Some Thoughts about Red Cups and Red Nosed Reindeers

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The Christmas lights are the snow! #mindblown

Personally I am offended.  The Christmas I grew up celebrating was all about snow.  That was the object of worship in Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”.  That was the scene plastered all over every Holiday storefront window.  That was the scenery which Rudolph traversed to save Christmas.  And who can forget
that wonderful snow storm when George Bailey discovered what life would be like without him.  Snow is what Christmas is all about, which is why I have started wishing everyone a “Merry Snowiday” or a “Merry Snowmas” depending on their religious 
preferences.

Nothing says Christmas like snowmen with teeth! This way they can chew the Christmas ham.

So when Starbucks issued a statement saying that their Christmas cups will no longer feature snow, I was offended.  I wasn’t offended for any religious reason.  I’m just mad that nobody called me and asked what I wanted on my Snowmas cup.  After all, besides snow, December (or Snowmember) is all about me.  It is about what I want, what I get, what I give and how often I feel the Snowmas spirit deep down inside my body.  If somebody from the evil Starbucks corporation had called and asked me what to put on snowiday cups, my answer obviously would have been those evil snowmen from Doctor Who.  I watched that episode a week or so ago and it was the last time I felt the Snowmas spirit.  It would appear those lousy liberals at Starbucks don’t think Snowikah should be about me any more.

Before the internet we didn’t know how stupid people were.

Of course, I am not the only one offended this season.  It turns out my entire Facebook feed is offended because someone somewhere is offended at the Starbucks cups.  Yes, this particular crisis is so “meta” that we are offended because others are offended.  And, yeah, this post is even more meta as I am expressing my disapproval of those people who are offended because others are offended.

I am not actually offended, nor do I care about what some crazy guy who wouldn’t even have an audience in the non internet age thinks about Starbucks cups.  And the cups themselves don’t offend me.  Nor am I offended by the millions of people who flocked to Facebook to say, “I’m not them!”

However, I do wonder if there are other, more crucial areas in our life when we over react to overreactions like we all overreacted to this.  I wonder how often we do it in our marriages, our families, our churches, our business places, our politics.  After all, any therapist will tell you that when someone is yelling at you they are not really yelling at you and what they are yelling about isn’t what they are actually angry about.

Instead they are yelling because they feel marginalized, invisible, misheard and they think you, or the entire internet, may be a safe place to become visible again.  If that is the case, then by overreacting to their crazy, you become crazy.  After all, you are the one telling the marginalized person how stupid they are.

So instead I have learned that the solution is to ask great question like, “Why do you think those Starbucks cups set off an angry rant inside of you?”  “What is it about crazy people who don’t like Starbucks that makes you run to the internet to let everyone know how crazy they are?”  “Why does the absence of snow during the holidays leave you miserable inside?” “Should we say Happy Snowmas or Merry Snowidays or just sing ‘Snow, Snow, Snow’ from ‘White Christmas?'”  “Are all snowmen with teeth evil or just some of them?”  “How great was that Doctor Who episode?”

These questions open up dialog which leads to understanding which helps with self awareness.  And our world needs so much more of those things, especially during this glorious Snowmas season.

Happy Snowidays!

A Pastor’s Dilemma: When People Are Wrong on the Internet

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Someone was wrong on the internet this week.

I will let you have a couple moments to calm down from that shocking realization before I tell you who it was.  .  .

It was a wonderful human being with a heart of gold.   They were perusing their feed when they read something they found fascinating.  The title probably made them laugh and they thought they could brighten your day by sharing it.  They were probably in a hurry, having more important things to do than obsess over the facticity of Facebook memes.  So in a moment of weakness they forgot to run the article’s title through Google or Snopes before posting it and now it is out there for everyone to see.

And you judged them!  Or chances are you did.  After all, I did.  I read their dumb meme while thinking to myself, “I don’t see anyway on earth that that could be true.”  Because I apparently have nothing better to do with my time than obsess over the facticity of Facebook memes, I took a minute or two or thirty to read the incredibly lengthy Snopes explanation of why this meme is mostly false.

After that I went back to Facebook, with the copied Snopes URL in hand (or in the cloud) ready to prove my superiority over that kindly but naive person who still has not learned to use the internet.

They won in the end on account of being a decent human being, albeit a less informed one.

None of that really happened to me this week but I have done it in days past and I see people doing it all the time.

And yes, we should be careful about what we retweet, repost or rehash for each other.  A lie is a lie no matter what media we share it with.  Yet at the end of the day there are greater sins than being wrong on the internet.  Take for example, the sin of judging people who are wrong on the internet.

In fact the other day I was reading over that Matthew 7 passage about not judging people.  I found that after Jesus’ rather blunt command, (Judge not!) he has a lot of fun with a plank of wood and a speck of sawdust.  I am not quite sure what Jesus would have classified as “plank” and “sawdust” but I am pretty sure being wrong on the internet has more in common with the latter.

Therefore I am trying to get God to heal me of my incessant need to prove my Snopes surfing abilities to all those who are wrong on God’s good internet.

Here are some guidelines that might help us all out with that:

  1. Don’t correct people’s spelling or grammar.  God did not invent the rules of language.  They are not legalistic markers of holiness that when violated give Satan keys to your kingdom.  They are just some silly but important rules we made up in order to communicate well with each other.
  2. Ask yourself if there is a legitimate debate to be had or just points to be scored for your pre-chosen side.  This especially comes into play in political debates.  Most of us are fact checking each other in order to prove our “side” was right all along.  Instead we should be seriously tackling and debating the underlying issues.  Yes, agreement on correct data is important for serious debate.  However, if I am willing to correct your data but not willing to let mine be corrected, than that is sheer arrogance.
  3. Be gentle and private.  If you feel you must really fact check someone, send them a private message.  Or better yet, bring it up with them in a one on one meeting (if people still do those).  It is much better to be rebuked privately than publicly.
  4. Don’t fight invincible ignorance.  In Matthew 7, Jesus adds,  “Don’t give to dogs what is sacred.  Don’t throw pearls to pigs.”  The traditional interpretation of this passage is don’t waste your time and energy arguing or judging those for whom it will do no good.  I am not entirely sure I like that interpretation but I do like another oft quoted maxim.  “Don’t argue with a 3 year old.  In no time at all those watching will not be able to tell the difference.”  Or even better, “Don’t argue with an idiot.  They will drag you down to their level and beat you with their experience.”  No matter how I put it, there is much wisdom in choosing your battles and your opponents very carefully.

In closing. please use discretion and kindness when engaging your fellow internet travelers.

And remember another favorite cliche of mine, “You don’t have to show up to every fight you are invited too.”

Rethinking my Re-thoughts on God and Football

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Praise Football from whom all blessings flow! Praise touchdowns for his highness below! Okay I will stop.

I am not going to lie.  I wholeheartedly believe that Christianity’s idolization of American Football has become.  .  .well, idolatrous.  Also, I am not going to lie.  I like football.  It is a really fun game to both play and watch.  I will even go further to argue that we owe our professional entertainers (from actors to musicians to sports players) a livable wage, maybe not a wage that exceeds that of most countries, but a wage nonetheless.

Putting all that aside, I get really nervous when people start talking about God helping football players win, especially the ones who make great public spectacles of religiosity like praying after every touchdown and talking about God during press conferences.  That just seems to go against the grain of Matthew 6 a bit much.

Also, I have read other parts of Scripture, passages like, Psalm 146:7, “God upholds the cause of the oppressed” and others like it that seem to suggest that God is more concerned with things like looking out for the poor and the oppressed than with helping independently wealthy athletes score more touchdowns to get more money to cause more concussive brain injuries.  It makes me even more nervous when these athletes go home and beat up their spouses and children. (source although to be fair, countersource)

The things God seems to be engaged in doing.

I am quite passionate about this, as you can probably tell, so much so that I have blogged about it before.

However, something happened over the last couple weeks that has caused me to rethink my thoughts about God and football.  Simply put, I read Luke 6 again.

Verse 35 has always stood out to me, especially the last phrase which states quite clearly, “[God] is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

This is what God is supposed to do to wicked people!

The God I grew up worshiping was not kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  In fact, being ungrateful was a great way to get God mad at you.  Being all out wicked (a word we reserve for the worst of the worse) was the best way to get God to pummel you into a fiery eternity.  As for entire nations of wicked people.  .  .well God would certainly disband them quite soon, even though it took God about a 1,000 years to disband Rome after the very wicked Pax Romana. But who has time for the study of history when you are trying to convince your compatriots to not be evil nor get destroyed?

Someone stop Jesus from talking on mountains. He starts to say some pretty bizarre things when he does!

And yet right there, coming from the mouth of Jesus no less, we find out that God is not actively decimating the wicked.  Instead God is showing kindness to them.  I love that Jesus used the word “kind” here instead of something more generic like, “love.”  If it were “love” we could hide behind sentimentality, saying such ridiculous things like, “God loves them but still will destroy them, but you know, out of love.”

That is not what kindness means.  Kindness means God is actively doing gracious and kind things to wicked people.  This isn’t a lone verse.  There are echoes of this in other parts of the Bible.  You can look at Mathew 5:45 watered down version where Jesus says that God sends both the sun and the rain on good and wicked people alike.  You can also look to particular narratives like God’s deaalings with Jacob in Genesis.

Concerning football this might mean that once in awhile God takes a break from upholding the cause of the oppressed to help a wicked person score a touchdown.  It might also mean no matter of prayer and religious grandstanding is going to help you win that football game.  In the end God might just offer a miraculous hail-mary catch to the “wicked” team because God decided to have some fun with our silly sports that day.

Of course, one can surmise that this would have something to do with prevenient grace.  Prevenient grace is this idea (on which I base my blog) that God’s gracious provision goes before us and meets us in our wicked states to invite us into a relationship with God.

This might mean there is no problem in telling that wicked, concussed, wife abuser of a football player that God did help him win.  Now in order to respond graciously to God’s grace, he should leave his violent sport and lifestyle, give all his money to the poor, seek forgiveness from those he has harmed and offer himself as a living sacrifice to God’s mission of helping oppressed people.

Oooooh, concussive brain injuries, yum!

Or maybe this has nothing to do with prevenient grace and God just enjoys blessing the wicked because that is who God is by nature.

Or maybe I was right at the very beginning of all this, that God really doesn’t want anything to do with American Football, no matter how many football players offer shallow prayers after touchdown drives and “give the God the glory” during press conferences.

If that last scenario is the case, then I guess I will conclude with The Hunger Games’ popular mantra, “May the odds [of your favorite team] be ever in [their] favor” because God probably isn’t.

What Bernie Sanders Should Have Said About Abortion

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I am fully aware that this is a risky blog post.  In no other area are social conservatives and progressives so much divided as in the debate about abortion.  Both sides have fully made up their minds and whenever abortion comes up they talk over and under and around each other, repeating the now very old talking points that score points with their bases while alienating any who are still undecided.

With that said, the political scientist in me absolutely loved Bernie Sander’s address to Liberty University’s chapel on Monday.  I love that they invited him to speak and I love that he accepted the invitation because, as he put it, “I believe it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in civil discourse.”

And for the most part, that is what happened at Liberty University last Monday, though Sanders certainly still spoke very forcefully about this own moral/ethical views.  He was the most at his game when he spoke about how we treat our children who are living in poverty.  In fact, he put it most poignantly and poetically when he asked, “Are you content? Do you think it’s moral when 20 percent of the children in this country [are] living in poverty?”

He goes on to describe how our economic system ravages our most vulnerable children in order to show favor to the “billionaire class.”  It was the best part of the speech.

As was fully expected during the brief Q&A, abortion came up.  The question, stated by Liberty University’s Vice President, went like this, “You have talked about how it is immoral to protect the billionaire class at the expense of our most vulnerable children.  A majority of Christians would agree with you but would also go further and say that children in the womb need our protection even more.  How do you reconcile the two?” (39:20 in the clip below)  The Vice President also noted that it was the most popular and most asked question, which was substantiated by an almost standing ovation as the question was asked.

Despite how obvious the question is, it is still a very brilliant and fair one.  Sander’s answer was no less obvious but far less clever.  He reiterated the standard talking points of pro-choice types, muttering something about how the government shouldn’t be telling every single woman how to make health choices about her body.  His official answer was something like, “I understand the very painful and very difficult choice that women have to make and don’t want the government telling them what they have to do.” (40:30 below)

That is a fair answer but a tired one and one that doesn’t quite understand the underlying pathos of the pro-life movement, whose reasoning is more along the lines, “God all ready told them what to do and it is just the government’s job to enforce God’s decision.”  But I do not expect a Jewish Progressive to fully realize or answer that line of thinking.

Putting that aside, this whole interchange (or lack thereof) felt tired and it annoyed me a little, more so as I thought about it this week.  I understand the debate about abortion is now 40-50 years old and it barely registers as a talking point any more except in early voting conservative states and the deep south Bible belt.

Yet there is still progress to be made here for children, the unborn and their mothers who are in those difficult days making those difficult decisions.

For one there is still the underlying hypocrisy on both sides of the debate.  It is a hypocrisy a now retired college professor of mine summed up perfectly when he said, “Democrats don’t seem to care about a child before it is born.  Republicans don’t seem to care about a child after it is born.”  It is a scathing reality underlying this whole debate and there is a fair amount of propaganda pointing at it on both sides but the propaganda never goes so far as to answering that hypocrisy with honesty.

So without digging my grave any deeper, I admit that I wish Sanders would have risen to the challenge and addressed his own hypocrisy and the opposing hypocrisy of the evangelicals.  I wish there was room on both sides to admit we are all being hypocrites.

Therefore, I would like to step into Sanders’ shoes and offer my own answer to the hypocrisy question.

Here is what I might have said, “Yes, the unborn children in this country are very vulnerable.  The recent headlines about Planned Parenthood have made that abundantly clear.  Yes, I care about the mothers in unfortunate situations who are having to make the very difficult decisions during these unexpected or unwanted pregnancies and I question how effective the government can really be in helping them make the most informed and compassionate decision.

However, I also fully acknowledge that a child’s vulnerability does not end at birth!  The most important and crucial development happens in the first 4 years of a child’s life.  We have an economic system that heaps abuse and insults on these children, especially if those children are born with the wrong skin color, in the wrong country or to low income families in low income neighborhoods.  They are not getting the nutrients they need.  They are not getting the exercise they need.  They are not getting the love and support from parents and grandparents they need (which is why family values are still extremely important).  We must do more for children both born and unborn!  We must do it consistently and compassionately all throughout their childhoods and even into adulthood, not just stopping at birth or a few weeks after.”

Such an answer would have at least acknowledged the hypocrisy and allowed for a greater discussion that might just expose how limited our care and concern for the “vulnerable” really is.  Or maybe I am just daydreaming carelessly about a world where we can actually talk to each other, not around each other.

I will let you decide.  Be that is it may, the full speech with Q&A is below.

Also here is a link to Rachel Held Evans’ 2 year old post about abortion that is one of the best I have ever read.

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/why-progressive-christians-should-care-about-abortion-gosnell

Wile E. Coyote Ministries: Introduction

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A few months ago I was meeting with my new District Superintendent, talking about church planting, missional movements and ministry in the 21st century in general.

As our hearts and minds met on the drastic need for the church, particularly the Church of the Nazarene, to become more innovative he repeated to me what he had heard from someone else who had heard it from someone else who had read it in a book somewhere,

“The church is Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner world.”

For those of you younger types (like me) who might be tempted to think Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner were names for obscure characters in that Mad Max movie that came out this summer, let me explain the reference.  There is this old, actually ancient, Warner Bros. cartoon that used to play on Saturday mornings.  It just had two characters.  One was a hungry coyote, cleverly named “Wile E.”  The other was a rather simple but crazy fast bird named the “Road Runner.”

Fatal Flaw #1: Sets tail on fire instead of rocket.

Every episode involved the coyote coming up with some elaborate, cleverly detailed scheme to catch the Road Runner.  And every episode the Road Runner, without so much as a plan or a strategy, just ran right through the scheme.  The humor in the show almost always centered around each plan’s fatal flaw.  Even though the plan was brilliant and well thought through and cleverly executed, there was always one chink in its armor, one thing Wile E. did wrong, one humorous oversight that let the road runner slip away.  In well over half the episodes, the flaw wasn’t a flaw.  It was just the world not working like it is supposed to.

For example, there is the now classic scene where the coyote paints a mural of a tunnel on a cliff side, hoping the Road Runner will smash into the cliff.  Instead, the Road Runner runs right through the mural into an actual tunnel.  The lesson is simple: The world doesn’t work like the coyote wants it too.

Its sad how the church is remembered for our foolishness, not for how well we can execute a potluck that only feeds “us.”

And we are the coyote.  Our programs, or to put it more religiously, our “ministries,” are elaborate.  They are schemed up by outreach committees in 3 hour long meetings.  They are emailed to pastors with subjects that read, “the brilliant plan that will save our church.”  While we pass the offering plates on Sunday morning, a passionate and dedicated layperson explains them to the congregations.  We claim it worked out just great for that mega church in Seattle or that mushrooming church down the street.  Our congregants get all excited and we all jump on board.

But they all have one fatal flaw and that flaw makes all the time, money and energy we just spent worthless.  Most of the time that flaw is we just failed to understand the world we are living in.

Fatal Flaw #2: We don’t know when to stop.

When that flaw manifests itself and our brilliant feat of outreach falls flat on its face, we at least have a number of cliches we use to comfort ourselves.

We say things like:

“Well God doesn’t care about results.  God just cares about faithfulness.”

“That’s just the way the world is.  God has hardened their hearts so that nothing we say will get through.”

“Well at least we tried.  Church of the Baptist Jesus down the street isn’t even trying.”

“We planted a ton of seeds. Go us!”

Some of that may be true and I am all about comfort in the midst of epic failure.  After all, comfort is what gives us the means to get up and try again.

But what if our problem isn’t that we aren’t dedicated enough, passionate enough, wealthy enough or smart enough.  What if our problem is that we just don’t take the time and energy to understand the world we are living in.

Over the next week I want to write a bit about what I perceive are “Wile E. Coyote” ministries being run by many churches.  My hope in this is not to be overly mean or critical but to think deeply about how we spend our time, money and energy in the hopes that we will become better stewards of our callings.

Even more than that, I hope that our mourned failures would turn into seasons of rejoicing as we truly reach the world for Christ.

Until the next post, here are some great articles elaborating on this concept:

http://pres-outlook.org/2000/10/wile-e-coyote-or-the-roadrunner/

http://time.com/3735089/wile-e-coyote-road-runner/

http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2013/march/3031813.html

http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2011/04/desire-and-causality-in-road-runner.html

The Via Media and the Church of the Nazarene

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I have been working on this post for some time and I am still not quite sure it is going to come together like I want.  However, given the events of the last couple of weeks from church shootings to supreme court rulings to even my own denomination’s fundamentalism controversy, I thought this might be a good time to post it.

While we have argued about these things, I have heard many quote Phineas Bresee (founder of the Church of the Nazarenes) and John Wesley (founder of the Methodists) who said things like:

“Though we do not think alike, may we not love alike.” John Wesley

“On the great fundamentals we are all agreed. Pertaining to things not essential to salvation, we have liberty.” Phineas Bresee

“In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things love.” Attributed to both but traces back to Augustine.

These are great slogans.  As banners they really work.  They all hinge on clever grammatical structure and roll off the tongue quite well.

And at their heart, they try to characterize this concept of the “via media” which is Latin for “middle road.”

The “via media” is more of an attitude than an idea that emerged in 18th century England.  The 17th century had been horribly bloody and tumultuous as Prostestants and Catholics took turns killing each other.  After 100 years of debates that almost always ended in bloodshed, an unsettling calm took over the country as people decided, “We are going to still disagree and we are going to keep arguing and debating but we are going to stop killing each other over this religious stuff.”

This was the environment in which John Wesley was born.  For him the via media was not so much an agreement to live and let live.  It was a commitment to engage in debates that were as committed to love as they were to finding truth.  If you read any of Wesley’s sermons (including his titled “The Via Media”) you will find that Wesley had very strong opinions and spoke passionately and firmly on them.  But he hoped that his strong arguments and firey rhetoric would not get in the way of his love.  Simply put, Wesley seems to be more concerned that we debate the non essentials lovingly than that we simply ignore them all together.

I see different via medias at work in our church today.

On the one hand, we have a small but growing group of younger, non confrontational types who think the “via media” means we have to stop having strong opinions all together.  It means we need to get rid of any concept of established truth and agree to live and let live.  We need to stop our silly debates, get rid of our frivolous opinions and, in the words of Big and Rich, “take a ride on the love train.”

In these circles, once an opinion is challenged, like, “I don’t think it is really that hot today,” all conversation stops until someone casually responds, “well we all have different definitions of hot” and everybody sighs in relief.  The problem is that this fear of confrontation creates a culture where we never understand each other because we never present our real selves.  We hide our passions and our thoughts and biases to the point where we are a shadow of ourselves.  We avoid intimacy and understanding and our love never gets past the surface.  This is hardly the love the Bible advocates for.

But then there is this other “via media” going on where certain groups say, “I (or we) decide what is essential.”  In these circles church documents are ignored and the historic creeds are not recognized.  In their place is set a book or an author or a group of beloved leaders whose sayings and teachings are “fundamental.”  Everyone else is expected to completely agree or, quite literally, go to hell.

Don’t get me wrong, these groups claim to have a list of non essentials too.  They just tend to be shallower things, like worship preferences, stances on going to movies, what clothes to wear to church, etc.  It is almost as if these groups are saying, “We are agreed in the essentials and we give liberty just as long as you agree with what we say is essential.”  The existence of these types of people seriously makes me wonder if we really are all agreed upon the fundamentals.

Regardless, both the conflict adverse and the angry dogmatics are operating on misunderstandings of what the “via media” really is.  And in my conversations with both types and many in between, it is becoming increasingly hard for me to even figure out what we mean when we say, “in essentials unity, in non essentials liberty.”  Those in the Church of the Nazarene have very different ideas about what should be on each list.

One group quotes the slogan to say we have no essentials whatsoever.  The other quotes it to get you to agree to their fabricated list.

And I don’t know how we move forward.  The recent happenings at NNU and at MNU certainly don’t give me any hope.  But as I have thought about it over the last months, I have come up with a few suggestions that might help point the way.

First, we must reclaim our articles of faith and the ancient creeds as our essentials.  These are the guiding documents of our faith and of our denomination and we need to stop telling people they can make up their own essentials or borrow someone else’s.  When we say “essentials” we mean stated doctrines, ratified by our members.  For that reason, we might alter our slogan to, “On the articles of faith and creeds we are all agreed” but then the thing gets super clunky and not as easy to memorize.  Still, the essentials are not what you want to make up.  They are the documents we have put together and ratified.

Second, we must stop avoiding each other.  We need to meet face to face.  I know the world is getting more silo oriented, where you can avoid those who do not share your opinions.  I fight this temptation daily.  In turn, social media has made it even harder to have a face to face conversation with whom you disagree.  Instead we either just ignore each other or we plant bombs in the form of angry comments structured by lousy logic and stray Bible verses to serve as “proof texts.”

To be sure, we can ignore each other or throw lousy logic and proof texts around in face to face conversations.  But at least the setting usually forces us to continue to be part of the conversation.  Online, we can set the bomb and run.  On a side note, this is why I delete comments on my blog that take the form of “bombs.”

Third, we must not be afraid of passionate debate.  The “in non essentials liberty” does not mean we get to make up whatever we want to believe, even in the non essentials.  It means we give each other the freedom to present their findings, experiences, logic and opinions in a loving way.  It also means we respect each other enough to do the same ourselves.  When we have given ourselves that liberty, we then listen to each other in a way that seeks understanding and discovers truth.  And if, when the sun begins to set, we find that we still do not agree, then, yes, we fall back on Wesley’s great sentiment that we join our hearts and hands and try to do the work of the kingdom together.

Simply put, we have a lot of work to do.

Of Racist Guns and Holy Churches

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Just yesterday I explained to my wife that I had not posted anything of substance on the blog for awhile because the creative energy that fuels these posts was seemingly gone.

Like most writers and artists I have found that when the creativity is on, it is really on.  Words flow like crazy through my harried mind into my crazy fingers through this makeshift keyboard onto the blank screen of the internet.

But when the creativity is off, it is really off.  It takes every ounce of mental strength to force my fingers to type those words.  During those times, it is excruciatingly difficult to even piece together a decent sermon.

And the last couple of weeks, that has been my life.

But last night, shortly after lamenting about this to my wife, things got turned back on.

My muses this time around were Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore.  I found the former’s words last night about the South Carolina church shooting to be very poignant.  Along with Larry Wilmore and the various comments online, turned my writing juice back on.

The first slew of comments on social media were people asking for a conversation.  This is a rather new phenomenon when it comes to controversial events and topics, as if we are now so suddenly scared to start conversations that we waste our words asking someone else to go first.

Putting that aside, there were still people willing to start conversations.  You can divide those conversations along political lines.  The more conservative want to talk about arming America and the value of nuclear families.  The more liberal want to talk about gun control and racism.

The conservatives, as usual, are only right enough to get to the point of being horribly offensive.  For evidence see Larry Wilmore’s montage of Fox News’ anchors trying to make it sound like the attack was somehow directed against white evangelicalism, not by a white evangelical against black pentecostals.  For the record, it was that montage that really turned my writing juice back on!

So too, the gun control rhetoric is equally alarming.  The idea that if everyone has a gun, no one will fire it certainly sounds good on paper but it has never worked in real life.  The psyche of the criminal mind desires violence and loves retaliation.  This has been well documented.  The shooter in South Carolina would have loved nothing more than to turn a place of prayer into an all out firefight.  And the day firefights break out in churches is the day Satan has won.

But don’t me wrong, as usual the liberals just seem shallow.  The question about where the shooter got his gun is frivolous and misleading.  And as far as gun control, or any type of government control is concerned, I have lost complete faith in our capability to enforce our own laws.  Furthermore you can’t just un-invent guns.  They are out there now and I am not sure how successful we can ever be in reigning them in.  After all, by outlawing marijuana we made it twice as accessible to teens as alcohol.

So too, I am having a horrible difficulty connecting with the more moderate conversation about mental illness.  While it certainly plays a part in all mass shootings, I know several people who struggle with what we call mental disabilities.  They don’t just pull ideas out of nowhere.  They are much like those of us who consider ourselves normal.   Original ideas are as hard, if not harder, to grasp for them as for us.

And as far as the conversation is concerned I believe the mentally disabled are the best mirrors for society.  They reflect and amplify our cultural values in ways the rest of us resist.  As proof, I have known several with mental illnesses who grew up in loving and caring families and communities and who reflect and amplify that love in profound ways.  This is why they are so valuable for us.  It is offensive to suggest that all mentally ill people will just randomly decide to buy guns and kill people.

So instead of talking about where the shooter got his guns, it is more helpful to talk about where the assassin got his ideas.  In what little we know, I see two ideas at work.

The first is the idea that black people are a problem needing to be solved.  We thought this idea was close to being eradicated from our country but recent events have reminded us that it is still there and was just waiting for an opportune moment to resurface.

I have seen where racism was hiding.  I lived in an inner city area, surrounded by a loving community of blacks.  The white people I worked with told me that it was a bad neighborhood.  The black people I worked with told me it was a lovely area where they wanted to live.  That was hidden racism.

So too the cops in the white neighborhoods would see a black man walking down the street, stop, pick him up and take him to the edge of the black county.  They would “graciously” inform him that, “They have help for you over there.”  That was hidden racism.

In a small town a fundamentalist youth pastor has conversations at the dinner table about the safe ways to assassinate our black president without killing any white secret service members in the process.

In the same small town one of the few teenagers who went to church lovingly referred to our President as, “The N&^*#er in the White House.”  He was rewarded with laughs for doing so.

If you want to know where the assassin got the idea that blacks are a problem needing solved, look no further.

The second idea seemed to be that shooting problems is the best way to solve them.  The problem here is not so much the existence of guns but the idea of weapons.  I hesitate to repeat the age old adage but, “If all you own is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.”

And if you buy a gun to solve problems, every problem will look like a target.  This is the dangerous idea being preached at political rallies.  We just need to buy more guns to shoot more bad guys.  But what happens when we can’t figure out who the bad guys are or when we get them wrong?  What happens is what happened in South Carolina on Wednesday night.

Here I agree with the social conservatives to a point.  Ideas seem to come primarily from parents.  For that reason, there is a discussion to be had about good parenting.  If you have parents that teach their kids that black people are a problem and we solve problems with guns, you get mass shootings at faithful churches.

But the solution here is not to litigate and legislate nuclear families because a particular family’s values are more important than the makeup and living arrangements of that family.  A nuclear family that brainstorms ways to assassinate a black President will still raise children full of hatred and violence.  More than father figures, we need good fathers and mothers, parents who reject the ideations of guns and racism while teaching godly love above all else.

We need that love taught and emulated at every level of society.  We need to get rid of these ideas that people are problems and that problems are targets.   In its place we need love to dwell in our churches and in our communities and in our nation.  After all, those who live by the gun die by the gun but those who live by love die by love.

And I would rather die by love.  The victims at Mother Emmanuel AME Church died by love on Wednesday.  That is the way that I would love to go.  They are not only heroes but martyrs in our peace seeking faith.  And they will now receive their robes of white under the altar in our glorious heaven.

As I was running this morning I was thinking about all of these things and what I might write.  As I did, the lines of the wonderful song, “The Love of God” kept coming to mind over and over.  This isn’t just a love that God displays for us.  It is also a love that we are called to embody and display for the world.

So through my tears and in memorium or our most recent martyrs, I post the lyrics below:

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.

Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
The saints’ and angels’ song.
When hoary time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,

When men who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call,
God’s love so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
The saints’ and angels’ song.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

Low Church Numbers Vs. High Church Numbers: The Stories Are Not Adding Up

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Like many of you, this week I have seen many posts and re-posts of that chart from PewForum detailing the current rises and falls in religious demographics.  (Spoiler Alert: It was mostly just falls.)  The nones stole the show again and rightly so as they are booming.

Click to read full report.

But the second place winner seems to be us evangelicals who have decreased by less than 1% in 7 years.  This is noteworthy because 1% is well within the margin of error, which may mean we shrunk a bit more or that we even (*gasp*) grew.

This was very curious to me considering for the last year I have been inundated with articles claiming that evangelical youth are fleeing evangelicalism at rapid rates and that evangelicalism is all but dead.  I have heard that an overwhelming number of millenials are finding safe sanctuary in more ancient, high church traditions like Catholicism and Mainline Prostestantism.  I had a sneaking suspicion this claim was not true because those articles never gave any sort of hard data.  They just quoted popular millenials and assumed their narratives were normal.

I bring this up because I just got done reading another such article called “Dear Church: An Open Letter from One of Those Millenials You Can’t Figure Out.”  I agreed almost wholeheartedly with the author’s theological standpoint.  I too am sick of flashy worship and very skeptical of “church mascots.”  I really loathe the patriotic moralism that fuels evangelicals.  And I want a higher church and a truer church with more Eucharist and less pyrotechnics.

But I am not meeting too many other millenials who agree with me.  And when I read the actual studies done by people who know how to compile and interpret data, I am realizing that I am a rare breed.  The numbers just don’t add up and have not for some time.

The mainline churches with their liturgies, liberal theologies and well developed ecclesiologies are still hemorrhaging members while the low church, coffee selling, cowboy mimicking, America loving Evangelicals are at least holding their own.

There is a huge disconnect between the narrative that millenials are fleeing into the arms of the loving high church and the data that says high church’s doors are all but closed.

Where did this come from?  I have a few guesses:

1) Nobody listens to the millions of uneducated, never churched.  The dominant stories filling our headlines are almost always the stories of wealthy millenials who grew up in the church and hold master’s degrees, usually in Philosophy or Theology.  These wealthy theology buffs are frustrated that the church of their theology classes is not the church of their childhoods.  I definitely share that frustration but no one who has not taken a theology class does.

Instead anybody who has worked with poor, uneducated, never churched millenials knows their story is vastly different.  They still want the booming worship and religious paraphernalia and silly mascots and rock bands and they are absolutely okay with the patriotism.

If it is true that we are not listening to them, I think that is sad.  After all, us educated church types are always talking up a great game about loving the marginalized and outcast.  Yet we are refusing to hear their stories.  Is it possible that those cowboy church, honky tonk evangelical churches are listening to them better than we are?

2) We assume that because someone’s story is popular, everybody agrees.  Therefore we focus on the blogs that get the most clicks and assume everybody who is clicking has the exact same story.  This is not true.  Those blogs are certainly relatable, but they are not normative.  Take for example my wife, who has read every Rachel Held Evan’s book and is leading discussion groups on them but isn’t about to go join the Episcopals.  .  .I hope.  Likewise, I very much relate to Rachel Held Evans but I am not going to become Episcopal.  .  .unless my wife does.

This is compounded by the reality that a high for Christian blogs is 10,000 clicks.  There are 80 million millenials.  That means if only millenials are reading those blogs (which isn’t true) there are 79,990,000 millenials who aren’t reading them.

3) The Baby Boomers might still be alive and important to America’s religious landscape.  I am not naive.  I know that the Evangelical statistics could have absolutely nothing to do with my generation.  It might be about the great retention of baby boomers, who love everything that booms especially worship services.  These baby boomers might still be alive and still loving their low church, yeehaw praising, mascot leading, rock worship services.  And that might not be a bad thing.  There are still quite a few Baby Boomers who don’t go to church or never have. (source).  And though their attendance numbers are declining, they are mostly declining in mainstream churches.  If the current model of evangelicalism is reaching them or retaining them, than the church is better for it.

Conclusion

I am also reading reports this week that a huge blockbuster movie about superheroes punching robots has managed to fill auditoriums with those from every age.

It would seem you don’t need the Holy Spirit or liturgy or sacraments to fill up a venue.  You just need theatrics.  And if the theatrics of evangelicalism are keeping their pew chairs full, it means absolutely nothing.

Because our God given call is not to fill auditoriums.  We are definitely not called out of the world, equipped with good gifts, empowered with the Holy Spirit and sent out so that we can draw in the millenials, or the baby boomers or even the silent generation.

We are called, equipped, empowered and sent so that we can love.  If love works, praise the Lord of Love.  If Love does not work we still serve the Lord of Love.

And my frustrations with evangelicalism have nothing to do with their failure to fill pews.  We have always been very good at that part and still are.  My frustrations stem from our failure to fill the world with love.

All of the generational headlines are dominated by this idea that the church should do what works.  But if church is about what works then it is not about what loves.  And if we don’t love, we have nothing and are nothing and will accomplish nothing.

The Nazarenes and Strengthsfinders: The Gospel According to Gallup

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Hello Everyone.

As are so many Nazarene leaders these days I want to begin with an apology that is in no way an apology at all.  I am sorry I have not been able to post anything for the last few days.  I have actually had a life and a local ministry context that needed my attention and so have not had time.

When I do have a spare moment, I have been piecing together a post about our big tent in the church.  I want it to be a really well written piece about getting along despite our differences and a call back to charity.  But it has not yet come together.

However, in the interests of biding time and frantically trying to keep your interest, Monday night’s NNU Alumni Q&A (that was more Q than A) with David Alexander introduced a fascinating wrinkle into the ongoing discussion about Nazarene identity.  As a sort of defense, he listed off his top 5 strengths according to Gallup’s Strengthsfinder’s Inventory.

This wrinkle, like most wrinkles in sheets or blankets, is caused by something much more concrete and sinister lying underneath and something that has bugged me for many years.  We in the Church of the Nazarene seem to be cultivating an unhealthy relationship with the Gallup organization, particularly through their Strengthsfinders Inventory.

Now, it would be inappropriate to leave out that I was on staff at a church that did not exercise caution when it came to Gallup’s Strengthsfinders.  The church let Gallup’s message replace the cross as its main proclamation to the world.

Perhaps most disappointing was regularly my senior pastor, whom I otherwise love and respect, would climb into the pulpit, hold up one of Gallup’s books, open it and read a passage.  This was in a worship service where no Scripture was otherwise read. Then he would exegete the Strengthfinders book for the congregation.  Whenever any book other than Scripture is exegeted from the pulpit, I get super nervous.

This is the word of Gallup. Thanks be to Gallup most high!

So I readily acknowledge that my beginning with Gallup left a really bad taste in my mouth, one I have not yet washed down (as evidenced by my snarky caption above).  In humility, I admit that isn’t how others are using Strengthsfinders and some have found a great and healthy way to refer to it.  Yet my weary journey with it has led me to deep and critical thinking which in turn has led to some questions and concerns.

The doctrine (or as I call it “gospel”) of Strengthsfinders rests on a few key principles:

The 1st and most foundational principle is that people should play to their strengths as much as possible while only managing their weaknesses.  A subset of this is that you manage your weaknesses by surrounding yourself with those who have different strengths.

2nd: There are only 34 strengths.

3rd: Those strengths are grouped into four categories that further help define your personality.

4th: You cannot change your strengths no matter how hard you try.  Your personality is set in stone.

5th: The best way to help yourself is to pay a tithe (er, um, donation, er, um, purchase) to Gallup so that you can take a test that tells you your top 5 of 34 strengths.  For those reaching super Gallup-saintdom you can even hire a Gallup clergy person, er, Strengths coach to help you help yourself even more.

With that basic framework in mind (and I admit I am summarizing the loads of Gallup books I have read and heard sermons about) I have great concerns about Strengthsfinders as it relates to our doctrine and polity.

First, I think it is quite naive to assume all of humanity can be summarized in 34 categories.  Humans are way more complex than that.  After all, when I fell in love with my wife I did not fall in love with an order of strengths but a complicated and complex human being who has shades of moods and layers of depth.  I am the same way.  You are too.  I am not a jumble of 34 categories roughly ordered.  I am a full, complete and complex human being and the only way to get to know me is to do life with me over the course of years.  I am not a woo, ideator, inputter, communicative and positive ENFP.

More than that, our church, particularly us Wesleyans, have always argued that the best way to know ourselves is to find ourselves in Christ using the means of grace.  If you want to know yourself and all your strengths and weaknesses, an inventory will not do it.  Instead it is much better to pray, fast, worship, give and serve.

Second, I really struggle with any narrative that says you cannot change.  I know Gallup insists they are talking about personality, not sinfulness, but still the Nazarene doctrine is built on the concept that God can change you and the real sciences have shown over and over again that you are changing whether you like it or not.  I think we need to be cautious and critical of doctrines and gospels that claim we can’t and won’t change.

Third, and perhaps most importantly for me, is that the church’s main proclamation is about the weakness of a cross.  Paul says in 1st Corinthians 12 that the power of God is made perfect in weakness and that when we are weak, then we are strong.  I believe Paul arrives at that conclusion because Paul understands the cross.  He is arguing from a logic he articulates in Philippians 2, that though Christ was in very nature God, he emptied himself and became nothing and humbled himself to death.  Biblically, postures of weakness glorify Christ, not postures of playing to your strengths.

This leads to a rabbit trail about the nature of American corporate greed with its gospel that only those who produce get the glory.  In that world Gallup really is good news because if you just pay your tithe and buy their book and take their test you can produce more for your church.  But the church is not a community of production.  We are a community of worship and of service.  In our church only those who take postures of weakness are guaranteed glory.

I feel like maybe one of the reasons our leaders are failing us so badly right now is because they have gotten caught up in the gospels according to Wall Street and Gallup.  They are trying to manipulate their personalities to produce things for God instead of falling on their knees in weakness and crying out, “I need you.  I need you.  Every hour I need you.”

But I digress.  .  .

With those things in mind, I am in no way saying we need to throw everything out that Gallup tries to offer us.  In fact the one thing personality inventories do is create a common vocabulary for people to understand each other and themselves.  Doing so aids understanding, creates unity, contributes to cooperation and leads to love.

But hopefully I have at least convinced you to keep Gallup in the boardroom and out of the pulpit.  After all, no doctrine or book or decree or gospel should share space with the Holy Scriptures of our Living God. 😛

Stay tuned for more as I have time!

When We Confess Our Sins. . .

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When I was in junior high people began throwing around the word, “hypocrite” like it was free candy.  It was an especially popular concept in Christian circles as we used it to judge anybody who held any sort of ethical standard for us.  All being sinners ourselves, we knew that any legalist who gave us a “thou shalt” could not live up to any ethical standard themselves.  So we dismissed any ethicist with the word, “hypocrite.”

It was at that time that I realized it was almost impossible for a true Christian to actually be a hypocrite.  My thinking went that if the central confession of our faith was that we are all sinners in need of a savior, then sinning did not make us hypocrites.  It made our message truer.

That is a fairly dangerous thought process from an uneducated middle schooler.  It runs us really close to antinomianism, the idea that we should go on sinning so that grace may increase.

But I still think there is a shred of truth there.  After all, we are not the sinning community but we are the confessional community.  One of our pillars has always been confessing our sins, airing our dirty laundry for all to see.  This does not mean we are the most church when we go on sinning.  But we are the most church when we confess our sins, hanging them out for all to see while we pray for the God of forgiveness to deliver us.

There have been those this week who have suggested that having honest discussions about our church’s shortcomings are hurting our witness to the world.  They seem to be caught up in the 1950s mindset that the church can only be effective in mission if we are sinless and conflict free.

They want us to hide behind vague cliches like, “You are hurting the church” and “You are making our witness less effective.”

I disagree.  First the church is all ready hurting.  We are hurting not because of the actions of any one person or the existence of any one crisis but because we are the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus.  Our scars and bruises and pain only magnify Christ that much more.

Second, our witness does not rest on our own power or might.  If you read Acts 1:8 Jesus does not say, “Go and try to witness.”  Jesus issues a promise, “You WILL be witnesses” whether you like it or not.

I write all this to give us hope.  If our faith rested in our own deeds and sinlessness than this would be a time of despair.  But as our denomination confesses some of our dirty laundry, I am buoyed by hope, hope in a God who will make us witnesses, a God who will reveal God’s nature and self through these trying and hurting times, a God who uses situations like these to draw us all closer to the cruciform lamb, standing as though slain.

I am reminded of the closing words of Charles Dickens, “Tale of Two Cities” and they are my sentiments and prayer today:

“I see a beautiful [church] and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives.  .  .peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy.”

Keep on fighting for transparency and justice and know your toil in the Lord is not in vain!