What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: What About Hitler?

Standard

Reading is a difficult thing for a pastor.  First, there is too much to read and the internet age has multiplied it exponentially.  Second, to know what to read you have to rely on the suggestions of friends, co-pastors and mentors who all recommend lousy books from time to time.  Third, some books have wonderful ideas but are horribly written, making them painful.  Other books are wonderfully written but have horrible ideas (or worse, no ideas) making them equally as painful.

With all this mind, I believe there is only one type of worthless book.  It is the book that agrees with everything I all ready think.  Those books are a waste of time and money.  I would rather read a book that infuriates me by arguing that all dogs should go to hell than read a book that merely substantiates my belief that all dogs end up in heaven.

With that said, it was with no small amount of fear and trembling that I downloaded and read Robert Brimlow’s “What About Hitler: Wrestling with Jesus’ Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World.”

After all I am self described what about hitlerpacifist, though I have reservations with that exact word.  Still, I wholeheartedly believe that to follow Jesus requires opposing violence and embracing peace.  These views have been shaped over a long period of time which involved much prayer, Bible study, reading, reflection, conversations with friends and the like.  Therefore, reading yet one more book about pacifism would only harden my opinions and waste my time.

The title of the book is what trapped me.  “What about Hitler?”  Every war monger asks a pacifist that question, “Well then what about Hitler?”  Then they watch the now former pacifist hem and haw until they admit that they probably would kill Hitler if given a time machine.  That question so annoys and frustrates me that I had to read the book to see if maybe there was an answer.

So with all trepidation I downloaded the book and began reading.  And what followed was not a passionately argued philosophical treatise on pacifism that hardened my opinions.  It was a call for renewal among pacifists to embrace peacekeeping in their very lives.

This call came in many forms.  At times it certainly was passionate, philosophical argument.  At other times it was devotional as Brimlow inserted written prayers that wrestle with Scripture passages.  At other times it was honest autobiography as Brimlow struggled with his own testimony and setting.  Then, suddenly, the last chapter was fiercely spiritual as Brimlow argued for a renewal of the spiritual disciplines among Christ’s followers.  That chapter held the most wonderful paragraphs on prayer I have yet read, and I have read a lot about prayer.

With all this said, “What About Hitler” is perhaps the most self aware philosophy book out there.  Every time Brimlow begins preaching he takes several steps back and honestly confesses, “Yet I am still not quite sure.”  At one point near the end Brimlow says he hears trumpets pronouncing victory behind his argument and then tries to silence them by bringing fully into bear what he has argued.

I wish myself and other theologians and philosophers had the humility he does.

In the end he answers the question “What About Hitler” by claiming that if Christians had followed the peacekeeping commands of Jesus in the centuries leading up to World War 2 the Nazis would not have happened, or at least not been able to so easily convince the German citizenry to annihilate the Jewish people.  In such thinking Hitler was the punishment for Christianity’s disobedience, not the cause of them.

That is certainly a bold argument, but it is persuasive because right after the claim, Brimlow admits his own efforts to keep peace are often thwarted by his own anger and hatred.  This simple-spoken humility speaks volumes about peace.  It turns out, at least according to Brimlow, that peacemaking and peacekeeping are useless without humility, something many “pacifists” just do not have.

On every page Brimlow humanizes and speaks love for those who disagree because he fully believes that loving those who disagree with you is what keep wars from happening.

This ends with a lovely chapter on prayer.  Brimlow argues that every Christian from just war theorists to pacifists to taxpayers to soldiers and to those who won’t even kill spiders must renew their prayer.

He brings this to bear by saying, “Instead of trying to fit prayer into my busy schedule, I should try to fit my schedule into my busy prayer” (p. 184).  I could not agree more.

In the end, this did the opposite of what I suspected.  Instead of becoming more passionate about pacifism, I have become more loving towards those who disagree with me.  Just maybe that will prevent a war one day.  But who really knows?

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Volf’s Free of Charge

Standard

Two significant things happened this week.  First, I read Miroslav Volf’s “Free of Charge.”  I bought it for $3 which I thought was a ripoff considering the title of the book.  The second was that my 1 year old IPod was stolen out of my unlocked car.

These things were not all that significant in the grand scheme of things.  I read books all the time and stuff gets stolen all the time.  Still the two were related.  Whoever stole my IPod wronged me and Volf’s book is about what to do when wronged.  So they are maybe worth writing about together.

The fun thing about my IPod disappearing was how complex the situation was.  It was not just a thief finding an easy target.  Instead everything about our world gets pulled into this event.

First off, you have my invincible naivete that wholeheartedly believed because I live in a small town things like IPods won’t disappear out of cars.  This naivete remained even after a conversation I had with a police officer who explained to me that stuff disappears out of cars all the time in Elgin.  I didn’t believe him and that was my bad.  So am I to blame?  My wife thinks so but I won’t go there.

Another layer surrounds the Toyota Motor Company who built my car.  The engineer who designed the locks put together an impossibly complex automatic system that sometimes locks the doors after 30 seconds of inactivity and sometimes keeps them unlocked for days on end.  I am sure there is a method to the madness but I haven’t figured it out in the 2 and a half years since buying my Rav4.  Either way, it feels as if the doors should have locked themselves because they do at other times, which means I got out of the habit of locking them myself which means the doors were unlocked which made my IPod easy prey.  So maybe Toyota wronged me by hiring dumb engineers.

Or, just maybe, it was the thief’s fault.  Stealing is wrong, after all, whether the doors are locked or unlocked.  But also, just maybe, the thief was an 8 year old who never learned better because they had bad parents or no parents.  Maybe they were taught what our culture seems to teach any more and that is it is the victim’s fault for not locking their car doors or for buying a car that pretends to lock itself and then does not.  Maybe the thief has been irreparably damaged by what Volf calls, “a culture stripped of grace” and they themselves are the victims while simultaneously also being the criminals.

All that happened was an IPod disappeared and yet the very event calls into question the decisions of myself, a group of engineers in Tokyo (or wherever), a teenager (or kid or young adult) and the entire culture(s) in wVolfhich all of us live.

Considering this, Volf’s book was quite endearing because Volf recognizes our world is anything but simple.  We do not live in the black and white fantasy of absolute right and wrong, world which Sunday School teachers indoctrinate into young children.

Instead, Volf faces the complexity head-on, even concluding at one point that as we peel back the layers of a wrong, we might find that we are the ones needing forgiveness, not giving it.  Still, Volf confronts the complexity with the simple image of God giving and forgiving on the cross.  The cross means that despite the complexity surrounding us, we should still give forgiveness when we feel wronged.  This is because the cross reminds us that only God gives complete and perfect forgiveness.  We just participate in a less complete and imperfect way.

Perhaps the most significant statement in Volf’s book came at the very end, in the afterword.  Volf states, “Some people like to keep their spirituality and their theology neatly separated.  .  .I don’t.  Spirituality that’s not theological will grope in the darkness and theology that’s not spiritual will be emptied of its most important content.”

This is a wonderful sentiment.  It reminds me that even something simple like the disappearance of an IPod is deeply theological.  My reaction to the event cannot be a vague spirituality that attaches all kinds of religious buzzwords to the event.  “They were a hurting soul who did not know better and I hope the love of God overwhelms them and the Scott Daniel’s sermons saved to the hard drive saves their lost souls.”  Gag me now.

Neither can my response be theological affirmations that seek to explain the event.  “By violating one of the sacred Ten Commandments, this teen is now guilty of the condemnation of God.  They haven’t just offended me but the very system that seeks to dispense true justice.”  Even typing that makes me roll my eyes.

Instead what I believe about God and my own acceptance of the God’s forgiveness has filled this event with meaning.  It is not enough to be spiritual.  It is not enough to hide behind theology.  Instead my spiritual response has to be infused with the content of the gospel, a content that says, “Forgive as Christ in God forgave you.”

So with that said, you who stole my IPod, I forgive you.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Barbara Brown Taylor

Standard

Over the course of December, in the busy holiday rush, I did not have much time for reading, let alone blogging.  But over the last two weeks I have started the New Year off right by devouring two of Barbara Brown Taylor’s collected reflections.

The first was 2009’s “An Altar in the World.”  It falls into a genre of spiritual literature that has become common since Richard Foster’s groundbreaking (at least for Evangelical Protestant’s) “A Celebration of Discipline.”  I call these books, “Practice Books” because the chapters are merely suggestions of practices of which spiritual seekers might experiment.

“An Altar in the World” was probably the tenth “Practice” book that I have read and if I were to rank those books it would make the top half.  The chapters were well written and the practices are unique, or at least uniquely describes by Taylor.

But practice books are not meant to be critiqued, ranked or even studied, at least how academics study.  Their worth solely consists in the spiritual value of the practices they recommend.  For this reason I would wholeheartedly recommend the book, if not just for the chapters on feeling pain and pronouncing blessings.

These practices are unique to most practice books (and most spirituality) and over the last week I have had a quite enriching time as I pronounced blessings over objects, animals and people.

The second book I read was Taylor’s most recent, “Learning to Walk in the Dark.”  I was thrilled to pick it up because a TIME Magazine review had intrigued me.  However, I expected a more generic exploration of the bad stuff in our world and how God uses it for glory.  Needless to say, the book did not meet that expectation.

Instead the darkness Taylor explores is the real kind.  It is not the metaphorical kind we equate with “evil,” but the actual kind, the kind that overtakes a room when you turn out the lights and the kind that gradually creeps upon us every evening.  Taylor finds that there are very good things that happen at night or in the dark and those should be welcomed as spiritual guides.

So Taylor’s chapters take us to moonrises, dark caverns, technology-less cabins and restaurants where the diners eat entirely in darkness.  In doing so, Taylor exposes the “darkness is evil” metaphor as a sham by concluding, “We need darkness as much as we need light” (p.6).

Such a book and such a conclusion frustrated me a bit, only because I expected a book of poetry about how God meets us in the darkness and overcomes the bad stuff in us and around us.  Instead we went spelunking and dining and even to a blind museum.

However, that is not to say the poetry and spirituality were absent.  They were just of a different and deeper kind than I expected.  It was the real life kind, the kind that recognizes there are things you can hear in the black that you will not hear in the light.  The moonrise is just as pretty and enlightening as the sunrise and the intentionality that comes with eating in the dark brings a greater reverence to the God who created food for our nourishment.  In fact the dark places may just be altars in our world, places where we find God.

With that said, the chapter on The Dark Night of the Soul, which comes the closest to the spiritual poetry I had expected throughout, is the best chapter on that spiritual phenomena I have yet read, except of course for John of the Cross’ ancient work by the same name.  They should both be required reading for ministry students, pastor, laypeople and.  .  .well.  .  .everybody else.

In fact, just this last week I had a congregant enter my office.  The conversation I had with him was quite common.  The congregant explained that he didn’t feel close to God any more and was struggling to do devotions.  My guess was there were no fewer than 1,000 other Christians telling their pastor that same thing at that moment.

Indeed I have heard this frustration expressed a hundred times before.  But my response was entirely new to him.  I taught him what Barbara Brown Taylor taught me and what Gregory of Nyssa taught her and what Moses taught him, that “those who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.” (p. 21)

In the week since I read “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” I have suddenly found myself turning the lights off at the wrong end of the hallway and blessing my bruised chin when I bang it on a knee high toy hiding between me and the bedroom.  I have found myself longing for a dark cave to sit in but settling for a dark office or sanctuary instead.  I have learned to appreciate the sounds that fill my house at night, which the light of day drowns out.  And I have learned to accept the silence and darkness inside of me, not as signs of moral failure but as reminders that I am drawing near to the opaque splendor of God.

You can click on the pictures below to buy the books!

Walk in the Dark

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Stuff Christians Like

Standard

I am not going to lie.  I like stuff, particularly stuff that makes me laugh.  That is why I enjoyed Jon Acuff’s “Stuff Christians Like.”  His 2010 collection of lists and diagrams and essays is one of the funniest books I have read in awhile.  He uses a brilliant blend of irony, sarcasm and heart touching roasting to unmask the hidden truths behind current American Evangelicalism.  This wonderful cocktail also makes “Stuff Christians Like” one of the most honest books I have read in awhile.

Click to Buy

Like many, I would love to think that Evangelicalism as a subculture is ceasing to exist.  However, Acuff proves me wrong.  Our subculture has gone nowhere, though it has changed drastically in the last 50 years.  And John Acuff describes and unmasks this new evangelicalism in brilliant detail.  He mocks everything from pushing on your eyes during prayer (which I do) to the different roles people play in prayer circles to metrosexual worship leaders, to feeding 3 year olds their body weight in fish crackers during “Preschool Life Groups,” (because we can’t call it Sunday School anymore).

The most brilliant aspect of the book (and his blog) is that its critique of evangelicalism is surprisingly current.  In my experience, most recent blogs and books about Evangelicals are 10-50 years too late.  They are still complaining about our legalistic, politically motivated, angry and fundamentalist past.

But that time has come and gone.  Now, as Acuff perfectly describes, we are an over-emotional, cliche drowned, hipster loving, logo touting movement of missional, radical, postmoderns.  In one of Acuff’s more brilliant observations, if there is a copyright infringement expert standing at the door to heaven, not one of us is getting in.  Likewise, our hesitance to boycott Abercrombie and Fitch for severe human rights violations shows how sold out we are to “soft, cotton T-shirts.”

So after reading, “Stuff Christians Like” I have to ask “what next?”  Now that our legalistic, fundamentalist and conservative movement has morphed into a showy, sentimentality infused, hipster monster, what is a devoted pastor to do?

I suppose the answer is that I will continue to do what God called me to do.  I will speak truth to the monster.  I certainly do not advocate for a return to our legalistic and conservative ways.  Instead by, “speak truth” I mean a way of living and being among the evangelical culture that questions its assumptions, practices and worldviews.  The hope is to bring about a truer form of faithfulness, one that transcends rock choruses and prayer circles and fish crackers in “life groups.”

This faithfulness might encourage a rock star metro sexual worship leader to lead a smaller, rural congregation from time to time.  It might include a deeper commitment to more ancient forms of prayer that move beyond “prayer circles.”  It might be more generous towards those churches that are so out of date they still call it, “Sunday School.”  It would probably mean not judging those who have to use the Table of Contents in their Bibles or come to church with a head cold.

It would certainly include treating copyright law respectfully and humbly and being inventive over clever.  And it might even suggest caution when it comes to corporations like “Abercrombie and Fitich.”

And it would most certainly mean not pressing your eyes out during prayer.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: 4 Views of Youth Ministry and the Church

Standard

This week I have been writing about my attempts to relate multi-generationally.  I concluded yesterday by talking about the young adult Gen Xers and Millenials.

In a way this post is continuing that series as I also read a rather dated book about youth ministry called “Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church.”

Click to Buy on Amazon

I read the book because I have a rather large youth group whose attendance sometimes exceeds our Sunday morning crowd.  .  .and I have no idea what to do with it.  It turns out I am not alone.

What we might consider the traditional youth ministry model began in the 50s and 60s.  Throughout the 70s to the 90s it was fueled by parachurch ministries like FCA and Young Life.  But over the last 15 years youth groups have really started to struggle.

The problem is traditional youth ministries never really succeeded at making lifelong disciples.  To be sure, they made a few but as percentages ago the church has now lost three generations of young adults.

The problem is not that they don’t go to church any more.  It is that they don’t know anything about God, make poor moral and ethical decisions, are lousy spouses and parents and don’t pray on a regular basis.

Around 1990 the first and second generation of “youth pastors” began noting these unfortunate facts.  They began collecting raw data, researching, interviewing and writing books about it.  But nobody listened for a few years because after all, youth pastors were not hired to think, just to play games and spend time with teenagers the rest of us would rather ignore.

The book “4 Views of Youth Ministry and the Church” was published in 2000, right around the time the church began to listen.  The editor, Mark H. Senter, asked his friends who had vast youth ministry experience and knowledge to document their opinions about what went wrong and what models and paradigms might help solve the youth crisis.

In sum the four different ideas presented are:

The Inclusive Congregational Approach which is now popularly called “Intergenerational Discipleship.”  In it we get rid of our youth pastors and instead hire, “Family Pastors” who work to train parents in discipling their children and assimilate teenagers into the structures of the church.

The Preparatory Approach keeps the youth pastors and their youth groups.  It is most associated with the traditional model.  In it our teens have separate groups and classes that prepare them to be leaders in the church one day.

The Missional Approach recommends we keep the youth pastors around but instead send them out into the High Schools and Skate Parks and Coffee Shops in order to bridge the gap between the traditional church and the current youth culture.

The Strategic Approach is perhaps the most innovative.  In it we lose the youth pastors and instead hire church planters who will plant churches among teenagers.  In this model we do not graduate teens out of our youth groups but instead we graduate the whole youth group into its own church every five or so years.

14 years after the book was published, it might appear as if the “Intergenerational” Approach is winning the votes.  Asbury College has done a lot of research on teens and their parents and concluded that parents still make the best pastors.  They have published many books that advocate for it.  I know several upper class, suburban churches that are reading those books and working to integrate teens into all committees, ministries and services of their churches and teach parents to be better disciples.  It is a good move and one that might yield a more committed group of young adults in 5-10 years.

However, I am not so sure it will.  The “intergenerational” model relies heavily on the assumption that teenagers have active and committed parents.  The teens that show up at my church every Wednesday night don’t have any.  They live with variations of uncle and aunts and grandparents and great-grandparents and step mom and half dads.  The traditional family is a TV show to them and they lives out of school lives with little to no adult accountability.  I have a nagging feeling they are not alone.

To be sure they long for adult attention.  It is their primary need and when it is met they light up like kids on Christmas morning.  So I try hard to get the older adults in my congregation to connect with them but the structures and rhythms of my current adult congregation cannot and will not change to accommodate them.

Therefore, I think the strategic approach is probably the best bet for our time.  The youth need a loving community that will last beyond their high school graduations.  We cannot claim God loves them and then throw them out when they turn 18.  They need rhythms and practices that are relevant to the world they live in and grew up in and that will sustain them through young adulthood and middle age into their elder years.  Most traditional churches just do not have those practices.

With that said, I don’t think the answer is either this or that.  In fact, I have been a part of churches and youth groups that successfully incorporated all 4 of these models together.

In conclusion the book was a good read and informed my own efforts to reach out across the generations and provide more unity, stability, understanding, peace and above all love to a church and a world that are badly in need of them.

What’s Pastor Kevin Watching: Star Trek Deep Space Nine

Standard

Amid the drudgery of working on sermons, writing my series of blog posts on anger, coaching Cross Country, dealing with an obstinant two year old and a fussy infant and spinning the plates of church work, I did not have time to finish the book I am reading this week.

I did, however, manage to watch a few episodes of the Star Trek classic Deep Space Nine.  I watched the whole series a few years back when I had more time on my hands and fell in love with it.  I return to the station from time to time when I can’t find anything else to watch.

There is an ongoing argument among Trekkies about whether The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine was the better show.  While TNG represented Roddenbery’s vision of a diverse group of people all playing by the same rules (aka, The Scientific Method), I found DS9 moved beyond Roddenberry through its portrayal of a group of diverse people who did not play by the same rules doing the difficult work of trying to get along.

With all that said, my favorite DS9 episodes were not the high concept narrative arcs (like the one beginning with Season 5’s finale) or dramas (like Visitor or Far Beyond the Stars).  Instead they were the ones that best embodied and showed life on the station itself or dug deeper into a character’s life and story.

So here is my list of some of the unsung episodes of the series.  This is not a “best of” list.  I am in agreement with most fans that the best episodes were Visitor, Far Beyond the Stars, Duet and In the Pale Moonlight (in no particular order).  Instead these are the episodes I felt deserved more attention and are worthy of watching again.

Progress S. 1 Ep. 15

This season 1 episode suffers in that it puts Kira front and center before Nana Visitor learned how to act.  However, the plot is top notch.  I loved the early season meta-narrative involving the struggles of Bajor’s new found independence.  This particular plot revolves around a farmer holding out on a moon that Bajor needs for “progress.”  This plot has been done in countless movies and TV shows, but Kira’s character growth throughout the episode makes it worth watching.  Kira’s final act of burning the cottage was chilling and definitely took Star Trek into new, albeit controversial, territory.  And it did what all the great DS9 episodes do.  It asked all the right questions and refused easy answers.

Civil Defense S. 3 Ep. 7

In sharp contrast to the previous episode, I picked this one because it is just too much fun.  There had to have been an agreement among the writers that when things got too serious they would throw in a tongue in cheek episode.  In this episode it really worked.  The characters accidentally trigger a security program that wreaks havoc on the station, threatening everybody’s life.  If anything could go wrong it did, often in entertaining ways.  The best part of the episode was when Gul Dukat suddenly beams aboard to take advantage of the situation.  Of course, before too long he becomes a victim of the security program himself and is forced to help resolve the conflict.  It was an episode where anything could happen and it was fun watching the characters react and renegotiate the situation as things spiraled out of control.

Hippocratic Oath S. 4

A DS9 list wouldn’t be complete without an episode about Bashir and O’Brien.  At this point in the series they are not quite best friends but also not the enemies they once were.  The pair crash land on a planet and are captured by Jem Hadar soldiers who are trying to free themselves of the drug that makes them slaves to the Founders.  Julian decides to help them.  O’Brien decides to escape.  In the end O’Brien wins but not at great cost to their budding friendship.  The episode also toyed brilliantly with the idea that the Jem Hadar could be free of their gods.  It really is too bad Julian never discovered the cure.

In the Cards S. 5

Like Civil Defense, I picked this episode because it is incredibly entertaining.  Unlike Civil Defense, the tongue in cheek was tempered by a prevailing doom.  The very next episode would officially begin the war with the Dominion and have half the cast abandon the station.  The Federation would not return to power for 6 more episodes and 5 months of audience time.  But before all that doom and gloom, Jake and Nog chase a baseball card around the station, doing various favors for the crew and waltzing into a conspiracy theory involving the Dominion.  Sisko’s monologue at the end brings it all home and the optimism generated by this episode would carry us through the next 7 episodes and 5 months.

Honor Among Thieves S. 6

I admit the Orion Syndicate narrative was useless to the show.  There were all ready too many antagonists in Deep Space Nine.  Adding another one in the sixth season was a bit of an overreach.  With that said, I have a sentimental attachment to this episode.  When I was in High School I was channel surfing and came across it.  I watched the whole thing, not knowing anything else about DS9 and found myself strangely challenged by the idea that a good guy could befriend one of the bad guys.  O’Brien works undercover to discover a Syndicate plot that involves assassinating a Klingon ambassador.  His handle, a man named Bilby, is not the antagonist my unenlightened High School self expected.  He has a family he loves and a back story with many shades of gray.  Needless to say, I mourned with O’Brien when Bilby was killed in the end.  Star Trek has always succeeded by transcending the imaginary lines between good and evil and my early experience with this episode became quite formative in my own theological and ethical struggles.

The Siege of AR-558 S. 7

Many will point to “In the Pale Moonlight” as the episode where Starfleet sacrificed her principles in order to win the war against the Dominion.  I think “The Siege of AR-558” accomplished it better.  In it the crew helps an embattled group of soldiers defend an installation against invading Jem Hadar.  Rom’s leg gets amputated and the Federation wins by using the Jem Hadar’s weapons (in this case mines) against them.  The episode’s power was summed up in two moments.  The first was the disgust displayed when the Federation learned of the invisible mines.  Their existence seemed to prove how unethical the Jem Hadar were.  The second was when the Federation used the same mines to kill half the invading force.  This truly was where no Star Trek episode has gone before.  It asked all the right questions about war without giving any easy answers.  It also set up another brilliant episode in “It’s Only a Paper Moon” which I have no time to discuss here.

I could go on with other great entries into the DS9 narrative but the ones above sufficiently encompass the brilliance of the show.  In a week where I needed an escape from the drudgery of life I found these episodes and others like them did not only provide entertainment but spoke wonderfully into the world I live in.  When the credits rolled and I returned to earth I did so with a greater compassion and understanding for the world around me.  And that is what good television and good art in general should accomplish.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Beasts by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

Standard

I was in Hood River, OR last weekend for a wedding and my wife and I meandered into a book shop.  I happened upon a book called “Beasts: What Animals Have to Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil.”  Since I am a theologian who has a vested interest in good and evil, I grabbed the book and read the inside cover, which said, “There are two supreme predators on the planet with the most complex brains in nature: humans and orcas. In the twentieth century alone, one of these animals killed 200 million members of its own species, the other has killed none.”

Jeffrey Maussaieff Masson

Click to see Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s website.

My curiosity was piqued.  Why were whales killing themselves?  Why had nobody told me?  What could I do to stop all these homicidal killer whales out there?  I might have to request a transfer to Orca Church of the Nazarene so I can start saving and sanctifying this violent species.

So I eagerly bought the book and spent a few days reading through it.  It turns out whales are not homicidal after all.  In fact they live quite peacefully, though they are predators that feed on millions of smaller fish.  Instead it is us humans who killed 200 million members of our own species.

Jeffrey Masson concludes, “There is something different about humans” and he spends 10 wonderful chapters illustrating it.  At times preachy, at other times humble, Masson takes us on a tour of the “wild”-erness, introducing us to wolves, elephants, bears, and crocodiles.  It turns out none of these creatures are nearly as “wild” or as “violent” as their stereotypes imply.  Wolves have only killed two people in North America in 200 hundred years and one of those accounts is heavily disputed.  Bears are huge and mean but their violence is never directed towards each other and when it is directed towards humans, they usually have a good reason (like hunger or defense).

In nature you will not find the gruesome brutality that describes the human race.  We bomb our own people.  We beat our own mates and children.  We spend millions of dollars to develop weapons that we use to conquer other tribes and destroy or enslave them.  We often slaughter children and rape women in the process.  And we just don’t do it to ourselves, we usually exercise brutality against other animals as well, for no reason or purpose other than we like to kill.

In sharp contrast, Masson argues that when brutality is found in the “wild” it usually is because a traumatic event has occurred among the animals species.  Then Masson asks the million dollar question, “What traumatic thing happened among humans to make us so violent?”

He concludes it has to do with the development of agriculture and domestication about 10,000 years ago.  When we learned to domesticate animals and grow our own crops (on our own land), it turned us violent.

I find that conclusion far too simplistic.  I do think domestication and agriculture probably had something to do with increasing our violent tendencies but as a theologian I would argue what Masson is searching for is akin to our doctrine of original sin.

At its heart, this Christian doctrine, believes something traumatic did happen to the human race in our infancy.  The Scriptures use the story of Adam and Eve to illustrate it as an open act of rebellion against God that sent us into a wilderness life.  Genesis 3 is also far too simple a narrative but therein lies its beauty.  The reality is at some point humans became incredibly different from the animals and that difference led to us becoming a brutally violent species.

In the later chapters Masson tempers his argument and describes the good differences between humans and the other animals.  He mentions that in the “wild” you will not see animals protecting other species.  But humans will chain themselves to trees in front of bulldozers and PETA works tirelessly to fight against the brutality committed in slaughterhouses.  You don’t see anything like these “organizations” among animals.  They will defend their own kind but leave the others to die.  In fact, the only place we find hospitality in the animal world is among domesticated dogs, who have been taught over the centuries to protect their human masters (though my dog seems to have unfortunately skipped that class in canine school).

In the end, Masson finds much hope amidst the despair that is the human race.  He believes that our good angels might win the day in the end.

I share that same hope but I call it grace.  God is working among us to redeem us and purify us and restore us to harmony, even in the middle of great violence and war.

It almost makes me want to chain myself to a tree and go swimming with orcas and running with bears.  .  .almost.

What’s Coach Kevin Reading: Ole’ McDonnell Had A Track Team N-C-A-A-A!

Standard

This was the first week of Cross Country practice meaning I had to become “Coach” again.  A few weeks ago I wrote about the blessings and frustrations of being bi-vocational but in those posts I did not have the opportunity to delve into the tension of being a leader in two very diverse settings.

There are a lot of people who would look to the world of athletics to find meaningful metaphors for a pastor’s role.  I personally know several pastors who call themselves “coach” as an attempt to be hip and relevant.  And I like the coach metaphor to describe some of what a pastor should be but the metaphor breaks down at the point of the sacraments because a clergy’s primary responsibility is to provide the sacraments and there is no room in a “coaching” model to account for it.

You can buy the book here.

With that said, there is much to be gained in pastoral leadership by looking to some of the great coaches and this week my college coach recommended I read the biography of John McDonnell, who is considered the Greatest NCAA Track and Field coach of all time.  He was born in Ireland and had a mildly successful racing career before becoming a part time assistant Track coach at University of Arkansas where he was later promoted to Head Coach.  He built a strong team by recruiting foreign talent and built on his early success to recruit some of the best athletes in the country.  He ended up winning 42 National Championships, with 5 National Triple Crowns (which means winning Nationals in XC, Indoor and Outdoor Track in 1 year) and he coached several National, World and Olympic champions.  (You can read the rest of his accomplishments at his Wikipedia page here).

A lot of McDonnell’s success came from the providence of his connections, personality and that ambiguous trait we call “calling.”  But the thing that impressed me the most about McDonnell, other than his work ethic, was his ability to coach individuals into a team.  Almost every athlete quoted by the book remarked about McDonnell’s skill in convincing over sized egos to work for the team.

It is quite the accomplishment because Track and Field is a highly individualized sport.  Many coaches, even successful ones, fall into the trap of coaching individuals and forgetting about building a team dynamic.  However, McDonnell’s philosophy was that the individuals who work for a team will do better than those who work for themselves.  And, of course, a team full of teammates will go places no other individual has gone.  (My last Track season proved the inverse of that point, unfortunately.)

But coaching the team did not mean McDonnell neglected the individuals.  Although McDonnell was a distance man through and through, his office door was always open for private conversations with jumpers, throwers and sprinters.  He met one on one with every athlete, giving them the attention they needed and deserved.  But when he met with individuals, his goal was to build a better teammate, not a bigger ego.  And the results speak for themselves.

Although I read about McDonnell in order to be a better coach, I think it might make me a better pastor too.  The sad reality of our time is “religion” has become an individual sport.  People use the phrase, “my own personal relationship with Jesus” as an excuse to make up their own gods and rules to live by.  As in Track, to even suggest that “religion” might be a team sport earns you derision and mocking laughter.  The laughter gets worse if you work the word “church” in there.  But the reality is the best teammates make the best Christians and the worst Christians are the lone ranger types who go it alone.

It is a hard reality to face as a pastor, especially one as inclusive and community oriented as I am.  But this week McDonnell reminded me that in such a world you must not neglect the individuals.  In fact, the context means you have to pastor down to that level and meet individuals where they are at, even if that means facing their made up gods.  You have to meet one on one with them, listen to them and support them (even if the stuff they believe is the weirdest stuff you ever heard).  

But the goal of individualized pastoral attention should not be to build a better lone ranger Christian but to mentor a better teammate, someone who will look to another’s interests before their own, whose attitude will be the same as that of Jesus who emptied himself of all but love and became poor that others might become rich.  If I may say it another way, a pastor should not be about helping someone get along with their own personal god better.  Instead we should help them love their neighbor.  When they accomplish that they will probably find their personal relationship with the one, true God has improved drastically, just as when a Track star gains points for the team, he or she finds they ran 10 times faster than they would have if they were out for themselves.

It is a rather difficult thing to do, what with all the egos running amok in the church and on the Track but I am confident the better a pastor/coach gets at it, the more Christlike we will all become.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: The Grapes of Wrath

Standard

Over the last few weeks I have run across quotes, allusions and references to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” everywhere I turned.  I had a very kind High School English teacher who didn’t believe in torture, so I had never the book.  But I figured maybe God was more cruel than my English teacher and was now requiring that I read it.

So I was obedient to the calling and found a cheap copy on Google play.  As it downloaded, my wife warned me in a way that echoed Dante, ‘to abandon all hope ye who read that book.”  Although she had never read the book herself, her words were vindicated by a 1 star Google review by someone named Megan that said, “Horrible! I only read this because I had too for English class.  The whole time I’m thinking dafaq? is going on.”

I ignored my wife’s and Megan’s reservations and resignedly finger flicked my way through the book.  As my finger perfected the side swipe, my mind, heart and soul spent the week surviving the Great Depression with the Joad family.

As I struggled my way across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California with the Joads, I was often tempted to think, “I am glad we have come such a long way in the 75 years since this was written.”  Honestly, we kind of have.  I mean right now as a nation we do a lot better at feeding and housing homeless people than at any time before and better than most countries throughout history.  Despite popular belief this assistance does not just come from the government, but a large amount of individuals, churches, NGO’s and for-profit organizations give a lot of time and money to helping the less fortunate.

Still, I hesitate to write off “The Grapes of Wrath” as an antiquated story from that time when we evicted ranchers from their ancestral homes, lured them into traveling across the country, starved them to death and then insulted them by calling them, “lazy.”  Instead, the book seems to contribute to the very timely and relevant discussion about the two golden rules that war within us.  The first golden rule is that Scriptural one about loving your neighbor as yourself and treating others as you would like to be treated.  The second golden rule is much more persuasive, “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.”

The story begins with a bank that has the gold making the rule that farmers in Oklahoma had to leave the land of their ancestors because one man on a tractor could do the work of 10 without one.  The man on the tractor gets paid extra if he uses the tractor to bulldoze the ancestral home.  The story continues as scheming merchants and used car salesmen make up the rules of “fair” trade, leaving the homeless ranchers with junk cars in exchange for their priceless heirlooms.  Along the road, power hungry policemen, angry store operators and fearful property owners set the agenda by which the Joads must live.  Sometimes this results in violence.  Most of the time it merely results in the tyranny of an empty stomach and the pain of feeling useless and unwanted.

Steinbeck summarizes all of this with the sentiment that the Joads, “were weary and frightened because they had gone against a system they did not understand and it had beaten them.”  That sentence might be a worthy contender for thesis of the book.

But Steinbeck doesn’t let the second golden rule win the day entirely because the Joad’s story is filled with sudden bursts of compassion.  A one-eyed used car parts seller practically gives the Joad’s a car part for free.  The preacher traveling with the Joads confesses to a crime he did not commit so that the father who was accused of the crime could escape.  A starving mother feeds a group of hungry children the last little bit of stew she has.  Then there is the wonderful and classic diner scene where a cook gives a family a loaf of bread for 2/3rds of its cost. His wife goes one step farther and gives the children free candy.  This encourages some truck drivers to give a gracious tip.

But every crime of compassion comes with its own punishments and rewards.  The woman feeding the children gets yelled at by their mother.  The preacher’s confession gets the uncle to confess he has been hoarding $6.  In the end he keeps $2 for himself, which he wastes on liquor.  The one eyed used car seller gets a tongue lashing about feeling sorry for himself by the person who benefited from his generosity.  And in the diner, every act of compassion is followed by another act of compassion that is also accompanied by crude insults towards the beneficiaries.

I would like to think in the 75 years since the Great Depression ended we have become a more compassionate people who love our neighbors instead of inventing rules that favor the wealthy.  And perhaps we have.  Yet reading “Grapes of Wrath” gave me pause because I sense it is still not ancient history.

After all, I work with the 21st century migrant population and they are not unlike the Joads.  I spent three years working with homeless men in Kansas City and while some of them were born and raised there, the majority landed there with no money, looking for a fresh start.

Then I moved to the small town where I pastor.  It is filled with those who have migrated here from larger cities.  Most of them are young and dirt broke.  They moved here in beat up trucks or with no car at all.  They were running from a bad situation that usually involved drugs, alcohol and a broken romantic relationship.  They are desperately craving a new start but they never known anything different than what they ran from.  As I have gotten to know them, I find they are not unlike the Joads, “being beaten by a system they do not understand.”

Yet there are sudden bursts of compassion among both the inner city men and the small town migrants.  And these acts are quickly punished and rewarded all at the same time.  The offer of a place to stay comes with expectations and household rules that when broken yield angry brawls and hurt feelings.  The financial help from churches comes with the expectation that you will go to church there (a temptation I fight often to never convey).  Free babysitting is only free so long as the parents buy the babysitter the next carton of cigarettes.  The offer of free dinner comes with the expectation you bring the alcohol.  And lent money is always expected to be repaid, if not in dollars, in video games, movies, and cigarettes.

The rules and methods of compassion are opaque in such a world, just as they were in 1933.  Do we educate those who don’t know about the system so they can get along better in it?  Do we seek to reform the system and let some of those without the gold make the rules?  Do we vilify the wealthy as corrupt beneficiaries of the evil system?  Do we launch a revolution?  Or do we, who have the goldm visit the homes of the Joads?  Do we climb in their truck and travel across the country with them, letting their hope become our hope and their despair become our despair?  Do we listen to their stories, write them down and publish them to remind everyone else that our systems and structures and powers and authorities still leave much to be desired?  From what I understand of Steinbeck he advocated for all of the above but he seems to have been most successful on that last part.

So until the Bible’s golden rule trumps that other golden rule, I will seek to do the same.  I will visit the homes, travel with the people, listen to the stories and advocate for a better world.  To do any less would be to ignore the neighbor God called me to love.

What’s Pastor Kevin Listening To: Mumford and Son’s “Not With Haste”

Standard

I was at the county fair this morning and ran into a wonderful family from my church.  Their sons were in the sheep showmanship competition and did rather well.  While we watched the kids and the sheep (no pun intended) their mom gleefully informed me that there had a been a singing competition the night before and that the winners had both sung “Christian” songs.

I was delighted that the Christians had thrown down on those lousy non Christians.  I was even more delighted to find out that these songs had invited Jesus into their hearts to be their personal Lord and Savior.  I am so glad to know that the sins of these songs had been forgiven so that they could go to heaven when they die.  Certainly this is a sign of God’s great grace because most Christian songs I know have a lot of sins that need forgiving, like generic melodies, random key changes, less than clever lyrics and annoying vocals.  Still I am less excited about the prospect of these songs getting into heaven, or thinking these songs are the only ones we will sing there.

But it got me thinking about N.T. Wright and how he argues in “Surprised By Hope” that many expressions of every culture will survive Jesus’ second coming and be performed and enjoyed in the New Jerusalem.  I don’t think that will be limited to “Christian” music.  In fact, the lines we draw between secular and religious are weak human attempts to divide God off from the world that God wants to save.

Mumford and Sons’ album “Babel” does a lot to undo those frivolous lines.  Are these songs about a religious pilgrimage or a broken romantic relationship or both?  You can find scores of internet forums debating that question.

Being a pastor I have found the songs speak to my faith in ways “Christian” music seldom does.  And while I could write a 2 week long series in which I review each song individually, I will stick to the one that brings that album home at the very end.  After the highs (“I Will Wait” and “Lovers of the Light”) and lows (“Hopeless Wanderer” and “Broken Crown”), a brilliantly simple ballad called “Not With Haste” proclaims, “We will run and sing.  You will dance with me.  We’ll fulfill our dreams and we’ll be free.  We will be who we are and they’ll heal our scars.  Sadness will be far away.”

While many hear in those words the benefits of a healthy romantic relationship, I instead hear echoes of the New Creation.  In fact this week I told my wife that it might be one of the best songs about heaven I have ever heard.  For when we talk about the kingdom that is coming we are talking about being free and fulfilling dreams and sadness being far away.

And when Jesus comes we will certainly “be who we are.”  God didn’t create us to bear the scars we bear or wound others the way we do.  True humanity is not sinful.  We were made for love.  So when Mumford and Son’s proclaim, “we will be who we are” they might be talking about the freedom that arises from being and doing what you were created to do.

Beyond that the song is ultimately about hope.  Both secular and religious alike agree on that.  One internet comment I found proclaimed, “These are such unashamedly hopeful words. It’s not a reckless, foolish hope, but a hope that’s grounded in what he’s learned in the past. He’s not throwing caution to the wind, he’s believing with faith that the hopes that he’s clung to so tightly, even through the storms, will now come to pass.”

This week I needed unashamed hope.  Over the last two weeks I have experienced a lot of pain and suffering.  I have seen the scars in this battered and broken world.  I have talked to abused children, spoken to heartbroken parents, seen friends use and abuse each other, and watched a church do further harm.  I have been broken and on my knees (which are more beautiful lines from the song).  I have been tempted to put up a guard and struggled to keep my candle bright.  So I needed Mumford and Sons’ “Not With Haste.”  And I believe with faith that the hope I cling to as a Christian pastor will come to pass, even through these violent storms.

In that glorious hope, I long to see God save the entire “Babel” album and let it into the New Creation.  Otherwise we will be stuck singing “Jesus Freak” for all eternity and nobody wants that.

Until His Return, cling to hope.