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.

 

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Book Review: Occupy Spirituality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Fills out a NCAA March Madness Bracket

MFF_2013_FINAL_LOGO

Let’s just face it, office production is measurably down today.  Shipments will be a few minutes late.  Invoices are on hold.  The staff will be a few minutes late for today’s lunch meetings.  After processing all of the conference tournament championships from yesterday (my Buckeyes won, in case you missed it!), considering the match ups, perusing conference strengths, deciding which mascot they like better, and listening to the experts’ take on things . . . millions of men, women, and children are busy filling out their college basketball brackets right now.  It is the creme de creme of American sports: 68 teams make the initial cut, but only one will be left standing.  It’s sudden death.  It’s elimination.  It is survival of the fittest.  It epitomizes the American ethos: for better or worse.  And somewhere John Calipari is prepping for the NIT.

I have been filling out an NCAA tournament bracket ever since I can remember.  I’ve probably lost a hundred dollars or so over the years (I’m guessing $5 a year over 20 years . . . pretty big stakes).  Once I’m done typing out this blog entry, I’ll fill out my 2013 attempt.  It always takes awhile to decide whether to pick with your mind . . . or your heart (Buckeyes all the way!)

This year, I find myself knee-deep in studying sports and religion and it’s just got my head all screwed up when it comes to my love of sports.  This bracket is no different.  This morning I started wondering how Jesus would fill out his brackets (I mean, if you Calvinist are right, it wouldn’t be much fun to be in his pool – but, alas, as an Arminian, I do hold onto some hope I could beat his bracket).  This all got me wondering, What if Jesus set out to pick with his heart – who would he want to win?

Steve Nash

Messiah without a beard?

We all know Jesus would be a basketball fan, right?  I mean James Naismith was a freaking chaplain for Kansas!  The game was invented at a YMCA (Young Men’s CHRISTIAN Association!)  With his flowing locks, Jesus was born to be a point guard.  I’ve often wondered what it would be like to play Jesus one-on-one, but we’ll save that discussion for another day.

Today, I’m wondering what his bracket would look like. It seems to me, obviously, it’s going to have a lot to with how you understand Jesus.  If you espouse an “everyone-for-themselves” Jesus who promotes a dog-eat-dog system where the cream will rise to the top, you probably think Jesus is really hoping Duke and Ohio State come through one side and Kansas and Indiana through the other (and obviously Duke and Indiana would be playing for the title!)  If you see Jesus as more of a social activist beckoning the ghost of Walter Rauschenbusch, this is the year the 16 seeds bring home the title, taking down The Man!  [Here‘s a documentary of what it may look like if Jesus happened to follow soccer’s World Cup this way.]  Or maybe Jesus would seek to reward the most godly schools for their commitment to ministry and the “higher call” setting up a Final Four made up of Liberty University, Notre Dame (or would it be Belmont – the Catholics taking on the Baptists, intriguing!), Georgetown and Villanova.  Or . . . maybe he wouldn’t care at all about the Big Dance, and instead obsess with the lower divisions of college basketball – scoping out D2 and D3 action.  Maybe he’d make a good Victorian and not “weary himself with such lusts of the flesh.”

Apparently if Jesus played, it would have been in the 70's

Apparently if Jesus played, it would have been in the 70’s

Here’s one church’s idea for using the NCAA tournament to do some good (digging wells in Africa).  Seems like a good use of what the culture has given us – maybe he’d do that: going church to church setting up brackets to raise money and awareness to the world’s problems.

Maybe he’d protest.  I posted last week about the ills of youth sports and it’s nowhere more heinous than in basketball.  Would Jesus stand for that?  Would Jesus occupy March Madness?

You can tell alot about how you think God wants you to live and interact in this world as a Christian (the old “in the world, but not of the world” paradox) by how you engage this hypothetical conversation.  Richard Niebuhr calls this the “enduring problem” of Christianity in his famous Christ and Culture.  How does the world of sacraments, spirituality, and morality intersect the world of college basketball tournaments, shopping malls, and I pads?  In the end, it’s impossible to know how or if Jesus would care at all about college basketball.  However, as the obsession with this tournament envelopes our culture in the coming weeks, there can be little doubt that the tournament matters to our culture.  Because it matters, we should be looking for ways to celebrate the best it has to offer . . . while at the same time, being aware that all that it has to offer it not the best.

 

 

 

Elite Sports Leagues and the Machine of Youth Travel Sports

There is a storm brewing on the horizon and I am doing all I can to prepare myself for it.  My son loves sports and has shown a true love for baseball in particular.  To this point, we have enjoyed our summers at the baseball fields in our local Westerville recreational league.  This summer should be especially fun as it proves to be the “peak” season for the local league with the league fielding more teams for the 8 – 10 year-old kid-pitch league than any of the other age groups.  However, the storms clouds have already begun to form as I see looming questions about the best way to navigate the future of our son’s youth sports experience.

The fact that my son is entering the most popular level of play in the local recreation league comes as no surprise.  Across the country, elite leagues and travel teams begin plucking kids out of local leagues by this age group (a trend that is becoming younger, not the other way around) and older recreation leagues are all but drying up for children interested in playing for fun (imagine that!)

This has not been foreign to me as my years in youth ministry have already familiarized me with the world of travel and elite sports.  I have seen families devote their summer vacations, countless thousands of dollars, and all of their free time to the development of their teenage athletes.  For some its the pursuit of college scholarships while for others it’s simply the obsession with being the best – but whatever the case, there is plenty of fuel to supply the burgeoning beast.  Even though I am a huge sports fan and am excited about my children playing sports, ever since I have been exposed to the world of travel and elite sports it has left a poor impression on me.  Particularly the way I’ve seen families obsess over these leagues to the detriment of their attention to their children’s faith development and spiritual formation has led me to believe this is a major crisis for the American church.

Until very recently, I had never heard any Christian who had been critical of sports – ever.  Sure, there may have been an occasional prude who complained about Wednesday night practice forcing athletes to miss Bible study at church, but when it came to Christians and their participation with sports – everyone I knew was “all in.”  Then I had a kid.  Then I started watching how sports consumed the lives of the teenagers I worked with.  Then I started asking their parents hard questions.  Then the you know what hit the fan.  Turns out, I had stumbled upon a sacred cow.  “Just wait until your kids are that age . . . ”

Well, they are getting close now, and I’ve decided to dedicate an entire dissertation to the subject because I have come to realize no one is talking about this.  The percentage of children in churches (particularly suburban mega churches) who are participating in elite and travel leagues is staggering (I have no statistical evidence of this – just the obvious eye test), and yet walk into a Christian book store or peruse the Christian ministry and youth ministry sections at Amazon and you’ll find no guides, no Bible studies, no suggestions for navigating an incredibly taxing time of life and an expensive and crucial developmental stage of life.  Almost all the treatments you’ll find there are limited to a subtle dose of the prosperity gospel.  Why is no one talking about this?  Why does it appear the church’s critique of sports is that it is pretty much neutral?

And all along the way, my son is getting older and closer to the age where travel baseball (and all other sports) becomes an presupposition.  As Tom Farrey acknowledges, “Travel teams are no longer an add-on to the youth sports landscape, like the post-season all-star teams of previous generations.  In many communities, after the age of 9 or 10, they effectively are youth sports.”   (From: Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions out of our Children p. 183)

I don’t have an answer to all of this.  I don’t think that the idea of travel leagues and elite youth sports organizations has to be bad . . . but I think the current manifestation of it is bad – really bad.  I believe it is harming the social fabric of small towns and larger communities and is helping contribute to the inactivity of children – statistics show that when children try out for teams and don’t make them, they are very likely to give up on the sport for good.  In any places, elite travel teams are the only option and if you don’t make them . . . there just aren’t many pick-up games happening in backyards anymore and . . . their extension cords just don’t reach quite that far.  Additionally, these leagues and teams are taking shape before children are even developmentally prepared for competition.  Winning national championships and attaining high state and national rankings are for parents, not children (inspiring this classic on the topic: Just Let the Kids Play.)

I plan to post a great deal on this topic in the coming months.  As we make difficult decisions about where our son plays and when and how often and the lot, I’ll be reading, studying, and researching this topic hoping to find insight and wisdom that can help us navigate these challenging areas of life.  What I hope doesn’t get lost in this is that my son have fun (my daughters too – but they’re still a few years away from the mouth of the machine).  I hope that Christians will begin to have more frank and honest discussions regarding their love affair with sports.  I’m a huge fan of sports and believe they play a crucial (and healthy) role in culture . . . but I am equally convinced that we often allow them to become these monsters that they have become and they take on a life of their own.

Welcome to Holy Week: The Super Bowl as Religious Festival

One of the most intriguing aspects of the study of religion and sport is to watch the games evolve from sacred origins to a more secular place today.  Allen Guttman summarizes this evolution well: “We do not run in order that the earth be more fertile.  We till the earth, or work in our factories and offices, so that we can have time to play,”  (From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports – p. 26)  Of course, that is not to say that the sacred is completely absent in today’s games, and that is never more clearly on display than the week of the Super Bowl.  A little over a decade ago, Jospeh L. Price penned a brief essay entitled, “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival.”  Though he doesn’t describe the comparison in great detail, his observation is keen.

In his book The Holy Trinity of American Sports, Craig Forney explores the elements of America’s civil religion in our three most popular sports: football, basketball, and baseball which he believes, “form a trinity of ‘major sports’ working together each year in portrayal of the national worldview” (16).  Forney, among others, point out that the ebbing and flowing of American culture is largely dictated by its sports.  Rather than January ushering in the start of a new year, baseball’s spring training, and college basketball’s March Madness provide a more accurate occasion for a new year.  Coinciding with the renewing of nature in spring, these spring sports capture the imagination of the American public and catapult us forward into a new season.  As sports continues its burgeoning throughout the cultural landscape, at both subtle and overt levels, sports dictates the framework within which much of culture operates – whether one is a sports fan or not.

What makes sports so powerful, I am in the process of arguing, is that it is so intertwined with other powerful realities: politics, economics, and culture to name but three.  The National Anthem serves as an invocation, as well as a military fly-over, and often a recorded message from the President.  The astronomical price of advertising during the Super Bowl is common knowledge and accentuates the economic power that sports have come to embody.  While sports have an obvious universal appeal, each culture has its own games and national imperialism often has sport as a key element (think of the prominent way that Americans emphasize (and proselytize baseball, basketball, and American football around the world), but have been slow to accept hockey (from Canada), and soccer, rugby, and cricket (from Europe)).

All of this comes together in the spectacle of the Super Bowl.  Football is a fall sport, but its championships are played in the winter.  College’s champion was crowed a few weeks ago, and now all eyes have turned to the American crown jewel of sports: the NFL, and it’s crowing moment – the Super Bowl.  To the extent that sports is America’s civil religion, the Super Bowl represents its most important religious festival.  There are regularly serious petitions set out to make the Monday after the Super Bowl a national holiday.  It is the culmination of a year’s worth of sporting events, set to restart itself with the basketball season, and just-around-the-corner MLB spring training.

If the Super Bowl is the chief religious festival in the United States, that makes today the start of Holy Week (and in true America style – our Holy Week actually last two weeks – with the additional week off between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl).  There will be non-stop talk about the game, the teams, the half time show, the commercials, past Super Bowls, past Super Bowl MVPs, the current state of football, and any other obscure, quasi-related topics they can find.  And the game will be played, after the seven hour pregame show, crowning a new champion who will be “going to Disney World” .  .  . and then . . . the whole year will start over again.

Stating that the Super Bowl is a religious festival is neither to affirm that as a positive cultural trait, or to chastise it as all too secular.  It’s simply an observation of our culture.  This weekend, our nation will be littered with Super Bowl parties, tailgate parties (all inside, in this part of the country!), fun and game.  It’s the one time of the year that, even if you don’t care the slightest for sports, come next Monday, if you don’t know what happened the day before, people will look at you like you’re Amish.  In any regard, I have no interest in the teams that are playing this year (other than the fact that as a Browns fan, I never root for the Ravens), but I will watch all the same.  I will enjoy a fun evening with people from my church, as well as friends from our neighborhood.  It seems to me to be the perfect night for America to truly embody the ethos of the New Testament ideal of koinonia . . . it’s just disappointing that it takes a sporting event to draw us together like this.

In any case, it’s almost baseball season!  This is our year!  Go Tribe!

 

Ke$ha the Prophetess?

If I could go back and hang out with some folks from the Old Testament, I think I would have to pick one of the prophets.  I just love how “in your face” they were . . . not to mention how irreverant and crass they were (inspiring my Twitter handle @Crasslyyours).  Whether they’re lying down on their side for a year, running around naked, cooking dinner over poop, or making little figures out of play dough – these were some weird folks!  I’m trying to convince my wife that not getting a haircut is my God-given calling as a prophet of the Lord . . . and currently that argument is not going so well – at least I don’t cook dinner over the toilet.

Now, I don’t really think Ke$ha is a prophet, but she is weird and she is in your face.  She sings . . . or raps . . . or whatever it is she does, with the swagger and crassness that has almost always been reserved for men.  By all accounts she’s trashy (even if she is super smart – she scored 1500 on her SAT and has an IQ of 140 . . . but apparently missed the health classes on STDs and the effects of alcohol abuse) and annoying as she has turned the $ sign into the 27th letter of the alphabet.  However, she has also captured something in the hearts of adolescents that has made her music crazy popular.  She’s smart . . . and she’s talented.

Her most recent hit captures the heart and soul of youthful zeal and carefree living even in the title, “Die Young.”

Strangely, in kicking the year off with a study of Ecclesiastes, our church wound up humming the words to this Ke$ha song.  OK, we didn’t actually hum the words and I was too much of a chicken to actually play the song (that whole “magic in your pants is making me blush” part made me think it a bit inappropriate), but I read the following lyrics:

Young hearts, out our minds
Runnin like we outta time
Wild childs, lookin’ good
Livin hard just like we should
Don’t care whose watching when we tearing it up (You Know)
That magic that we got nobody can touch (For sure)

Looking for some trouble tonight
Take my hand, I’ll show you the wild, side
Like it’s the last night of our lives
We’ll keep dancing till we die.

Most of the time, churches stay away from the Book of Ecclesiastes like it is the plague.  If you do a little research into Ecclesiastes you find that it’s always been like that.  Even the great rabbinic schools of old – Hillel and Shammai were divided about what to do with it – Hillel thought that the message of Ecclesiastes was so troubling it “defiled the hands.”  At Alum Creek this January, we have chosen to study the book through the prism of transitions.  As the writer looks back at his life, he’s really reflecting on the many changes that have taken place in his life: getting older, his family, his job, etc. and through it all, he’s trying to make sense of it.  Why am I here?

The difficult part of reading Ecclesiastes is that it doesn’t really give a good solid answer.  Depending on where it is you happen to be reading, it can sound a whole lot like a Ke$ha song (though the text does not include “wild childs, looking good” – that is not good Hebrew).  Notice the connection between “Die Young” and this portion from Ecclesiastes 9: 1 – 7

“So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.

As it is with the good,
so with the sinful;
as it is with those who take oaths,
so with those who are afraid to take them.

This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!

For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even their name is forgotten.
Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun.

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.”

When we read the Bible, we like the message to come wrapped up nicely with a bow on it (and probably a cherry on top, to boot).  Most sermons are like that.  What I have enjoyed about preaching through Ecclesiastes is that a lot of times there is no nicely-wrapped ending each week.  Ecclesiastes is authentic as it helps us wrestle with the ebbs and flows of life.  As the all too inappropriate SNL sketch tells us, “This here is real.”

I don’t know what to do with Ke$ha’s song and her less-than-stellar message.  At the same time, I hear in her message the same cry from the writer of Ecclesiastes, struggling with the confusion and challenges of being young . . . or old . . . or middle-aged . . . There is something to be said for living like we’re young  Sometimes I think Christians would do well to kick back on a Ke$ha song once and while and just . . . have fun.

A Reflection on Breaking Bad and Hendrik Berkhof

I think if Dutch theologian Hendrik Berkhof were still alive, he might say that AMC’s big hit, Breaking Bad, just may be the perfect parable on the powers.  His little book, ,Christ and the Powers, was translated into English by John Howard Yoder and serves as a foundational work for Yoder’s theology as well as the unique work of Walter Wink.  I think it would be fascinating to reflect on this drama with the three of these great thinkers – now all dead (which, considering the tone of the show – seems kind of fitting).

Berkhof was one of the first (maybe the first?) to take a critical look at just what the Apostle Paul was talking about in the New Testament when he referred to “powers, principalities, and authorities.”  Essentially, he goes on to suggest, they are the unseen forces that are at work in our world.   This particular realm of discussion always makes me think of this scene from School of Rock – you may not understand the language of Powers – but everyone knows who “The Man” is:

I’ve never seen a more vivid commentary on the Powers than in the storyline of Breaking Bad.  Hollywood has long wrestled with the dark realities and crises of sin through the genre of horror (a personal favorite!).  Coming to terms with the reality of sin through the over-the-top nature of the the likes of Freddy Kreuger and Michael Myers is less threatening to our personal faith than what we encounter through Breaking Bad.  It just doesn’t seem that threatening to talk about what we would do if a mass murderer ever broke into our homes or dreams.

Maybe it began with the Saw movies – or maybe it was Se7en – but somewhere along the line the audience wasn’t allowed to simply watch idly by as a terrible tale unfolds and project ourselves into impossible scenarios.  Instead, these new movies invite us into more realistic moral quandaries – what do we do when our only choices are between two evils?  To what extent are we willing to participate in the fallen state in order to maintain our self-preservation?  Just how entangled are we in the sinful work of the Powers?

In the beginning, of Breaking Bad we meet Walter White – an under-achieving chemistry genius who teaches high school science.  Providing the plot lines to the program, Walter faces the Powers up close and personal through disease (cancer) which plunges him to face other realities that we all face: economic Powers, the Power of health care, the illegal drug world, and on and on the story goes delving more and more deeply into the interconnected world of the Powers.  What begins as a somewhat light-hearted traipse to the dark side of the law, continues to grow darker with each episode.  It’s as if we the viewer are invited to witness the degree to which Walter becomes entrapped by the Powers in order to reflect upon our own life and the degree that the Powers have entangled us.  As the story develops, the audience is forced to wrestle with the reality that the chief “hero” of the story, is slowly becoming baptized by the Powers and turning into the nemesis.  This couldn’t resonate more directly with Berkhof’s teaching on the Powers: created as good, but fallen with all of creation and now ruling instead of serving.

Christmas Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

There is no mistake in your blog feed – I have a new post for my three followers to peruse!

Christmas is one of my favorite time s of the year.  My family was always able to make it a special time when I was a kid, and that has carried over to when I had a wife, kids, and family of my own.  Christmas was a time my mom worked hastily in the kitchen making candy and cookies that have helped keep my blood sugar and cholesterol high.  It was a special time with our family.  We had our traditions, and for the most part they revolved around family.

Christmastime has become even more special now that I have my own family.  Mary Beth and I were married a week before Christmas.  At first I kind of hated it since there are so many other things going on that time of year, but it has become a special part of our tradition to celebrate in the midst of a celebratory time of year.  There are even more opportunities for things for us to do than there would be if we had gotten married during another time of the year.  Then, just because that wasn’t enough, Clark’s birthday is January 7, so we kind of start the celebrating a week early, and keep it going a week after New Years.  So . . . Christmastime has a special places for the Metzes.

The reality of the religious significance of Christmas has played a pretty minor role in our family until more recently.  Nativity scenes were looked upon as way too Catholic for my family growing up, and we regularly heard sermons about how “We celebrate Christ’s birth every day.”  That may have been the case, but December 25 seemed to be one day we were definitely NOT going to celebrate Christ’s birth.

As I have grown, I have found an appreciation for the Christian piece of the holiday.  Our church has embraced the significance of the celebration by catering our services to the Nativity accounts during Advent, and we have conducted a Christmas Eve service for several years.  That, too, has become an important part of our Christmas traditions.  Our kids have a nightly ritual of opening a door on an advent house to reveal a piece of the nativity which presents us a chance for a daily reminder of Christ’s birth.

I say all of this to make my point that I am in no way a Christmas scrooge.  No matter what your perspective is regarding this holiday, I probably can empathize with you.  There are times when I want to scrap the whole thing as irredeemably commercial.  There are times when I want to learn from my Catholic friends and integrate the high ecclesiology and reverence that I so often lack.  There are times when I am just overwhelmed by gifts and “stuff” and all that and think we should “occupy Christmas.”  There are times when I am encouraged and inspired by the generosity and gratitude of others.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Christmas is a great time to look in the mirror – Christmas really is a mirror.  Our thoughts and emotions during this time of year are indicative of who we really are and where our faith really is.  Those who are especially dogmatic about not celebrating Christ this time of year often have so elevated dogmatism and doctrine that they can lose the relational and celebratory side of faith.  Those who are especially dogmatic about celebrating Christ this time of year may be guilty of under-appreciating his birth throughout the year and instead attempt to take their “Jesus” pill in a big dose this time of year.  Those who speak loudly against commercialism this time of year can fall into the trap of not appreciating a God who gives freely and appreciate the gifts and things we are blessed to have.  Those who indulge into the throes of debt and become overwhelmed by shopping malls and their online orders this time of year can equally miss the point of being satisfied in Christ alone.  Me personally – I think I fall guilty on each account at some point.

Any missions class begins with the idea of cross-cultural engagement.  If you desire to reach a people group/culture, you have to learn their language, learn their customs and traditions, learn how they work, and what makes them tick.  You have to learn to love them for who they are and what they do – not as potential “converts.”  Did Jesus set out to convert anyone?  Seems to me what he offered was “life” (John 10:10 anyone).  He offered the kingdom – a new way of living and seeing life now – not some kind of fire insurance for the future.  This way of life impacted the way they lived here and now.

Christmas is a time to celebrate.  It is a time when our culture chooses to celebrate.  I understand it is not this way for everyone – and that is a different topic for a different day.  But, whether it’s Hanukkah, Kwanza, winter solstice, most of our culture chooses to celebrate in some way.  It seems to me that one of the most detrimental things we could do is sit back with our arms crossed and say, “We can’t do this.  This is just too messy.  This isn’t biblical.”  Or whatever other reason we may offer.  Instead of yelling what we’re against, what if we went out of our way to engage the culture, to show why we can celebrate, to show how much fun we can be – an why!  Certainly, we can live among this culture as aliens and strangers and find ways to celebrate alongside those in our culture while not imbibing in paganism or hedonism.

We tend to be most critical of the things that are closest to us, and I think that is largely where many of us fall when it comes to talking Christmas.  It’s such an easy target. And perhaps, that is where our look into the Christmas mirror can reveal something important to us.

Mary Beth and I were able to spend several days in New York City at Christmastime last year.  Having heard about the mystique of the City for years, it was incredible to be able to experience it ourselves, and I feel as though we walked around every day and took in all the “pagan” aspects of the season: from the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center to ice skating in Central Park (OK, we didn’t actually ice skate but we saw other doing it!), and went to Mass at St. Patrick’s cathedral .(not pagan, obviously 😉 . . . and like Paul in Athens, saw alot of yearning and wonderful God-desires manifested in different ways.  As citizens of the kingdom, we celebrated our freedom and our life and the grace we have received everywhere we went.  We hope that we can continue to do that in whatever way we choose to observe (or not) the Christmas season.

Words from Brennan Manning

I have seen Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel in bookstores and on bookshelves for years. It is one of those few books that I have seen quoted all over the place – in academic books, among musicians, in devotional works, etc. For whatever reason, I have never had much interest in reading it. I found it at the incredible Goodwill in Lewisburg, TN last year (I’ve found lots of gems there the past few trips) and it’s sat on my shelf since.

Last week, I met with one of the senior citizens who meets in our senior small group on Tuesdays, and we decided that we would study Manning’s book. I took up chapter one this morning to prepare some opening thoughts for today’s study before everyone has their copies. What a way to begin the morning! I can’t believe I have waited so long to delve into this work. It has been a refreshing breath of air to my spirit. I am looking forward to reflecting on it in the coming weeks.

I have been busy working through several books lately and have had some blogging topics come to mind. I had planned to spend some time reflecting on a series of articles in this week’s Columbus newspaper, following a priest through his seminary trainging at the local Pontifical College. I just finished reading Mike King’s Presence-Centered Youth Ministry that had left an indelible mark on my understanding of youth ministry, and coupled with the articles reflecting on entering the priesthood: giving up a family, sex, ten years of your life to training, I started thinking about how seriously I have taken my role as minister/pastor/priest. King notes how when he is in the presence of a Hindu priest he feels like he is in the presence of a holy man, but in the presence of an evangelical minister he feels like he is in the presence of a car salesmen.

It seems to me The Ragamuffin Gospel is going to be just what I need to re-engage my spiritual fervor and remind me of what undergirds my purpose and my position. I found the ending of the first chapter especially compelling:

“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing inf ront of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hand, I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the business-man besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate trasnactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from teh pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexuall-abused teen molested by his father and now sellign his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last ‘trick,’ whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school; the deathbed convert who for decades had his cake and ate it, broke every law of God and man, wallowed in lust and raped the earth.
“But how?” we ask. Then the voice says, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
They are there. There we are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to the faith.
My friends, if this is not good news to you,you have never understood the gospel of grace.”
p. 32 – 33

That reminds me of something a friend told me last week that is especially convicting for my conservative friends, “If Jesus were here to today, you know the kind of people he’s be with? He’d find a gay Latino who was in this country illegally, who was suffering from complications from an abortion she had, and had a rare disease that was only cureable by advances in stem-cell research.

Now . . . I must rush back to my suburban existence . . .

Reflection from The Shack author, Wm. Paul Young

Last night Mary Beth and I went to hear Paul Young, author of the book everyone has now heard about, The Shack. The church was charging $10 a person to hear him, which was kind of a bummer, but I have to tell you it was totally worth it. You never know what you are going to get when you go to hear an author speak. Most authors make their money by writing and are not dually blessed with the gift of speaking. Young, however, was quick to point out that he is not an author, but became one on accident. He was humorous and engaging throughout.

He took a few questions from the audience about the book (there were probably about 700 or 800 of us there) and then segued into some personal reflections from the book. If you have done research on him, then you probably know a lot of this, but it was all new to me. He had written the book for his children, not intending that anyone else would ever see it. He has six children (I think he said six), and The Shack was a gift to each of them, and some of their close friends, as the result of a long process of Young’s travel back toward his shack. The symbolism of The Shack is especially poignant after hearing firsthand its background.

The entire discussion was worthwhile, but I’ll try to offer a few random tidbits from the night that I found memorable. If you haven’t read the book, I really would suggest it. Very enjoyable and thought provoking – and if you are a Christian, everyone’s talking about it, so join the discussion!

The first question of the night was about the name of the Holy Spirit in the book. The origin came from a phone conversation Young had while working in his previous job with someone in India. He asked her for the different names they had for the wind in Hindi. Sarayu seemed perfect – that unexpected but refreshing wind that all of us love (think of a hot day when it is almost unbearable – and then the freshness of the breeze). I thought it was great!

Another asked whether he was concerned with the controversy the book had stirred. Nobly, he answered that rather than disappointed, he was excited by all the discussion the book had stirred. He did note that some of the criticism had gotten personal which he regretted, but the vast majority of it had been the work of God. He told specifically of a women who had emailed him and just railed the book as a “juvenile piece of trash.” Young promptly responded by pasting several responses from others who had emailed him responding with thanksgiving for the life it had breathed into their spirituality. The woman responded by asking for his forgiveness.

William Young spoke humbly as a guy whose life’s baggage was now out in the open for all to see. He acknowledged that he had created something that was now way bigger than he was, and his role was to sit back and watch God work, something He is clearly doing.

With all of that said, the true highlight of hearing Young speak was gaining valuable insight into where the concept of the shack came from. The book amounts to the closing chapter of the healing process he and his family went through. Young was the overlooked child of missionaries in New Guinea where he grew up in a terrible environment. His perspective was a reminder to me to never neglect your family “for the work of the Lord.” Quite the contrary, Young’s father treated him harshly and allowed him to be severely molested throughout his childhood by the tribal people. Young tells the story of burying this trauma deep below the surface of perfectionism he constantly kept up through his young life.

He eventually married and his whole life of deception and duality culminated with a three-month affair his wife uncovered, setting off 2 years of hell. His wife was committed to keeping the family together, and so committed to being together and spent the next two years beating Young up emotionally and spiritually. She told him she would never believe anything that came from his mouth again – and who could blame her. The process of counseling was intense and long – he spent 8 months in intensive counseling with a counselor Young believes saved his life. He tells the story of his counselor, whose family life Young knew nothing about because of counselor-patient protection, whose son was addicted to narcotics, accidentally killed his father. This crushed Young to the point he could not go to the funeral.

The two years sped through eleven long years of healing and dealing with the matters of the shack, and finally came around full circle when he received a letter speaking to an incredibly healing a woman had received after her son had inadvertently killed her father. Young knew immediately the similarities were too close for this to not be the same person. He emailed her back and asked for her phone number . . . what an incredibly story of grace! He went on to talk of how his marriage was better than ever (something he said at least 10 times at the close). That the woman with whom he had an affair with had a daughter who was now a close friend of their own daughter and regularly at their home. Again, an incredible story of grace.

It was enjoyable and uplifting to hear the incredible story that now is being told all over the world. Hopefully Christians can focus on that and not let our divisive and obnoxious tendencies prevail as they so often do.

I was drawn to my own shack even deeper through Young’s personal testimony. I thanked God then and there I didn’t have to endure the journey that he has, and I thanked God that he has delivered him from his. However, it still left me to confront what is in my own shack that so often I want to avoid and change the subject. I continue that journey and need prayers in doing so.