A Sabbatical

I am going to rest for now. This has been a labor of love, mostly, for almost a year. Now, I am going to take a break and re-evaluate. I began this venture selfishly. I needed an outlet for all of the crap that runs through my head. I needed a place to vent frustrations, a place to explore who I was and was becoming. For almost a year this blog has been a good place for that.

However, over the past few months I have felt as though I don’t have meaningful things to share or discuss. My writing has taken a turn from personal exploration to writing for an audience. I have become obsessed with numbers and comments and that was never my intention. Therefore, I want to step back and take a break and re-evaluate the role and function of this medium.

If something comes, then I will post it, but I am planning to take December off in order to establish some distance and gain a little perspective on what this means to me. Thank you for reading here, for being a part of this journey, and for listening to a white middle class male bitch about his neuroses. I will return in the first week of January, around the one year anniversary of Theospora, to visit again with you.

Have a great holiday season; enjoy the sights, smells and people that make it special.

grace and peace

Jason

reflection image 3 - the courage to be

“The courage to be,” that is the reason it has taken me so long to write on this image; that and two long papers that have consumed most of my waking hours recently.

The Courage to Be is the title to a book written by Paul Tillich, it is also part of what I see in this photo. How many of us truly have the courage to be who we are? Whether our lives are filled with the rain showers of doubt or the blossoms of growth, do we every feel as though we truly have the courage, the will to move beyond the facades we create and truly live?

I was about twelve or thirteen when I lost what little courage I had. It is amazing what I allowed others to take from me, destroying a burgeoning self-concept. I spent a number of years stomping that fledgling self into submission, catering to the will of others; all in the service of building a fa├žade that placated rather than challenged others.

I will be the first to admit that my challenges are small compared to those that others face. I don’t have to face racism constantly, nor am I put down because of my gender. I don’t have to face “coming out” to family and friends and the fear, misunderstanding and hatred that occurs. I don’t have to face discrimination, except for that which occurs within my soul.

It is abusive, what we do to others and what we often do to ourselves. We highlight differences and exploit perceived weaknesses. We chose to separate by not choosing careful words when we speak to one another. Pain is prevalent because pride and power are pervasive. When I pretend to know something and I make it a law unto myself, then I rob you of the power we might share in a relationship. When I do it enough, I am nothing more than a master at the manipulation of my internal and external worlds.

The courage to be means giving you the courage to be as well. It means hearing your stories as a way of knowing who you are, not as a means for gaining the upper hand. It means equality in the way I relate to you. By making room for your courage to be, I make room for me to grow as well.

For better or worse, we sometimes become reflections of what we think others see in us. I am more apt to believe in myself when others believe in me and vice versa. However, at some point we must develop a “bullshit filter.” That is, we must construct a lens whereby we can detect the messages we receive from others and decide whether they hold some truth for us. It is not enough to merely recognize falsehoods. If impressions are false, we must then have the courage to say so and right what wrongs we see.

I wonder what lies beneath all of the piercings and tattoos. I wonder what story each of them tells. If they could talk what narratives would they tell? A lot of pain has gone into this image. Each hole, each tattoo is accompanied by pain that cannot be avoided. Pain, and I imagine beauty as well…

grace and peace

Image #3


Source: Unknown
Title: Unknown
Year: Unknown

What is this?

A response to Pat Robertson

I am beginning to wonder if I will ever again think that the value of theology lies in elucidating moral arguments. As Pat Robertson makes headlines again with the following statements, I feel as though theology, nay, Christianity is losing touch with the world.

Conservative Christian televangelist Pat Robertson told citizens of a Pennsylvania town that they had rejected God by voting their school board out of office for supporting "intelligent design" and warned them on Thursday not to be surprised if disaster struck.

"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city," Robertson said on his daily television show broadcast from Virginia, "The 700 Club."

"And don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because he might not be there," he said. (Reuters)


It is too easy to condemn remarks and thus implicitly condemn the man as well. If I am truly going to live what I say, then I have to believe that there is beauty in what Pat Robertson claims, as well as, in him as a child of God. The difficult part for one as fallible as myself is finding said beauty.

When I see art that disturbs my sensibilities I don’t run from it, nor do I tell myself and others that it is not art because it displays the horrors of the world from that artist’s point of view. Instead, I try to stay with what is disturbing, attempting to make the connections between body, heart, mind, and soul that are being pulled in the encounter. I can’t say that I always succeed, but I believe I am better for the effort.

Theological statements such as the ones that Pat Robertson likes to make are not art per say, but they do reveal something of his beliefs about who God is and how God is active in this world. However, I wish to treat his statement as though it were a picture, a window that looks in on God. If we were to do that, what would we see from this particular instance?

The first thing we might notice is that God is vindictive, especially over small injustices. Robertson’s statement implies that God turns away from God’s own creations because of the choices we make. Moreover, implied in the statement is that God sends disasters to areas in order to inflict punishment. I realize that Robertson is a little ambiguous on that particular point, but notice that he uses the term “when” instead of “if” while referring to disasters. Finally, there is the assumption that human beings have the power to remove God from their presence. Ultimately, Robertson’s God is a God of definite morality, a God whose ultimate concern is of right and wrong.

The second and possibly more powerful statement that Robertson makes is an anthropological one. Namely, that humanity can control God’s actions through the choices we make.

The question we must ask is where is the beauty in that statement concerning God and God’s relationship with humanity?
I believe that beauty is found in the desire to elucidate God’s interactivity with humankind. However, I can’t buy into Robertson’s criteria of who God is. Coming out of a basic premise that God sits in judgment of all the things we do, we cannot help but draw similar conclusions that Robertson draws. God can’t help but be vindictive if we tie God’s hands and limit God’s power to judgment alone.

I, like, Robertson also believe in God’s active power and presence in the world. However, my criteria, my base belief is that God is love. Love being defined as supportive, hopeful, joyful, realistic, forgiving, and so on. For me, a God whose power is focused on wreaking havoc and causing disasters over the smallest slights is a God that I do not know. Moreover, I believe that God does not play a role in “sending” natural disasters to punish people for their actions. Furthermore, I am not sure that we can remove God from our presence. Certainly we can make choices that counter God’s love and desire for us and for humanity, but does that mean that God gives up and leaves? Therefore, while Robertson and I agree that God is concerned with humanity, fundamentally, he and I disagree on the basis of that interaction.

As to Robertson’s second statement concerning anthropology. He and I would probably have a harder time connecting around this point. I cannot faithfully say that anything I do causes God’s will to bend or change.

There is beauty to what Robertson proposes, namely that God is an active part in our daily lives. However, without considering love and faithfulness as the foundations of God’s interactions with humanity I feel as though his views become skewed. As a part of the theological milieu, I have to wonder if his statements are helpful to the people of God as they continue to seek to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.

For me, it continues to drive home the point that a theology solely concerned with morals is inadequate in describing God’s work in this world. Rather, it may be that a theology of aesthetics, a theology concerned with the beauty of the relationship between God and humanity might help to balance and reveal a different character of the one we call God.
It is easy to separate, to isolate, to move away from one another. Why not park myself down in front of a television? Why not shut the door to the other homogenous houses in my neighborhood? It is easier that way, that American way. I don’t need you to tell me anything that I don’t already know.

I can just live in my black and white world, warmed by the glow of reality as my television tells what life is like…

Sometimes isolation is not intentional, sometimes it comes about through the forceful separation of I from Thou, of me from you. Sometimes I do it, sometimes you return the favor. Relating has never been easy, not since we decided that theology has more to do with right or wrong than with what is beautiful and glorious.

When did morals become God? When did we decide that we knew what was right and who was wrong? Oh what a joy it would be to slough off this mortal arrogance, to find the hidden beauty inside, to open the doors of our homes and step out into the yard so that we might begin to see one another again for the first time.

We are not meant to experience reality through the pixels of a television. We are not meant to find what is right or wrong in our neighbor. We are meant for beautiful things, for wandering the world, and wondering about the created image that lies within all of us. “God’s children” is not a category or exclusive club; it is us, broken, battered, beloved and beautiful.

Fling open the doors that keep you inside. Open them wide and see and smell and taste the world in all its colors and splendor. We are not meant to be numb or dumb to those around us. We were meant to live…

Image #2



Artist: Roger Brown
Title: Talk Show Addicts
Year: 1993, Etching and aquatint, 22 1/4 x 29 3/4 in.
Retrieved from: Leonard Koscianski

What is this?

Reflection, Image 1 - I want to be that guy

This picture is the cover art to Robert Capon’s Parables of Grace. It was the first meaningful image of the Prodigal Son that I found while I was in Seminary, and I used it again in a study on the parable during a Lenten series at my former church. I am still trying to figure out how to do this, so I thought I would re-post this as a separate post rather than beneath the picture. I think it might work a little better even though you have to scroll down to see the picture this references

I want to be that guy. I want to be the one with arms open, welcoming the stranger, the oppressed, the poor. I know that I have given much in my lifetime; I also know there is more within me that I hoard. As much as I could be the guy with no shoes, I am more like the guy with the multi-colored coat, the one with resources and means and influence.

I want to be the guy that is admired by animals. I want to be the one that is seen by ducks and geese and dogs. They know who is gentle, they know who will treat them kindly and they draw near to that person. I want to be a friend to the environment to the only world that I will probably ever know. I want to co-create heaven on earth not reside in the hell that all too often invades my view.

I want to be the guy who is surrounded by people. Not because I am funny or share my stuff, but because I respect others and give them the opportunity to be who they need to be. I am getting better at this, getting better at listening and allowing others to teach me about who they are, but I have much to learn still. I don’t reach out as I could, preferring to remain quiet and as part of the scenery rather than the action. Then again, without people like that there would be no scenery.

Rather than being the guy with the wide-open arms, I more like the one with the crook in my hands. I am part of the background looking longingly in on the action. I do my work, I take my part in life seriously, but I am just not there yet. I have the clothing necessary to be the guy in front; it’s just that I would rather hold my crook than open my arms sometimes.

The good news is that I know where I am, where I stand in life, and I also know where I want to be. I could be picking fruit in distance, oblivious to what is going on around me; blindly doing my work not seeing the human drama that unfolds before me. I am close enough to know the good life when I see it. I just need to learn to take part, to believe that I can lay down the security of my crook and open my arms to those who need them. The work I do, I believe, is important. However, nothing should be more important than the lives in front of me.

We are, if nothing else, about community. If the church is not the guy with the open arms, then the church is useless. We become nothing more than a social club full of wallflowers. In our communities of faith we can afford to be bold. We can afford to look out at the landscape and see those who have been beaten down through oppression, violence, poverty, and ignorance and we can open our arms and damn the theology that separated us in the first place. So, I guess that I not only want to be that guy, but I want the church to be that guy, that woman, that boy, that girl, that child, that adult, that person that sees the humanity in all of us and opens wide in order to offer the greatest embrace we could ever feel.
grace and peace

Picture Number 1


Artist: John August Swanson
Title: The Prodigal Son
Year: 1984
Note: Please click on the image for a larger version, and to better understand the purpose of this image please read this post.

A corporate experience

Paul Tillich as a Chaplain in World War I was comforted by Botticelli’s Madonna and Child with Singing Angels (Plate 2). “Writing many years later, Tillich declared: ‘That moment has affected my whole life, given me the keys for the interpretation of human existence, brought vital joy and spiritual truth’” (Brown, 1990, p.91)

“Clearly we should add, however, that perhaps some art allows one not only to think more but also to feel more, and that in both of these ways together it manages to mean more, possibly even letting one be and become more.” (p.92) I have been reading Frank Burch Brown’s Religious Aesthetics - where the preceding quotes come from - for a paper and have been thinking about what visual art means to us.

Therefore, I have an idea for an experiment or experience whichever you prefer. I have this theory that visual art can help us connect to something deeper in our lives through engaging the senses, imagination, and language centers of our brains. What I am proposing to do about this theory is post a picture a week on this blog (assuming I can find a good place to host them). What I would ask from you (my two or three readers) is that you write about the picture. This could be creative fiction, theological ramblings, experiences, whatever comes to mind when you see it.

I would love to hear what speaks to you when you encounter something visual. My plan is to post the picture and then follow up with my own thoughts a couple days later, to allow a blank slate for those you who wish to try the experience. I would propose that you post your story, thoughts, ides, or experiences on your own blog with a trackback or link to the picture so that I can read what you have written. If you don’t have a blog, then feel free to post it here in the comments. I would just like the opportunity to read what people have written and comment if possible.

This is a process that I want to engage in for its creative potential and the possibility of reaching the depth of our emotional and mental processes. My hope is that some of you might take the journey with me and see what comes. Don’t wait for someone else to write one first, I will do my best to be that first person. Whatever comes to the surface of your mind through this process is good material to work with, be it happy, sad, joyful, painful, depressing, or so on. Your thoughts and experiences are as valuable as mine and I will respect what you have written as if it were my own.

If you have any thoughts let me know, I will try to post a picture or a link to a picture at the beginning of next week.

grace and peace

Catching up

It is really amazing how easy it is to get caught up in school. I can read for days on end, especially books that appeal to the disciplines I identify with: pastoral theology, arts, and formation. I can sit in front of books- thick, heavy, weighty tomes –and only come up for food, water, and to grunt at passers by. I love exploring new ideas, thoughts and theologies. I am, at this moment, in the middle of six books dealing with things from process theology to religious aesthetics to philosophy. It is sometimes hard to keep them straight, but each holds my interest in different ways.

We are assigned pretty close to a book a class a week. This week it was neurobiology and pastoral theology, care and counseling, it was fascinating. The idea of neuroscience and its relationship with narratives, memories, rituals and imagination was really interesting. We spoke with the author of the book via conference call for about an hour, looking at the finer points of his arguments and then peering out over the horizon to the new science that was occurring as we spoke.

It is a different experience reading someone’s passion and then being able to ask them questions about what they have written. We then spent another two hours talking about the implications of this research with communities that have experienced a life of oppression. I did not realize that pain experiences actually have the effect of shrinking the brain physically, shutting down processes that could be utilized to help pull people out of the ensuing depression, pain and grief. We discussed this in the context of Katrina and the neurological implications of the devastation on the mind.

The professor had a surprise task at the end of our three and a half hour discussion. Basically, we had to answer a comprehensive exam question with two minutes of preparation and be critiqued by our colleagues. My heart leapt at this task, anxiety maximizing its presence in my mind and manifesting itself as a pronounced stutter. I survived, and even passed according to the professor. Being put on the spot like this has never been one of my strong suits. I like time to reflect and organize my thoughts; silence to weigh my words and collect any stray wanderings. This was not my element, but watching another do it gave me the confidence to let all hang out as best as I could. At the end, it was good and exciting and actually relieved some future stress related to the whole idea of comprehensive exams.

The quarter is winding down here, and there are only four or so classes left. I am working on several things including: a short paper on the study of religion from the viewpoint of Emile Durkheim, a syllabus for an entry-level undergraduate class in comparative religions, and a paper on Pastoral Theology and Visual Arts. I am also trying to figure out what I will take at the beginning of the year. I think it will come down to three classes, an unbearable burden according to many. I think that I may try Existential Theory and Therapy, Theodicy and Tragedy, and an independent study related to Pastoral formation culminating in a co-authored article with one of my professors. The professor hasn’t decided whether or not to do the article so I am not sure if that one will come through.

This first quarter has been a busy one, full of affirmations and frustrations. My world seems petty and small compared to the things that have happened in “real” life. The national unity in the face of Katrina is beginning to wear off. People who were not directly affected are starting to forget the devastation that has occurred. This is not a bad thing, but it can’t be all good either. My wife and I are looking forward to entertaining family soon. Her parents will be the first to visit us since the move and it will be nice to encounter friendly faces from back east. We continue to miss our friends and colleagues back home. I have the month of December off, and need to figure out what to do other than study Spanish and my LCSW material…

grace and peace

yes and no

One recent evening my wife and I were driving in northwest Denver. We turned onto an east-west street just as the sun set behind the mountains. My only remark was that it was different from any other sunset I had experienced. It took a moment, but I realized that I had rarely, if ever, seen a sunset over a jagged skyline. I also realized that for the next few years, almost all of my sunsets would be similar. There would be no flat horizon, no sun setting over the marshlands and beaches of the east coast, everything would be different.

Yesterday, I sat in my professor’s office and handed over two paragraphs that described the paper I wanted to write for his class. Over the next thirty minutes we discussed the topic and talked about the words I used to describe this topic. I will be the first to admit that I love to read; I love the knowledge and wisdom contained in the pages of books and novels. I also realized how far behind I felt in a subject I thought I knew.

My two paragraphs blossomed into a page full of notes and corrections with arrows pointing willy-nilly connecting word to phrase to author as I sought to keep my head above water. The subject is a good one, and the ideas will contribute to the field in the long run, but the run will be long. Along with the four or so hundred pages a week I read, articles and books have been added to the list in order to catch up. This is a long way from sitting in my office in Richmond, Virginia, pounding on the keyboard, editing and creating a sermon or a bible study.

I realize today, these new things signify the end of some older things. With every “yes” there is a corresponding “no” that must be examined, must be grieved before the “yes” can be fully experienced. This is a lesson I learned a while ago, but never fully understood until this day. I am not turning away from where I came, nor am I forgetting my past. I am merely attempting to own up to my responsibilities. I said “yes” to the life I now lead and must attend to it fully; I said “yes” to maintaining friendships with people I care about in Virginia and I must also attend to that. I said “no” to living close to friends and family and must grieve the loss I feel. I said “no” to flat horizons and grieve the comfort they have given me all my life. But through this grief I can celebrate what is before me and look upon each new day and the choices I will get to make.

When we forget or choose to ignore the things we need to grieve, we choose not to fully greet the present and future. When I was a child I used to draw sunsets. Every single one that I can remember pictured the sun setting between two mountains. My ideal sunset is the one that I can enjoy here in Denver. However, if I am always lamenting the sunsets of Virginia or South Carolina or Florida or Georgia I will never be able to fully grasp the beauty that sets before each day here. I have the opportunity to enjoy my ideal, but if I am lost to what used to be, I will miss the very things I see. So, I grieve for the opportunities that I will miss, not being with those I love and care for, so that someday I might celebrate the new life that is before me.

I would caution those who are finding their way in this world, those whose footing has been shaken, whose journey seems shrouded, whose pathway has disappeared. I would caution you to grieve for what you lose when you make a choice or take a step. This doesn’t mean that you lie weeping in a heap on the floor, just that you recognize the decisions you make or choose not to make. It isn’t easy, but no one ever said that living an examined life was…

doctoral days

It is reading so quickly that the words run together and form a stew in your mind. It is using and discussing words that you are not quite sure what they mean, but you know they fit the context. It is questioning the questions, debunking the theories, and grappling with issues of identity, hope, and care. For me, this is doctoral work.

I read Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life and then discuss it for four hours straight. I read essays in Feminist/Womanist Pastoral Theology. I read books about Black Pastoral Theology and then have a conversation with the author over the phone. I sit for four hours and discuss the condition of various cultures in the United States. I talk about my lack of identity as a white male. We discuss why there has never been a “white pastoral theology” and the implications therein.

Sometimes it feels like an exercise in mental masturbation. Sometimes, like today, it is fruitful and it makes you step out of your comfort zone and realize your perspective is not the only one and it is especially not any more valuable than anyone else’s. I could do without the massive amounts of reading, but then I would miss so much of the conversation, of the growth that happens when we encounter the opinions of another.

Doctoral work is the right place at the right time for me. I may not always believe that, but I am learning, I am growing, I am coming into contact with who I am and who others are as well. I can imagine that there will be times when I will gripe and moan, but at this moment it feels right, and my mind is clicking on all cylinders. While this is happening, life continues, and I aim to remain a part of it.

I feel the pain and the fear of the world as catastrophe after catastrophe decimates the children of God. I sense the hopelessness of the poor and futility of depending on an inept government to make any significant changes. I wonder how the lives of the grief-stricken move from hour to hour, imagining that many of them merely walk the earth numb and unfeeling. I know that it is not enough to talk, to imagine, we have to care and care enough to make changes.

It was reported today that congress plans to pay for the rebuilding of New Orleans by most likely cutting spending for food stamps and Medicaid. I could not think of a more racist or elitist way of building policy. It is outrageous that one would even think of rebuilding a city on the backs of the poor, while those with means get tax cuts.

If this seems outrageous to you, then email or write your congressperson and tell them so. While I am on the subject, I have to wonder what policy in this country would look like if the makeup of congress went by percentage of population according to the most recent survey. This would make congress actually look like the United States rather than look like the white guys from the populous regions. How differently would this country’s priorities look with a make up that represented us along gender and ethnic status rather than whoever had the most money and got their name in the press without screwing up too badly? Just a thought...

grace and peace

Hello Denver

What's black and red and white all over?

My snow shovel...

Welcome to Denver, we are supposed to get 3 to 6 inches of snow. That doesn't mean that it will happen; but for an east coast boy who rarely saw snow growing up, the threat is enough to make me wonder about this wonderful Denver weather...

grace and peace

A statement of faith

When I was ordained almost three years ago, part of the process included writing a statement of faith. Since that time, this document has been edited as my beliefs changed. As I look out over the work that I will do the next few years, I can only wonder how it might change and evolve during this time.

My desire to post it comes from the work that McKormick started tonight. He is trying to write a collaborative creedo for post evangelicals, an admirable task. Having never been in the evangelical church, what I can contribute is ideas and places to begin. Here is who I am, or atleast who I was two months ago. Feel free to comment or question anything written in here.

I believe in God, Abba, Yahweh, Author of heaven and earth, who created us for relationship and community with God’s self. In turn, we have been endowed with a desire for community with one another. This same God loves and seeks us out so that we might be reconciled. Why? No one knows save for the love that the Creator has for his creations. In the person of Jesus, we come to sense the love and care God has for all of creation.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, sent among us so that we might know and be redeemed to God. Through the life of Jesus Christ our Lord, we find the true mystery of God’s power. In the form of a servant, Jesus spread a message of love for God, obedience to God, and hope for all who lay their burdens before God. In Jesus the Christ, humanity found redemption and reconciliation, judgment and concern, life and love. Christ’s death and resurrection offers us the chance to hope and believe in a love that is greater than the bond of parenthood, a power that is greater than death, and the life ever after that God desires for us.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, who reveals God to us, sustains us, and inspires us daily as we attempt to respond to God’s grace. The Holy Spirit is among us, continually creating and renewing us, so that we may be open to the action of God taking place around us. The Spirit “sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church” (Book of Confessions, 10.4, 55).

In a world that often seems more broken than whole, I believe that God actively seeks, inspires, and calls us together so that we may have abundant life. It is in this broken world that the Body of Christ should stand as a place where wholeness might be found. Through the preaching of the Word and the enactment of the Sacraments we unite ourselves with our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout all of creation. Our Sacraments connect us with the living God and community around us. They offer us the chance to celebrate, hope, love, and renew our lives and devotion to the God who first loved us. Through the words of scripture, we encounter the Word of God – timeless, revealing, and ever-present. In the stories we read, we gather a sense of the drama that unfolded between God and God’s creations. In these words and through the life of the living Word we find the never-ending message of God’s love, justice, and desire to renew and reconcile with the creations God so dearly cares for. As the Body of Christ encounters God in worship, scripture, preaching, teaching, and the enacting of the Sacraments, we can only be reminded of a God who lives and seeks to be known by all of creation.

As I come in contact with God’s good but broken creations, I believe in the need for acts of reconciliation and messages of hope for all of God’s creations. I have felt God’s pull, call, and tug towards ministry for many years. As a Minister of the Word and Sacrament, I understand my life and vocation to be service at the pleasure of God, and as God calls, there I will go. Where ever I am called, I hope to offer a place of safety where the living God can be encountered; and where the living God is encountered, people can find the healing, hope, and courage of a God who seeks them wherever they are.

As the Body of Christ we rejoice because “nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (BOC, 10.5, 78-79). However, we must not stop with mere rejoicing. Faith requires action, and our faith in God requires that we take our experiences of God into a world that needs the message of a Creator, the healing touch of a Redeemer, and the inspiration of a Sustainer.

If...

If, as I believe, there is no God without art, music, dance, and nature...

...then why do we elect a President who is a "faith-based leader" but only concerned with test scores.

If creativity is the mother of invention, and artistic tendencies bring that out...

...then why are schools cutting programs for art and music so that children can pass standardized tests that measure retention at the expense of other forms of intelligence.

When did an "eye for an eye" replace "love God, self, and neighbor" as the overarching theme of the Bible?

Why must "non-defense" programs that aid people be cut in order for us to keep the promises of an incompetent leader with no oratorical skills and little common sense or regard for others?

Why is the political leadership of this nation, both Democrat and Republican, devoid of any creative ideas to help us be a nation of equality rather than a nation of haves and have-nots (maybe they spent too much time on the standardized tests)?

Why do we, the voters of this nation, continue to elect incompetent inbred politicians whose greatest redeeming quality is the ability to not answer questions or hold themselves accountable for what they do or say?

I listened to the "speech" of the President this morning and left feeling dirty and disgusted. I am not sure what to think anymore; where are the ministers who speak out against the injustices in this nation?

Where are the ministers who know better than to believe that war is only and best option?

Where are the ministers who rally against poverty and the inequitable policies of the government towards those who are poor?

Where are the ministers who know that gays and lesbians deserve the same rights and benefits that all citizens of this country claim?

Where are the ministers who open their doors to the oppressed of this country so that they might find peace and solace?

I know that Jim Wallis isn't the only one out there who thinks that real Christians fight poverty, not just on the local level, but by electing people who will create and vote for equitable and fair policies that benefits the "least of these" in our midst.

As a heterosexual, priviledged, white male I am as much of a contributor to this dilemma through my silence, I don't know what I am going to do about that yet, but this is a start. These are theological questions that I ask, and they demand theological answers. When you read them and thoughts run ramshackle through your brains, remember one thing:

God is love.

Then formulate your theological answers. If you post them here fine, just so they are honest and thoughtful. I don't write a lot of political things because I feel like it is a waste of energy. This is different because I think the church is called to be the conscience of the state, and we are doing a pretty poor job of articulating good theology in the realm of public policy. Advocacy is also one of the tasks of supportive Pastoral Theology. One of the ways in which we care for one another is by changing the power structures in place that oppress and devalue our fellow human beings. If you don't think that happens, then you haven't been watching the Katrina coverage...

grace and peace

Pastoral Theology revisited

Here is the version of my concept I presented to my class. The language has been cleaned up a little bit, based on some suggestions from you and my own editing. It was well received by the class (all four of us) and the only sticking point which I need to continue to refine is the amount of theological reflection in the process, and the idea of introducing theological thoughts and reflections to the community. For some reason both of the other students in the class had difficulty understanding why this was necessary in a pastoral theological setting. To me, it was common sense that good theology was never done in a vacuum and that ideas, experiences, thoughts and reflections needed to be discussed in a communal setting in order for theology to be real and have a real impact.

Thanks for all of the comments, suggestions and frustrations. It seems like the biggest frustration was that it wasn't practical. Rather than having teeth it theorized about the biting motion, and that was its intention. I was asked to define something that I had practically done for three years. That meant stepping back from the practical work of theology and asking: what, how, and why?

The most frustrating aspect of this assignment for me was its brevity. When using images, it is important to fully conceptualize the picture so that the description can be fully understood, this was difficult to do in a half page. As I continue my studies, I am sure there will be opportunities to flesh out the practical dimensions of this model, as well as, its continued academic applications. It is a theoretical definition, and one that I will continue to work with during my time here.

I believe Pastoral Theology is better conceptualized than defined, allowing for a fluid and open approach to theology that has roots in the experiences within and outside its distinct boundaries. Therefore, I offer an image of Pastoral Theology to be played with rather than a definition that might constrict. The image I offer is the helical or coil spring. This type of spring is usually circular, spiraling into three-dimensions with distinct vertical and horizontal components. Furthermore, helical springs generally have gaps between strands of coiled wire giving the sense of both occupied space and openness. Finally, helical springs offer a diverse number of usages and functions.

A visual inspection of Pastoral Theology reveals a vertical, God-human dimension, and an equally important, horizontal, human-human dimension. These two relationships are bound to the image of the spring, by the rising circular coils. Along this spiral I see the work of Pastoral Theology as containing four points of reference: experience, reflection, introduction to the community, and re-interpretation. The gaps between wire strands signify openness to other sources of knowledge and inspiration. Thus, a helical spring model of Pastoral Theology embodies enduring relationships, an ability to incorporate new dimensions into its thought and praxis, and relating its distinctive theological ideas through a process of experience, reflection, introduction, and re-interpretation.

Moreover, helical springs have three mechanical functions: compression, tension, and torsion. The compression function is generally supportive. The tension function flexibly holds independent pieces together. The torsion function operates by coiling and uncoiling to release stored energy. These mechanical functions help us to understand the under-girding functions of Pastoral Theology. Support, intentional binding of distinct disciplines, and the release and retention of knowledge and experiences are the functions from which the work of Pastoral Theology rises.

grace and peace

Pastoral Theology

My first assignment in my first doctoral seminar is to define Pastoral Theology. A relatively new discipline, Pastoral Theology is unique in that it incorporates a number of other theological, as well as, social science disciplines in its conception. The whole subject is about 50 years old and is still in its infancy. So after four hours of class, I am required to say what I believe something is, without knowing a whole hell of a lot about it.

It is supposed to be a half a page, but I am a little over (surprise, surprise). I won't turn it in until Tuesday, so if you have any comments let me know. If it makes no sense let me know. I am new to this whole create your own definition thing...

I believe that Pastoral Theology is something that is better conceptualized than defined. This allows for a fluid and open approach to a theology that has roots in the experiences contained within and outside of its distinct boundaries. Therefore, I offer an image of Pastoral Theology meant to be played with rather than a definition that might constrict.

The image I offer is the helical spring. A visual examination reveals this type of spring as circular, spiraling into three-dimensions with distinct vertical and horizontal components. Furthermore, helical springs generally have gaps between strands of coiled wire giving the sense of both occupied space and openness.

Rather than a simple circular pattern, the spiral offers points of movement whether progressive or digressive. Likewise, Pastoral Theology contains both the vertical, God-human dimension, and the equally important human-human dimension. These two relationships are held within the bounds of the spring, but open and part of the things that affect it. Along this spiral I see the work of Pastoral Theology as containing four points of reference: experience, reflection, introduction to the community, and re-interpretation.

Thus, a helical spring model of Pastoral Theology embodies enduring relationships with marked boundaries, an ability to incorporate new dimensions into its thought and praxis, and relate its distinctive theological ideas through a process of experience, reflection, introduction, and re-interpretation.

Moreover, helical springs have three mechanical functions: compression, tension, and torsion. These also function for our concept. The compression function is generally supportive. The tension function flexibly holds independent pieces together. The torsion function operates by coiling and uncoiling to release stored energy. These mechanical functions help us to understand the under-girding functions of Pastoral Theology. Support, intentional binding of distinct disciplines, and the release and retraction of knowledge and experiences are the pieces from which the work of Pastoral Theology rises.


Here is Seward Hiltner's definition of Pastoral Theology. Hiltner is credited with being the "father" of Pastoral Theology and one of its earliest and more prolific theologians. I include his definition for comparison's sake.

Pastoral Theology is... that branch or field of theological knowledge and inquiry that brings the shepherding (defined as healing, sustaining, and guiding) perspective to bear upon all the operations and functions (defined as communicating the gospel and organizing the people) of the church and the minister and then draws conclusions of a theological order from reflection on these observations.

The quote is direct, with a few parenthetic additions for clarification, from his book Preface to Pastoral Theology written in 1958, published by Abingdon Press. It is out of print but you can find copies for five bucks on the internet, it is worth it if you are interested in Pastoral Theology.

grace and peace

good things

From the inside it is easy to see where we get it wrong— the politics, the wrangling for position or power or favor, the petty struggles over tradition, the longing for when things were better (often in some distant memory long since scrubbed of any dirt or darkness). The church can be a difficult place to find a home, especially when you are charged with its care. Ministers can be a lonely bunch and ministry can be a lonely lifestyle depending on the congregations we choose to serve. However, there are churches and programs and people that do get it.

Many people found within the walls of churches have large wonderful cavernous hearts. They are lights on the hill that could never be hidden no matter how hard you try. They are volunteers who show up time after time, not out of a sense of duty, but because they hear the call just as surely as any trained minister would. These are people who lead classes, sing in choirs, serve on sessions or boards or committees. They are the ones who make sure that communion is set up and the candles are lit and the heat works on Sunday mornings. They are the reason the church still works and will continue working.

There are churches whose mission is to reach out to people. I am not talking about evangelism; in fact evangelism is one of the things wrong with the church today. I am talking about churches that care for their communities regardless of how the community is categorized. There are churches who advocate, who offer helping hands, who give of the very soul that lives within the community. These churches don’t offer services with the stipulation that someone “come to Jesus.” They offer services because that is what Jesus told them to do regardless of who the person is or what they might believe.

There are churches who faithfully stretch the limits of worship, ushering in new forms of praise and penance and preaching. They stretch their arms wide and cast a net of many voices, giving way to art and dance and song and laughter, all the while focusing their eyes on the God that dwells above, among and within them. These churches think through what they do, not only trying to communicate with the culture around them, but doing so in a way that does not rape the tradition from which they come.

There are churches that excel at reaching out to one another, creating lasting bonds that embrace, envelope, and encourage all who happen to wander within the walls. These are the comfortable communities that don’t allow you to be complacent. They are the places where people come to grow and doubt and stretch their faith. Here people find a safe place to look at the faith of the faithful and laugh, cry, and hope.

There are churches who don’t take themselves too seriously. These churches know the Bible and know its limitations. These churches know their traditions and know the need for change. They hear the voice in the wilderness and run to meet it with joy and thanksgiving. The people of these churches always start their prayers with thanks and end with hope, for they know that the love of God knows no bounds.

There are good people, good churches doing good things. Maybe the best things about these houses of holy is that they are horrible at marketing, they find no use for clever postcards or combat witnessing, they stink at building campaigns because they waste their money on helping those in need, and they are horrible at bullet-point theology. To find these places that soothe the soul and comfort our afflictions, places that hug and hope and hold, that pray and worship and serve we must look hard. Sometimes they are found in large congregations, and sometimes small congregations hold the keys to the kingdom.

We know it when we find it though, something just feels real, maybe almost too real. The question is: are we willing to risk reality for the sake of the relationship offered to us? Are we willing to wade through our own darkness to embrace the light that surrounds us? Can we chance that we don’t know all of the answers, we may never know all of the answers, and that is good enough for our lives?

grace and peace

Maybe I am uptight...

My response to the comments of my last post became long enough to be a post themselves, so here it is.

I want to thank everyone for their words. There are times when I wonder if I am a bit uptight about worship. But then I remember how many times I have laughed ay my own mistakes and enjoyed the play that occurs between myself and the congregation.

So, I don't think I am uptight about worship, but I am a bit frustrated with those who don't take care with the language they use and the worship they create. That is as much of an abuse as anything good that could occur. I may be picking on small things during this service, but if they aren't teaching about the small things, then what about the big things?

The most frustrating part is the ignorance of those who are supposed to know better. Tod has experienced me as a worship leader before and knows that I make mistakes but I am not sure if he would call me uptight or not, Tod?

Therefore, I will become a great deal less frustrated when people think through the things they are asking others to be a part of. Too many people try to copy the hottest worship model in order to increase the size of their church, without simply asking the appropriate questions.

How shall we label each part of worship?

Why do we use only masculine pronouns when referring to God?

Why do we choose a praise band over organ music?

What do the songs we sing say about what we believe?

What effect will our decisions have on the overall experience of worship?

How can we include more people in a service of God?

and so on...

There are many questions that need to be asked before creating a liturgy for a congregation. So, I might quit being uptight when people quit being ignorant, especially those people who are in charge of the worship life of the multitude.

Read a book (Marva J. Dawn's is excellent, Ron Byars has some good words as well (he was my preaching and worship prof.), Gordon Lathrop has some excellent stuff on the history of worship). Learn about denominational history and traditions. Find ways to know why worship is structured a certain way and then make changes. Without the history and connection to people of all times and places (thanks Erin) worship is meaningless and obsolete.

In my denomination worship comes out of scripture, and on top of that there are several hundred years of tradition and trial and error. There is so much rich material out there that one just needs to look and find out how to best communicate it to a congregation. This congregation's worship looked like it was put together piece-meal, as if they just wanted to thumb their nose at history for the sake of being popular.

On a side note, my best friend (a Baptist minister) and I were sitting in an ecumenical service one time when another minister got up to pray. He and I often joke that for our various heresies we have permanent seats on the bus ride to hell, he gets to control the radio, I get to navigate.

Any way, we were sitting at this service and about a third of the way through the prayers of the people, the minister starts with the "Jesus wejus". From that day forward we decided that sitting together in worship may not be the best thing. Between the elbows and convulsive (though silent) laughter both of us were practically in tears by the end of the prayer. This may seem sacreligious to some but we had a great time, and I really don't think God minded so much.

Worship is a vertical and horizontal experience. It is a focused time where we communicate with God and with the community that surrounds us. That doesn't mean that we cannot laugh and enjoy ourselves and play in the space that has been created. However, a safe place of worship must be created before anything else meaningful can happen. Safe places are created when the community can feel as though each member has equal part in the experience rather than showing up to be entertained. Safe places are places of trust and growth where we can lay our faults and imperfections before the community and have our wounds tended by God and then by one another.

Good worship, in a safe place, is about God, never about us...

... and thanks to all those who respond here. Your comments and thoughts are meaningful and give me pause to think and clarify what it is I believe and what it is I hope to share with others. Every comment is important because it also lets me know a little bit more about who you are as well, and that can only be a good thing...

grace and peace

A problem or two with worship...

So, what is worship? What is it about gathering together in prayer and song and sermon that ignites the spirit and soothes the soul? Worship is the ritual of liturgy and history and tradition and experience all rolled into the present moment looking towards a future time. However, worship sometimes becomes nothing more than flattering or sucking up to God, and it is then my brothers and sisters that trouble begins.

Last Sunday I found a place where worship did not feel anything like worship to me; but before we get to some thoughts about that particular service, let me comment on a couple things.

Proportionally there was a greater number of people my age or younger at this service than in any other one I have experienced. Something must be working for them. Second, the pastor seemed very pastoral. She knew the names and children and stories of the members of her congregation. My guess is that she is a wonderful minister who serves joyfully and faithfully.

I am proud and happy to know that the congregation is cared for by the minister. I am ashamed of the education and discernment of the congregation concerning liturgy and worship.

First things first, I am a traditionalist when it comes to liturgy. I believe there is an order to worship and that each part and movement should be designed to allow people the freedom to find God in the moment. I believe that hymns should be sung, prayers prayed, scripture read, sermons preached, and sacraments performed. I believe worship, as Calvin would say, should be decent and in order.

I also believe that all worship is contemporary. The lines drawn today are arbitrary and obnoxious. Just because you have a guitar and a drum set down front doesn’t mean that your worship is more contemporary than one that sings hymns from a hymnal and plays an organ. If the worship doesn’t feel real, then it isn’t worship; it is a trip down memory lane or some glorified form of God flattery. Music is not worship, but a component of worship that enables people to feel the presence of God through other means than scripture and prayer. Worship is the experience not the pieces assembled to provide the experience.

I like alternative instruments in worship; I like liturgical dance, responsive prayers, and mixing things up. However, ritual and liturgy should be familiar to a congregation. The order of worship should be comfortable, but not restrictive. In the PC(USA) this is established in five parts (with scripture playing a central role in each part): gathering, proclaiming, responding, enacting, and bearing. If you want to know more about this mention something in the comments and I will write a little more.

Let’s return to our service last Sunday. First, the worship leader wrote a welcoming/statement of faith for the congregation to read. The Presbyterian Church is a creedal church and it is proud of its rich history in stating what it believes through creeds and confessions. I guess the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed wasn’t good enough, nor the more recent Brief Statement of Faith. If I wanted to hear someone’s personal testimony about God, I would gather around a campfire, sing kumbayah, and wait for the Spirit to move. This is corporate worship and the worship leader forgot the most important thing, namely that it is not about him.

Second, when it came time to sing hymns, these were noted in the bulletin as “opening worship, worship, and closing worship.” Music, in and of itself, is not worship when it is merely a part of the service. What about scripture readings, the baptism, the sermon, and the prayers, are they not worship as well? What is it about people of my generation and the theologically abhorrent music they pass off as “praise hymns?” I can get a better dose of music, lyrics and theology from Linkin Park, John Lennon, Wilco, Dave Matthews Band, and Ben Folds Five. At least they are honest about their experience of life and the struggles that ensue rather than the sugar-coated rotten theology of today’s contemporary worship music.

There are good modern hymn writers who are theologically sound and musically creative. Take the time to find them rather than buying the TIME-LIFE Worship songs of the millennium collection, learning a couple of chords and then trotting them out as real hymns. Additionally, music should complement the scripture of the day, and not detract or become an entirely separate thing from the rest of worship. We are talking about building an experience, not doing the latest and greatest thing.

Third, I bear no ill will against praise bands, but leave the lead singers at home. The pair that led the music basically drowned out any sound the congregation made, and these times of “worship” became the Biff and Buffy show. The intention of hymns in worship is a creative way of encountering God through musical prayer. This is not about singing well or being the loudest or being in front of the crowd. That is what Karaoke is for on Saturday night.

My worship professor put it this way, the entertainment of the congregation is not the purpose of worship, in fact the congregation isn’t even the audience in worship; the congregation is the performer and the audience is God. The pastor is just there to help facilitate the experience through the liturgy of the day. If you want to be entertained go to a movie. If you want to entertain then be a comedian. If you want to help facilitate the growth of the body of Christ through liturgy and preaching so that they might find themselves drawing nearer to the Divine through communal worship then be a minister.

Fourth, longer does not mean better. Just because you plan worship for an hour and fifteen minutes doesn’t mean you have to use it all. The sermon preached that Sunday could have been tightened up to about five minutes from the rambling forty that it lasted. Sometimes, simpler is better and there is no need to carry on just filling time.

My sense is that this has more to do with the expectations of the congregation rather than the needs of the preacher (though sometimes that is assumption is wrong). I hear all the time that preaching is supposed to be engaging, funny, hopeful, inspiring and generally agreeable. Scripture is rarely any of those things. At times, it is tedious, sorrowful, challenging, uncomfortable, with glimmers of hope thrown in just to keep us reading. The sole responsibility of the preacher is to encounter, engage, and wrestle with the text. My personal way of handling the time is to preach until I am done. Sometimes this lasts fifteen minutes, sometimes it lasts twenty-five. When the text is done with me, then I can say no more.

Fifth, I understand the need for spontaneity in prayer. However, if you are planning on leading one for the people, do me a favor and practice. I am tired of the “Jesus weejus” and “Lord Ijus” type prayers. You know what I am talking about. Whenever people find themselves at a loss for words or just want to start a new part of the prayer they say “Jesus weejus thank you for everything” or “Lord, Ijus wanna thank you Father God for the beautiful day…” These statements are the equivalent of “ummm… and uhhh” in secular speeches. They serve little purpose other than to fill gaps where thoughts have escaped. If this happens to you, say nothing. Silence is often more poignant than anything we can usually come up with anyway.

Finally, take down the projector screen and put the cross back on the wall. Don’t be afraid of the organ or guitar or drums or flute or trumpet, they are all beautiful instruments. Mostly, remember that worship is not about you, it is not about me (whether I am leading or part of the congregation). Worship is about an encounter with the Holy that transcends the individual parts of the liturgy. It is about drawing nearer to the presence of God in a community bound together by prayer and laughter and love and hope and struggles. No one person is greater than any other when we enter a sanctuary. Some facilitate, some follow but all of us have the responsibility to perform for God and then take what we learn into the world around us…

grace and peace

gggrrr...

What am I doing here? This question haunts my thoughts at the moment. I am not thinking metaphorically, I wonder about the present. What am I doing here in Denver, in school again, in a doctoral program?

Orientation was Friday, and I was not blown away. There were no epiphanies, save my ability to speak to my advisor rapidly about my interests and what I wanted to study. Most of my time was spent listening to people tell me how hard it was and wondering why any school still operates on the quarter system.

Classes begin on Thursday if I can find my immunization records, make sure I have health insurance, and get approval for an independent study on pastoral formation. Of course this needs to be done by Tuesday if I actually want to take classes. Why can’t programs send you the necessary forms beforehand? Instead, my day was filled with “oh yeah, one more thing…” What a pain in the ass.

Therefore, I wonder why I am here. I know the obvious answer. God called you here; God has a plan for your time here. Let’s be truthful, I may have felt pulled but it was my call, and sometimes I regret it. To be called halfway across the country, to a land where I know no one sucks.

Why couldn’t I just finish my engineering degree and draw pretty lines for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t be near so poor; I wouldn’t put this tremendous pressure on myself to succeed; and I would be living a hell of a lot closer to home. It is just so frustrating at the moment. My wife, despite all of her qualifications and her desire to work, can’t find meaningful employment. Her migraines are wreaking havoc on her head. It has been a long weekend, and then we decided to go to church…

I will have write about my first experience in an evangelical church. To say the least I was under-whelmed, unimpressed, and if this is what my generation has to offer to worship, I want to renegotiate my birthdate and find someone who is doing something truly great…

grace and peace

all that glitters...

The gray clouds swept over the mountains and continued through the city. Their transit time was less than an hour and the relief they brought was minimal. It was just enough to coat the leaves of nearby trees the damp air clinging to my lungs. My wife and I sat on our front porch and munched on left-over pizza. As I washed down a bite with a cold beer, the wind began its invisible movements over the earth. I could see small clouds in the distance glowing red as the sun began to set. Then the show began. A tree living in yard not far from us began to twinkle in the twilight. Between the wind, the fresh coat of rain, and the sunset I was privy to the creation of a golden masterpiece. It looked like strands of natural Christmas lights, like a flock of Tinkerbells, like a shower of stars and I was fortunate enough not to miss a single burst of golden light…

I like to flip during commercials. Sometimes between just a few channels; at other times I attempt a marathon through every channel. One time I happened to catch the local “Jesus channel” which featured a show from Robert Tilton. I guess it was a show, though truth be told it sounded more like an infomercial. Robert, dressed in an expensive suit, hair coiffed, face freshly tanned, stood on a harbor in front of numerous boats and yachts. He was earnest and I could tell he believed what he was sharing. Tonight, he wanted you to call and buy his book, “How to Be Rich and Get Anything You Want”. I watched him for about five minutes as he told me I could get rich and he had the scripture to prove it.

I know a little bit about Robert’s past fall from grace and the theological atrocities that he has committed over the years. However, here he was again, touting his wares on “Jesus TV” and it made me wonder how many people were ordering at that moment. He wouldn’t do it if people didn’t buy it. He couldn’t do it if people didn’t want to take the easy road out. The thoughts that ran through my mind were grizzly. He believed what he was sharing because it worked. People who are desperate; who need contact and care send him money because he tells them it will help them. I am pretty damn sure that it doesn’t…

I know Robert Tilton is a nothing, a nobody who earns millions raping the bank accounts of the poor and the infirm. I am really not all that mad at him. I save my ire for the programmers and people who own the stations that allow this abuse to occur. Those who fill the time slots with whoever will pay, regardless of the message.

There are many more like Robert, some have been caught in their lies, others are more sneaky and insidious. They would rather peddle a pitiful gospel in the hopes of warming your hearts and greasing the gold in your wallets. What I don’t understand are the people who buy into this theology. I realize that theology is a finite pursuit by a finite species. It is an imperfect craft that can both serve and destroy humanity depending on which parts you choose to highlight.

Regardless, however you twist the words, prooftext the source, or hone your charisma the message of Christianity is service and suffering punctuated by moments of beauty, healing and wholeness. I don’t understand how some “preachers” come to any other conclusion, especially those who espouse a theology of prosperity. Christianity is the ultimate existential enterprise culminating in death and the hope of eternity.

There are beautiful things about life in the body of Christ, but it is infotainment, ill-conceived righteouness, and abuse that is all too often seen by others. Today, much of the public face of Christianity stands on the precipice between relevance and huge joke. Whether it is intelligent design, faith-oriented politics, the theology of prosperity, the “smiling preacher,” or some purpose-driven self-help drivel Christianity will not be taken seriously as a way of life that can change this world while abuses continue. Even worse, we risk becoming irrelevant.

Until we recover the beauty of the relationship between God and ourselves, God and EVERY one else (regardless of race, gender, religion, lifestyle, sexuality, whatever other label you want to ascribe to others), and God and this world we live in, we will be a joke and not a very good one at that.

I don’t want a revolution. I don't want a new style of worship or fancy gimmicks and light shows. I don’t want a public figure speaking for my faith and what I need. I don’t want faith based initiatives, prayer in schools, intelligent design or the Ten Commandments posted anywhere.

I want us to go outside and see the sunset. I want us to wave to our neighbors instead of hunkering down in the air conditioning. I want us look beyond theology and find God once again. I want us to understand sin, and better yet understand grace. I want us to live responsibly and conserve our resources so that, should I ever have children, that their grandchildren can see the beauty of this world. It is not enough to get all I can while I am alive. All that glitters may be gold, but I will happily take the gold of my sunset over what some of Christianity is peddling at this moment…

grace and peace

texts: Matt. 18:15-20, Rom. 13:8-14 title: together

I once had a black Labrador retriever named Buck. I say once because he now lives with my parents, as he has for the last seven years, in the mountains of North Georgia. Buck is a gentle, playful, loving dog without a mean bone in his body. And at 85 pounds, I believe he is one of the largest lap dogs known to humanity. However, Buck is also deathly afraid of lightening and thunder.

He wasn’t always this way. About three or four years ago, Buck was riding in a kennel in the back of my parents’ pickup truck when the truck was hit on the side by another car that recklessly pulled into traffic. He wasn’t physically hurt by the crash. However, from that day forward he has been mentally afraid of riding in the car, and of the noise and violence of thunderstorms.

Buck physically shakes when storm clouds produce their symphonies and light shows. His body trembles with fear; and I can only imagine the memories that these strange noises call up for him. One of the only comforts for Buck during these times is being near and physically touching my mom or dad. There is something about being in the presence of someone else that helps to calm his nerves and settle him down.

It is our ability to be present, as best we can, to one another that sustains us through violent and fearful times. When Katrina hit the Gulf shores of Mississippi and Louisiana last week, no one could have imagined the devastation and destruction.

Thousands upon thousands have been displaced, have lost friends and family members, have lost everything they worked for, lived with and some have even lost the people and things they loved.

Storms like Katrina bring up some of the most difficult questions in the lives of the faithful. Why do these disasters happen? Why would God allow this? What does it mean? They are good questions, all of them, but they are unanswerable unless you wish to play god.

As I thought about this disaster, I thought of three primary ways we could respond to disaster like this: we could respond with cynicism; we could respond out of fear; or we could respond with love. Either way, we are called to respond directly to the things that happen in our lifetimes. That is the crux of our Matthew passage.

We aren’t called to sit complacently and judge or gripe about what is happening around us. Whether personally or globally we aren’t to go behind people’s backs and speak ill of them.

No, we are held to a higher standard of direct love for God, ourselves, and one another. Out of our love for one another, we are to speak and act in a manner that directly deals with the person and action.

We see this example over and over again in the ministry of Christ, a caring confrontation with an offending person that dealt directly with a behavior or situation. Or let’s put it another way, if Jesus saw that something was amiss in your life, he would tell you about it, and he would tell you in a way that showed how much he cared and loved you. This is not a boot camp type confrontation, though he did shake things up a bit, but one that sought healing and wholeness in the process. Paul echoes this in his letter to the Romans as well. He believes the only thing we are to owe one another is love.

So, no doubt you have seen the devastation, the destruction, the loss of life and livelihood. We cannot go anywhere without being reminded of what has happened. While disasters like these are unexplainable, the response of the Body of Christ should not be.

There is to be no fear among us, there is to be no cynicism either. Our only way to respond to any event in our lives is to directly love and be present to those who are before us.

Whether it is care for a frightened dog, whether it is being present to someone who has lost a loved one, a livelihood or is just lost, whether it is responding to a disaster financially or through volunteering our time and talents. We can be sure that there is no better way, no better hope for humanity, no better life for God’s children than to directly love one another as best we can in every circumstance.

In a few moments we will partake of the Lord’s Supper, a time where all of the faithful from generations past and generations to come will sit at the table and share a meal together. I would ask that when you partake of the bread and cup, that you would remember your brothers and sisters all over the world who, for whatever reason, cannot do what you do today.

Remember, pray, and be present to how God calls you to respond this day to the grace and love that you have been given. Then, when the time is right, do what God asks, and go out and love.

Divine Worship - 9:30 A.M.

Forty-five minutes down the interstate and we pull into a town that is one stop sign away from being forgotten. I left the directions at home, but felt that if I drove down both streets in town I would eventually find what I was looking for.

A small red-brick church sat on the corner across from the railroad tracks. The sign above the door read “Byers Community Church – Divine Worship 9:30 A.M. I don’t know about you, but I have never been a part of “divine worship” before, and I am pretty sure that I have never led a “divine worship service.” There is a first time for everything.

We arrived a few minutes early; the person who was supposed to meet us was a few minutes late. The inside of the building was smaller than I expected. White-washed walls were illuminated by cracked stained glass; on one wall hung a picture of “lily-white Jesus” complete with golden halo, herding sheep. People began to arrive shortly after the door opened and I greeted as many as I could.

After robing in the closet-like office, the music started and I returned to my seat. Someone pushed play on a tape player and a drum beat introduced the “contemporary” hymn song of the day. The best thing about contemporary Christian music and songwriting is that 99.9 percent of it will be forgotten.

It is interesting leading worship alone for the first time. You get to do things your way for a change. The placement of the pulpit in this sanctuary was askew, so I decided to step to the center and lead parts of the service, and nobody complained. I almost tripped over my robe at one point and got to laugh about it with the congregation, making sport of my big black polyester gown. It is a good community church, filled with good people. They just happened to hear one of the worst sermons I have ever preached. It started this way…

There was supposed to be a lay reader for the first scripture verse, when no one came forward, it was no big deal. I rose, blindly grabbed a Bible from underneath the pulpit and found the pericope. Unfortunately, I picked up the King James Version. My mind raced as I half translated and hiccupped my way through the garbled passage. I ended saying “This is the Word of the Lord,” expecting to hear a resounding “Thanks be to God.” Instead, I think I could hear crickets chirping in the distance. Apparently, that was not a tradition of this church.

I stumbled through a quick background of the Romans passage and read it without a hitch. Then, I started the sermon during which I stuttered, lost my place at least four times, and skipped ahead a number of times only to repeat myself over again. The sermon content was pretty good and I thought it fit the scripture passage; my delivery was, at best, inept.

When I reflect on what happened, I can pinpoint one difference between this Sunday and all of the rest, the audience. I think I expected to look out and see familiar faces. Instead, everything was new. There were new squirmy children, new scowls to ponder, new eyes in which to find sparks, and new faces to interpret. It felt like I was back at the beginning again. My first sermon was something like this one, only the content was worse. I was telling people whose names I had already forgotten what I thought; and all I wanted was to sit down and blend into the background.

When the service ended, I walked to the back to wish people well on their journeys. A number of comments were made that I’m not sure how to take.

“It’s good to hear the contemporary news make a sermon!” One women exclaimed.

Another women whispered as I passed, “It was nice when you applied the Bible to our lives, I need more of that kind of preaching.”

“I felt like you were talking to me,” said yet another woman.

The men said nothing expect for their desire for a cup of coffee.

My only thought for all of these comments was, “what the hell was the guy before me telling these folks!?”

I am my own worst critic and always will be. I know this. Thankfully, many things happen in worship that are beyond me. That is how it should be. It is not up to me to call upon the holy. I am merely a servant and most of the time not a very good one. God was, is, and will be the one member of all of the services in which I participate. Therefore, wherever I miss a cue, whatever sentence I fumble or whoever sits in front of me God will be the one to reach them. I am just the bumbling messenger.

Today, I awoke to good reviews. Most of the people told Presbytery Executive they enjoyed the service and the sermon. Even my wife liked this one (she thinks I am a buzz-kill when I preach). So, I will return next week and stand and deliver. I will administer communion, but this time I will be among familiar faces and maybe that won’t be so scary. Maybe this time worship will actually feel divine…

texts: Matt 16:21-28, Rom. 12:9-21 title:grace

The following is my sermon for August 28th. This is a rural congregation and my first time preaching before them. The texts are taken from the lectionary (RCL Cycle:A, 15th Sunday after Pentecost). It should be an interesting Sunday ;).

I read in the Denver Post on Tuesday that a nationally known televangelist had called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez, the leader of Venezuela. Now Hugo Chavez may not be the best of political leaders, but when a Christian minister calls for our country to kill someone for their ideological beliefs I have to question what they are emulating and teaching the members of their congregation.

And on a larger scale, I really wonder how this differs from the cries of terrorists around the world? Leaning on religious zealotry and abhorrent theological conclusions that create an atmosphere of unrest and intolerance sounds like a familiar condemnation doesn’t it?

Mostly, I seem to have forgotten which one of Jesus’ teaching moments or sermons this position mirrors. And despite a subsequent apology, histhe words are out there and cannot be retracted and there has been little call for accountability. Anne Lamott a Presbyterian author once said, “You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Let’s turn to Matthew for a moment; we’ll talk about this story a little later. What we have in Matthew is a passage foreshadowing Jesus’ suffering and death in Jerusalem. The expectation of the Messiah in Jewish theology was that he would be a great leader and conqueror, not a suffering servant. Peter’s words are not out of order in this context.

Jesus’ admonishment given is adequate as well. Peter is thinking in earthly tones, just as all theology is an earthly pursuit. Peter merely repeats what he has been taught, and seeks to have Jesus conform to those ideas, not unlike our televangelist.

I can even see Peter waving a finger in front Jesus’ face, “There is to be no suffering for the Messiah. No, the Messiah is to cause suffering to the enemies of the Jewish state.”

Jesus’ response is simple and to the point: don’t limit what I will do by thinking of it in earthly terms. God’s ideas are greater than anything conceived by humans.

Whether you are a televangelist with a penchant for shooting your mouth off, or a disciple with a knack for not getting the message, or even a congregation member just trying to do the right thing and get along in the world, there something to this idea that God has greater plans than we can conceive.

When we lived in Richmond, my wife, worked for the Richmond Ballet for a couple of years. Part of my duty as her husband was to attend the ballet with her occasionally. Whenever a show time would come around, I would begin to behave a bit like a two-year old complaining about not wanting to go, having to go, having to dress up and shower and shave.

Once I got there though, things changed. I can’t say that the ballet was always a great experience, but there were times, moments, when the choreography, the music, the movement of dancers and lights would come together to create something that was greater than the sum of its parts. In these moments, I truly enjoyed the ballet, allowing it to bring tears to my eyes and soothe my soul.

I wonder if this is why we often refer to dancers as graceful, because somewhere between what they do and what we see and experience, a connection greater than expected occurs.

Both Paul and the author of Matthew attend to this phenomenon of greater things in our passages today. The author of Matthew attends to it in the context of the cross, of attempting to get across to finite human beings the grand scope of God’s work in the world. The idea that we are to accept something contrary to common sense, knowledge and teaching is so foreign to Peter, that he cannot fathom the scope of the grandest of plans.

Grace is that way as well. It is the mysterious dance God choreographs with humanity that when our eyes meet we immediately know that something greater has occurred. Grace is fluid and moves in and around all lives to a hidden symphony created through a partnership with the Creator. And while Matthew points us towards the phenomenon, Paul tells us what happens to us when we experience the Lord of the Dance.

Paul attends to this greatest of plans by describing an ethic of life to the Roman Christians. It is how Paul thinks they should respond to the grace they have received in their lives. No single thing that Paul said is intended to be the penultimate act of a Christian, but instead he creates a balance between the different reactions to the grace that happens in our lives.

Love, goodness, honor, passion, service, hope, rejoicing, harmony, humility, peacefulness and forgiveness, it’s not a short list, nor is it an easy list to live up to. And, I could be convinced that one of the greatest curses of humanity is to know the importance of these things and to be impotent in carrying all of them out.

But, that is another of the grandest functions of grace, a gift of God fashioned for a people in need. Grace offers the coverage necessary to allow us to continue to live a life more meaningful and complete. Humanity has a hard time grasping this free gift, and the grand idea behind it, so like the televangelist and Peter we try to limit its scope and who receives it. Never understanding the limitless boundaries of grace, and that what God has created for us, given to us, is so abundant that it is never meant to be kept by us.

One of my favorite hymns has the following refrain:

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.


The dance of grace is probably the most important one in which we will ever have a part; and that is just it, we only have a part. We are not the keepers, the choreographers, or conductor. We are bit players cast in order to make the prima ballerina look her best.

We can only do our little part of the dance. There isn’t a single prima ballerina in the congregation today. However, every single one of us has a part that is important and the dance could not continue unless we arrive on cue.

Paul knows that times will be difficult, he knows that sometimes people will repay our kindness and our gentleness with animosity or even hatred. But he calls us to focus on our part in the dance, let the prima ballerina do her job. We must, with all of the passion our lives can muster, dance with all of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength. Or else, all of the grace we have received is for naught.

There can be no perfect performances, but there are times when our passion compliments the dance of the prima ballerina so much that the audience is moved to tears and their souls are soothed once again.

Read this on Chavez...

No, seriously. Read this article for an understanding of why the animosity has reached a crescendo. Then, I promise no more about Pat Robertson until he says another really stupid thing. That should be sometime tomorrow.

Pat and Hugo: The Real Story

Heads up to greg at The Parish.

P.S. - Pat's apology was too easy, too free. I am not saying that his speech needs to be limited. However, there needs to be some accountability on the part of his followers for words like these. I would love it if some of them would "grow a set" and voice their displeasure.

Nice no longer...

I don’t get it. Today, I read about Pat Robertson’s thirst for the blood of the Venezuelan leader. His cries for an assassination attempt still reverberate in my chaotic mind. Eventually, he will back pedal; he will blame someone else for his ineptness (probably a vast liberal conspiracy). Whatever words trail from his thin lips, Pat Robertson has to go. I am not talking about my own cry for blood, but more of a forced retirement. There are two things that piss me off about these comments. The first has to do with politics and the second theology.

First, what really gets me is the lack of comment from the current political administration. There is no real attempt to establish distance or discredit this idiot. The administration’s position is that he is allowed to speak his mind. If this is the case, then why is there such an outcry over people who protest the war? Why do administration officials allow themselves the opportunity to call protestors cowards and traitors? Are they not allowed to speak their mind just as freely, without a redressing from administration officials? It is easy to document the close relationship between Robertson and the Administration; does that give him special leeway when it comes to free speech?

I am not trying to get paranoid and militant like many on the far left. I just want parity. Free speech is free speech no matter the message. People who protest should not be sequestered so that they are not heard. They should not be shouted down as cowards and traitors for not supporting a war that has been created against their will.

I know people who watch the crap this man believes is theology. They are good people who want to do the right thing. I think the best thing they can do is withhold their money from him until he apologizes. Pat Robertson and his “ministry” do not deserve a dime until it more adequately reflects the ministry of Christ; one of grace, love, hope, healing, and peace. I know that most of the people who read here don’t watch this drivel, but I will bet that they know someone who does. Challenge that person to hold him accountable for the damage he does in this world.

Second, for the most part, I try to live and let live when it comes to really bad theology. However, Pat Robertson is damaging Christianity. He is wounding its soul and rendering it impotent to make a decent impact in the world. People like Pat Robertson are the reasons why there are quotes about how the world would be a better place without religion.

For someone who claims to take the Bible seriously, his theology and politics certainly don’t belie that claim. You could tell me that he has done great work handing out food and clothing to the world. However, that is of little import given the impetus behind the action. Evangelism, saving the world for God, converting the unsaved hungry dying masses is the ultimate goal of any program this ministry undertakes. Now it is in the business of recommending assassination targets

Did the Good Samaritan require the beaten man to convert in order to receive aid? There should be no ulterior motives to service, no threats, no promises, no if-thens, no requirements. It is God’s duty and God’s alone to save the people of this world. Any claim otherwise is blasphemous at best.

The only thing worse than the theology is that it is broadcast nationally and people listen. I want people to take the ministry of Christ seriously. I want to take the ministry of Christ seriously. I believe it is hard to do so when people like this are given a national stage that is constantly used to mock Christianity. Pat Robertson has perverted the faith more often and more egregiously than almost any other national figure. Why do we let him continue to do so?

The only thing worse is Gordon Robertson, whose theological ineptitude outpaces the old man’s by a long shot. This type of religious abuse will continue until a large enough audience begins to hold these charlatans accountable for what they say.

My guess is that those of us on the left of center lack the necessary fortitude to make a difference. My small part is this post and the dream that a movement begin that topples this regime in favor of one that more closely sits at the heart of Christianity. A movement that is about remembering God and remembering, loving and caring for all of God’s creations regardless of condition, theology or religion.

There is no room in my beliefs for the deliberate call for the death of another, no matter how heinous the crime. There is no precedent for it, there is no teaching concerning it, and I will not tolerate the language or the intent. If we are about nothing else, we are about second, third, fourth, fifth, etc chances. If grace means anything, if love is worthwhile, then those who believe cannot stand by and let this abuse continue…

grace and peace

Tagged again...

I was tagged by G. over at The Wicker Chronicles back in early July, to answer some bookish questions... (This just goes to show how long it has been since I have been bloggingly social)

1. Total number of books I've owned: I really have no earthly idea. When I started seminary I brought 23 liquor boxes of books. During our move to Denver (two weeks ago) I brought 500-600 books. We got rid of several boxes full before we left. So I would put the number owned somewhere over 1000 during my lifetime...

2. Last book I bought: I recently picked up a number of books for classes, but I don't think those really count. My recent personal purchases have been several poetry books by Mary Oliver, Wherever You Go There You Are - by Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Gift of Therapy - by Irvin Yalom, The Soul of Politics - by Jim Wallis , and On Writing Well - by William Zinsser.

3. Last book I completed: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I am not sure that counts because it was on CD. I guess the last one I read was Taking Care by Carrie Doehring, who will be one of my future professors.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me: (Not listed in order of favoritism)

1. Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
2. The Gift of Therapy by Irvin Yalom
3. Listening to Your Life by Frederich Buechner
4. Writing About Your Life by William Zinsser
5. Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich

4b. What are you currently reading: I read several books at a time. I'm reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser, several back issues of The Christian Century, and Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

5. Which 5 bloggers am I passing this on to? (If they want to and have the time!)
Erin at Surface Ripple
Adam at The Pub
Jim at Brainwaves
Brandon at Badchristian.com
Meg at Bridget Jones Goes to Seminary

on writing...

I always believed that in order to write, something important had to happen. Days will pass without a single major event and I will scratch my head wondering what to say next. I will dive into my past, project into the future, or force the present to succumb to my needs for a good story. Usually, I end up with muddled thoughts and a headache. I am realizing what needs to be said will come in time, without my help.

Since I graduated from college, I have never really had to look for a job they tend to find me. I have made contact with people. I have talked and inquired about positions. However, despite my charms, every job I have held has been one that fell into my lap. In Charleston, I was approached about interviewing for a DCE position, twice. In Richmond, I was transitioned from intern to staff member in the counseling center. My service at Southminster Presbyterian Church was a gift from a friend.

Now, in Denver, I have been approached about preaching in a rural congregation. It is odd that my life has worked this way. I imagine some have had similar luck. I also imagine it rarely happens for others. I can even imagine others struggling to find their place in the world. If I have any faith at all, it is seen in how I view work.

There are areas where I struggle mightily; these areas come naturally to others. I am a social coward at times. I am not unapproachable, nor am I rude. However, the words that come naturally on the keyboard get lost in conversation. I continue to work on that part of my life. I guess there are almost always trade-offs. That is what makes me unique, what makes you unique also.

I wish writing was easier or that I had more faith in what I say. I long for words and events to fall into my lap. I envy the interesting lives of others, sometimes wishing to awaken to the same drama. Easy doesn’t cut it though. I think my best stuff comes out of my struggles. If I don’t wrestle then I gain little except empty words. My life is no more important than any other, just different. My words are my own, my thoughts are my opinions. They are already important to me. If, somehow, they connect with your life then those connections are important for you as well.

Nothing earth shattering or especially revelatory occurred today. I woke up. I went for a walk. I ran some errands. I agreed to preach two Sundays at Byers Community Church. I played a computer game and bought a book and ate Chinese for dinner. It is these days that prepare me for the drama. They are not unimportant because they make up the bulk of my life. If I breathe, think, move, speak then my day is not wasted. It is the same with writing. If it breathes, thinks, moves or speaks to another then no word is ever wasted.

grace and peace
 

Visit InfoServe for blogger templates