Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When Church People Complain

Someone once said that wherever two or more are gathered, conflict will arise.

No truer words were probably ever spoken.

This is, unfortunately, especially true in the church.

When I was a kid the church my family attended split over the issue of playing cards.

Several families in the church (my parents included among them) got together on Friday or Saturday nights for food and fellowship and the adults played euchre while we kids played amongst ourselves or watched movies.

Several other families in the church thought playing cards was a sin and that Christians should never play cards or associate with people who do.

There was an impasse and a line drawn in the sand. Things got heated. Neither side backed down. The church split.

Over getting together and playing cards.

True story.

How tragic.

How senseless.

How damaging to the kingdom.

I've heard of churches splitting, or at least many people leaving a church, over issues as mundane as the color of carpet in the sanctuary or the color of the padding on the pews or chairs. Churches split and people leave over the proverbial worship wars, not liking the pastor's sermons, and a host of other things.

Considering Jesus' prayer was for the church to be unified (see John 17:20-21) and Jesus said that people will know we are his disciples by the love we have for each other (see John 13:34-35), the ease with which we "church hop" and abandon our faith communities over trivial issues and matters of personal preference (often not leaving amicably) is a sad indictment of our failure as disciples walking in the way of Jesus.

But it happens. It happens too regularly. And I think it breaks God's heart.

As a pastor I'm privy to lots of of critical comments, critiques, and complaints. I can't for the life of me figure out why, but for some reason, we church people too often tend to major on griping.

One significant factor is that we've allowed our consumeristic and hyper-individualized culture to form us as Christians such that we often see the church as the dispenser of religious goods and services. We may not even be consciously aware of this. It subversively creeps in.

From there, pastors and ministry leaders of our churches are then seen as the peddlers of these religious goods and services who exist largely to conform to our expectations and meet our demands.

We pay (through our giving of tithes and offerings) and expect to get what we want. Church then becomes a transactional experience where we demand that our expectations are met (or we're taking our business elsewhere), rather than a life-transforming encounter with the living God.

Something has seriously gone wrong.

Because I have an open door policy and am always willing to meet in person with anyone who wants to meet, I perhaps have more direct and immediate contact with negative feedback than not if I didn't have such a relational style in how I do ministry and lead.

Most of the well-intentioned folks who offer critical comments and complaints don't see themselves as being critical or complaining. They would also never see themselves as sowing seeds of division or causing problems.

Rather, they typically see themselves as simply trying to make suggestions for the "best interest" of the church.

"We just want things to be the best they can be," I've been told countless times.

That may well be. I hope that's true. And I'm certainly always willing to listen to genuine concerns that people have. I'm also willing to make necessary and strategic course corrections along the way (and we do). That's part of good leadership.

But I've also learned that, "We just want things to be the best they can be", is often code for, "I want it done the way I want it done."

And there's usually an implication that if things don't change to conform to their expectations, they will continue to complain and cause problems, or perhaps ultimately leave the faith community.

Thus, there's typically a veiled threat through their smiling and innocent-sounding "We're just looking out for the good of the church."

It also sort of implies that I and my ministry team are apparently not.

Today I received a typed, unsigned letter from someone who self-identified as a regular attender of our faith community. The first paragraph said they were happy I was at our church as its pastor and praised my enthusiasm (I transitioned to this church in August as the new senior pastor. You can read about that here).

The rest of the letter was a series of criticisms and concerns about changes that have been made, our Sunday morning worship gathering, and how things are structured on Sunday mornings. Basically this person wasn't happy.

As letters go, it wasn't the worst I've received. And I've taken more severe and harsh criticism in face-to-face meetings with people.

Still, no one likes anonymous critical letters.

I read the letter. Then I threw it in the trash.

Eugene Peterson, author of the popular Bible translation The Message, among many other influential books on pastoral ministry and spiritual formation, and who pastored Christ Our King church in Maryland for nearly 30 years, said he refused to even read unsigned letters he received. They were immediately discarded into File 13.

So at least I read the letter. I gave them that courtesy.

Can I just be honest for a moment?

It's so frustrating that this sort of nonsense is part of my job.

Every job has it's frustrations of course. And while I've been at this long enough that my naive idealism that we're all just going to love Jesus and get along has been shattered, this sort of thing is still frustrating, disheartening, and painful.

It's emotionally and mentally draining.

And it kills the joy that comes from the incredible privilege of serving God and his people as a pastor.

Week in and week out I and my associate pastor, as well as a fantastic and dedicated ministry team of volunteers and lay leaders, pour our heart and soul into the life and ministry of our faith community.

The decisions that are made, including changes that happen, are never made willy-nilly and haphazardly. They are certainly never made with the express intention of alienating people. Quite the opposite!

Rather, everything that happens is prayerfully and carefully considered and implemented strategically in conversation and prayer with other leaders like our Church Board and Deacons and key lay ministry team leaders.

We don't just make this stuff up as we go. We spend hours in prayer. Hours thinking and contemplating. Hours reading and meditating on and wrestling with Scripture. Hours reading and studying other relevant books and articles. And hours in conversation and strategic planning.

This is true of any ministry and its leaders.

Here's something else that's true: Pastors and ministry leaders make mistakes. We're not perfect. We sometimes say the wrong thing. We try things that sometimes don't work. We hopefully learn from those things, move on, and do better next time. It's called failing forward. And it's absolutely vital to any vibrant ministry or organization.

And this is true too: Pastors and ministry leaders prayerfully, carefully, and strategically think a lot more about all this than any disgruntled church member ever does or will. Perhaps disgruntled church members should keep that in mind the next time they feel compelled to offer their critiques, criticisms, and complaints.

The first sentence in Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life packs a powerful discipleship punch if we truly grasp it: "It's not about you."

We followers of Jesus who are pilgrims on the way should remember that. It's not about me. And it's not about you, mister or misses disgruntled church member.

You see, there's a bigger thing happening here than making you (or me) happy and conforming to your (or my) desires and expectations. It's called the Kingdom of God and the cosmic redemptive story God's unfolding in history. And we're invited to play a vital part in the story as agents and ambassadors of the kingdom in our various spheres of influence.

As a church family we exist to glorify God as a community committed walking together in the way of the Jesus for the good of the world. That's our mission. It's going to be an incredible, life-changing, life-transforming, challenging, and exciting adventure -- literally the adventure of our lives! And we'd love for you to be a part of it with us as we journey together.

But if you honestly can't be on board with that and you don't want to be part of this journey we're on together, then I'm not going to lose sleep over you deciding to leave.

In fact, it would be better for everyone involved if you did. Sooner rather than later. For the sake of your own soul, you should find a place where you can get on board with what's happening, support the ministries through your time, talents, and tithes, and get plugged in using your gifts to build up that faith community.

And in the meantime, don't tear this one down.

Monday, April 21, 2014

My Writing Process Blog Tour

A couple weeks ago my friend Jeff Darren Muse asked me to participate in a blog tour called "My Writing Process." Today is my day to post and talk about my writing and then I'm supposed to introduce you to three others who will carry the tour forward.

Unfortunately, I didn't contact people early enough, so I'll only be introducing you to two great writers: my wife Jennifer Ochstein, who is a writer and professor of English and writing, and my good friend and fellow pastor-theologian Matthew Yoder.

I met Jeff through my wife a few years ago. They were colleagues in the Ashland University MFA program. As a former English major and wannabe writer myself, I jumped at opportunities to attend a few lectures and readings during some of Jen's residential intensives at Ashland. 

The great folks and students in the program were always very welcoming to me as an "outsider" (thanks especially Sarah Wells for letting me join in a few times!) and never made me feel weird about hanging out. In fact, they welcomed me into their community and conversations. I grew fond of this community of writers, even with my limited exposure. If you're looking for a low-residency MFA, you probably couldn't do better than Ashland's. 

Jeff was one of the great people at Ashland who took time to meet me and talk with me. Later we became Facebook official friends and have kept in touch via the wonders of social media, including reading each other's writing. 

As an interpretative naturalist, park ranger, environmental educator, and writer, Jeff brings an expertise to a subject I know little about. Heck, I just enjoy walking in the woods, seeing a beautiful sunset, or listening to the soothing lullaby of a gently flowing river. I suspect Jeff loves these things too. He just actually knows about them. 

What I appreciate most about Jeff is his kindness and keen mind. He questions and wonders and wanders. We have that in common. 

Jeff's been a steady encourager to me in my work and writing. We all need friends like that. 

Now to my own writing process. I'll be responding to four questions that everyone who's part of the tour answers.

1. What am I working on?

Sermons mostly. I'm a pastor. That means every week I'm writing a sermon. I have little time to bask in the afterglow of Sunday morning worship. Usually by Sunday afternoon I'm already thinking about what I'm preaching next week. Sunday is a bit relentless that way in that it's always coming. 

For several years after I first started preaching I wrote a full manuscript sermon every week. It would typically be 10-12 typed pages, inch-and-half-spaced, 14-point font. Although I would take the manuscript with me to the pulpit, I never simply read the manuscript (how boring!). Nevertheless, it was always there with me as a sort of crutch. 

About three years ago I changed my process and communication style. I no longer write a full manuscript. I create a Word doc, landscape, two columns, and I type notes in both columns in 8-point font. Then I paper-clip the notes in my Bible and I sit on a stool as I teach on Sunday mornings. The document is still often around 1,000 words, but that's significantly less than my 2,500 to 3,000 word sermon manuscripts. 

I've learned to go with the flow a bit more. Being a good communicator, whether through writing or speaking, is an ongoing learning process and a never-ending honing and shaping of your skills and craft. I need to continue to get better. 

I also write on this blog and I've published a few articles and book reviews in publications affiliated with our church denomination. 

My writing largely consists of constructively critiquing the conservative politicized Evangelical subculture that I was raised in and my church denomination is steeped in, as well as critically exploring, probing, and questioning theological topics. 

I'm particularly interested in writing (hopefully) thoughtfully and constructively at the intersection of faith and culture. 

How can we think well and deeply about the pressing issues of our day from a Christocentric kingdom of God perspective and thoughtfully engage the conversations and culture? This is a question that drives much of what I do. 

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don't really know. There's certainly no shortage of pastors (or former pastors) who write blogs and articles and publish books. These days pastors are always pontificating about something. The ubiquity of pastor's blogs and Christian theology blogs makes offering a unique contribution elusive at best. 

Some of us, like Rob Bell or Brian McLaren or Mark Driscoll or Kevin DeYoung are famous (or notorious -- depending on your perspective). 

Many more (like me and my pastor-theologian friends) are not. We're just average, every-day pastors trying our best to plug away faithfully in our ministry contexts and spheres of influence. 

Some of these writing pastors are more conservative and tend to take a defensive posture. Their thinking is that we need to circle the wagons, rally the troops, promote "family values", overthrow the "liberals" and take America back for God. 

Others are more progressive, critiquing the conservative group, and working toward what they often call a third way. For this group, the ideological culture wars conservatives tend to get caught up in are largely exercises in missing the point. 

And, of course, there are others that lie at various points along a spectrum in-between or perhaps are on a different wavelength all together with their concerns and critiques. 

I'll let you read my work and decide for yourself where you think I fit into all that. Hint: Not the conservative group! 

3. Why do I write what I do?

I think any writer writes because they can't not write. In the Bible the prophet Jeremiah lamented the difficult messages he was called upon by God to deliver. They weren't, shall we say, very seeker sensitive! 

Yet in Jeremiah 20:9 the prophet says this: "But if I say, 'I will not mention his [i.e. God's] word or speak anymore in his name,' his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot." 

Jeremiah cannot not preach the messages God has given him. It's like a fire shut up in his bones that can't be contained. Even if he wants to hold it in, it's inevitably going to spill out.

I think it's similar with writers. We're compelled to write. To put pen to paper and fingers to keys. Words become phrases. Phrases become sentences forming and elucidating thoughts. Sentences become paragraphs. 

On the page we wrestle with ideas -- ours and others'. We argue. We lament. We rejoice. We create. 

The reason I write the things I do is because I feel compelled to represent Christian faith more  thoughtfully, graciously, and reasonably than I too often see it being represented, particularly in the ideological culture wars. 

When it comes to thinking about the complex and pressing issues of our day and engaging the culture and conversation about them, Christians simply must do better. I hope I can be one sane voice of reason and a channel of inclusive love and grace in these conversations. 

4. How does my writing process work?

Slowly and painfully. 

I've been preaching weekly for about eight years. I would have thought that by now putting my sermons together would have gotten easier. It hasn't. 

Certainly I work faster. What once took me 20 or more hours can be accomplished in five to eight hours. You learn a few things along the way. 

But getting the final product nailed down is still a gut-wrenching, painfully slow process. It's prayer and study and wrestling and prayer and study and wrestling and prayer and study and wrestling. You get the idea. 

I don't stress about this much anymore. I trust the process. I trust myself. Most importantly I trust the Holy Spirit to be working in me and through me throughout the process and to ultimately give me the words when I stand before the congregation on Sunday morning. 

But it still comes slowly. 

My other writing -- whether blogging, writing articles, or mini theological treatises is similar. It rarely comes easy. Like many writers I enjoy having written, not necessarily the actual process of writing! 

Who's Next?

I'd like to introduce you to two writers who will carry the tour forward next week. 

Jennifer Ochstein is my lovely and brilliant wife. She's the Assistant Professor of Writing at Bethel College (Indiana) and her work has been published in Brevity, Connotation Press, Hippocampus Magazine, The Lindenwood Review, and Evening Street Review. She's an arts writer for Hothouse Magazine and her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012. Jen is currently at work on a memoir. Discover some of her writing at http://jenniferochstein.com.

Matthew Yoder is a good friend and fellow-pastor theologian. A keen thinker, Matt self-identifies as an Evangelical Anabaptist and brings a unique and fresh perspective to the intersection of these two streams of Christian faith. Discover some of his work at http://matthew-yoder.com.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Every Sunday is a Mini-Easter

As a pastor everything in my week is moving toward Sunday.

Sunday is game day. It's go time. It's the culmination of a week's worth (and sometimes more) of planning and preparation, prayer and study.

There are many parts and participants that converge together to make our worship gatherings happen. Some of the people are out front and visible, while others play vital roles that are more behind the scenes.

But every person and every part is important. We're in this together. Using our gifts, talents, and abilities to worship God and to help lead God's people in worship.

And this happens every single week. Without fail. (Except twice this past winter during the polar vortex and those really nasty snow storms).

It's quite magical really. Mysterious even.

And I love it.

Every Sunday is special, of course. But today, this particular Sunday, was especially special because it was Easter Sunday -- the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For Christians, everything hinges on Easter. As the Apostle Paul says bluntly in 1 Corinthians 15:14: "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

Even the act of gathering for worship on Sundays (the first day of the week -- the Lord's Day) as opposed to Saturday (the seventh day -- the Sabbath -- when our Jewish brothers and sisters gather for worship) is because of the resurrection. Christ was raised on Sunday.

For Christians, Easter itself is the culmination of a spiritual pilgrimage that begins four weeks before Christmas with Advent (preparing for the coming of Jesus), moves through Christmas (the birth of Jesus) and Epiphany (the manifestation of Jesus to the world), and into Lent (preparing for Jesus' death), Holy Week (Jesus' final week before his death on Good Friday), and Easter (Jesus' resurrection).

Fifty days from now Christians will celebrate Pentecost (the outpouring of the Holy Spirit recounted in Acts 2) and the birth of the Church, before moving into ordinary time for the summer and early fall, and then begin the spiritual pilgrimage with Advent all over again.

And every Sunday is a mini-Easter -- a mini reminder and celebration of the reality of resurrection. Sin and death have been defeated and the decisive victory over the powers of evil has already been won.

Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

As writer Anne Lamott said at a conference I attended recently, "We're Easter people living in a Good Friday world." I used that in my sermon this morning.

This is the sacred rhythm that defines my life as a follower of Jesus and pilgrim on the way.

Everything is heading toward Sunday. Toward resurrection. Toward redemption. Toward healing and hope. Love, joy, and peace.

Today was an especially good Lord's Day. We celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was a fantastic worship gathering.

And as I drove out of the church parking lot long after everyone else had left, I had a profound sense of gratitude for being able to do what I do week in and week out as a pastor.

It's like a little, weekly taste of heaven.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Reflection on the Festival of Faith and Writing

Last week my wife and I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

More accurately, I tagged along with my wife, who is a writer (you can see some of her work here) and an English and writing professor at Bethel College (Indiana), as well as with several students and a few other professors from Bethel (which also happens to be my alma mater).

This was my first time at the festival, but my wife has attended several times. It was, in a word, inspiring.

For three days we were immersed in a community comprised of Christians from all tribes and traditions of the faith and who are committed to thinking deeply about their faith and engaging the important issues of our day thoughtfully and creatively through their art.

I heard fantastic talks on things ranging from the intersection of discipleship and Christian faith with our stewardship of the land and environment, to the power of story and words in writing toward justice, to pop theology and cultural analysis, to writing spiritual memoir and the place of doubt in our faith, to perhaps the ultimate question: What is the good life and what does it look like to pursue it, or more specifically, the question asked by Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, What does flourishing life look like in light of Jesus Christ?

I felt at home in this community of writers, poets, pastors, and theologians, among others. It was like a little taste of heaven for three days.

I laughed. I cried. I was moved deeply. I was challenged to think deeper and better about my faith. I was reminded through a few of the sessions and readings how too often I'm oblivious to the suffering of others and how wrapped up in myself I tend to be. And I was inspired to stick with it. To keep writing. To keep probing. To keep wrestling. To keep thinking.

I (stupidly) only took notes the last day. Here are some of the thoughts from various presenters that impacted me:

Theologian Donna Bowman reminded us that everyone is a theologian and a critic. The trick is to be an informed and thoughtful one!

As thoughtful and informed theologians and critics, we can help bring a more informed perspective and help correct misguided and less charitable readings and interpretations. This is an important task, especially in our day of soundbites, slogans, and reductionist caricatures.
"The theologian must not only remain faithful to the past [i.e. received tradition], but also faithful to the moment [i.e. contextualization]." (Donna Bowman)
Theologian Miroslav Volf presented a paper on "The Ends of Our Lives" in which he was probing into the question of what is the good life and how does one pursue such a life?

Volf critiqued the failed secular thesis that religion is outmoded and outdated and that society would increasingly become completely secularized, devoid of all religion, because God would simply be superfluous.

He then presented statistics showing how the world is actually growing more religious, not less. And he offered some suggestions for why that might be the case.

At the root of Volf's thesis is Augustine's famous opening line in his Confessions about the restlessness of our hearts until we find rest in God. Volf believes this is intrinsic to what it means to be human. And furthermore, this is the foundation of all the major world religions, whether they speak of God or not.

All religions, Volf said, have the idea the Transcendent and they stand or fall on how well they connect people to the Transcendent and what it means to live a good and meaningful life in light of the Transcendent.

Of course, the really interesting conversations begin when we start asking what is meant by "the Transcendent", for there is a diversity of views across the major world faiths, and Volf doesn't shy away from this reality.

Nevertheless, all the major world faiths are pointing beyond themselves to a higher and deeper reality that invites its adherents to think deeply about the meaning and purpose of life and to live a good life in service to something bigger than yourself.
"Chasing consumeristic highs, we rarely reflect on the character and purpose of our lives ...  We seek to satisfy our desires without reflecting on what is desirable and why." (Miroslav Volf)
Writer Anne Lamott was one of the keynote speakers at this year's festival. I've not yet read any of her books; yet being the key term. Because after hearing her speak for a plenary session and then later in an interview/conversation, I was mesmerized. She's brilliant, hilarious, and deeply compassionate.

Anne talked about a lot of things. She's clearly at home as a story teller. She writes, I learned, a lot about suffering. "We're Easter people [living] in a Good Friday world," she said.

Somehow her seemingly disparate meanderings as she talks weave themselves together into a tapestry that makes profound points and could just as easily leave you laughing or crying, but always thinking and always challenged to be more compassionate and loving toward others.

Anne has been writing every day for forty years. I got the impression it's the same time every day -- early first thing in the morning. She dispelled any notions that the writing life is sexy or romantic. It's painful, excruciating, hard work that requires you simply put your butt in the chair and keep at it. Day in and day out, month after month, year after year.
"The only way you can find artistic spiritual freedom in this world is through structure and discipline." (Anne Lamott)
Richard Foster has become the spiritual formation guru of sorts for evangelicals who are discovering (many for the first time) the ancient spiritual disciplines and the classical writings of the great spiritual fathers and mothers of Christian faith.

Foster reminded us that we need to be free to be silent and to not speak or write. Indeed, the first task of writing, said Foster, is neither to write nor to read, but rather to listen. Listen for God's voice and his "wonderful, terrifying silence." Then be free to write and speak when the time is right.
"Get into a rhythm of the cosmic patience of God. Then what needs to be said will come in due time." (Richard Foster) 
Finally, writer Rachel Held Evans was another keynote speaker at this year's festival. Rachel is the type that you probably either love or hate. I love her. I read her blog regularly and, even if I happen to disagree with this or that point, I find a deep resonance with her critique of the conservative, politicized evangelical Right. So do a host of others.

Rachel, who like Anne Lamott, is also very funny, brilliant, and deeply compassionate, was vulnerable about her own insecurities as a writer, even now that she's famous. She also talked humbly about some of the hard lessons she's learned (and continues to learn) about rocking the proverbial boat. "Don't just rock the boat for the sake of rocking it," she said. Excellent advice.

She also touched on our motivations for writing and being artists. Do we hope to become famous? Do we think that when we get that book deal we'll finally be happy and all our dreams will come true?

They won't and we won't, she assured us. Another hard lesson born out of her own experience.

Instead, it turns out that the act of writing is it's own reward, regardless of and perhaps even in spite of, what good things may come your way upon publishing and becoming more publicly recognized.
"The scandal of the Gospel is not who it keeps out, but who it lets in." (Rachel Held Evans)
If you're a reader, writer, and/or artist and you've never attended the Festival of Faith and Writing, do so! It convenes every two years on the beautiful campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

On Writing

I've always enjoyed reading and writing. My favorite class in elementary school was reading and then later in high school it was English. I devoured books as a kid and wrote stories. Lots of them. I even attended to a few young author's conferences.

Writing was an important part of my life from an early age.

When I first went away to college my declared major was exercise science. Being an athlete, I thought I wanted to be a personal trainer. (Hello? I never liked science class and in exercise science you take LOTS of science! Heck, I just wanted to work out.)

After taking a freshman comp course and then an exposition in writing course where the assignments were to read great books and write about them, I quickly changed my major to English. Mike Dolzani became my adviser and my first professor-mentor who encouraged me. To this day he probably has no idea how deeply he impacted my life in those formative years. (Dr. Dolzani, if by chance you are reading this, THANK YOU!) 

I knew I wanted to be a writer. Maybe an English and literature professor too. But definitely a writer. I was even working on a piece of creative non-fiction back then, though I wasn't aware of the genre at the time. I stayed up late into the night, tap tap tapping the keys of my laptop as the words poured out of me. Looking back, they were silly vignettes. Mostly about experiences with my friends, our drunken exploits, and the drama of our lives. I guess we all start by writing what we know.   

One thing I've learned is that life rarely turns out like how you think it will. I never finished my bachelor's degree in English. My father had been sick since I was a sophomore in high school. But no one could figure out what was wrong with him. During my freshman year of college, doctors did a heart cath on my dad and discovered he had cardiomyopathy. His heart only functioned at 17 percent capacity. 

It was a cruel twist of fate. A fluke, really. No high blood pressure. No high cholesterol. None of the typical heart disease issues. A virus had attacked his heart and killed the muscle. It happens. And unfortunately it happened to my dad. Doctors said he would be dead within two or three years. They were wrong. He lasted seven. 

I left college near the end of the spring semester of my junior year to come home and help take care of my dad. I think there were only two or three weeks left in the semester. I remember packing my red, two-door Ford Escort hatchback with the black trim on the sides and clean, grey interior. I loved that car. 

It was a sunny but cool day. The sky was deep blue and with a hint of grey overcast looming from Lake Erie. The sweet smell of spring was in the air. It was the promise of new life. But instead it felt like the end. 

My friends and I cried as we hugged and said our goodbyes. This was before everyone had cell phones, before Facebook, Twitter, Skype and FaceTime. Returning home, five hours from school in another state, might as well have been the other side of the world. 

In my heart I thought I'd be back. And while I did manage to visit friends back on campus a couple times, I never did make it back as a student. I never finished my English degree. I still regret that. Not the decision to come home. I've never regretted that for a moment or had a second thought about it. But I do regret never finishing the degree.

Despite not having a degree, I was able to get a job as a reporter at a local newspaper. I worked my way up and then got hired at a larger local paper. Although I wasn't writing the great American novel or anything remotely close to what what might be considered literature or creative writing, I was getting paid to write. 

I loved chasing a story. The deadlines. The pressure. Seeing my byline, especially if it made front page of the section, or on a few occasions, front page of the entire paper. For a few short years it was glorious. And sometimes not. 

Eventually I moved on to other things. I worked construction. I worked in the parts department of an RV manufacturer. And I finished my degrees. Three of them over nine years. I worked full-time and went to school part-time. 

All of that seems like another lifetime ago now. Was that me? Did all that happen to me? Did I do those things? Who was that person? I'm not sure I know. 

Life happens. Life changes us. Choices are made. Providence takes us in new directions. We find ourselves doing things we never thought we'd do and perhaps never wanted to do. But the whole time we're becoming who we are. 

Like Annie Dillard famously said, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives ... What we are doing with this hour or that one is what we are doing."

Today I'm a pastor. How the hell did that happen? Long story. Maybe I'll tell you someday. Here's a secret, a confession maybe: I never wanted to be a pastor. I never thought I'd be a pastor. 

Except maybe I did. Maybe I was a pastor-in-training all along, the seemingly disparate strands, false starts, missteps and mishaps of my life forming me and shaping me into who I had been all along but without consciously realizing it. Maybe I was a pastor before I was ever officially called a pastor. Maybe I was a pastor before I ever knew I was a pastor. It seems so now.

In his memoir, The Pastor, Eugene Peterson describes his own circuitous journey of self-discovery to full-time vocational ministry as a pastor. He writes, "I had never planned to be a pastor, never was aware of any inclination to be a pastor, never 'knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.' And then -- at the time it seemed to arrive abruptly -- there it was: Pastor" (2).

When I first went to college they told us during freshman orientation that no matter what our major we would probably change careers five or six times. Being a pastor is my fourth career move. I've been a pastor longer now than anything else I've been in my adult life.

Through it all one thing has remained constant: I still write. I also still read voraciously. And the writing. And the writing. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Much Ado About Noah (for Nothing)

Many Christians are up in arms about the Hollywood blockbuster epic "Noah" released in theaters this past Friday. The film, starring Russell Crowe and directed by Darren Aronofsky, is a film adaption (and interpretation) of the biblical story of Noah (found in Genesis 6-9).

The outcry from (mostly) conservative, fundamentalist-leaning and evangelical Christians loyal to the political Right has been swift and substantial, calling on fellow Christians to boycott the film. 

The criticisms and critiques have ranged from personal attacks on Aronofsky for being an atheist (whether he is or not, I have no idea; but even if he is, what's that got to do with anything?!?), to a supposed "liberal environmentalist agenda" the film is supposedly pushing (because apparently Christians shouldn't be concerned about the environment . . . say what?), to some version of it-just-doesn't-really-follow-the-Bible (more on that below). 

Let's break this down a bit. 

One article I read argued before the film's release that Christians shouldn't see "Noah", accusing Aronofsky of being an open "card carrying atheist" and the movie as being a "totally un-Biblical approach" to the "Historical Account", ultimately suggesting that "you have to wonder, is this atheist just seeing if he can make fun of the Bible and get Christians to pay for it?", among other criticisms. 

This is a classic case of what they call in logic 101 poisoning the well and an ad hominem attack -- both strategically (but fallaciously) aimed at getting an audience to ignore and dismiss a claim or argument (or in this case, a movie). 

So what if Aronofsky, who was raised Jewish, is an avowed atheist? What does that have to do with whether or not he takes a biblical story and turns it into a thought-provoking, creative, and entertaining film? 

That's like saying the Left Behind movies are awful and should be boycotted (and in my opinion they are awful and should be boycotted for numerous reasons!) simply because they are based on books written by self-professed Christians and directed, cast, and comprised of actors who are Christians. 

Obviously they don't have an agenda, right? 

The fatuity of this type of criticism and attack is what gives Christians such a bad name to a watching a world. We really need to do better than this in thoughtfully engaging the culture. 

What of the criticism that the film is pushing some supposed "liberal environmentalist agenda"? 

I can't for the life of me figure out why conservative Christians (primarily on the political Right) who make such a hullabaloo about taking the Bible seriously and literally seem to fail to take seriously and literally the clear God-given command and implication in Genesis 1 and 2 (and found throughout Scripture) that human beings are to watch over, care for, preserve, and protect God's creation. 

Caring about the environment and God's creation isn't "liberal." It's actually about as biblical as it gets. Read your Bible. It's in there repeatedly. 

Finally, the vast majority of the criticism and critiques against the film boil down to some version of it-just-doesn't-really-follow-the-Bible. 

Several responses. 

First, it's a Hollywood MOVIE. There's going to be creative license.

Second, doesn't it follow the basic contours of the biblical story? 

Let's recap the main plot points of the story in the relevant chapters of Genesis:
  • God sees the pervasive wickedness of humankind (including a strange mention about apparently fallen angels) on the earth and that "every inclination of thoughts of their hearts were only evil continually" (Gens 6:5b). And so God decides to judge humankind by sending a flood to totally destroy every living thing.
  • Despite the wickedness and corruption over the entire earth, Noah is righteous and finds favor with God. So God speaks to Noah, informing him of his plan to destroy everything. But Noah and his family, along with a pair of every living creature (male and female) will be saved by Noah building an ark for them to ride out the storm.
  • Noah builds the ark and he, his family, and the animals safely ride the storm out while every other living thing is destroyed in a global cataclysmic flood. 
  • Eventually the waters recede, the ark comes to rest on some mountains, and Noah and his family, along with animals, exit the ark and are commanded to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. There's a fresh start and a new beginning.
  • God provides a rainbow, a reminder of his promise to never again destroy the earth and all living things through a global flood. 
  • Noah gets drunk, his son Ham sees him naked, his other two sons cover him, and Noah and Ham have a massive falling out.
All in all, I'd say Aronofsky's "Noah" is a relatively literalist rendering of the biblical story in terms of the primary plot and most of the details provided in the biblical text.

Does he go beyond what we have in Genesis 6 through 9? Of course. As Aronofksy notes in this interview, any film adaption that has Noah talking, names his wife or the wives of his children, goes beyond the biblical narrative. The details in the biblical story are pretty sparse.

But the overarching narrative and plot depicted in the film is a very literalist reading of the text. 

Finally, it seems that many Christians upset over "Noah" are uninformed about the fact that Aronofsky also clearly drew heavily on an Old Testament pseudepigraphal text called 1 Enoch for inspiration. This second century B.C.E. composite Jewish apocalyptic text, which strongly influenced the New Testament and early Christianity, purports to have been written by Enoch, the seventh descendant of Adam and Eve who was the father of Methuselah, who was the father of Lamech, who was the father of Noah. 

Genesis 5:24 reports tantalizingly: "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him." Thus, all kinds of stories and traditions developed in Judaism about Enoch, with 1 Enoch being just one, though perhaps the most influential, of three ancient Jewish books attributed to this Old Testament saint. 

Chapters 1-36 of 1 Enoch are commonly called the "Book of the Watchers" because, picking up the mention of supposed fallen angels from Genesis 6:1-2, it tells the story of these fallen angels (called Watchers in Enoch) and how they took wives of human beings, creating a race of giants, and taught human beings all kinds of secrets and advanced technological knowledge that ultimately led to pervasive wickedness and corruption among humans throughout the earth.

Although the Watchers seek for Enoch to intercede with God on their behalf, God's verdict has already been rendered: There will be no forgiveness for these rebellious fallen angles, and the corrupt world is going to be judged by a global cataclysmic flood. 

Later chapters of 1 Enoch describe the birth of Noah and how he and his family will be saved and preserved from this judgment, pointing toward a new start for humanity and all living things after the fury and destruction of the flood. 

So it turns out that, far from being "totally un-biblical" as many Christians claim, Aronofsky's "Noah" is creatively steeped in the biblical narrative and the ancient non-canonical Jewish texts, interpretations, and traditions that arose around the story and related characters. 

Aronofsky, it seems to me, masterfully and creatively weaves together these ancient stories, texts, and traditions in a sort of modern midrash (see also here and here for more on midrash) aimed at getting his audience to think about good and evil, mercy and justice, vengeance and forgiveness, goodness and beauty, and the importance of our free choices in determining these outcomes. 

Indeed, perhaps Old Testament scholar Peter Enns said it best in a recent relevant Tweet and Facebook status post: "For those still upset about 'Noah', try this: the movie isn't about Noah." In the comments thread Enns elaborated: "I think it's about humanity, violence, retribution, what is God up to, and second chances."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Christian Year Spirituality: Retelling the Story

There are many ways we mark time: the days of the week (and the hours and minutes that comprise those days), the seasons of the year, holidays, birthdays and anniversaries, the school calendar (a big one for parents!), sports seasons, the Hallmark calendar. We could probably think of more.

Marking time in these ways is a natural, even necessary, part of our journey through life. They keep us cognizant of and attentive to important things like our child's birthday, our wedding anniversary, the start (and end) of the school year, opening day for baseball (or the kick-off of whatever your favorite sport is), and a host of other things.

Within this natural rhythm there are times of celebration and times of sorrow. Times for spring cleaning and times for storing away for winter.  Times that are busy and full of hustle and bustle, and times that are more relaxed.

"There is a time for everything," says the wisdom teacher in Ecclesiastes. Indeed.

As important and necessary as these various ways of marking time are, there is another way of marking time that, if we allow it, can spiritually form and shape us, keeping us attentive and attuned to the things of God: Christian year spirituality.
Christian year spirituality is a way to mark time by recalling and retelling the story of God's redemptive work accomplished through the person and work of Jesus Christ. 
It's a subtle way of reminding us that there's something bigger going on in the world and in our lives than who won the World Series, who's playing in the Super Bowl, the best deals for Black Friday shopping, and scurrying to buy chocolate and flowers for that special someone on Valentine's Day.

In Christian year spirituality we don't just retell the story. We're invited to enter into the story, allowing the story form and shape us as followers of Jesus. The story reorients us around the reality of the cosmic redemptive story that God's unfolding in history, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the vital part we're called to play as agents and ambassadors of God's kingdom in the unfolding drama.

In his book Ancient-Future Time Robert Webber explains it this way:
"Christian-year spirituality is nothing less than the calling to enter by faith into the incarnation, the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s saving action is not only presented to us through the practice of the Christian year, it also takes up residence within us and transforms us by the saving and healing presence of Christ in our lives" (26). 
The idea of marking time through the sacred rhythm of God's redemptive work in history and retelling the pivotal stories of God's redemptive work and provision is deeply rooted in the Old Testament and Jewish heritage of Christian faith. (See Exodus 22; Leviticus 23; Numbers 28 and 29; and Deuteronomy 16 for the liturgical cycle of the annually appointed Jewish feasts).

By the time of Jesus (who lived as a first century Jew), Jewish worship revolved around set daily prayers, weekly Sabbath gatherings (and gatherings at other times) to hear Scripture, sing, and offer prayers, and a yearly cycle of festivals and special days that retold the story of God's mighty acts of salvation and provision on their behalf.

Here are a few examples of the annual cycle of feasts which Jews observed and that retold the story of God's redemptive work and provision in their history:

  • Passover (remembering the Exodus and deliverance from slavery in Egypt)
  • Festival of Unleavened Bread (remembering how God brought the Israelites out of Egypt in haste) 
  • Festival of Firstfruits (recognize God for his provision and blessing)
  • Festival of Weeks, also called Pentecost or Harvest (thankfulness for God's blessing of the harvest) 
  • Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur (special day of sacrifices to atone for the people's sin and to purify the holy place) 
  • Feast of Tabernacles or Booths (commemorating the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land
The BIG THREE (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles) required annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the celebration and observance. While distance and cost prevented many Jews from attending all three in Jerusalem, many tried to at least make the pilgrimage for Passover. This was apparently the custom of Jesus' family. In Luke 2:41 we read that "Every year Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of Passover." A small but important clue (among others in especially the early chapters of Luke's Gospel) that Jesus' family were pious Jews and that Jesus was no doubt raised immersed in the faith and story of his people. 

The early church took this rich Jewish heritage of marking sacred time and retelling the story of God's redemptive work and adapted it to the new thing that God had done through the person and work of Jesus Christ. 

So, for example, instead of weekly worshipping on the Sabbath (Saturday -- the seventh day of the week), almost immediately Christians began gathering for worship on the Lord's Day (Sunday -- the first day of the week and the day of Jesus' resurrection). 

Further, starting in the earliest centuries of Christian faith and developing over several hundred years, a liturgical calendar and cycle of feasts and special days developed marking the pivotal moments of Jesus' life such as his birth (Christmas), the journey toward his final days and death (Lent and Holy Week), his resurrection (Easter), and his accession back to the Father with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). 

This cycle of sacred time retold the story of salvation accomplished through the person and work of Christ. 

Webber explains it this way:
"The simple, unadorned purpose of the Christian year is to proclaim the gospel of God’s saving deeds with Christ, especially in his death and resurrection.
"The Christian year represents the historical unfolding of the life of Christ and his sure return. One may observe that Advent deals with the coming of Christ; Christmas his birth; Epiphany, his manifestation to the Gentiles; Lent, his journey toward death; the Great [Three Days—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday], the last days of Jesus’ earthly life; Easter, the time to celebrate his resurrection; and Pentecost, the time to experience life in the power of the Holy Spirit ... 
"Piety is then based on this pilgrimage throughout the year … The spiritual purpose of celebrating God’s saving events is to be formed by Christ, to die with him, to be raised with him, to be born anew, and to live in the hope of his resurrection and return" (Ancient-Future Time, 30, 31). 
Christian year spirituality is an invitation to immerse ourselves in the cosmic redemptive story God's unfolding in history, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. When we enter the rhythm of marking sacred time through the story of Jesus, we're reminded that there's a bigger thing that God's up to in the world than many of the things (some good and necessary, some not so good or necessary) that vie for our time, attention, and money.

Christian year spirituality also subversively helps redirect our focus to Christ and his kingdom and the part we're invited to play as agents and ambassadors of his kingdom as we walk in the way of Jesus for the good of the world.

Finally, it's an invitation to locate our own story within the bigger story of God's cosmic redemptive drama. As Eugene Peterson has said, "God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves."

For it's only in God's story that our story finds it's deepest sense of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.