• Episode 5: True Sounds of Liberty

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    This week we talk with Kaya Oakes and Dorothy Fortenberry about freedom and how you keeping it together when freedom is falling apart all around you.

    Overview

    The Show

    • Overview: 2:16
    • Scripture (Mark 5:21-43, read by Dee Crescitelli): 2:55
    • Interview with Dorothy Fortenberry & Kaya Oakes: 7:16
    • Word for the Week: 45:11
    • Prayers: 53:07
    • Offering: 57:30
    • Sending 58:32

    The Music

    Total: 1:03:04

  • Wisdom From Wisdom

    Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-25
    Mark 5:21-43

    Preached at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, July 1, 2018

    Before we get into the meat of the sermon, I want to say a word about today’s “Old Testament” lesson. I put that in air-quotes for a reason. The book it comes from—the Wisdom of Solomon—isn’t actually included in Protestant Bibles. Blame Martin Luther for that. Instead, the Wisdom of Solomon is part of what we call the Apocrypha. The scholars call them “Deutero-Canonical” works: Bible also-rans.

    Here’s how that happened. In Jesus’ time, like today, Jewish people lived around the world. Most lived in Israel, but many were in places like Egypt or modern Turkey. Some lived in Greece or Italy. Others spread out all over the Roman Empire. Most of the Jews who lived at home spoke Aramaic. That’s what Jesus spoke. But many in Israel and abroad spoke and read Greek, as did many pagan converts to Judaism.

    In the same way we read the Bible in translation, then, most people in Jesus’ day read it in a Greek translation. That’s called the Septuagint.

    Only one problem.

    The Septuagint contains several books that aren’t in the Hebrew. When Luther prepared his translation of the Bible, he decided they didn’t belong. So he tossed them out, and Catholic and Protestant Bibles have been different ever since. There are also Orthodox Bibles, and Ethiopian Bibles, and…well, we could be here all day.

    To keep things simple, what we know as The Bible isn’t the same for everyone. But the Apocrypha comes in handy sometimes. It’s quoted in the New Testament, for one thing. Sometimes it provides a much shorter reading than the Old Testament lesson. That’s why Dave and I decided to go with it today.

    And here I go losing the benefit of the shorter lesson by babbling on about how it came to be.

    In any case, the short version is that lots of people in Jesus’ day read scripture in Greek. As it happens, many of those folks found the Christian message appealing. The paradox of the earliest church was that the people Jesus spoke to—Jews—didn’t care for his message. But many people outside the Jewish faith did. After some wrangling and argument, that’s who Jesus’ followers decided to focus on. That’s their target audience, if you will.

    We hear echoes of that situation in this morning’s lesson from Mark. The people who wrote the gospels always wanted to show Jesus’ unique power. Very often they also wanted to show how Jesus reached out across social lines.

    So we hear two stories today. One is about Jesus’s miraculous ability to heal a woman no doctor could help. The other concerns his power to raise a child from the dead. Both stories involve people most folks wouldn’t expect Jesus to help. Men and women weren’t supposed to talk to one another in public, much less touch. It would have been shocking for a healer like Jesus to lay hands on a woman.

    Jairus, meanwhile, is most likely a leader of the faction opposed to Jesus. People Jairus knows are plotting against Jesus. They will get him killed. Yet Jesus hears the daughter needs him, and he is happy to help. In fact, he’s willing to be the butt of some jokes from people who doubt him before he raises the girl.

    Both Jairus and the unnamed woman show extraordinary faith in Jesus. Who decides they can get healed if they only touch a little bit of someone’s clothes? Who decides to throw themselves on the mercy of an enemy?

    The message couldn’t be clearer to the pagans considering converting to Christianity. These people showed faith in Jesus, and he saved them. He can do the same for you.

    The message ought to be pretty clear to us, too.

    God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.

    Do you hear any exceptions in that statement? I do not. God does not delight in the death of the living, except for those guys? No. It is the living, any of the living.

    It is through the devil’s envy that death entered the world, not God. Those who belong to the devil’s company experience death, but God saves those who belong to God. God’s people will have life after death. God’s heals even those who are not entitled to it, as the woman was not, as Jairus and his daughter were not, as we are not.

    Lord, I am not worthy to receive thee, but only say the words, and I will be healed.

    It is God’s delight to see the living live, to see the broken healed. It is God’s privilege to bring about healing and new life, even when we humans think it should not be.

    Martin Luther would no doubt have some caustic words for me for preaching from this text. (He would have anyway: he didn’t like Swiss Protestants like me.) I am willing to buck his memory because the message is so powerful and so necessary. God does not want death, whether literal or the small death of ongoing suffering. For us or for anybody.

    I want you know that if you have faith in Jesus, you will receive the gift of his power. Heck, he even helps people who don’t trust in him.

    I also want you to know that God will be there for your children. Never fear.

    To end, though, I want you to think about the divisions in our own society. Who are the Greeks? Who are the Hebrews? Do they both deserve to hear the good news?

    Who are the women? (Well, that one is easy.) Do they deserve the gift of healing given by Jesus? Who are the ones we shut out of healing because of our social rules?

    Who are the enemies? Do they deserve God’s gift of life?

    Go home and think about those questions. I’m confident that you’ll find God’s answers to them are the same, no matter what language they’re written in.

  • Maybe We Should Listen?

    2 Corinthians 6:1-13

    You could be forgiven for thinking that most of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians amounted to not much more than scolding and whining. As a colleague once said, the apostle comes across here as a “pissed-on pastor” responding to his critics and antagonists.

    Or perhaps he sounds like the parent reminding an inconsiderate child of all that we’ve been through for your sake. Paul is quick to mention a litany of “troubles, difficulties, and problems,” everything from facing angry people, being lied about, having to work to make a living so as not to burden the church, all the way up being beaten and thrown in jail.

    We did all of this for you, Paul tells the Corinthians, because we love you. And what do we get in response? You don’t love us even a little bit.

    It’s a wonder Paul didn’t get thrown out of more churches. That man had some nerve.

    The apostle’s point, though, is not to shame the Corinthians. Or at least that’s not his only point. Paul’s sacrifices on behalf of the church might be extreme, but all Christians are called to suffer for one another. Paul speaks of rejoicing in the midst of sadness. This is why: he lives in and to Jesus by living in and to the community with a fully open heart.

    The question for Christian parents is: can we get our kids to do likewise? It’s one thing to teach children to be kind and considerate. They learn that by imitation. But to teach them to be really Christian is a far different thing. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” remains a very difficult teaching, and an even tougher lesson. Hey kid, how’d you like to die for the team?

    It’s difficult enough just to give kids the basics. Work and social commitments get in the way. You can hardly blame a parent of small children for feeling stymied by the prospect of getting them to Sunday School. Athletic schedules increasingly run into Sunday morning—not, as I’ve told many congregations, because organizers despise Christianity—but because so many have moved beyond it. In a secular age, Sunday morning is prime real estate for fun, relaxation, and family time. Church is an obligation, and not always a welcome one.

    All of this is compounded by other social realities: moving decreases church attendance. So do economic struggles: those Americans hard-pressed to make ends meet are among the least likely to attend worship or be affiliated with a church. Divorce kills religious practice. There are many reasons—good reasons—for people juggling to keep their lives afloat to skip that one more damn thing on Sunday morning.

    When you have a child with special needs, whether physical or emotional, it adds another layer. Children with complex medical issues often find it difficult to come and remain in worship. Autistic children are easily overstimulated by the songs, voices, and movement of worship. The developmentally delayed or disabled may have a hard time following along. Children with emotional problems can leave themselves and their families so drained church becomes a long, bad idea. Kids of all shapes and sizes and abilities need to move around and make noise. You would be surprised how many places still find that unacceptable.

    The church itself often fails to support its own mission in passing on the faith to the next generation. The single, inevitable prime mover of that failure is this: we Christians fail to live up to our own faith.

    We practice a shallow, unremarkable gospel of good feelings holding hardly any more substance than the golden rule. We are more interested in maintaining our traditions and institutions than growing in a complex faith. We betray Jesus’ message of self-emptying love through our judgmentalism and unwillingness to forgive, forget, or tolerate. Paul tells us “open your hearts” and we politely, positively, in a Christian spirit, decline the invitation. There is nothing so effective at disappearing Christians as the behavior of church people toward one another.

    And yet, unaccountably, the kids turn out to be all right. A girl learns to love her uncle and his husband. A young man takes seriously the gospel command to make disciples and leads others into the faith; a daughter comes through her troubles with a seeker’s soul intact.

    Even those children who learn “just” to be kind and considerate find the grace they receive from God is not for nothing. Sometimes despite their parents, they turn out to be compassionate, dedicated to friends, possessed of a strong sense of right and wrong. Our own son is like that. Curses too much, though. Gets that from his pa.

    More important, as always, it is God who saves, not us. God will raise those Christians who are needed, inspire those who need to be inspired. Our job, as workers together with God, is simply to keep our hearts open. To the extent that mothers and fathers and other parental figures model the strength to lay down their lives for others, we show our children the face of the living God. Sometimes, to our shame, they show it to us.

    Sometimes we speak to the children. Sometimes they speak to us. Maybe we should listen?

  • Episode 5: Talking to the Kids

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    Overview

    The Show

    • Overview: 2:27
    • Scripture (2 Corinthians 6:1-13, read by Chelsea Berry): 5:40
    • Interview with Ana White: 11:15
    • Interview with Laura Berkan Mael: 27:13
    • Word for the Week: 50:00
    • Prayers: 58:22
    • Offering: 1:02:25
    • Sending 1:03:24
    • ;-) 1:07:45

    Total: 1:08:00

    The Music

  • First sermon in a while

    Gather round, children. I’m going to post what will most likely be my sermon for Sunday, the first time I’ve preached in a while.

    The text is Mark 4:35-41, where Jesus calms a storm on the Sea of Galilee.

    Let’s get the story straight first: Jesus has been teaching to great crowds on the western side of the sea. That is, Jews, his own people.

    The congregation has been so large in fact that Jesus teaches from a boat (a large one, presumably from the raised portion at the back so everyone can see and hear him).

    When he’s done, for whatever reason, he decides it’s time to go across the sea, to Gentile territory. So he tells the disciples, “C’mon, let’s go” and they take him “just as he was.” Probably that means they just pack up the boat he’s in and push off.

    So when the storm comes up and Jesus is still out cold in the back of the boat, the disciples are understandably peeved with him. This was his idea! And yet, he doesn’t seem to care that the boat is going down.

    But remember, this is the boat Jesus has been teaching in, and the teaching continues even in the storm.

    He stands up and says to the wind and the sea “Shut up! Chill out!” And they do.

    Then he turns around to the disciples and says, “Dudes, seriously? What are you so worried about? Don’t you trust me yet?” And then he goes back to bed. A savior needs his rest.

    There’s some symbolism here that modern folks might not see, but would have been obvious to the original readers. Storms at sea were symbols of the primordial chaos that God overcomes in creation.

    Again and again in scripture, we hear about God’s power to calm storms, and it’s always that same image at work: God is stronger than any chaos that threatens to overwhelm us.

    That’s why Jesus “rebukes” the storm. We don’t typically scold storms–they’re forces of nature, right? But we do when they’re filled with evil forces threatening the children of God.

    Understand: “rebuke” is the same word used when Jesus casts out demons–and when he tells Peter “Get behind me, Satan!”

    And the word for “storm” used here is the same one for the whirlwind that confronts Job. These are powerful, primal forces at work, and Jesus is more powerful than any of them.

    (Let’s take a minute here to appreciate Thomas Dorsey’s powerful gospel hymn “Precious Lord”:
    Through the storm, through the night
    Lead me on to the light
    Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
    )

    (Dorsey wrote that in the midst of grieving the loss of his wife and son in childbirth, and it shows exactly the kind of trust in God Jesus commends to the disciples.)

    Jesus asks the disciples “Have you still no faith?” but this is not faith as agreement with an abstract idea. It’s personal trust. He wants to know why they don’t think he can take care of them.

    His words apparently bounce right off, because now they’re “in fear” of him.

    Disciples do not come off well in Mark.

    What does this text have to say to us? We could take it as Thomas Dorsey did: a profound reassurance that God will lead us through our sorrows and suffering. Nothing wrong with that.

    There is, however, a broader dimension here worth paying attention to. First, understand that the Sea of Galilee is all of 13 miles long and 8 miles across.

    Ancient people were skittish about open water–there’s a lot that go wrong out there–but honestly. If you can’t see a storm coming in a pond that size, if you can’t outrun it, you’re an absolute dingbat.

    So this storm must be symbolic again. It tells us that those forces of chaos are always and everywhere nearby, threatening to swamp our boats. I hardly need point you to the headlines as evidence.

    In the face of that ongoing threat, Jesus calls his disciples to deeper engagement with the “mystery and paradox of death.” Jesus can calm storms, and he can overcome death–but only by surrendering to its power.

    We are called, in other words, to accept the death within ourselves, and the deathliness at the heart of the world. Jesus almost suggests that we embrace that death as Whitman does in grieving his beloved Lincoln:

    Come lovely and soothing death,
    Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
    In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
    Sooner or later delicate death.

    Death is the last comfort for Whitman, a benediction on all those who have died in a society torn in half. For Christians, it is the final power to be overcome by God in solidarity with humankind.

    That last bit is not just rhetoric. What finally overcomes death’s strength for Christians is Jesus’ willingness to walk with us through its gates.

    Death’s only real power is to isolate. Jesus undoes that power not through confrontation or strength, but through compassionate presence.

    This is the part the disciples don’t get: Jesus is the presence of God with them, and he will never leave their side, no matter how bad things get. What’s the worst that could happen? You could die? God will still be there.

    The part we don’t get–modern disciples or non-believers–is that God’s radical solidarity with humanity isn’t supernatural.

    Jesus’ power to calm the storm may be over-nature, but the power to be present to his disciples through the storm, through the night, comes from God’s radical love–a love that we can share.

    To come full circle, we share that love with God and with one another not by looking away from death, or trying to overcome it. That only isolates us. We must enter its power.

    Jesus leads us directly into death, because death is where we find love, and love is where we find life. This is what Whitman sees: that death and love are one in ways beyond our knowing.

    You are called, then, to wrap your arms around “lovely and soothing death” by standing with all and each who are dying, physically, emotionally, spiritually.

    So be with the cancer patients and those in hospice. Be with the young black men shot by police and all those who die from gun violence. Be with the migrants who die crossing the border. Christ is with them and with you.

    Be with the parents and children torn apart by insane cruelty. Stand in solidarity with those pushed to the margins by hatred and bigotry set loose in our society. Talk to people. Comfort and heal them as you have the power. Christ is with them and with you.

    Accompany those who lose hope, those who give in to the temptation to hate. Yes, even pray for your enemies. Don’t lose sight of their humanity, even when they lose sight of yours. Christ is with them and with you.

    Oh? But don’t be afraid to rebuke the powers of evil. Never fear: Christ is with you. Just don’t get the idea that you can do it all on your own. Christ is with you and with all of us. Our job is to trust him and summon the courage to do likewise.

  • Midweek Update 6/20/18

    Is it just me, or do things seem to be happening way too fast these days? I mean, I did just become a grandfather at age not-quite-forty-nine. But still. It feels like e’ve hardly had time to process the latest scandal or atrocity, and it’s already time to move on to the next one. And don’t get me started on the latest music. I tend to think that if it hasn’t cured for at least forty years, it’s not ready for listening.

    I suppose that sense of headlong hurtling is really what this newsletter is intended to address. We can’t do much about the pace of the you-know-who administration, but here, we can stop and take a minute to make sure we haven’t missed what happened the week before, while inevitably looking forward to what comes next.

    That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway.

    Coming up on Sunday, June 24th: a conversation with my family about what it’s like living with a pastor. (Hopefully, if I can get them to cooperate.) There’ll also be a very special scripture reader, and plenty of good music, as always.

    Here’s what you might have missed this week:

    • Episode 3 ("This Is The One. This Is The One?") went up on Monday. I wanted to do an interview with Princeton historian Kevin Kruse to help us make sense of this moment in religion and politics. He added a lot of valuable insight, and you should read his book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America for even more. The title is a fair summary, but I will add that it's amazing and not a little disturbing to recognize the parallels between today's situation and that under previous administrations, on both the right and the left.
    • I have two pieces up this week at Rewire.News, the new home of Religion Dispatches, and itself a pretty kickass source of information. The first piece asks Is it ‘Biblical to enforce the law,’ as Trump Admin Claims? and concludes that Jeff Sessions is a gutless coward. If that take isn't contrarian enough for your tastes, in the other piece I advise that Methodist efforts to discipline Sessions are bad idea.

      I'm on the lookout for places to publish, by the way, so if you know of an outlet I can pitch to, please let me know.
    • Here's a little taste of this week's sermon:
    We worry about whether our leaders understand the moral imperative of scripture, whether they are godly or ungodly persons. Truth to tell, all leaders are imperfect in the end. One has to be just this side of a sociopath to want to be president. Inevitably, our national leaders fail God’s standards for tender and compassionate shepherding. They bemoan the ways the office prevents them from taking their preferred moral options. Just as often, they ignore the many other ways they could have chosen differently and elected not to.

    And the intercessions:
    • God, answer us in our day of trouble. In your mercy, hear our prayer.
    • Remember your people and their offerings to you. Let your face shine on the children needlessly incarcerated in this nation, and give them comfort. Restore their families. In your mercy, hear our prayer.
    • Grant, O God, our hearts’ desires and fulfill our plans, for we look to the justice you intend to bring to us with hope. In your mercy, hear our prayer.
    • Scripture tells us that you help your anointed. Help us as well. Send us victories in our lives, and tend to our wounds, our needs, our failings. In your mercy, hear our prayer.
    • May those who take pride in their own strength collapse and fall. May those who seek only their own good come up short. Let the people of mercy, compassion, and justice rise and stand upright. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

    Do you know we’re three episodes and a prequel into this podcast, and nobody’s taken me up on the offer to pray for them? Send your requests to: dan@strangerjesus.com, or leave them for me on Twitter or Facebook. You can find those links on the Stranger Jesus website.

    If you’re looking to do some good, contribute to the ACLU, to church-based organizations, or the many immigrant civil rights groups working to protect those children and their families. Here's a list of places you can contribute.

    If you can do nothing else, pray to the God of David for these children and their families, and for our nation, that we recover our souls.

    And with that, Amen. </div> </div>



    Pastor Dan

  • Episode 3: Word For The Week & Prayers

    Word For The Week

    1 Samuel 15:34 - 16:13

    I keep thinking back to the night of Pres. Trump’s nomination before the Republican convention, when he made a dramatic backlit entrance into the hall amidst swirling smoke and booming music no doubt lifted from a World Wrestling Federation match.

    “Heeeeere’s Eliab!”

    America seems to have chosen its leader—with the help of the Russians, and the FBI, and others—not on the contents of his heart, but on looks and height.

    For better or worse, I would not want to say that Hillary Clinton was like David. She is not ruddy, she is not short, and I’ll leave it to you to judge her eyes, handsomeness and general judgment. The point of comparison is simply this: Donald Trump looked like a president to many because he was white and tall and a he. Clinton may not have been seventh in line like David, but as a woman, she was the much less obvious choice for anointing as leader of the free world. Trump looked like a star, and he acted like a bully. That was what many people thought a president should be, full stop, never mind the other contestants.

    But let’s back up. It helps to understand the backstory to this text. The Israelites demand that God appoint a king, wanting to be like the nations around them. Both the prophet Samuel and God warn the people that this is a bad idea. But they persist.

    It goes exactly as predicted. Saul, the first king anointed by Samuel, loses God’s confidence by taking hostages and booty in a war against the Amalekites. He pretends to compassion against his enemy, but really, he just wants to profit from ransoming their leaders. He’s concerned more about himself than the people he serves.

    So God looks to the house of Jesse for a replacement.

    Choosing the king’s successor before he is even off the throne could easily lead to a prophet’s execution. So God supplies Samuel with a cover story: he is to go to Bethlehem to sacrifice a heifer, inviting Jesse’s brood to join the feast.

    The elders of Bethlehem know the score. Trembling, they ask, “Do you come peaceably?” Nobody wants to be the epicenter of a civil war.

    Things proceed through Eliab and Abinadab and Shammah and all the rest, until Samuel is forced to ask if there aren’t any more options to select from. Well, there is the one. Jesus calls David in from the back forty, and the rest is scripture.

    This entire story concerns a change in national leadership that begins with God’s initiative to improve the lot of the people of God, and results in bloody conflict that only ends with the Saul’s death. It is political, through and through.

    It would be easy to equate Pres. Trump with King Saul, but then some might do the same with Pres. Obama, or Bush, or Clinton, or…well, you get the idea. And who is David? The least obvious choice for President of the United States is still someone who has been approved by hundreds of thousands of voters, if not millions, not some obscure shepherd. Even Jimmy Carter the peanut farmer had been governor of Georgia before he ran for the highest office in the nation.

    David also turned out to be a disappointment. God sees something in him, but we’re never told what “it” was. He has what we call today a “zipper problem,” and a lust for power for its own sake. I would not want to curse Hilary Clinton or anyone else by naming them a new David. Better for them that they remain bland but wholesome and unsuitable for leadership.

    We worry about whether our leaders understand the moral imperative of scripture, whether they are godly or ungodly persons. Truth to tell, all leaders are imperfect in the end. One has to be just this side of a sociopath to want to be president. Inevitably, our national leaders fail God’s standards for tender and compassionate shepherding. They bemoan the ways the office prevents them from taking their preferred moral options. Just as often, they ignore the many other ways they could have chosen differently and elected not to.

    We fret over God’s plans for our nation, but we should spend more time paying attention to God’s intentions. God wants the Israelites to have good leadership. As the nation moves through successive generations, God keeps seeking new and better heads of state. When one fails, God pulls the Spirit and moves on to the next.

    What God does not do is walk away altogether. Whatever the ups and downs, this God is all in with the people, disappointment after disappointment after disappointment.

    Donald Trump is more than just another disappointment, of course. The kakistocracy he has gathered around him poses a unique challenge to the democratic norms and freedoms of the United States. Trump neither knows nor cares about the history or the hard-fought battles that have led us to this place. He wants what’s good for him, and him alone.

    That makes him easy to compare to Saul. Like the bad king of history, Trump takes hostages (migrants, asylum seekers, and their families) and he lines his own pockets (too many grifts to mention). It’s all too easy, however, to slip from listening for what seems obviously to be God’s qualifications to looking for own. Even Samuel thought Eliab was the one.

    We should ask instead how God is still at work to bring something new even in the midst of disaster. There will always be another David, until he fails. Then another one will come.

    Not all our presidents will be even modest Davids. I can’t think of a single thing Donald Trump has made better since he took office. But hopefully, whoever succeeds him will be better, and even if not, God will still be there, trying.

    Intercessions

    • God, answer us in our day of trouble. In your mercy, hear our prayer.
    • Remember your people and their offerings to you. Let your face shine on the children needlessly incarcerated in this nation, and give them comfort. Restore their families. In your mercy, hear our prayer.
    • Grant, O God, our hearts’ desires and fulfill our plans, for we look to the justice you intend to bring to us with hope. In your mercy, hear our prayer.
    • Scripture tells us that you help your anointed. Help us as well. Send us victories in our lives, and tend to our wounds, our needs, our failings. In your mercy, hear our prayer.
    • May those who take pride in their own strength collapse and fall. May those who seek only their own good come up short. Let the people of mercy, compassion, and justice rise and stand upright. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

    Do you know we’re three episodes and a prequel into this podcast, and nobody’s taken me up on the offer to pray for them? Send your requests to: dan@strangerjesus.com, or leave them for me on Twitter or Facebook. You can find those links on the Stranger Jesus website.

    If I could, I’d take in a migrant kid or three. I suspect many of you would as well. In all likelihood, that’s not possible, though. So if you’re looking to do some good, contribute to the ACLU, to church-based organizations, or the many immigrant civil rights groups working to protect those children and their families. Here’s a list of places you can contribute.

    If you can do nothing else, pray to the God of David for these children and their families, and for our nation, that we recover our souls.

    And with that, Amen.

  • Episode 3: This Is The One. This Is The One?

    Discuss this episode on Facebook

    Overview

    The Show

    • Introduction 1:40
    • Scripture (1 Samuel 15:34 - 16:13) 3:20
    • Interview with Kevin Kruse 8:23
    • Word For The Week 38:19
    • Intercessions 46:51
    • Offering 50:33
    • Call to Action 50:55
    • Sending 51:15

    The Music

    Total: 53:48

  • Lies, Damn Lies, And Church Growth

    This piece from Dan Hotchkiss of the Congregational Consulting Group on lies about church growth is bang-on, especially these pieces:

    Lie #1: Friendly churches grow. Declining churches often marvel at how many visitors show up once and don’t return. "But we’re so friendly!" Like most lies we tell ourselves, this one has a grain of truth in it: a visitor who gets a friendly greeting is more likely to return. But most church consultants know that the more vehemently leaders say their church is friendly, the more likely it will feel quite cold to visitors.

    When people say, "Our church is friendly," generally they mean "My friends are here." Visitors to "friendly" churches see the backs of people’s heads—heads gathered into tight, impenetrable groups of friends. Churches that excel at hospitality are more apt to give themselves a B+ or C– in the friendliness department—and appreciate that hospitality takes effort.

    ...

    Lie #5: Our church wants to grow. In many churches (especially stable or declining ones) leaders act surprised if you ask whether they want growth. "Of course we do!" they say. This is the biggest lie of all, and the most innocent. Consider what it means to want your church to grow. For established members, growth means taking away the church they love and replacing it with something that feels strange and alien. Leaders in a small church might not qualify as leaders in a big one. Everybody knows me in a small church, but a big church has many people—maybe even the pastor—who don’t know who I am.

    No one who understands what growth involves would "want" it, in the sense that we "want" pleasure or consumer goods. The only reason a sane person would want a church to grow is because they believe it has something of importance to offer other people. For that goal, some people will accept the hard work, sacrifice, and inconvenience growth requires.

    It’s only a bit strong to call these lies. More precisely (but less headline-worthy), they’re ways churches deceive themselves. Churches think they’re friendly, they think they want to grow, but they haven’t done the hard work of challenging their own assumptions, much less assessing whether their behavior matches their stated beliefs.

    The result, as many of you will know from personal experience, is that churches proclaim themselves friendly, leaving the people left out of the inner circle to wonder “Am I not your friend, then?”

    Forgive the possibly judgmental tone here. Self-examination is hard work! Not everyone has the inclination, the desire, or the tools it takes to carry it off successfully. In my experience, applying critical thinking skills (which is really what we’re talking about) can be tremendously threatening, because it does leave people feeling judged.

    But why is this so? And why, as many of my colleagues have noticed, is resistance to bursting these bubbles growing in all kinds of congregations? The answer, as far as I can tell, is the rise of anxiety in the church.

    The source of the anxiety, in turn, is multi-point. All but the quite large congregations (maybe 500+ members) are facing a challenging environment as disaffiliation takes hold in American society. Many churches are simply in survival mode, which leads to a panic about their future. As congregations shrink, they also age as younger generations stop attending. That leaves older adults worried about the legacy they will leave behind, and sometimes grabbing on to tradition with both hands. And of course, there are social pressures. The rural economy is being hollowed out again, and sections of the countryside are depopulating or being replaced with very different suburbanites. Canny politicians have capitalized on these changes to stoke a “politics of resentment.” I wouldn’t say the church got worse across the board, but it’s definitely true in my experience, that the horizon for many church members shrank dramatically after the Walker recall election in Wisconsin, and then again after the most recent presidential election. People who weren’t inclined to trust “outsiders” to begin with put that tendency on rocket fuel.

    I don’t know. Maybe that’s just my own experience. But politics aside, everybody knows churches are supposed to be friendly, right? They’re supposed to be warm and welcoming. And so, like people often do, church members paper over their anxiety (Is the world changing too fast? Am I dying too soon? Will my church survive?) with the polite fiction that they’re doing everything they can. That self-deception has always been there—I once attended a church that prided itself on its “cordial welcome” without ever realizing that they were less “cordial” than “cold but polite.” But things have gotten worse, if only because more churches can no longer rely on passive growth from young families or people moving into the neighborhood, and anxiety’s behind it.

  • He's Out Of His Mind

    Word For The Week

    Mark 3:20-35

    Most commentators seem eager to skip past the first part of today’s passage, to move on to Christ’s plan to overcome Satan’s power, or the family divisions and higher loyalties he demands of his followers.

    Here’s the standard rap. The charges of Jesus’ insanity are almost incidental. His family is trying to bring him back in line, for their comfort and his safety. They are fully prepared to call him crazy so he doesn’t get himself killed. Better to be ostracized and alive than dignified and dead.

    The scribes, meanwhile, throw a similar charge to mock Jesus’ power.

    Not only has a demon driven him out of his mind, that demon gives him the power to cast out other demons.

    Jesus responds sharply that even an evil force as powerful as Satan cannot stand divided against himself. Jesus intends to steal back those possessed by the demons, one by one. Why would Satan give him the strength to accomplish that mission? The scribes are welcome to doubt that his power is given by God—but, he warns them, that doubt will not be forgiven come Judgment Day.

    His family appears again at this point, calling him from the door of the house where he speaks.

    But Jesus shows his characteristic determination. “Who are my mothers and brothers?” he asks the crowd. “Why, you are! If you do the will of God, I am happy to call you family.”

    So the story goes. This telling has much to recommend it: Jesus’ steel-eyed intent, for one thing. One person at a time, he means to redeem God’s people, even if they don’t particularly want to be saved. The ministry of Jesus, as Mark reminds us again and again, is a bottomless pool of controversy. The man of Nazareth consistently puts the good of the people over the rules of their religious institutions.

    Naturally enough, that stirs up the opposition. Barely three chapters into Mark’s gospel, and already Jesus’ enemies are plotting against him.

    His followers didn’t have it much easier. The people Mark wrote to almost certainly faced pressure and even hostility from their friends, neighbors, and yes, families for their beliefs.

    That Jesus claims his disciples as family is thus a blessing on them. It is a reassurance from the very source of the religion that they are his brothers and sisters, even and perhaps particularly when their own families reject them as crazy.

    Which brings us back to the first verses of this passage. They deserve to be lingered on.

    You will notice, for example, that Jesus never bothers to refute the charge of insanity. Even when his family seeks to restrain him—seize him, really, the same word for his arrest in the garden—he just shrugs it off. Sure, I’m nuts. What of it?

    Here I like to imagine Jesus looking directly back as his accusers with a long, uncompromising gaze. He knows the game, but he won’t play. Someone truly out of his or her mind deserves compassion and healing, not confinement to save the family embarrassment. Jesus calls his family’s bluff and the bluff of all those who would marginalize the mentally ill.

    The church, as it so often does, has played an equivocal role over the years. Many Christians have accepted mental infirmity as an illness, not the result of sin, and advocated for humane treatment. Yet for centuries, the mentally ill were often warehoused in monasteries or Christian homes, sometimes chained to their beds or the walls, and made to undergo abuse aimed at driving out their demons. Many of the places advocates wanted to reform were in fact church-based.

    The church has no uniquely bad track record, to be sure. Its understanding and treatment of what we might call the neuro-atypical waxes and wanes, along with society.

    These days, mental health has been largely medicalized. This has the advantage of making appropriate treatment available to many, though of course much more could be done. But as with any kind of medical treatment, mental health has been privatized from the world of the church. In most churches, it’s rare to hear much about the subject from the pulpit. Parishioners might ask a word or two of prayer for someone who is grieving, or depressed, but even that is unusual.

    The church these days mostly prefers to leave mental illness as one of the numerous, unspecific burdens of the world to be escaped—ignored—on Sunday morning. Or it turns it into another cause to be rallied around with great determination for righting the injustices of the world.

    I have been fortunate so far to have had congregants willing to accept my openness about living with bipolar depression. They haven’t always understood it, but that’s to be expected. Only a few people have been truly put off by a pastor like me. A broader group has been tolerant but unable to accept the real limits my particular illness imposes: memory lapses, an increased need for rest, a heightened susceptibility to stress and anxiety.

    Some people see naming one’s limits as malingering, being open about one’s struggles as complaining. Some folks still think anyone can run a marathon on a prosthetic leg, if they just put their mind to it. It’s good to be reminded that you can usually accomplish more than you think you can, but at times, it verges on a cult of positive thinking.

    In this, the church is again no better or worse than society as a whole. It is difficult to live with an invisible disability. I should say that the biggest group of people I’ve encountered, maybe about half, are accepting and supportive as best they can. A few even appreciate my honesty. Those are usually the ones who have lived with someone who has the same kind of challenges.

    The deeper issue not just for me but for everyone is how the church divides against itself through polite distance. By far the most common complaint I have heard over nineteen years of ordained ministry is “I still feel like an outsider.” Family church too often means that it’s like family for the people inside the circle, and only for the people inside the circle. Astonishingly, that stands even in a community of 35 or 50 people.

    That leads to a strange dynamic. Church people sometimes don’t trust one another, really, let alone anyone outside the circle. So they don’t get to know one another in any depth, which means they don’t accept their real selves for who they really are, because they haven’t shared their real selves.

    I have received far more support, acceptance and guidance by friends outside the church than inside. It’s not because Christians are jerks; it’s because my friends are people who have taken the time to get to know and understand and trust me, and I them. We have been able to let down our barriers without fear of judgment. Along with the cult of positivity, there is a kind of cult of niceness that prevails in many parts of Christ’s body which dictates that suffering can be shared, but only up to the point other members are comfortable with.

    It’s different for a pastor, of course. We’re supposed to be the carers, not the recipients of care. But this goes for the people in the pews as well. Don’t push your luck. Don’t drag the group down. Don’t be too different. Stay positive. Stay well-balanced and well-adjusted. Those are the rules.

    As we know, Jesus had little use for rules. His highest value is that healing be accomplished, regardless of schedule, regardless of propriety, regardless of the challenges to his authority. He was willing to meet his death—and ultimately did—for the sake of those who needed him to drive out their demons, in more ways than one.

    So we shouldn’t be too quick to move past the condemnation of Jesus as being “out of his mind.” Targeted by that accusation, he refuses to brush it off, and in doing so, identifies himself with the people from whom he casts out demons. Yeah, I’m out of my mind, he says, and he is!

    What we translate here as “out of his mind” is elsewhere “amazed” or “astonished,” as when the disciples see the empty tomb or are perplexed at receiving the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. It’s also translated as “beside oneself,” as when Paul declares, “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God.” Call me crazy, but for the Lord.

    More to the point, the God for whom we are crazy has died, one for all. It’s not just those who do the will of God who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters, it’s all of us. Or rather, those who do the will of God are those who, like him, are unwilling to be split apart from one another, even those the rest of the world would dismiss as simply nuts. It’s not just that Christ accepts people like Kate Spade or Prince or Anthony Bourdain or, well, me. It’s that when we claim those people as our brothers and sisters, he claims us.

    This takes on a special relevance as we still all too often hear people say things like “You don’t go to heaven when you kill yourself. It’s incredibly selfish. Don’t do it.”

    This attitude literally and actually kills people.

    Let me say this as clearly as possible: God loves all people, even those who suffer with mental illness, even those who die by their own hand.

    To limit God’s love is to limit Godself. It is to reject God’s power and mistrust the movement of the Holy Spirit. It actually is a sin.

    I mean, my God, the gospel we just heard contains the one thing Jesus calls unpardonable: calling into question God’s power to heal the mentally ill.

    Can the church claim the people seeks to heal over the opposition? Can it become truly brothers and sisters in Christ? The failures of the past point to a bitter no. So many have been hurt and rejected by the institution, those who live with mental illness among so many others.

    But faith points to the most tentative yes. If Christians are willing to trust in the Holy Spirit to lead them into deeper relationship, to allow them to show and accept their real selves, the only division will be in the house of Satan. The family of Jesus will continue in its messy, wounded, glory. And we will all be out of our minds, for God’s sake.

    Prayers

    Let us pray. When I say “In your mercy,” you say “hear our prayer.”

    We pray first for those who live with mental illness, the depressed, the psychotic, the schizophrenic, the suicidal. God, in your tender compassion, protect them and heal them. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

    We pray for those shunned by society, marginalized and rejected for their sins, real or imagined. God who did not turn away even from Adam and Eve, remember your people. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

    We pray for the humble, the poor, society’s losers. God who lifts up even the smallest, give them—and us—cause to exalt your name. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

    We pray for ourselves, who need strengthening of body and soul. God who answers when we call, hear us and deliver us. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

    We pray for the prophets rejected as mad because they cling too closely to your message of everlasting love and acceptance. Prosper their work, and teach us to emulate their example. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

    Send your stories of madness, with or without the church, to: dan@strangerjesus.com, and as always, send your prayer requests too. I’m happy to pray for you.

    Be mindful this week of those who live with mental illness around you. If nothing else, just keep a tally of the people you know; you might be surprised.

    And with that, Amen.

  • Cheap Laughs

    The Google voicemail transcription for this week’s gospel lesson is hilarious:

  • Episode 2: He's Out of His Mind

    Discuss this episode on Reddit

    Overview

    The Show

    • Overview: 1:57
    • Scripture (Mark 3:20-35): 2:59
    • Interview with the Boys 5:45
    • Word for the Week: 8:37
    • Prayers: 26:50
    • Offering: 30:28
    • Sending 31:41
    • Total: 37:36

    The Music

  • Word For The Week - 6/7/18

    Word For The Week

    June 3, 2018:
    2 Corinthians 4:5-12

    Forgive a bit of a travelogue. I have been a tourist this week, taking what is most likely a once-in-a-lifetime Swiss vacation with 5 friends, celebrating our collective good fortune in turning 50.

    Rest assured: we all had a good time.

    The boys indulged my professional curiosity, shall we say. Like many pastors, I’m a sucker for an old church, and I don’t mean the ones built at the turn of the last century. Whitewash and a certain must signal congregations gathered across centuries and even millennia. Or, as in the case of many of the sanctuaries we visited, stone floors worn smooth, granite columns, arches, and an extended choir.

    While I appreciate holy places, they seldom move me. So I was not prepared for what I found in Switzerland.

    In the baroque, gold-and-white Jesuit church in Lucerne, we chatted with a couple traveling from Portage, Wisconsin, and I sat in a Marian chapel praying and holding back tears.

    The Franciscan church a few blocks away was older, cooler, darker, humbler, as you might guess. In a chapel there, I encountered the preserved body of St. Coelestini Martyris in a niche just above the altar, the first time I ever met a saint behind glass.

    The mountain resort chapel in Bürgenstock had the stink of an old church. Like many of its kind, it could barely hold twenty worshipers, yet it was important enough that someone felt the need to drag it up the side of a hill.

    On the inside of a Protestant church in the very Catholic canton of Obwalden, the sense ran less to the past than a forward-looking simplicity. The sanctuary featured plain blond wood floors, chairs, a font, lectern and communion table made of hardly more than a few rough boards. Light flooded the space through clear glass windows covered with a Sunday-school project: tissue-paper representations of the four evangelists. There wasn’t a flag, a banner, not even an image of Jesus in sight. All had been reduced to the hieratic church gathered before water, word and table, the most basic elements of Christian worship.

    The big daddy of them all, as it were, was the Grossmünster in Zurich, the seat of Huldrych Zwingli, who founded the Swiss reformation with a flair by attending and defending a sausage party in the midst of Lent. This is not a euphemism: the Swiss Reformation began over plates of Landjäger and pancakes.

    Paradoxically, I most enjoyed things in the Grossmünster Zwingli himself did his best to be rid of: stained glass windows by Giacometti and Polke, the miraculously surviving fresco Madonna and child, so touching and full of love one has to assume it was fashioned as a tribute to the artist’s mother.

    Simply to stand for a few minutes in the same space as the reformer, the founder of my branch of the Christian tree, lost in wonder and beauty, was a miracle in its own right. I took home no souvenirs for myself, beyond this experience and the many photos I snapped. Oh, and audio recordings of church bells, including funeral tolls recorded at the Grossmünster.

    I have spent a lot of time working up to what in the end is a fairly simple point. Whether through visiting cathedrals or standing in a mountain meadow contemplating the wonders of creation, at some point, one goes from being a tourist to a pilgrim.

    My heart broke open in these churches not for their beauty in itself, though beautiful they were, but for the mystery that accompanied it. In beauty, we are invited to love God. We come with our ugliness and brokenness into places that carry us in deepening currents to the divine.

    That same experience can be had in black gospel music. The cathedrals of Europe—including the Grossmünster—brought the raw history, the hopes and the sorrows of the people into classical perfections of stone and glass. African-American religious music, with one foot in raw field hollers and one in the polished, symphonic harmonies of the Jubilee choirs, has wrought the same triumphs in pitch, rhythm, and groans so unfiltered they could only have originated in the Holy Spirit.

    Even a casual acquaintance with the likes of—just to name a few—Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Soul Stirrers (with or without Sam Cooke in front), or, yes, Aretha Franklin can have the dangerous side effect of drawing one into deep and holy, water. It’s not just that these artists are able to name the troubles they and by extension we have seen. Gospel artists at their best have always been able to transform their experience and the experiences of their community into something profound, something that points directly at God.

    The great stone churches and the powerful vocals of black gospel music lift us beyond ourselves. They have the power to take a superficial encounter and turn it into an ongoing journey of spiritual discovery.

    In these forms of art, we are reminded that God loves us and invites us to return that love. Beauty is the fuel that takes us there, to paraphrase Mavis Staples. It is not beside the point that Europe’s architectural genius has often found expression alongside war, poverty, and plague, nor that gospel music finds its roots in slavery, oppression, and humiliation. Through their transformation of pain and sorrow into beauty, they announce the coming of Jesus to heal and restore the world.

    There is no purer expression of that proclamation than the music of Curtis Mayfield. Though in his long career Mayfield seldom felt the need to express his faith directly, it was implicit in all his music. There is no listening to Curtis without recognizing the kind of confident joy that only comes from a deep faith in the redemptive power of love. And there is no listening, particularly to his later work, without hearing pain transmogrified into beauty.

    It is no secret to those who know me that I have had tough times recently. It’s one of those midlife crossroads where one is called to leave safety behind in favor of an uncertain path. My faith has been tested, honestly. But faith has this way of coming alive again. As Paul understood, once wounds and brokenness are admitted to, once the devil is dealt with, then the move on up can begin. So you sit with old friends, drinking Swiss beer and rehearsing life’s ups and downs. Or you open yourself to the surprising, moving esthetics of an ancient church calling you home. Sometimes, you just throw an mp3 on the computer speakers and listen to Curtis Mayfield name with utter and exquisite beauty the longing you can’t express for yourself.

    However it is, dear listener, I hope you encounter it too. It is the gospel.

    Intercessions

    God our strength in times of affliction, help us not to proclaim ourselves, but to serve one another in Jesus’ sake. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

    God who let the light shine out of darkness, shine your light in our hearts, and allow us to see Jesus’ face. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

    God who knows our weaknesses, give us the grace to embrace them. Help us to be weak, that your power may shine through our imperfection. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

    God of the sabbath, give us rest. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

    God of the persecuted, let them never be forsaken. May we, the fortunate ones, always stand in solidarity with them. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

    God of the living and the dead, show your mercy on those approaching the end of their lives, and those we must give up to death. Bring them into eternal life in Jesus and show through them his life in the midst of our death. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

  • Midweek Update - 6/7/18

    Two events this week underscore the importance of this week’s upcoming show—or at least its subject.

    The fashion designer Kate Spade was found dead on Tuesday, an apparent suicide at the age of 55. As CNN points out, Spade’s death reflects an increasingly common story:

    Spade's apparent suicide comes as suicide rates in the United States increased from 1999 to 2014 for everyone between the ages of 10 and 74, according to a 2016 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For white women, the suicide rate increased by 60% during that period, the study found.

    Like many who die by suicide, there were warning signs:

    Older sister Reta Saffo said the tragic turn of events was not "unexpected", adding that the family had tried to get Spade help a number of times in recent years, and she had been self-medicating with alcohol.

    "I will say this was not unexpected by me. I'd flown out to Napa and NYC several times in the past 3-4 years to help her to get the treatment she needed (inpatient hospitalisation)," Ms Saffo told the Kansas City Star.

    Ms Saffo, Spade's senior by two years, said the pressures of her billion-dollar fashion brand exacerbated her sister’s stress.

    "She was always a very excitable little girl and I felt all the stress/pressure of her brand may have flipped the switch where she eventually became full-on manic depressive," she said.

    Untreated mental illness, substance abuse, and talking obsessively about suicide or one’s own death are all risk factors for completed suicide. It’s sad, but not unusual, that Spade struggled for years, nor that her family sought unsuccessfully to get her the help she needed.

    Another celebrity serves up a reminder of the world’s pain. Today would have been Prince’s 60th birthday, had he not died from an overdose of prescription pain medication in April 2016. Like Kate Spade, Prince was indicative of larger trends: deaths by overdose are also increasing in the U.S., as are rates of addiction to opioids. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to tease out how much of this is direct suicidality, how much is “simply” flirting with death, or—as seems to have been the case with Prince—how much was the unfortunate result of lingering pain from medical conditions.

    Prince was well-known as a Jehovah’s Witness, while I couldn’t find out any more about Spade’s faith than that she attended an all-girls Catholic high school.

    In the wake of preventable deaths, there are always legitimate questions to be asked about what, if anything, the church could have done.1 Could the local Kingdom Hall have steered Prince away from his growing dependence on pain killers? What role did his beliefs (including the traditional Witness ban on transfusions) play in that dependence? Might Kate Spade still be with us had she chosen to confide in a priest, or been an active member of a parish? There’s some evidence to say yes to that question, but it’s no guarantee.

    There is also the question of how accepting the church is of those who live with mental illness. Many expressions of the Christian faith are warm and supportive, but many understand substance abuse as a moral failing, and mental illness to be overcome by prayer and greater faith. The stigma against suicide has faded in recent years, at least.

    Both Spade and Prince’s woes seem to have stemmed in part from image. Spade wanted to preserve her reputation as the happy-go-lucky designer, according to her sister. Prince couldn’t bring himself to admit publically that his hips were ruined after decades of dancing onstage. He literally wanted the show to go on.

    And that brings me to my real question. What is the church’s responsibility to allow people to be who they are? To go beyond the bounds of politeness to claim their real struggles, including depression, anxiety, mania, suicidality? To simply allow them to drop their image and be who they are, without pressure or judgment? Too often, church is the place where we are expected to bring our best selves, our perfect selves, in some attitude that lies squarely between the inspirational and the aspirational. Meanwhile, our real, imperfect selves suffer and sometimes die for the lack of God’s nurturing, accepting love.

    Why must this be so?

    There are no real answers to that question. That is to say, it is a question the church must wrestle with continually. As suicide and overdose creep up in our causes of death, it’s a pig the church probably needs to get down and dirty with more often. A lot more often.

    1Any religious institution, really, but I’m a churchman, so that is where I focus.

  • This Week's Episode - 6/3/18

    The Show

    • Overview: 0:52
    • Scripture (2 Corinthians 4:5-12): 2:20
    • Interview with Craig Werner: 4:17
    • Word for the Week: 37:50
    • Prayers: 47:21
    • Offering: 51:16
    • Sending 53:06
    • Total: 57:56

    The Music

    Mentioned in this episode (hang on tight)

  • Asking the Hard Questions

    To say that the future will be different from the present is, to scientists, hopelessly self-evident. I observe regretfully that in politics, however, it can be heresy. It can be denounced as radicalism, or branded as subversion. There are people in every time and every land who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present, and invoke the security of a comfortable past which, in fact, never existed.

    —Robert F. Kennedy

    One of the great powers of the church, one we don’t use often enough, is the power to question. Throughout history, beginning with the founder himself, Christians have looked upon the world and asked why it doesn’t measure up to God’s snuff. Great and terrible things have resulted: new means of bringing compassion into the world and new reasons to have to bring the compassion, hospitals and crusades, feeding for the poor and genocide.

    When the church can no longer ask whether things are as they ought to be, it loses all strength. It can no longer even crawl into the comforts of the past. There is no comfort, no security, in pulling the covers up over one’s head and pretending the grown-up monsters are no longer there. The desire to turn away from the weights and ragged edges of life is understandable, but it is a lie, not the gospel.

    This all has to be understood in light of another school shooting, of course. This time it was in Santa Fe, Texas—the 16th or 22nd or 34th in 2018, depending on how you count. Anybody with a mostly-regular pulse and functioning brainwaves is fearful and mistrusting, and with good reason. The USA’s long national experiment in killing its youth continues.

    It seems to me that perhaps the simplest, most powerful witness Christians could offer in this reality would be to the ask basic questions. Not just “Why?” or even “Why again?” but “How long?” and “What will it take?” (Spoiler: it won’t be easy, and then it won’t be easy some more.) Some churches won’t want to do that, of course. They will carefully bound off the real terror, the real death, as “too political.” Or they will declare it a painful reality they mean to escape on a Sunday morning, in favor of a positive message about Jesus.

    There’s no use in shaming or judging such assemblies. I wouldn’t, even if I were in a position to do so. Some hearts can bear more than others. As for myself, I believe in the gospel tradition and the Gospel tradition. As suggested in last Sunday’s word for the week, Jesus blesses his disciples with the promise that God always has more to say, about the possibility of new life and the divine love for humanity, in particular. Gospel music offers other good news: the comfort of emotional release of worldly sins and burdens—providing, of course, that they’re acknowledged upfront. We’ll talk more about that in the show on June 3rd.

    In the meantime, I will leave you with this simple encouragement. Bobby Kennedy was right: the past was never as comfortable as imagined, and the future, as terrifying as it might be, is always arriving on our doorstep. We have no reason not to ask questions today, and every reason to listen for God’s latest word.

    What’s the worst that could happen? The future might turn out to be different from the present?

  • Word for the Week & Prayers for May 20, 2018

    If you didn’t make it to church today, here’s a sermon and some prayers for you. These were originally broadcast on the May 17th show. The sermon in particular is a rough draft, so don’t hold me to the exacts.

    Also, I’m trying to figure out how to divide articles without busting the front page. For now, you’ll have to put up with a few long articles.

    John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

    A stole—the long scarf worn over an elder’s robes in Christian ministry—is traditionally a symbol of ordained ministry.

    In fact, I have in my collection a stole belonging to my grandfather, the first of three generations of ministers in the United Church of Christ. It’s a beautiful silk brocade: red to symbolize the flames of the Holy Spirit, embroidered on one side with a descending dove (another symbol of the Spirit), and on the other, a stylized Alpha and Omega.

    I reach it out every Pentecost, when Christians commemorate the gift of the Spirit. It’s a way to remember the old man. With it, I invoke his presence in the gathered community.

    This is a gesture of reconciliation as much as memory. My grandfather was not always an easy man to know or to love. He was often distant, as if preoccupied by some private worry. Sometimes dark, shapeless conspiracies would cloud him over.

    It wasn’t until much later that I came to see how anxiety tied my grandfather down for the majority of his life. It was still later that I understood how my own fears and struggles shaped how I saw him, and myself in opposition to him.

    Grandpa tried in his own way. I have vivid memories of him, rail-thin, wearing canvas garden shoes, slacks and a cloth cap, smoking Kools and pacing the immaculate backyard. Every so often he would reach down and pluck up a four-leaf clover to give to one of us. To this day, I wonder how he did it.

    My wife has suggested occasionally that I turn in my alb—white is not your color, she says—and pick up a more flattering black gown. She never understands the sharpness of my reaction.

    Because, you see, Grandpa wore a Geneva gown, as they’re called. There was always something about his preaching under the cross illuminated with electric bulbs hanging in his sanctuary that I never wanted to imitate.

    Because of my own anxiety, I may have misread his faith as pinched, narrow, or judgmental, but perhaps it was a generational divide as much as anything.

    Fairly or unfairly, Grandpa’s Christianity always seemed conventional, at heart uninterested in challenging the current order of the world, profoundly backward-looking in some way. It was certainly not a faith that encouraged asking many questions or expressing many doubts.

    Again, I mean no disrespect to the old man. These are impressions formed in childhood, and through the lens of my own temperament. My parents, perhaps intuiting what was to come, gave me “Thomas” as a middle name, after the doubter. They have never been shy about reminding me of that.

    For the sake of the churches I have served, I should add that I have learned from them the value of connecting with the past. Another learning—sometimes found the hard way: not all Christians want or need to hear the challenge of the faith. Some people need the comfort of the unchanging.

    But there is the matter of the Holy Spirit.

    Jesus promises his disciples “the Advocate”—one who will come alongside them to support and defend them when they are accused by the world.

    And then he says something curious. Despite having told the disciples that he has shared with them everything they need to know, Jesus now teaches them: “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.”

    When Jesus departs the world, there will be more to hear, more to learn. The Spirit will guide the disciples into all truth by declaring the things that are to come.

    Despite the difficulties and persecutions Jesus’ followers will face, one gets the sense in his words that faith in him is an open-ended thing. There are things he has not told the disciples because he could not have told them. You can’t teach to a moment that has not come. There will always be new questions to wrestle with. Jesus must leave so the Holy Spirit can continue into a future that is unwritten, yet filled with the promises of God.

    For this reason, Christians over the course of centuries and millennia have often commented, in consternation and delight, that the Spirit blows where it will. This side of the Trinity is never dull.

    Which brings us to the mission of this podcast. I must admit, speaking of “Christianity for weirdos” is somewhat misleading, if for no other reason than that I am an unrepentant square, more like my grandfather than any hipster.

    But to answer the question I asked earlier, the point is to meet Jesus as a stranger: to listen, as the first disciples did, to his words fresh, to experience them in all their unfamiliar and even, yes, weird majesty.

    Jesus calls his disciples to believe in him. I take that less to mean having the idea that Jesus has provided all The Answers than to trust that his Spirit will continue to have an answer, answers, as we puzzle our way through new and unpredictable situations.

    If life is a journey, we’re lost. We need to stop and ask for directions. There’s no shame in that.

    I invite you along on the journey even if you are not a Christian. Perhaps you can learn something of value.

    But there is a special mission, I think, for those Christians who never found a place to ask their questions, whose questions were shushed, whose very presence and person were a question too challenging to be considered by the church. You are all Thomases.

    Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin, because we are free to ask questions, to have doubts, without sinning.

    About righteousness, because we can be who we are and who are meant to be, even without the presence of Jesus in the world.

    Most important, about judgment, “because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”

    For the ruler of this world, to borrow the language of Howard Thurman, is the spirit of fear, deception, and hate. The ruler disinherits the children of God, isolates them, fools them into believing not just that they are somehow less than, but that they are too weak and too scattered to claim the birthright they have been denied.

    What I mean by “Christianity for weirdos,” then, is a faith for those who don’t fit in, or who have been pushed out. But also a faith for those who still have questions, who still have doubts, who still look to the things that are to come. Ask away, because the Advocate has and always will come alongside you to testify to Jesus’ wild, weird, untamed ways.

    My grandfather’s stole is a symbol of ministry. Not Grandpa’s, not mine, but the continuing ministry of Jesus who answers every question: “You are God’s child, you are all God’s children.”

    Prayers

    • That the disinherited find a new family, and that all may be welcome at our table, Christ have mercy.

    • That all people—believers or not—know the love of God and ours, Christ have mercy.

    • That we keep on searching, Christ have mercy.

    • That those in need live in dignity, wholeness, and compassion, Christ have mercy.

    • That you lead us where we are meant to go, and hear our own needs…Christ have mercy.

    Lord’s Prayer

    Back into the world of the normies. Stay blessed, and know that you are all children of God. Reflection (much briefer) coming on Wednesday.

  • Episode 0: The Prequel

    So, then. Podcast, eh? In today's episode, I try to explain what this is and how it's supposed to work.

    Discuss this episode at Reddit (you'll need to sign up for a free account).

    Rough Guide

    • Episode Overview: 1:50
    • Scripture (Kaya Oakes) 4:00
    • The Word For The Week (Monologue): 7:55
    • Prayers: 19:45
    • Call To Action: 21:14
    • Sending: 22:00

    Total: 24:15

    Music

    Word For The Week and Prayers coming Sunday, May 20th.