#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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2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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

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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.