A New Translation and Graphic Depiction of Revelation

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In the small church where my faith was first learned, I remember regularly asking my Sunday school teachers to study the Book of Revelation. We never did – and I knew they never would teach it – because like most people they were afraid of it. As I’ve gotten older, Revelation has always had a special place in my heart. I’ve always been amazed at its complexity and I have always appreciated its deep imagery. I’ve always thought that Revelation was better suited as a movie or as artwork than simply prose.

To me, that’s one of the real intriguing and valuable contributions of Michael Straus and Jennifer May Reiland’s work. The contemporary translation does a wonderful job of crafting passages using different languages, modern phraseology, all the while buffeted by Reiland’s compelling and (often) disturbing) artwork. Anyone who has read Revelation would expect nothing less than disturbing artwork, and I found myself lingering over Reiland’s work to reinforce Straus’ treatment of the prose.

Perhaps most unexpected, though effective, Straus employs other languages (Italian, Spanish) to help capture the universalist message of Revelation.

I love the whole concept behind this translation, and it certain enhances anyone’s serious study of Revelation’s message. It is a valuable resource for any serious believer, and especially for those who teach or preach from Revelation – Straus and Reiland offer a unique and fresh perspective on a notoriously difficult book. Kudos to them and their efforts!

*A copy was provided for me in return for honest review.

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Beyond the Game Podcast

A couple of weeks ago I was able to have a great conversation with Rik Benson of the Beyond the Game podcast. He’s a recreation pastor in Rochester, NY, and hosts a great podcast. We had a great conversation about my book – check it out!

https://www.buzzsprout.com/22455/976163-adam-metz-interview-3-1-2019-author-elite-a-christian-manifesto-for-youth-sports-in-the-united-states

Book Review: Growing With

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One of the most reliable and respected voices in youth ministry over the past couple of decades has been the work of Fuller Seminary and its most recent iteration as the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). Anyone seriously involved in youth ministry – particularly in congregational settings – would do well to keep a watchful eye on their work. After undertaking some major research initiatives aimed at learning more about young people, the church’s ministry to young people, and the overall trends shaping faith development in young people, FYI and their staff have been hard at work examining and interpreting their findings. Kara Powell made a big splash in the youth ministry world coauthoring the book Sticky Faith in 2011 alongside youth ministry pioneer Chap Clark – a widely respected book. More recently in the 2016 book, Growing Young, the authors (all FYI staff) presented trends within churches they identified as successfully engaging young people.

Next week (available March 5) a subsequent volume focuses on parents and their roles in “helping teenagers and young adults in their faith, family, and future” as the subtitle reads. While I found Growing Young a solid resource for helping spur honest discussions among fellow church leaders about how we can effectively engage young people in our ministry, Growing With hit me more between the eyes in its practicality and directness. I have read few books that had a more direct bearing on my stage of life and the realities of everyday life. It isn’t often that I read something and find myself referring to it or recommending it so often – and so quickly after I have been reading it, but the stuff that Kara Powell and Steven Argue talk about are the life-shaping, faith-forming issues of the every day life of young people.

The first part of the book presents a highly readable and entirely accessible description of the nuances at play in the broadening category known as “young people” (including the broad spectrum of teenagers, adolescents, emerging adults, and young adults)  On the surface, it seems a bit of a stretch to address parenting insights of children from 12 to 29, but the first section sets the course for how it makes perfect sense. They adeptly highlight the paradox of today’s youth culture that faces mounting pressure and expectations at younger ages (leading to a “growing up earlier” dynamic), while at the same time prolonging life choices that once were looked at as initiating a person into adulthood (marriage, having children, and determining careers). As these broader sociological realities have elicited a great deal of attention in recent years, Powell and Argue tackle the dramatically important topic of the dynamics of faith development throughout this changing stage of life.

They present three “dynamic verbs” which provide the backbone for the book: withing, faithing, and adulting. They explore the evolution of these verbs through the young adult development from “learners” (13 to 18 year olds), “explorers” (mid teens to 23), and “focusers” (most of the 20s). While I found the language a tad clunky at times, the picture they draw of what it is like to navigate through this time of life from both sides (as a young adult and as a parent) really brings to life the issues at hand in faith development. They emphasize an often neglected point for parents – that parents and their relationship and role is changing just as the child is experiencing dramatic changes.

The authors dedicate one section to each of the verbs (withing, faithing, and adulting), and do a wonderful job of integrating statistically-validated insights, parenting stories from their own families, wisdom from others, and practical suggestions for implementing the ideas they propose. At the end of of the each of these chapters there are several suggestions for experimenting with “withing” philosophies (see what I mean about the clunky play of the words!)

I found myself nodding my head often as they talked about the unique challenges and needs of the “learners” (currently where my own children are). Powell and Argue come across as transparent and authentic as they discuss their own challenges as parents – sometimes looking back at mistakes they’ve made in the past while at other times confessing the challenges of their current life setting. There is nothing trite about their proposals. They tackle head on many of the complexities facing families today including: economic challenges facing young adults starting out on their own, increasing complexities in romantic relationships (online relationships, having a gay or transgendered child), and the call for parents to say something about their faith. [Christianity Today ran an article adapted from this book highlighting this very point.] I especially appreciated their acknowledging that faith discussions can seem forced, awkward, and challenging even for ministers talking to their own children – but they remind the readers how essential it is to have these intentional conversations. This discussion alone is worth the time and money of the book.

There are few voices within youth ministry that speak with the authority and respect of FYI, and this book will do nothing but further their reputation. I can’t recommend this book enough to any parent of young people or to anyone who cares about the faith we are passing on to young people in the church today. Each chapter ends with a series of questions that will help facilitate deep and meaningful conversations about a very important topic, and I hope to lead a class at our church using them very soon. Do  yourself a favor and pick this book up soon! Find a group of parents that you can read and discuss this book with – you won’t regret it!

Looking Back . . . Looking Ahead (2018 in Review; 2019 Preview)

For me, each new year seems to begin with renewed aspirations of writing regularly. I usually manage an early blog post sometime in the dawning days of a new year before soon petering out into a couple of randomly sprinkled posts throughout that year and then, inexplicably, another year has slipped away. So here I sit on January 3 in the final year of the 2010’s, and I hope you’ll appreciate yet one more failing attempt, in one more soon-to-be fleeting year.

In the 140-character (or whatever it is now a days) Twitter universe and the unread-but-shared articles of the Facebook world,  longer articles like these seem to going the way of the Atari or cable television. The world seems to be moving at such a rapid pace and things are changing by the second, who has time to give up so many of those precious seconds to read something measured in minutes? I know it takes a great deal of your precious time to read this, and be assured it takes even longer to write it! The dizzying and frenetic pace at which I have been living my life has left me feeling increasingly unproductive and ineffective. The need for me to pause and be still in this moment feels as pressing as ever. I feel the need to take a deep, reflective breath looking back at a hectic 2018 before exhaling into the hope of a more peaceful and tranquil 2019.

Like each passing day, the events of 2018 were perpetuated by the days and years before them, and 2018 has taken its role now in helping shape the days that follow. 2018 has gone, but the wake it left behind is just beginning invasion of the future. As I look back at the past twelve months, here are some of the ripples it sent out ahead.

Each year brings with it a mixture of new life, new ideas, new projects, and new relationships. Our lives exist at the intersection of these constant births and the incessant ending of lives, ideas, projects, and relationships. Every “year in review” includes a montage of “those we lost.” The losses are felt more quickly and more acutely than the remediating  joy can bring about by the new additions whose potential often won’t be realized for many years.

In the spring of 2018 our family felt the acute reality of loss of life as my wife lost her father and grandmother in quick succession. Nothing really prepares you for these kinds of losses – our personhood is forged by them, but we are never prepared for them. That is a ripple we have just begun to really feel.

In July of 2018, we completed our fifteenth year of full-time ministry with the Alum Creek Church. It has been a privilege and honor to serve this congregation for so many years. There aren’t many ministers who are privileged to serve a congregation for fifteen consecutive years, especially their first. I spent more time in 2018 than I have in the past reflecting on my years with the church. In many ways, 2018 might have been my most challenging year of ministry. As the only full-time staff member of a small church I seem to constantly be dancing with burnout. I think most people think of burn out as suffering under the weight of conducting funerals, providing spiritual direction, and the like. While that certainly plays a factor, there is a larger challenge of maintaining spiritual vitality and depth in the midst of constant responsibilities. Today is the first day back in my office after a week and a half or so and it provides a perfect illustration.

Upon arriving to the building – before even entering, I see two cars parked in the lot that I need to deal with (too long of a story to put here!) Once I enter the building, there’s a toilet running. I check on it, and have to replace a flapper (those plumbing classes in seminary were helpful!) I sat down and got caught up on email which took about an hour, and then wanted to spend some time in prayer before really getting down to planning. I typically pray in our sanctuary, and I began my quiet time, I kept hearing that the blower in the furnace didn’t sound good and it seemed to be struggling to kick on. When I looked at the thermostat, I see the ominous message: “Check System.” I have a sermon to prepare for Sunday (believe it or not, those things don’t just fall onto paper), final Christmas decorations to take down, a class to teach on Sunday, a youth group fundraiser to plan, a youth group trip to plan, we are updating our website, even more stuff around the building needs attention, there are people who need visiting, our calendar needs planned . . . you get the point. I share this not to complain – these are almost all things I love to do, but to confess how overwhelming it can all be. The job never seems done, everyone always seems to be waiting with bated breath as to what is next, and things are never completely to everyone’s expectations. And at the same time, I am so excited to get back to ministry and see what the new year holds! Our church is a blessing and we are full of incredible people.

In recognizing some feelings of burnout, I proposed the idea of taking a sabbatical this summer. The best thing for my spirit, I believe, is an interruption to our rhythm. Our families regularly remind us how seldom we get to see them because our world revolves around Sundays. At the end of August, we found out that we were awarded a $50,000 grant by the Lily Endowment’s Pastoral Renewal program. We are elated, excited, inspired, and a little nervous. Plans have been unfolding as we prepare for a Memorial Day weekend send off, and will return to work full-time with the church Labor Day weekend. Our family will spend the bulk of that time in Europe for renewal. The fall was kind of a watershed moment for me as news of the grant helped inspire me on several levels – beginning with getting in better physical shape. I lost about 20 pounds to end the year and hope to continue that this year. My goal is to start another blog within the next week or so to begin to document our experience with the sabbatical. Stay tuned.

In October, my book Elite? was released by Wipf and Stock publishers. It was the fruit of a copy of years of study and I was overjoyed at its release. I would like to create a study guide/small group discussion guide to accompany it but . . . alas . . . I am still trying to find the time (see above!) It will never be a New York Times best seller, but it covers a topic I feel passionate about, and hope provides an important offering to an emerging field of study. I am hopeful to attend the Second Annual Congress on Sports and Christianity in October and get promote it there.

As I look ahead into 2019, I am excited for what the new year holds. I hope to post some of what we are doing at Alum Creek throughout the year because in the midst of all this other stuff, I still pour my heart and passion into my local church. Our theme for 2018 was “This is Us” and we studied a different biblical character each week. It was great and I wish I had time to share more. I need to get back to our 2019 planning, and hopefully I will be able to share more about that soon!

The Potpourri of Ministry

potpourrijeopardyThe scenario has played itself out so many times I lost count long ago.

“Hi, so what do you do for work – what’s your job?” comes the innocent and overly common small-talk upon first meeting someone new.

“Oh, I’m actually a pastor,” (I started adding “actually” a few years ago to help bridge the conversation since so many people were often left speechless by my surprise career choice).

“Oh . . . that’s great . . . that’s great,” and then they continue on with a story about some distant cousin or great uncle who went to seminary one time for a year, and (if they don’t really go to church) they usually add, “yeah, I used to go to church – I need to get back in the habit.” The response is almost always respectful but equally clueless. Most people aren’t sure what to say after that admission – I can’t imagine how these conversations go for proctologists.

Once we get to know each other a little better, everyone eventually asks the question that’s been burning in their mind since we first met, “So . . . what do you do all week?”

Even after all these years of ministry, I’m still not sure I’ve gotten any better at answering it.

Ministry is just such an odd vocation. For regular church attenders, its an admirable job; for occasional attenders, its akin to sainthood; and for those who have never stepped foot inside a church – it’d downright baffling.

The variety of Christian denominations and the diversity in their approaches to pastoral ministry just makes it more complicated to grasp what pastoral ministry is.

Some days I work as a resident scholar. Other days I work as a spiritual companion and life coach. Sometimes I feel like an evangelist while other times I feel like I’m in charge of marketing. A lot of days are filled with building maintenance responsibilities, and other days I lean more into social work. Some days its sermon prep, other days it’s visitation. Sometimes I’m playing program director and event planner; other days I spend a good deal of time in prayer and asking for discernment. Some days allow for networking with fellow pastors, while other days I spend time with people who are a far cry from pastors.

I’ve come to see ministry like that category that seems to come up in Jeopardy! a couple of times a week: “Potpourri.” Questions in this category come from everywhere – and that, it seems to me, is what ministry is like. Ironically, it’s what makes it so incredibly challenging and immensely rewarding at the same time. Truly, everything I do is ministry.

I led a Bible study this morning and our text was Acts 17 where Paul gets up in the Areopagus in Athens to join in the philosophical bantering of the day. I think that’s what pastors are supposed to do – at least good ones. We have one foot in our theological moorings (through prayer, study, and communal reflection), while our other foot is baptized into our surrounding culture. Like Paul tried to help the Athenians see the deep-seeded desires they had for an “Unknown God” were actually longings for the God of the universe, pastors are really trying to do the same thing. Which brings about a potpourri of tasks.

As I have come to recognize my responsibilities as a kind of “potpourri,” I’ve recently felt a burning desire to reflect on the various vicissitudes of my experiences in ministry. In recent months I’ve been teaching about life in the kingdom through the Sermon the Mount, we’ve connected our entire year’s theme to a television show, I’ve thought a lot about youth sports and its relationship to the Christian faith (which will eventually be a published book – hopefully in only a couple of months), I’ve been reading Stephen King novels and watching how God is often just below the surface of his story lines, and have been reflecting on the way technology continues to effect us all.

As I spend time spread across the various potpourri of responsibilities, I hope to have some time in the coming weeks to reflect more on those responsibilities and how they relate to that old, old Story.

“To Each His Own”

Suum cuique for you Latin fans out there. It’s absolutely fascinating to me how some people get obsessively caught up in certain interests and hobbies while at the exact same time other people view those same interests and hobbies with complete disengagement and disinterest. It’s easy to understand why few people are drawn to niche and fetish groups who unite in their shared love for unique and obscure interests, but it’s always been more interesting to watch those with an eccentric disposition who aren’t drawn towards the trendy and popular more of the day. With that in mind, here is my list of things that I just don’t get (and I’m sure to get judged since some of these things are all-but-sacred parts of our contemporary culture):

  • Coffee (Let’s just go ahead and throw out that cultural taboo – yeah, I don’t like coffee – at all)
  • Cats (I mean, what’s the point!?)
  • Iphones (For something that’s so “unique” – there sure are a lot of lemmings)
  • Light beer (I’ll just have water, thank you)
  • Country music (It has it’s moments, but they are becoming rare)
  • Jay Z (Rap isn’t really written for me, but I still get a lot of it, just not his)
  • Minivans (conversion vans are what mini vans strive to be, but we will not settle)
  • Burger King (They’re fine, I just have never said, “Hey, let’s go to Burger King. Not one time in my entire life)
  • Seinfeld (Losing fans here, but I just don’t get that whiny comedy)
  • Jewelry (sorry Mary Beth)
  • Facebook stories (Nice try, but Snapchat got there first and they know what they’re doing)
  • Cruises (Never been, no desire)
  • Diet pop/soda/cola (What a waste of natural resources)
  • Sugar free . . . anything (If it’s supposed to be there, don’t try to pretend you can take it out and it will all be OK)
  • Cheerleaders (They just get in the way of my view of the game)
  • Naps (Way too much to do than to sleep during the day)
  • Mustaches (Beards good; mustaches too pornstarish)
  • Disney World (The obsession of this place may be my #1 don’t get it)
  • Yellow lights (I mean I know why they are there, but man they are annoying)
  • Holy water (I respect many aspects of traditions outside my own, but this is one that I just don’t get)
  • Moles (on your skin – I have a lot of them, and I don’t get them)
  • Mormons (no judging . . . just don’t get you)
  • Miley Cyrus (she seems to have every annoying trait of any girl I’ve ever met wrapped up into one person)
  • Peas (taste fine, but I will never get the mushy texture  gross)
  • Brick houses (never lived in one, no desire to live in one)
  • Diets (I’m all for eating better, but the diet industrial complex is predatory)
  • Cigarettes (I understand smoking weed more than I get cigarettes)
  • Dallas Cowboys (They are so irrelevant, and yet still so much attention)
  • Professional wrestling (No thanks)
  • Beans (That texture again)
  • Kevin Hart (The unfunniest comedian ever)
  • Guns (Maybe the hardest two people to get to understand each other are people who love guns and people who don’t get them)
  • Mid Octane gas (doesn’t everyone either burn the cheap stuff or the expensive stuff?)

There are plenty others . . . but that’s a start.

#metoo and the Bible

Our theme at Alum Creek for 2018 is “This is Us.” At the end of 2017, we gathered hundreds of pictures of the people who make up our church and through the website Picture Mosaics, we created this image of our stained glass windows. We had a large 3′ x 4′ canvas printed that we will display throughout the year as a vivid reminder of who we are.

I love the symbolism of all of these pictures bleeding into the larger image that represents our church (the stained glass hangs in the center of our sanctuary as a focal point). We are all part of something bigger than ourselves, and this image illustrates our small role in a larger picture. In conjunction with this theme, every Sunday in 2018 our sermon focuses on a different character from the Bible: 52 different individuals highlighting the mosaic of people who make up the story of Scripture. It was difficult to narrow the studies down to only 52, but I did my best to select a group of diverse men and women from the Old and New Testaments who help highlight many diverse voices that are a part of Gods’ kingdom. With such a diverse cloud of witnesses, it is easy to find ourselves voices that are sympathetic to our own.

As I was compiling our list of studies for 2018 at the end of last year, the number of women outing male predators, offenders, and criminals had grown from a steady trickle to an outright avalanche. Accusations rained down on some of the most powerful and successful men in Hollywood and Washington sparking a movement that coalesced under the hashtag “metoo” and more recently “time’sup.” From Weinstein to Spacey and from Keillor to Franken, accusations have ranged from the inappropriate and uncomfortable to the violent, manipulative, and outright criminal.

The Bible has more stories than we’d like to admit that victimize (the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19), ignore (Bathsheba), and undermine (1 Timothy 2:11-15) the voice and standing of women. Any honest study of the people in the Bible must confront these difficult stories.

At the end of the 2017, I settled on the 52 different people we would study and matched each of the 52 names with a Sunday. It just so happens (call it the Holy Spirit; call it coincidence), our character study yesterday was Tamar. There are actually two different Tamars in the Bible, and they both are the victims of sexual crimes. As I prepared for yesterday’s sermon with Larry Nassar’s trial unfolding as a background soundtrack, I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a more timely topic. I attempted to weave the stories of the two Tamars with those of Larry Nassar and Andy Savage (a Memphis, megachurch pastor who recently was forced to deal with a skeleton from his closet.) It was not an easy message to try and orchestrate and it’s not as if a bow can be tied on a neatly wrapped up conclusion. Instead, I tried to live in the tension and get out of the way and listen to the victims that are so often ignored. The manuscript is below if you are interested in reading it.

Tamar and Tamar

January 28, 2018 (preached at Alum Creek Church)

As the idea for this year’s theme came to me back at the end of last year, I spent several days compiling a list of the characters that we would study this year in our sermons. One of the things that really drew me to this overview was that our stories would come right out of the Bible and we would cover all kinds of topics. “This is us” is the glue that holds this year together, and, like those of us in this room, God’s kingdom is a diversity of people with all with kinds of stories to tell. I came up with about 100 different people we could study, and many of them would have similar stories to tell, so as I weeded down the number to 52, I tried to provide the most diverse group of characters I could.

As we go through the year there will be a few mini-themes – for instance, during Lent we’ll consider several different people who have a story to tell from the Passion of the Christ, and we’ll study Esther on Mother’s Day and Jacob on Father’s Day, but generally speaking there was a lot of randomness as to when each particular person fell.

As sexual misconduct, abuse, and even violence against women was beginning to make major news as national figures like Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, and Harvey Weinstein, the #metoo movement or trend began to take shape and it felt like something we should talk about. As a matter of fact, there were many stories of women in the Bible who could say #metoo. Their voices are crucial to the Bible’s story and it just so happened that one of those stories fell today. I had no idea, when I determined the dates of these studies that this week would be the week of Larry Nassar’s trial and sentencing. This couldn’t be a more timely message from the Bible, but I have to warn you, it won’t be pleasant.

This morning I am going to try to get a lot said in our time together. As I set out to really tackle this story this week, my passion and conviction grew stronger and stronger. I began with an appreciation that we had stumbled upon a relevant topic and figured many of you would be interested in listening, but I ended with a broken heart and a conviction that this message is long overdue in our church.

One of the challenges that we face in this day and age, and it seems to get more difficult as the years pass, is we have a tendency to allow the world of the media, politics, academia, and social media to determine the rules and language of our discussions. If we are honest, many of us – maybe all of us – have allowed the media and our social media circles to provide the framework by which we think through and discuss important matters. We start with the news, our favorite talk show personality, a trendy hash tag, some article we saw on Facebook, or other media outlet, then sprinkle on a Bible verse or some quasi-Christian perspective to try and justify our voice on controversial matters.

I believe that God calls us to something much more radical than that. Jesus wasn’t calling his people to separate their “personal spiritual lives” from their lives of activism and action. A faith in Jesus Christ is one that mandates an awareness and calls our voice to social concerns. How do we address trendy and timely social matters without getting sucked into the debates, the pandering, and the fickleness of it all? I believe it is through knowing the story! When we immerse ourselves fully in the biblical text, it’s amazing how relevant that we will find it to be! And we are going to see that from two stories in the Bible this morning.

Today we study the story of Tamar, but the first thing that you need to know is that there are two Tamars in the Bible and each of them have a #metoo story to tell. We are going to hear from them both this morning.

We are going to talk about the second Tamar first – just to confuse you! – she was the daughter of David and her story is told in 2 Samuel 13. The scene is set for us right out of the gate, and we can all paint the picture clearly with our mind’s eye. This is a story that is familiar to us all – it’s one that has been told way too often.

Tamar was Absalom’s sister and she was beautiful, and their brother Amnon was smitten with her. There is some ambiguity here as to whether Amnon was Tamar’s half-brother or full brother (the way the text is written, they are most often seen as half-siblings), but that gets us away from the story. Amnon was obsessed with Tamar. She was so beautiful he couldn’t think of anything else. The text says that “he was so obsessed with her he became ill.”

I want to make this very clear as we set out to study this story, Amnon is a predator. It may be his sister, but as I read the story, notice how eerily familiar the story sounds.

2 Samuel 13:1-20

At several points in this story, we see the work of a predator.

First, there was the manipulation by Amnon to make his friend feel sorry for him. “What’s your problem?” he asks. Predators, somehow, have a tendency to make themselves out to be the victims of their own poor choices. He was just hung up on this young women’s beauty? Really? There even seems to be an inherent belief here where Amnon is showing that “he can’t help himself.” How often do we hear that from predators?

Amnon displays the manipulation of language that is common in predators. He tells Jonadab that he’s in love with “Absalom’s sister” – distancing himself from her. However, when she is in his presence, he tries to appeal to her care and concern by referring to her simply as “sister.”

He invokes pity and plays off the good intentions of his sister. She has genuine concern for him, and he uses that against her. He goes through this long process of creating the perfect setting by which to take advantage of her, sending everyone out of his room and being left one-on-one with the object of his obsession.

Tamar protests. At least marry her – she pleads. There’s disagreement about whether this would have been a legitimate option anyway since they were related, but David had been known to bend the law, so who knows? She’s trying to come up with any kind of excuse or alternative she can because she is threatened and she sees where this is going. But it turns out he wasn’t sick at all, and he jumped at her and overpowered her and raped her. And then he casts her aside. For as much as he loved her, now he hated her even more. Maybe it was a guilty conscience, but mostly it was the selfish disappointment of finally taking what he wanted. While Tamar . . . we’re told that she lives as a desolate woman.

What an unsettling story. Everything about it makes me feel dirty and want to think happy thoughts to try and rid my mind from it.

In many ways it’s the story of Larry Nassar. Some sick person with a twisted view of sex and a selfish drive to use his situation to take whatever he wants and prey upon the vulnerable and well-intentioned. And just like Larry Nassar was protected at different levels by the institutions he served, Tamar receives no justice. The text goes on to say that when King David heard about what happened he was very angry . . . but we get no sense that he did anything about it. As a matter of fact . . . as the story unfolds in 2 Samuel, their brother Absalom takes revenge into his own hands and kills Amnon. Perhaps what may be the most shocking of all parts of the story, we are told that David mourned many days for his son Amnon. And while we may not expect him to rejoice over the death of his son, we are left with that lingering thought, “What about Tamar?”  David was angry about the rape, but did he ever mourn for Tamar? The absence of such a sentiment speaks volumes. No further mention is made of her and we are left with the impression that she never gets over it – living in desolation – like so many victims kicked to the side of the curb and forgotten.

The other story of the other Tamar is told in Genesis 38. The circumstances surrounding that story are different, but the same. I’ll do my best to summarize this story without reading through it entirely. The story is really the story of Judah and his three sons: Er, Onan, and Sheilah and the plot revolves around the ancient practice of levirate marriage. If a husband dies before providing an heir to help care for his wife, the husband’s brother would (in a way) inherit the widow and would be responsible for providing an heir. It’s an ancient practice that is a tradition in many parts of the world, and was practiced at this time (as hard as it might be for us to wrap our heads around it).

We are told that the eldest brother, Er, married Tamar, but he did evil in the eyes of the Lord and was put to death. Thus, Onan is left to provide an heir for Tamar, but (in one of the more sexually explicit passages in the Bible) he had sex with her but released his semen on the ground, so as not to get her pregnant. He was subsequently put to death because that was evil in the sight of the Lord. (We could spend a whole lot of time trying to figure out all of this since it seems so strange to us, but we’re not going to take the time to unpack that story now).

By this point, Judah is heartbroken because he has lost his two oldest sons and only his youngest is left and he’s worried about losing him too. Therefore, Judah sends Tamar away until Sheilah is older, and he tells her they will send for her when his son is older. From the beginning of that story, we hold out very little hope that Judah actually has the intention of ever giving Sheilah to Tamar and he doesn’t.

Years later, Tamar gets word that Judah is coming to the town she has been staying, pretends to be a prostitute, and solicits Judah. Judah accepts, and as payment he promises to send her a young goat from his flock. He allowed her to keep his staff and his seal at collateral. When the goat was sent back for payment, the prostitute was nowhere to be found, and so the matter was forgotten (apparently, Judah thought he got a free night with a prostitute).

Tamar becomes pregnant and word gets around after a few months when she can no longer hide it. Judah . . . of all people . . . Judah is outraged and suggests she be put to death as an adulterer. Tamar wisely uses the staff and seal to prove that it was Judah who had had sex with her. The end of the story is one of the more dramatic in the Bible:

Genesis 38: 24-26

 

To fully understand this story, you have to consider the context. It is told directly before the story about Potiphar’s wife and Joseph. There is an intentional stark contrast between the actions of two of Israel’s sons – Joseph and Judah. But just as with the other Tamar story, we see again the trappings of what the whole #metoo movement is bringing to light.

If we see Larry Nassar in Amnon, I wonder if we don’t equally see Andy Savage in Judah. If you aren’t familiar with the story of Andy Savage, it broke during the first week of the year. Savage is the teaching pastor at a mega-church in Memphis, TN. During a service on January 7, he read a statement when he confessed a “sexual incident” that happened when he was the youth pastor for a church in Texas. As he was driving a 17 year old teenager home from church, he drove past her house, into a secluded wooded spot, groped her breasts, and made her perform oral sex on him. Then he told her to never tell anyone – that she needed to take it to her grave.[1]

Much like Amnon, Savage knows the manipulative power of words, and as he read his statement used many slight variations to minimize his assault.[2] He was “in college” (although he was in college, he was 23 – she was 17); “over 20 years ago” – it was 20 years almost to the day; it was a “sexual incident” – he never mentions oral sex or that he groped her breasts; he says he “resigned from ministry” – though the congregation threw him a going away party; he says he “accepted full responsibility for his actions” – though it does not appear he nor the congregation ever reported the incident to police for the crime that it was. This story highlights breakdowns in responsibility and accountability. He went on to work as a pastor of young adults at a church in Memphis and you wonder if it was ever told to them.

This story reeks of the deception and dysfunction of these two biblical accounts. As someone who has been in personal and one-on-one situations with girls my entire ministry, when I read this story it made my stomach wrench. This was too close to home. And the Nassar case has reminded us of just how powerful these positions of power can be.

This is a difficult sermon to wrap up. I don’t know how these stories hit you. You could be a man who needs to repent of the way you treat or think about women. You could be a man who has skeletons in your closet that need to be dealt with. You may be a woman who hears these stories and knows the hurt they bring more intimately than you’ve ever told anyone. You may be a woman who hasn’t had such heinous acts done to you, but you know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable and objectified.

There are lessons here for us all, and I just don’t have time to give any of them justice, so I will leave you with these.

1 – You are the loved and cherished child of God. No one can take that away from you.

2 – You have been created with dignity and filled with meaning, regardless of your gender.

3 – God desires harmony and mutual respect between all people – and calls his people to be examples.

Mostly, I just wanted to get out of the way this morning. I am far from perfect, but this is a topic that (and I am grateful to say) has not landed close to home. I empathize as much as I can, but it is impossible to fully comprehend. Towards that end, I can think of no better way to end than with the words of the very first woman who spoke out against Larry Nassar’s sexual assaults. She was the first one who bring accusations forth paving the way for over 100 others, and she was also the final victim to read a prepared statement at the trial. Her words are a perfect closing to this morning. Her name is Rachael Denhollander. The boldness and conviction it must have taken to stand face to face with this man, and to utter these words of truth and grace are beyond my ability to understand. This is what the Gospel looks like. [You can view the entirety of her remarks here. We played the excerpt below which comes around the 27:08-29:02]

In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.

The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.

[1] Her story originally appeared here: http://thewartburgwatch.com/2018/01/05/i-thought-he-was-taking-me-for-ice-cream-one-womans-metoo-story-of-molestation-by-her-former-youth-pastor-andy-savage/

[2] Full service was broadcast here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyKdluNR95I

2018

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In my journey through the works of Stephen King, I began 2018 by reading his critically acclaimed On Writing, and am about half way through Secret Window: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing. Both books were published in 2000, several years after his debut nonfiction work Danse Macabre – which is more of an homage to science fiction and popular culture than to writing in general. (Secret Window actually includes a lengthy essay from Danse Macabre.)

Throughout my life, I have spent the vast majority of my time reading nonfiction – probably to a clip of 80/20. Graduate school has a tendency to produce in its students an admiration for dense prose and actual enjoyment of extended treatises. Like many students, however, I realized a few years ago that I was approaching my breaking point with nonfiction. Those extended treatises were starting to feel stale and the dense prose was becoming mind-numbingly lifeless and even uninteresting. It became clear that I needed a break, and the only author of fiction who had ever had any success in courting me away from nonfiction was Stephen King.

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About three years ago I began reading Carrie, his first novel, and have been reading his published novels and short story collections in the chronological order of publication – rereading the ones I had already read. It’s been a slow and leisurely stroll (I think I’ve got about 30 down – and about that many to go – dude is a prolific writer!), but I have determined to pick up the pace entering this year, and plan to make a real effort to get the majority of his remaining books knocked out. [Dreamcatcher, published in 2001 is up next, in case you were wondering.]

I began the journey with some grandiose idea of tracking King’s use of  Christian themes throughout his stories, but I realized pretty quickly that I just wanted something to read and enjoy! I wanted to leave my theologian’s hat on my nightstand and just read his well-crafted and engrossing stories. For the most part, that is what I have done. What a masterful and creative storyteller he is. Reading his books on writing, however, has made me want to pause and reflect on his perspective of the craft of writing. Leave it to nonfiction to spur my critical capacities back into action.

King has provided me a much needed respite from nonfiction (I still read several

nonfiction books a year, but over the past three have spent more time in his fiction), but he has also inspired me to write more. What I have learned of myself over the past decade is that I truly enjoy writing. English was always my worst subject in school, and I cut every corner I could in those classes so it’s taken me awhile to discover this about myself.

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I find myself wanting to write more often and become more creative in doing so. Despite taking countless high school, college, and graduate classes across the academic spectrum, I never found myself in a creative writing class. While tiny feelings of lament over this neglect make themselves known, Stephen King redeems me as he doesn’t have much use for those classes anyway!

There are many ways in which I resonate with Stephen King and plan to work on an article entitled something like, “If Stephen King were a preacher.” One of the things I have really taken to heart in working through his books on writing is that I need to write more. He makes the obvious, yet profound observation more than once: writers write. They can’t help it. One of the most admirable things about him is that he says he writes because he has to – not because of the money or success. He has stories to tell. I’m not sure I have stories to tell [though King has made me think that maybe I do have at least one story to tell ] but I do feel as though I have things that need to be said.

As a minister I do write often. I write a sermon every week. I write bulletin articles and class notes, weddings, funerals, seminars and workshops. I love what I do and I love that I have these outlets for writing . I have even written a book which should be coming out later this year (nonfiction, of course). There are limitations in each of these outlets, but one of the reasons I keep this blog is to encourage me to play with my writing styles,  formats, themes, and subjects.

My hope is that I can spend some time in the coming weeks writing. Stephen King has helped me realize that one of the most important things I need to do in my desire to write more is to . . . well, write more. As obvious as that sounds, most people realize it’s not that easy. It takes time, energy, creativity, and commitment. Amidst all the other responsibilities vying for my time, writing is not for the faint of heart. I hope to have time to let writing flow profusely from my fingertips and imagination in the coming weeks. That’s the real draw of writing for me – probably for most writers I guess. That I can take something in my mind, type out words in some semblance of order and coherence, another person can read those words, formulate ideas in their own minds, and have a kind of almost mystical connection with the ideas that were in my head. That’s another way of saying this space may produce writings that are long, rambling, and incoherent (like my sermons – say some of my parishioners, ha ha), but that’s OK. This will be my playground for awhile – so let’s see what I can get into, and hopefully some of you may find it worth your time to read what I’ve got to say.

Some Musings on Faith, Flag, and Football (The Power of Symbols)

[This post is part of an ongoing series – you can access first post here.]

Several years ago we were fortunate enough to have a family from our church host an exchange student from Paris. I have many fond memories from her time with us, but there was one particular episode that I have never been able to forget. During one week in the summer, we attended a Christian camp and, as was the tradition each morning, the entire camp gathered around the flagpole and recited the pledge of the allegiance as the flag was raised. Our friend from France leaned over to me a

nd asked, “Why do you guys worship your flag?”

I’m sure my patriotic, Christian friends would be quick to dispel her confusion and assure her we do not worship the flag, but rather honor it and that for which it stands (isn’t that part of the pledge?) A few years ago, I ran across an essay by David Scotchmer entitled “Symbols Become Us: Toward a Missional Encounter with Our Culture through Symbolic Analysis.”[1] It helped inspire an article I wrote which appeared in the Restoration Quarterly journal back in 2010, and has helped me sift through the meaning and power of symbols. One of the early points that Scotchmer makes is, “One of the failures of the contemporary church is its inability to see its own captivity to the rules and norms of Western society.”[2] He focuses on the consumer-oriented approach many churches were having (and continue to have) in addressing spiritual needs, but his comment is just as revealing when applied to politically-infused debates like the one currently raging regarding the national anthem at sports venues.

As I’ve read articles and witnessed the responses by Christians to this entire discussion it is clear to me that for the vast majority of Christians offering their opinions, they are allowing the socio-political system of  the Unites States to frame their response. The responses tend to be binary: the athletes are using their platform to speak out against police brutality and social injustices rooted in racism OR the athletes are speaking out of turn and are providing an unnecessary distraction from actions/discussions that are more likely to provoke healthy dialogue and, hopefully, change. While the binary responses don’t fall definitively down party lines, the vast majority do.

To me, this whole discussion provides the perfect opportunity to talk about the power and place of symbols. Christians in the United States have an easy time pointing out the propagandizing emphasis in nations like China and North Korea, but remain mostly oblivious to the way in which it works in our own country. Go to nearly any toy story in our country and you’ll find plastic versions of fighter jets, tanks, and army men.

A few years ago while we were on spring break, my family went to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL. I was appalled during our time there to see children playing on old, emptied bomb shells. It was like a playground.

One could wonder if the abundance of red, white, and blue in the US is visible from space. Consider our superheroes and cartoons: Captain America, Superman, and Wonder Woman – all dressed in red, white, and blue; Superman fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Too easily do we dismiss these kinds of symbols as harmless and innocent. Make no mistake, the nation has a vested interest in indoctrinating its citizens to the power of its military and the righteousness of its cause. From a humanistic perspective, we can argue this away as a necessary evil of the nation-state, but as Christians called to a different citizenship – a different kingdom – we must be cautious to fall under their persuasive powers.

This brings us back to the vested interested the United States has in the patriotic hubbub that precedes most professional sporting events. Scotchmer states that “symbols embody the meaning of culture and serve as vehicles and repositories of meaning. Symbols express a worldview and join it to an ethos in ways that make it both meaningful and coherent.”[3] That’s why there is such unrest when someone challenges a nation’s symbols – they are calling into question the worldview and the presupposed meaning and order of the said culture.

Those who argue that the protesters have chosen a poor venue for their protest and/or should devote their time to (what they see as) civil discourse are assigning the symbol of the national anthem and the flag as a matter of core identity (which is often

wrapped up in the sport itself – think baseball as the national pastime and football as America’s game – these too function as symbols). Those who kneel or tweet #ikneel desire to bring attention to what they view as the insufficiency of the symbol. For some, the symbol doesn’t mean to them what it means to the other side, and for others, the symbol does mean that, but the manifestation of that symbol is sorely lacking.

Another quote from Scotchmer is helpful here, “Symbols provide powerful models of reality, as well as models for it, by giving meaning – that is, objective, conceptual form – to social and psychological reality both by shaping themselves to it and by shaping that reality to themselves. How people spend their time, money, and energy [in today’s world we might add how they spend their time on social media] reveals dramatically where their loyalties lie and which symbols they choose to preserve and promote.”[4] Which brings me to the point I want to make in this post.

I wrote in the introduction to this series of articles, “As I’ve sifted through comments on social media and listened to countless opinions on talk shows and news

radio, more than the political divide in this country, this whole saga is revealing a great deal about the state of Christianity in the United States.” In my opinion, arguing about kneeling or not kneeling is a distraction from the bigger problem in Christianity in the United States. This has put on display just how infested the US church is with American patriotism. We may give lip service to the church’s presence in the rest of the world, but episodes like this reveal the true scope of the disease.

Contrary to the militaristic symbols of power and might regularly put on display by the US government, the Bible is rife with symbols of its own. The Bible declares that the eternal destiny of the world was brought about by the symbol of a lamb that looked as though it had been slaughtered. Rome is depicted through the Bible with its own symbols of power and might (dragons and beasts), but they are always undone by a meek and mild Savior.

Regardless of your opinion regarding why the kneeling protests are taking place, you should be able to at least acknowledge peaceful kneeling during a nation’s anthem is not an affront against our faith. Perhaps more than anything else, this needs to be said: Honoring a nation’s anthem is not the business of Christians. As aliens and strangers, that’s just not our battle, so those who are quick to argue against those who are protesting should be careful in considering what exactly it is they are calling for. We are often told about those “brave soldiers who have given their life for the stars and stripes and our respect is rooted in them” but as Christians we must be mindful of the thousands around the world who have been murdered by the bombs those brave soldiers dropped. And we must be careful in our justification of the United States as “better than the other nations” – it is a great nation, but it is still not our home! Tony Campolo famously said, “The United States may be the greatest Babylon in the history of the world – but it’s still Babylon!” The kingdom of God is bigger than this nation or any other, and so for us to align ourselves in support of any nation’s anthem puts us on pretty shaky ground theologically.

We are allowing ourselves to get sucked in and divided by arguments and discussions that just aren’t kingdom matters. Justice is – and if someone kneels for that reason, we should be pretty slow to cast judgment as Christians. If anything, the act of kneeling or protesting during a nation’s anthem could be one of the most Christian things a disciple can do! Truth be told, we need more of that, than less. At the same time, wouldn’t it be nice to see some of the same fervor wrought  by this issue applied to how communion is observed, the sacred assembly, and the reading of Scripture. Christians should be much more concerned with flippant attitudes during moments like these than getting wrapped up in defending the traditions of the national anthem at a sporting event.

I ended my article in Restoration Quarterly with the following anecdote from Robert Coles’ book: The Political Life of Children, and it seems to be a fitting way to conclude this article. He describes a twelve-year-old Hopi Indian boy who wrestled with his identity living amid a nation that was not his own.

The Indian boy will learn to bow to America’s power, even as his grandfather did: Horses are not Sky Hawks and Phantoms . . . [He] will only smile and shrug his shoulders when asked about presidents, congressmen, governors; they exist, he knows, but they belong to others, not him, though he has not the slightest doubt that the decisions those leaders make will affect him . . . They are they, we are we; their leaders are theirs, ours are ours; yet, of course, we are all part of some larger scheme of things – America.[5]

It’s about time for Christians in the United States to act like they are part of some larger scheme of things – the kingdom of God.

The next post will look at the challenging realities of living in the midst of a challenging and fallen world, particularly in matters like these.

                [1] David Scotchmer, “Symbols Become Us: Toward a Missional Encounter with Our Culture through Symbolic Analysis,” in The Church Between Gospel and Culture, 158-172, edited by George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.

                [2] Ibid., 159.

                [3] Ibid., 163.

                [4] Ibid., 165.

                [5] Robert Coles, The Political Life of Children (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 47-48.

Some Musings of Faith, Flag, and Football (A History Lesson)

[This is the first post in the series, you can read the introduction here.]

The over-the-top militaristic parades put on by nations like North Korea and China broadcasted on their state-run television networks have always struck me as oddly NKOREA-SKOREA-MILITARY-ANNIVERSARYimpressive. You can’t help but be impressed by the thousands of soldiers lined up in perfect formations and surrounded by the heavy militaristic symbols of flags, tanks, and warplanes. The United States has its own pomp and circumstance surrounding Presidential Inaugurations and  Fourth of July celebrations, but even they tend to lack the military luster of the North Korean parades. There is, however, one venue in American society that does rival the militaristic and patriotic hype of these other counties – sports.

Progressive Field Indians Opening Day  My family has attended every Cleveland Indians Opening Day game for over a decade. Patriotism tends to be on steroids for these games. There’s always a flag so large it nearly covers the entire field, red, white, and blue balloons are released, fireworks are shot off, and the military provides a deafening flyover by their war machines. The climax of the pregame pomp is when a local celebrity comes out to sing the national anthem. For those of us who have grown blue-angels-flyoverup in the United States over the last 50 years, this is our reality in sports. It is difficult for us to know where patriotism ends and sports begins. The poster child for the prominent connection between “The Star Spangled Banner” and sports is Whitney Houston’s rendition from the Super Bowl in 1991 (her version of the anthem has been a Top 20 hit twice – after that Super Bowl and again after September 11, 2001). It may be difficult for us to imagine a sporting event without the anthem, but how many people know the actual origin of the practice?

Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex describe the pivotal role that the national anthem played in the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox (fourteen years before the anthem was officially adopted by the United States government). You can read the interesting article in full here, but I’ll provide a short synopsis. In a game that was moved across town from the Cubs home field (Weegham Park) to Comiskey Field to accommodate an expected large crowd (Comiskey had double the capacity of Weegham Park) only 19,000 people showed up. Unfortunately, the day before Game One the Chicago Federal Building was bombed, killing four and injuring 30. This added to an already-dismal atmosphere across the country as the nation was already entrenched in World War I. Needless to say, interest in the World Series was an immediate casualty.

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On the diamond, Babe Ruth pitched the Red Sox to a 1-0 shutout win over the Cubs in front of a crowd that the Tribune described as “perhaps the quietest on record.” The exception was when the military band played “The Star Spangled Banner.” The scene was described the following day in the New York Times leading, not with a description of the game itself, but the patriotic outbursts during the seventh inning: “First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.” The spectacle caught on and each night the Cubs ramped up the pageantry, only to be outdone when the Series moved to Boston. At Fenway Park, the anthem was moved from the seventh inning to before the game. As Cyphers and Tex conclude: “Other major league teams noticed the popular reaction to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1918, and over the next decade it became standard for World Series and holiday games. In subsequent years, through subsequent wars, it grew into the daily institution we know today.”

Today, it seems unusual to watch a sporting event at any level (with the exception of local, neighborhood recreation leagues) without the preemptive playing of the national anthem. It has become a practice so widely entrenched in sporting culture in the United States that any deviance from it is worthy of headline news. For example, when the small Mennonite college in Indiana, Goshen College, considered breaking from its pacifist-inspired tradition of not playing the anthem, it was covered by the New York Times.[1]

Considering the fact that Major League Baseball maintained its color barrier until Jackie Robinson played in his first game 28 years later in 1946, it is safe to say this practice originated almost exclusively under the auspices of White America’s sports experience. We should not be surprised then, to learn that the playing of the national anthem has often provided a platform for protests by African Americans. Tommie Smith and John Carlos provided what, historically, has been the most prominent racially-motivated protest during the anthem when they raised their closed, gloved fist during a medals ceremony in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. Smith and Carlos provided a most dramatic image of protest (they were, by the way, subsequently kicked off the team and sent back to the United States), but there have been many others as highlighted in an article in Monday’s New York Times.

Many people seem to assume the playing of the national anthem before sporting events is some kind of official legislative decree by the United State government when it is instead a longstanding, albeit it unofficial, tradition. In sports, which demand conformity (conformity to team rules, team uniforms, and the rules of the game), the playing of the national anthem provides a unique opportunity for athletes to make contrarian statements. This most recent iteration of protest was prompted by Colin Kaepernick during last NFL preseason. (Read the response of his fellow protestor Eric Reid here.) What seems to be often overlooked is that Kaepernick and Reid (as well as many others) have been motivated to conduct their protest because of their Christian faith. In the next post, I’ll examine the significance of symbols and the way that empires utilize symbols to indoctrinate and control their people. The national anthem is a prominent symbol, along with flags and war machines, and the United States government has a vested interest its propagandizing power. All of this should be  more unsettling to Christians than we often realize.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/us/25goshen.html

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