What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Gilead by Marilyne Robinson

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I try not to gush when I write.  The only exception I can think of is a post about the Grand Canyon from a year ago and even the “gushing” there was done a bit ironically for humor’s sake.

However, I just finished the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and gushing is about all I want to do.  It was incredible.  It was fantastic!  It was gripping!@  It was page turning!@^  It was the best novel ever in the history of ever!@^*

Okay I am done but seriously the novel was recommended by a good friend who is a not a “gushy” person but who did a fair amount of gushing about it.  He was shocked and dismayed that I had not even heard of it.  In my defense I have read several adequate books that he hasn’t.  Though that is a weak defense because very few of the books I have read come close to attaining the mastery that is Gilead.

 

It is fiction but written as the memoirs of a 3rd generation, small town Iowa pastor for his 7 year old son.  The town has been shrinking for decades and at the time of his death is almost non existent.  Many relatives and friends have come and gone, mostly gone and he is left, along with his best friend, another pastor who lives across the street.

He spends his days carrying the heavy

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load an old pastor’s heart.  His brother, the more driven of the two, became an atheist.  His father moved away from the town and on his death bed could not understand why his son stayed.  His godson has led a wreck of a life, impregnating two young girls without the financial means or know how to take care of them.  He looks at boxes of his sermon manuscripts with a sense of dread, feeling guilty for most of what he said or wrote and hoping nobody ever reads them.  And he is penniless, with no money to leave his much younger widow and son.

Yet, even in his late 70s and near his death bed, he continues to study, prepare sermons, lead board meetings, council others and pray.  He is the picture of a pastor who never quit being a pastor right up to his death bed.

It is now becoming cliche to say that most books inform but the rare ones transform.  Gilead belongs with the rarest of the rare.  I have not felt so inspired since reading the first ten chapters of Les Miserables, which also told the story of an old pastor who never stopped being a pastor.

In Gilead’s final moments, the protagonist recalls the parable of the prodigal son to note that the angels in heaven don’t even rejoice over the righteous son who stayed home.  In what I found to be the most poetic phrase in the book he says, “I am the one for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparably restrained.”  The angels aren’t even throwing parties for me!

But then he says, “And that’s all right.”

My ministry is young, only about a decade old.  I was called away by God from the small town that had much in common with Robinson’s fictional “Gilead” and now I am in a very prosperous suburb.  I have a lot going for me and think it is quite possible I won’t leave my family penniless when I die.  In fact, the way things are going, it is possible that my children will actually be in their 60s when I die and will have more money than me.  What is more, my wife will probably die first.  At least that’s how she wants it and I am okay with that because I won’t have to worry about leaving her penniless.

But some days I can’t help but feel like this pastor in Gilead.  After all, other than the boring sins of pride and selfishness, a bit of anger here and there with a bit of laziness thrown in, I have no scandalous stories to tell.  My home was the Church of the Nazarene and I never demanded my share and stormed out of town.  I don’t drink alcohol or do drugs and have never tried.  I waited until I was married and now have two kids and a dog living a very American dream type life.  I would like to think I spend my money well.  I try to give it generously along with my tie.  I am quick to reconcile and have a few other strengths that I play too while ignoring my weaknesses.  To top it all off I spend time in prayer and fasting, not nearly enough but more than your average sinner.  I am the son who stayed home.

That isn’t too brag at all.  That is just to say if I am one of the two sons, I am the one that dad’s not going to throw a party for or kill any fat cows to my benefit.  I am the righteous son whom the rest of the world (along with the angels) rolls their eyes at.

And that is okay.  After all, as Gilead’s pastor reminded me, “There is no justice in love, no proportion in it and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal.”  It would seem pointing people to that reality is its own reward.

With that said, this short little review didn’t do “Gilead” justice.  So please, go read the book, especially if you are a pastor!

And try to survive January.  May you find blessings in its cold, dark days.

 

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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

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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.

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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.