Your Relationship with God is Misdirected

Quick hit (and trying out this "blogging from google reader" thing)...Professor Richard Beck writes the following great article on what practical ways that Christians might want to start working on if they truly want to embody the love of Christ.

The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity: "

A few years ago a female student wanted to visit with me about some difficulties she was having, mainly having to do with her family life. As is my practice, we walked around campus as we talked.

After talking for some time about her family situation we turned to other areas of her life. When she reached spiritual matters we had the following exchange:

'I need to spend more time working on my relationship with God.'
I responded, 'Why would you want to do that?'
Startled she says, 'What do you mean?'
'Well, why would you want to spend any time at all on working on your relationship with God?'
'Isn't that what I'm supposed to do?'
'Let me answer by asking you a question. Can you think of anyone, right now, to whom you need to apologize to? Anyone you've wronged?'
She thinks and answers, 'Yes.'
'Well, why don't you give them a call today and ask for their forgiveness. That might be a better use of your time than working on your relationship with God.'
Professor Beck ends with this nugget:
I truly want people to spend time working on their relationship with God.
I just want them to do it by taking the time to care about the person standing right in front of them.
Yeah. Ow. Nailed it!

I don't mean to say that one is better than the other. But time spent embodying kindness even in the most mundane of situations may offer you greater blessings and opportunities to share Christ than hours in prayer could do.



Thank You Atheist Animal-Lovers!

I've been sick with worry that even though we are in the last days before the Rapture and the Tribulation...well, honestly, my cats haven't confessed Christ and seem to be unable to do who will care for them when I'm uplifted?

I've worried for a while about their needs and the lack of food...even if I was home, my Left Behind Gospel (it is one, right?) says that my body would disapparate and no flesh would be left behind to feed them for a week or so.  How would they cope?

So, imagine the deep sense of relief I got when I found out about Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, a group of atheists who will take care of my pets when all that is left of me is smoking boots.

We are a group of dedicated animal lovers, and atheists. Each Eternal Earth-Bound Pet representative is a confirmed atheist, and as such will still be here on Earth after you've received your reward. Our network of animal activists are committed to step in when you step up to Jesus.
Thank you, atheists, for putting my heart at ease knowing that even though half the earth's people will die from the Great Tribulation, at least my cats will be well nourished on everyone's carcasses.

Now if only I can find the money to send emails to the suckers left behind, and stop wondering about "how you check if a person is a confirmed atheist?" then my soul will be ready for the Rapture.

Thanks.  Whew.


Is "Good Enough" the Future of Ministry?

Quick hit: we talked before about rough "unfinished" forms of ministry being allowed to take root in "What the Church can Learn from Wikipedia." Per the article below, it seems the same concept is taking place in technology as fast flexible programs are replacing high-tech ones simply due to it being "good enough" to get the job done.

I wonder how often we argue over the perfection of a ministry while "good enough" ministries to meet people's needs lie dormant on the "ideas" sheet.

Is "Good Enough" the Future of Technology?: "himitsu writes 'In an article titled 'The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine,' Wired claims that the future of technology, warfare and medicine will be filled with 'good enough' solutions; situations where feature-rich and expensive products are replaced with bare-bones infrastructures and solutions. 'We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect. These changes run so deep and wide, they're actually altering what we mean when we describe a product as 'high-quality.'''

Read more of this story at Slashdot.

Thoughts? If "good enough" is fine for technology as a tool, why isn't "good enough" ok in ministry and mission ideas?


Infinite Loops, Nintendo, and Human Depravity

I wonder if I'm being influenced by moving to Tornado Alley.  In writing my draft of response to the doctrinal questions of the UMC (you'll see them eventually), I'm struck by a repeated theme in my answers: loops

Some examples of concepts I'm tinkering with:

  • Humanity is not fallen, but swirling in circles without a firm foundation.
  • Humanity succumbs to cycles of violence which are not easily broken.
  • In the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the other three marks circle like a funnel above the bible, constantly evaluating the bible in light of those three but never from the same place (or even elevation).
  • Cycles of steps in Sanctification and seeking Christian perfection (Wesleyan theology)
In programming terms, an infinite loop is one where a computer program gets a code or request that it cannot fulfill and its response evokes the code again. This infinite loop of request and response usually freeze the computer and causes it to crash and BSoD.

I wonder if this is the human condition (often called depravity): we are stuck in an infinite loop, swirling without stopping, succumbing to cycles of violence and unable to escape without the grace of God.  This not only breaks these cycles but gives us a firm foundation to reorient our lives around.

One theological problem is that infinite loops are usually done by programmer error, which would mean that God as Programmer made an error in the human makeup or intentionally put us in this situation, neither of which is theologically acceptable to this blogger.

One possible response is found in an area near and dear to my heart: Nintendo video games.  These games (or cartridges...the ones you blew into, remember?) are written as an infinite loop that will run until the power is turned off.  Their consoles are so simple they don't have an operating system: thus, each individual cartridge is based on an assumed infinite loop to keep it running and to give the game's code inside the ability to work.

Perhaps then God as Nintendo Programmer writes us on an infinite loop, but it is the subprograms that we write on our own cartridges that cause us to foul up and lose our way.  We write our own shallow reflections of infinite loops which cause us to get stuck in cycles and break the code within. But there is hope: our words and actions alone will not break the cartridge or ensure an upgrade, only God can do that.  By realizing our life is reliant on God alone, all other cycles can cease and we can work on building up our own programs into life-affirming ones that continue even when the reset button is pushed.

....And all it takes is the breath of God blowing into our cartridges that gives us life!  Hahahahahaha...whew...ok, I need to end this analogy.

I think this may be the world's first blog post on Nintendo and human depravity.  Maybe that is too nerdy for Saturday morning and I should go back to writing my doctrinal answers.  But for those of you that enjoy nerdy analogies (I've written them before)...what do you think?

(Graphic from Stevie Nova)


Franchise Churches; Disenfranchised Christians

A few months back, to much fanfare, launched a free video teaching website which could beam preachers and teachers' videos directly into your living room to be digested alone or with a small group.  The expressed purposes of the website were fourfold but one in particular stood out to me:
Develop your ministry.
You might be bi-vocational or maybe you’re planting a church. Either way, video teaching allows you put more energy into reaching your community by freeing you from weekly message preparation.
In other words, by replacing the custom message crafted by a church leader with a cookie-cutter one (although doubtless a great cookie), then church is good.  It's ok if the church leadership is busy...just offer them a great message from a far-away pastor who knows exactly what you need.

I know I'm being snarky, but in all seriousness, I worry about reliance on broadcast to replace the personal nature of pastoral ministry.  It's like people are coming for a meal and get the same thing wherever they go.  That's the beauty of fast food franchises like McDonalds: you get the exact same food wherever you go.  It is comforting, but its not that great for you.

I fear this is the beginning of franchise churches: ones that offer the same stump message regardless of who is receiving it.  I get annoyed by this from preachers on a preaching circuit too.  As much as I like Shane Clayborne and Tony Campolo, in most of their preaching engagements they rely on the same schtick.  It's a good sermon, it inspires the soul, but it gets repetitive if you've seen them twice.

Going along with this is a recent blog series by Rev. Andrew Conard on Micro-Churches and what he sees as the future of the UMC (read them here).  His posts are insightful and I fully agree with his points, but his fourth post relies on the same approach that is using: broadcast worship and teaching to small groups which then reflect on the homogeneous material.  A snippet from his fourth post supports this concept:
...Utilizing a live stream of worship could enable existing congregations to begin another worship service with a small amount of resource commitment.
I love the rest of Andrew's posts, but this next-to-last one rubbed me the wrong way.  It's one thing to encourage bottom-up groups (as I mused about in What the Church Can Learn from Wikipedia); it's another to have bottom-up meetings with a top-down message crafted by a person thrice or more removed from their situation.  While Andrew undoubtedly was focusing on a single church adding another service, which is a more personal connection that I applaud, the application of that approach leads to a slippery slope towards franchise churches that get the same message beamed to them every week from on high.

I guess I'm struggling with how grassroots churches can work with a top-down broadcast medium.  I worry that if more and more churches turn to the ease of boxed videos like, if more and more mega-churches create tentacles like WalMart churches, then Christianity becomes a franchise and christians seeking room to grow become disenfranchised.

While one can argue that preaching and even the bible are top-down broadcast mediums, they are understood as more personal than a third party's opinion.  Even guest preachers, if they are good, are prepped beforehand by the church's pastor or laity on their congregation's struggles.  And if you think convincing a board on a local church to try a new ministry is hard, try doing it to a corporate church board.

This is one of those posts where I don't have a solution at the end.  I'm just worried for the future when ease of use of homogenous materials becomes seductive, when small groups wrestle with sermons thrice-removed from their context, and when eight churches in an area are plants from one mega-church.  If it has happened to food chains, banks, and other industries, we must be mindful of it happening to churches too.  We don't need more homogenous works and is effective (like franchises), but I fear on a large scale that franchised outreach leads to more disenfranchised Christians than it inspires.



Cringe-Inducing Church Stories [open thread]

Anyone got any cringe-inducing church stories?  You know what I mean.  Those times that you've seen or been told by a good friend of when Christians get it so....awkwardly....wrong?

Here's my two (one heard today, the other from the past)

  1. A family was sitting in a pew together during service.  A child was playing with a helicopter toy in church and, given that he was learning his words, he said "helicoptor" in a quiet voice every so often. At the end of church, a person in front of the family turned and said to the mother "How does it feel to know your child interrupted service for everyone around him?"  The family never went back.
  2. A youth was on a mission trip to another city and the mission team worshipped with an area congregation on Sunday morning.  The youth didn't sing well but loved to sing, and did sing the hymns respectfully during the worship service.  Halfway through the middle hymn, a person in front of the youth turned around and said "Please stop singing!"  The youth didn't sing in church, even his home church, for a month.
I think "social skills" needs to be part of the "new members orientation" curriculum.

Any cringe-inducing stories?  I ask not to bash Christianity but simply to be thankful that at least your church, for all its faults, isn't like that!

Share them in the comments or on Google Friend Connect box below!

(image from JCUB for its perfect "cringe" look)


Radical Hospitality: Love Your Enemies' Arguments

In Luke's gospel, Jesus tells us to "love our enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back" (Luke 6:27-36).  In these days beyond crusades and duels, our conflicts are primarily ideological: schoolyard arguments, coffee-table disputes, shouting pundits and unanswered questions in Sunday School.  So how do we love our enemies on an ideological level?

We could start, of course, with respect and giving the other dignity in conversation.  But that's only window dressing.  In religious discussion (like politics), the goal of conversation so often is to persuade others to your viewpoint, or put up the best spirited defense of your viewpoint against imagined opponents.  Indeed, that's the assumed basis for evangelism after all: to persuade others of the truth of Jesus Christ.

But we are called to love our enemies, and persuasion may or may not be the right kind of love.  Indeed, that's what Peter Rollins gets to in his book (not)Speak of God.  Evangelism relies on what Rollins calls power discourses that rely on word and wonder:

Power discourses...convince the other that Christianity is compelling and must be accepted by any rational person, and miracles prove that a person ought to believe.
P. Rollins, (not) Speak of God, pg. 37
Rejection thus becomes irrational.  Calling our enemies irrational may be tough love, but it is also a claim to a position of superior power.  Rollins calls the church to turn away and not rely on power discourses but to instead create sacred space where questions can be wrestled with.  A sacred space with a sacred level of hospitality that goes beyond merely listening to the other.  What could that look like?

Here's one idea: What if our goal in conversation is not to polish our own worldview in full view of others, but to build up the other's worldview to its best possible form?

That's what political commentator Julian Sanchez is making in a recent blog post (via Andrew Sullivan):
Consider the way our views normally evolve. We sort of hunker down in our ideological bunkers trying to fend off various attacks and challenges. Sometimes an especially forceful argument will require a modification in the fortifications—and on rare occasions, we’ll even be forced to abandon a position. Which is to say, we learn from other perspectives largely in a defensive mode, through a kind of Darwinian selection of arguments. But what if instead we tried to use the insights available from our own perspectives, not to defeat or convert the other guy, but to give his argument its best form?
What?  In short, Sanchez is claiming that we learn about the other from an entrenched position (perhaps in our echo chambers) and we are not really engaging or honoring the other.  But still...we are supposed to help them with their arguments??

Sanchez concludes:

...This might sound like giving aid and comfort to the enemy, but even in terms of the Darwinian struggle, there’s value to being able to show how your view trumps even the optimal form of the competition. Think of chess: You can’t see your own best move unless you have some sense of what your opponent’s best response would be. But the more intriguing possibility is that a smart progressive’s good-faith reformulation of libertarianism might be something that the libertarian, too, could recognize as an improvement—and vice versa.
In the Scripture, Jesus says to love our enemies.  Even when we think we are right, and we know they are wrong.  Perhaps the form of radical hospitality in ideological conflict, when we invite the other into conversation, is to take a cue from the Girl Scouts: leave them with their arguments better than they came with.  To build up their arguments, to help the other better understand their own. 

Then, perhaps, we can let the questions that follow from the Other either reinforce their belief or cause them to wonder why you would want to know about them.  Who knows...they may ask about yours, or what another ideology or theology might say.

Thoughts?  In these days of theological and ideological echo chambers and town hall shouting matches, the mere coaxing out of thought and argument is becoming more and more rare.  So what if the radical hospitality that Christ calls us to exhibit...what if it can extend to thought as well as deed? 

Thank you for your comments, and welcome to our visitors!


Star Wars Hebrews

Hebrews 1:1-4 ala Star Wars. My heart rejoices.

Source: Theology and Culture (via James McGrath)


Original Sin or Original Grace?

We often point to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 as The Fall or The Original Sin which explains a level of theodicy: how a benevolent God would make us live in our own personal hells. 

It goes like this: God made the world good and we screwed up.  God kicked us out of Eden in retribution for the original sin.  Thus, we have to live in a mess of our own making. The God of Wrath was angered by our sin and kicked us out forever.

Have you ever noticed that's a lot of emphasis on what we did...and if biblical stories are anything like my hazy memories of being a perfect child, blamed for everything, guilty of nothing, then perhaps our actions as recorded are not reliable.  Humans wrote the bible and perhaps our memories are a bit biased towards blaming snakes and women.

But this is not just human memory, it is the Old Testament: a testimony of a people's relationship with God.  Have you ever read Genesis 3 and focused on what God did?  Let's see:

  • God curses the snake (v.14) and the ground (v.17) but doesn't curse the humans.  The humans are the ones who messed up, but God curses peripheral things.  Humanity is untouched by God's curses and is given a huge portion of God's grace.
  • God closes off the Garden not out of spite or wrath, but out of care that they not be tempted by the other Tree of Life also (v.22).  God removed temptation out of care, not removed everlasting life out of spite or wrath.

Sure, the original humans screwed up.  I'm not some whitewashing liberal who discounts human accountability.  But when I look for this God of Wrath that kicks humans out and curses us forever...I don't see it.  In fact, I consider the evidence of God's goodness, grace, and love to be overwhelming against the traditional interpretation of God getting T-O'ed and kicking the kids out. 

God of Wrath this isn't.  

Indeed, there's a sort of sadness that is glossed over in the narrative:
  • God takes the first life in the world.  God fashions "garments of skins" (v.21) to clothe the humans.  This skin could only come from a dead animal.  So God killed one of God's creation to provide for the humans. 
What sadness must have filled God's presence to snuff out a beings' life that existed for only a few days after Creation!

God of Wrath this isn't.  This is a God of Grace, who cares for the humans even as they see their actions hurt people (and animals) in ways they didn't expect.

Stories like this one are equal parts explanation of why things are the way they are and testimonies to the actions of God in the history of a people.  We often point to human activity in these stories, but why not focus on God's actions?  And God's actions are not angry but delicate, not spiteful but graceful, not condemning but articulating how the world will be much more difficult now but all is not cursed and irredeemable.

As we hack Christianity, we go back to the beginning, peel back the layers of tradition and history, and rediscover the God of Grace that has been there all along.  Perhaps then it is when we also clothe the naked, when we also help those who toil on the cursed ground, when we also mourn the collateral damage from our sins...perhaps then we are closer to the God of Grace who still wanders in the garden alone.


The Matrix, The Architect, and God

The Matrix Trilogy is a Christian Hacker's dream of nuanced meaning, theological dilemmas, and the sci-fi world of humanity v. machine.  It makes me sweat.

In the Matrix Trilogy, the character of the Architect describes how the machines (who have taken over the world and enslaved humanity into a drea world) dealt with the variable called human free will which refused to be controlled or pacified:

[The Architect]: The matrix is older than you know. I prefer counting from the emergence of one integral anomaly to the emergence of the next, in which case this is the sixth version...You are here because Zion is about to be destroyed. Its every living inhabitant terminated, its entire existence eradicated...

The function of the One is now to return to the source, allowing a temporary dissemination of the code you carry, reinserting the prime program. After which you will be required to select from the matrix 23 individuals, 16 female, 7 male, to rebuild Zion. Failure to comply with this process will result in a cataclysmic system crash killing everyone connected to the matrix, which coupled with the extermination of Zion will ultimately result in the extinction of the entire human race.
The Architect rules the world even though all of life hinges on the unpredictability of a single human response.  And each time that human life becomes able to pose a threat, the Architect manufactures events to force a reset of the system (and thus its continuation).  The Architect plays God with unpredictable humans and does well until he accepts a different outcome in Neo, the seventh anomaly, who introduces a lasting change of peace between human and machine.

I know it has been a few years since these movies came out (I remember taking a group of 20 religion students to the first movie when it came out), but it is striking how when what I'm reading screams realization of what a movie plot point might mean. 

In Kester Brewin's book Signs of Emergence, he outlines how God moves from transforming the world through revolutionary tactics (floods, smiting, etc) to transforming the world through evolutionary tactics (becoming human and embodying God's wishes rather than dictating them).  One of the hinge points is in the Tower of Babel story where God scatters the human race that sought to reach God through illicit means:
We have seen that this sort of violent action iis pretty characteristic of God in Genesis: casting out and cursing, flooding and scattering, circumcizing and bartering over the destruction of Sodom. And like all revolutionary change, its effects are not transformative. People are scattered but continue to build cities...if God wanted to transform his creation, he couldn't keep periodically pressing "reset."
K. Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 125-126
In the end of the Matrix, humans and machines presumably learn to co-exist in harmony rather than dictated existence as slave and master.  In the continuing story of the people of God, our God has chosen to stop smiting the world and pressing reset (reminding us every time a rainbow is in the sky that this is not God's way) and instead works with us to transform our hearts, turn our minds away from cyclical sin, and work alongside us for our redemption.

The only thing working against God: Free will, our human frailty, the anomaly that is part and parcel to Creation that God cannot stamp out or filter.  As the Architect succinctly says:
As you adequately put, the problem is choice.
God has chosen to stop the cycle, and has placed a huge section of that responsibility in your hands.  What will you do to hack the system, to stop those seeking to domesticate humanity (and thus God), and instead open the system to all those who seek God's presence in their lives?

Or will you choose the door on the right, back to the Matrix, and keep the system in place?


The Press and the UM Amendments Debacle

NOTE: when I say "UM Amendments" I'm referencing specifically the Amendments dealing with the Inclusiveness of the Church and the Worldwide Nature of the Church.

Two days ago, this blog reported on a story published by USA Today that reported that the Amendments had been defeated even though not everyone had voted yet and some Annual Conferences had yet to vote. I wrote and called them "dumb" because the UMNS story it was based on didn't say that. In retrospect of me and other bloggers, our ire perhaps should have been directed elsewhere.

Per my request, Daniel Burke from the Religious News Service (which syndicates to USA Today) contacted me regarding the accuracy of the article. He explained the UMNS had changed the article that RNS had referenced since publication. Further, he explained how the reported voting tallies yielded an impossible passage of the UM Amendments and thus the reported facts in the article are accurate. I thank him for his candor and response and apologize for my complaint against RNS.

In other words, UMNS had reported the Amendments defeat, RNS had reported on the UMNS report, UMNS had changed the story because of the Bishop's concerns, RNS refuses to change the story even though the reporting by UMNS has changed, and now we are stuck with it all.


So let's be clear about the facts regarding the numbers of the UM Amendments. I appreciate the work of HX reader Chuck Russell who posted a comprehensive evaluation of the numbers here. His work is fair and should be read. It basically says that even though the numbers are not all in yet, and indeed the total numbers are unknown, it would take a statistical improbability for their passage. I'm not a person who sticks their head in the sand, so I'm inclined to accept his conclusions. Done.

However, the result of all this reporting is that Annual Conferences (primarily international conferences) that are yet to vote feel a bit like Hawaii on voting day: unimportant and irrelevant because they vote late. For the caucus groups who take such pride in care and concern for the international community, it is unfortunate that their repeated requests for voting tallies have yielded that the international community feels again like they are at the kids table and irrelevant.

This situation didn't have to take place. Before the voting began, the Council of Bishops agreed to not disclose the vote totals until after most of the conferences had voted. This was so that early voting didn't influence votes in upcoming conferences. I publicly supported this because, like them, I didn't want people to feel irrelevant in the process. Afterword, Bishops and/or annual conferences decided to buck this agreement and disclosed the that time, I heard plenty of tweets and comments about a "lack of transparency" if the numbers were withheld. Those voices apparently prevailed at the annual conference level.

It makes me wonder how in a democratically-influenced church that this situation might have been avoided that the international community has been left out of important conversations. This will change in 2012 when the international conferences will have 40% of the vote rather than their current 20%, but for the moment, disenenfranchisement served cold. So I understood where the Bishops were coming from in promoting non-disclosure because of the presumed effect on the international community.

I write a lot about transparency and accountability, so it may come as a surprise that I supported non-disclosure on this. Here's why: even though we are structured like the US Government, we don't have to operate like them and value transparency above individual dignity. We don't need to idolize transparency above all other concerns when accountability is in place. We can opt to non-disclose so that out of mutual admiration and care for one another that all feel welcome at the table. We opted not to do this, to our shame.

Is it any wonder that in the very process of voting down the inclusivity of the church that we expose that we are not inclusive in our voting process? Irony served cold.

Thoughts on this process, or ways that we can be better in the future?

  • Maybe USA conferences should have voted last and let the international community lead us in voting?
  • Maybe there should be an official counting service which tabulates the results rather than individual conferences leaking the votes to their glory?


No, USA Today, the UM Amendments haven't lost

Update: this article is inaccurate and out of date. See updated article here.

Dear USA are dumb.

USA Today has ran an erroneous story about the United Methodist Church and the state of the amendments. Here's what its lead says:

United Methodists have defeated amendments that would have made church membership open to all Christians regardless of sexual orientation and furthered the creation of a new, U.S.-only governing body, according to the denomination's news service.
But the original UMNS article, which USA Today based its source on, clearly says this:
United Methodists in the U.S. have largely voted against 23 proposed amendments that would change the structure of the church, but voting is ongoing in Africa, Europe and the Philippines...
The church has 73 conferences in Africa, the Philippines and Europe. Since they hold their annual meetings at different times throughout the year, the final outcome of the voting won’t be known until spring 2010.
So no, there are 73 conferences that have yet to vote, more than half of the total number of conferences. So no, the voting is not done yet.

But don't feel bad. Even a fact-checking religious service Get Religion didn't check the original article either. And other pastors seem to point to UMNS instead of realizing that it was USA Today that got it wrong.

But on the bright side...alongside the erroneous facts is a quote by the Institute on Religion and Democracy. So thank you for again linking bad facts with the IRD...they are bedfellows after all.

Kisses, ~UMJeremy


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