really nice book on sex.

Book that I Keep Coming Back to from 2014

changing the gameIf sports ain’t your thing, sorry to bore you with these contributions from last year, but as I said, that’s where my head’s been the past couple of years.  John O’Sullivan has provided the youth sports industry in America with a resource that I hope more and more people will take a look at.  In all my research in this area, I didn’t find any resources quite like this.  He’s recognized many of the shortcomings in today’s youth sports industry and is setting out to address them.  If you want to see a synopsis and have a few minutes (about 10) his TED Talk is excellent and summarizes what his book is all about.  If you are a coach or have children involved in youth sports, this is the one book I would suggest above all the others.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXw0XGOVQvw

Book that Most Surprised Me in 2014

unlikely discipleI had kind of a low expectation for The Unlikely Disciple.  I didn’t expect to hate it, I just kind of expected it to be a typical caricature of either the Left or the Right political worlds by the other.  It certainly was that (a Liberals insider-tale of the tight-knit conservative world of Liberty University).  However, I thought Kevin Roose was able to somehow avoid extremes in his honest memoir, and provide a heart-warmingly honestly picture of a world that he was incredibly unfamiliar with.  Essentially, the uber-liberal Roose, brought up in an extremely (and admittedly) Ohio home and, at the time, current student at Brown University, decided to embark on a year-long undercover experience at “America’s Holiest University” – Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.  The book takes quite a few surprising turns, and Roose proves to be gentle and honest about where he was wrong about the people who became his friends, and at the same time, holding steady to his beliefs.  I was surprised to find myself coming back to the book so often after I had finished it.

Funniest Book I read in 2014

yes pleaseMy wife and I have read many books together through the years, but it’s taken a bit of a hiatus through my dissertation process.  It was nice to be able to enjoy reading Amy Poehler’s new book over the Christmas break.  Reading her book as a pastor, I had the following observations (of which I shared with my church yesterday): 1 – We should laugh more.  Christians, as a rule, take themselves way too seriously.  Mary Beth and I have long enjoyed watching SNL (the book we’ve begun for the new year is Live From New York and chronicles the history of the show.  Poehler’s book is, as expected, hilarious.  When I think about faith and God and the way that it is often expressed in church, I just wonder, why don’t people laugh more?   2 – Amy’s situation in comedy (along with many other women on SNL) is eerily similar to women in churches.  Amy tells of often being the only women in the room full of men.  Most comedies have exclusively male writing crews.  For all my Christian brothas and sistas . . . doesn’t that sound a bit familiar?  Amy Poehler along with Tina Fey, Maya Rudolf, and many others who have gone before them – represent a new era of strong female leaders in comedy.  I wonder how they would fare in church?  3 – Speaking of Christianity, Amy never mentions Jesus or churches, but she does, quite noticeably, quote quite a few Hindu and Buddhist platitudes.  I find it interesting to see how many celebrities opt for Eastern religion over Christianity.  When someone is in search of inner peace and meditation and stillness, the last thing they think of is the noise of mega churches or the shallowness of many preachers.  We should take note.

I don’t know if anyone cares too much, but it’s nice for me to spend a few minutes and reflect on some of the good books I came across.  A few other honorable mentions were, from my dissertation field (sports and religion): Michael Novak’s beautiful The Joy of Sports (if you are a Christian, and you love sports, you really should read this), Young Athletes, Couch Potatoes, and Helicopter Parents (I dropped a buck to get this one, but it was worth it – a whole lot of youth parents need to read this one), and Lincoln Harvey’s A Brief Theology of Sport.(if you’re interested in the topic, but wish I’d stop giving references, this is a good, short one that is worth the read).

A a few non-sports and theology related: I have finally read the first two books of the Harry Potter series, with my daughter, and think that J. K. Rowling is brilliant, absolutely brilliant; Stephen King’s The Dead Zone is a fantastic book and not talked about enough – incredible how many original stories he’s been able to write, ‘Salem’s Lot was great too, and, just to prove that I don’t blindly read Stephen King, I was a little disappointed with his newest book Revival.  With a former pastor as a main character, the book advertises following his journey through doubt, but I thought that faith ended up playing much more of a background for the plot than actually carrying it along.  I thought he could do a lot more with that, and  I thought his earlier book published this year, Mr. Mercedes, was much more fun and original.   I had high hopes of Revival, and thought that it was just OK.  Might have been better as an novella or even a short story.

The very first book I read last year was Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber, and many people have said a great deal of nice things about it which I would concur.  It’s been a year, so I’m a little foggy on it, but I will say, her kindred spirit may just find herself at home for the new blog I am working to roll out here before too long.  Anyway, I’m ready for another year of reading.

Starting Fresh

Over the past year I’ve been extremely busy finishing up my doctoral work at Fuller Seminary. The first draft of my dissertation is nearly finished, and I am excited to be polishing it off sometime early next year. In the mean time, I am also excited to re-energize my efforts in blogging. I will be taking some time over the Christmas break and into next year to redesign and re-imagine my online presence. As I get older, I recognize more and more the desire and interest I have to write. Something that would have once seemed exceptionally odious, now I actually find myself looking forward to.

2015 will see me writing more, I’ve just got to determine what exactly that writing will encompass. My dissertation has had me reading and researching extensively in the area of sports and theology, and specifically youth sports. That remains an incredibly overlooked area and I look forward to seeing where that might one day lead.

I am now in my twelfth year of working in a small church. I’m so at home in the small church now that any thing larger seems like a foreign world. As I peruse the on-line world throughout my week, I am struck by just how little attention the small church receives. I expect to spend some time addressing matters unique to the small church in my future writing endeavors.

I continue to read as much as I can, and I always appreciate seeing others’ lists of books they’ve read and summaries of books. I want to be more intentional in engaging the books that I read online. I don’t read books like a lot of pastors. I will get a timely book here and there, but I typically buy most of my books at Goodwill and Half Price Books, so most of what I am reading is a little dated, odd, and/or random. I like that. I like to be random. I’ve also found a post-doctorate respite in fiction, so I look forward to engaging that a bit more.

Amidst these interests are additional random things I find myself involved in: parenting my kids, watching sports, watching movies, being a husband, and observing the culture of the church today. Hopefully, I can find a recipe in the coming months that will organize these thoughts and begin a more intentional effort toward providing thought-provoking, helpful resources for a variety of people. Before the end of the year, I will make one more entry here reflecting on some of the books I’ve read this year, and then we’ll see what the future holds.

Touchless Toilets, Redemption, and The Problem with the Church

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about what’s wrong with the church.  Being a full-time vocational minister, I suppose it’s not that unusual as there has long been a nagging spirit of discontent and discouragement rampant among that crowd – just check out the pastor’s resource pages on Amazon.  As of late, however, these conversations have undergone a noticeable change in tone.  We haven’t been spouting off about our congregation’s discontent regarding a new worship practice or how one faction in the church has offended another.   These things still come up, don’t get me wrong, but there has been a noticeable shift in the conversations I’ve been having and a lot of the material I’ve been reading.  I’ve talked with pastors from a diverse theological background and the problems seem consistent from one group to another.

Take Roger Olson’s blog post from earlier this week, “A Shocking Conclusion about American Christianity” – a reflection on Christian Smith’s Therapeutic Moralistic Deism detailed in his book Soul Searching.  The article is well worth your time as he helps succinctly articulate some of the conversations I have been having with so many other ministers.  At the end of the day, we are struggling with the depth of faith of our church members.  We can talk all day and all night about this worship practice or that leadership trend and dress it up in the latest, faddish church-ese, but at the heart of the matter is whether or not our members have had a life-changing encounter with the Gospel.  Olson makes the following provocative statement which helped sum up my reflections from over a decade of full-time ministry:

“I am afraid that it is becoming increasingly harder to find the gospel in America. It is either wrapped so tightly in the flag as to be virtually invisible or relegated to a footnote to messages about “success in living,” being nice and including everyone.”

The more I’ve reflected on this statement throughout the week, the more I’ve been looking in the mirror.  It reflects, too well, I’m afraid, my church; and if I’m honest with myself, my own faith.  We are all wrapped up in our Amercan suburban culture of comfort, success, and felt needs.  I know the hearts of our people is to do good, but I’m beginning to wonder if we have become confused about what exactly “good” is. I sometimes think that we have convinced ourselves that if we round up our grocery bill at Kroger to feed the hungry we are living out our faith calling.  But I want to be a part of something.  It doesn’t have to be big and it doesn’t have to be flashy, but I want it to matter.  It’s a feeling I should have being part of the church, but, at least lately, I haven’t had that feeling.

I’m struggling so much to find the Gospel in America today that, I even turned on the local Christian radio station today on the way to the office seeking inspiration and encouragement for the day.  I hardly ever turn on Christian radio anymore having grown tired of the whole “safe for the whole family” schtick, but I still do find the occasional CCM song to be inspiring and, even once in awhile, prophetic.  I prayed to myself in my old truck that such a song would be played this morning on the way to the office, and my prayer was granted as the song, “Children of God” by Third Day began to play.

The song begins with the powerful lyrics, “Praise to the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ our God and our King to Him will we sing” and Mac Powell’s voice belts the chorus, “Children of God, sing your song and rejoice For the love he has given us all; Children of God, by the blood of His Son We have been redeemed and we have been called, children of God.”  All powerful Gospel reminders that encouraged me to start the day today.

Then, as the song comes to a close, a chorus of children sing the following melodic refrain: “We are the saints, we are the children, we’ve been redeemed, we’ve been forgiven; We are the sons and daughters of our God.”  Say what you want about Third Day, about the shortcomings and sins of the contemporary Christian music industry, and all of that . . but these are powerful lyrics to hear piercing through my speakers over the open airwaves.  No doubt in many parts of the world if this was happening I would have a better appreciation for it.  So would the radio personalities . . . I hope.

After this song came through and had given me encouragement and kind of refocused my attention for the day, and in my spiritual revelry, I forgot to change the station as the DJ’s started talking.  The morning show broke immediately to a bit talking about the latest invention to hit the marketplace: Kohler’s new touchless toilets.  Now, my wife and I saw a commercial for these toilets earlier this week and it was a quick conversation starter.  I didn’t pay much attention to what the DJs said because I was in spiritual whiplash over what had just happened.

I had been singing the lines over and over again in my mind, “We are the saints, we are the children, we’ve been redeemed, we’ve been forgiven,” and with no segue or acknowledgement to these eternally significant assertions – these radio heads begin talking about toilets.  Toilets.  And it dawned on me that this experience and the struggles of our churches go hand in hand.

We’ve become numb to the Gospel.  We hear its life-changing words that have cost so many people their lives, that have changed lives and literally moved mountains, and we shrug our shoulders and go on with life as usual.  The words of that song have been a matter of life and death to so many martyrs throughout the world.   Yet we hear the Gospel preached and are more concerned with whether or not we liked the songs that we sang.  We read about a Savior who washed feet but bitch and moan about the slightest inconveniences to our lives.  The Bible proclaims the gathering of his people sacred and holy, but we have too many other things to do.  We hear children singing about being saints and children of God, and are moved to mindlessly talk about toilets.

So, in a way, I throw my hands up.  After Peter preached on Pentecost, Acts says that the people’s hearts were pricked.  I want to be a part of something that has pricked the hearts of people.  Where people are inspired by their calling from God and seek out his guidance for their lives.  This is not a sky-is-falling reflection, but, like Olson, the church is living in troubling times.  So often that is said reflecting on the surrounding culture, but the truth of the matter is that it’s troubling times for the American church herself as we have lost our way and we just keep doing whatever it is we have been doing.

 

The Book of Tobit and Entertaining Angels

Over the past two months or so, I’ve been preaching a series entitled, “Through Their Eyes.”  In it, we have considered the perspective of various people in Scripture who are often overlooked, neglected, or ignored.  We considered the story of David and Bathsheba from Bathsheba’s perspective, Ezekiel from the perspective of his wife, Jesus through the eyes of children, etc.  As we have neared the Christmas season, we have considered the perspective of those in the Nativity story – particularly those whose voice is fairly absent.

This past week, I tried to get behind the eyes of the innkeeper.  What would his thoughts have been?  How would he understand the unfolding Christmas story?  As I considered his perspective, I was drawn to the following passage: Hebrews 13: 2 – “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”

This verse has always been a mystery to me.  I think we’ve tended to over-sentimentalize it thanks to the likes of Roma Downey and this sense that there are angels walking around among us and we may get a glimpse once in awhile.  While I don’t want to flatly deny that, I don’t think that is the point of this text.  Instead, I think the Hebrew writer harkens back to the days of Abraham when he had three visitors that ended up being angels with a message from the Lord.  I think that’s the point – we never know who may come into our midst with a message from the Lord.

Which made me think of the inn keeper.  How could he ever have known that his inn was going to be host to the birth of the Messiah?  If he had known, surely someone would have given up their room!  In any case, I think the exercise is helpful, and inspired, what I thought was one of my better sermons.  Unfortunately, it didn’t get recorded, but I thought I would include it here on the day after.  In it, I tell the Apocryphal story of Tobit.  I chose this story because I knew it would be largely unfamiliar to the folks in our church.  At the same time, it is an endearing and encouraging story that highlights the ever-present working of God in our midst.  I used a little creative fiction to place it in the context of Mary and Joseph showing up at the inn – I thought they complemented each other nicely.  I hope you are encouraged by it.

December 15, 2013 –  Alum Creek Church

A Message from the Inn Keeper

            Very seldom do you wake up in the morning and say to yourself, “Today is going to be the greatest day of my life.”  Equally true, we never wake up in the morning and say to ourselves, “Today is going to be the worst day of my life.”  The greatest days . . . the worst days . . . they just seem to happen, usually when we least expect them.  We’re never looking for them – most of the time that’s what makes them great . . . or awful.  I can still remember the greatest moment of my life.  I didn’t know it was at the time.  As a matter of fact, I didn’t know it was for a few days.  I can still remember it like it was yesterday.  But I probably should back up a minute.

            I’m an innkeeper in Bethlehem.  I like my job because I get to meet a lot of different people.  Bethlehem isn’t exactly a happening place, but being an innkeeper you get to meet a lot of interesting people who happen to be passing through.  We would have our busy times, but most of the times business was sporadic, but I did get opportunities to talk with people and learn their stories.  People are interesting – I think those conversations is all that gets me through living in such a small town.  They give me a lot of stories to tell. 

            Once in awhile, however, things would get pretty hectic.  Life under Roman rule could be pretty unpredictable.  The armies would just show up and issue edicts completely out of the blue letting us know that things in Rome had changed and for some reason that was going to affect us.  Way out in the boonies, we always seemed to be the last to know.  A few years back, Caesar had issued a decree that everyone needed to report back to their hometowns so that a census could be taken.  We all knew that meant more taxes and a lot of extra expenses on our behalf having to travel back to our hometowns.  But for me, that meant big business because people didn’t stick around in Bethlehem for long.  Most people couldn’t wait to get out of here.  So, when the government started telling everyone that they had to go back to their hometowns, I could hear the dollar signs cha-ching-ing in my head.  There were a lot of folks that would have to be heading back here. 

            I don’t think we had ever filled up the inn as fast as we did during that census.  I had people who had never met each other staying in rooms together so that we could squeeze as many people in as possible.  I had people laying all over the floor of the lobby, until I couldn’t squeeze a single other person in.  It was stressful and you can imagine how it can be living in such close confines to each other.  For the most part, we made due, and everyone just wanted to get the business taken care of so that they could go back home. 

            At night, we would all gather in the lobby and tell stories to help pass the time.  I can still remember the story that was told on the most memorable night of my life.  As a matter of fact, I can remember the most memorable people I’ve ever met came in and interrupted this story, because they were looking for a room. 

            The story came from time of the exile, when Israel had been ruled by the likes of the foreign kings like Shalmaneser, Sennacherib and Esar-haddon.  Maybe these names don’t mean anything to you, but these were foreign kings that completely destroyed the pride of Israel.  They took us captive.  These were dark times for Israel, and stories like this of hope and overcoming are what helped us keep our optimism.    

            It was the story of Tobit, a faithful follower of Yahweh.  Tobit was a righteous man much like Job was a righteous man.  His acts of charity and care were well known throughout the land.  He was the only one out of his family who kept the festivals, maintained a kosher diet, and upheld the laws of Moses.  He tithed, as commanded, in Jerusalem, but went beyond the required tithe.  He distributed an additional tithe around Jerusalem, and gave a third tithe away to orphans and widows.  By all accounts, Tobit was a righteous man. 

            God rewarded Tobit’s faithfulness by making him the buyer for King Sennacherib.  He would travel to other nations to buy things for the kings.  With his high position, Tobit maintained his devotion to Israel: he still kept a kosher diet, if he came upon any Israelite corpses, he would wait until evening and provide them proper burial, and kept feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, and anyone the king would have killed, Tobit would make sure the body was buried.  That is until someone told the king about what Tobit was doing.  When the king found out, Tobit ran away so that he wasn’t killed, and all of his property was confiscated. 

            Only a short time later, 40 days, Sennecherib’s sons killed him, and his son Esarhaddon took over the throne.  He appointed Tobit’s nephew to an important role within the cabinet: chief cupbearer, keeper of the signet, and accountant.  He helped Tobit return to Nineveh.  He returned to his practice of burying the dead, until one night, after he had buried someone, he went to sleep next to a wall.  He didn’t know there were sparrows in the wall, and one of the birds pooped in his eye.  It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.  It blinded him.  He went to the doctor but it just made it worse.  He was left to the care of his wife who took care of the family as a seamstress.

            Tobit becomes depressed and prays for death.  At the same time, a woman named Sarah prayed that God would end her life.  Sarah had been married seven times, but each time she was married the husband died before he was able to consummate the marriage.  A demon named Asmodeus was in love with her and killed all of the men who were married to her.  No one knew that this demon was involved, so they all believed that she was cursed, which made her distraught, and she, like Tobit, cried out for God to end her life. 

            The Lord heard both of their prayers. 

            Tobit had a son named Tobias.  Tobit’s dying wish was for his son to be taken care of.  Tobit told Tobias about some money that he had in a far away land that would be his if he went to get it.  Tobias found a guide named Raphael to help him on his way.  As they went along their journey, a large fish jumped out of the water and attempted to swallow Tobias’s foot.  Raphael told him to capture the fish.  When they had done so, he instructed Tobias to cut the gall, heart, and liver out of the fish.  Raphael told Tobias that the smoke from burning the heart and liver would keep evil spirits away, and the gall was a powerful anointing oil that could be used to heal people’s eyes. 

            Raphael led Tobias to the household of Sarah – who happened to be single and was his kinswoman – someone who in the ancient world could be taken as a spouse.  Tobias was told of the woman’s problems with her previous seven husbands, but was reminded by Raphael of the ability of the burning fish liver and heart to keep demons away.

            Tobias took Sarah with great delight, and Sarah was delighted to have Tobias.  They were married, and as they set out to consummate their marriage, Tobias remembered the words of Raphael and put the fish’s liver and heart on the fire.  Asmodeus fled to the remotest part of Egypt where Raphael chased him and bound him. 

            Sarah’s father was so sure that Tobias was going to die, that they actually had a grave buried for Tobias.  When they sent in a maid to check on them, and she reported that she had seen them both lying there, they immediately praised God. 

            The family threw a huge wedding party – by the way, they filled the grave in while they slept so Tobias never knew their doubts, and Tobias subsequently went and found the money that was his father Tobit’s.  By this time, Tobit was becoming worried by his son’s long absence.

            Tobias’s mother became overwhelmed by grief, certain her son had died.  She would rush out to the last place she had seen him, and look down the road as far as she could, and for as long as she could, just praying for his safe arrival.  When he didn’t arrive, she would go back to her home and cry herself to sleep before arising to do the whole thing over again the next day. 

            Then . . . finally . . . one day as Anna looked down the road down which she had last seen her son, off in the distance, she began to make out what looked like him and his traveling companion – though there were additional members of the party now.  In a scene similar to your parable of the prodigal son, Anna, Tobias’s mother, came running toward him and embraced him, and kissed him, and said, “I can now die in peace knowing you are alive and well.” 

            Tobias has already had his servants prepare the gall from the fish and as soon as he saw his father, he rushed to him and rubbed the gall on his eyes.  He rubbed the ointment on his eyes blew on them, and then peeled the ointment back.  Eyesight came flooding back to Tobit and he cried out to his son, “I can see you!  I can see you!” 

            Tobias introduced his wife to his mother and his father, and the rest of his family.  They celebrated with yet another wedding festival. 

            It came time to pay their guide Raphael, and Tobias had no idea how he could ever repay him.  He had helped him find a wife and remedy her demon problem, he had led him safely to recoup his father’s money, and had healed his father’s blindness.  He and Tobit both believed that he was due half of all that he had brought back with him. 

            They called a meeting with Raphael and prepared to tell him how grateful they were and how they could never truly repay him for his kindness and over-and-above job as a guide.  As they met with him, he was about to tell them something that would blow their minds. 

            And it was right here . . . right at the perfect moment in the story – the climax, when everyone is on the edge of their seat there in that jam packed lobby, that two wayfaring Jews made their way into the lodge.  They were exhausted and looked distraught.  “Sir, forgive our intrusion,” the man began, “but we have had a long and difficult journey.  My wife is near full-term with our child, and we have returned to Bethlehem for the census, but can’t find a room.  Can you please help us?  We’ll take anything – even a space here in the lobby.  Just a corner, a floor – anything to get us from the exposure outside.” 

            My heart was moved, but what could I do?  We had already turned away many.  If it wasn’t for his pregnant wife I would have been less patient and certainly less cordial in my response, but my hands were tied.  If exposure was their concern, we could grant them safety, but nothing in the way of personal accommodations.  We had a stable that was secure.  They could stay there.  I didn’t feel as though I had done them much of a favor, but I had done all that I could do.  Tired from their travel, they were glad to have come to some kind of destination, even if it meant sleeping next to a horse and cow. 

            We helped them move their things into the stable and did the best we could to help her get comfortable.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone more exhausted.  She was asleep nearly as quickly as her head hit the straw.  Once they were settled I came back to the lobby and was surprised to see several who were still there waiting my return.

            “How does the story end?  What did Raphael say?
Something none of them saw coming.  Tobit and Tobias had prepared to give Raphael half of all the money and possessions he had returned home with – this was no small fortune.  But, Raphael had had a secret the whole time.  Raphael was the answer to Tobit’s and Sarah’s prayers.  God had heard them and sent Raphael.  Raphael was one of the seven angels who stand before the Lord.  God had sent him especially to minister to Tobit and Sarah, and none of them had ever known it. 

            At that, everyone in the lobby burst out into a rambunctious applause – I had to get them quieted down and remind them that people were sleeping!  But that was how the story always ended.  People like to know that God is involved in this world.  People like to know that God works among us. 

            And that’s the moral of the story isn’t it?  You never know when you are in the presence of one of God’s servants.  You never know when someone comes your way who will alter the way of your life forever.  But seldom do they come with a tee shirt on them that says, “I’m here to change your life” or “I’m here on God’s behalf.”  Instead, we fumble around and do the best we can to figure it out on our own.  I figure we miss opportunities here and there, but hopefully we catch them once in awhile. 

            Oh . . . and that couple that stopped by in the middle of the night when there wasn’t any room in the inn and they had to spend the night in the stable . . . there was something about them too.  She ended up having her baby out there – you know.  And I haven’t gotten that all figured out yet . . . but . . . something tells me . . . there’s more to that story too. 

Book Review: Occupy Spirituality

Recently I received the new book Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation by Adam Bucko and Matthew Fox for review.  It’s an interesting book written as a dialogue between, Fox, the older, on-the-fringe Dominican Catholic (kicked out of the Catholic Church by the previous pope) and the younger activist from Poland, Bucko.  In the book the seek to explore a post-religious spirituality present (and needed) within the occupy movement that has ignited over the past five years or so.

I have long had an interest in, for a lack of a better descriptor, “fringe” theological perspectives like Matthew Fox.  Bucko and Fox live on the fringes of organized religion and better identify with an anarchist, non-institutional eclectic movement that is rigorously postmodern and post-structural.  I was intrigued by the title and found the content to pique alot of my interest.

Anyone within the system of organized religion will have difficulty following Fox and Bucko.  Many times, I found myself thinking that a certain perspective or thought was interesting or provocative, but it certainly took me out of my comfort zone – which is a good thing.  This book helped me realized the small well from which I drink.  We grow so comfortable in our own bubbles of learning and exposure, that when something like this book is brought to your attention, you begin to question how blindly you follow the crowd you follow.

The book begins by each author sharing their personal story which helps inform the entirety of the book.  I found this to be helpful since I was unfamiliar with both (Fox, I knew a little bit about, but not much).  I find most non-fiction books should begin with an author’s introduction.  It’s easier to process what an author is saying knowing a little something about their person.  From the introduction, the book touches on calling, spiritual practices, the importance of inter-generational interaction, and ends by exploring some practical situations lived out in newer communities.

There is much I found helpful in this book.  I loved the ecumenical and inter-religious thrust of the dialogue.  As I said, it made me realize how limited my experience is.  It encouraged me, especially something Adam Bucko said near the end, to be proactive in finding spiritual advisers.  There is a Hindu temple and a Jain center both within a block of our suburban church.  This book has encouraged me to seek out their spiritual advisers and extend and olive branch to pursue productive relationships for the future.

I have chosen not to review a lot of the content because I am still processing a great deal of it.  It comes across to me in the unsettling way of a prophet.  Both authors reflect a great deal on the limitations of traditional Western education (particularly theological education) as it relates to spirituality.  It has convicted me here, too, as to the limitations of my own experiences.  The practices they discuss are a little out there, from time to time, but encourage me to be proactive in my experimentation.  Bucko works with homeless youth in New York City, and that drives his experience.  I wondered, sometimes, as I read how the kinds of things they are discussing relate to the “non-hippies.”  Many of the people I thought of as I read through this book would really be stretched by their perspective . . . maybe too far to be productive.  I appreciated the stretch, but I think many Christians, particularly may find them to be a little too far out of their comfort zone.

With that said, I would encourage pastors and leaders to read this book if for no other reason that to be stretched.  Consider how myopic our perspectives tend to be and just how big God is.

In Defense of #FearFest

Everybody remembers the first movie that scared the hell out of them.  It probably happened late one night when you and some friends got together and snuck in one of those movies your parents told you that you were too young to watch.  But, what did they know?  You tried hard to keep your poker face among your friends, but it was one particular scene or maybe it was a particular villain, but somewhere along the line you got scared – real scared.  Your heart began beating fast.  Your senses jumped to high alert.  And lying in your bed that night there was no way you could get to sleep.

The horror genre has been around as long as the moving picture.  It’s one of the greatest testimonies to the power of film – that watching moving pictures can evoke screams, make you jump, and even cause nightmares.  Throughout the history of horror movies, directors constantly try to outdo one another and make the next movie darker and scarier than the last one.

Among Christians, talk of horror movies is likely to induce quite a variety of reactions.  From those who believe these types of movies are straight from the gates of hell and avoid them like the plague to those who are horror movie aficionados – even attempting their own Christianized version (like House a movie based on a Christian novel written by Ted Dekker from a few years ago that gets a whopping 4.7 rating on IMDB).

Over the past several years, the cable network AMC has devoted the month of October to showing nothing but these kinds of movies.  Fear Fest, as they call it, illustrates just how many different subgenres of horror movies there are: slasher, monster, comedy, blockbuster, B-rated, foreign, and on and on the list goes.  This year they are showing many of the classic horror movie franchises: Friday the 13th, Halloween, Candy Man, as well as others.  Interspersed among these classics are lesser known B-horror movies.  Just the other day I watched the awesomely bad, sure to be a cult classic, Ragin Cajun Redneck Gators (a Syfy original rated an incredibly bad 3.4 by users of IMDB).

Anything as pervasive as the horror movie industry has to tell us something about our culture.  In an interesting book about religion and horror movies, Douglas Cowan writes, “What scares us reveals important aspects of who we are, both as individuals and as a society.”[1]  If Cowan is correct, it sure makes you wonder what the evolution of horror movies teaches us about our society.  It’s become common for classic horror movies to be remade with a  contemporary spin on them.  The other night I watched the remake of Friday the 13th.  As far as remakes go, I thought it was done really well.  It was intense.  It makes the old Friday the 13th seem cheesy and almost laughable.  Just look at the evolution of the villain Jason Voorhees:

The fact of the matter is that when horror movies are remade, they are all gorier and more intense.  This is not a judgment that they are better (or worse) – some are better; some are worse –  it’s just a reality that they are all darker.  And there’s something in the darkness of horror movies that draws us in.  There’s something about the darkness of horror movies that has given them their longevity.

I think that it is within the context of horror movies that many of us come to terms with the reality of sin in the world.  Every day, people are murdered, raped, wars are started, bombs are dropped, natural disasters occur, nature is polluted – insert tragedy here.  Just last week a few miles from my house, a middle-aged woman went for a  run in a nearby park and a 16-year-old high school student stabbed her 22 times, murdering her.  How do we make sense of that?  What am I to do with that?

I contend that watching horror movies is a lot like Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal.  If you remember the story, Elijah is on Mt. Carmel preparing a showdown between his God, Yahweh, and the god Baal and his prophets.  They each prepare the altars for sacrifice, and then pray to their respective gods to set the sacrifices on fire.  For dramatic effect, Elijah had even poured water on his altar, but that didn’t stop Yahweh from lighting the entire altar on fire while the prophets of Baal tried without success.  Then, in one of the most humorous stories in the Bible, Elijah turns to the prophets and begins to mock them.  “Maybe you need to pray louder; maybe your gods can’t hear you!”

When I watch a horror movie, I am confronted by the realities of evil.  Whether it’s the demonic, violence against women, evil spirits, mutated animals, or the devil himself, I am reminded that these represent real things.  That there is a real spirit at work in this world that works against love, healing, and reconciliation. This spirit manifests itself in as many different ways as there are subgenres of horror movies.  Bad things happen.  People set out to harm other people.  Serial killers are real. 

In a lot of ways, however, horror movies mock those powers.  In the ancient world, it was common place for a conquered army to be marched through the center of town triumphantly announcing the hometown victory.  To some extent, horror movies do this.  They tell compelling stories.  They frighten audiences.  They produce horrific scenes and scenarios.  But in the end, they are nothing more than the creation of special effects artists, often not very good actors, and gifted camera men and women.

Quietly, and often going unnoticed, horror movies mock evil. They connect with us because we know all too well that evil is real.  They draw us in because we know the potential of evil.  We know that we can never say, “This is as bad as it gets; this is awful as it gets.”  Because reality is darker than any horror movie.  This is the genius of The Walking Dead – it illustrates the irony of the fact that the threat of the zombies is only secondary to the threat that the living pose to one another.  The horror genre is the way that we come to terms with the reality of evil in the world.  The horror genre forces us to ask ourselves, “What is scarier, this fictitious story on the big screen, or the constantly unfolding story of humanity?”


                [1]  Douglas E. Cowan.  Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen.  (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008), 10.

Home: A Sermon

My summer schedule makes it nearly impossible for me to post regularly on my blog.  Whenever I do have a few moments to sit and plan and write, I always feel the urge to sit down and let my writing pour out.  Unfortunately, I have too many other responsibilities to make that possible.  I had just a moment – not long enough to post anything new, but thought I would share one of my sermons.  We are in the midst of a study of the movies and last week I preached from the Wizard of Oz.  Our theme for the summer movie series is entitled, “Our Deepest Longings,” and in it I am considering how movies prick our hearts at their deepest level.  All of our other studies are of more recently released movies, but months ago when I conceived this series, I had a real tug on my heart to preach this message from The Wizard of Oz.  It spoke a lot to me, and I hope you can find something moving it in as well.  Our sermons our posted online, but unfortunately, I haven’t had time to upload them in the past few weeks.  I hope to catch up soon.

We leave in just over two weeks for New York City and my final doctoral class – then things will begin to settle in for the fall rush.  Until then, here’s some musings on Home.

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 Longing for Home

Sunday, July 7, 2013

            When it comes to remembering my dreams, I’m a total failure.  I have heard from psychologists much smarter than me, that I have to dream, otherwise I would go crazy, so either I am insane (which would explain a few things) or, apparently, I am having dreams every single night, but I almost never remember them.  And when I do remember them – I get excited.  I wake up and tell Mary Beth – I remember my dream!  And as I begin to recount it to her . . . it’s really hard to remember the details, and slowly my words trail off – it’s like I was dreaming on an Etch a Sketch.  I realize that even when I “remember” my dreams . . . I don’t remember them very well.          

            Even those of you who do remember your dreams very well, for the most part, by the next day or week, you don’t remember anything about it.  You’ve completely forgotten the dream.  You’ve had other dreams to replace that one.  No doubt there are probably exceptions, and a few of you right now may be thinking of a dream you had years ago or a journal of strange dreams you keep  – but for the most part, dreams come to us like a Snap Chat message – it’s here for a few seconds – and then gone. 

            At the risk of entering the dangerous waters of psycho-analysis, most people realize that dreams somehow channel our deepest longings.  That they matter.  When we dream, it is the opportunity for our subconscious to let us know what it’s been thinking.  Most of us probably stay busy enough that we may not even realize that we’ve been thinking about certain things in our deepest places, but they often come out in our dreams.  Dreams are important, and interpreting dreams is an important part of psychiatry. 

            Our dreams are very much tied up in the movies.  Our movies appeal to our subconscious and, as has been my premise throughout the past few weeks, movies speak to us at that deep level – they reveal our deepest longings.  And so we’ve talked about our destiny and about redemption.  Today we take a break from the more recently produced movies, and go back to one of the best known classic movies, The Wizard of Oz. 

            Dreams, of course, figure greatly into The Wizard of Oz.  The audience is taken on this hour and a half journey, only to find out in the end, “You were there, and you were there,” and we had all been brought into Dorothy’s dream.  But just as our dreams tell us something, Dorothy’s dream tells her something and – I believe – tell us something. 

            We dream, typically, to see the world the way that we want to see the world.  N. T. Wright uses this realization to help argue for the existence of God.  Why is it that we all have this longing in us for things to be the way they are supposed to be?  Why do we know injustice when we see it?  Why do children scream, “That’s not fair!” when they have yet to learn what is fair and what is not?  How do they just know? 

                        How does it happen that, on the one hand, we all share not just a sense that thereis such a thing as justice, but   a passion for it, a deep longing that things should be put to rights, a sense of our out-of-jointness that goes on nagging and gnawingand sometimes screaming at us – and yet, on the other hand, after millennia of human struggle and searching and love and longing and hatred and hope andfussing and philosophizing, we still can’t seem to get much closer to it than peopledid in the most ancient societies we can discover?[1] 

            There is this longing of discontent that exists in the deepest recesses of every human being.  Even on our best days, even in our happiest moments, there is this feeling of fleeting – that those feelings are gone as quickly as they arrived.  This desire for things to be better, for people not to hurt other people, for beauty to be complete, for our needs to be fully met, for loved ones to be returned to life, for pain to cease . . . and on and such a list goes. 

            The Wizard of Oz is a movie about such a place.  A place where the scarecrow gets a brain, the tin man gets a heart, and the lion gets courage.  A place where the wicked witch is defeated and the road ahead is an easy-to-follow yellow-brick-road.  But even such a place does not fulfill Dorothy’s deepest longings.  She just wants to go home. 

            Home is more than a house or a hometown.  As the old folk saying goes, “Home is where the heart is.”  The ironic thing about “home” is that you can’t ever really go home, can you?  Home is this elusive idea of things being set just right, just the way you want them to be, just the way you remember them – but, home seems to always be just out of reach. 

            You go to your childhood home just to be reminded of how few things there are to do there.  You go to your high school’s homecoming just to be reminded of how different things are now.  You go to your home – your house now – just to be reminded of all the household chores that are waiting for you.  In all of our quests, we are reminded that this is not home. 

             When we close our eyes, when we tap our heels together three times and recite, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home,” what is home?  Is it where you grew up?  Is it your childhood house?  Your grandparents house?  With your grandparents who have passed away?  With your parents who are gone?  A child who has passed away?  In the hospital room at the birth of your first child?  Your wedding day?  What is it your longing for?  Where do you want to go back to?  Into the arms of your mother who took care of all of your needs when you were a baby? To a previous time in your marriage when you didn’t fight so much?

            We have this longing inside of us – we understand where Dorothy is coming from – but we also realize that Kansas isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  Home is more a feeling and a deep longing than it is a reality in and of itself.  How  many times have we felt like we just needed some time at home – maybe back home with your parents or in your old town, or wherever, and you get there – and you just can’t quite find what you’re looking for. 

            It’s because this world is not our home.  Listen to Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 14 as he is preparing to be taken away and crucified, listen if he doesn’t seem to be speaking to this very notion of home. 

            Read John 14: 1 – 14.

            In our discussion of longing for home, we get at one of the most fundamental and important theological teachings in the Bible: the already and not yet dichotomy of God’s kingdom.  On the one hand, this world is our home.  We pay its taxes, drive on its roads, listen and help create its music, watch its movies and television shows, inhabit its environment, love its people, work towards change and the betterment of all who live here, etc. etc.  Clearly, this wonderful and beautiful creation is from God and we are here to love and enjoy it. 

            And at the same time, we have this innate realization that it is not complete.  This world is not my home.  Jesus was going to prepare a place for his disciples.  If we push this text too far, we may think that there is an escape route and that all will be destroyed and God’s kingdom has nothing to do with this place.  However, if we push too far the other way, we fail to realize the utter brokenness of this place.  And how we long for another place. 

            Our deepest longings for home will never be satisfied by high school homecomings or family reunions.  Home is bigger than that – deeper than that.  Genesis explains that man was created in the image and likeness of God.  We will never truly be home, until we are with him. 

            Read 1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18.

            This is one of the most unique passages in the New Testament.  It’s one of the few places that talks in detail about Jesus’s second coming.  It’s this picture of Jesus coming to take us home. I don’t understand how it will happen, exactly.  I don’t know all the ins and outs of the end of time, but this passage is a clear statement that, while there will be some continuity between this world and the next – there also will be some changes.

            With all the many things that our lives grow full of, it can be easy to take our eyes off of this ultimate goal.  We can be distracted from understanding of what home truly is.  Home is such a powerful emotion – we listen to songs about it, we watch movies about it, we schedule events to try and promote it . . . but we must always be reminded of what exactly home is.  Home is where our hearts are.  And hopefully our hearts are with Jesus. 

            [Play Carrie Underwood’s video to the song “Temporary Home” to close.]


                [1]  N. T. Wright.  Simply Christian.  6.

Jason Collins and the You Know What Hitting the Fan

Unless you have lived in some kind of media-sheltered cave this week, even if you aren’t the least bit interested in sports, you have heard about the “coming out party” for NBA player Jason Collins.  His big front page “coming out of the closet” article in Sports Illustrated hit news stands this week and it has been news worthy for all kinds of media outlets ever since.  The opening words of the article, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center.  I’m black.  And I’m gay,” sound the gong of new ground having been broken by homosexuals – Collins is the first openly gay athlete in any of the major American team sports leagues.  The major American sports leagues have been one of the last unploughed cultural frontiers in the drive toward cultural acceptance for homosexuals.  With the publication of Collins’s article, all hell has broken loose on that front.

At the risk of adding more noise to the cacophony this story has created, it does hit at the heart of where my study and thinking have been consumed over the past several months.  Over the winter, I talked with a well known blog about contributing articles at the intersection of sports and theology.  We were unable to put together a working relationship as I could not provide a definitive answer to my “stance” on homosexuality that they approved of.  Somewhere, those guys are breathing a sigh of relief after this article broke!  Next month I’m presenting a paper at the Christian Scholar’s Conference in Nashville, TN entitled “The Power of Sports: A Theological Inquiry into Sports as Exousia.”  In it, I argue that sports is best understood as a spiritual Power – the same rubric under which we would place politics, economics, technology, militarism, etc.  The furor created by the Sports Illustrated article illustrates the powerful and prominent position of sports in our culture.

Additionally, the Collins story has broken just one week after I authored the candid and provocative piece, “Does a Pastor Have to Have an Answer about Homosexuality?”  Ever since my first experience in ministry with teenagers, I have realized that this was the one issue that the church was not ready for . . . and I could hear the footsteps of culture alerting that we had better get ready.  The fight for the rights of homosexuals and their cultural acceptance has gone on unrelentingly for better than a decade now (though the real fight has been waging since the 1960’s.).  Collins acknowledges the recent burgeoning influence of acceptance in his article and how it has paved the way for him to go public, “I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted.”

There is so much to say about this, and there is no shortage of opinions around the world wide web and from television’s talking heads, but I am interested in mentioning a few ways as to how I believe Jason Collins’s story impacts the church as we attempt to catch up in our reflections on homosexuality.

First of all, this is simply another episode highlighting just how pervasive the homosexual orientation is.  Collins says that he’s 34, black, and gay – but he’s also huge (7 feet tall), articulate, funny, masculine, well educated (he went to Stanford), from a Christian home (he doesn’t state that he is a Christian in the article, but does say, “My parents instilled Christian values in me. They taught Sunday school, and I enjoyed lending a hand. I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding,”), and, rather incredibly, has an identical twin brother who was unaware of his sexual orientation until last summer when his brother told him.  If nothing else, hopefully, Jason Collins can help us finally cast aside the preconceived notions that remain of homosexuals as only effeminate males and masculine females.  Clearly, one of the messages the church has to learn from Jason Collins is that our churches are comprised of men and women who have a homosexual orientation – they look like everyone else.

Secondly, as Collins states in the article, times are changing.  He says that he couldn’t have done this ten years ago, I think back to the climate in athletics when I was in high school twenty years ago (OK, not quite 20, but close enough!) . . . and to think that there would have been an openly gay player in the NBA – it would not have been believable (and it would not have been well received).  Christian alarmist will bemoan the changing culture and note how the culture is at war with the church and that we must hold true to the timeless teachings of the Bible.  I understand this concern.  I understand the great fear that comes from change.  However, as times change, our study of the Bible changes.  Maybe God’s Word does never change, but as we ask new questions of it, we may face new answers.  I am in the process of reading the book, God’s Gay Agenda, by the openly lesbian pastor, Sandra Turnbull, which I plan to review sometime next week here.  She’s got me thinking about things I’ve never thought about, even though they’ve been in the Bible the whole time I’ve been reading it and earning degrees studying it.  How often have we studied eunuchs in the ancient world?  What do they have to do with homosexuals?  I don’t know . . . I just know that I have spent a lot of time in theology classes and exegesis classes – and we’ve never touched on this one.  New times are forcing new questions upon us, and those new questions are bringing us to new places in the Scriptures.  People who are attracted to the same sex are beckoning the church toward a better understanding of them.  No matter what beliefs you may hold on the matter, can’t we at least agree that, unless you are attracted to the same sex to some degree, there is part of them we just don’t understand?

Finally, this discussion is important (maybe even crucial), but we must keep it in perspective.  Throughout the article, Collins makes the point that (almost defensively) he’s the same guy that everyone knew.  I love the “Three Degrees of Jason Collins” metaphor that he uses – Collins has had a long career in the NBA and has played for several different teams, so no one is separated from him by more than three degrees.  Now, everyone in the NBA is connected to someone who is openly gay.  And he’s been gay all along.  He has a great sense of humor (I love the message he sends to Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal in the article – “Note to Shaq: My flopping has nothing to do with being gay.”  Being gay is part of Jason Collins, it is not his entirety.  One of the important things that church’s must realize in moving forward in this discussion is that sexuality has a place, but must never be at the center of our discussions.  From the way Christians often speak, you’d think that our sexuality was our identity.  Every gay person I’ve ever known has wanted what Jason Collins wants – “Know that I’m gay, but know that it doesn’t define who I am, no more than your heterosexuality defines you.”

That, I am afraid, may be our biggest obstacle.  One of my professors from Fuller, Dr. John Drane, who lives in Scotland, shared an article on Facebook last week about gender and sexuality and noted, “There’s a lot to like about this, but I still can’t get my head around why the main things Christians seem to obsess about nowadays are all about sex of one sort or another. What’s happened that we never hear much about that other three letter word, GOD – except, of course, when God is brought in to back up opinions on the aforementioned obsession with sex.”  Really, really well said.

So . . . if it hadn’t already hit the fan, it certainly has now.  What next, church?  How do we navigate this challenging way forward?  How can we have open conversations where we are free to disagree and diverge in our opinions, and yet still promote an openness that is immersed in grace?  How can we create atmospheres where homosexuals can feel free to talk openly about their struggles and challenges and not feel judged?  How do we address topis of sexuality, but not let them so consume us that we allow our conversations about God to go neglected? And, when push comes to shove, and the rubber meets the road, how do our churches minister to and alongside homosexuals?  Where is their place in our congregation?  We don’t have to have the answers to all of these questions, but we sure the hell better be ready to ask them.