Monday, June 27, 2005

Find me at New Web-address

Nakedreligion announces new web-site and access to blog. You will also find my random musings about God, faith, and life at: www.nakedreligion.com.

It's only a matter of time until I offer t-shirts and coffee mugs...

Friday, June 17, 2005

On Friendship

I am often amazed by the number of friends that I manage to keep in contact with over the years. Sometimes the only interaction I have is an occasional e-mail or annual Christmas card and letter. I am also surprised by some of those who remain friends as well as those who I thought would have been long time friends only to have that relationship disappear over time. I suppose friendship can be a slippery notion that depends alot on the meaning of friendship for whoever happens to be talking about it.

I'm one of those people who doesn't need alot of friends, and I cherish and hold on to the friends I have with religious devotion. Perhaps it's the nature of my personality. Maybe it's pathological and I should see a doctor. In any case, friendship with people who have walked alongside me on some aspect of my journey of faith and life are as the proverbs say, like gold. I don't spend alot of time analyzing the frequency of my interaction with friends to make sure I've reached my recommended daily requirement. I don't wonder whether my friends, past and present, have other friends who are more meaningful to them than I at this point in time.

In the course of my life, I'm honored to have so many people who I can call friends because we laughed together, or cried together, or simply survived together. So as I'm about to take a break from writing for a week or so, I raise my glass to my friends, old and new. Thanks for making my life rich with meaning and filled with joy.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Rock n' Roll Nostalgia

There's big money in seventies rock groups picking up their guitars and performing their music for aging baby-boomers. To think that Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones still give a two hour concert at their age suggests to me that they either really love what they do, or they need the money. One of the reasons why seventies musical acts are popular is because of the nostalgia that accompanies the experience of listening to the same music that played over the radio on a date with their highschool sweetheart is intoxicating.

When I hear a particular song played on the local oldies radio station, I am jettisoned back to a time in my life that was less complicated. It doesn't matter whether or not I liked the music then. When I hear a seventies group this many years later, it reminds me of the thrill of adolescence. It recalls a time when my future was still uncertain, and the objective of my life was different than it is today.

Tonight, I attended a concert of a band called the "10,000 Maniacs." They reached the pinnacle of their musical career sometime in the late eighties and early nineties. Tonight, they played the same old tune, but with different voices. As I watched a new generation of fans dance on the dance floor, I remember a time when I would have danced like that. Though I was never a 10,000 Maniacs fan at the peak of their popularity, I admire any aging rocker who still thinks there's an audience willing to pay money to hear them sing. Perhaps this is the purpose of nostalgia. When we have considered how far we've come, the fact that we can still dance with a few extra pounds and a little less hair doesn't seem that bad after all.

Confession of an Environmentalist

I toured the Roger Tory Peterson Institute today . In the event you don't know who Roger Tory Peterson is, buy any book written to identify species of birds and more than likely Tory Peterson's drawings are the illustrations. The educator who gave us the tour of the beautiful facility dedicated to preserving some of the artifacts associated with Tory Peterson's life, made a comment that is still rattling around in my head. He said, "Christians often talk about God's creation in terms of "stewardship" which is understood to mean that it is a gift to us to use as we wish. In reality, stewardship means that we are responsible for the care of something that belongs to someone else." And then he asked, "how many of you are able to identify the species of trees and plants in your yard? Can you name the birds that feed at your bird-feeder during different seasons of the year?"

I wrote a thesis on the topic of "Job, Creation, and the Environmental Crisis" a number of years ago in graduate school, so I'd like to think I have a fairly accute sensitivity to specific elements of creation around me. But, sadly, I live from day-to-day in God's creation without paying too much attention to the species of trees, birds, or animals that eat my garden. Occasionally I get up close and personal with God's creation when I must search for a lost golf ball. Like many, I have taken the wonder of creation, analyzed it, written about it, and forgot about it. This saddens me because for one brief moment this afternoon, I was awakened again to the vastness of God's good creation and the privilege of living in the midst of that creation everyday.

I need to do something about this. The way I see it, to be a follower of Jesus is to be an environmentalist. One is not a "Christian environmentalist" any more than one is a "Christian Psychologist". Rather, to love the God who is responsible for the creation that I enjoy everyday of my life requires me to do more than give lip service and then live as I wish. Tonight, I plan to begin by sitting on the patio after dinner watching and listening as creation around me carries on with it's evening routine. I may not be able to identify the source of the sounds and sights tonight, but by the end the end of the summer who knows?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

"Real Sex"

What began as an innocuous conversation among pastoral colleagues about how our summer plans were shaping up and what books we were reading, took a sharp left turn when one of the pastors brought up the subject of sex. "I'm really trying to be pastoral to a lesbian couple in my church. Have any of you had any experience with this?" Silence. After we all actively listened to the dilemma our colleague described with deep feeling, one pastor said, "I wish I had the troubles you have in my church, at least it would give us something to talk about that people in our culture actually care about."

What is it about human sexuality, gender, and sexual preference that provokes so much anxiety among followers of Jesus? Jesus didn't spend a whole lot of time on the topic when one considers his passion for justice and vision for the kingdom as the accumulatively number one and two most discussed topics during his life and ministry. I wish Jesus would have been more deliberate in laying out his sexual ethic in no uncertain terms so we wouldn't have to continue arguing about what is permissible sexual behavior and what isn't. Many have attempted to develop such a systematic approach, but most I find wanting because of the ease with which they dispense with difficult texts..

As I drove away from what became a significant lunch-time conversation about a substantive issue in the Church and culture, I was proud of my colleague for taking the risk of actually raising a question that many pastors wonder about but are afraid to bring up for fear of being misunderstood. Before we too quickly draw up sides and begin shooting at one another with our firey proof texts, wouldn't it be nice if we actually stopped long enough to investigate and actually talk about what the Bible might have to say, if anything, about "real sex?"

I commend to you a fine book by Lauren Winner entitled, "Real Sex--The Naked Truth about Chastity" that seeks to discuss human sexuality in a broader context of love, marriage, and singleness. If you are interested in a more academic approach to sexual ethics in the New Testament, you cannot do better than Richard Hays, "The Moral Vision of the New Testament." I can't wait to see what will be the topic of our pastoral lunch the next time we meet.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

"Wanting More" -- Part 2

I am the parent of three children, the husband of one wife, and the pastor of a medium size congregation. And during the course of an average day in my life, all three of these want more from me than I'm presently giving at any given moment in time. My kids want more of my attention and express their desire for such by acting out (it took me til the third kid to figure this out). My wife wants more of my time so that I can finish the unfinished projects around my house. Occasionally, she just wants more of my attention too (she also sometimes communicates this by acting out). On almost a daily basis, members of my congregation want me to be more accessible to their present pain and they too communicate this need by acting out (I just learned this last year).

Perhaps my experience is unusual. I doubt it. I suspect that most people deal with the stresses and strains that accompany the complicated web of relationships in their lives similar to me. Sometimes my life is primarily focused on how I can spread myself a little thinner to accomodate everyone's wishes. When I am fixated on "giving more", it is easy for me to become cranky, tired, and cynical about the most important relationships in my life. But, I have recently discovered that the best way to avoid the temptation of being stretched all over the place by every whim and need is by giving myself permission to "want more" in return.

On my best days, I want more of God. I want more opportunity to nurture my relationship with my children by playing catch or discussing the latest Junior High gossip. I want more time with my wife when we're both not dead on our feet and negotiating who will take which child where next. I want more from my church than they are prepared to offer most of the time. I used to think the perfect life consisted of equal amounts of giving and wanting, but experience teaches me that this is hardly ever so. As a result, some days I want more than I give. And other days, I give more than I want. And in the meantime, I have a new appreciation for the words of Jesus when he says, "come all who labor and are heavy laden...and I will give you rest" I believe him.

Monday, June 13, 2005

"Wanting More"

I just finished reading a delightful book entitled, "Wanting More" by Joel Vestal. This is a self-published book that describes Vestal's vision for ministry that is captured in the phrase "wanting more." Vestal is a post-modern who decided that if God was calling him to do something, he need not worry about whether his pursuit followed conventional lines or not. Thus, Vestal moved to Nepal and when he witnessed the need and opportunities for ministry there, he established his own mission organization called "ServLife" (www.servlife.org).

This is not an unusual story in the world of mission. Independent minded, entrepenuerial leaders have been marching to the tune of a different drummer and establishing beachheads of ministry in remote areas of the world for a long time. Some of the most well-known missionary movements including China Inland Mission, Sudan Interior Mission, found their beginnings in a similar fashion. I've always admired the freedom and faithfulness I find in these stories. I am amazed by their willingness to take risk for the sake of the Gospel. I'm surprised by the unimaginable ways God meets their needs at the exact moment they have need.

I wonder if it's too late for me to live like this. Three kids, a consistent income, and a mortgage later makes the distance between where I am and where I want to be that much farther. I suppose if I sat down and thought about it, I might be able to come up with one or two last minute answers to prayer to include in my book should I ever decide to write one (but nothing dramatic). At times I find deep consolation in the work and ministry that God has for me, but after reading Joel Vestal's book, I wonder if I've adjusted my sights to accomodate my middle-aged baby-boom lifestyle needs. I'm glad that God still burns in the heart of people like Joel Vestal. And I'm grateful that through his story of radical faithfulness, I have the opportunity to wonder and want more as well.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

"The Politics of Jesus"

With all this talk about "returning to our Christian heritage" from one end of the political/religious spectrum, one wonders when was the last time the Gospels were consulted to determine what the "politics of Jesus" actually look like. But, lest you think this blog is about contemporary politics and the church (that's another blog), my thoughts are really about the "politics of Jesus." I had an eye-opening encounter with the "politics of Jesus" in the eighties when I enrolled in a seminary class at Regent College taught by John Howard Yoder (He wrote a book entitled, "The Politics of Jesus" recently republished in an anniversary edition in case you are confused by my reference).

I was recently reminded of John Howard Yoder the man and the ethic of Jesus he lived and breathed during the teaching of that class. Yoder had the appearance of a typical academic (with apologies to those who are or don't think the average person can pick them out of a crowd of a hundred normal people). Yoder had thick coke bottle glasses and appeared to wear his hair which ever way it happened to fall that morning when he rose from bed (this is assuming of course that academics actually sleep).

When he talked about the "politics of Jesus" in his class, he did so with careful attention to the texts and with the conviction that the church (then and now) has forgotten about the radical character of Jesus' ethic. On the occasion of Jesus' very first sermon according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells those gathered at the synagogue that the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) had finally arrived. The implication being that wealth and property would be re-distributed from rich to poor. Quoting from Isaiah, Jesus said that life in the kingdom wouldn't look anything like it had until then. At first, the crowd loved it. But, Jesus didn't know when enough was enough. He kept describing the kingdom until some wanted to throw him off a cliff (now there's a model for discerning effective preaching technique!)

Thanks to John Howard Yoder, I was introduced to a "politics of Jesus" that looks alot different from the religious rhetoric I hear from politicians and religious talk show hosts. While I am sure there will be some who will take issue with Yoder's interpretation of the life and ministry of Jesus, I for one am in favor of a "politics of Jesus" that looks like the one Yoder taught rather than the one I see exhibited on the evening news. Thank you Dr. John Howard Yoder for introducing me to "the politics of Jesus" face-to-face.

More Books on My Bedstand

People often asking me what I'm reading. I don't know why they wonder since most people's reading his highly personal and often subjective. I go through phases in my reading. I recently went through a "true crime" novel phase. I devoured books about the Green River Murderer and Ted Bundy (both committed their crimes not far from where I grew up). Presently, I am reading in preparation for an upcoming trip to Oxford with the C.S. Lewis Institute. After that, who knows.

Here are a list of the books I am reading in preparation for my upcoming trip to England (in no particular order of importance):

John Polkinghorne, "Belief in God in an Age of Science." (Polkinghorne has double degrees in the Philosophy of Science and Divinity. This should give him a good vantage point from which to speak about this important topic).
Alister McGrath, "The Reenchantment of Nature-- The Denial of Religion and the Ecological Crisis." (McGrath is a writing machine. I wonder how he continues to write on diverse subjects like historical theology, evangelicalism, and now eco-theology and keep it all straight?)
C.S. Lewis, "Surprised by Joy." (It's about time I read this one don't you think?)
G.K. Chesterton, "Orthodoxy." (This is like an old friend that I read every so often whether I need to or not).
C.S. Lewis, "God in the Dock-- Essays on Theology and Ethics."
Os Guiness, "The Call-- Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose in Your Life." (I'm hoping he has a chapter on beer!?!).
Dallas Willard, "Renovation of the Heart." (I never finished his "Divine Conspiracy" so in my guilt, I thought I'd try this).

Here are some books that haven't made it to my bedstand yet, but they're not far away:

Diarmaid MacCulloch, "The Reformation-- A History." (Boring title but world-changing ideas that we should remind ourselves of from time-to-time).
Sider and Knippers, "Toward an Evangelical Public Policy." (Sider's earlier book, "Rich Christian's in an Age of Hunger" had a formative influence on my understanding of wealth and consumption. I'm glad he's still playing the same tune).
Robert Inchausti, "Subversive Orthodoxy-- Outlaws, Revolutionaries, and other Christians in Disguise." (This is a great title. Whether I read it anytime soon or not, the title causes me to wonder what's inside).

Happy reading!

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

I Don't Want to be 'Left Behind'

Our culture cannot discern truth from fiction. What prompts me to say this is the way in which millions of people are banking on the fact that the "end-times" will turn out exactly the way Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins say it will. I was watching one of my son's baseball games recently, minding my own business, when the parent sitting next to me asked, "You're a pastor, do you think the 'Left Behind' series is true?" (Watch out anytime someone prefixes their question or comment with the phrase, "you're a pastor." It usually isn't good.) I sat befuddled mulling over this question, wondering whether this person wanted me to go into all the ugly details of what I believe about eschatology, or simply make some amorphous comment about the popularity of the series without giving away my secret disdain for all things "Left Behind".

In a similar way, everytime I turn around I see someone else devouring Dan Brown's "DaVinci Code." Like the end-times, I am often asked what I think of the book as if my opinion about a fictional account of a renegade scientist and an alleged papal conspiracy matters. I usually smile and tell them I think it is a "good story" in hope that that will satisfy their need for my opinion. It usually doesn't, so I must then gently unveil some of the aspects of the story that I find misleading and just plain wrong. And to suggest that what Dan Brown wrote isn't true is akin to insulting your mother's apple pie.

Why is it so difficult for people to know truth when they see it, and likewise so difficult to identify fiction when they see it when it comes to some of our culture's most popular literature. Perhaps at one level, it is an indictment on our educational system which has apparently failed to help people understand that "good literature" (and this is debateable in the previous two examples) is not defined by whether it's true or not. Perhaps part of the blame should be laid at the front door of the Church that has failed articulate a sensical eschatology (theology of the end-times). Perhaps the reason why people can't discern the truth from fiction is because they don't want to. Perhaps the success of these books is tied to the vain hope and desire that they are true. We read "Left Behind" in hope that we are not left behind. Whatever the case, the church cannot ignore the insatiable passion for something that is exhibited by the popularity of these two books. I don't know what that something is, but I'm open for suggestions.

While I'm on the topic of truth or fiction, you may want to check out this clearing house for urban legends (stuff that people believe to be true like the alligator that lives in the sewer, but are false)-- www.snopes.com

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

"Purpose Driven" Enough Already

Our church just finished a modified version of Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Life" curriculum. Aside from being a marketing juggernaut (which explains in part the success of the program from an economic standpoint), Rick Warren has the unique ability of boiling down the long-held doctrines of the Christian Church to five essential components. Aside from a few misguided people who oppose Rick Warren and "The Purpose Driven" emphasis for quirky theological reasons, this is a good and helpful approach to talking about Spiritual formation. I'm glad we did it.

Today, I received in the mail the latest evolution of the "Purpose Driven Life" marketing machine advertising an upcoming "Purpose Driven Worship Conference". I suppose it won't be long until there is "Purpose Driven" marriage retreats, youth events, and perhaps even a line of Rick Warren "Purpose Driven" casual wear. With the success that Warren has experienced through the "Purpose Driven" phenomena, I've even been tempted to start wearing floral pattern shirts to church.

Lest you think this is all an exercise in sour grapes, it's not. I've already stated that the "Purpose Driven Life" material was generally helpful for those who participated in my church. My frustration is why is it necessary to take something that is good and helpful and promote every successive event using the name. I know it's a principle of marketing to build on the success of name recognition. I just wonder why the Evangelical Church must alway bow to the mavens of Madison Avenue and over paid marketing executives of large Christian publishing companies somewhere in the upper mid-west?

I would love to hear Tim LaHaye, Bruce Wilkinson, and Rick Warren come out and say unequivically, "This is it. There will be no more ________________ (you fill in the blank)." Perhaps in an age of Star Wars-- Part 6, this is too much to ask. If Nakedreligion ever gets that big, I hope I will be the first to say, "no, we won't be selling any nakedreligion T-shirts anytime soon." What am I saying? That's not a bad idea!

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Church that Prays

Someone asked me once, "so what do Pastor's do when they have a Sunday off?" I almost always find myself worshipping in another church. Yesterday was no exception as I found myself in Grand Rapids, Michigan for the weekend enjoying their "Festival of Arts" on Friday and Saturday. And yesterday, we worshipped at The Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church. The Church of the Servant is an "artsy" congregation that has taken great care in the design of their building so the worship space itself enhances the worship experience, rather than undermines it as in most protestant churches. The worship was heavily liturgical, while at the same time warm, engaging, and even occasionally spontaneous.

I was struck during the prayers of the congregation when the "liturgist" prayed by name for the administration of Calvin College as they find themselves in the midst of the fall-out from President Bush's recent trip there. It appears that some of the politically conservative wealthy donors to Calvin did not appreciate the fact that some members of the faculty and staff openly protested President Bushes presence by signing an open letter in the Grand Rapids Press prior to his arrival. Some are apparently threatening to withdraw their giving. Friends in the Grand Rapids area told me that the community has been abuzz around this issue ever since.

Others more politically astute than I have already commented on the expediency of Calvin College's response to a visit from a sitting president. I for one was heartened to see a congregation in the midst of worship willing to make such a politically charged issue a matter of prayer. I suspect that Church of the Servant leans to the left politically (although I have nothing concrete to base this on), yet in the midst of worship I was led in my praying to wonder and pray about things other than Aunt Millies trick knee or whether or not the congregation met their budget last week. Perhaps that's what praying ought to look like?

Thursday, June 02, 2005

"Out, out damn spot."

A pastor friend of mine collects Jesus kitsch. Because I know he's always looking for absurd examples of religious piety gone awry, I keep a look-out for things to add to his collection. He has a wide variety of stuff from a bobble-head Jesus to "Angel Snot." I recently came across "Wash Away Your Sins Towelette." The print on the bottom of this tear away towelette package reads: "Anti-bacterial formula Kills Sins on Contact." On the back of the package the directions for use state:

1. Remove moist towelette
2. Devoutly wipe away wrong-doing
3. Spot check for stubborn guilt
4. Wipe again as needed
5. Discard sins in waste recptacle
6. Go forth purified and moisturized

On a few occasions I've been tempted to try my "Wash Away your Sins Towelette" that sits on my desk. Oh, that wiping away my sin would be so easy. I could carry a number of these towelettes with me so everytime I sin, I could clean up the mess without muss and without fuss. When I see other people sin, I could gently approach them with a towelette and a smile saying, "try this, you'll be glad you did." The more people who use the "Wash Away your Sins Towelette" the better off we all would be. The weight of guilt that many people carry around with them would be lighter. And like the directions say, many more people would be able to "go forth purified and moisturized."

Since our human propensity for sin is likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, "The Wash Away your Sins Towelette" is a perfect gift for angst ridden Lutherans, as well as naval-gazing Baptists, and everyone in between. I wonder why God never thought of anything like this?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Bread and Stone

A friend of mine who writes poetry let's me read his poems as he finishes them. I admire his ability to use words to convey meaning that transcends the words themselves. Since I am not a poet, I offer his most recent poem (with his permission).

So different
So alike

When Jesus held the loaf in his hands
Did he hesitate, like I would have,
Before breaking it in two?
Did his heart tremble?
His life torn into human and divine

Did his hands shake holding the bread?
The bowelsof the earth seizing and
Strangling his own from below

...take this bread
He broke the loaf
The applause of whips,
Nails, gnarled tongues

...and eat
The body dropped divinity and bled
Simple crumbs tumbling from torn bread

...take this cup
Humanity sagging on cross-beams
Heaven hanging low

...and drink
A tender heart drowning
Like bread soaked in wine

...do this
The heart of the world
Weighted, hollow
Submerged, dry

...in memory of me
The bread broke
The earth quaked
Stones cracked

A body loaf rose
From gripping hardened hands

Things so alike
So different
Bread and stone