What’s Pastor Kevin Watching: Beauty and the Best (And the Wonders of Stockholm Syndrome)

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Related imageThe animated classic “Beauty and the Beast” was released when I was 6 years old.  A relative gifted us a VHS copy the following Christmas, which we still have.  Being so young, I do not remember watching the movie for the first time, or the second, or the third.  All I know is that I had two sisters which means girlie cartoons were the norm for my childhood, though Gaston’s siege at the end of the movie was just enough to give my childhood imagination a few delusions of warrior grandeur!

As I grew up, the VHS lay dormant on our shelf for many years.  In college I managed to get my hands on a copy of the DVD release and watched it anew.  I was shocked at just how pitch perfect the animated tale really was.  By then I knew a bit more about what made a good movie great and Beauty and the Beast had it all.  The animation was gorgeous, even by today’s standards.  The plot points were perfectly paced.  The characters were strongly written.  The songs were charming and deep, particularly the title song which sang about the “tale as old as time.”  I particularly fell in love with the line, “Barely even friends, then somebody bends, unexpectedly.”  I wish I could write like that!

When my wife and I started dating we named that “our” song and a sextet of our friends sang it at our engagement and again at our wedding.  I let this happen despite knowing I was going to have to tolerate decades of jokes about how “truly a beast” I was.  Seriously, people write some new material!

Image result for beauty and the beastYet therein, lies the problem with the whole movie.  The beast is, well, a beast and, at least in the first act, he does some pretty beastly things.  He rages.  He roars.  He destroys.  He kidnaps.  He extorts.  This has led many to
ask the very appropriate question, “Is this movie actually about Stockholm Syndrome?”  Or is it about the power of love to transform the most vile of us?

Part of what elevates “Beauty and the Beast” to a “classic” is this wonderful debate.  Fiction is not supposed to answer but to ask.  In fact, fiction can begin the best conversations and debates in a way little else can.  And “Beauty and the Beast” wonderfully begins a great debate about the “power of love” versus “Stockholm Syndrome.”

Image result for beauty and the beast hishe

HISHE just released a satire mocking both ends of the debate I am describing.  Click here to watch!

On the one hand the movie seems to illustrate what Christianity has always taught, that love transforms people into the image of the beloved.  The Apostle Peter put it well when he said, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)  Do not be fooled by the English word “covers.”  The Greek word Peter used does include the idea of erasing or getting rid of.  Love erases evil and brings out the best in the one loved, just as Belle did for the Beast.

However, I am certainly not sending my daughter off to date a beast, especially not one that just kidnapped me.  In fact, as far as logic is concerned, Belle’s father, Maurice is the most logical of anyone in the film.  Of course he is going to go get his daughter back and of course he is going to try to recruit help, even if that goes horribly wrong.  It is hard to imagine anyone managing to be any more composed in those moments.

So Beauty and the Beast reveals two conflicting truths we really want to hold together.  First, love can transform the most beastly.  Second, for heaven’s sake, don’t go near the beast!

Image result for beauty and the beast gastonBut then there is Gaston.  For me, the entire movie would not have worked without the Gaston character.  Here is the true beast, hiding in plain daylight.  Successful, handsome, strong and completely crazy.  My high school was full of Gastons.  The churches I have pastored and attended have all had their fair share.  These are the wolves in sheep’s clothing who are far more harmful than any ill tempered recluse living in the mountains.  A few of my high school friends went ahead and married the Gaston’s and they did it with their parents’ and society’s blessing.  Now, fifteen years later, they are telling tales on Facebook of their less than happy endings.

Those too, unfortunately, are a tale as old as time.  And it seems to me if we really want to have a conversation about beastliness we should probably start there, with the ones society has elevated to godhood and the ways in which we insist on sacrificing our children to them.  The beasts seldom are recluses off in some castle.  They really do walk among us and we create them by glorifying the wrong things in them.

And the way Beauty and the Beast illustrates that reality invites just further conversation and debate.  It truly is a classic!

 

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A LOT of Books

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Long time followers of this blog (again, really, just my mother and I think at this point her uncle Paul) know that my huge goal for the 2016 calendar year was to read 100 books.  Well, as of yesterday around 3pm I read the last words of Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel Lila and let it slowly dawn on me that I had actually succeeded.

Then I went to my list of books and went to publish them here only to realize I had accidentally listed one book twice which meant I still had another book to read!  So I frantically downloaded a Walter Brueggemann volume on the life of David, read it over the last 36 hours and can now proudly say I read 100 books this year!

This part of 2016 has been brutal but well worth it.  I do not sit still well and I have always found reading boring but several times this year I forced myself to sit for hours at a time and work through a book when I rather would have been doing anything but.  That is the real victory.

I made up some other rules as the year went on to keep myself in check.  At one point it occurred to me I had not reread any books from previous years so I continued that, meaning the list below were all brand new to me this year.  At another point I realized the oldest book I had read was from the 1960s and that bothered me so I began reading older books.  Then I noticed that some books I read were kind of short so I forced myself to read a string of longer, harder books to make up for it.

So after a long year of averaging 2 books a week, I proudly publish my list.  I broke them into categories for you all.  I wanted to do an official ranking but that was taking way too long.  But I do have categories for the top five and for “forgettables.”  I didn’t include those in other categories.  I typed some sarcastic or noteworthy comments on the ones that felt like they deserved it.  This is for your perusal and I hope you spot one or two you would like to read in the next year!

(Oh and if you spot another book I listed twice, just go ahead and keep that to yourself.  Ignorance is bliss!)

Top 5

  1. Prophetic Lament by Soong Chan Rah (Not only the best but also the newest. I think I bought it two days after publication.)
  2. Gilead by Marilyne Robinson (Robinson’s three novels about pastors and their families are on this list but this one, the first one, stands above the others as a triumph in literature.)
  3. A Failure of Nerve, by Edwin Friedman
  4. Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson
  5. The Social Animal by David Brooks

“Forgettables”

*I honestly did read these books but I also honestly have no recollection of doing so.

  1. The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen 
  2. Story-Shaped Worship, by Robbie Castleman (Sad story: this book was listed twice on my original list which meant I had to read another book at the last minute to get over the 100 mark.)
  3. Move on By Vicky Courtney
  4. Growing God’s Church by Gary L. McIntosh (I remember this book now! It was stupid in every way.  I hated it.  I wrote a blog about it too!  I am still leaving it here though in the hopes that I forget it again.)
  5. Charles Finney Biography
  6. Essential Beliefs by Mark Maddix and Diane Leclerc
  7. God Dwells Among us by G.K. Beale and Mitchell Kim
  8. Jesus the Pastor by John Frye

Most Unique

  1. The Sacred Diary of Plass by Plass (A friend lent me his copy. Good luck finding another one.)

Bible Books

  1. Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson
  2. Kings and Presidents by Tim and Shawna Gaines
  3. Our Father Abraham, by Marvin Wilson
  4. Carolyn Sharp Old Testament Prophets for Today
  5. Interpreting Prophetic Literature by James Nogalski
  6. Challenging Prophetic Metaphor by Julia M. O Brien
  7. The Theology of the Book of Amos by John Barton
  8. The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel by Paul Anderson
  9. Cycle of Victorious Living by Scott Daniels
  10. Paul by Rowan Williams
  11. Who’s Got Your Back by Eddie Estep
  12. The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing
  13. The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter (I am ashamed to admit that I had not read Alter or Brueggemann before this year. But at least I remedied it now.)
  14. The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter
  15. Spirituality of the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann (I feel like Brueggemann’s books are cheating because they are short but every word is packed with incredible meaning. The point to page ratios are outstanding!)
  16. David’s Truth In Israel’s Imagination by Walter Brueggemann

The Cheaters

*With low page numbers, these count as books but barely.  Most were read in a day or even an hour when I was down, unmotivated and desperate to catch back up.

  1. Trinity: The God We Don’t Know by Jason Byassee
  2. 30 Days with Wesley by Mark Harmon (a wonderful Wesleyan devotional meant to take a month. I was behind by four books in late July so I read it in an hour and a half.)
  3. Antagonists in the Local Church by Brian Samsen (This was actually a thesis for a D.Min but it was 120 pages and very good)
  4. Missions Mosaic by Donna Wilson (This is one of the Church of the Nazarene Missions books. I could have read and counted all six but that really would have been cheating)
  5. Church History for Modern Ministry by Dayton Hartman (This is not the worst book but it is the most disappointing. I bought it thinking it would be a long primer in church history and found it was 4 chapters and 80 pages talking about why pastors should study church history)

The Grossly Overblown Discussions of Meaningless Data

  1. Meet Generation Z by James Emery White (Spoiler alert, the next generation is being raised by the current generation so James Emery White is fairly convinced they are going to be bad at everything, mostly God stuff)
  2. Reaching Millenials by David Stark
  3. America at the Crossroads by George Barna

More Theological and Academic

(Three of these are about Martin Luther and one is by Martin Luther.  It is kind of fun to just dig deep into one historical person and their theology.  This category also wins the award for most books written by people I know!)

  1. Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Theology of Christian Perfecting, by T. A. Noble
  2. The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord
  3. Wholeness in Christ by William Greathouse
  4. Theology of Martin Luther by Paul Altheus
  5. Martin Luther’s Theology by Lohse
  6. Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will by Julian Baggini
  7. Christian Ethics and the Church by Philip Turner
  8. Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy
  9. The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther (By far the oldest book I read!)
  10. Union with Christ by Braaten and Jensen

Novels

  1. Home by Marilyne Robinson
  2. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  3. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  4. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (This is written like a novel but could easily fit in three or four categories. It is a must read and fascinating in every way.  I still find myself quoting it in my head.)
  5. Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  6. Far Side of the World by Patrick O’brien
  7. The Prestige by Christopher Priest (The Christopher Nolan movie based off this book is way better. One of those rare cases where cinema was an improvement.)

Pastor and Church Helps

  1. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor or Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
  2. How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching by Will Willimon
  3. The Cross Shattered Church by Stanley Hauerwas
  4. The Art of Pastoring by David Hansen
  5. The New Parish by Dwight Friesen and Paul Sparks
  6. The Power of Loving Your Church by David Hansen (Hansen’s books are now sacred to me because they were given to me by a mentor during a difficult time.)
  7. Time Bomb in the Church by Daniel Spaite
  8. Fellowship of Differents by Scot McNight
  9. The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson
  10. Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation Between a Mormon and an Evangelical by Robert L. Millet and Gregory C.V. Johnson
  11. The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson (see below comment about point to page ratios. This book easily could have been fifty pages long and instead was 350.)
  12. On Leadership by John Gardner

Devotional.  .  .Maybe? or Mostly Just Self Helpers

  1. The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic or Awesome? By Tripp Fuller
  2. The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer
  3. Life in the Spirit by A.W. Tozer (It is quite possible Tozer would turn over in his grave to be included on a list between Tripp Fuller and Rachel Held Evans. . .or maybe he would be honored. The jury is still out on this one.)
  4. Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans
  5. Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans
  6. Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves Adam Hamilton
  7. The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
  8. Love and Respect by Emmerson Ebberichs
  9. A Woman of Strength and Purpose by Cynthia Tobias
  10. Grace Walk by Steve Mcvey
  11. Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by Lauren Wiener
  12. The Reason for God by Timothy Keller
  13. In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day by Mark Batterson
  14. Wild Goose Chase by Mark Batterson (I judge books by the point to page ratio, asking “how many legitimate points did this person make per page?” Batterson fails every time.  He makes one point for every two hundred pages, making 90 percent of his words superfluous.)
  15. Grace by Max Lucado
  16. Every Man’s Battle by Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker

From or About History, Recent and Long Ago

*Let’s just assume that almost every single one of these books was incredible!  I love history.

  1. Truth and Duty by Mary Mapes
  2. Nazarene Roots by Stan Ingersol
  3. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
  4. Natural History Essays by Henry David Thoreau (This was the oldest book until I read Luther’s “Bondage of the Will”)
  5. The Big Short by Michael Lewis (The movie and the book are must read/must watch to understand just how disgusting the 2008 market crash was.)
  6. America’s Original Sin by Jim Wallis
  7. The Great Crown Jewels Robbery of 1303 by Paul Doherty (Have you guys seen Braveheart? Well, true story, it turns out while Edward the Longshanks was defeating William Wallace at Falkirk a bunch of monks and thieves broke into his treasury and scattered the contents across London.)
  8. Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel
  9. A History of Davis County by Glen Leonard (Picked up this 400 page volume at my local library. It is a history of the county where I live and a fascinating one at that)

Memoirs of the Living

  1. Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton (A fascinating account of the trials of a suburban, church mom. I wonder how many like her sit in our pews every week?)
  2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisis Coates
  3. The Blood of Lambs by Kamal Saleem
  4. The Pastor by Eugene Peterson
  5. Usain Bolt’s Autobiography

Technology Culture

  1. Alone Together by Sheryl Turkle
  2. Screens and Teens by Kathy Koch
  3. Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle

What’s Pastor Kevin Watching: Tom Hanks on SNL

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The last few months I have heard over and over again the lament about how difficult it is in the current cultural climate to get along with people who disagree with you.  The minute you express an opinion you are labeled as an us or a them and the conversation is over.  That drives me nuts.  I just want to be friends and talk about movies and football and occasionally Jesus.

Even those things are controversial any more.  We seem to live in an age when the lines that divide us are being drawn in ever bolder ways and nobody seems to have a way to begin erasing some of them.  This makes me sad and crazy worried for our future.

Then came Tom Hanks to Saturday Night Live this weekend.  I never watch SNL or take it very seriously.  It isn’t just because of the crass nature of the show but lately the skits have just been sloppy with dumb punchlines and lousy writing.  But SNL is still a fairly solid institution that digs deep once in awhile to deliver something true and beautiful.  They did so during 2008’s presidential election.  They delivered again in 2012 when a children’s choir began their Christmas episode by singing “Silent Night” in honor of the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary.  Last night they did so again, albeit with a great assist for Tom Hanks.

The opening debate spoof was humorous enough but after the beginning credits Tom Hanks donned an overcoat and sat down to give Americans some great “Dad” advice for moving forward.  “Your complexion is getting darker but don’t let it bother you.”  “Do you really need so many guns?”  and the like.

But the epic brilliance came when Tom Hanks crashed a “Black Jeopardy” skit as a back woods cowboy sporting a patriotic T-shirt and a Trump hat.  The host, played brilliantly by Keenan Thompson asked three contestants a variety of questions that poked fun at inner city black culture.  Surprisingly, Hanks’ Trump supporter answered every question perfectly but he was speaking about his own rural culture.  Thompson’s host and the two other contestants were shocked as they began to bond with him.  At one point Thompson and Hanks exchanged an extremely awkward hand shake.  The moral was that despite the idiotic labels and stereotypes, inner city blacks have much in common with rural whites.

For thee years I lived and ministered in Kansas City’s inner city and then moved and spent 3 years in rural Oregon.  So I could relate to the skit in profound ways.  The cultures of rural Oregon and inner Kansas City were almost identical, even if the skin colors were different.  I felt completely at home in both places and it wasn’t until I moved to suburban Salt Lake City that I now feel completely out of place.

More than that, I loved the awkwardness of the Keenan Thompson’s host.  He acted the character with a complete unease and visible cautiousness as he tried to tip toe around the white guy.  There was this uncertainty about just how this Trump supporter was going to mix with the others.  When the white guy answered the questions perfectly, Keenan was noticeably shocked and thrilled each time.

Something in Thompson’s performance resonated with me on a deep level.  As a pastor, I cannot find a better image for my vocation in this awkward, divisive world.  Every Sunday morning I am the awkward and cautious host.  I get up to face a group of people from drastically different backgrounds.  I have liberals and conservatives and hispanics and whites and wealthy and homeless in my congregation and when they all get together I am visibly terrified about how this is all going to go.  Like Thompson’s host, I tiptoe around things while trying to urge them into deeper conversation.

Most of the time it goes extremely well.  Like Thompson’s host I find myself smiling and nodding and saying, “yeah, yeah, that’s right man!  Yeah, good job!  I’m proud of you!” and then attempting the awkward handshake.

What I loved the most about Thompson’s performance was though he was terrified he kept the game going.  There was a quiet courageousness in his character that I loved.  He kept stepping up to the plate and ended the skit with an excellent punch line, “After commercial break we are going to play the national anthem and just see what happens!”

That is me every Sunday morning.  After our opening song I stand up and face that room of highly diverse people and say, “Good morning.  Let’s sing some songs and pray a bit and talk about the Bible and see what happens!”  And then I pray hell doesn’t open up and swallow us whole.

It hasn’t happened yet as we continue to dig deeper into God and into each other and realize that we have much in common and our dumb labels are just that, DUMB.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading/Watching: The Big Short

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If you look at the tumultuous decade at the beginning of this century, a number of very notable events stand out.  September 11th, 2001 certainly rises above the rest as the defining moment of the decade.  With it stand the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Bush’s election in 2000 and Obama’s in 2008 are certainly notable.  Then sometime in the Fall of 2007 or Winter of 2008 Wall Street investors stopped buying Subprime Mortgage Backed CDO’s.  The trillion dollar market entirely disappeared.  .  .and for months nobody admitted it.  The bankers behind the CDO’s covered it all up, still valuing their CDOs as if people were buying them but in September of 2008 5 trillion dollars disappeared out of the US GDP in a single week and suddenly everybody knew.

Since then several politicians, bankers, investors, reporters, authors and even Hollywood studios have tried to explain to the average U.S. citizen what went wrong.  What happened was so incredibly complex that your average voter with an undergrad degree in Art History will never take the time to understand it and your average banker still is not able to understand it.

Michael Lewis offers one of the most successful explanations in the “Big Short.”  He tells the story of the 2008 collapse through the real stories of four investment firms who made billions in 2007 and 2008 because they knew what was happening and shorted the whole market.

The producer of “Anchorman” (yes, the Anchorman starring Will Ferrell) picked up the book and turned it into a movie which came out last year.  My wife rented the movie and we watched it last week and after viewing the film I just had to read the book.  It was one of those rare cases where I was delighted to watch the movie first because there is no way I would have followed the book without picturing Steve Carrell and Brad Pitt as their various characters.

Both the book and movie are a must read and a must watch, albeit for adult audiences.  There is a high amount of language and a bit of nudity.  To be honest, I was okay with the language because after studying the factors behind the 2008 recession I want to spew profanity too!

Click to buy!

In that vein, both the book and the movie start out as comedies.  The four heads of the investment firms can be pulled from the stereotypes of your average CBS lineup.  Michael Burry, who was the first to discover the absurdity behind the subprime mortgage market has Asberger’s and doesn’t understand sarcasm, which means everyone thinks he is a sarcastic jerk.  He wears shorts and baggie T-shirts and listens to heavy metal music while trading and absolutely hates people.

Steve Eisman is a very blunt, very rude, prone to anger banker whom you either love or hate.  At one point right before the crash he was attending a conference workshop where he jumped up in the middle of the presentation and accused the presenter of being stupid.  In the middle of his tirade his cell phone started ringing, to which he yelled, “I have to go take this call.  It’s my wife!” and stormed out of the room.

Greg Lippman is a conman’s conman.  He is totally honest by being ridiculously smarmy.  He plants ideas in your head by using the form, “I’m not saying you’ll make so much money you’ll be sleeping with Penelope Cruz but.  .  .”  Steve Eisman’s employees hated Greg but Eisman loved him because, “his self interest is so obvious.  I respect that about him.”

There was also two college grads who started trading out of their neighbor’s shed and took 110,000 to millions with the help of an apocalyptic, doomsday forecasting banker who not only foresaw the 2008 economic collapse but the as yet not happened collapse of San Francisco bay into the Pacific Ocean.  “I have to hang up now.  I just realized I need to sell my house.”  And he did and they didn’t hear back from him for 3 months, after he had moved further inland.

Along the way they met strippers with 5 subprime mortgages, a nanny who owned a 750,000 home, and the chief investor of Goldman Sachs who was participating in a debate with Steve Eisman arguing that his Goldman’s stock was sound while the stock plummeted to $2 a share.  One brave college kid asked him, “Would you still invest in Goldman’s stock now that it has halved in the time you were speaking.”  The investor had zero idea it was happening because he had turned his phone off.  When he said, “of course” the audience booed him and stormed out of the room.  The only person left was Alan Greenspan who was scheduled to be the next speaker.

That was the only problem with the “Big Short.”  I felt like I was reading a fantastically well done novel only to research various tidbits and find out all this stuff did actually happen.  Our world is so much more absurd than you can ever imagine.

Even the short traders, Eisman’s clan in particular, always assumed there was someone sitting atop the pile of corruption who knew what they were doing.  They really believed there was a moral voice at the top governing the whole thing and when that person emerged , they would lose all their money but the U.S. economy would win.  So far that person has not materialized and the U.S. economy is still losing.

Michael Lewis, the author, records that they all knew Wall Street was corrupt.  It was when they realized Wall Street was also stupid that they decided to short the whole market.

As the book and movie end, comedy turns to tragedy and the absurd becomes aggravating instead of entertaining.  After all, nothing has changed since 2008.  The government bailed out Wall Street with zero stipulations or demands for change.  The banks who were given the billions of taxpayer and Chinese dollars used no small amount of that money to hire lobbyists and invest in political campaigns that would maintain the status quo.  Yes, your read that right.  They are using our taxpayer dollars and nations ballooning debt to pay politicians to continue to empower their corrupt stupidity.

And Bernie Sanders, one of only two national politicians who seems to care about this (the other being Elizabeth Warren) just lost the primary to an opponent who gives speeches to Goldman Sachs for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I don’t know what to do about all of this as I sit here alone in my kitchen taking a break from writing a sermon on Joel.  I do know the prophet Joel’s repeated calls for us as a society to “lament” and to “mourn” are certainly resonating.  I am not so much angry as I am sad because in the words of the movie version of Steve Eisman:

“We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball… What bothers me ins’t that fraud is not nice. Or that fraud is mean. For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught, things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.”

 

What’s Pastor Kevin Listening To: How Firm a Foundation

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I just got home from our district’s annual Mens’ Retreat.  It was a great time, if not way too short.  The music part of the services was led by a good friend of mine, an old cowboy from a country church.  He wore camouflage, made up the songs as he went and added a twang to every strung.

In between songs he reminded us of deep theological truths like, “Now you all are going to know the words to this next one but we’re singing it a bit different so don’t go getting all legalistic on me.  If you do you’re never going to get along with God your whole life anyway.”

And, “Now I have a guy running the media shout down here who doesn’t know what he’s doing because there is a lot of leakage that happens in my email communication with him.  So show this brother a little bit of grace now.  After all it is my fault, not his.”

Yesterday morning during our last time together before hitting the road back home, he introduced an old hymn to the group.  He explained that in the old brown Nazarene hymnals this song was the very first one.  The denomination updated the hymnals in the early 90s by rearranging the hymns.  Then in the early 2000s all the songs went up on the screen and now the hymnals collect dust in the pew racks.  As someone who came of age in the early 2000s, I didn’t even know the old brown ones existed.

So we sang hymn number 1 from the old brown book.  My friend leading the music mentioned that he loved it because it was the only hymn he knew where God was speaking to us, not the other way around.  I am not entirely sure he is accurate on that account but the spirit of the comment rings true.

And here is the thing: I had a brutal week last week.  To be honest I am not even entirely sure what really happened or even if I will ever fully know.  There are some metaphors that help describe it.  A dam  holding back years worth of frustrations broke.  A piece of straw broke my poor back.  An evil spirit of discouragement overtook my soul.  Or maybe I just had a nervous breakdown, otherwise known as a panic attack.

And while singing Hymn Number 1 from the old brown hymnal I felt myself begin to tear up.  The old and probably dead editors of that book wanted to begin by reminding us of these wonderful words of God.  I thought I would post them for your Monday mornings as you brave another week on this treacherous earth.  You can follow the link to hear the original melody line.

How firm a foundation you saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!
What more can he say than to you he has said,
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

“Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed,
for I am your God, and will still give you aid;
I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

“When through the deep waters I call you to go,
the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow,
for I will be with you in trouble to bless,
and sanctify to you your deepest distress.

“When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie,
my grace all-sufficient shall be your supply;
the flame shall not hurt you; I only design
your dross to consume and your gold to refine.

“The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no never forsake!”

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Will Willimon’s “How Odd of God”

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Every Sunday morning around 11:30am I do this really odd thing.  I get up in front a group of 40 of my closest friends.  I open up a loose translation of a book whose latest content is 1200 years old and whose oldest content is 5000 years old.  I read a passage and talk about it for about 25 minutes.  My goal is to show the group how that passage informs our understanding of who God is and what God requires of us.

This speech takes a hard week to put together.  By “hard” I mean exhausting.  By “week” I mean hours of historical and theological study, drafting and redrafting, collecting pictures for visual aids, arguing with myself over minute points, and practicing out loud to an empty sanctuary.  Worse than the hours of work, are the emotional highs and lows.  Even worse than those is the very uncomfortable feeling of arrogance I get when I stand up to speak.  The worst of all is the new exhaustion I feel when it all ends right around noon, an exhaustion compounded by the fact I have to do it all over again in the next 7 very short days.

I have been doing this almost every Sunday for about 5 years now and it has not felt any less weird the more I do it.  If anything it feels more odd now than it did 5 years ago.  This may be because lately I have met some non church types, those wonderful saints of the world who have never darkened the doorway of a house of God.  I try to explain to them the process of preparing and delivering a sermon and that there is a group of people willing to pay me money to do this.  Their bewildered expressions confirm one thing, “My vocation is the most curious of all.”

It isn’t the 25 minute monologue that makes it weird.  There are dozens of other professions who do something similar, actors, comedians, newscasters, politicians etcetera.  No, the weirdness of preaching is threefold.

First, there is the curious loyalty to a centuries old book, a loyalty grounded in the belief that this book holds the keys to an eternal and abundant life.

Second, there is the bold, almost audacious claim that the God who rules over all eternity and created all things chose me to give this 25 minute speech to these 40 people every week.

Third, there is the belief, legitimately grounded in the data of my life, that I am the worst person ever chosen for this task.

This awkward 25 minute event repeated once weekly provides the context for Will Willimon’s new book, “How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching.”  He begins the work by noting his delight at reading the papers of undergrads in their first ministry class.  He tasked the naive undergrads to write about why they believe the God of all Creation would choose them to preach.  He now laments he should have asked them to write what kind of God would choose them to preach.  I agree the latter is the more interesting paper.  Luckily, “How Odd of God” is just such a paper.

Click to buy!

Arguing from Barth’s works, Willimon describes this God as the God of “yes” who out of love chooses us feeble, sinful humans to join him in the work.  Willimon relies heavily on Barth’s doctrine of election to claim that God elects us not just for salvation but for mission (the hallmark tenet of the missional movement).  According to Willimon, nothing can proclaim the doctrine of election louder than an inadequate preacher standing up behind a lectern every Sunday and claiming, “God chose me despite all my failings to give you this message today.”

If there is anything to critique in Willimon’s excellent text, it is that Willimon rambles more than usual.  In fact, the book is not too different from the late works of other saints who, having aged to a special level of holiness, can now afford to write more poetry than prose.  This isn’t the text of a young man:  articulate, perfectly structured, and easy to skim.  This is half journal, half textbook which means there isn’t always an obvious correlation between one paragraph and the next.  Do not get me wrong, I absolutely do not fault Willimon for this.  I personally love that as the saints age, the mystery of God awakens a poetry in them not seen in the younger selves.  I have read very similar books by aging theologians and though I don’t follow their arguments, their conclusions are still so poignant they bring tears to my eyes.

But to be fair, making me cry this week was not hard.  I stepped out of the pulpit last Sunday to a nightmare of conflict that consumed my week and threatened to make my entire vocation not only curious but frivolous.  I spent the week stuck in the vortex that is my chaotic thoughts, trying to iron out whether or not I could/should even step into another pulpit again and wondering if God knew what God was doing in calling me to proclaim the truths of our faith in clever little 25 minute speeches every Sunday.  Of course I am not worthy of the calling, at least by the current American understanding of “worthiness” (which isn’t biblical by the way).  However, Willimon’s thesis means that just by standing in a pulpit and claiming “God chose me” reveals a wildly loving God.  After all, if he chose a wretch like me, he probably chose you as well.

How odd of God indeed!

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A Very Stupid Book

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I had a college professor that always assigned one lousy book a semester to read.  He claimed we needed to read stupid books so we don’t become stupid people.  The reasoning was that stupid books teach critical thinking in a way good books never will.

Under his thinking, I grew a lot yesterday afternoon.

You see, every year I get a free book in the mail from a forgettable organization that specializes, I assume, in giving pastors free books.  This is now the 4th book I have received from them and the other three were worth reading.  They weren’t ground breaking but they were practical, helpful stuff.

This new book was a step lower.  It might have been the worst book I have read in some time.

It was called “Growing God’s Church” by Gary L. McIntosh.  Apparently Gary McIntosh led a research team that interviewed a bit over 1,000 new Christians and new church members.  Their questions focused on how and why these people had come to Christ.  The book was published to help pastors reach people better.  On that premise, this should have been a book worth flipping through for an hour on a sunny afternoon.

However, very strangely, the book didn’t begin with the results.  Instead McIntosh spent five chapters trying to argue that evangelism should be the only goal of the church.  He retold the four gospel stories and Acts as if they were 1950s gospel tracts.  McIntosh wanted his readers know not to be fooled by what Jesus actually said and did but to know that Jesus really just wanted to get us into heaven and recruit us to preach the 4 point Romans gospel.  He even argued that the only reason Jesus showed compassion was because it was an incredibly effective evangelism means, not for the sake itself of compassion.  Don’t be fooled.  God isn’t love.  God is evangelism.  God only loves to dupe us into praying the sinner’s prayer.

His exegesis of the gospels was more the eisegesis type.  Eisegesis is the frowned upon practice of taking your preconceived ideas to Scripture to find proof texts.  McIntosh seemingly all ready knew that getting people into heaven was the most important thing and he did not want to be bothered by what the gospels actually say, just to know that Jesus agrees.

His most blaring example came from Luke.  In Luke Jesus begins his public ministry in Nazareth by proclaiming that he will “make blind see, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hear and to proclaim good news to the poor.”  (Luke 4:22)  Then Jesus goes out and does almost exactly that to real life blind, deaf, sick and poor people.  Later Jesus even sends a message to John the Baptist, pointing to the actual miracles he had accomplished as proof that he was the Messiah.  Gary McIntosh brings this up and uses it to argue that Jesus only came to help the spiritually blind, lame, sick, poor and that Jesus didn’t actually care about actual blindness, this despite the fact that Jesus actually made blind men see.  But McIntosh decided it was just metaphorical so it is.  This is just one example of many I could cite.

The research was questionable too but, to be fair, all research is.  For one, his sample size was too small and limited to a few denominations.  He made some wild generational claims that I don’t think will hold true throughout lifespans.  He points out gender and generational differences that were statistical ties but uses the fact that one was .5 higher to argue that everybody in that demographic are that way.

His main assertion in the second half of the book is that family members make the best evangelists.  He argues we should nurture and use that.  Ironically I do wholeheartedly agree and think his research does validate that.  More than that he has some okay ideas about how to go about it.

Also, even though I loathed McIntosh’s eisegetical interpretation of the gospels, he still referenced a few verses that I had not thought of in quite some time.  I have been studying the use of the word “glory” in John’s gospel and McIntosh quoted one of the “glory” verses I had not yet noticed and that verse at first glance does seem to support his thesis and not my own.

But those random useful snippets are not what made the book worth my time.  It is incredibly easy to get stuck in the rut of only reading things that fit my preconceived notions.  Most of my books come to me from the suggestions of colleagues in my own tradition.  Those books are good but I sometimes wonder if it is a waste of time to read things that tell you everything you all ready knew.

In turn, it might not be a waste of a Monday afternoon to read a book from someone in a completely different theological tradition.  He quoted verses I hadn’t noticed and suggested things I would not have thought of.  Even though I disagreed with him, at least I now know why and how his tradition sees things.

In the end I might take a chapter or two to my outreach team to help them think critically about evangelism in our local community.

In my professor’s thinking we might have McIntosh’s stupidity to thank for the elimination of our own.  Or maybe I am wrong about everything and he is right.  We only find out when Jesus comes.

Until then, have a great Valentine’s Day!