What’s Pastor Kevin Watching: Christmas Episodes!

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I have been working on a few posts about all kinds of things and none of them have come together all that well.  So instead I bring you something appropriately seasonal!

Over the last week my wife and I have been revisiting some of our favorite Christmas specials on Netflix.  While there are some great Christmas classics for the big screen (White Christmas anybody?) the small screen has produced a wonderful amount of quality holiday spirit!

Below are some of my favorite Christmas episodes.  This list is by no means exhaustive but these are some I have enjoyed this year that I thought you might as well.  (The links are to the IMDB pages)

Scrubs Season 1 Episode 11 “My Own Personal Jesus”

Carla doesn’t believe in Jesus but her new boyfriend Turk does.  J.D. gets stuck working a nightmare shift.  It is all redeemed when a sick woman finds out that she is giving birth to a baby and Turk has to follow a God given star to find her in the park!

 

Frasier Season 5 Episode 9 “Perspective on Christmas”

This isn’t just the best Frasier Christmas episode, it might be in the running for best Frasier episode.  Martin gets stuck singing “O Holy Night” in the Christmas pageant but he can’t hit the high note.  Frasier accidentally tells Roz’s mom that Roz is pregnant.  Niles gets stuck on top of an elevator.  Daphne thinks Martin is dying.  Frasier’s Christmas present is to tell everyone just how much he loves them and why.  When they protest, and in a great punchline to the episode, Frasier calls up a masseuse!

The West Wing Season 1 Episode 10 “In Excelsis Deo”

The President buys books at a used book store.  C.J. finds out her secret service code name is “Flamingo” presumably because she looks like one and Donna wants skiing equipment, only to get an old used book about skiing.  But this episode shines because Toby uses his White House clout to arrange a funeral for a homeless veteran.  A frustrated President chides him by saying, “Do you not think every veteran in the country will now be asking us for a funeral?” Toby disarms him with one line, “I certainly hope so, sir.”  Oh and Mrs. Landingham has her best scene of the show by telling us about her twin sons who died in Vietnam.

Doctor Who Season 6 Christmas Special “A Christmas Carol”

I am not a huge fan of any of the Doctor Who Christmas episodes except for this one.  A grumpy planet owner refuses to let a spaceship land, endangering everyone’s lives.  The Doctor revisits all of the owner’s past Christmases to find out why he is so grumpy.  Due to the timey-wimey stuff, it turns out the Doctor is to blame but in the end the Doctor convinces him to save the day.  This could have been just one more of the countless riffs of “A Christmas Carol” but it manages to be very fresh and heartfelt.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Who can keep themselves from mentioning the classic of classics?  What more needs to be said except Charlie Brown saves Christmas by ruining it.  Although 50 years later it is saddening that this show did nothing to actually change consumerism from devouring Christmas.  In that vein, a certain South Park special is also worth noting.  .  .but not watching.

So there you have it.  I accept your gratitude for filling up your Netflix queue for the next couple days!  You can suggest other favorites in the comments below.

And Merry Christmas!

 

 

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: The Man From Oudewater

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I am Wesleyan/Arminian.

It might surprise you to know that four word sentence is rife with interpretive possibilities.  The truly uninformed think the last word indicates I am from a country somewhere in Africa called Armenia, even though Armenia is actually in Eastern Europe.

The slightly more informed know the sentence implies some sort of belief in human free will at the expense of an all controlling God.

The little bit more informed think that the emphasis should lie on Wesleyan and not Arminius because, as we all know, John Wesley died without any of Jacob Arminius’ books in his library.

The even more informed would argue back that Wesley had plenty of books written by Arminians.  Therefore the 18th century Wesley owes much to the 16th century Arminius.

My friend Rustin E. Brian is even more

Click to buy from Amazon (and please, please do!)

informed than that.  Luckily, he wrote a short book to bring the rest of us nitwits up to speed.  Sadly, before reading about the man from Oudewater I was one of those who thought the connection with Arminius was tenuous at best.  I thought that if our tradition had a “Great Grandfather” it would probably be Thomas Cranmer, or even Martin Luther.  I mentioned this to a Wesleyan scholar at a conference awhile back who disagreed and that quite vehemently.  I think an hour later he asked one of my former seminary professors what he had been teaching us!

In remembrance of that embarrassing incident, I eagerly snatched up Brians’ book about Jacob Arminius and read it in a couple sittings.  After all, if the scholars of our tradition are saying Arminius is important, I better know my stuff!  Brian’s book was the perfect primer, an albeit really short one.

It turns out Jacob Arminius actually lived a much less impressive life than I had supposed.  Despite underplaying his role in my tradition, I had somehow assumed he died with an international following, several published works to his name and as a martyr for his cause.  It turns out he spent most of his ministry as a pastor and only the last few years as a professor.  He died of sickness at a fairly young age.  He was not burned at the stake or beheaded for his beliefs like I had previously assumed.

But due to one of history’s great ironies, his name has had a far more fascinating history than his life.  It has become synonymous in Protestant circles with “free will” though we should alter that to “freed will.” Arminius’ theology has also become a critical component to theodicy conversations as his framework retains God’s power while not sacrificing God’s love.  Arminius’ name has also been valuable in carving out a middle road through all the Christian traditions, making those of us who bear his name a catch all for anybody seeking a different road.

Yet what I appreciate most about Arminius’ biography, or at least Brian’s reading thereof, is that Arminius’ theology was what it was because Jacob was a pastor first.  John Wesley was too, for the record.  And I am too, as is Brian.

In fact, in late college and all throughout seminary I struggled and prayed with whether or not to apply for PhD programs and seek a faculty position at a university.  At that point I was proving myself to be an adequate teacher and writer.  I was an okay student, a B+/A- one, which one novel cleverly characterized as the black sheep of academia.  On top of that my professors were wonderful people who had a life changing impact on me, a pastoral impact no less.  It was those same professors who advised that academia was a brutal place with low wages and long hours with high expectations.  It was not a job for the weak or uncalled.

In the end I chose the pulpit but not because I don’t value the input of ivory towers.  Most days my entire ministry rests upon the conclusions of those who spend their days doing nothing but studying Scripture.  Their contributions are invaluable and they need all the time in the world to think through them.  However, their contributions are worthless without pastors whose feet are on the ground and whose hearts are among the people.  The great contributors of our tradition have been pastors who spent the morning studying and the afternoons and evenings ministering.

Therefore, I am grateful to call Jacob Arminius my great grandpa and to be one of many who continue the work he began in local parishes.  I am grateful too for my esteemed colleague, Rusty Brian who continues that work in his local parish and write books like these as an extension of his ministry.

Now off to work I go!

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading/Watching: The Hunger Games’ Mockingjay

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When it comes to teeny-bopper novels with young female heroins I am pretty out of touch.  A couple years ago, I was completely surprised when I asked my Facebook friends what books I should read and this swarm of young women suggested I read Divergent.  I thought Divergent would be a non fiction sociology text about the need to engage culture critically so as to diverge to new paths.  Instead it was a novel about some teenage girl who gets to pick her own faction and then suddenly becomes the chosen one.  .  .because, you know, all teenage girls are the chosen one these days.

But this post isn’t about Divergent.  It is about the last teeny-bopper fad I did catch up with, “The Hunger Games.”  When Suzanne Collin’s trio of novels went big a few years ago, my wife and I somehow came in possession of them and I read all three in a week.  The first was surprisingly brilliant, a wonderful narrative critique of professional sports and their impact (or less than so) on low income neighborhoods.  Strangely, almost nobody is talking about that aspect of the novel, just how all girls get stuck in their choice between the Peeta’s and the Gail’s in their lives.  Don’t get me wrong, I can totally relate.

The other two novels were less than the first, leading me to believe Collins should have stopped after the one hit wonder.  And yet, as I have continued to think about “The Hunger Games” and now have watched all four movies, it is the last two novels that have been the object of my focus.

I should add right now that huge spoilers for the entire trilogy follow this point.

In “Catching Fire” Katniss Everdeen emerges from the hunger games with a raw power that is best described as influence.  She has a national following and is a political force to be reckoned with.  So “Catching Fire” is about President Snow’s attempts to control and co opt Katniss’ influence using his brute force.  When he is unable to do so, he resorts to sending her back to the Hunger Games with the hope that this time she will either die or emerge a victor but with severely decreased influence.

It doesn’t work.  Katniss escapes the game before all the victors are dead and, in the “Mockingjay”, awakens in a 13th district that is led by a cunning President Coin.  The third novel is about Coin’s attempts to control and co-opt Katniss’ influence, but not with brute force.  Instead she uses a very cunning manipulation, that is almost worse than Snow’ss force.  This leads to a stunning climax where Katniss has standing in front of her both Snow and Coin with the entire nation looking on.  Forget Peeta versus Gail.  This is Everdeen’s true choice and she uses it to kill Coin instead of Snow.  I must admit that during my first reading of “Mockingjay” it did not occur to me that Coin was a villain until Katniss killed her.  But then it made sense.  Cunning manipulation is just as bad as brute force.

Therefore, the reason these two novels have consumed my thoughts since I read them is because I feel like Katniss’ story is the church’s story.  Since the first Pentecost, the church has had access to a raw and supernatural power that is best described as “influence.”  We are not powerful in and of ourselves but the Holy Spirit has given us access to the Trinity’s power, which is what C.S. Lewis calls “the deep magic.”  It is a power deeper and more pure than brute force or cunning manipulation.  It is the power of love and it is that love that powers us.

Since the outpouring of that power, the lesser powers, the national and corporate interests, have desperately tried to control and co-opt it.  Some, like President Snow, have used threats and force.  Others have been more like Coin, using cunning and manipulation.  This still goes on today.  Politicians are right now fighting to co-opt our votes and use our influence to get them elected.  Corporations still use Christian symbols and imagery to get us to buy their product.  Sports’ teams still tout the religious credentials of their star players to convince Christians to root for them and in turn, buy their merchandise.  When the principalities and powers see our “deep magic” they recognize it and desperately want it for their own.

Sadly, we are not as unique or as brave as Katniss.  We sell our religion to the highest bidder and remain loyal until another bidder comes along.  There is quote that traces back to Augustine that claims, “the church is a whore!” and I agree.  We sell our bodies to anybody who offers to buy from politicians to athletes to CEO’s.

At the end of Mockingjay it becomes clear that there is no win for Katniss.  In the movie she explains to her newborn daughter that fighting nightmares is her new game.  Thus, I walked out of the theater last night feeling very somber and downcast because rejecting the principalities and powers is a tough and costly chore.  But Katniss did find a subtle win.  She notes to her daughter that fighting the nightmares is a better game than the other ones she played.  Her win was not executing Coin or even Snow.  It came when she retreated to a quiet, humble and good existence, becoming a wife and a mother.

Her choosing of Peeta in the end is indicative of that choice and the church would do well to follow her, to deny the cunning manipulators and the coercive tyrants and instead follow the commands of our one true King, who tells us through the Apostle Paul, “to make it our ambition to live a quiet life” (1 Thess. 4:11)  and who adds to it through Peter, “live such a good life among the pagans that they might see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.” (1 Peter 2:12)

It is the quiet but good life lived among the ungodly that beats the principalities and powers.  It is the quiet but good life that refuses to be co-opted by nations and politicians and armies and businesses.  It is that life that wins the raw victory with God’s raw power.

Last Sunday we celebrated this with Christ the King Sunday where we proclaimed anew that Jesus is Lord and King of all. He stands above the athletes and corporations and politicians and nations.  He is the Ancient of Days and one day, hopefully not long from now, He will take his throne and open the scroll!  May that assurance carry you into a blessed holy-day season!

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Viscious by V.E. Schwab

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When I was a kid my mom worked for a public library for a brief time.  It was a gorgeous four story, brick building with white letters that adorned the top floor proclaiming, “LIBRARY!”, exclamation point and all.

If you were about five years
old and you walked inside it and turned left, you experienced a wonderland of children’s fiction.  There were large plastic picture books, young adult “chapter” books, Archie comics and even some old movies on VHS tapes.  They even had computers (which were quite rare for 1990) where you could play reading games or look up books.  To top it all off the very back of the place had a large amphitheater style reading room where they hosted special readings of popular books.

I am just young enough to remember spending hours in this section and thinking, “Why could there possible be three more floors to this place?  What other books could possibly be important enough to include that wouldn’t be here?

In school I learned the other books had a name:  “Non fiction” which I quickly understood was a synonym for “boring.”  They didn’t have pictures or funny stories.  The covers were bland and the titles used big words that nobody understood.  Rumor had it that the inside were nothing but large lists of mindless data about inane topics.

Long story short, I now read about one book a week and those books are almost always from the “non fiction” floors of the public library.  This is not because I have become boring.  It is quite the opposite.  I learned the truth all adults do.  Non fiction, or what I call “real life”, is way more entertaining than the stuff of fantasy novels.

Just the other day I read a “non fiction” TIME article about how Mormons insist you only marry Mormons but their young adults are 60% female which leaves a large percentage of them single and childless, which is unfortunate given their faith’s predominance of family values.  Let me summarize the article a different way, “A religion that preaches you have to get married and have children doesn’t have enough men around for the women to marry.”  You can’t make this up.

I also recently completed a more tragic but true tale about a struggling church who decided to talk more about Jesus and saw their attendance decline dramatically.  A woman who left their church told them, “I am glad you are talking more about Jesus but I will come back when you start talking about marriage and parenting again.”

It is not that I am deriding fiction.  I have several friends, including my wife, who still read it in excess.  Furthermore, I am mindful of all those studies out there (mentioned in non fiction books) that claim people who read fiction all the time are just as intelligent as those who read non fiction all the time.

Yet, even so, the extent to which fiction succeeds lies in how it best mirrors non fiction.  Take for example Delores Umbridge in the Harry Potter tales.  Voldemort was fine and all but I have never met a Voldemort and kind of don’t think people like him exist.  Delores Umbridge is another story.  She went to my church growing up and I hated everything about her.  She was there to keep me from having fun.  Of course, she wasn’t evil.  It turns out she had an extremely low self esteem from a childhood of abuse and neglect and she was now compensating for it by barking out orders and trying to exert control over the only people that would respect her, the children.  The reality that J.K. Rowling wrote her so well means that Delores Umbridge probably went to J.K. Rowling’s church too.

Click to buy.

All that aside, this last week I read the first pop fiction book I have read in quite some time.  A friend recommended it, using multiple exclamation marks and I wanted an easy read and an engaging story, one that I might be able to use in a sermon some day.  The book was V.E. Schwab’s “Vicious” a short and choppy tale about scientists trying to become super heroes.

It is the stuff of summer movies and prime time dramas and as is now common in the stuff of both Marvel and D.C. there can be no black and white super heroes, only several shades of gray.  So it is with “Vicious.”  The good guy quickly becomes the bad guy and the bad guy struggles to find anything virtuous in himself.  In fact, neither is good nor bad, merely yin and yang, two contrasting forces circling around each other and occasionally butting heads and trading bullet and knife wounds.

Still, “Vicious” works because I have met the characters.  They , too, went to my church.  There is the self righteous, religious zealot who thinks he is entirely in the right while he persecutes the less honorable or deserving.  Then there is the tragic villain whose misdemeanors are quite understandable, coming as they do from an unstable personality caused by decades of pain.

Along the way they are joined by two sisters who have also picked up some super powers.  The younger lives in the older’s shadow, wanting to be like her until she realizes how sinister her older sister is.  The older struggles with serious identity questions that are somewhat typical of all college aged adults.

I knew about halfway through the book that we weren’t headed towards a happy ending and, without giving too much away, I was right.  As is typical with the stuff of super heroes, they circle around each other in ever decreasing velocity until they all crash in the climax and none of them walk away unscathed.

That is the stuff of non fiction as well.  Our abilities and personalities circle around each other until we finally crash.  It happens in marriage, in family, in friendships and workplaces and, yes, even in churches.  What remains is the ending of “Vicious” which leaves the readers with a ghost of guilt whose premonitions insist we try to make it right, dealing with our wounds and hurts while we try to keep from hurting each other again.

And that ghost too, went to my local church as I was growing up.  He probably inhabits yours today, as he does your house and your business.

For that reason alone, “Vicious” belongs in both the fiction and non fiction parts of our libraries.

See you all later.  I have Brennan Manning’s autobiography to read.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Renovation of the Church by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken

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In order for you to understand what follows I will, very regrettably, have to do a bit of recent USA church history with you.

We are now emerging out of a rather short era in US church history that I have dubbed the “relevancy era.”  The now way over used cliche that drove the “relevancy era” went something like this, “The church of the past was too insular and exclusive.  So we should be super inclusive and relevant to the modern times.”

They sought to accomplish that goal by changing everything about the church, from worship styles (from hymns to rock), to pastoral expectations (from a thinking listener to a noisy vision caster), to when and why we gather (from bible studies to bowling nights).  Hence the end product of the “relevancy era” was celebrity pastors (see Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Mark Driscoll), diverse and ever changing worship styles and much fewer but much larger congregations.

While many of the changes were good and even necessary, there is now a sense that we threw the baby out with the bathwater.  Some of the “relevancy era’s” breakout stars seem to have woken up and realized that even though they call themselves “church” they have very little to do with the Biblical Jesus or the historical Christian tradition.  In fact, some have admitted that if they succeeded in producing any new Christians at all, those Christians were very shallow, biblically illiterate and quite ignorant of the ancient traditions of our faith. As an example of that last one, it greatly humors me that the “traditional” songs in our hymn book are all less than 150 years old.  It seems to me that if we wanted to sing “traditional” Christian songs we should figure out what Augustine and John Chrysostom were singing!

With that aside, we are now seeing a movement away from mega churches with hip rock bands and celebrity pastors.  This is a movement towards small group discipleship, smaller congregations and liturgical forms of worship (that sometimes do sing what Chrysostom was singing!)

And I could not be happier about all those things.

But in case you are not happy about it or still confused by all that above, Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken have written a wonderful narrative about their own transition from a pastor as an entertainer CEO model to a spiritual director model.

Click to buy!

They tell their story beautifully and succinctly in “Renovation of the Church.”  They were seeker sensitive pastors of a large suburban church that boasted over 1700 attendees per Sunday.  Gradually they began reading about spiritual formation and eventually found themselves at a vision casting retreat admitting that though they had 1700 people coming, they did not have many people who showed up on Sundays who cared about Jesus.

They came home from the retreat and over a course of a few years changed everything about their ministry model.  They switched up the worship style, the discipleship structures, the times and places the church met and their expectations of leaders.  .  .and lost 1000 attendees.

As if to offer proof that their 1700 laity were not good disciples, one group of laypeople, angry about the changes, wrote a long, mean and painful letter detailing everything they hated about the new church.  They wanted it “their” way and when they weren’t getting their way any more it made them bitterly angry.  The sad part of the letter was that they had been attending the church for over 5 years and still it had not occurred to them that writing hate mail is against the expectations of Jesus.  The church had catered to their needs so well, they thought they had a religious “right” to have their wants met.  This was the type of attitudes that Carlson and Lueken found they could no longer tolerate as Christian pastors and why they gladly took 700 disciples seeking Christ over 1700 consumers seeking entertainment.

Amidst stories like this, both writers take time to write beautiful chapters that highlight why they had to make the changes they made.  Kent Carlson offers particularly poignant chapters about the harmful effects of pastoral ambition and how we should worship.  Lueken provides great primers on the gospel and spiritual formation as it pertains to a church’s structure.

Together they both tell a great story that gives substance and emotional heft to the current trends in US Christian culture.  And just like the current Christian culture the story is both heartbreaking and full of God’s amazing grace, a grace that will always meet us where we are and insist we return to or stay on God’s straight and narrow path.

Therefore, “Renovation of the Church” is a must read.

A Pastor’s Ode to Running

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In what follows I try to tell my story of being a runner as briefly as possible.  I would welcome you to read it, but as I wrote it I found I was writing more for myself than for you, that  more than anything I just wanted these words down somewhere visible and somewhat permanent.  So I hope you enjoy but will not be offended if you don’t.

Shortly before my 16th birthday I got it in my head I wanted to go out for the Cross Country team at my small high school.  The first practice involved a 3 mile run around a park and I remember being overjoyed that I completed the 3 miles without stopping, so overjoyed I called my dad to brag about it, which is really ironic today.

It didn’t even occur to my parents or me to buy a decent pair of running shoes, so I took my $10 pair from Wal-Mart.  They barely met the minimum P.E. requirements for “exercise” shoes but they were what I had.  After a week of running in them I had a giant blister that stretched from the ball of my foot to the back.  Upon seeing the bright red patch of raw skin, my dad realized his grave error and took me to buy my first pair of legitimate running shoes.

My form was harder to fix.  It was tight and awkward.  At the time I equated “working hard” with moving as much of my body as possible.  During one race I was “working” so hard that my head bent over to my waist at every stride.  But I was passing people!  My coach told my dad, “I have no idea how he is running so fast with that form!”

My dad replied, “That just tells me that when we fix the form he is going to get even faster.”  How right he was.

I did okay in high school, worked hard at it, as hard as high school kids can work.  I had no natural talent, at least none that was visible beneath that awkward form.  I did have a strong desire to run faster and train harder.

Unfortunately I was told by a few teachers and several classmates that I would never run in college.  I was too slow and too annoying and just did not have what it takes.  I believed them because that was the state of my self esteem.  The local university coach at the time didn’t bother recruiting me.  He even told my dad he didn’t think I would make it.  Little did I know he was in a bit of a conflict with the administration for such attitude.

Without my knowing the administration changed the coach and hired a guy from the next university over, a wonderful and compassionate former thrower who brought one of the distance stars from his university to help with the Cross Country side of things.  Being new coaches, they didn’t have a conversation with me until Spring of that year when all of the scholarship decisions had all ready been decided.  I was convinced I wasn’t worthy of scholarship money anyway so I wasn’t put out or anything.  I wanted to just keep running.

A week later they mailed me the summer training program.  At my high school a “long” run was a half hour.  The pamphlet they sent wanted me to run an hour everyday and an hour and a half one day a week!  I remember laughing hysterically at it, certain I could never do that many miles.

I didn’t follow the plan perfectly but when August 1st hit and the season was imminent, I found my inner motivation and began doing the hour a day.  I woke up at 5:30am every morning and jogged until 6:30 so that I be to work by 7:30.  And found  the early morning runs not only doable but enjoyable.

3 weeks later I went to the training camp.  I was very talkative and very annoying, so the fast kids ran me into the ground.  I didn’t care.  It was a mutually enjoyable experience.  They were proud of themselves for dropping me after five minutes.  I was proud of myself that I kept up for a minute longer than yesterday!

Then we started racing and I actually didn’t finish last on the team.  I was able to hang with them and that was thrilling.  All summer I had pictured them running a mile ahead while I trotted behind.  I imagined their finishing times five whole minutes faster than mine.  It never happened that way.  The days they did beat me it was by seconds and most days I finished in front of at least 1 of them.

Then the truly bizarre happened.  The coaches found a little bit of scholarship money left over and one sunny afternoon in late September I  opened one of the most obscure but thrilling letters I have yet received.  It was a financial statement saying that I owed the school $2000 less dollars.  It had something to do with a checked box next to the words, “Athletic Scholarship.”

I literally cried.  This untalented, geeky, nerdy, lanky, weak and very annoying kid had just become a scholar-shipped college athlete.  I would later find out I was the first ever in my entire extended family.

I had been given a great and gracious gift and I did not want to squander it.  I ran even harder.  I added more and more miles to every run.  I pushed myself further and faster.  Eventually I got up early and did morning runs.  I hit the weight room a few times a week.  I logged longer runs and faster runs.  I completed work outs others would quit.  I cannot say I loved every mile but man, I loved every day.

We didn’t fix my form until halfway through my sophomore year.  My coach read up on drill workouts and forced me to do them.  The first one about killed me.  I literally crawled to the cafeteria for dinner.  I healed up by the weekend and knocked 30 seconds off my indoor 3,000 meter race (over 15 seconds a mile!)

I added miles to my long runs and started doing hour and a half to two hour long runs.  One day, after a 2 hour long run I engaged a big, bulky shot putter from the Track team in a pizza eating contest.  I weighed 150 pounds and wore a size 32 waist.  I still put away 25 slices of pizza and a few salads and a plate of pasta.  The thrower beat me by one slice but for that hour I was the hero of the runners.  Seriously, they were chanting my name.

I got injured and took my red shirt year but came back stronger and faster.  I began winning some races here and there.  My name started to appear on the regional rankings.  I won some conference and regional awards for best student athlete and athlete of the week.  The whole experience was a dream.  My scholarship money went up too but I hardly cared.  I wasn’t in this for the money any more.

Then I set some school records and then I beat them again.  Then I started scoring major points for my team.  Then I started taking home medals and plaques.  Then I started getting 2nd and 3rd at conference championships.  Suddenly people all around the region knew who I was and my name was mentioned in running forums and blogs.  Then other coaches began asking my coach where I had come from and how I had turned from a mediocre walk on to a serious conference contender.  Then the administrators and professors of the university started congratulating me around campus, knowing all of my race times from the previous weekend.

Then the dream ended.

One day in early May in a small town in Central Washington I ran my last college race.  It was a 5K.  I had won the 10K the night before and didn’t drink as much water that day as I should have.  So I finished 6th and as I stumbled across the finish line, it occurred to me that the game was over.

The big question became, “would I keep running.”  Some of my younger friends joked that I was going to be fat within 5 years.  I laughed with them but was slightly offended.

Of course I would keep running.  It is not that I loved running.  Most days I didn’t and still don’t.  But running is so central to who I was that giving it up would be sacrificing part of my soul.

The next year I ran a half marathon and the year after a marathon.  I finally ran 100 miles in one week, something I had been trying to do for a few years.

After the marathon I fell back on half hour easy runs a few times a week.  I did way too many of them but at least I was still moving 3-4 times a week.  I gained a few pounds, though not many, and slowed way down.  I did a couple more half marathons to try to stay motivated.

Then I moved to a small town and became a Cross Country and Track coach.  I learned quite quickly that you can either train or coach but you shouldn’t do both.

It took me another year or so to realize that was completely wrong.  Leading by example is about the only way to get through to teens in today’s world.  Less and less they don’t need a drill sergeant, they need an inspiration.

So I trained with them and lost 15 pounds and gained more muscle than I even had in college.  More than that, I was having fun again.  I did drill and core exercises with them and got my six pack back.  My average mile pace dropped back down to 6 minute miles.

And here I am today, having just completed a 15 mile long run in preparation for a marathon.  I was on the fence about whether to do the 15 mile plus run today or tomorrow.  I decided to do it tomorrow and went out hoping to do somewhere between 5-10 miles today.  After a mile and a half I wanted to turn around and go home but I kept going, promising to turn around at 15 minutes.  15 minutes came and went without me realizing it because in that 5 minutes I had switched into the mode.

It is that wonderful zone that surpasses “should run” and “want to run.”  When I am in the mode, my spirit is carried to a new plane of reality, a plane where I just exist for the sake of existence, a place where I run for the sake of running.

There is a beautiful harmony in those moments, a harmony that doesn’t override pain but welcomes it as a necessary melody.  In those moments I am caught up into nature.  The trees became more tangible, more noticeable.  The birds and flies and spiders and deer become my companions.

There is a rhythm and a beat to the strides and the clops.  Together they sing a song of inner peace and outpouring joy.  It is nothing less than spiritual.

Surely there are other ways to arrive at that plane of existence but running is my chosen road to the eternal, my glorious path to the divine.

At times I am scared that my inner runner is gone for good but on days like today, there he is again, roaring back to life, emerging from the shadows of my beat up psyche, insisting I do another mile and another after that and even more after that.  I keep running until I can’t run any more.

Perhaps that is why so many of us love the quote from Chariots of Fire, “When I run I feel His pleasure.”

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Unveiling Grace by Lynn Wilder

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The Costco’s in Utah are different.  For starters, the one nearest our house has a permanent and massive display of pictures of some white guy pretending to be Jesus.

More than that the entrances are on the left and exits on the right.  At every other Costco you enter on the right and exit on the left.  The store format follows this pattern, so that everything in the store is backwards.

I have no idea why the Utah Costco’s are backwards but as I wandered around trying to find free samples, in what should have been the freezer section but was, in fact, the outdoor area, it occurred to me that the Costcos are very much a microcosm for all Utah.  Things are just backwards here.

Many non Mormons blame the Mormons and I think there is some truth to that.  The Mormons, like any other religious sect, do things differently.  Some might say that they do things backwards.  Be that as it may, living here is like walking through the familiar territory of a Costco but not understanding any of it.

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When I moved here last Spring, it occurred to me I would probably have to study, engage and just plain deal with Mormonism before too long.  And sure enough, it has not been too long and I have met Mormons, talked about Mormons and read a little about them.

Just last week I finished reading “Unveiling Grace” which is the autobiography of a former BYU professor who left Mormonism in 2008.  Over the course of 300 pages she explains in great detail how she converted, became immersed by earning her temple recommend, moved to Utah, taught at BYU and then left Mormonism.

It is a fascinating tale which makes room for snippets of cultural and theological descriptions of the LDS faith.  Yes, Mormons do have special underwear.  No, they do not practice polygamy any more but they do seal single men to multiple wives for the hereafter, an “eschatological polygamy,” if you will.  Yes, they believe they are the one true church but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are going to hell, or outer darkness.  And no, they do not believe in the historical expressions of the Trinity.

All that aside, I find I am struggling to respond to Wilder’s story.  I imagine if I was a Baptist, especially a more fundamentalist or Pentecostal one, I would be pumping my fist in the air in celebration of a family who left a false church and false faith for a true(r) one.

On the other hand, if I was a dispassionate and unbiased observer (if there ever could be such a thing) I might find the book an intriguing description of how and why people change religious preferences.  In another 100-200 years some PhD candidate might cite Lynn Wilder in a dissertation on proselytizing and religious conversion in the 20th century.

If I was a Mormon, I imagine I would be very uncomfortable, a little bit sad and possibly outright angry that an entire family who once knew the “truth” had now fallen away into the “outer darkness.”

And if I was more universalist, preferring no religious preference, I might think I had just wasted my time wading through the nonsense of one religious fundamentalist bouncing between religions.

I am none of those things.  Instead I am a disenfranchised and discouraged young minister who has been struggling mightily of late with what I call “false religion” which is religion that pulls us away from God.

It is very true, especially from Lynn Wilder’s testimony, that Mormonism might be in the running for the chief of all false religion.  Their leadership, their temples, their doctrines and their structures have all taken the place of God, so that good Mormons are encouraged to get along with God by staying in the system.  Wilder puts it very poetically but also a bit bluntly when she testifies, “The Mormon life was just too exhausting to allow for much prayer.” (p. 155)  I am not sure you could say that even about Buddhists and Muslims

But, unfortunately, you can say that about many Nazarenes, or Baptists, or Methodists or other Christian groups.  The Nazarene life is just too busy for prayer.  The suburban evangelical life is just too busy for much prayer.  The Christian pastor’s life is definitely just too busy for much prayer.

That isn’t the only sentence in Wilder’s book that works that way.  When she talks about the gossip ridden and judgmental Utah County Mormons, she may as well be describing the people at my home church in Idaho.  I imagine it is true of most of the Bible Belt suburbs as well.  When she talks about strict dress codes and worship styles she is describing much of modern Christianity.  When I read her accounts about secrets being kept by those in the upper echelons of power I thought of several scandals that have plagued my denomination over the last few months.  When she tells about the excommunication of Mormons who were involved in sinful lifestyles or who bucked the authority of the church, it quickly brought to mind many of my friends who have been driven from their Evangelical churches over such things.

But don’t get me wrong, false religion disgusts me more and more everyday.  I am just not so sure we can point at the Mormon specks without acknowledging our own planks. Like most other things, comparative religion should start at humility, not at pride.  Or more simply put, we need to confess our own sins and shortcomings as we seek to understand other religious groups.

With that in mind, I am at a point in my life where maybe I needed to hear Wilder’s testimony.  As I used my disenfranchised and disgruntled mind to contemplate her story, I heard the needed voice of God, whom Wilder describes as the “great dancer.”  My calling from that God is not to sustain the forms and structures and buildings and programs of “the church” as if they were the Divine Presence.  Instead, I want to cooperate with the God of grace who is calling, inviting and pulling us out of our chaotic and busy lives and into the great mystery that we call “faith.”  For Wilder’s part, she seems to have stepped into the dance.  For that, I guess I do celebrate.

Now if can just figure out how to get others, whether they be Nazarenes, Baptists, Mormons, Atheists or any other group,  to follow in her footsteps.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: “Do Over” by Jon Acuff

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Last week, I finished a month long journey of forcing myself to read a 500 page monstrosity on the Pentateuch.  Since then I have been rapid firing, or rather “rapid reading” books off my “to read” list.

And next up was a shorter, way easier but just as brilliant career book by Jon Acuff.

Last November I bought Acuff’s “Stuff Christians Like” from a clearance book store stand and loved every word of it.  I still use samples of it in meetings, devotionals and even sermons. (You can read my review of here.)

So a few months ago, when I heard Jon was coming to Salt Lake City, I eagerly signed up to go meet him.  I had incorrectly assumed that he was a pop Christian author, only writing for the highly unique, niche market of suburban Evangelicals.

I was delighted to discover I was wrong and that Acuff actually specializes in writing career advice books.  Ironically, I think this makes him a much better servant of the Lord than writing humor for Evangelical moms.

When I went to meet him, Acuff explained that the secret to pulling off a successful career transition (or career in general) lies in 4 simple things:  you character, your work ethic, your friends and your skills.

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Not one of those four things is life changing.  I don’t think anybody is going to read “Do Over” and say, “I actually have to work hard to be successful!  Who knew!?”  In fact, Jon points that out in the book.  And yet, as he also points out, the number one reason people get fired is for not showing up to work.  I know some of those people and want to give them a copy of “Do Over” in the hopes that they will slap their foreheads and say, “Now I know what I have been doing wrong!”  Then I can say, “I told you so” and we will have a special moment centered around my smugness.

With that aside, the focus on relationships, skills, character and work ethic are not what makes the book great.  Instead its genius lies in the “how.”  Acuff litters every page of “Do Over” with great suggestions for how to improve your skills, how to build a huge relationship network, how to work harder and how to become a better person.  (Hint: you will need a lot of notecards!)  While everything is carefully studied and well documented, most of his advice comes from his own personal journey, which he carefully narrates along the way.  This almost makes “Do Over” as much an autobiography as it is a career book.

And that is what makes “Do Over” rise above the rest.  Acuff displays his full personality on every page.  His careful and excellent writing serves to infuse himself into every word, every example and every piece of advice.  When you spend time with “Do Over” you feel like you are hanging out with Acuff personally.  I love this because after getting to know him for a quick half hour in June, I wanted to hang out with him that much more.

If a month from today I forget all the suggestions and details of “Do Over”, and have lost all my note cards, I still will have been a better person for having read it.  The wit, humility and teach-ability of Jon Acuff transcends anything else in the book.  It drips off the pages into your soul so that you find yourself a much better employer, a much better friend and just a much better person for having spent time learning from the master of career transitions.

So go buy the book all ready!

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A Theology of Luck

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Now I know what you all are thinking.  You all read that title up there and immediately assumed that in what follows I would not miss one opportunity to tell jokes and makes puns concerning the word “luck.”  But have some faith people, I am more disciplined than that, albeit not much more.

Actually that is absolutely what I intended to do until I looked at the one sentence reviews inside the front cover of this book and saw that they all did the same.  You just need to know they stole the idea from me.  Or maybe my brilliant ideas are not that original or maybe I am just that.  .  .wait for it.  .  .unlucky.

Still, I should open this review by noting that, like the authors, I believe luck is a thing.  By all indications when God put together the structures of the cosmos, God seems to have done so by programming a fair amount of random number generators.  We have just about proven this to be the case.

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Now let me back up right there and note that us Christians have to account for the fallen nature of creation.  Paul seems to imply that all creation was subjected to futility or chaos because of human sin.  So the random number generators and the chaos they bring about could have been the result of our sin or they could have been all part of the plan from the beginning.  Or some could be one and the rest the other.  Either way, luck, or if you prefer “randomness,” is a reality and seems to imply we don’t have a micro manager God on our hands.  I personally love that considering I loathe micro managers, especially ones that randomly decimate towns in the Bible belt with tornadoes every Spring.  I mean, after all, a God of the Bible would know those lousy liberals in the north deserve those tornadoes way more than those devout Southerners!  (Yes, I am joking there.)

So the question is:  What does all this say about God?

That is precisely the question the authors of “Theology of Luck” try to answer.  I don’t want to spoil the end for you, because I hate spoilers more than micro managers.  So let’s just be brief and note that according to Fringer and Lane, a macro manager God is also a relational God.   This God seems to prefer to partner with us in order to bring about good purposes in spite of the randomness and chaos and luck that abounds.

They make this argument in enticing and provocative ways, using a fair amount of relevant Scripture passages, examples from every day life and references to fictional pop culture.  In fact, the amount of Scriptural and cultural exegesis is remarkable given the extremely low page count.

On that note, it is common knowledge that there is a growing disparity between the church and the universities.  The pews are frequented more and more by less educated, blue collar types who either don’t want to study or don’t have the time.  The classrooms are full of people who love to study and get paid sums of money so that they have time to do so.  The problem, some argue, is that the academics seem to silo themselves off from the pews and embrace ever greater concepts using an ever expanding vocabulary.  At the same those in the pews silo themselves off from the university and get stuck at “Jesus loves me.”

If that is a real problem, than what we need are more mediators.  These people will frequent the classroom and the pew in equal measure and be able to write in ways that explain deeper concepts but using a more common vocabulary.

“Theology of Luck” is such a book written by such people.  It explains higher concepts of God’s nature without trying to sound overly smart.  Its examples are rooted in the world of the pews and its exegesis is simple enough that any sixth grader could follow along.  We desperately need more books like it.

In closing, I was involved in a Facebook discussion awhile back with some academic types.  We talked a bit about the bare minimum education pastors should be expected to have.  One of the things we eventually agreed on is that every pastor should be able to teach the equivalent of a Sophomore level theology and bible class.  Since then I have used that as my standard for teaching and preaching.  I want my congregants to know what every Sophomore Bible student knows.  (Actually I want them to know more than that, but I am willing to compromise.)  “Theology of Luck” fits that criteria precisely.  It is readable, fun, accessible and still deep and provocative.  Any run of the mill pew sitter could read it and interact with it and learn a lot from it.

And if they should do so, they should consider themselves so lucky! (Okay couldn’t resist that last one.)

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: The Meaning of the Pentateuch

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I know pastors who graduated from seminary in 1974 and never read another book.  To no one’s surprise, they are still ministering as if it is 1974 and sitting around wondering why nobody seems to get them, except for those other parishioners stuck there with them.

When it is 2074 I do not want to still be pastoring as if it is 2015.  To that end, I force myself to keep reading and to read books from a variety of genres and traditions and perspectives.  The problem is that I am an energetic, extrovert with about 10 hobbies and a family.  Sitting down and forcing myself to read more than a half hour a day is like pulling out my front teeth.

The solution so far has not been a good one.  Almost by default I just pick the quickest, easiest reads that fall into my lap.  I race through them, only taking a few mental notes as I go and all so that I can say, “I read a book this week!”

So last month I set out to remedy this situation and decided to tackle a monstrosity.  This morning I actually finished it.  It was not just any book.  It was a 574 page theological and exegetical treatise on the Pentateuch, adequately titled, “The Meaning of the Pentateuch.”

If you dare, click on this link to buy the epic tale of a warrior scholar who engages and dispatches over 50 academic foes with 574 pages of sure fire rhetoric!

Being 574 pages long, you would expect over 20 chapters but the author, a cool dude by the name of John Sailhamer, was too awesome to divide his books into things like chapters.  I am guessing the publisher overrode his desire and found 11 places to break up the text.  The tradeoff, at least in the E-version, was periods.  There is not one period in the book, which makes figuring out where one sentence ends and another begins a true delight!  This makes every chapter over 70 pages long, which makes things like “easy reading” impossible.  One chapter is an afternoon commitment.  And in the words of a popular lady, “Ain’t nobody got time for dat!”

But I made the time and the length of the book was not its only unique aspect.  This is also an academic book which means that between the 574 pages of this monstrosity you will not find any guides to preaching the Pentateuch, any helpful hints on how to live out the commands therein or any clever sermon metaphors.

I take that last one back.  Early on there was a great comparison of the historical critical method to a hypothetical vandal who, upon seeing Rembrandt’s painting of Venice, became angry that Rembrandt had shadowed over various storefronts and therefore, chose to paint in what the storefronts must have looked like.  That’ll preach!  (No, it won’t, but I still liked it!)

The other factor that made this book unique among my usual reading fare is that Sailhamer writes from the Calvinist/Reformed tradition.  Most of what I read is from the Wesleyan/Arminianism tradition.  This means that Sailhamer quotes or engages well over 100 scholars and almost all of them are from the Evangelical/Calvinist camp.  Therefore, by reading Sailhamer’s take on the Pentateuch, I was really being introduced to a deep and centuries old conversation about the meaning of the first five books in our Bibles by a tradition other than my own.

While engaging with those important voices, Sailhamer offers his own unique perspective on the meaning of the Pentateuch.  He argues that the meaning of the Pentateuch lies in using the 5 major poems in the book, all of which randomly interrupt the flow of the narrative.  Through studying these poems, you can find the central themes of the entire work.  In all seriousness, I did find this fascinating because in my studies of Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy (I haven’t gotten around to Numbers or Leviticus yet) I had completely ignored and neglected those poems.

And this is why, even though I am now far behind on my reading list, the grueling work it took to complete Sailhamer’s work was very valuable.  It helped me think through things I haven’t thought through before.  It forced me to engage parts of Scripture I had previously glossed over and it helped me understand the conversation the Christians on the other side of evangelicalism are having.

As it so happens, right after I read the short conclusion this morning, I took off for a run.  I was 24 minutes into my jaunt up to the mountains when I ran past an older gentleman hobbling down the street.  He saw me fly past him and remarked, “Good job, sir.  You must really be a runner.”

I laughed and said, “Why thank you” and continued running before he called after me, “What are you training for?”

Suddenly I realized this was a God moment.  I stopped and turned around and ran back to him.  “A marathon in October,” I answered and then we began comparing life stories.  He was a runner in his 30s, fought in Vietnam, organized troops for the Air Force in the Gulf and retired here.  His wife passed away 10 years ago and he has lived alone on the rim of the mountains ever since.

Eventually I revealed that I was a pastor.  He immediately claimed he was “non-denominational” which I thought meant he went to one of these hip, non denom church plants that are all the rage these days.  As the conversation continued I instead found out that it actually means that he refuses to go to a church.  That doesn’t stop him from claiming, “Really Romans 7:8 and 9 are all you need to know.  You don’t need to bother with the rest of it.”

In a weak moment I decided to push gently against that.  “So why do you think we have the rest of Scripture?” I asked.

He stared blankly at me and stuttered before saying, “That is a good question.  I don’t know why God would bother giving us the rest of it.”  I let the matter lie.  After all it isn’t polite to lecture total strangers on theology.

Yet, his story is becoming more and more usual these days.  After choosing not to go to church, he became disconnected from the conversation about Scripture and suddenly found himself concluding %99.9 of it was useless.

I know a lot of pastors who are there.  By refusing to engage with texts like Sailhamer’s, they become disconnected from the broader conversation about Scripture.  Without Sailhamer, I never would have read or studied the five poems of the Pentateuch, or thought to link them together for their common themes.  I never would have known about the ways covenant theologians, dispensationalists and traditional orthodox types read the book.  I wouldn’t know about the textual clues in the Sinai narrative and I wouldn’t be sitting here struggling in the back of my mind to figure out where the laws fit into the God’s covenant of grace.  Instead, I would be walking up in the mountains, feeling secure in my own biases and prejudices and concluding that most of God’s book is useless.

And though I didn’t get any clever sermon metaphors out of the book, I certainly found 10 sermons just waiting to be preached, all of them rooted in 10 ways that God spoke personally to me through the sacred first five books of our wonderful Scriptures.

As I turned to run away from the man he exclaimed, “God bless you and keep up the good work.”  Though I wondered at his hermeneutic (or lack thereof), I found I treasured his blessing the whole way home.