#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

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Book Review: The Art of Neighboring

I almost never purchase books when they first come out – mainly because I’m cheap, but also because I have so many other things on my shelf to read that I figure by the time I get around to actually reading a book I buy, I could have bought it cheaper anyway.

Such is the case with the 2012 book by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon titled The Art of Neighboring.  I don’t remember when exactly I discovered this book, but I finally bought it last year (used on Amazon – I’m a total cheapskate) and finished it last week.  I’m not one for hyperbole, but I think I can actually say that this is the most valuable ministry book I’ve read for several years.  Nothing the authors say is particularly novel or earth-shattering, which is part of its brilliance.  Their entire message is rooted in the very simple and fundamental question: What if Jesus meant that we should love our actual neighbors?

The problem is, the authors point out in the beginning of the book, that hardly anyone seems to even know their neighbors.  They use the simple strategy of mapping out your house and the eight houses that are closest in proximity to your house, and ask the question how well do you know the people in those eight houses?  Do you even know their names?  Their families?  Their jobs?  Based on their experiences, the vast majority of people they’ve talked to can’t name their eight closes neighbors.  Most of their message can be summed up in the simple statement: Get to know your neighbors!

The whole idea for this “neighboring” movement was born  in Denver, Colorado where several local pastors were told by their mayor that most of the social ills of their community could be addressed if people simply learned to be good neighbors.  This realization prompted this group of pastors to work together and encourage their various churches to begin to intentionally get to know their neighbors.  The whole concept sounds so obvious that it seems a shame that such a book is necessary.  But it’s true. We’ve simply lost the ability to be good neighbors.

Our family has charted a similar path over the past 5 years to get know our neighbors, and we serve as a personal testimony for exactly the point this book sets out to make.  Too many Christians are too caught up in the bubbles of their church world that they often miss what is going on right under their noses.  I grew up in the country, so this whole neighborhood thing has taken me awhile to get used to.  I remember how strange it seemed to me when we bought our first house that my bedroom was less than 100 feet from my neighbor’s bedroom.  We slept less than 100 feet away from each other, but knew almost nothing about each other!

Pathak and Runyon make a compelling case for why we should get to know our neighbors (which is the easy part!), but then they provide plenty of firsthand examples of how rewarding and fulfilling it can be.  Additionally, they talk from their firsthand experiences of some of the challenges that opening your lives up to your neighbors brings.  The book is packed with practical pieces: group discussion questions, block party kits, and even more on their website.

The book moves from making the case that anyone and everyone can master the art of neighboring to some of the more pressing issues that come up once you begin the process.  I am glad that the very first thing they address in this section has to do with motivation.  Our motives in being a good neighbor can never be to convert people.  I hate it when someone calls me on the phone and is especially nice to me, only to find that their real motive is to sell me something.  It drives me crazy.  Christians are never called to be a good neighbor so that we can sneak the Gospel in there somewhere.  We are good neighbors because we are Christians.  And if we are Christians, eventually it’s going to come out, and eventually it’s going to make an impact.  But that is not our motivation.  Unfortunately, some of the rudest sales calls I’ve had at the church office has come from Christian companies trying to sell the church things – it’s almost like it’s in our blood.

The authors are also quick to speak to the Pollyanna tendency that can come from our attempts at being a good neighbor.  Once we become more intentional in our relationships  with our neighbors, it is inevitable that conflict and challenges will arise. Pathak and Runyon share firsthand stories that help reinforce the need for boundaries and the distinction between being all things to all people and being everything to everybody.

I don’t know that I’ve done a very good job of summarizing the book itself, but would encourage you to pick it up and read it yourself.  I share in their sentiment that if churches would begin to preach this message and equip and encourage their people to root their ministry in their own particular neighborhoods, we would, indeed, change the world.  If you are looking for a ministry book to encourage you, challenge you, and give you a new way to approach your local ministry, I believe you will be hard-pressed to find a better one than The Art of Neighboring.  In some ways I wish I would have read it sooner, but better later (and cheaper!) than never.  Read this book if you are looking for a practical and meaningful way you can put your faith into action and be led on an incredible journey.

The Church is the Doppelganger of Christ

We’ve all had those moments when we see someone in a crowd and smile, wave, or approach them to talk with them . . . and then realize it wasn’t who we thought it was but someone who just looked like who we thought it was.  It  can be quite embarrassing.

As a longtime fan of SNL, one of the most amazing aspects of the show is how they’ve been able to find amazing impressionists throughout their tenure.  From Dana Carvey doing Ross Perot and George H.W. Bush to Will Ferrell’s famed W., and countless others, the SNL has showcased some of America’s best impressions – none more famous than Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin.  When an impression is that good, it’s easy to mistake the impressionist for the real person.  Being a celebrity doppelganger leads to interesting interactions.

Throughout March, the Alum Creek Church has been reading through the Gospel of Matthew together and I was taken up with the notion of doppelgangers last week.  As I read through Matthew last week, I was struck by the fact that Christians are called to be Christ’s doppelgangers.  We are supposed to look like Jesus in our lives.  I read a book a few years ago that said we are supposed to be “little Jesuses” walking around carrying on his ministry.  I think I like the image of being his doppelgangers better.

Impressionists come in all shapes and sizes which is probably nowhere on display better than in Elvis impersonators.  You see fat Elvises, skinny Elvises, old Elvises, and everything in between.  Throw a sequin suit on with some slicked back, black hair – add some sweet lamb chops and sunglasses, and everyone knows who you are trying to be.  Some, obviously, our more realistic than others.

As I read through Matthew that imagery really stuck with me.  That’s what we are supposed to be.  Not some cheap, tacky Elvis impersonator, but a real, authentic doppelganger who, if seen from a distance at an airport, would easily be confused for the real thing.  The problem is, too many churches are putting cheap and tacky replicas on display.  Too many churches mistaken the smoke and mirrors of Sunday worship services for authentic Jesus communities.  The problem with that is that Matthew is completely absent of any tacky impersonation.

Jesus oozes humility.  He spends his time with people no one else wants to.  He disrupts the religious establishment.  He gives up his power.  He instructs his followers to put their weapons down.  If we start doing that . . . maybe people will start treating us like they treated him.  If that starts happening, then we can begin to ask ourselves whether we really want to be like him or not.

Why So Serious?

I believe that one of the true privileges that comes with being a pastor is having the opportunity to officiate wedding ceremonies.  It was a special day when I officiated my sister’s wedding, and it has been an honor to take part in several others over the years.  This past Saturday I performed the wedding for a bride whose family has been a friend of our family for as long as I can remember.

Although the weather was a bit dreary, the bride looked beautiful, the music was moving, and the atmosphere was jovial.  It was a wedding!  As I came to the close of the ceremony, proudly declaring, “You may now kiss the bride,” something funny happened.  There was this great exuberance among the crowd in attendance – an actual buzz was in the air.  You could feel their joy and excitement (and that wasn’t the surprising part as this was a wedding), but they all just sat there quietly watching.  For the split second while the bride and groom stood with their lips locked, I could just tell that everyone wanted to make some gesture of joy – some outburst of excitement beyond their smiling faces.  But they felt hindered.  They were at church.  This was a religious ceremony.  You have to look nice, act nice, and be quiet until you leave.  That seems to be the general feeling that people have.

To be fair, I think most people have been to boring weddings.  Lots of standing and sitting and kneeling and preaching.  No one can doubt the seriousness of the moment as you can cut the tension with a knife while at the same time, most guests struggle just to stay awake.  For a lot of couples the actual wedding ceremony stands as the necessary evil and functions as a kind of pregame ritual before the real party (the reception) begins.  If I had more time, I have a feeling that there’s a lot we can learn about the way we view God and our spirituality by the sharp contrast we have created between the serious, religious wedding ceremony and the often alcohol-infused, (way more fun!) post wedding celebration.
I’ve made it a point to have people laugh as much as possible during the wedding ceremonies I perform.  At least I try.  This is supposed to be the happiest day of the lives of this couple – why are so many wedding ceremonies so serious?  I can’t help but think of the Joker’s words from The Dark Knight, “Why so serious?” as a way to respond to the many hyper-serious wedding ceremonies.

We could ask the same thing in stoic worship gatherings – why so serious?  (A few months ago I suggested that ministers need to stop taking themselves so seriously.)  Now, granted, there are certainly times that demand respect and reverence, but some churches have been stuck on respect and reverence for a couple hundred years.  We need a good dose of Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord, always, I will say it again, ‘Rejoice!'”

In a world that is so driven by fear and uncertainty, we can be a breath of fresh air by embracing a life of joy.  It seems so natural for a crowd of family and friends to burst into spontaneous applause at the wedding of their beloved friend and family member.  The people at this particular wedding just needed someone to give them permission.  They needed someone to assure them that the prejudice they have of the church being a stoic, lifeless place is ill-conceived and that the church actually has much to celebrate.  As I noted the crowd’s pent-up exuberance, I told them, “You can clap!” and a huge outburst ensued.  Cheers and shouts joined with the applause to make for a genuine scene of joy.

Indeed, there is much to fret and much in our world is not going well.  All of this reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from Saturday Night Live.  It was the cold open for the first live show following the attacks on September 11, 2001.  Mayor Rudy Giuliani stood alongside several firemen and police officers while making a genuine and heartfelt statement regarding all that had happened in the previous weeks.  Paul Simon preformed the song, “The Boxer,” and all of us who watched this live can remember the seriousness of the moment.  Then, in one of the show’s finest moments, SNL creator Lorne Michaels joined Giuliani and the officers on stage. Giuliani tells the audience how important it is to have New York City’s institutions back up and running and acknowledges Saturday Night Live as one of their best institutions.  Lorne Michaels follows up his statement with a question: “Can we be funny?”

It was a great question because it had a tinge of humor, but it was a real question that everyone was asking.  Not so much, “Can we be funny?” (because, as hard as some of us may try we will never be funny), but the real question he was asking on behalf of those of us watching was, “Can we laugh?”  There were a lot of heavy things going on.  Our media sources were flooding our eyes with death and destruction and it was hard to keep our eyes dry.  Would we ever be ever to laugh again?

And the writers of the show came through as Giuiliani offers the perfect response, “Why start now?”  A joke.  Permission to laugh.  The entire country was pent up with uncertainty just like that church building was Saturday watching the bride and groom kiss.  In the midst of our worries and concerns, we have weddings (and shows like Saturday Night Live) to remind us all is not lost and all is not wicked.  One of the chief reasons the church exists, I believe, is to tell the world – you can laugh!  There is reason to hope!  So the next time you are at a wedding, remember, you have been given permission to laugh.

Rivalry and the Perpetuation of The Other

It was January 11, 1987.  I was seven and a half years old.  It was Cleveland, Ohio.  And it was the first time that Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway slowly and painfully ripped out the hearts of Cleveland Browns fans everywhere.  It became known as “The Drive. ” [All Browns fans close your eyes, others can watch this link.] While playoff aspirations have been a distant memory for the Cleveland Browns over the past two decades, during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the Browns had incredibly talented and wildly successful football teams, though the Super Bowl would remain elusive.

I live in Columbus and love the Ohio State Buckeyes, but I think my first love will always be the Cleveland Browns.  They have been so bad for so long that I wish it wasn’t true, but the beginning of every football season reminds me of my first love.  I attended several Browns games during this era, and the images of old Cleveland Municipal Stadium remain ensconced among my greatest memories.  It was during this era of heartbreak that I actually attended a regular season game against the Elway-led Broncos.  The success of the future Hall of Fame quarterback wasn’t respected or appreciated among Browns fans during those years – to say the least.  Instead I remember jeers raining down from the stadium making fun of anything and everything the inebriated crowd could mumble out together.  One of the first cheers I ever remember hearing at a professional football game was “Elway’s a faggot.”  As  a kid, I joined right in the jeering and cheering against this arch rival.

In sports, there’s a fine line between cheering for a team or player, and cheering against another team or player.  It maybe a reality that we Cleveland fans can appreciate more than most people.  The Indians and Browns last won world championships long before I was born, so there’s been plenty of time to root against other teams and their successes.  And what Cleveland fan didn’t root against South Beach LeBron?  It’s part of the fun, really.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find at least some delight in the recent faltering of Michigan’s football program.  After all, they are our rival!  My son has a sign in his room that says, “My favorite two teams are Ohio State, and whoever is playing Michigan!”  My two favorite teams have been doing pretty good lately!

I’ve been thinking a lot about rivalry lately.  There has been no better case study for what rivalry does to a person than Ohio State’s recent hiring of Urban Meyer.  Now, Urban Meyer is an Ohio guy – something that people in the South seem to forget.  He was born in Toledo, grew up in the Lake town of Ashtabula, attended the University of Cincinnati, and had his first head football coaching position at Bowling Green State.  His rise to prominence in college football was profuse, immediately finding success at every school he has coached for.  However, it was at the University of Florida where he achieved the highest level of success, winning two national championships.

The culmination of the 2006 football season found Meyer’s Gators taking on the Ohio State Buckeyes.  I remember watching and listening to Urban Meyer in the weeks leading up to the game.  I remember thinking how much of a pompous ass he was.  I remember how much I didn’t care for his demeanor and his cut-throat mentality (he has a reputation for running up the score on lesser opponents).  Compared to the buttoned-up, senatorial, humble ethos of Ohio State’s coach Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer was an arrogant prick.  And that arrogant prick helped kick my team’s behind in one of the more lopsided national championships you will ever see.  Which made me hate him all the more.

In the year’s following Meyer’s championships at Florida (they won again in 2008), he had some serious health concerns that eventually led to his resignation at the end of 2010.  I can honestly say that I’ve  never wished ill on anyone, including my rivals, but I can say without reservation that I wasn’t heartbroken to see him leave Florida and football altogether.

Then came a scandal at Ohio State.  Then came Jim Tressel’s resignation.  Then came probation.  Then came the rumors of Urban Meyer accepting the head coaching job at Ohio State.  One year after resigning from Florida.  Wait.  What?

There’s a lot of different sides to this complex story, but the thing I want to focus on for a minute is the strange situation it put us in as Ohio State fans.  Everyone I knew thought he was the perfect person for the job.  There wasn’t a better candidate.  But, man, once you’ve rooted against someone, it’s hard to just forget that and move on.  I still thought he was a pompous ass.

It’s interesting how quickly, my feelings about him began to thaw.  You know, he looks pretty good in scarlet and gray.  Now he was talking to the people of Ohio.  Now . . . you know what? . . . he wasn’t too bad of a guy after all.  Still intense.  Still kind of cocky.  But don’t you want that for your coach?  Then the magical season that was 2014, and the Buckeyes won the first ever college football playoff, and the entire state of Ohio has forgotten all about Jim Tressel.  Well, not forgotten, more like forgiven.

While this is the extreme case, every sports fan knows this feeling.  It happens all the time in baseball.  In the middle of the season, teams out of contention trade their good players to teams in contention, and the next thing you know,  a player you cheered so hard against, is wearing your team’s colors.  It’s heretical to even think about it, but if the Browns had been led by John Elway instead of Bernie Kosar, maybe the Browns have all the success that the Broncos would come to have.  It’s just impossible to picture him in their colors.

I’ve come to realize that sports displays a microcosm of life when it comes to identity.  We identify with our team.  We wear their colors, familiarize ourselves with their traditions, and we feel a part of them.  As a matter of fact, it isn’t them – it’s us.  While watching from the inactivity of our couch, we stand and shout, “We won!”

What helps us forge our identity is knowing that we are not them.  Rivalry can betray humanity.  For the jeering fans in the 1980’s and 1990’s in Cleveland, John Elway wasn’t a person.  He was a quarterback.  He was a Bronco.  He was a football player.  But he wasn’t human.  He wasn’t a husband or a father or a son and didn’t have a soul.  When Urban Meyer was pacing the sidelines in Gainesville, FL I saw no humanity in him.  I just saw someone who was better than me and my team and who made my skin crawl.

Over the next six years, Urban Meyer will make on average $6.5 million each year.  Celebrity Net Worth reports that John Elway’s net worth is over $145 million.  In the world of high profile sports, I think most people would be able to put up with the mean-spirited fans and mudslinging rivals.  I’m not saying it excuses it; I’m just saying that no one is feeling bad for these millionaires.

However, this reality isn’t limited to the highest levels of sports.  It was early on in my son’s baseball career when I realized how conflicted I would be when it comes to his success.  If the bases are loaded and there are two outs and the game is tied and my son is up to bat, what is the right outcome to hope for?  Do I hope he throws a ball and my son draws the winning RBI?  Do I pray for a meat ball right  down the middle that I know my son can smash?  How do I root him on, without wishing ill on the other team or player?   Could it be that the other team needs a win more than our team at the grandest scheme of life?  Could it be that the kid in that illustration would be much more greatly blessed with a strike out than my son would be with a walk off hit?

It’s when the discussions of rivalry hit the local level with youth sports that I think we really begin to get into the heavy conversations.  My next blogpost will begin to deal with the challenge of balancing rooting for your child’s success while not rooting against the success of others.

Sports Were Made for Mankind, not Mankind for Sports

Photo Credit: Crisis Magazine: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2015/god-sundays

A couple of weeks ago, I had a Monday evening that looked like this: I dropped my son off for football practice at 6:00, then drove half way across town for my weekly football officials meeting at 7:00, then drove all the way back across town to have a meeting with a couple of other dads at 8:30 where we talked about the possibility of putting together a new baseball team next summer for our sons.

Just today, I was sent video from our Friday night game last week to review and find mechanics to work on for our game tomorrow night.  I am part of a pick ’em college football pool that some friends at church and I have done for several years, and I had to get my picks in before tonight’s game.  I have a middle school game to officiate at 5:30 so I’m going to try and get a run in before that, my daughters have dance classes all night so my wife will be shuttling them back and forth, my son has football practice again tonight, so we’ll need a friend to help run him back and forth to it, and, when I finally get home, I’ll probably try to catch a few minutes of the Michigan – Utah college football game .  Luckily the Indians are off , so I can resume my attention to their post-season push tomorrow night.

When I was doing research for my dissertation, I came across a reporter who said something to the effect that keeping busy sports schedules has become a kind of success gauge for suburban parents.   A busy sports schedule has become a kind of insinuated mark of accomplishment.  The busier your kids are in their sports, the better athletes they must be.  Living, working, and ministering in the suburbs, I overhear countless parents lamenting their children’s busy sports schedules.  About how they never have dinner together anymore.  About how they drive hours on the weekends  and live out of hotels several times a year.   About how expensive the team has become.  About how much money they spend on equipment.  About how competitive the other teams are.

And, almost with exception, they all sound trapped.  Oftentimes I’ll hear the caveats, “But what are you going to do?”  or “That’s the cost of being blessed with an athletic son or daughter;”  or “That’s just how sports are nowadays;”  and my favorite, “Just wait until your kids are older.”

Well, my kids are getting older, and I’ve taken sports on as a kind of special cause towards which I intend to dedicate a great deal of time and energy as my wife and I seek the best direction for their sports and academic upbringing.  I don’t have a lot of answers – but I can look around the landscape of youth sports and identify a great many problems.  My hope is that we can begin to address some of these problems in the lives of our children and work towards better practices in the future.

As I began to study sports and the relationship that we have with sports, I was drawn to a particular story from the New Testament involving Jesus and his disciples.  At the end of Mark 2, Jesus and his disciples are out picking up heads of grain in the fields (the Old Testament has a provision that farmers leave the grains that fall onto the ground during harvest for poorer citizens to come and pick up and eat.)  In that regard, Jesus and his disciples were doing nothing wrong.  However, the fact that it was the Sabbath was cause for concern among the religious leaders.  “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2: 24)

The disciples were picking up the grains because they were hungry. Jesus had them running a pretty busy schedule the other six days of the week.  Here, they paused to eat some of the grain in the fields.  The Pharisees, however, had a pretty established code of ethics for keeping the Sabbath commandment, however.  Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy was a big deal – one of the Ten Commandments!  And so they outlined what would be considered work, and what wasn’t.  Going through the fields and picking up leftover grain definitely was work, in their books.

Essentially, what God’s followers managed to do, was to take something that was created for their benefit (Sabbath) – something that would ensure they wouldn’t be overworked, and wouldn’t overwork the land – something that would make sure they took time to enjoy life, and they turned it into something that was oppressive and yet another burden.  They spent all their time of rest, worried about whether or not they were resting the “right” way.  In one of Jesus’ more pointed rebukes he states: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2: 27).

I haven’t been able to shake the connection of this teaching of Jesus’ to our practice of sports in the world today.  I wonder if Jesus wouldn’t say the same thing about sports.  Sports were created for our enjoyment – for our leisure.  They were intended to bring families together – now, they rob most families of their family time.  They were intended to help maintain healthy bodies, and while there is an obesity epidemic that largely needs positive practices of sports – at the same time, there is a growing lists of ailments and overuse injuries witnessed in younger and younger athletes.  They were intended to foster a spirit of camaraderie and unity – now, they often ostensibly support teamwork and team spirit, but often fuse with a competitive dog-eat-dog spirit that sows further dissension.

There’s no quick fix or easy answer for wrestling with the intricately, complex world of youth sports.  However, I think a first step in the right direction is to remember Jesus’ words regarding the Sabbath.  Every parent and young athlete alike should ask themselves the question, “Does my participation in this system still allow for me and/or my child to fulfill the goals of leisure and enjoyment sports should help embody?”  “Do I feel stuck and enslaved to a sport, a team, a coach, or a league?”  Admittedly, there is a fine line between committing to compete at a high level, and selling ourselves to the sport itself.  My fear is that few of us are genuinely wrestling with these issues at all and would do well to seriously ask ourselves these two questions.

The Unkingdom of God: A Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 – My year in reading

Böcker

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

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

Best book I read in 2014

they played their hearts out

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

Best Stephen King Book I read in 2014

the stand

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

Book I Should Have Read Earlier than 2014

sex god

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

Book that I Keep Coming Back to from 2014

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

Book that Most Surprised Me in 2014

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

Funniest Book I read in 2014

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

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

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

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

Touchless Toilets, Redemption, and The Problem with the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Book of Tobit and Entertaining Angels

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

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

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

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

December 15, 2013 –  Alum Creek Church

A Message from the Inn Keeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            The Lord heard both of their prayers. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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