LE Blog General

Amateurism in the Pulpit: reflections on this past Pentecost

logoMy 4 year old thinks it's hilarious, the picture in his Kids Bible of the disciples with flames on their heads. And he is right; the picture is funny. An image of 12 robed men with their hair on fire should strike a child as comical. We tend not to see the humor because we have endowed these men (Why no women in the pictures? They are mentioned in Acts 2.) with mythical qualities. These were REAL disciples: James, Peter, John, Mary! These followers of Jesus appear to us today as larger than life figures. But at the time, they would have been anything but. On that first Pentecost they were a scared group of Christians huddled together for comfort, unsure of how to proceed now that their leader was gone. Know anyone like that?

The first Pentecost has been on my mind lately, not only because we just passed Pentecost Sunday 2010, (It was May 23 for those who missed it. Don't worry; it's not too late to send me a gift.) but also because we've been attending a church that is currently searching for a new minister.

No doubt, many of you have seen similar circumstances. Without a minister to preach on Sundays the duties are handed over to a rotation of lay preachers, retired clergy, seminarians, and whomever else the search committee can shoehorn into the pulpit for a week. This carousel of preachers is only the most visible sign that there is no fulltime or professional leader at work. Behind the scenes church members assemble reports, schedule repairs, pay bills and organize Sunday school teachers.

I've been in similar circumstances before at other churches, and the amazing thing is that most of the necessary work seems to have gotten done. I don't remember any disastrous Sundays--though I do remember some very bad sermons--and I can't recall the power ever being turned off because the bills weren't paid. Of course many of you may know of situations in which churches were forced to close due to a lack of leadership, but I would bet that such cases are rare. My hunch is that churches tend to die on the vine due to a lack of lay participation rather than an absence of a professional minister.

 

Sin and the Big Spill

 

logoLiberals must reclaim a robust notion of sin.

Yes, you read that correctly. Liberal Evangelicals, insofar as we have shied away from the term “sin” and allowed Conservatives to claim it as their property, must reclaim this classic Christian idea. I would even go so far as to say that we need to put a renewed emphasis on “original sin.” Now don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting a reclamation of a cartoon devil with hooves and the old snake and apple yarn. Nor am I suggesting a return to Augustine’s overtly sexual notion of sin as concupiscence. Rather, we need to get our heads around an uncomfortable truth, one that we Liberals have frequently ignored; sin is universal. No program of social justice, no educational curriculum, and certainly to set of rules or laws can pull us beyond sin.

So let’s look at the spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a reminder. What can we learn here about the pervasive reality of human sin?

Let me begin my saying that I don’t trust myself. I know my own limitations as a father, a husband, a friend, and adevil professional. So I set limits. I don’t even walk down the bakery aisle in the grocery store because I know I’m not up to the challenge. The proverbial “devil on my shoulder” will win every time. So I recognize my inherent weakness and find ways of working around it.

I force myself to do the same when I’m grading papers. Every teacher who has spent a semester working with students knows about the problem I’m about to describe. Some students are rude and lazy while others are polite and hardworking, so when the end of the term rolls around and it’s time to grade finals and term papers, can any teacher really trust herself or himself to look past the name on the top of the paper and pay attention solely to the content? I know that I cannot trust myself entirely. Inevitably I will give the benefit of the doubt to hard working polite students, not to those who I perceive as lazy or rude. I do not trust myself, so I go to great lengths to build in rigorous accountability. I write up grading paradigms and try to quantify as much as possible on every exam and paper. My students quickly get used to having their papers returned with notations like “6/10 citations, 7/10 clarity of prose, 25/30 analytical content.” I find that the more I can quantify a student’s grade, the less prone I am to allowing my feelings about a particular student to cloud my judgment. In a meaningful sense, what I am doing when I grade exams and papers in this peculiar fashion is acknowledging my own tendency toward sin and self-serving actions. And it is because I know better than to trust myself that I am better able to avoid those most problematic behaviors.

“Far all we, like sheep, have gone astray.” What a wonderful summary of human nature, but let’s add the following…”and will continue to go astray again, and again, and again…”

Take your religion into your own hands

 

logofootwashingIt's just so easy to sit around and wait for someone to do religion for us. Isn't that why so many of us crave charismatic leaders; inspirational people who can step into our tired churches and mundane lives and "get us going." In all honesty that's frequently what I'm looking for when we move and begin the search for a church or when we are traveling for the holidays and visit someone else's church for Christmas or Easter. It's almost as if I sit back in the pew and mumble to myself..."Ok pastor, wow me. Bring on the religion!"

The professionalization of Christian ministry has given us many good things, but it has also had at least one unintended consequence. The average person in the pew no longer feels as if doing religion is really her or his job. "I'll show up and participate, stand, or even clap...but initiating things is best left up to the professionals."

That attitude is not what being a Liberal is about, and it certainly isn't in the DNA of Evangelicals.

Do you have Bracket Fever?

 

logoAre you wasting time at work researching little known college teams looking for upsets?

bballAs a nation we are collectively in love with March Madness! It's great fun, but I think it also provides us with some much needed clarity and simplicity. When the college football season ends, there is inevitable disappointment because we do not know with certainty that the BCS championship teams were actually the best teams in the nation. We only know that they were deemed so by the powers that be. But by the end of the Final Four, we'll know exactly who emerged victorious and we will be able to look back at our brackets and see the road they took to victory.

It's beautiful, it's fair, it's simple, and it's clean.

Would that our religious lives were thus!

Back in 1975 David Tracy came out with a book entitled, The Blessed Rage for Order. It is a famously difficult text to understand and set the bar for theological density, but beneath the difficult terminology and confounding philosophical nuances Tracy conveys a basic truth. Humanity longs for a world that is tidy, and this longing is reflected most deeply in our religious discourse.

I am reminded, once again, of the theological conclusions that my son draws. Last week from his car seat he uttered the following pronouncement. "Those guys who hurt Jesus, they were bad guys. We should get them." Well, I guess he's correct. Those who executed Jesus were, no doubt, "bad guys" and we might all wish to "get them" if we could. For a four year old his moral insight is accurate enough, so I leave it alone. But someday his mother and I will have to begin showing him how much more messy the real world is.

We Are Process People

 

As President Obama and Congressional Republican leaders prepare to gather for a “Summit” on healthcare, I pause to consider the value of political processes. Let us not lie to ourselves! Any time homo sapiens try to make decisions together, the process is inevitably political, so we ought to expect typical human political behaviors to pop up in our hallowed governmental halls and in our fellowship halls where to gather to drink coffee and make decisions regarding our churches. But as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, oughtn’t we pause to consider not only his values and ends, but also the means he used to pursue them?

As a liberal (a prerequisite for the Le Blogger at LiberalEvangelical.org) I largely agree with President Obama’s agenda. I wish him luck as he works toward universal healthcare in the United States, a more engaged foreign policy, and a more responsible financial system. But I am simultaneously sure that there are many committed, honest, and well-meaning Americans who similarly hope to see the agenda of the GOP succeed. So, like so many moderates* I am pulled in conflicting directions. I want to see X accomplished, but I am equally concerned to see that X is accomplished in the right way. Even if I were to get everything on my liberal wish list, I would feel less than vindicated if those items were achieved at the expense of a civil and transparent process.

*I use moderate here in a peculiar fashion, but one that is true to the spirit of both Lost in the Middle? and Found in the Middle! In Le Blog a moderate is anyone, liberal or conservative, who puts the process ahead of the outcome.  And for me, as a moderate, this is what it means to love Democracy! It may be more efficient to accomplish a right-wing or a left-wing agenda by using totalitarian tactics, but the efficient realization of social, military, or financial ends

The Segway

is always of secondary importance. (Mussolini may have made the trains run on time, but that doesn't much recommend fascism.) The primary value, the one that trumps all others, is the value of our deliberative democratic system.

So here it comes, my now famous segue to the theological…

I’m fairly certain that God is a moderate in the sense described above.

Alan Alda (Sen. Arnie Vinnick) for Masters Champion

logoMy text for today comes from the final season of NBC’s The West Wing. Specifically, I’m quoting from the character Arnie Vinnick, the progressive Republican Senator from California who is running for the Republican Presidential nomination.

"I don't see how we can have a separation of church and state in this government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this government. And I want to warn everyone in the press and all the voters out there if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians, you are just begging to be lied to. They won't all lie to you but a lot of them will. And it will be the easiest lie they ever had to tell to get your votes. So, every day until the end of this campaign, I'll answer any question anyone has on government, But if you have a question on religion, please go to church."

-Alan Alda playing California Republican Senator Arnold Vinick on The West Wing

Well friends, that’s where we seem to be today. We have reached a point in our culture where we not only tolerate lies, we invite them. And this past holiday season we seemed to reach a new low…we actually began demanding the right to take an active roll in constructing the very lies that will be told to us.

But it isn’t what you think…I’m not talking about politicians.

Some American Evangelicals Support Execution for Ugandan Homosexuals

logoFor several months Ugandan law makers have been debating the merits of a bill designed to slow the spread of AIDS in their country, Key provisions include the institution of the death penalty for some homosexual acts by both gays and lesbians. The full text of the bill is available here. Shockingly, many of the powers in Uganda that are pushing this bill are supported and funded by American Evangelicals.

Admittedly, I usually try to deal with lighter fare here in Le Blog, but some issues lend themselves to comment and other demand our attention. This is the latter. First, if you are unfamiliar with what is happening in Uganda, take a few moments to familiarize yourself with the issue by visiting NPR and listening to this recent story. When you've finished and are familiar with the relevant questions, read on.

I don't know that I can contribute much to your thinking on this issue. My hunch is that you are at this moment either entirely outraged at the behavior of some of these American Evangelicals or you are not. And if you are not, I doubt that I can convince you to be so. We either know the Jesus of the Gospels or we do not, and he is either an exemplar of moral virtue for us or he is not. I am, to put the matter bluntly, morally dumbfounded at this moment. I do not know how to respond in words or with reason to any self-identified Christian and follower of Jesus Christ who believes that the man crucified between two thieves would wish to see gays and lesbians executed.

So, since I cannot articulate an intelligent response, I'll simply make the following observation.

Baby Jesus, but where are his horns?

le blog logo “But why did those people hurt baby Jesus?”

It’s a tough question to answer, and I guess that’s what I get when I let the Gospel tunes of Johnny Cash so deeply influence my young son.

As I’m sure many of you have been doing these past few weeks, my wife and I have spent a little time each night playing with the Nativity set with our son. We have a little plastic toy one with smiling shepherds, serious looking kings, graceful angels and assorted farm animals. We tell the story of Mary and Joseph traveling on the donkey and the kings from the east following the star. As I mentioned around this time last year, the Christmas story is so compelling that it only needs retelling. Embellishment seems almost to detract from it. So my son enjoys the characters and puts the baby Jesus on the backs of the sheep and has him ride the cow. But even as he plays and we look on smiling, his little mind is churning and thinking about the words to one of baby jesusCash’s tunes that I listen to in the car. It’s called “It was Jesus” and the lines in question are as follows:

“Well he healed the sick and afflicted, and raised them from the dead,

So they stuck him on an old rugged cross and put thorns upon his head.”

And so my son turns to me and asks, “Which one of them puts the horns on baby Jesus’ head?”

 

Where to begin?

On you marks...get set...THANKS!

 

What exactly is “thanks” or “thankfulness”?

 

Is it a feeling, an emotion, a set of actions, or an attitude?

 

These are harder questions to answer than it might at first seem. I’ve been pondering them these past weeks as my wife and I work on teaching our three year old to say “thank you” and teach him to pray at meals and at bedtime. This is a relatively easy task, no more difficult than teaching the boy to wash his hands or sneeze into his sleeve. But as he adopts the habit of saying “thank you” to waitresses and clerks, his parents and teachers I wonder if anything deeper is going on. Is he just salivating at a ringing bell when he automatically responds “Merci” to the lady who hands him a croissant or do his actions connect with other feelings and ideas? I wonder. But I don’t wonder only about him. I also wonder what “thanks” itself means. What are we doing when we pause this week to say or think “thank you?”

 

We distinguish between authentic speech and rote repetition. I am unimpressed when an automated voice responds, “we are experiencing higher than normal call volume at this time, thank you for waiting.” Can a computer be thankful? I’m unmoved when the blank eyed stoner cashier at the local Esso gas station says “thanks, come again” without looking up from his magazine. Most of us, I conclude, see some meaningful distinction between the mere act of vocalizing “thank you” and saying those same words with feeling or intention. But does this mean that thankfulness is itself an emotion, a feeling? If so, then what does it mean for us to say that we SHOULD be thankful? How is this different from suggesting that we should feel emotional love toward someone?

 

I'm sorry dude, she's just not that into you.

 

 

I know…I’m sure I’m needlessly complicating what should be a straightforward question, but I’m genuinely unsure as to the—hold on, here comes some Ph.D. level terminology—metaphysical status of thanksgiving. Is it a subjective emotion, a social act, a verbal utterance, or a statement about a fact in the world? If you have a spare moment, ready access to a logical positivist, and want to see something hilarious, ask that person about the meaning of the sentence “I thank you.” Stand back, because his or her head will likely explode. What are we doing when we pause to give thanks?

“Favre” [fârv] noun, from the original French for Judas

Let’s be honest, many of our nation’s sportswriters probably wrote two versions of their game story last Sunday; one for if he won, another for if he lost? This story called for drama, and the narrative angles were too complex to await the conclusion of the actual game. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about it’s because you’ve had your head buried in the sand this past week. Last week Brett Favre, Superbowl winning quarterback and one-time favorite son of Green Bay, WI returned to the frozen tundra of Laubeau Field…but this time he jogged onto the field in the purple jersey of the hated Minnesota Vikings

Packers 26, Vikings 38

E tu Brette?brutus

“Purple Judas,” that’s the name that sticks.

This story, however, isn’t primarily about Favre, the aging quarterback who refuses to retire (or at least refuses to retire without unretiring every couple of months), the gifted athlete with the grey speckled beard, who will not leave the field of battle so long as his surgically repaired arm has one desperate Hail Mary left in it. No. The protagonist of this made for TV male-o-drama is as much the fans of Green Bay as it is the old gunslinger. It’s their hurt feelings and sense of betrayal that drives the story and makes those of us not residing in the upper Midwest look on with wonder at the emotional spectacle. A good old fashioned story of betrayal and infidelity draws our attention and warms our blood. No one likes a traitor, even if the traitor was released by his former team in favor of a younger player with more of an “upside.” But our innate sense of loyalty comes at a cost—sometimes infidelity, disloyalty and a willingness to switch sides is exactly what is called for.

New Doubts, Bad Jokes and an Old Lesson

le blog logoThe old joke runs like this…”I have friend who used to be a Southern Baptist, but he converted to Unitarianism. So now he has his doubts…but he’s very insistent about them.”

My wife has stopped trying to change me. She knows that deep in my bones I’m not only an Evangelical of the Liberal sort, but I’m also an incurable evangelist. If I like something—the Red Sox and Patriots, the Adirondack Mountains, CAO Brazilia cigars, homebrewing, Vermont microbrews, Willie Nelson, Bill Monroe, sardines, Isaac Asimov novels, and Ale-8 ginger ale—I can’t help but try to convince everyone else to like it as well. She calls it being bossy, but I like to think of myself as a sharer; one who finds something that works and makes me happy and wants others to have a part in that same joy.

Historically, Evangelicals have wrestled with a similar dynamic. To outsiders we may come across as pushy know-it-alls, but confront most Evangelicals about their proselytizing efforts and you usually get one of two answers. True, many think of themselves as working to keep souls out of hell. But many others conceive of day to day evangelism as the simple effort to share their joy with others. The last thing I would ever want is to strip Evangelicals of this joy in sharing.

But should everything be shared?

I have my doubts, but I’ll keep them largely to myself