Book Review: Confessions of a Funeral Director

Directly across the street from my sixth grade classroom window was an old, eerie funeral home. The funeral home sat on the main drag through town, so I had plenty of opportunities for it to captivate my imagination. My experience, I suppose, it like many people’s – I had been to a funeral home two times prior to sixth grade, and the whole enterprise seemed so . . . spooky. Every once in awhile, when my teacher’s ability to hold my attention waned, I would catch sight of a hearse pulling up to the funeral home, and my imagination went wild considering all that happened behind those closed doors.

For most of us, the world of funeral homes, mortuary schools, and the delivery of corpses is an imaginary one. We know people live in that world, but for the vast majority of us, we would just assume leave that to the professionals. But what of those professionals? How must this bizarre and fringe life effect those in the trenches? It is such foreign world to most of us that we are unable to get past the gross quandaries (what’s it like to drain the blood out of a body? what’s the worst body you’ve ever had to take care of?) to delve into the harsher and more complex realities of such a world. To all of this, Caleb Wilde has offered a unique, heartfelt, and hopeful memoir from the funeral home business.

I was captivated as I read Wilde weave together the specifics of his history with his family’s funeral home business and the typical longings and pursuits that are familiar to all young people coming of age. To put it rather succinctly, spending your life around dead people and death and dying forces you to consider some of the deeper realities of life that many people (most of us?) let pass by.

With the backdrop of death and dying, Wilde reflects on family life, the meaning of life, and offers a really valuable contribution to a society in the United States that has largely pushed the “business of dying” to . . .well . . . business. I think Wilde’s book is a helpful book for anyone to read. Wilde is a Christian, so perhaps a nonChristian would read his book as a foreigner, but even there, I think he offers a pretty fair picture of the world of death and dying and the search for significance in small town America.

I was first introduced to Wilde through his unique blog and I was glad to see that he published this book to build on that work. He truly has found a unique niche that I think will speak to most of our hearts.

  • Book was provided to me on condition of review from Speakeasy.

Reclaiming our Political Roots: A Review

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In Reclaiming our Political Roots, Yohan Hwang considers the practical implications of the theological-political theory of Stanley Hauerwas and William Cavanaugh. Hwang’s opening chapters offer a provocative exploration of the disconnect between church life and “real” life. Hwang argues that as the church has ceded power to the State over centuries, the church has found itself withdrawing further and further from real world issues thus creating a more and more irrelevant church. His opening statement of chapter 3 is reflective of the larger framework of his argument, “Of the many facets of our fractured lives, I would argue that the divorcing of economics from morality bears the most practical consequences” (p.31). He provides a powerful discussion of how this principle has led to a reality where the vast majority of people see the place where they spend most of their time (their jobs) almost completely removed from anything having to do with faith. Faith has been relegated to the privatized world of each person’s “personal savior.” This, obviously, has a place, Hwang would argue, but a small place when considering the broader social implications of the faith of Christ. Faith, in the Bible, is always a matter of community.

Within the current paradigm, the church is simply tasked to making good citizens, and filling her members’ hearts with aspirations of the afterlife – all devoid of any real connection to the here and now. Rooted on a deep understanding of Hauerwasian political theory, Hwang takes his lead from Hauerwas in suggesting what a renewed theological politic might look like.

Often times, Hwang’s suggestions might seem far-fetched (the church entering the venture capital world or seriously taking on health care matters), but his posture is prophetic and his argument offers a corrective that is well overdue. Realists will dismiss Hwang as idealistic or naive, but I found myself thinking about Hwang’s proposals often – which in many ways is the best praise you can give an author – making you think. Hwang is pulling back the curtain on some of society’s most cherished sacred cows, and encouraging the church to creatively imagine a different way of doing things – a way where the church is active and takes the lead instead of relegating all social ills to the State.

I wholeheartedly recommend Hwang’s book to young Christians who are disillusioned with the status quo and who are passionate about imagining a different way of doing things. If there is a flaw for me in Hwang’s proposal, it’s that he does seem to understate just how divided the church is and the immense obstacle his proposals face without a resurgence of unity. As the church continues to become marginalized, there does seem to be room for a movement of unity, but in order to follow this way forward, the church is going to need to revisit Jesus’ prayer in John 17.

I appreciate Hwang’s passion and commitment to innovation and renewal. I hope his proposal represents a new generation who offers new perspectives and asks new questions that have plagued society for generations. Perhaps the time is now for those disillusioned with the State’s inability to meet society’s needs, to once again empower the Church with the power of the Holy Spirit.

I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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 certainly 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.

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.