Talking about Death with 5th Graders

As you know, my primary pastoral responsibility now is children/youth ministries. We had a lifelong parishioner pass away last week who is the mother of one of our 5th graders.  The 5th grade class is the largest single-age demographic in the church. Since her passing, the 5th graders have been dealing with their grief in different ways and parents have been consulting me for help...most of them were dealing with fear in some form or fashion.  In response, our Student Ministries decided to offer a program on life/death issues for the 5th graders this past Sunday.

Here's an outline of the program for your critique. If you are struggling with the same situation, then hopefully this gives a framework to help. If you have expertise in child psychology/theology, then by all means critique! Your comments could help all of us!

Special note: We included a trip to a local cemetery in a respectful manner, which you may or may not want to include. We did 2/3 of the program there to make it as immersive as possible, weather permitting.  We also chose a historical graveyard rather than an active one for reasons found on Talk #2, but an active graveyard could work too in consultation with the cemetery staff.

Death/Resurrection Program Outline
12:00-12:10 - Gathering
12:10-12:25 - Lunch
12:25-12:30 - Opening prayer circle, Scripture: 1 Peter 5 "Place all your fears on Jesus because he cares for you always." Talk about what fears we are going to talk about today.

12:30-12:40 - Talk #1: Fear
  • Student Reading: "Hello, my name is Stephen and I'm in 4th grade.  I wonder if death is like being scared.  I get scared. I get scared when a car almost hits me.  I get scared when I see the bully at school. I get scared when I get a D on a test and have to tell my dad. I get scared when I break something and I just know I'm gonna get into trouble.  I get scared of things when I don't know what is going to happen. I get scared when people die. I don't know what happens to them. I asked my dad, I asked my minister, I asked God at night and I don't get any answers.  What is death and how can I not be scared of it?"
  • Reflection
    • When do you get scared?
    • Is it OK to be scared sometimes?  Sure it is.  
    • One of our friends has died, hasn't she? Is that a scary thing?  What are people scared of, do you think?
  • Activity - Circle Heart
    • Make a circle tapping your heart.
    • What happens when you get scared?  Does your heart beat really fast?
    • If you are just walking, heart thumps normally.  When you run or play sports, have you ever felt your heart pump faster?  When you see that cute girl or boy, what happens? And when you get scared, what happens?
    • But think about all of us as one beating heart, beat together. When you get older, your heart doesn't beat as well.  When you have an accident or a heart attack, entire parts of your heart stop working.  And finally, at the end of your life, there's usually just one. And then, none.
    • So what happens when your heart stops?  We're gonna go and find out.  We're gonna go visit a cemetery.  Anyone here afraid of cemetaries?  I used to be, and I probably wouldn't go to one in the middle of the night.  But it's a nice day and we're gonna go, ok?  Great.
    • One rule: if someone needs to cry, then cry. No one will make fun of you.  If they do, they get sent home. I'm that serious.

12:40-12:45 - Drive to Local Cemetery (we went to a historical Indian Nations cemetery where 99% of the plots were from prior to 1913)

12:45-12:55 - Talk #2: Pain
  • Student Reading: "Hello! My name is Abigail, and I'm in 5th grade.  I wonder if death is like being hurt.  Have you ever been hurt before?  I have.  I have skinned my knees. I have cut my finger. I have broken my arm trying to fly off a swing.  And you know what?  It really really hurts!  But it hurts the most when it happens, right?  A skinned knee hurts SO MUCH at first, but then it gets better. A scab hurts but only at first...after a few days I can pick it off, and that's really cool? My skin is different color underneath.  Cool!  I bet that death hurts a lot because when I heard my grandma died, that hurt a lot.  But after a while, it didn't hurt as much. I can talk about it now without crying. So talking about death hurts a lot at first, but then it gets easier.  It's like our heart got hurt and it slowly heals."
  • Reflection
    • Whose tummy hurt really bad when you heard about ((deceased)). Mine did. I cried and my tummy hurt.  I cried and my tummy hurt when my grandpa died 15 years ago. But now I can talk about it without hurting too much, still a little.
    • We are right now in a cemetery.  It was stopped being used in 1913. So these people have been dead a very very long time.  They don't hurt anymore. It doesn't hurt anyone that we are here.  Everyone that is alive today did not know any of them.  
  • Discussion
    • Let's look at the first gravestone together. What was their name? What was their age?
    • Do you think it hurt people when they died?  Why?  They wrote something here too: (inscription)
    • This probably hurt a lot when they died. But that was a long time ago and no one is sad about these people dying anymore. This place is a memorial, a memory. It's a safe place.  But we can find out some things about them.
12:55-01:10 - Activity - Scavenger Hunt 
  • Emphasize respect, no running, stay in pairs
  • Handout on cardstock, pens
  • Who is the youngest person you found? What was their age? name?
  • Who is the oldest person you found? What was their age? name?
  • Sketch/Draw your favorite gravestone as best you can.

01:20-01:35 - Talk #3: Hope
  • Student Reading: I wonder if death is like becoming a dragonfly.

    • Hello, my name is Ayita, and I am in 6th grade. I have a story for you.  Once upon a time, there was a colony of water bugs below the surface of the water. Over time the water bugs realize that occasionally another water bug from their colony clings to the stem of a pond lily. As it climbs up the lily stalk, it disappears and does not return. 
      The leader of the colony of water bugs gathers his friends together and together they make a promise that whoever climbs up the stalk next must return to tell where they went and why. 
      It just so happens that the leader is one of the next water bugs to be told to climb up the stalk. Tired from his journey up the stalk he sleeps. But when he wakes up he realizes that his body has changed. He is no longer a water bug but a dragonfly. Wow, and he can fly!  How awesome! After flying around and landing to rest on a lily pad he looks below the surface of the water. There he sees his old friends the water bugs and he remembers the promise he made. 
      The dragonfly darts down attempting to break through the surface of the water, but he does nothing but bounce away. He realizes he can’t return to be with his friends to tell them where he had been. And even if he could return none of his old friends would recognize him in his new body. So he realizes he’ll have to wait until his old friends the water bugs become dragonflies and then they will understand. 
  • Reflection
    • Who are the water bugs in that story?  We are.
    • Who is the dragonfly?  The people who have died.
    • So do we want to become dragonflies? Why don't we all just die now and get it over with?  That's not a good idea.  It's not time yet.  Can we pick up a tadpole and say "become a frog!" Can we pick up a caterpillar and say "become a butterfly!" No, it's not time yet.  And we never know when the time will be.  All we know is that we don't get to choose the time.
  • Lesson
    • Talk about the Christian Belief that the soul never dies; it is resurrected and transformed to be with God.  
    • We lose our friends for a little while but for an eternity we are with God.
01:35-01:45 - Activity - Letter to grieving 5th grader
  • Write a letter to 5th grader who lost their mom.  What will you remember about his/her mom?  What do you want the 5th grader to know?

01:45-01:50 - Drive back to church
01:50-02:00 - Closing prayer circle. Scripture: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid…” John 14. Joys/concerns


Thoughts? Again, if you think we hit or missed the theological mark, feel free to comment.


Should be in every church...

[Jesus] died to take away your sins. Not your mind.
/ Taken at a United Methodist congregation I visited last week
// It is actually the very first pic taken with my new iPhone
/// Yes, that's me in the mirror.  That's me in the spotlight. Losing my religion Waiting for my ordination interview.


"I don't understand"


Why is Lost so brilliant?  The way it weaves in sneaky cultural references.  Case in point: in the Season 6 premiere, we find out that Locke's last thought was "I don't understand."
MAN IN BLACK: Do you wanna know what he was thinking while you, choked the life outta him Benjamin? What the last thought that ran through his head was? "I don't understand". Isn't that just the saddest thing you ever heard? But it's fitting in a way, because when John first came to the island, he was a very sad man. A victim, shouting at the world for being told what he couldn't do, even though they were right. He was weak, and pathetic, and irreparably broken.
 I was trying to get rid of a headache a few days back and watched an old episode of NCIS.  The episode was entitled "Enigma" and it starred Terry O'Quinn (who plays John Locke in Lost) as a Colonel who thought the country was out to get him.  He ends up being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic who repeats over and over...guess what?
RYAN: (WHISPERS) I don’t understand…I don’t understand… I don’t understand… I don’t understand…
Two broken people thinking there is a huge conspiracy going on, both of whom utter "I don't understand" as their character's last breath...and both played by the same actor!

Cool, huh?  Sneaky LOST.

*UPDATE* I made this my first contribution to the Lostpedia encyclopedia.  Check it out under cultural references here.


Evangelism Explained by Star Wars

This post is another attempt to parallel Christian themes with Science Fiction themes for hopefully relevant conversation among nerds.

Star Wars is coming out with another MMO game in the near future...I might need a bib to catch the drool. But more interesting than the actual game is how it deals with the tension between good and evil, Jedi and Sith, particularly in the ways that the Sith critique the Jedi...with some parallels for biblical evangelism methods, believe it or not.

Table of Contents:

  1. Jedi Intellectualism of using the intellect to spread the Gospel
  2. Sith Emotionalism of using emotional means to the Gospel ends
  3. Force Awareness of using attractional power to embody the Gospel

Read on for more!

Evangelism #1 - Jedi Intellectualism
Student v. Teacher
Here's an interview with one of the game's designers, with this great nugget critiquing the Jedi's teaching pedagogy:
"If you give brash young people almost god-like powers and ask them to behave... you're asking for problems. You're dealing with someone in their early twenties, who has never been able to be thwarted by anything, and you tell them not to play with these Sith artifacts—of course they're going to think they can handle it."

Erickson leans forward to make the point. "You're training children to deal with this power, and then demanding them to be incorruptible, and holding them to a standard that we don't even ask from any of our own societies. We looked at these issues and said, 'We could come up with an entire thematic run with this.'"
The Sith critique of the Jedi training has three parts:

  1. Give Jedi Apprentices immense power
  2. Demand Jedi Apprentices be incorruptible
  3. Demand that Jedi Apprentices deny their emotions

When using the bible for evangelism, often we do something similar to the Jedi:

  1. Give students a Bible, which is a source of immense power in argument and lifestyle conversations.
  2. Demand students be incorruptible to doubt and do not let doubt interfere with their biblical evangelism.
  3. Demand students deny emotions that don't help spread the gospel.
This is called Evangelism by Intellectual Assent.  In short, we give students a powerful book (the Bible), teach them inerrancy (remove doubt), and have student turn off emotions that are not useful for spreading the Gospel truth (deny emotions). This is "if you died today where would you go" conversations in the hallways, for instance. Then use sheerly intellectual arguments to talk about the Bible whereby it becomes intellectually stupid to not consent to the Gospel truths...DING! Notch on the evangelism belt.

In a way, this is unsustainable given the relentless march of intellectualism and intellectual disproofs of the Gospel, particularly biblical inerrancy.  It's fighting a constant battle of out-smarting the others who disprove the biblical parts.  It requires a constant apologetic which is hard to sustain (not as far as Gospel integrity, but as far as evangelism methods...I hope you see the distinction).

Evangelism #2 - Sith Emotionalism
The Force Unleashed
Contrast this with the Dark Side pedagogy (from the same interview)

"What the Jedi call the Dark Side, and what came to be known as the Dark Side, these people believed that life should be about emotion. They believed you should be unrestrained, that the galaxy wants us to love and lust and kill and make art and cry and dream..." he trails off. I imagine him sitting on a throne, lightsaber under his right hand. This conversation started as two Star Wars fans chatting about the expanded universe, but now I'm starting to understand the draw of the Sith.
The Sith version of its pedagogy could have three parts too:

  1. Give Sith Apprentices immense power
  2. Demand Sith Apprentices be relentless and unfettered in their expression of that power.
  3. Demand Sith Apprentices embrace their emotions to their fullest extreme.
When using the bible for evangelism, often we do something similar to the Sith:
  1. Give students a Bible, which is a source of immense power in argument and lifestyle conversations.
  2. Demand students use any and all means to spread the Gospel
  3. Demand students embrace emotional ploys in spreading the Gospel.
This is called Evangelism by Emotional Assent.  In short, we give students a powerful book (the Bible), teach them that conversion is an end that justifies the means, and have students embrace emotions to overwhelm the other's facilities.  This is The Passion by Mel Gibson which relentlessly nails (literally) home the pain Jesus went through to save us.  This is aborted fetuses on protest signs eliciting emotional responses.  This is Halo tournaments or MMA fight churches that uses guns and violence as lures to teach the Gospel.  You can see the problems with this when taken to extremes, yes?

Evangelism #3 - Force Awareness
I sense a great disturbance in the Force...
Since the Star Wars universe is bifurcated into two extremes, we don't have a middle ground example to talk about Evangelism that denies intellectual or emotional extremes, even in the extended universe of the books.

Perhaps then we realize how relevant the Star Wars universe is when you step back from camps and look for shared abilities.  A shared ability between Jedi and Sith is Force Awareness, or being able to sense the Force in other people.  A strong Force user would be detected by other Force users when in geographic proximity, ie. Vader sensing Kenobi's presence on the Death Star.  If you are attuned to it, then you are attracted to it too and seek out what the source is of the Force power.  Practically every Star Wars book or movie deals with the attractional power of the Force.

This ability to be attracted to the Force is a shared one in our world too: people are attracted to others who are obviously tapped into the Spirit.  Perhaps then our Evangelism ought not be one based on power (emotional or intellectual assent) but on developing the attractional power of the Gospel.  Instead of arguing in the street, do acts of mission with one another and cause people to ask "what is up with that guy? Why do those things for other people?"  

In doing this, we turn the Star Wars universe on its head: everyone has Force awareness, not just the elite.  Everyone has this ability to detect goodness in others, and it is our happy task to make the goodness shine forth.  This is called Attractional Evangelism where people are not convinced of the Gospel Truth by intellectual or emotional might, but by seeing the very practical change that could take their life in a direction to which it would not otherwise go.

Perhaps we can stop using our power in growing the Church by force and instead focus on growing ourselves to be beacons of hope to all who seek something new.  In a world where the Empire grows by brute force, perhaps the Church can grow instead by walking the streets, working with neighbors, and gathering people who sense their presence and want to sense the call of the Spirit in their own lives.



iPastor iPhone App [review]

This is a gifted review.  As always, while I claim I can be bought, buying me doesn't guarantee you will get gold stars...but hopefully you will get good feedback!

I was gifted a copy of iPastor from the developer of this iPhone application.  It's basically a CRM for pastors that allows you to input a person's contact info but then append five areas to their contact info:
  • Connection: drop-down list of how you know the person (church member, visitor, etc)
  • Situation: drop-down list of what's up (grief, end of life, decision-making, etc)
  • Care strategy: drop-down list of how to respond (visit nursing home, card, prayer, etc)
  • Delegated to: fill in the blank
  • Notes: fill in the blank.
Then when you are ready to fulfill ministry needs, you can select to view them by category.  Say you are on a nursing home run, you scroll to nursing home and the people you say need a visit will show up there.  Check them off as you visit.  Works exactly as a CRM should.

As you know, I review gifted items as fairly as ones I purchase.  So do I like it?  I do and it is great to keep things organized, but its Achilles heel is that it requires a tedious amount of text-input. Would it be great to scroll to nursing homes and see everyone?  Yes, but I have to input all of them...or hire a 5th grader to input them.  Each individual is entered individually, and if I want multiple contacts on one individual I have to enter them multiple times.  My test is which is faster or more useful: an iPhone app or a piece of paper. I don't see an advantage yet, but it could be useful if you take the time to input.

Some suggestions:
  • Connect with the Contacts module in the iPhone so I can simply select individuals or auto-complete individuals or grab most recent individual instead of typing in their info all over again. That would remove 90% of my frustration and be a time-saver.
  • Allow for custom fields of ministry needs or responses.  There's a lot of drop-down lists which makes for an easier program but isn't as customizable as I'd like it to be.
But don't take my review as Gospel.  Their website has some video reviews, so check it out and read the reviews on iTunes.

Anyone else have ideas on what would make an effective CRM app for a ministry context? Shout 'em in the comments!


Jesus the 8-bit Video Game

(h/t Exploring Our Matrix)


iPhone for Pastors

You would think that in real life I would be hipster-chic with this blog and working in youth ministries, but if you know me, you know my jeans are not girl jeans (not that there's anything wrong with that) and I don't have anything Apple makes at all.

Well, until now.  No, the jeans are still the same, but I did get an iPhone 3G 8gig. And the obsession has already started.

So, to spread this obsession to other pastor-types, here's what free and cheap-o apps I've found to be very useful and why:

  1. YouVersion Bible.  Online bible app and you can download specific translations for offline reading (takes a while but worth it). I do increasingly get frustrated with the NCC for not making the NRSV more easily's not available here.  Free
  2. Evernote. Keeps all your notes available, sermon illustrations, bible studies.  It's Evernote and you must have it. Free (paid version allows for offline notebooks)
  3. Air Video: if you show videos in staff meetings or bible studies on your church network, you can stream them from your computer to your iPhone.  It's less intrusive than a laptop but also less usable...but the ubiquitous factor with youth is oddly effective, and I can watch Nooma vidz on the iPhone without paying $4 each. Free
  4. GorillaCam: helpful app with the camera on the iPhone that makes it easier to take pictures, like timers and such. Useful for taking pics of altar arrangements or new member photos or storing notes more clearly to Evernote. Free.
  5. Stanza has lots of books and free John Wesley notes/sermons for ease of reading. Free
Quick unlinked apps that work very well:
  1. Wordpress lets me update my future snazzy blog on the fly.  Oh, did I say future blog? Whoops.
  2. K-Love or Pandora for Christian music while at work, also NPR for when I want to feel elitist.
  3. Social networking tools like Twitterrific for updating Twitter on the go and Facebook for keeping in touch with my teens.
  4. Gashog ($1) helps me out with calculating the Prius mileage (Shucks, I do have a Prius, that is a +3 hipster point! Augh!)
So what are your favorite apps for people in ministry? No advertisements please, just recommendations!

Hope the list above is helpful and you find new ways to be effective in your context. 


Critiquing with Accountability

Populist websites that aggregate reviews are all the rage: amongst others, you can rate your professors, rate movies, rate restaurants, and rate who has the loosest morals in college (thankfully the latter is toast). People have opinions and look for places to make them known.

So it was only a matter of time until someone started up a populist ratings website on churchesEnter
Now you can church shop without leaving home.  From the mundane to the profane, Internet critics are rating everything. They're even rating churches now on new site called Evangelical mag Christianity Today headlined its story on the site Church Raters or Church Haters? probably because anybody can weigh in with an opinion. Visitors. Malcontents. Longtime members.

Reviewers give the church one to five stars. Some churches get raves. Others get rants. One visitor voiced his unhappiness with a pastor whose sermon seemed all about his smug little life. He ended his review with "This isn't what Jesus was about."

There's a top-rated list and a bottom-rated list.
This isn't a new site: Out of Ur reviewed it last year.  The reviewer noted that at the time, there was no contact information of the reviewed churches, so all you had was the reviewer's notions.  At my viewing, I could find contact info, so that critique seems to be addressed.

But the bigger issue is the growing phenomenon of unaccountable critique.  When you criticize the pastor or church in a community, people know it is you and can respond.  Even anonymous critiques via a Staff-Parish Relations or HR church group have some level of feedback and response, with the committee as a proxy.  If you had a bad experience and tell your barber, it will eventually make it back to the church in some form or another.

The problem is that online, there is no such community or feedback chain.  And frankly, there's not a thing we can do about it.  People will be anonymous, despite any attempts to the contrary.  It is unrealistic to think that any website like this would have any sort of accountability.

To's credit, I saw fledging attempts to deal with this.  As a case study, on a 1-star rated church, two people expressed disapproval, an administrator invited them to enter into email dialogue with the pastor or online, and the pastor responded online (it is unknown if it was from a dialogue).  The administrators seemed to try to encourage dialogue online, but still there is no ability to truly nullify unaccountable gossip.

Remember that populist review websites have two problems:

  1. Arbitrary rating system.  There's no indication of what 5-star means for different people. A church that preaches social justice every Sunday may get 1-star from Glenn Beck, but 5-stars from Jim Wallis.  Will that equal out to 3 stars?  Maybe.
  2. Critique reflects context not content.  When I criticize something, I'm coming from my own perspective of brokenness.  Online critiques do not reflect that to those who are not discerning. People experience content in their own ways, and while they can write about it, if they don't write about what in their background or context gives them that response, then the review is rather worthless.  "If you love Jesus, come here" isn't compelling. "I was an alcoholic and I found Jesus here" is compelling!  But sadly, most reviews don't do that.
Perhaps given those, there is a tremendous responsibility of commenters and raters to (a) explain what the rating they give means to them and (b) give more context about themselves to the critique.  And both of those are very hard to get in anonymous forums.  

Thoughts about populist reviews of churches?  Would such a thing be good or bad in your context?  Why?

Thanks for your comments and welcome to our visitors!



Passed my full Ordination interviews 
in the United Methodist Church!  

Ordination Date: June 1st, 2010 | Tulsa, Oklahoma

Longer post later but for now...woohoo!


The Nazareth Principle for Coping

I'm still waiting.  But while I am, I found that Andrew Sullivan has a link to a father's conversation with his son.  I love it.

Our son Simeon says that faith is summed up in something he calls the "Nazareth principle". This refers to the question in the New Testament where someone scoffs at Jesus the carpenter by asking, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

The idea was that Nazareth was a city, in the region of Galilee, which was known for its "mixed-blood" and therefore suspect practice of Judaism. Because the carpenter/prophet came from Nazareth, didn't that disqualify him from being the real thing?

Yet as Simeon says, in life -- time after time -- the best things come from the unlikeliest places. And this "Nazareth principle" extends to the fact that out of trouble and wounds, disappointments and closed doors, come often the actual breakthroughs of personal life.
I am constantly amazed at the areas of our life that grace unexpectedly comes from, and the people that I don't expect to be grace-filled that are so.

This could be helpful in coping with trauma and difficulty.  It's not about ascribing meaning to suffering; it's not about believing God has a plan and pain is part of the plan; it's about finding "what good can I find?" in the midst of pain and transition, and what unexpected breakthrough might come from it?



Ordination Interviews...again!

As loyal readers know, last December I had my ordination interviews for Full Connection in the United Methodist Church.

Quick summary: Ordination in the UMC is a multi-year process where we are first commissioned to ordained ministry as provisional ministers, evaluated over a 3-5ish year process, and then finally voted in by our peers as full ordained clergy (called "full connection").  I am at that final stage.

I passed most of my doctrinal questions, but the Board of Ordained Ministry (the evaluating body in the UMC regional conferences) deemed it necessary for me to further reflect on three doctrinal questions and be re-interviewed at a later date.  While I was a bit miffed at passing 85% of the questions (which is good enough for the Bar Exam and medical school), I did learn a lot from reflecting further on these questions:
(5) How do you understand the following traditional evangelical doctrines: (a) repentance; (b) justification; (c) regeneration; and (d) sanctification?

(7) What is the meaning and significance of the Sacraments?

(9) What is your understanding of (a) the Kingdom of God; (b) the Resurrection; (c) eternal life?
Why remind you of this?

Monday morning 3/22, 11:00am CST is my interview.  Yow!

I'm at another turn on the long winding path to full ordination. Thanks for being on this journey with me. And thanks for your prayers, karma, happy thoughts, butterfly kisses, and whatever else at around that time.


March Connection Drive

Wow, almost a year since I last shamelessly plugged for subscriptions.  

HX has gotten a lot of traffic in the past few days...6,000 visits (new and repeat) since March 8th. So where are people coming from? From Google Analytics, 90% of the traffic is from the USA with other primarily English-speaking countries taking the bulk of the rest: UK, Canada, Australia. This makes sense given the language barrier.  India has double the amount of visitors of any other non-English country.

But focusing on the USA, I finally found the map feature and thought this was really interesting. This is the number of visits since March 8th (when the Glenn Beck Justice story was first posted)

There's a TON of people coming from Texas!  I don't even live there!  Texas, Tennessee, California, New York, and Oklahoma are the top-five states, with Texas doubling the #2.  Wow!

So yes, this is a small-time blog, but I'm quite pleased with the level of conversation and diversity of opinions expressed here. Thanks to all our regular readers for our continuing conversation!

But we're not done and will slink off into the night...there's tons of free ways to interact with and get to know the HX Community.  Here's some ways to connect:
Thanks for visiting and your continued readership!


Stephen Colbert, Thessalonians, and Lazy People

Stephen Colbert is a fake ideologue host, but he is also a sunday school teacher (in real life!)...and on occasion, it shows!  On tonight's show (3/18/2010), he talked about Glenn Beck's social justice miseducation, and interviewed a Catholic priest, holding his own on theological and biblical notions. Comedy and solid theology gold!

But while interviewing Mary Matalin, Matalin said that Jesus said something like "if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day." She also said Jesus said "if you are lazy, you don't eat." I apologize that I don't have the exact quote word-for-word.  But Colbert countered that Jesus didn't say either of those.  The interview meandered on and the show was over.

Then it got weird.  At the last minute of the show, the words "2 Thessalonians 3:10-13" flashed on the screen.  Did anyone else see it?  What is it?
For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
2 Thessalonians 3:10-13, NRSV
So it would seem to indicate that Matalin was correct...such admonitions against laziness are in the Bible.  But Jesus did not say it, and even 2 Thessalonians is not likely to have been written by Paul, instead representing what John Dominic Crossan calls "the Conservative Paul" who makes other statements contradictory to the other letters of Paul, especially on social issues like poverty and women (more here). Authorship is important in biblical study, people!

So, in short, +2 to Colbert for knowing what Jesus said...but -1 for the show's editors muddying the issue by linking Jesus with 2 Thessalonians.

I will link the video clip tomorrow when it comes online.


::EDIT:: Here's a link to the episode (watch the whole thing!) and here's a screengrab of what we're talking about:


Embracing a Beta Faith

About 16 months ago, we talked about Beta Church, or seeing church ministries as unfinished, incomplete ministries that people could participate in.  We also looked at allowing "beta" ministries to grow unbounded in various ministry contexts in our first series "What the Church can Learn from Wikipedia."

At the Theology After Google conference (why, oh why didn't I attend?) Philip Clayton talked about having a Beta Faith, which is beyond simple church ministry structure towards a faith that is always malleable and in process.  Homebrewed Christianity has an hour-long podcast that is really really interesting to listen to.  Some excerpts:
[7:50] Beta version is something that apple or windows programmers have put together. You get to try it out, then you get to send them feedback. The very early releases were really primitive programming...didn't have the functionality of Word today or something. But you could write macros. And what those of us who were computer nerds did, we wrote macros and then make shortcuts for virtually every key on our keyboard. We took that basic program but what we actually used had our needs and our interests and our creativity built into it...Beta Faith is a faith where we take what's given, and we bring the creativity, the responses, the questions that we have, and help to make it better.
10:30: What if we could conceive of the church in that beta sense, in process, always renewing, always experimenting in an age where we haven't been given the easy institutions of our parents and grandparents?
Cool. Listen to the podcast here. And for further reading, Jonathan Stegall has a post on this topic here (h/t @blakehuggins)



Richard Alpert and Doubt [LOST]

As a quick followup to this morning's post on doubt, last week's LOST had an interesting take on the role of doubt.  Richard Alpert has (presumably) been doing Jacob's bidding for a few centuries and once that role is taken from him (I'm being intentionally vague for fear of spoilers), doubt consumes him.

Here's the exchange I'm talking about:

RICHARD: What I'm talking about Jack is that...Jacob touched me, and when Jacob touches you... well it's considered a gift... except it's not a gift at all. It's a curse.
JACK: Why do you want to die?
RICHARD: I devoted my life, longer than you can possibly imagine, in service of a man who told me that everything was happening for a reason, that he had a plan, plan that I was a part of, when the time was right that he'd share it with me, and now that man's gone so...why do I want to die? Because I just found out my entire life had no purpose.
To Alpert, certainty was the crutch of faith that he leaned on, certain belief in his role.  But when that certainty was taken away, he felt lost and alone, going through a dark night of the soul.  It seems like a parallel journey to people who subscribe to determinism, or that every action is willed by God to have a purpose (ie. purpose-driven, perhaps?). When the pieces don't fit together, how does one keep their faith?  Or is it better to allow it to die and be resurrected anew stronger than before after the dark night has passed?


Clergy, Don't Stop Believin' (Hold on to the Feelin')

At Hacking Christianity, we often study bad.hacks of the Christian system, ie. actions or beliefs that hurt the Christian witness to the world.  Most of them, not surprisingly, deal with hypocrisy.  So imagine how much Newsweek's "On Faith" section this week caught my eye with its intriguing conversation about what happens when clergy (or religious leaders) lose their faith and continue to lead a church.

The conversation reflects the same conversation in ordained ministry circles (especially at the level of my process that I'm at): what role does doubt play when it comes to doctrinal beliefs?  What are the beliefs that are non-essential for conformity?  Can ordinands affirm Christ as God's son, yet reject blood atonement?  What are the essentials and at what point might clergy, whose own spiritual beliefs are often in process, see a divergence from their own tradition?  Newsweek seems to present three understandings:

At one extreme of orthodoxy, you've got the presumption that clergy believe everything their faith tradition understands as doctrine.  Thistlethwaite calls them robots who believe everything 100%, Hirschfield comments that such faith is "nothing more than static answers" which makes "God as its footnote."  Carter wonders if the role of preaching is to be "a mere vessel for the transmission of orthodoxy?"  I would almost claim that such a position makes doctrine an idol and a faith merely responsive, not reflective.  While there are tons of people close to this belief (including an unfortunate number on boards of ordained ministries), 100% doctrinal assent is hard to sustain.

At the other extreme of orthodoxy is the divergence of the preacher's belief with the expressed belief of the tradition in which they are.  The predominant sentiment is that such a position is unsustainable over the long run.  Cal Thomas succinctly tells such people to resign and go sell something. Hirschfield says the same, but only when the clergy subscribe to "new articles of faith which demand the denigration of the previously held beliefs."  Again, such a position is as difficult to sustain as total assent...the dark night of the soul has to end at some point, and you either see yourself in a tradition or you don't.

I think most clergy (honestly) find themselves between these two extremes.  Perhaps the happy middle is clergy who are honest about their struggles with faith...while it is in process! Honesty is the best policy (Gaddy), while also respecting the roles of the pastor/parish (Hirschfield). Honest struggle can lead to what Carter talks about: the joy of about being a wounded healer, ie. a "beggar helping other beggars find bread."  Finally, such struggles might be the vocation of the clergy, as Hirschfield reminds us:
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best when he remarked that, "the purpose of religion is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted".  Applied to here, that teaching translates into the demand that spiritual questions and doubt should afflict the spiritually certain, while spiritual answers and faith should offer security to the afflicted.
Rabbi Hirschfield
Finally, the practicum: what ought clergy who wrestle with this do?  Newsweek's panel responds with essentially:

  • If ones beliefs are held in question, be honest about the process while relying on non-parish members to be completely honest with and seek guidance.
  • If ones beliefs become more solid and they are not compatible with the faith tradition, find an exit from that parish/faith is not sustainable.
  • All clergy should have a spiritual mentor who can talk us through the dark times and help us make these decisions along the way.
I would respond that the panelists miss out on a couple of clergy-types that I know of personally:
  1. Clergy who grew more divergent the more they learned about the faith.  Part of the ordination process is becoming very intimate with the essentials of the faith, but it is usually in the practice of ministry that we learn about the non-essentials that can be big deals.  What do they do?  Their "essentials" are in unity while the "non-essentials" are not.  Do they stay?
  2. Clergy who speak too much of their doubts and the parish reacts badly.  I know of a church where expressing doubt is like blood in the water and the clergyperson was forced out. Such a fear or experience would cause clergy to not be honest about their beliefs while they are dealing with such things.
  3. Clergy who express doubt all the time on the expression of our faith while holding sacred and true the abstract ideal of our faith.  They are comfortable with their faith in abstract but wrestle with how to live it out in actuality.  For example, Emergent Christianity holds doubt and mystery as essential components of a healthy faith (yes, such perspectives are mentioned a lot on this blog though I don't consider myself emergent).
  4. Clergy whose faith traditions change over time and no longer speak to them.  For instance, the fundamentalist takeover of the Baptist Convention certainly exiled women and progressives from their tradition...and it wasn't the clergy's fault!  (EDIT: Gaddy talks about this a bit)

During my ordination process, I talked about being open with my doubts and concerns from the pulpit. I was told that people who were looking for answers wouldn't get much assurance from my sermon. I think such a sentiment reflects the first extreme: that we are to be 100% sure of our answers and offer answers to people.  But for those of us who are more comfortable in the mystery of faith (which is NOT the same as refusing to take a stand or make up our minds), offering honest conversation about sustaining ourselves in our doubts is a clear pastoral duty.  There's got to be a happy medium here, and this conversation was a reminder to offer a balance between doubt and assurance in the preaching moment.

At the end of the day, honesty and integrity are the most important qualities of a clergyperson.  The first sermon that I got responses from nearly 100% of the congregation was when I preached openly and honestly that I doubted that Abraham passed the test of Isaac's sacrifice...people admitted to wrestling with child sacrifice for decades and had never verbalized it!  By being honest about doubts but strong about my faith convictions, it opened up conversation that had sat dormant for 30 years or more. Wow.

I don't know if I will ever find myself in this situation of losing the faith in my tradition...Wesleyanism is so embedded it will be hard to chip out of me.  But I hope clergy friends and former clergy friends can know that whatever they struggle with, there are good people out there to talk to and to find our way together through.  Heck, drop me an email and I'd love to talk about it.  But find a community to talk about it and together you can find a way through the dark, dark night.



Welcome! Let's talk about Justice!

My friend John Meunier is holding me accountable...I can't write anymore on Glenn Beck than I already have:
Unfortunately, has us linked on their front page (see attached image) and I've already had a surge of comments in the past few hours, including some unfortunate ones whose authors have received prayer and comments have been deleted.

However, I hope the blogosphere will forgive me if I don't really want to talk about Glenn Beck, or his sources, or who misinterpreted what.  Let's instead talk about Justice.  Here's some great links to read:
  1. Kevin Watson has written an extensive article "Prooftexting Wesley" that comments on usage of Wesley's mantra "no holiness but social holiness."  He accurately calls us to accountability when we prooftext Wesley...including this blogger! We had a further conversation about social justice v. social holiness where Watson makes this important comment:
    I also do not see social justice as antithetical to social holiness. My point is that social holiness is prior and broader. In Wesley’s understanding, I think social justice would come out of social holiness. It would be one part of it, but not the entirety. Or, as we become more holy we become more just. In some ways it may help if we remove “social” and think about holiness and justice. I think most people would agree that these two are not the same thing. However, most people would also agree that a holy person would not be unjust. Likewise a holy society would be a just society.
  2. Commenter Rev. Jeremy Peters unearths this article about John Wesley's historical interactions with the prison system that exhibits both care for spiritual concerns along with physical concerns:
    Just how familiar John Wesley was with the prisons of his day can be gauged from the fact that in a period of nine months he preached at least 67 times in various jails -- institutions that he had been known to describe as nurseries of "all manner of wickedness." Indeed, it was because of Wesley's often fearless criticism of prison conditions that he was sometimes banned from visiting inmates there.
    In 1759, Wesley walked to Knowle, near Bristol, to see a company of French prisoners of the Seven Years War. His report was revealing. "About 1,100 of them, we are informed, were confined in that little place, without anything to lie on but a little dirty straw, or anything to cover them but a few foul, thin rags, either by day or night ...," he said. "I was much affected and preached in the evening on 'Thou shalt not oppress a stranger; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' (Exodus 23.9)"
  3. Slacktivist has an important perspective on why "social justice" is an oxymoron:
    Justice is, by definition, social. Justice, by definition, is something that exists only between and among individuals and groups of individuals and groups of groups. One might argue that "social justice" is redundant, but one cannot oppose "social justice" without opposing justice itself.
    Let me be clear: When Glenn Beck asserts that justice is incompatible with the Gospel and with the teachings of Christ, he is not following the Pauline/Augustinian argument that perfect love transcends justice ("Justice that is only justice is less than justice," in Reinhold Niebuhr's phrase). He is, rather, saying that justice itself is a bad thing.
  4. Finally, being linked to again is Eugene Cho whose comment here still echoes in my mind:
    But [Cho's church] Quest does speak (and attempts) of pursue mercy, justice, and humility not because they are code words for some sort of agenda but because they are central to the Triune God. How can you read the Scriptures or examine the life and ministry of Christ and not sense that mercy, justice, and compassion – particularly to those who are marginalized – aren’t dear to the heart of God?

    Please don’t leave your churches just because they have the words “social justice” on their website. If you want a good reason to leave your churches: Leave if the gospel of Christ isn’t being preached and lived out. And thankfully, justice is an integral part to the gospel of Christ.
So, that's a smidge of justice.  It's an inherent part of the Gospel, and an inherent part of Wesleyanism, an inherent part of practically every swath of Christendom, and an inherent part of every form of interpersonal interaction.

And I'm thankful for this whole situation so we can all better articulate what justice is and why it is important.

Welcome to our visitors and thank you for your comments!


Glenn Beck v. United Methodists, part deux

Yesterday's post on Glenn Beck netted 20 comments, 12 retweets, and a mention on UMReporter.  Maybe I should try partisan sniping more often to get more readers.  Naah, the ends don't justify the means, don't worry.

But the responses here and elsewhere have been enlightening as to just how many people are looking for a reason to avoid talking about justice and society's ills due to a suspicion it's code language for Democrats.  Is that the true audience of Beck's remarks?  People who are looking for a reason to leave their church that encourages them to set society to rights?   Being a pastor, I know all it takes is a little backup to self-justify behavior. Sigh.

But to revisit the issue, today (March 11th 2010) Mr. Beck addressed the issue again:
Today, Beck returned to the subject, insisting that the notion of social justice is "a perversion of the Gospel," and "not what Jesus would say."  He went on to say that Americans should be skeptical of religious leaders who are "basing their religion on social justice," and explained his fear that concern for social justice is a problem "infecting all" faith traditions.
Here's his specific words:
"There are members [of Beck's church] who preach social justice all the time.  It is a perversion of the Gospel.  Nowhere does Jesus say, "hey if someone asks for your shirt, give your coat to the government"...That's not what Jesus would say.  You want to help out, you help out.  It changes you.  That's what the Gospel is all about, you change it, not have the government dictate it."
Again, Mr. Beck makes the same mistake: equating social justice as a code word for the Democratic platform.  From the blogtalk I've witnessed, it's an equating of social justice with the social welfare programs so bitterly hated by that edge of politics. But as talked about 18 different ways on the internets, social justice is beyond Beck's comprehension in scope and its reflection of the Gospel.
I like all of these, but I like what Eugene Cho says the best:
But [Cho's church] Quest does speak (and attempts) of pursue mercy, justice, and humility not because they are code words for some sort of agenda but because they are central to the Triune God.  How can you read the Scriptures or examine the life and ministry of Christ and not sense that mercy, justice, and compassion – particularly to those who are marginalized – aren’t dear to the heart of God?

Please don’t leave your churches just because they have the words “social justice” on their website. If you want a good reason to leave your churches: Leave if the gospel of Christ isn’t being preached and lived out.  And thankfully, justice is an integral part to the gospel of Christ.



What really is the Gospel? [video]

Rob Bell of Nooma fame has this great video that deconstructs what we mean by the Gospel and what is truly compelling and unique aspect of the Christian gospel...and it ain't a virgin birth or resurrection, people! (h/t Waving or Drowning)



Glenn Beck declares War on United Methodists

::update 3/14/2010:: followup posts here (Glenn Beck v. UMC, part deux) and here (Welcome readers! Let's talk about Justice!)

Again, I don't talk partisan politics on this blog (there's plenty of that on the internets for all of us), but sometimes things are just so egregious and misinformed that they bear discussion.

Last week, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck said the following about churches that preach "social justice."

"I'm begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!"
~ Glenn Beck 03/02/2010
So, church websites with "social justice" huh?  Glenn Beck declares that social justice is a code word for fascism and communism and everything. And people should leave churches that preach it.

If you believe him, then everyone in America better leave the UMC:
The United Methodist Church has a long history of concern for social justice. Its members have often taken forthright positions on controversial issues involving Christian principles. Early Methodists expressed their opposition to the slave trade, to smuggling, and to the cruel treatment of prisoners.
~ UMC Social Principles (original in 1908)
And you'd better dig up John Wesley and flay him (h/t Kevin Watson):
Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.
John Wesley, “Preface to 1739 Hymns and Sacred Poems”

There is no holiness but social holiness.  Any call to leave a church because of "code words" is laughable, but any call to leave a church because of a commitment to social justice is antithetical to the Gospel and ought be exposed as such.


There is no such thing as not worshipping

Novelist David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide two years ago, gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. It has this amazing nugget at the tail-end that I find powerful (h/t Andrew Sullivan):

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship--be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles--is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it.

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving.... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."



From 'Just War' to 'Just Sexuality'

Today, the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool used his presidential address to seek unity within the fractured Anglican Communion...he did so by way of making an interesting comparison. The Bishop talked about the theory of Just War, a Christian ethic that sought a way of making sense of military service and human casualties of war.
The fact that conscripts and pacifists divided along one moral line does not detract from our admiration now nor deflect us from acknowledging now the moral courage of both. We may sympathise with the soldier yet we can salute the pacifist; we may identify fully with the pacifist yet admire the sacrifice of the soldier.  In other words, we can now stand on either side of the moral argument and still be in fellowship despite disagreeing on this the most fundamental ethical issue, the sixth of the Ten Commandments.
It's an eye-opening example that I haven't articulated before: in our churches we have people who are pacifist and war hawk, soldiers and hippies, who believe Jesus would condone and condemn violence. We are talking about human lives here!  And yet we (predominantly) keep in fellowship and disagree, with the issue so far from home and yet so close to our military families.  On an issue of life and death, we choose fellowship over schism, don't we?  When it comes to disagreement over the Sixth Commandment (for crying out loud!), we keep together!!

And yet denominations are dividing, churches are fracturing, and caucus groups are raising tons of money over something that doesn't kill people: sexual identity.  Incredible.

Over time, Christian denominations and churches have come to accept the full spectrum of Just War theories and pacifistic theories with incredible disagreement but also incredible commitment to covenant faithfulness.  And yet in just a few short decades, disagreement over sexual identity, which doesn't kill people, has reduced it to rubble and decreased the Church's social witness (much to the delight of interdenominational caucus groups that seek to blunt Christian social involvement).  In short, covenant faithfulness has been left at the door when sexual identity enters the conversation.

Why? Multiple reasons but I think it is because for biblical literalists there is a plethora of Christian and Hebrew scripture to support either side of the just war debate. Neither side can tell the other they are ignoring plain scriptural account, neither side can use their Bible as a weapon. But for sexual identity, there is no clear counterbalance to the eight clobber passages referencing same-gender relations (at least for biblical literalists).

However, such one-sided clarity didn't stop entire denominations from affirming women's pastoral leadership in the face of the Pauline epistles, and didn't stop John Wesley and the entire abolitionist movement from opposing slavery in the face of its passive acceptance in the Bible. Those social movements found scriptural support slowly, creepingly, and ultimately renewed the church when reconciliation came to fruition.

Perhaps we are at the same junction that war, women in ministry, and abolitionism was at.  The Bishop seems to think so as he crescendos into a call for unity:
Just as the church over the last 2000 years has come to allow a variety of ethical conviction about the taking of life and the application of the sixth Commandment so I believe that in this period it is also moving towards allowing a variety of ethical conviction about people of the same gender loving each other fully. Just as Christian pacifists and Christian soldiers profoundly disagree with one another yet in their disagreement continue to drink from the same cup because they share in the one body so too I believe the day is coming when Christians who equally profoundly disagree about the consonancy of same gender love with the discipleship of Christ will in spite of their disagreement drink openly from the same cup of salvation.
The Bishop concludes with a renewed drive to fellowship with one another:
If on this subject of sexuality the traditionalists are ultimately right and those who advocate the acceptance of stable and faithful gay relationships are wrong what will their sin be? That in a world of such little love two people sought to express a love that no other relationship could offer them? And if those advocating the acceptance of gay relationship are right and the traditionalists are wrong what will their sin be? That in a church that has forever wrestled with interpreting and applying Scripture they missed the principle in the application of the literal text? Do these two thoughts not of themselves enlarge the arena in which to do our ethical exploration?

I believe that to have “diversity without enmity”, as the Dean put it at the Bishop’s Council, provides a safe and a spiritually and emotionally healthy place for Christians of differing convictions to discern the will of God for our lives. To know and to do God’s will is our calling. The place for that discernment is the Body of Christ where the different members, differentiated by the diversity of our graces, gifts and experiences, are called to be in harmony and love with one another.
I think this is fascinating because the Bishop is a believer in traditional Christian sexual relations and would be gladly welcomed into the most homophobic of church circles.  But this Bishop can see people holding differing views on killing people share the common cup, so why not sexual identity disagreements as well?  It's a powerful witness.

Perhaps it is time to move towards an embrace of Just Sexuality, or the acknowledgement of a sexual ethic that seeks wholeness in relationships, justice in ways & means, with biblical foundations. With such an ethic the church can more clearly and forcefully witness to a culture that embraces life-sucking forms of sexuality at every second of media depiction.  Do we have such an ethic already? Sure. But just as the Just War theory took twists and turns over time (Aquinas in the 1200s changed it significantly), perhaps we also can develop a more nuanced ethic for the modern age.

Just War has been around for 1600 years. For 1600 years, Christians have disagreed over the taking of human lives...and yet they stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews singing together. And they will for the next 1600 years, I guarantee!  So for the next 1600 years, why can't we continue to stand together with each other in disagreement over Just Sexuality and instead seek an ethic together that satisfies no one fully but places our trust in God, turning our energies outward to heal the world in its brokenness, and replaces self-serving calls for schism with renewed dedication to life together?

I think we the molecular level of the church, starting with my pew, and your pew, and the pew behind and in front, until entire churches respect a diversity of belief and commit to keeping in fellowship with one another.  There will be casualties, there will be crises of faith, but there will also be a grace that calls us to diversity without enmity for the sake of the shared mission of the body of Christ.



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