The Value of Honesty in a Non-Confrontational Culture

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It is 60 degrees and cloudy outside with smatterings of rain.  Last week I drank not one but two Pumpkin Spice Lattes.  Yesterday I finished off the last of a jug of Simply Lemonade and sadly don’t plan on buying another one until late April, early May.  And due to the weather, I seriously debated not wearing shorts today.  In the end I put the shorts on because you can’t let go of summer al at once.  Yet still, it must be Autumn.

Nobody is happier about that than me.  I love the Fall.  I love football games and cross country races and pumpkin flavored everything and brown leaves that crunch beneath your foot.  Everything about this time of year is simply amazing, with one huge exception.

In the Autumn, because I am pastor, I have to spend huge amounts of time recruiting people to do things for me.

Of course us pastors are not really asking people to “help us out” but more to “help the church out.”  Yet it is hard to see it that way.  The church and its pastor get so closely intertwined during this time of year that we feel like we are asking everybody for deeply personal favors.  In fact, what little political capitol we have been storing up all summer is spent quite quickly through carefully worded, overly polite requests to “invest in discipling our children,” to “assist us in making our building more hospitable” to “aid our worship service in making it more vibrant” and to “help our outreach event reach the lost for Jesus.”  (See the key below for translations of all that Christianese.)

Not surprisingly most Christians in America don’t want to do any of those things.  After all it is the Fall, which means their personal lives have all become ten times busier than they were just one month ago, which is crazy because they were really busy a month ago.

So throughout the country church goers have specialized in the polite and non confrontational rejection that is barely a rejection.  Most times your poor pastor doesn’t know they have been rejected until they reflect back on it the next day.

“I just don’t feel like that is my calling.”

“I just need to focus on my family right now.”

“I have too much going on and can’t give it the attention it deserves.”

“I’ll pray about it.”

Once again, see the key below to translate all those Christianese cliches.

And I appreciate polite non confrontation as much as the next person.  In fact, I suppose the fact that nobody is willing to just say “no” outright symbolizes that there is just enough positional authority in the title “Pastor” to warrant some degree of nicety.

And yet I have found over the last couple weeks that I deeply appreciate outright “no’s” way more than the overly polite avoidance tactics adopted by most Christians.

In fact, those few times someone has just said, “no, I don’t want to do that,” I have found myself going back to tell them “thank you” because I would rather a blunt and honest truth than an overly polite lie.  I think there is biblical warrant for that.  Politeness is rarely, if ever, extolled in our great book but honesty is a downright basic requirement.  And sadly one that most Christians today sorely lack.

For that reason, when someone lies to me about wanting to help with the children’s ministry, I always wonder what else they are lying about and who else they are lying too.

But when someone just flat out tells me, “No, that isn’t my thing” I at least know I can trust them.

After all, the worse thing that can happen is that someone says yes out of obligation and then ends up hating the church and hating me because they felt coerced into doing something they don’t want to do.

So this gorgeous Autumn, as you sip those Pumpkin Spice Lattes and watch those Sunday night football games and feel the cold rain fall across your brow, feel free to be honest with your pastor(s).  Be polite and respectful as can be about it for there is a big difference between being honest and being a jerk.

But trust your pastor enough to tell them the truth about that halloween event or that children’s program or that lawn maintenance project.  Seriously, if your pastor can’t deal with a little bit of honesty they are probably in the wrong profession anyways!  Instead, I hope they reward you richly for it!

Christianese Dictionary

“Invest in discipling our children” means showing up once a week to color pictures with them.

“Assist us in making our building more hospitable” means taking time to fix a broken toilet or mow the lawn.

“Make our worship service more vibrant” means joining our worship team in whatever capacity.

“Help our outreach event reach the lost for Jesus” means showing up on Halloween and passing out candy to the trick-or-treaters.

“I don’t feel like it is my calling” means I don’t want to do it.

“I just need to focus on my family right now” means I don’t want to do it.

“I have too much going on right now and can’t give it the attention it deserves” means I don’t want to do it.

“I just need to focus on my family right now” means I don’t want to do it.

“I’ll pray about it” means no.

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 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!

Beyond the Talking Points: Why I am Ignoring “50 Shades of Gray”

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Before I get going, that title up there is a complete misnomer.  I totally misspelled “gray” and I did it on purpose to show you how clueless I am about the movie (or is it book?).  I also am not really ignoring “50 Shades of Grey” because if I were, I would not be writing this blog.

Still, I have not read the book and do not plan to see the movie.  I have, however, read the Wikipedia synopsis.

On Wikipedia the description of the plot sounded like your average run-of-the-mill soap opera or harlequin novel, both things we don’t need more of.  More than that, I was rather dismayed that sensual violence was now mainstream.

Still, the plot synopsis mentioned that the couple broke up in the end because they were incompatible.  At the time I thought that line would be a good conversation starter on true intimacy and compatibility.  After all, even by the plot’s own admission signed contracts of submission and dominance seem to run counter to intimacy.  But without having read the book, that conversation is one I won’t have.

Still, I wish there was some way to honestly begin conversations about the increasingly violent and erotic fiction that now lines our bookshelves and fills our televisions.  Heck, last night I was watching Gotham, a prime time, network TV show based off of Batman.  A side plot of the episode involved two mobsters kidnapping a judge and having a scantily clad prostitute beat him with a whip.  That scene would have been the stuff of late night HBO just 10 years ago.  Now there it is, on Fox at 8.

Perhaps somebody should start an honest conversation about that.

But here is the thing:  Evangelical Christians cannot have that conversation.

And here is why:  We have wasted our conversation capitol on things that don’t matter.

Over the last 30 years Evangelical Christians have led the country in mean and nasty attacks about insignificant cultural wars.  We have picked fights on everything from gun laws, to Harry Potter to Presidential Elections to mainstream media to trying to prove Barack Obama is a secret muslim who wasn’t born in America.

All of these ridiculous debates have exhausted whatever respect we had.

So when a novel comes out about a man beating a woman senseless and that novel goes mainstream and becomes a movie and we start to say, “Hey, maybe as a society we shouldn’t go here” we are laughed at and dismissed as another bunch of crazy religious fanatics who still think Barack Obama is the antichrist.

With that said, this post is not meant to be a lament.  Although I am in mourning over the respect we have squandered, I would like to wipe away the tears and see the “50 Shades” phenomenon as an opportunity to reclaim some ground.

There is an opportunity here to have a real dialogue about true sexual intimacy.  That dialog would have to proceed from respect, seek understanding and clarify our support for sexual wholeness.  It would not be easy, especially for evangelicals who often get emotional and angry while we let our good sense catch up.

Still it is possible to begin that conversation and here is how I think it might work:

1)  I would actually read the book.  I would not do so because I want too.  Let me be clear, there are some TV shows, movies and books that have erotic or violent content that I want to watch and read.  And I avoid them for my own spiritual health.  This is not one of those books.  I have zero desire to read erotic romance.  However, if I wanted to speak truth into this “phenomenon” I would have to take the hit and actually read the book.  Until I did that, my opinion would be easily dismissed and I would look like an idiot.

2)  I would acknowledge there is something very real drawing mostly women to the novel.  And I would not readily dismiss that something as “sinful” like many are doing.

3)  I would begin with the end of the book where the couple break up, blaming “incompatibility.”  That would be a wonderful launching point to discussions about intimacy.  After all intimacy seems to be underlying much of the force driving all of this.

4)  I would admit I do not have the answers to true intimacy.  I have been married 6 and a half years (which feels like forever) and just this month found out my wife likes 100 Grand candy bars (or was it Take 5’s?).  There are times when we are of one mind and spirit (and flesh) and times when I look at my wife wondering, “Why did I marry her” and “The Good Lord only knows why she married me?”  There are times when I want to race home just to be in the same room as her other times when I wonder if I could get away with sleeping at the church from here on out.  I do not have the answers to intimacy and I would be very honest about my own rough road in sexuality and marriage.

5) I would be very apologetic and humble about the harmful views my church has espoused about intimacy.  Let’s face it, we have said and believed some really stupid things.  Let’s also admit that we currently say and believe some really stupid things.  In 2015 there are still Christians arguing you only have one shot at intimacy and it is your honeymoon night.  Before and after that, you are doomed.  I am really sorry those morons exist.

6) The goal of the conversation would be truth, not judgment or even doctrinal/ethical clarity.  I really believe “50 Shades of Grey” probably has something to teach us about intimacy, even if it just shows us something to avoid at all costs (which it certainly does).  I also think its popularity has something to teach us about each other.  If I were to engage this cultural expression it would be with the hopes of helping people find out what that was.

But as that title above states, I am ignoring this particular debate so this is all hypothetical.

Maybe one day they will make a “Sword of Shannara” movie.  Then I will be all game.  I loved those books as a kid!

**After I posted this I realized that this book was actually the first in a trilogy and that the couple do end up married in the end.**

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

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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.

The Activity of God: 2 Case Studies

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Two things happened fairly close to home this weekend that have dominated national headlines.  The first happened within 100 miles of my house on a stretch of highway I drive often.  The second happened just a few hundred meters away from where my brother in law works and my brother in law watched the whole thing from a few meters away.

What caught my attention about both was not their nearness to me but that God was given credit for both.

The first happened Saturday morning, on Interstate 84 right outside of Baker City.  Icy roads and foggy conditions led to a 20 car pileup affecting more than 100 people.  Although several dozen were injured, the picture (right) that made the incident viral was of a man named Kaleb Whitby, who is younger than I am.  Kaleb walked away from the accident with two band aids on his face, but sadly, without a truck.

He probably should be dead, or at least on life support or at the very least on crutches.  Instead he is alive with 2 band aids.  His exact quote, according to the press was, “Thank God that I’m still alive.  Now I’ve got to go figure out why.”

As a pastor I find that quote endearing.   The laws of probability (laws which God created, a random number generator of sorts) dictate that he should be dead.  With that said, it might have been dumb luck and stranger things have certainly happened, though not often.  Yet as a believer I have no problem stating that God would reprogram that random number generator to keep Kaleb alive.  We call that a miracle.

The second thing that happened was that the Seattle Seahawks won both an onside kick and a coin toss, which then led to a conference championship and a trip to the Super Bowl.  My brother in law, who works for the Mariners, was on the sidelines watching the whole thing.  I am in a family of Seahawks fans and cheer for them when I am not cheering for the Chiefs.  I was thrilled they won but their game had been ugly up to the final minutes of the 4th quarter.  They had thrown 4 interceptions and received a ridiculous amount of avoidable penalties, the majority of which were because a player was on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage.

Still a great defensive line, a few miracle plays, the onside kick that bounced into their player’s hands and the luck of a coin toss led to the Seattle victory.

Moments after the game an understandably emotional Russell Wilson gave his team credit for staying in the game and stated how he “had no doubt.”  Then he said, “God prepared me for this game.  God prepared the team for this.”  Then the camera switched to a shot of the Seahawks’ players praying in a circle with one Packer in the mix.  I do not know, nor would I judge if I did, what they were praying.  Still, the entire event was one example of many that football is inventing a spirituality all its own.

Still, I wonder about Russell Wilson’s claim that God prepared them to win the game.  If I were not a Christian I would wonder at the absurdity of such a God, since Seattle was so unprepared they threw 4 interceptions and couldn’t keep their players on the right side of the line of scrimmage half the time.  I might argue that it seems to be the luck of a bouncy football and a coin toss that won the game, alongside an incredible defense that more than covered the offense’s sins.

Still, I am a Christian believer and must treat Wilson’s statement, along with Whitby’s above, with theological earnestness.

As a pastor, I would ask, “Does God really overrule the random number generator that governs the rest of us to save young men’s lives and help Seattle win football games?”

This question has many answers but I will focus on two.  The first is a philosophical one.  What can we say about a God who easily saves Kaleb Whitby’s live but leaves our high school secretary, who is an incredibly devout Christian and loving servant to our teenagers, with cancer?  Why easily override the laws to save Kaleb and not override those same laws to save the secretary?  Is such a God even good?  At the very least, philosophers argue, God should account for why the angels saved Kaleb and won’t save the secretary.

It gets worse with Seattle’s win.  I know very devout servants of Christ who are Packers fans and they feel wronged and robbed of a victory they probably deserved.  (I admit this, even though I am a Seahawks fan.)  More than that, a God who overrides the laws of a coin toss to help Seattle win is even more a tyrant for not doing so to save the lives of countless others who are starving to death or dying of cancer or being annihilated by extremists in the middle east.  Is a God good who prepares people to win football games, but has done lousy at preparing football teams to eradicate hunger and death?  Once again, philosophers would argue such a God should at least give an account of why.

However, I am not a philosopher.  I took required philosophy classes in college and seminary and went no further in the subject.  Perhaps because of that, I think that if God did indeed save Kaleb’s life and prepare Seattle to win, God would certainly be able to give us an account of why.  I trust God completely in those situations to do what is right.  In fact, if God were to show up and give an account it would probably be a lot like the one given to Job, “Who are you to contend with me?”

There is a second way to consider this question.  It is from a theological and Biblical perspective.  Luckily I took my fair share of Bible and Theology classes in college and seminary so I feel a bit more prepared in those areas.  In fact as I have thought about these two situations over the last day, I cannot get away from the 3rd Commandment which is, “Do not use the Lord’s name in vain.”

To call someone by name is to evoke their entire presence and bring their entire being to bear in the situation.  So a better translation of the 3rd commandment might be, “Don’t bring God into vain contexts” or “Be careful when you bring up God that it is not to address a foolish subject.”

This idea plays out in all of Scripture.  It certainly does so at the end of Job, where God seems to be mad that his name was brought haphazardly into Job’s conversation with friends.  In Isaiah 29:13 God speaks through the prophet saying, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”  Jesus quotes this again in Matthew 15 to describe the Pharisees who led the way in talking about God and bringing God’s name and presence into situations but did not lead the way in actual service to God.

With this in mind what do we say about the claims made of God this past weekend?  I know most Christians are delighted that God was even brought up in such high profile cases and I struggle to not be happy as well.  I also do not want to violate another commandment of Jesus’, mainly that of being hyper critical.

Still, it would seem to me that the God of Scripture would certainly break the rules of probability to save Kaleb Whitby’s life.  I do not know Kaleb.  He might be a model Saint or a lousy sinner.  He probably is like me, somewhere in between.  Regardless, Scripture reveals a God who works miracles to save the lives of all types of saints and sinners.  I hope that Kaleb finds a great mentor to help him answer his question about why God would save his life and what he should do next.  At the same time, I am sad that God is not doing the same for our High School secretary and pray often that God will.  Still, the God of Scripture would absolutely save Kaleb’s life for no other reason than love of the world and of Kaleb and his family.

The Seahawks are a different story.  We know that football certainly is vain.  It is a fun thing we do and a great pastime and I enjoyed the game yesterday as much as anybody.  Furthermore, I would never invent a new legalism by insisting people not watch it or play it.  Still, it is not an area of great spiritual meaning.  Football is vanity.

To attach God’s name and presence to something as vain as football would surely be a violation of the 3rd commandment.  It would be similar to telling people my wife loves green peppers.  My wife hates green peppers and if she overheard me saying she liked them she would either assume I was an ignorant husband who refused to notice even the rarest thing about her or she would assume I was a liar.  Both would not bode well for me.

I wish sometimes the church would give God the same attention.  Instead we try to attach God’s name to everything and anything that comes our way without stopping to ask whether God really wants to be a part of it.  In so doing, we might be force feeding God green peppers.  Or, to dispense with the metaphor, we are honoring God with our lips but our hearts are a universe away.

The God of Scripture does not prepare people to win football games nor would the God of Scripture rewrite the random number generator of the cosmos (a number generator God invented) to help one team win a vain and silly game over another.

With that said, I am delighted Seattle won and I am even more delighted that Kaleb Whitby is still alive.  I attribute the second to a God of life and love who overwrites the rules so that both may continue.  The first, I attribute to the random number generator that the God of life invented but doesn’t micromanage.  I guess you might call Seattle’s win dumb luck.

Still go Seahawks!  May that luck continue against the Patriots.

Kaleb, my prayers are with you and your family.  May the God of life and love continue to shower both to you as you seek to live a fruitful life.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Stuff Christians Like

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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.

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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.

A Sermon Somewhere: Shopping on Black Friday

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There is an old preacher’s joke that goes, “I don’t know where but there is a sermon in there somewhere.”  This series builds off of that by trying to find the sermons hiding beneath our everyday experiences.  .  .and failing miserably.

I have never gone shopping on Black Friday.  In fact, I don’t recall ever leaving the house on Black Friday, except maybe to go for a run in the wilderness and not the wilderness of shopping carts, frantic grandmas, speeding suburbans, and angry house moms that is known as “the Costco parking lot.”  Instead for me, the “black” in Black Friday has always described the other side of my eyelids, which is what I spend most Black Fridays staring at.

But then it happened yesterday.  While watching one of three football games at my in-law’s place, Fred Meyer played an ad about 1,248 times that advertised a 40 inch television for $150.

The first 652 times I completely ignored the ad, but on that magical 653rd time, my father in law repeated, “$150 for a TV is not bad.”

Now my wife and I own one television.  It is 26 inches wide and has deplorable speakers.  We bought it for $450 right after we got married and it has served us nicely, except once or twice a year the remote randomly stops working.  The first time we went for months without using the remote before we randomly discovered that if you unplug the television, wait a few seconds and plug it back in, the remote works again.

Still, my wife and I have been dreaming about a new television, one where maybe the remote works ALL of the time and with better volume.

So, I looked up from my book and said, “What brand was it?”

They replied all at once:  “Surely you are not going try to get one tomorrow?  You would have to camp out in front of Fred Meyer now and even then you probably won’t get one.”

“Well it might be fun,” I mused, while I found the ad online, an ad that boasted, “Only 10 per store!  Sale starts at 5am!”

“Looks like a good deal and even if I didn’t get one the experience would give me great sermon material.”

After all, most congregants can’t relate to stories about sleeping all day on Black Friday and then waking up to do a 10 mile long run in the wilderness.  But standing in line waiting for a TV, throwing elbows, tackling toddlers and yelling, “Haha!  I got one!” when you laid fingers on the prize is a sermon worth preaching.

I mused over it for a few hours.  5AM is early but I have done it before for far less noble reasons than buying a television.  We did need a new one and did not have more than $200 to pay for it.  A new television for our family room would mean we could move the old one to our bedroom.  Having a television in your bedroom is one of those defining staples that you have finally arrived at the swanky middle class life.

But 5am was early.  And who would want to wake up at that time for a television?  But it wasn’t for the television.  It was for the story.  I could regale my wonderful friends with the epic tale.  They would all laugh and shake their heads at me.  I would tell it at weddings and funerals and special occasions like Easter.

“This sunrise service reminds me of another time I woke up before sunrise but to get a television.  .  .”

“Then as my hand landed on the prize of the television I realized all that work to get out of bed was worth it.  .  .just like our dear, deceased Mary is now laying hold of her prize in heaven.”

“Just like I woke up at 5am to get my wife a television, you should keep your marital vows pure by going the extra mile for each other.”

There is no limit to what this story could do.

But 5AM is so early, especially after a day full of eating high calorie foods and watching football littered with Fred Meyer commercials.

So I finally asked my wife, “Is it worth it?”

“We do need a new TV, but we just don’t have $150 to buy one right now,” she replied.

Good.  That was it.  It was settled.  I was not waking up at 5am, even if the story would be epic.

But then my mother-in-law said, “If you get one, I will pay for it.”

Well, now it wasn’t settled.

I mulled it over for a few more hours and well into the night, even after going to bed.  In the end, for no discernible reason, I did not set my alarm.  I woke up around 7:30 when my infant son woke up screaming and my toddler daughter pounced on the bed.  It was a good moment, a wonderful family gathering full of smiles and giggles and my angry wife muttering curses at the three of us as she tried to fall back to sleep.

So can I tell a story about that time I didn’t wake up at 5am to brave the cruel crowds and cold rain to buy a television?

I don’t know where, but there has to be a sermon in there somewhere.

Becoming Absent to Save the Absent Generation

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This is the fourth and final post in a series on my attempts to relate cross-generationally.  After the introduction post on Monday, I wrote on Tuesday and Wednesday about the older, Silent generation and the middle aged Baby Boomers.

I want to finish this series with a unique post about being a Millenial Pastor who is trying like crazy to understand and relate to those my age.  .  .and failing miserably.

I was born in late 1984, two years after they stopped making Generation X babies.  My older sister was born in early 1981, right before they started making Millenials.  The chief difference between her and I is that she didn’t have a home computer in High School and didn’t take a laptop to college.  I had a computer in my room and bought my first laptop a few days before my freshmen year of college.  More than that, my sister was in grad school when Facebook was invented and I actually had an account a full 3 years before she got one.

However, as I read the descriptions of Gen X and Millenials I find that I land somewhere between the two.  You might call me an X’d Millenial or a Milleniax or a Xillenial.

Despite my commonalities with both Generations, I am a kid who grew up in the church and am now a leader in it.  Concerning spirituality and morality I am fairly traditional.  I pastor an old-school traditional church that opens every service with a hymn.  I don’t play the electric guitar (or acoustic) and I still think that waiting until you get married is in your best interests.  I do not swear, nor do I have any tattoos, nor do I drink alcohol.  And the older I get, the less inclined I am to watch violent or pornographic television.  I couldn’t watch more than a few episodes of Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead or Orange is the New Black.

All of this makes me unique because the average Gen X or Millenial will not attend a traditional church nor follow its traditional morality.  They didn’t wait until marriage.  They love those graphic and obscene television shows.  If they do go to church it will be to a church that brews organic blends, not Folgers and plays super emo, mellow choruses while sporting their newest tattoos of religious iconography.

But not many Gen Xers or Millenials go to church.  In fact, regarding the church, they are an absent generation.

This makes me a very rare breed among my peers.

More than that, the young adults in my small town all ready have 3 kids from 3 different partners.  They are addicted to everything from cocaine to marijuana to tobacco to alcohol to video games.  They do not know who King David or Isaiah or the Apostle Paul are.  And their tattoos are certainly not of a religious nature.  They all believe in God but beyond that they don’t understand religion nor have a use for it.  And, to be honest, as an ordained religious icon, I do not understand them.

I say all of this in the way of confession because my congregation hired me to bring in the young adults and I do not know how to even begin to bridge the gap between my traditional morality and their libertarian lack of values.

Last summer we started a Tuesday night dinner group for young adults at the church.  Over a month it grew to 15 and died just as quick because those attending moved away or got evening jobs.  During those dinners I struggled with whether I should even bring up Jesus or just continue to talk about video games, hunting, firefighting and sports.  In the end Jesus went unnoticed and they all checked out of church.  But don’t get me wrong, the result would have been the same had I been overly pushy about Jesus.

They claim to love our Sunday services but they are always too hungover to get out of bed to come.  They say they will come to church events but always end up finding a reason not to.  They say they want a children’s program but when we start one they do not show.  They say they want a nursery for their children and when we opened one, they took their kids into the service with them anyway and continued to complain we were not “toddler friendly.”

Meanwhile they wallow in bad decision making.  They can’t find a place to live because nobody will rent to them because they trashed the last 20 apartments and screamed at the last 10 landlords.  They desperately want to work and some are hard workers, but they have no idea how to treat their coworkers and bosses so nobody will hire them.  They are all in complex and miserable custody battles for their children with ex-partners, parents and grandparents.  The more details I hear, the more I am sure none of them should win custody.

The end result is they complain about their self inflicted “bad luck.”  I help them dig out of their latest mess, all the while hoping it will mean they will own their bad decisions and turn their lives over to a loving God.  It hasn’t quite happened yet with any of them.

I know this is not the case for all Gen Xers and Millenials but it is certainly the norm in my small town.

So I do not have any easy solutions here except to say at least I know their names and consider them friends and all that happened outside the walls of my church.  In a very real way I have had to become absent to reach out to these absent generations.  I am not just talking about the now old trope of a minister spending more time out of the office than inside of it.

I am talking about leaving the religious establishment of my youth.  I am talking about choosing to forget about things like Bible Quizzing and Mission Trips and Summer Camp and Private High School and Christian University.  I have to forget those memories and pretend like I know nothing so save those who don’t know nothing.  I have to re-imagine my life as if it had been devoid of things like potlucks, VBS, G rated movies and two loving parents.  Instead I have to picture how my life would be with cocaine, abuse, neglect and X rated porn.

This does not mean I start getting tattoos and smoking cigarettes  and drinking myself into oblivion.  It does mean I pretend I have no idea who Paul the Apostle is so that I can help my peers discover him for themselves.  It means I do not preach at them concerning the dangers of alcoholism, or even cocaine, but instead ask questions about what such use is doing for their lives.

I don’t defend their employers and landlords but listen to their complaints accusations against them.

And I certainly don’t take sides in their custody battles.

Pulling this off is incredibly difficult, especially since my patient compassion for them has yielded no measurable results.

Yet I have found that if I meet them where they are at, then at least I keep the conversation open.  And I hope without much reason that when they are ready to move forward I can introduce them to a God and His church that longs for them to be reconciled.

Happy Halloween!  May the presence of our Lord together with All the Hallowed Saints be with you this weekend.

Becoming Silent to Save the Silent Generation

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I am the pastor of a small church in a small, rural town.  This means the “young people” in my congregation are 60 years old.  The middle aged are in their 70’s and we have a few older types in their late 80’s and early 90’s.

One of the older members (mid 80s) loves talking about how “those young people” are destroying society.  According to her, they are all lazy.  Not one of them knows how to sew or cook (“They don’t even teach that at college any more!!”).  Instead they just sit around and watch TV all day and microwave their ready made dinners.

At first I was grossly offended, thinking of myself as one of “those young people” but over time I realized that when she said “young people” she meant “everybody younger than her” and everybody younger than her is, well, everybody.

Her attitude is indicative of the deep frustration the Silent Generation has with everybody younger than them and every cultural development since 1960.  Although their lives have born witness to America’s rise to global dominance and they experienced the greatest economic prosperity the world has known, they are still a very bitter and hurting group of people, something Fox News has learned to market and use to make incredible amounts of money, but little actual “news.”

Still this generation experienced an amazing amount of comfort.  They worked 40 hour weeks for livable wages in strong institutions.  They were the first to have access to an ever growing industry of health care.  In fact if they were born just 20 years earlier they would all have passed away all ready.  As it is they are still alive and physically active.  They also were the first to buy easiness and comfort in the form of microwaves, televisions, personal computers and cell phones.

And yet, quite ironically, as a generation they are struggling with depression.

As comfortable as the world has become during their lives, it has also changed drastically and not always for the better.  They bought their televisions to watch “Leave it to Beaver” and “I Love Lucy.”  Now they turn on the TV and channel surf for hours trying to find something “wholesome,” only to be disgusted by the likes of “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story” and “Sons of Anarchy.” 1

The microwaves made cooking easy but it also made their children incredibly obese and, coupled with the cordless phones, gave many of them cancer.  Buying a car in their teens was a rite of passage.  Now their grandchildren and great grandchildren won’t buy cars and many won’t get driver’s licenses because of things like “pollution” and “high gas prices.”

They also spent their lives working for institutions that are crumbling around them, whether they be billion dollar corporations, local plants and mills, mom and pop shops or even Christian congregations.

More than that their children (late Baby Boomers and early Gen Xers) have mostly rebelled against their values.  After all it is their children who are watching “The Walking Dead,” microwaving all their meals and championing the anti pollution causes.  It is also the Baby Boomers who are in power while most of the institutions collapse.

Hence my wonderful congregant’s consistent complaints about “those young people.”  She grew up in an idealistic world but somehow couldn’t sell the idealism to her children and grandchildren and their friends.  And now as their eyesight dims and their hearing fades and their bones begin to crack, the Silent Generation finds it difficult to stay optimistic.

My first exposure to Christians in the Silent Generation was actually through my wife.  She worked in a once great women’s ministry that was founded in 1935 and over the 20th century netted millions of dollars and just as many members.  But currently this ministry is struggling to stay afloat and reinvent itself for the new world.  The average age of my wife’s coworkers was 62 and the work environment tended towards toxic.  The average conversation centered around “the hostile, evil, liberal culture” and “those young people who are destroying everything.”

As my wife and I reflected on the bitterness and rage of these older women, I realized that underlying all that frustration was a deep sadness.

They grew up in a simple world that made sense.  If you worked hard you made money.  If you saved you earned.  There were only two super powers on the world stage and the enemy had a face and a name.  Their values were absolute and most people agreed with them, even though they couldn’t sell them to their children.

All of that has now changed and change implies loss as much as it does gain.

Therefore the Silent Generation is a generation in mourning.

They are currently in deep despair because they just don’t understand what has become of their utopia.  In light of this, I have found it is not my job to argue with them or defend “those young people.”   It is not my duty to rage against the world they called a utopia (although as I have argued elsewhere, it was anything but).  It is not my right to try to defend the values and decisions of their children and grandchildren.  It is not even my responsibility to tell them to “get over it” and accept this brand new world, even though doing so is in certainly in their best interests.  It isn’t even beneficial to use high brow academic words (like “post enlightenment” and “paradigm shift”) to articulate for them what has happened.  Those words mean nothing to them and I found that when they do understand them they just get angrier.

Instead as with all pastoral care to the grieving it is simply my job to be silent for the silent generation.  I endeavor to be slow to speak and quick to listen.  And I hope to listen in ways that will help them process and articulate their emotions and fears and frustrations.

The stages of grief come into play here as well.  As a generation they got stuck at the anger stage, though some are still bargaining and others are just plain depressed.  As their pastors and counselors we should be helping them negotiate their way to acceptance and to hope.  I have been able to pull this off with a precious few and the results have been magnanimous.  Instead of getting together to lament the world that was and rage against the world that is, they get together to work towards a better world to be.

Certainly keeping them hopeful is no easy task, especially as their bodies and minds begin to fail.  But I am optimistic that careful attention to their grief can free them to enjoy the last few years of their lives as they head to eternity.