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.

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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.

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.

Click to buy!

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.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading with the Damned: The Bible

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This week I read Bob Ecblad’s, “Reading the Bible With the Damned” which takes first place in the competition for which book title makes my blog post title incredible convoluted.

This book is also rare in that I only downloaded it to read one chapter, the chapter on Exodus.  It was recommended by a fellow pastor who found that chapter to helpful in preaching about Shiphrah and Puah in Exodus 1.

But after reading Ecblad’s take on Exodus 1, I couldn’t help but peruse the other 8 chapters about his experiences reading Scripture with immigrants, inmates and third world citizens.

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At times the book is tedious.  At other times it is repetitive.  And some times it gets a little bit too preachy.  But at the very least Ecblad has found a clever way to introduce readers to a liberation reading of Scripture.  His chapters document conversations he has had in Bible studies with various groups where he helps the readers revisit colonial assumptions about the God who is on the side of the powers and embrace a God who is trying to free the oppressed from power.

With that said, this book played many different roles.  At times it read like a biblical commentary in the catechism tradition.  For example:

Q: Who does Jacob steal the blessing from?
A: Esau.

Q: And what is the significance thereof?

A: Jacob was younger and therefore not deserving of blessing.

At other times the book reads like a social justice text giving great details about the lives of the oppressed in today’s world.

At other times the book reads like a how to in giving a Bible study with comments about asking questions and an incarnational approach that pretends to know little or nothing so as not to belittle or demean.

As for that last one, a few years ago I spent three months teaching in a federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, KS.  How I got there and why I only lasted 3 months is a story for another day except to say that I failed miserably in all the ways where Ecblad succeeds.

At that point I had worked for about 6 months at a Rescue Mission and I mistakenly believed that inmates were the same as homeless men.  I was very wrong on that assumption.  The culture of prison is very different from the culture of the streets, though with some similarities.

As I read Ecblad’s book I found myself wishing I had read it before setting foot in Leavenworth.  As he documents the social justice travesties of our day and describes his interpretive approach while giving out detailed biographies of inmates he has met, I found myself deeply lamenting my own failures over those 3 tortuous months.  It would be a great text to give someone in that situation.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have some major tweaking to do to my Sunday School lesson!

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Brueggemann’s “Prophetic Imagination”

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A very strange thing happened indeed this week.  I actually finished a book!  April was a crazy month full of Easter worship and District Assembly gatherings and online debates and very little reading.

So I decided to mark my return to grace by reading an especially wonderful author whom I have always quoted but never read, Walter Brueggemann.  A friend at District Assembly referenced “Prophetic Imagination” several times so I downloaded it and worked my way through it this week.  As is the case with many books, it spoke “prophetically” into several facets of my current experience.  Or did it speak “imaginatively?”

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As many of you know, I began pastoring a new church two months ago.  The transition forced me to ask myself the hard practical questions about what a church is and how a pastor should lead it.

At the same time my district gathered to elect a new Superintendant.  In the end most everybody agreed we elected the right person.  Still, the process forced me to think long and hard about who I want as a “pastor to pastors.”  Do I want an executive with a plan?  A leader with a vision?  A friend with a shoulder to cry on?  A prophet with an imagination?  Or all of the above?

Likewise, as most of you know, I have been closely following three scandals in the Church of the Nazarene.  One concerns our Publishing House.  The other two concern our universities.  There seems to be a failure in the upper realms of our leadership to really follow the dictates of love, justice and honesty especially when money is on the line.  Where did this failure come from and why have we been so hesitant to be honest about it?

A key topic in all those discussions was the comparisons and contrasts between churches, businesses and universities.  A friend of mine summed up those differences well in the chart below.

At the intersection of all this stands Brueggemann’s “Prophetic Imagination.”  His brief but in depth discussion of the biblical prophets and holy communities illuminates several disparities between the church’s current state and our divine calling.

I could waste a lot of words fleshing out those discrepancies, but I will stick with a list Brueggemann gives in the preface to the 2nd edition.  He mentions the key characteristics of a Prophetic Community:

1) The community must have a long and available memory that sinks the present generation into an identifiable past made available in songs and stories.

2) There is a sense of pain that is cited as a real social fact.

3) Hope (not optimism) is actively practiced.

4) There is an effective mode of discourse that is distinctive and richly coded in ways only insiders know.  (i.e. a shared language).

The church I now pastor has quite a few families who now serve or once served in the US military.  As I have gotten to know them, I feel a sense of humiliation for the Christian church because the US military does those 4 things way better than most congregations.  They have songs and stories that root their identity in the great conflicts of the last 200 years.  They have a coded language with scores of acronyms that I can barely keep up with.  They have a real sense of pain and loss from living in a world where armies are necessary and they have a profound sense of hope that the US military can be the solution (or at least an integral part of it) to all the world’s problems.  All of this encourages scores of otherwise helpless young men (and some women) to join up.

I am frustrated that the church struggles to garner the same enthusiasm.  As Brueggemann argued convincingly, our insistence on catering to the powers and adopting their vocabulary has completely numbed us to our God given calling.  Now we get together to figure out how to co opt the powers and as we do, we ourselves are being coopted.

But all hope is not lost.  Brueggemann insists that the prophets in Scripture (from Moses to Jesus) did two things to awaken the holy community.  First they led the people in mourning.  Second they sang songs and told stories that energized faithfulness.  To put it more simply, they called the people back to worship and led them in the same.

And this is where the prophetic imagination informs my questions about the church, its leadership and our current scandals.  After all, it is no secret that the evangelical tradition has not done worship well.  We have filled it with the words of our culture, not the words of our ancient faith.  We have sung the narratives of the empire and not the songs of the redeemed.  And we have shared in the anger of the people, not in the compassion of our God.

If that is the case, then it might be possible that after attending those numbing services for decades, certain denominational leaders found themselves closed off to the hope of the gospel.  Instead of being emptied of all but God, they became filled with the edicts, deadlines and demands of the dominant culture.  If that is true, when they became leaders of institutions (like businesses, universities and churches), they had no Christian hope to add meaning or depth to their work and so made the controversial decisions that landed them in the hot seats.

If that is what happened, it means that who we choose to lead us in worship is so incredibly important.  Instead of vision casters, we need creative story tellers.  Instead of institution growers we need professional mourners.  Instead of money makers we need selfless givers.  And instead of relevant hipsters spewing the modern lingo, we need Biblical scholars who can make accessible the rich language of our tradition.

That all sounds poetic up above, but I am reminded by Brueggemann that this all has to start with me in my own setting and context.  After all, it is quite possible that I am currently leading a congregation that will include future CEO’s, University Presidents, Pastors and Superintendants.  It is a high and necessary calling to sing the songs and tell the stories of our ancient faith every week so that they can be grounded in compassion and justice, not in power and money.  Needless to say, the risk of failure is great.

Therefore, pray for me and pray for my church and I shall endeavor to do the same for you and your church.  And I pray the God of all history continues to call up prophets in this time and place who will sing the right songs, cry the proper tears and energize the needed love.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Renovating Holiness

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“That was the day we eradicated eradication.”

That line was the conclusion to a story a much older pastor was telling during a meeting I attended last Fall.  He was talking about a time when all the pastors on his district got together and talked about holiness, particularly the Nazarene doctrine of “entire sanctification.”

When he said, ” we eradicated eradication,” I thought, “They must have been thorough as I have no idea what eradication is!”  And I have both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree from Nazarene institutions and am a Senior Pastor.

Of course, I did some brain searching and with great effort remembered that day 10 years ago in “holiness class” where I was taught that “eradication” referred to the old Holiness Movement idea that upon receiving the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” God completely eradicated the sinful nature and made it possible to live a completely sinless life.

I will pause for a few moments while you laugh at that ridiculous idea……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..before pointing out that 50 to 100 years ago most Nazarenes believed it.  And now you probably can’t find more than 10 who do and they will all be over 70 years old.

This is just one example of the ways that the defining doctrine of the Church of the Nazarene, “Entire Sanctification” has been redefined over the last decades.  Its original formulation proved too high minded and optimistic for the pessimism that gripped the Western nations in the latter half of the 20th century.  Moreover, as the Church of the Nazarene globalized we struggled to articulate our ideas in different cultures.  It seems that the further away from California 1900 AD we got, the less sane our doctrine sounded.

Therefore over the last decades there have been countless conversations which sought to reexamine, redefine and reexplain holiness to a global church and a cynical constituency.  These conversations have happened everywhere from large auditoriums to tiny Sunday School classes and from as close as your local pulpit to as far away as an underground church in China.

The editors of “Renovating Holiness” sensed that these conversations are increasing in number so last year they set out to help the global conversation along by asking over 100 leaders from all the world areas to weigh in on their recent conclusions regarding holiness.  More than that, they are probably the first editors of their kind to prioritize younger voices over older ones.  The result is that the majority of essays are written by people under the age of 35.  (I should take this moment to note that I was one of them.)

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The project was nothing short of momentous and would not have been possible before the internet age.  Now for the first time voices from many world areas and many generations weigh in on why holiness is important and what vocabulary and conceptual changes need to be made in order to keep it viable.

Due to the sheer amount of contributors it is impossible to write a critique that would hold true for every essay.  For example, a few essays come dangerously close to saying nothing while a few others say entirely way too much.  Most though, are succinct and readable, adding their 1200 words to the conversation in an effective way.

The book is also hard to critique because its goal was not meant to finish a conversation or to posit timeless and unassailable theological truths.  Instead the essayists want to introduce readers to the conversations that are happening all across the world and to invite the readers to join them.

With that said, I do not entirely agree with every essay and opinion but it was those places of disagreement that proved the value of the book.  The reality is that I am not having the same conversations about holiness in Elgin, OR that some are having in inner city LA or a village in Africa.  Hearing those voices both agree and disagree with me is a great gift.

This makes “Renovating Holiness” a wonderful contribution to the church and a must read for anybody who wishes to discuss “holiness” as coherently and contextually as possible.

Therefore I would recommend not only reading the essays but using them to begin and lead discussions about Holiness wherever possible.

Hopefully within a week I will follow up this post with another one about what discussions are worth prioritizing and where the conversations should happen.

Until then, may God, God’s very self, the God of peace sanctify you through you and through and may your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless before the coming of our Lord.