...are the ones that make the biggest difference



I appreciate the suggestions from the previous post, and have put several of them on my "wish list". I had specifically asked for Barnes & Noble gift cards for Christmas because when I was overseas with the Army, BN was the only company that offered APO shipping and the stuff got there in only a few days. But in searching around looking for books, I was disturbed to see that Amazon was consistently cheaper - in one case about $4.00 cheaper. Which means I could have gotten more books! For my birthday, I may have to go with Amazon. I normally go in for brand loyalty on this kind of thing, but cheaper books is a hard thing to ignore.

Book #1 - Reclaiming the Center edited by Erickson, Helseth and Taylor. I saw a review-in-progress over on Phil Steiger's blog and thought it sounded like a good read, and definitely on par with my post on the emergent movement's fear of certainty. I've only worked through some of the intro so far, but it looks challenging and informative. I'm sure there will be a few posts inspired by this one.

Book #2 - For the Life of the World by Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Thanks to those "people who bought this book also bought..." links, I was reminded of Fr. Schmemann, of whose writings I have heard numerous praises, but have yet to read myself. This book was originally written in 1963, and in reading the preface and 1st chapter last night, I was struck by how seemingly prescient this book is. Since Fr. Schmemann was tackling the rising head of secularism I suppose I should not find it all surprising, but what I've read so far could have been written today.

Here is a brief quote that got me thinking last night. Fr S is speaking about the tendency in our culture to "spiritualize" religion or to make it entirely about activisim and action to help people.

"Whether we 'spiritualize' our life or 'secularize' our religion, whether we invite men to a spiritual banquet or simply join them at the secular one, the real life of the world, for which we are told God gave his only-begotten Son, remains hopelessly beyond our religious grasp."

In thinking about my context at a seeker-sensitive church, I see that in large part we attempt to do both. We are trying very hard to introduce people to the spiritual life, but without presenting the demands (often uncomfortable and frequently arduous) of discipleship. However, we are also trying to offer people practical advice on how to get along better with their spouse or deal with their anger. We have no material things to offer and instead offer the "materials" of therapy, the pscychological and social tools to help make everything ok. It is far easier for me to see the validity and benefit of the latter, while the former I find very disheartening. In trying to do one or the other, much less both at once, what are we really offering people? I am afraid that Fr. Schmemann just might be right - the real life offered to us in Christ disappears when we try to shape it to our whim or try to make it a little more comfortable.


Book suggestions

Thanks to generous friends & family, I have received (and will probably receive a few more on Christmas morn) gift cards for Barnes & Noble. Please leave a comment and let me know if there has been any book or books that have had significant impact on your faith. Or, you can just leave a suggestion for a book that was a fun and/or interesting read. Fiction is fine - I normally read sci-fi, but I'm trying to branch out - so suggest away!!


The Fear of Certainty

I am blessed with a job that allows me plenty of time to poke around the internet, which is both a blessing and a horrible temptation. At various times over the last few months, I have seen several postings on pomo/emergent blogs about theology and truth. I've left comments on some of these discussions and have gotten a relatively uniform response. I'll post some quotes, and then give my thoughts.

From Pomomusings in a post about theology and experience, wherein I left a comment asserting there may be an objectively true theology that we should strive to discover and adhere to it, I got this response:

"Theology is simply God-talk....I hate to break this to you bro, but there is no one, absolute, universal theology. It is impossible...There is no one way to think of God. There is no one theology."

From Harbinger, in a post describing "Vulnerable Generosity." Steve basically holds that VG is talking to others with the constant admission "I believe this, but I might be wrong" and it is really the best way for us to interact with the Other. I contended that at some point, not everything we believe should be "on the chopping block" merely for the sake of discussion. The author would have none of it, stating over a few posts:

"nathan, yes, everything has to be on the chopping block, or we are guilty of fundamentalism, dogmatism, and fideism in refusing to consider seriously the possibility that we are mistaken...I am familiar with the most valiant attempts in the history of philosophy to defend certainty, and I am also familiar with the arguments that in my mind decisively refute defenses of certitude."

The most recently, on Radical Congruency, Justin pens a piece comparing the Bible & theology to open-source computer programming. Its an interesting idea, but one that has its difficulties, as Justin realizes:

"I think many people confuse open-source with Wiki, the latter referring to online document collections that can be edited by anyone. Scripture is not subject to casual revision, though it is from time to time revised to reflect the best understandings of leading scholars and experts."

I'm not sure what revisions he is referencing above, but in the comments, I pointed out that there is some danger in opening our theology to be changed by anyone in our community - we don't know if they are being led by the Spirit or if they have a particular axe to grind, nor should we see our theology as mere God-talk. I pointed out that, ideally, our theology actually corresponds to the reality of God, and at some point, we have to put up a boundary that separates us as Christians from, say, Muslims. Another commenter replies in a lengthy post:

"I do not assume that any person has a firm enough grasp of the reality of God to adequately express Him to anybody. Nor do I think that any person could have such a firm grasp on the reality and truth and nature of God."

All of these were good discussions with insightful posts and points, but I am alarmed at the uniformity with which the pomo/emergent crowd thinks it is impossible that we can know the truth about God or, at the very least, are unwilling to say "I believe this is true." I know full well that I cannot *prove* that my beliefs are correct - I cannot prove the Incarnation or the Resurrection, I cannot prove the Trinity or the inspiration of the Bible - but I can say that I *believe* they are true, that they correspond to the reality of God. From there, I have a basis for living out my faith and participating in the communal life of the church.

What happens to a church or group of believers who are unwilling, or too scared, to make that statement of faith? What happens when we are unwilling to put a stake in the ground and say "we believe this is true"? This is a complete rejection of the historic witness of the church, in both its Traditional (Roman Catholic and Orthodox) and Protestant iterations. For the last 2,000 years, Christians have rooted their faith in specific events and specific beliefs about them - what about that makes this generation so uncomfortable? What drives this fear of certainty?


H.R. 235

In my inbox this morning was a mass email from Crosswalk.com with the subject line "Pastor Jailed for Sermon!" With such a suitably alarming subject, I opened it instead of deleting it as I normally do. Turns out a pastor, by the name of Ake Green, has been sentenced to one month in jail for alleged "hate speech against homosexuals" in quoting Romans 1:24-27. This, of course, happened in Sweden which made the story kind of anti-climactic for me. The email goes on to request that I, good updstanding Christian citizen that I am, sign a petition in support of H.R. 235 - the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, because "THIS ATROCITY IS NOW IN AMERICA!"

Call me cynical, but I tend to be quite dubious about political actions sponsored by evangelical groups. It is almost invariably something that gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies, but in the interest of fairness, I decided to do a little research. Here, gentle reader, is a brief synopsis of the back story on this piece of legislation as it appears on the HR 235 website.

A long time ago (1954) in a land far, far away (Texas), an evil man (then Senator Lyndon Johnson), introduced legislation stripping churches of their constitutional rights to speak on any issue the pastor so chose. Today, pastors are limited in their free speech rights and are afraid to speak out on the moral issues of our times for fear of losing their tax exempt status.

On the other side of the aisle, the story is, naturally, reversed. From Alternet.org (the second item to pop up on a yahoo search after the HR235 site), the restrictions placed on clergy are necessary to keep churches from becoming political machines. As the law stands now, clergy are not prohibited from speaking out on moral issues, only from endorsing specific candidates, ie, Republicans. Only one church has ever had its tax exempt status revoked, and that was a church that took out a full page ad bashing President Clinton's stance on abortion during the 1992 presidential election. The article also points out that the American Jewish Congress, the United Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches oppose this legislation and posits fears that churches will be back-doors for soft money to unethically enter politics.

At this point in my research, I am almost ready to sign the petition and spend my considerable political capital in support of this bill. That ECUSA opposes is reason enough, but when a liberal organ like Alternet makes noises about back-doors for soft money in politics, I can only laugh at the hypocrisy - hellooooooooooo, moveon.org and the million other liberal 527's anyone? But then again, Bev LaHaye supports the bill so I'm back at square one.

Searches for HR 235 return only interested parties, so I don't trust that they are entirely accurate. If you do the search, you may find some legislation on the State of Pennsylvania's site - its on eggs, which have never been tax exempt as far as I know and, of course, have a history of rampant political corruption. I found the bill on the House of Representatives site, and the relevant section reads:

An organization described in section 508(c)(1)(A) (relating to churches) shall not fail to be treated as organized and operated exclusively for a religious purpose, or to have participated in, or intervened in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, for purposes of subsection (c)(3), or section 170(c)(2) (relating to charitable contributions), because of the content, preparation, or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.'. (emphasis added)

I admit I'm a bit hazy this morning, but how can a church be organized exclusively for religious purposes endorse or oppose a candidate and yet still be considered not to have participated in an election? I realize this is for "tax purposes" but it still seems pretty contradictory to me. I agree that churches will and should have political views, including support for specific candidates, but its ludicrous to pretend making that endorsement public is not participating in an election. So now, based on the apparent contradiction inherent in the legislation, I'm leaning towards "no," though I haven't made up my mind yet.

So what do you think? Should I sign the petition?


On a lighter note

My mom called yesterday to let me know she got me this icon for Christmas. She always wants us to have "something to open" on Christmas morning, but this is being shipped directly to me without any wrapping paper and that doesn't sit right with her on some deep, visceral level. :) I'm not sure my brother and I really get it, but I know I've always enjoyed her love for that kind of thing.

Thanks mom!

The lure of the effective

A few days ago I was poking around online at an Orthodox music store and found some samples, in various languages, of Orthodox hymns. I listened to several of them and found myself on the verge of tears, remembering our experience at St. George's in Arizona and traversing the depth and beauty of Orthodox worship. On a discussion board some months ago, a lay person described Orthodox worship as a feast, and listening to those hymns, I could not help but agree with him. I have been fasting for months and those online hymns were the rich aromas of my mom's kitchen on Thanksgiving day. How sparse our worship and theology are! What paucity pervades our devotion and praxis. Until I heard those hymns, I was only vaguely aware of the hunger pangs, but now, they have been brought to the fore and I can see that the meager gruel served here is not enough to sustain me.

I know there is goodness & godliness here, and that the senior leadership is driven by a deep desire to reach the lost with the Gospel. But in our desire to be "effective" in reaching the unchurched, are we sacrificing something? I cannot help but feel that we are, especially with what I talked about in my last post. Why can't we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us into the right things without relying on outside materials? Why are we so fixed on this model, even when it is clear that it will function only for a season and not endure beyond that? It feels like we are putting God into a very carefully tended and thoroughly locked cage based on "market data." The temptation to be relevant, to be effective, is a lure that is hard to resist, but if it comes at a cost, resist it we must.



What does the description "90%" say about something? If a food is 90% fat free, its still 10% fat. If a surgery is successful 90% of the time, 10% of the patients still die on the table. But those clearly have negative connotations, so what is something good? 90% growth is almost double. 90% is still an 'A', though just barely. 90% is a huge majority.

From a different perspective, if you plagiarize 10% of a paper or research project, its still 90% yours. But does that 10% constitute cheating? If you copy 10% of someone else's book, is that a copyright infringement? 90% of is still untouched. If 10% of your book is uncited pieces from other resources, have you lied to your audience? Though I'm no legal expert, I think it would be a yes to all.

So what would you make of it, then, to hear your church was culling 90% of its creative materials - sermon series & titles, worship ideas and even the sermons themselves - from other churches? What do you say to that? Because that is the startling news I heard yesterday while at lunch with our church planter. We were discussing the plant and some various issues at our church and he said approximately 90% of our materials are copied, primarily from Andy Stanley and his church. I found our latest sermon series, and several series we've done since I got here, on the Northpoint webstore. The thing is, we didn't even change the title of the series! We changed up the sermon titles themselves, and it appears we've mostly only borrowed from them and not copied them verbatim, but we've even used their graphics.

I knew we did some of that - its just a reality that churches face today. Its a tough job to come up with good, creative ideas every week and if someone put together something good, you borrow it. It is what it is. But I had no idea we did it to such an extent. And while I didn't have the rosiest picture of this place and its leadership before, I was coming to accept my place here and was able to see how God was using me with these kids. But this scares me - how healthy can this organization be if it has to do this on that scale? What might be eating away at the heart of this place? I just don't know what to think.


The Results Are In

The first Advent experiment was Sunday, and much to my relief and delight, it went extremely well. The junior high group did better with it than the high schoolers, but this is not at all unusual. The kids were, at first, a bit reticent to actually have to stand up and read something, but when I turned out the lights and lit some small candles to light the pages, there attitudes turned around immediately. They all became very quiet (even the kid with ADHD) and most seemed to relish the experience. In their world, they are surrounded by noise, movement and constant streams of information and sensory data - I think the effect of blocking all of that out, if only for a few minutes, had a profound effect on them, and on me. I was admittedly nervous, but the quasi-liturgy I had put together was simple and the kids followed it easily. The only problem was that it was far too short. I had thought it would take around 30 minutes, but it took only a little over 10. But the kids responded so well to it that I think I can safely extend things this week, and maybe even again the next. I put together a little impromptu homily, but this week I'll be more purposeful in my planning for that. The kids were so receptive, so open after the scripture readings that there is no way I can pass up an opportunity to speak to them at that point. Your prayers for this week are deeply sought and appreciated.

On a more mundane note, we finally got our floors finished and were able to actually move furniture into our downstairs yesterday. We've had a long hard slog with these floors, but we put the final coat of polyurethane on Friday night, and though it isn't perfect (much to my frustration!), the flaws are really very minor and it ended up looking quite good, if I do say so myself. So now we can live in more than one room. The other projects we have left are all relatively minor compared to that - some more painting, some paint removal, etc. We're very excited to be done with the floors!

And after only 8 years, I turned in the final paper for my final undergrad class yesterday. Due to paperwork issues, and living 2,000 miles from my school, I won't officially graduate until next May, but that does not in any way diminish my excitement and gratitude at having finally gotten this thing finished.



One thing I've noticed that is lacking in Protestant Christianity, especially evangelicalism, is a thoroughgoing vocational ecclesiology. I mean that there is little willingness to consider any spiritual path outside the mainstream, which is very egalitarian. Everyone can do every job or take on any role, and while there is an understanding of "calling", ie, "I've been called to do ....", that understanding does not extend beyond a very short list of possibilities. That's bad enough, but even within "normal" callings, there is still a social prohibition against specific practices. Take this article from Youthspecialties.com. This guy is describing practices, which historically, are perfectly normal and were widely accepted within the church. I think there is probably some degree of danger in undertaking these exercises without a more experienced guide - one of the key issues in monasticism, from what I understand. But more to the point, he will always be regarded as weird and possibly even mildly disturbed by the evangelical church.

Here are the general categories of exclusions, as I see them...

Exclusion #1 - Monasticism: (leaving aside for a moment that Protestantism has no monastic movement), but in a more general sense. The only people who can legitimately remain unmarried are gay people - and in many churches they are expected to be "cured" and get on with a wife and family already. There is effectively no room for a person to remain single for their entire life and marriage is viewed as the sole ideal for our lives. Perhaps if your spouse dies, you may remain unmarried after that, but that's still a little fishy to some.

Exclusion #2 - Mysticism: Contemplative prayer, fasting, Christian meditation, basically anything that results in an "altered state" no matter how holy. I think we've married ourselves to modernism so thoroughly that we've learned to distrust anything that cannot be rationally explained, which necessarily includes many spiritual things.

Exclusion #3 - Anything that smells like popery: No incense, no candles (except at Christmas), no liturgy, no memorized prayers, no prayer ropes, no sacramental understanding of anything and heaven help us should we actually show respect to Mary or any other saint!

No, numbers 2 and 3 are understandable to me in that I can see how our intense dance with modernism has made us too heady at the expense of being hearty and how the anti-Catholic swing started at the Reformation would lead to the rejection of Catholic trappings. I guess the latter would apply to #1 to some degree, but I guess I don't see why else we would have abandoned monasticism or at least rejected the possibility that some might be called to a life of singular devotion. If anyone has any thoughts, I'd love to hear them.


Take a pass

We were at a wedding in Omaha over the weekend, and while it was a beautiful ceremony, the reception ended up being extremely long, so we weren't able to make it back Saturday night. The Advent Experiment has been delayed to next weeek and I look forward to reporting on the results.

Today I'm in the office writing up my text summary for my final undergrad class, and I feel I must offer this public service announcement. If you ever get the chance to read A New Religious America by Diana Eck, pass it right up. If you receive it as a gift, request the receipt. If you have to read it for a class, DROP. THE. CLASS.

And now, back to summarizing.


The Advent Experiment

I know Thanksgiving weekend isn't even over, but I'm doing something different with the youth for the Advent season. First, we're actually going to do Advent. We're not going to spend the month of December doing nothing in particular until the week before Christmas, when all of a sudden we remember that the whole Jesus-birthday thing is just around the corner. Starting this weekend, we're going to spend every Sunday doing the readings, saying the prayers, lighting the candles and generally avoiding even the semblance of what we've been doing. Second, I'm treating this as kind of an experiment - an anti-fun experiment, if you will. I've been feeling more and more strongly lately that I need to cut the "fun stuff" out of the program and focus on spiritual disciplines, teaching and developing a true community with the youth. Our power was cut this morning in the office, so I went to Border's for to kill an hour until it came back on. I picked up this book "The Younger Evangelicals" by Webber, and read through the chapter on the changing dynamics of youth ministry. It basically talked about all the things I've been thinking about, all the changes I think need to be made - which I took as a confirmation that I'm taking this in the right direction.

So I need your prayers. I need to see some sign from the kids and from God that this is the right direction to take this program. I'm not sure what that sign will be and I know there are some kids who will absolutely hate it, but the status quo isn't good enough anymore. I also need your prayers about how the leadership at my church will react to it. I have a youth devotional blog for the kids and had a link to a guided prayer site run by a group of *gasp* Jesuits! The senior pastor was checking out the blog, clicked on the link and didn't like the fact that there is a link on the bottom of the page that says "pray with the Pope." There is a strong anti-Catholic vibe that kind of permeates our denomination, and even though the kind of stuff I would like to do harkens back to the true historic practice of early Christians (and is more Orthodox than anything), I'm sure the distinction will be lost on some. Needless to say, some feathers might get fairly ruffled, so please pray for peace and for strength & wisdom for me to deal with the situation.

And with that, have a happy Thanksgiving!


The Argument From Harm II

Back in my original post about a debate over on Pontifications regarding homosexuality, the poster "1,000 times" actually found my little blog and left some comments on my reflections. Since this is a very important issue for Christians today, I though it best to reply to those comments on the main page. 1,000 times posted a section from this article referencing Romans 1:26, which I have not had time to fully review yet. The article is quoted below in italics, and 1,000's comments in plain text. (I would encourage any readers to go back to the original posts to read the comments in their entirety, since I will only be replying to specific sections here.)

Well, according to this article, in re Romans I:

"Well, all I’d like to say at this point is that we have several commentaries on these words dating from the centuries between the writing of this text and the preaching of St John Chrysostom at the end of the fourth century. None of them read the passage as referring to lesbianism. Both St Augustine and Clement of Alexandria interpreted it straightforwardly as meaning women having anal intercourse with members of the other sex."

In and of itself, this does not mean that the verse only refers to deviant heterosexual activity. Clearly "that which is unnatural" or "that which is against nature" leaves open the distinct possibility that lesbianism is included in this verse, regardless of whether specific author saw it or not. Given the fact that the following verse clearly refers to male homosexual activity and that Paul uses the formulation "abandoned the natural function", which parallels "exchanged the natural function" in verse 26, we have to be open to this verse referring to female homosexual activity and not just "unnatural" heterosexual intercourse.

"It has been perfectly normal for long stretches of time to read this passage in the Catholic Church without seeing St Paul as saying anything to do with lesbianism. This means that no Catholic is under any obligation to read this passage as having something to do with lesbianism."

I'm not Catholic, but even I can see this is a non-starter. If the Pope says this verse refers to lesbianism, then a Catholic is indeed obligated to read this verse in that fashion. He/she may choose to disobey the Pope on this matter, but in so doing, they have separated themselves from the Roman Catholic understanding of this verse.

"Furthermore, it is a perfectly respectable position for a Catholic to take that there is no reference to lesbianism in Holy Scripture, given that the only candidate for a reference is one whose ‘obvious meaning’ was taken, for several hundred years, to be something quite else.So if there have been a variety of interpretations of this passage, even among the most respected Bible scholars (and now saints!), doesn't that say that this verse doesn't necessarily condemn sexual behavior between women?"

Yes, it may be possible that St Paul was not referring to lesbianism here. I think it unlikely, but it is possible. However, that does not mean that Scripture is silent on the issue. The New Testament clearly defines marriage as being between a man and a woman (1 Cor 7:2, 1 Tim 3:2) and teaches that sexual love can only be expressed within its confines. Marriage is strictly defined and is not a category of relationships, thus, any sexual expression outside of marriage is wrong. Since, by definition, 2 men and 2 women cannot be married, sexual activity between them can only be construed as sinful. Let me illustrate in a different sphere. To my knowledge, Scripture is silent on the issue of oral sex, and yet, this silence is not taken to mean that oral sex between a spouse and a non-spouse is anything but adultery. Even if there is no verse that explicitly references lesbianism, their is still a system in place from which to reason on these topics.

"And if that's true, then nowhere in the Bible is sexual behavior between women condemned. So why do women have to obey a non-existant command, one that basically eviscerates their entire lives? Nobody else is required to be celibate for life, except gay people."

Are you honestly arguing that the Bible affirms female homosexual relationships, but condemns male homosexuality? This is another problem with your argument - why would God be inconsistent in this manner? If male gay sex is wrong, why would female gay sex be right? What is the ontological difference between them?

"We think that it's not "homosexuality" that is condemned by the Bible, but the exploitative homosexual relationships...The Timothy and Corinthians verses use a word that was never translated as 'homosexuality' until 1946...Nobody knows the actual meaning of the word, because it doesn't exist before the author's use of it in these passages. An obscure word whose exact meaning is unknown is a very bad basis for condemnation of anything, wouldn't you agree?"

I agree that this word should be translated "homosexual" since the idea (life-long sexual/romantic attraction to members of the same sex) and the term, were not developed until the 19th century. There cannot be a direct translation like that. However, the meaning is not as obscure as you think. Paul uses the formulation "arsenokoites", which is actually a combination of words from the Septuagint version of Leviticus 18:22. "Arseno" refers to mankind (if I remember corectly) and "koites" means laying together, hence the word may be better translated as "engagers in homosexual acts" rather than just "homosexual." Given that Paul uses language directly from Leviticus, I think we can safely assume there is some continuity of teaching on this matter and thus cannot simply reject the Levitical Law on this specific topic based on Christians not adhering to other parts. Additionally, I think the meaning of the word is relatively clear when seen in this context, and so we can safely make moral judgments based upon it.

"I agree about the teaching on marriage, though: the Bible gives instructions based on heterosexual unions. But these can't be used to say anything about homosexual unions, can they?"

I'm not sure why you would make that assumption. As I pointed out above, marriage is not a category of relationships, but is itself a strictly defined relationship. There may be many different types of friendships, business contracts, etc, that all fall under those general categories, but marriage is not such a general category. It is singularly defined, just as father, son, brother, uncle, etc, each has a singular definition. So yes, instructions about heterosexual unions say much about homosexual ones; they preclude them.

"Anyway, polygamy was certainly permitted all throughout the Old Testament, and some of the Bible's greatest heros from that period had numerous wives. Adultery had a differnt meaning, also. I'm trying to point out that the institution of 'marriage' has indeed been quite fluid over the centuries."

You are correct. But can you show me one instance where the Bible mentions any marriage between people of the same sex? I don't think you can. Even in cases of polygamy, the women were married to the man and not to each other. I think it would be a stretch, especially in light of NT teaching, to assume that the instituation of marriage is so fluid as to include homosexual unions.

"And my main point here is to wonder why God would punish homosexuality so severely, when the condemnations are few and far between, the basis for condemnation unclear and weak in my opinion, and almost everybody agrees at this point that homoesexual orientation is unchosen. It just doesn't make any sense - and the information above about Romans confirms that, IMO."

What punishment are you referring to? Is it the temporal "punishment" of singleness & celibacy, or the eternal punishment talked about by Paul?

"The issue is that human beings have a deep desire for partnership, and that desire expresses itself in marriage. 95% of Americans marry at some point in their lives; I think that demonstrates that it's a basic sort of instinct. I know hetersexual couples who don't plan to have children, yet still got married. You just can't deny this basic urge to people for their entire lives; imagine this for yourself, if you can."

I agree that people have a deep desire for partnership - it is a part of being human. I have never denied the humanity of homosexuals in this regard and would oppose anyone who did. However, I think we are talking about 2 separate issues that, in my mind, can't necessarily be combined. There is the legal issue of whether or not the state should recognize gay marriage and the spiritual issue, which actually breaks down into the individual and the corporate. How should the individual homosexual live his life based on biblical teaching, conscience, prayer, etc? And should the chuch recognize or bless homosexual unions?

Legally, there is nothing preventing homosexuals from finding a partner, committing themselves to each other and spending the rest of their lives together. Yes, there are some additional legal hoops to jump through regarding wills, visitation rights, etc, but those are all surmountable. No one is denying any gay person the right to find a life-partner and fulfill that profound desire for partnership & love. Things are indeed different on the spiritual front, but I think we should decide how to proceed first - do we focuse on the legal or the spiritual? I would prefer the spiritual, but am willing to tackle both, so I leave it up to you to decide where we go from here.

Sanding musings

During nearly 10 hours of floor sanding, performed with the assistance of the much appreciated father-in-law, my mind tended to wander. Apart from repeatedly cursing the person who put multiple coats of lead paint on my floor, and then repenting of said cursing, and then praying that I could get all the boards evenly sanded and then praying I didn't sand through the floor, I thought about a few different things.

First, I reviewed the Law & Order episode I blogged on last week and realized that if I were a gay person, I would actually be quite mad about that show. The gay "spouse" refused to testify because Jack had gotten the gay marriages overturned and accused Jack of "undermining everything that I am" or something similar. But what did that marriage say about "all that he is"? If the marriages were valid, then he was an adulterer and until the defense lawyer made claims to spousal privilege, he hadn't really thought twice about testifying against his spouse once it became clear the cops might accuse him of being an accessory. Apparently "everything that he is" is a selfish adulterer looking out for number one while seeking the right to marry just because he likes the idea of it and not because he is actually committed to treating it with honor and respect. What does that say about gays?

Second, I thought about the ministry I'm in. We had a ministry leaders lunch - which we have usually about once a month - for the volunteers who head our various ministries; music, drama, greeter/ushers, hospital visitation, etc. Our senior pastor gave a short speech about his vision for our church and what makes us different from other churches in the area. Long story short, he said a few people who had been at an "intro to *** community church" class had said they came from other churches because of a lack of preaching from the word, in-depth worship and that kind of thing - stuff mature Christians are concerned with. The senior pastor told them, basically, if you're looking to "receive" here go someplace else - our ministry is meant for the unreached. If you're looking to "give" here, to help others on their way to Christ, then by all means stay. The wife and I talked about this later that night and came to the conclusion that this kind of thing can only happen in a once-saved-always-saved culture. Getting people into heaven through a profession of faith in Christ is the main task. After that, they're locked in and any depth of spiritual growth or maturity is just icing on the cake. This runs pretty contrary to my view of things - spiritual growth and maturity must necessarily follow any conversion. Christ did not say "go therefore, and make converts of all the nations," He said to make disciples. Are we succeeding in the great commission if all we do is win people to Christ without helping them towards discipleship?

Third, how am I doing in regards to the above? I sometimes have a crisis of confidence in my ministry - whether or not I'm doing a good job, whether or not I'm making a difference with these kids, whether or not I'm influencing their eternal residence. I spend a lot of time on living the Christian life, but I don't present the Gospel a lot because I assume most of these kids are already Christian. Some of them invite friends, but we're not really growing too much. I see good signs in a lot of the kids, but I still struggle with measuring success - and what even constitutes success? I would love a nice, easy definition, but I suspect that there isn't one.


This probably isn't going to help....

Knowing, as we do, the territoriality of the Muslim faith - I have specifically in mind here reports that there were many more recruits while we were fighting in Najaf because Muslims were opposed to our proximity to the shrines - why would you let a photographer take this picture? Seeing a bunch of solders lounging around in a mosque with their boots on and anti-tank weapons set casually on the floor probably isn't going to be the best PR. I know its just a little thing in a sea of much, much larger things, but it still seems pretty stupid to me.


Law & Order tackles gay marriage

The wife & I greatly prefer Criminal Intent, but we occasionally watch the original Law & Order with its "ripped from the headlines" episodes. I'm not sure if last night's episode really falls into the headlines category, but it did touch on more than a few current events. For those who didn't see it, here is the basic premise:

Wife of governor is killed at a fundraiser luncheon. Police discover that governor is unethically favoring one company for government contracts. Police find out that the owner of said company is gay and is blackmailing his brother-in-law who has cooked the books for said company. Police talk to owner's boyfriend, find out he is sleeping with the governor. Boyfriend tells police company owner admitted to killing the wife because she was going to go public with the gay affair and the governor would have to resign and the company owner would lose his lucrative government contracts. District attorney tries to get boyfriend to testify, but the couple had gotten married in a small town in up-state New York and conversation falls under marital privilege. DA gets all the marriages overturned but spouse/boyfriend refuses to testify because of it. Company owner cops a plea and goes to jail.

All in all, it wasn't a bad episode. However, I did have some problems with it. First, the assistant DA's are set against each other as to how to proceed with the case. The younger, female ADA (Serena) basically gives up on the case after learning the couple got married, while the older, male ADA (Jack) is willing to challenge the marriages in order to get the conviction. Serena opposes Jack's challenge to the marriages because she thinks it will "set gay rights back 20 years" and thinks that limiting the marital privilege to heterosexual couples is based solely on prejudice and being "captive to the religious right." She even accuses Jack of letting the "nuns get into his head." The implications are quite obvious: no right-thinking individual could ever be opposed to gay marriage on strictly rational grounds. Such opposition could only spring from prejudice & ignorance based on homophobia and religious indoctrination. The show seemed to portray Serena's attitude in a positive light and easily took for granted that the gay marriages should be considered valid. Serena also questioned Jack's negative assessment of the governor's moral sense - a man married for 19 years with 2 children who had an affair. Serena seemed to think there was nothing really wrong with this since he was just being "true to himself" and Jack's view was not adequately explored. At one point they also compared the gay-marriage campaign to the civil rights movement of the 60's.

The second thing I disliked had more to do with characterization than the plot itself. Jack is normally very rigid on the law, and while he is aggressive, he respects legal dictates and understands that the system will sometimes allow a criminal to go free in order to protect the rights of the rest of us. But in this episode, he is portayed as coldly opportunistic, looking for every underhanded trick he can think of to get this gay man convicted. Serena's stance that the gay marriages shouldn't be challenged is favored, while Jack is accused of homophobia and ignorance. While he ultimately succeeds in getting the marriages overturned, the boyfriend/spouse refuses to testify stating that "we will not be treated like second-class citizens." This statement goes unchallenged and the show took zero time to explore the reasons why people are opposed to gay marriage, for both religious and non-religious reasons.

I realize this is not a political show and isn't meant to be a forum for social debate, but this was so subtely biased that I'm afraid this is the kind of stuff that will inform many people's thoughts. For an issue like this, we can't allow the debate to rely on facile arguments & prejudice of any kind.



To preface this, I was in the Army Reserves for 7 years and was deployed 3 times; once voluntarily and twice involuntarily. I was a counterintelligence agent and did strategic intel work, including counter-terrorism analysis and tactical intel work in Bosnia as a team sergeant for a "Force Protection Team." My moral views on war and being in the army have shifted considerably since then, but I can identify with the soldiers currently deployed (to a limited extent, having never been in combat) and my experience does give me a different perspective on what is happening in the world today.

As I mentioned earlier, I was unable to vote for a variety of reasons, but I probably would have cast for Bush. That vote, however, would have been geared towards life issues and little else. I believe the war in Iraq was a miscalculation that is going to present problems for the US for years to come. The war has spurred Iran & North Korea's nuclear weapons programs since that is the only conceivable deterrent to the US. North Korea effectively holds Seoul hostage with conventional weapons - nuclear weapons is the icing on the cake allowing it to threaten Japan, as well. If Iran acquires or manufactures nuclear weapons, Israel is the obvious target. Those are but 2 of the numerous reasons I was opposed to this war, which included both moral & strategic/political concerns.

Now, comes the report from the Lancet, a British medical journal, that their research has concluded that the "excess deaths" in the 17 months after the war is in excess of 98,000 at a conservative estimate. The Lancet's exact findings:

The risk of death was estimated to be 2·5-fold (95% CI 1·6–4·2) higher after the invasion when compared with the preinvasion period. Two-thirds of all violent deaths were reported in one cluster in the city of Falluja. If we exclude the Falluja data, the risk of death is 1·5-fold (1·1–2·3) higher after the invasion. We estimate that 98000 more deaths than expected (8000–194000) happened after the invasion outside of Falluja and far more if the outlier Falluja cluster is included. The major causes of death before the invasion were myocardial infarction, cerebrovascular accidents, and other chronic disorders whereas after the invasion violence was the primary cause of death. Violent deaths were widespread, reported in 15 of 33 clusters, and were mainly attributed to coalition forces. Most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children. The risk of death from violence in the period after the invasion was 58 times higher (95% CI 8·1–419) than in the period before the war.*

98,000+ deaths, which is over 6 times the count of Iraq Body Count, which as of right now, has the death toll between 14,219 and 16,352. I was thinking about this last night - 100,000 or more people dead, many killed without warning by air strikes they never saw coming. I wondered how I would feel, if I were over there and a friend or a family member were killed by coalition forces. Of course, it must be pointed out that the death toll under Saddam was much higher though spread out over a longer period, but does it make a difference to the surviving spouses, parents, siblings or children who killed their loved ones? I would hope it would, but in their shoes I don't know what I would think. Right now, safe in my office, I think all the deaths under Saddam would have felt meaningless - no hope for change, no hope for the future, no hope for a better tomorrow in spite of the present pain. But now, with Saddam gone and Iraq moving towards democracy and freedom in fits & starts, I wonder if those 100,000 deaths feel the same. Is there a sense that those deaths, while tragic and painful, happened on the edge of a brighter future and in that way, were not meaningless or bereft of hope? I don't know how I would feel if I was an Iraqi and lost a family member like that, but I have to think (and pray) that hope permeates these tragedies and feeds the as yet tiny flames of a free future. Even if that is the case, is there any guilt in those deaths? Will we have a price to pay as a nation for extinguishing those innocent lives, even in the name of freedom?

Unfortunately, I think there is a strong possibility that we will, if only because we have masked these deaths with flippant slogans and wrong thinking. Take this from a "voting guide" by John Mark Reynolds:

[Bush] wants to bring liberty to Iraq. This is difficult, but if his plan works, terrorism will end forever.

No, liberty in Iraq will not end terrorism forever. Aside from the insurgency, which is not, strictly speaking, terrorism, I don't think a free Iraq will make a significant change in the level of global terrorism. Groups in Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Africa and elsewhere are unaffected by the Iraq war. Jemaah Islamiyah knows we will not invade Indonesia, even though they slaughter hundreds, if not thousands, of Christians every year. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Abu Sayyaf know we will not invade the Philippines no matter how many hostages they take or bombs they detonate on the island of Mindanao. A free Iraq might make a difference in Palestinian terrorism, since Saddam did fund suicide bombers but that funding has already been cut off. (Arafat's coma and possible death will hopefully have a much larger impact.) What does this type of lie - that liberty in Iraq will end terrorism - say about our attitude towards those 100,000 dead? It seems to me that being unrealistic about the purpose of their deaths, dishonors and trivializes them. Maybe I'm wrong, but it feels like it empties them of that hope since our plan for what will happen is nothing but wishful thinking.

So what do we do? What should we think? How do we mourn these deaths? Should it change our actions on the ground? Should we be willing to put more of our own in harm's way to prevent the deaths of innocents on this scale?

* The Lancet believes the majority of deaths among women & children were due to air strikes. Their method is this:
A cluster sample survey was undertaken throughout Iraq during September, 2004. 33 clusters of 30 households each were interviewed about household composition, births, and deaths since January, 2002. In those households reporting deaths, the date, cause, and circumstances of violent deaths were recorded. We assessed the relative risk of death associated with the 2003 invasion and occupation by comparing mortality in the 17·8 months after the invasion with the 14·6-month period preceding it.



From dictionary.com:

ho·mo·pho·bi·a     n.
1) Fear of or contempt for lesbians and gay men.
2) Behavior based on such a feeling.

From Jeff Sharlet of the Revealer:

"Homophobia is a cross-party persuasion, but last night it figured most often in the votes of Republicans. A topic discussed more and more frequently as the pundits came to realize that their predictions had been wildly wrong was 'values' -- that is, in this election like no other, gay marriage. Let’s make that simpler, get to the root of the matter: gay sex."

When did making a moral decision about sexual activity or legally enforceable contracts become an issue of fear or contempt? Why is my evaluation of the biblical texts on homosexuality a fear-based decision, when my evaulation of the biblical texts on adultery a morality-based decision? Why have we let "homophobia" become so broadly defined as to include rational moral judgments?


Do you ever...?

As I am quite sick of hearing about 1) the election, especially since I never got my absentee ballot from Arizona and am thus disenfranchised yet again (the same thing happened in 2000 when I was in Bosnia) and 2) the Episcopal/Druid liturgy debate (which I've been following mainly by way of Pontifications), I've decided to ask a serious question, especially for anyone ever involved in a ministerial leadership position.

Do you ever wake up the day after a sermon/Bible study/discussion and just ask yourself "what the hell was I thinking?" or "how did that happen?" Something happened or came up that, at the time, seemed like a good idea or topic, but after you've had a chance to think about it, you realize it may have been a mistake, that some people might be offended or upset if they heard about it since they didn't hear the whole conversation in context. I bring this up because on Sunday, I split the youth group up by gender - my wife took the girls to talk about modesty, boundaries in dating, etc, and I took the guys to talk about porn & masturbation. Ahh, the wonderful differences between the sexes! I didn't plan to just talk about porn & masturbation; I was also going to talk about boundaries in dating and respecting women by not treating them as objects, but that didn't happen. Reality crept in.

Every guy in that room, including several 11 year olds, had already seen porn- not surpising since statistically, one of the largest consumers of online porn is the 12-17 year old age group. Most had seen it while at school - either a friend brought something or they saw it online on a school computer. And while I didn't press the issue, it was clear that more than a few probably continued to view porn on a regular basis, so the conversation tended to stay focused on that. I talked about the effects of porn on the way we view women, violence towards women, sex & relationships, how it prevents us from having healthy relationships and desensitizes us to feeling real love & sexual pleasure. I also talked about how, like a drug, we need ever more explicit materials to get the same stimulation, which can lead to pretty sick stuff. This is where things got bad. I'm not really sure how it came up - whether someone asked a question or not - but somehow we started talking about that sick stuff. Stuff like child porn or porn dealing with urine or feces - the really warped, disgusting extreme that people are, unfortunately, drawn into through their porn addictions. I tried to emphasize that these people started off just looking at pictures - of some actress they found attractive or some "men's magazine" - but eventually went off the deep end. We didn't spend too much time on it, but it was definitely part of the conversation and probably the part kids will remember most. One parent, thankfully a very understanding parent, came in to talk to me about it. Having struggled with porn himself, he didn't mind what we talked about and thought it was good that it came up since it was something that shocked the kids and showed them in an extremely clear way how porn can change us. So far, no other parents have called or emailed, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they won't. Even now, though, I think the discussion was a good one - kids are rarely presented with the consequences of this kind of thing. In a culture that trivializes sex & pornography, the prevailing opinion seems to be that porn isn't all that bad, if not good for you. But its a blight on our nation and a cancer eating away at the men, especially the young men, of our society. Our kids have to see where it leads - the potenial depravity in all of us.


The argument from harm

I was perusing an interesting exchange over on Pontifications regarding the Windsor Report - the recently released document from the Anglican Church regarding the ordination of gays and related issues (I'm honestly not familiar with its contents). Pontificator blasts the report for being an "equivocation" and not calling the American & Canadian churches to repentance for their actions which have jeapordized the worldwide communion of Anglican churches.

The very first comment comes from a gay Christian, who takes issue with Pontificator's comments about the need for repentance, citing the belief that the ordination of Gene Robinson was correct and therefore not something to be repented of. Multiple responses ensue, conversation goes off course and the gay Chrisitian (who goes by the handle 1,000 times) says that a lesbian was murdered, for her sexual orientation, in Sierra Leone and this murder was not condemned by the local Anglican bishop or any other members of the church. The argument, of course, being that the moral failure of the church in other areas prevents it from speaking authoritatively morally in other areas and that it has discriminated against gays in the past. Another poster pointed out the loophole in 1,000's logic, asking if the murderers, who clearly thought their actions were correct, needed to repent since they had done nothing wrong in their perception. 1,000 accused other posters of being incapable of making the necessary distinction, stating "loving gay relationships" cause no harm, whereas murder obviously does so. I responded, at this point, that there is no need to demonstrate that gay relationships cause no harm, since the point is not whether or not they are harmful, but whether or not they violate biblical norms - whether or not they are, in fact, sinful. 1,000's response was that this made God's law "simply irrational."

My question is, of course, does there have to be rational reason for calling a behavior or action sinful? Do we have to be able to identify specific examples or consequences of harm - to ourselves or to others - for something to be a sin? I'll let others take a shot before I offer my opinion.


When Statistics Become Real

For the last 2 weeks (and probably for the next 2 weeks), I've been talking about sex & romantic relationships with the kids in my youth group. The first Sunday we focused more on dating and the reality that these relationships, particularly for junior highers, will not last and will only cause a lot of pain if we put too much into them and expect more from them than they can deliver. It was a very good discussion with the junior highers and a fairly good talk with the high-schoolers. This Sunday we talked more specifically about sex. I have found that many of the Christian resources that deal with teen sex seem to mostly focus on scare tactics about pregnancy & disease and spend very little time dealing with positive reasons to wait for marriage. I wanted to avoid the scare tactics, but still wanted to present some of the statistics because they are striking and I thought they would help get the discussion moving. I also wanted to give them a chance to talk about what their peers say, think & do so we could talk specifically about that.

I must admit, even faced with the statistical evidence that over a quarter of freshmen girls & boys are already sexually active as well as over half of their senior counterparts, I was unprepared to hear the news that there were several girls at the junior high level that were pregnant. I was unprepared to hear that junior high girls are performing lesbian kissing shows for their male peers. I was unprepared to hear that oral sex was pretty common. And I was unprepared for the ordinary way in which junior highers discuss the sexual activity of their peers and the level of focus that sex & relationships seems to occupy in their social system. I mean, I knew this stuff went on, I knew it was happening across the US - it just catches you off guard when you realize that some of the kids sitting right in front of you may already be sexually active at the age of 12 or 13. And if they're not, some of the kids they've invited to our activities might be. I think I could almost make a show like "When Animals Attack!" - "When Statistics Become Real!" It could be a hidden camera show, catching the reaction of adults, especially parents, when they realize that their 11 year old son or daughter may have already had multiple sex partners (a real statistic, by the way), or that their little girl got pregnant and is looking for an abortion doctor at the age of 14 (almost 2/3 of teen pregnancies end in abortion).

Unsurprisingly, the situation described by the high school group was significantly worse. Most seemed to think that the numbers (52% of senior girls and 59% of senior guys being sexually active) were actually too low. When asked how long a couple had to be in a relationship before it was expected they would have sex, the most common answer was that, in fact, they did not even need to be in an exclusive relationship for sex to be the norm. One girl, who attends a magnet high school attached to the local university that students have to apply to get into, said that oral sex was more common than intercourse, but again, it was treated very casually. All said that condoms were not much of a priority and that the most feared consequence of having sex was having your parents find out - not disease, not pregnancy, not emotional pain, but being grounded. Even then, however, some parents apparently support their kids behavior by putting the girls on the pill. Some have even allowed their kids to have sex in their home.

Aside from the media's portrayal of teens and peer pressure, none of these kids (in either the junior or senior high) could think of any particular reason why sex was such a big deal or why many were so eager to particpate in it. None could identifly any emotional or spiritual problems that would lead kids to do this, though they did allow that the most promiscuous girls probably had self-esteem problems. I realized as we were talking about this, and as I was talking about Ephesians 5:31-32 - focusing on the mystery of the correlation between marriage and Christ's relationship with the Church, that in all reality, this is an issue that is well out of my hands. I did the best I could to describe the depth of love & commitment demonstrated by Christ, and how that is supposed to characterize marriage. I tried my hardest to explain why sex is meant to be confined to the marriage bed for this reason, because it has a greater spritual reality than what we see or think about. But its out of my hands, particularly for the high school kids. I have one hour a week with these kids, maybe 2 if they come to an activity - how am I, in that time, supposed to counteract hours upon hours spent in the distorted social system of their peers, or watching misguided media, or the time spent with parents who will not listen to their kids or take the time to instill the right values? I know I can have an influence, and I'm sure that I'm reaching some of these kids, but I feel that in a lot of ways parents have abdicated any responsibility for their kids and would rather live with their heads in the sand than face the truth of the world their kids inhabit. And what do I do about that?


Loudest voices?

Not much time this week - been busy trying to re-finish the floors in our new home, and to say the least, it has not been going at all well. We'll be lucky to get a couple of rooms done before we have to move in, and then we'll have to work on the last room once we're in, and even that scenario may be pushing the envelope considerably.

I was poking around on an "emergent" blog today and found a comment that struck me as rather, well, peculiar.

I think back to those who were considered heretics in the 2nd century. Funny, how the largest, loudest, and most powerful voice usually gets to define orthodoxy. ( 21st century translation: Think white dudes with pot-belies, surfer shirts, and goatess with degrees from "bible" colleges. sorry if I singled out a reader. I know this is a generalization.)

Yeah, its a generalization. A generalization that flirts with all manner of apostasy, but I'm consistently struck by the unwillingness of people, particularly in the liberal or emerging churches, to assign any actual activity to God. Attempting to pin down what was true about God, the nature of Christ and the Church, etc, is apparently an entirely human work wherein the most obnoxious jerks "win." While I applaud their movement towards a more whole faith, one that is not as cut & dried as modern evangelicalism can tend to be, I cannot help but be alarmed at this lack of spiritual imagination. Does God do anything anymore?



A site is sponsoring a $100,000 contest to encourage young people to get out and vote this November. You can win $100,000 in the drawing, and I could win $100,000 for referring you, so by all means, sign us up! Visit VoteOrNot.org to sign up.

Personally, I'm still undecided. I have a STRONG antipathy towards President Bush, but I just can't shake the abortion problem. I don't hold out much hope that Bush can get Roe vs Wade overturned, unless he has a strong majority in Congress. Only then could he overcome a Democratic filibuster of any potential Supreme Court nominee that might go the other way on the abortion issue. And, of course, there is the related stem-cell issue - another strike against a Kerry vote. My decision is further hampered by the fact that I missed the Illinois registration deadline. Being a strong Democrat state, I was going to cast a third party vote in an effort to break the stranglehold of the 2 party system, which I think works against a fair and open political process. But now, I'm forced to vote on an Arizona early ballot and Arizona is a freakin' swing state, which means my vote may actually count! Darn the luck.

Hurt: Inside the World of Todays's Teenagers

I found this book while at Borders about a week ago, looking for books in preparation for my upcoming sex & relationships talks with the kids. I thumbed through it and it looked pretty good. Its written from a secular point of view, but by a Christian, and he includes an appendix for youth ministers. In all honesty, at the time I bought it, I had only skimmed through the chapter on sex and not much else. The author, Chap Clark, wanted to go beyond the standard sociological studies that relied on self-reporting and other limited ethnographic forms, to really get inside the heads & lives of young people. So he became a high-school teacher and started interacting with his students, trying to find the truth behind the numbers.

After I started reading it, I have to say the first thing that jumped out at me is this; if true, I despair for our future. Clark argues that defining issue of adolescence (which has stretched from approximately 5 years to more than 10 in our culture) is abandonment.

It is the cumulative effect that children experience as they grow up in today's social structure. Sports, music, dance, drama, Scouts, and even faith-related programs are all guilty of ignoring the developmental needs of each individual young person in favor of the organization's goals. Add to this the increasing amount of homework being assigned to students at younger and younger ages. The systemic pressure on American children is immense. Too many of us actually enjoy the athletic, cultural, or artistic baby-sitting service provided by those paid by the organizations (or who volunteer). Even with the best of intentions, they way we raise, train, and even parent our children today exhibits attitudes and behaviors that are simply subtle forms of parental abandonment. (pg 47)

Another perhaps more subtle yet far more insidious form of abandonment has occurred that has a devastating effect on the adolescent psyche and landscape. Adolescents have suffered the loss of safe relationships and intimate settings that served as the primary nurturing community for those traveling the path from child to adult. The most obvious example of this is in the family. The postmodern family is often so concerned about the needs, struggles, and issues of parents that the emotional and developmental needs of the children largely go unmet. Add to this the rarity of extended family available to the vast majority of adolescents, the deemphasizing of the importance of marriage, and the lack of healthy relationships with adults as friends and mentors, and it is easy to see why today's adolescent faces an internal crisis of unprecedented scope.

As a youth pastor - a person entrusted by God and these parents to do my best to shepherd these kids - I am forced to ask myself hard questions. Am I sacrificing or ignoring the needs of my kids in favor of personal or organizational goals? Am I putting too much or the wrong kind of pressure on them? How can I make my ministry a safe place for them? A place where they can have a healthy relationship with me and other adults, where there sense of loss & loneliness is relieved? Right now, the answer to all of these questions is "I don't know." I suspect I have been putting my goals ahead of their needs in some respects, but the Lord is going to have to show me where. And honestly, I have no idea how to make this place safe, but I want to find out. This all probably seems a little scattered, but these ideas are still roiling in my head and I need time to sort them out, to pray.


Leadership & Lead Paint - Its LEAD-ership

We got into the house over the weekend and ripped out the old, dirty carpeting in the downstairs to expose some pretty nice wide-plank pine that we're probably going to refinish. We also ripped off some ugly wood paneling in the dining room to expose old plaster & lathe walls that are in better shape than you could reasonably hope for. Only one small plaster patch will be needed - the rest was workable with spackle and elastometric joint compound (ahh, the wonders of science). Unfortunately, we discovered that some paint on the trim in the dining room is lead based. Its stable though, so not much of a worry. The real problem is that the paint that is on the wood flooring is also lead based, which means we're going to have to strip the heck out of it before we can sand it for the refinishing. Fortunately, we found a stripper that works pretty well, so I'm thinking this won't be too bad a job. My brother & dad are coming in from Iowa to help with the sanding, and I should be able to work up some kids to come over and help with the paint stripping (again, its stable so it poses little risk). So there's the lead, now for the leadership.

We have our routine staff meeting today, and the senior pastor pulls out packets for each of us taken from a book on leadership and announces we will be spending 15 minutes every staff meeting going through this book. "Lesson One: What is a leader?" Part of lessone one is filing out an acrostic with the word leader - what do you think of one when you hear the word leader? L is for...., E is for...., etc. But there are right & wrong answers! These apparently make up section titles for upcoming lessons, which seems to belie that whole "what do YOU think" thing. After that, we go through a series of leadership myths. #1 Leaders are made not born. #2 Leadership is a rare skill. There were a total of 5 - I'll not bore you with the rest.

So, you want to know what I think when I hear the word leader? I think "unrealistic" and "unusual." I think "overdone" and "over-emphasized." I think if I hear "leaders lead" one more time I'll have to stand up on the table and start barking like a dog whilst doing the chicken dance. Why, you ask? Because, in my mind, this is one of the most overdrawn, overdone, intellectually bankrupt things that has ever cropped up in the church. Not everyone can be a leader! Not everyone has what it takes to be in charge! So why do we act as if this is not the case? My church favors the definition that says "leadership is influence," with a little "leaders do what others won't" mixed in. Guess what? A whole lot of people won't do what the janitor does - does that make him a leader or a guy with a crummy job? And leadership as influence so reduces and dilutes our idea of true leadership that it isn't any wonder we are facing a leadership crisis (not sure if this is only perceived or not). If me, you and 95% of the congregation can all be considered "leaders" then who exactly are we leading? And why on earth do we need so much leadership training?

I think the reality is that "leadership" has become the latest cure for what ails us, and honestly, it is difficult to argue against it. Its like pointing out the problems with democracy - the highly committed don't want to hear it and can only consider a doubter to be morally and genetically suspect. But producing ever more leaders isn't going to fix anything - its only going to muddy the waters even more. What we need is better, clearer leadership that inspires and motivates people, not more "influencers" running around cleaning toilets.



--We're closing on our house on Friday. They moved the closing date up on us, so the last 2 days have been a mad scramble to get all the insurance taken care of. Even though I was a claims adjuster for a major auto & home insurance agency for a little over a year, I still have no idea why rates vary so much from company to company. One company came back at $735, most right around $500 and the one we went with was at $403 (with the auto policy, which ended up being over $300 less than what we were paying before). I do wonder what the differences in these various businesses are that they can operate on such different income streams and yet still turn a profit. And for the one that came in at $735 - hello? Ever hear of competitive rates?!

--I taught on the Trinity in the youth group last Sunday, which was interesting. I knew it was going to be a dry conversation/lecture, so I made up a game involving bean bags and blindfolds that actually worked out pretty well. Still, I don't know how to take it. The concepts were nothing that the kids had ever really been exposed to before, and very few could even tell me who was in the Trinity, much less what the Trinity was. There wasn't much discussion because the kids didn't seem to know enough to ask any questions or weren't thinking deep enough to generate any. I tried to explain why understanding the doctrine of the Trinity is important, but honestly, I had a hard time putting that into clear arguments for myself. Most arguments seem to tend towards the idea that bad thinking about God will lead to bad activity, which is probably true at some level. But does it really matter to the person in the pew? For the person working a 9 to 5 and trying to put food on the table for his kids - will misunderstanding the doctrine of the Trinity really have a negative impact on his life?

--War, what is it good for? For obvious reasons, war has been popping up on blog conversations all over the place and I'm currently engaged in a minor debate with someone at Radical Congruency over Just War Doctrine. He is both pro-war and anti-JWD, which is something I have never encountered in someone before. Most of the hawkish Christians I've met are very ardent supporters of JWD. His main beef (it appears) is that JWD does not legitimize the use of force to protect innocents in another country. I think he is correct - based solely on humanitarian motives, the war in Iraq was probably not just per the JWD. That is, I think, only one of several problems with JWD, not the least of which is that it doesn't seem to work. I've asked various people at different times to present to me an example from history wherein a sovereign considered war, but ultimately rejected it because it did not meet JWD standards. I'm not wholly a utilitarian and I don't think the efficacy alone of an idea is the standard by which it should be accepted or rejected, but for a doctrine that is meant to have a real impact on real decisions in the real world, it has to factor in somewhere. Can anyone provide me such an example?

--In 2 weeks, I will begin a 3 week series on sex & relationships for the youth group. We have a couple sets of parents who are, perhaps, a bit over-protective and have apparently sat in on this kind of thing before. I'm not sure if they are expecting me to do condom demonstrations or what, but that won't fly with me. An unknown adult will only kill the conversation and discourage honesty from the kids. Prayers for my preparation and for understanding parents are much appreciated.


Are we addicted?

Frank Herbert, quite possibly the best sci-fi writer of all time, usually repeats certain themes or ideas in his books. One of the reasons his works are so enduring is because of the depth with which he writes - his stories aren't just about characters; they explore ideas, the way societies & culture work, and he does it with an uncanny nack for seeing beyond the surface. I recently re-read The White Plague, which is about a scientist who basically goes insane with rage after his wife & children are killed by an IRA bomb. He creates a super virus that kills only women and unleashes it on Ireland, England and Libya - the former 2 because of their ongoing conflict and the latter because of its role in training the bomber. I think its out of print now, but its a very interesting read. I have read the Dune books several times and highly recommend them above all others since they are a bit less esoteric than some of his other works.

But one of the ideas he consistently brings up is adrenaline addiction. He normally associates AA with people in the military or in other positions of power who thrive off of the adrenaline boost their very authority gives them. He theorizes that a great deal of human conflict is due to people in power trying to get their adrenaline fix by excercising their authority. I'll leave a decision on the accuracy of this assessment up to the reader, but I think there is some degree of truth to this in society at large, the "extreme sports" phenomenon as case in point. Then I read this from Pontifications:

Most importantly, evangelicalism thrives on mission and the creation of new congregations. It has long been noted that Protestantism breeds division and sectarianism. What perhaps has been overlooked in all of this is the evangelical thrill of starting new congregations. There’s nothing quite like experiencing the new life of a new church... As one evangelical bishop recently told me, “It’s easier to give birth than to raise the dead.” The problem, though, is that first-generation churches eventually become humdrum, culturally-accomodated third-generation churches–and we end up right back where we are now. Ultimately, evangelicalism lives by the revolution that initially created it and which it must ever seek to replicate.

What struck me immediately is the similarity with Herbert's adrenaline addiction - a (unconscious) drive to continually re-create the situation that brought about euphoria, regardless of whether or not it is the wise or even God-centered course of action. The reason that this seems abundantly clear to me is because my church is in the process of planting a church. I won't go into detail again, but suffice it to say, I'm not sure that a church plant - especially one intended to be nearly identical to what we're already doing - is the right thing to do since we aren't really growing that much. In fact, our growth is barely a trickle, a clear indication to me (and the church planter) that what we're doing isn't working as we intend it to, so why should we copy it? What exactly are we hoping to achieve? And this is my epiphany - we're hoping to replicate the excitement of a new, growing congregation instead of doing the hard work of revitalizing a numerically stagnant church. We're taking the somewhat easy way out instead of making the hard decisions about what we need to change. And I dare say there is more than a fair amount of insecurity motivating this decision. Another church in our denomination only 30 miles away in the next town over is only a few years older but is about 5 times our size and growing in leaps & bounds.

In a way, its a bit like dating. We try a relationship on and see how it works out. If it doesn't fit, we move on to the next one. Sometimes we get jealous because our friends have found someone and we're still playing the field. But eventually, you have to decide on one (even if the decision is not to get into a relationship) and settle down. You have to get hitched and start the life-long process of dying to self, relinquishing control and putting the other person & the relationship ahead of self-centered motivations. And that's not an easy process and its frequently quite painful, but its the only way to real depth & love. We can't view church plants as the only or the best way to reach people with the Gospel, and we definitely can't plant churches merely for the sake of planting them. In a way, we have to marry ourselves to our churches and stop looking for the next relationship that might come along. We have to go in for the long haul and start listening for God's voice in where we're at, and obeying him even when the place he's taking us is not the place we had initially envisioned.


Workable Solutions - V

I'm currently taking a fairly interesting class - I think its called Religion & the Media - which I need to finally finsih my undergrad. Its most about reading, watching and/or perusing websites, and writing commentaries on what these various media sources say about religion & faith. Not a very difficult class, I can assure you, and the majority of my classmates pieces run something like this, which is a review of the Da Vinci Code:

The idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and carried on a bloodline that was the true church. Obviously this goes against the Catholic view and brings questions to my mind. Like, who is God? and what is the true message of Jesus. After reading this book an answer that I found was one of harmony. the true meaning of church and spirit is harmony and balance between all creatures. The peace you find in love is the peace that God would want. Not the rules and guidelines laid down by the church.

From such pithy comments, we are supposed to write a 10 page paper at the end of the semester on religion & faith in America today. I can hardly wait. We also have to read A New Religious America by Diana Eck, upon which I will reflect more in the future. But this quote got me thinking:

"In a sense, [Christianity] became stronger precisely because the churches no longer had any support from public tax coffers; they had to compete with one another in the free market of Christian ideas in order to thrive, and one of the consequences of this unprecedented approach to religious freedom was the proliferation of churches."

As a society, it is clear that capitalism has informed and permeated virtually every nook & cranny of our public and private lives. We certainly live in a consumer society, but I had never regarded the institutional church as producer of religious goods, so to speak. But, of course, why shouldn't we think about it in this way? Churches clearly brand themselves and attempt to use marketing to bring people in the door - which likely means more money to do more things. Now, I'm not questioning anyone's motives (except, maybe teleevangelists and the like) because I do not doubt that most churches want to reach people with the Gospel and regard the additional resources offered by new members as a blessing they will use to reach even more people. But, to what extent do churches regard each other as competition? The reality is that "people" is the resource the church industry must mine, and particularly in areas with less population density, "people" is a relatively scarce resource, especially after other factors are brought into the equation.

I will have to develop this thought further (I don't have much time to do so right now) but a workable solution towards unity is to not regard other churches as competition for a resource. We have to move beyond a capitalist model of church.


I saw this through a link on The Revealer yesterday, and was simultaneously disgusted by this person's arrogance and intrigued by my sympathy for his position on some things. Read the article and you'll see what I mean - I've talked to too many people trying to play-up the Bible's more difficult passages as some kind of pretext for dismissing Christianity and/or God, to give his points on "Bible porn" much weight. It was the other half of his beliefs that intrigued me.

Because I didn't really want anybody to have a conversion experience, I went to be a counselor at [the youth conference] to save the children from being saved.

I certainly share his dim view of mere intellectual or emotion driven converstion experiences. I became a Christian at a Younglife camp in California, and years later, I came to understand how I had been psychologically manipulated into that decision. For me, and I'm sure for a great many others, these decisions were real and lives changed because of them. But I'm equally sure that these "decisions" aren't real for a significant segment of kids that go to such camps or conferences and this alienates them from faith. It seems clear that the author falls firmly into the latter and we can see how this has poisoned his view of Christ and Christianity. In my current position as a youth pastor, I really try go a different way in teaching kids about Christ, and not just because it could create people like this.

From Kierkegaard I knew that "Truth is Subjectivity," from Nietzsche that Christians were pop-Platonists, and from Rene Girard that the New Testament revealed the scapegoat mechanism secretly present in all other myths. I knew Christianity, like life, was something far more complex and messy and hard and weird than you could explain to teens in a week. And I knew that it was condescending and wrong to make teens feel dysfunctional if they did not have a Jesus experience in just the way [the youth conference] had pre-ordained for them.

While I agree with the latter half of this statement, it is ironic (and hypocritical) to malign the conference for "condescension" towards kids who do not fit the conference's mold, and yet turn around and display that exact same attitude towards the kids that do. As for his philosophical musings, I can only point out that if you need someone to "reveal" Christ being offered in our place in a "scapegoat mechanism" in the NT, you probably shouldn't be trying to write articles on religion, much less counsel highschoolers.

I still considered myself a Christian, but I had no statement of belief. I wasn't even sure if belief itself was very Christlike.

I'm still dumbfounded by this. If you have no statement of belief, I'm not sure you are actually able to describe yourself with a label that is defined by a statement of belief. And that last sentence - well, I'm almost speechless. I suppose one could argue that Christ, being God, *knew* about Himself and as such, did not require any belief, but I don't think this is what the author is trying to say.

My logic, as I explained it to Dale, was that not every kid at [the youth conference] was going to connect with the rah-rah, happy shiny form of evangelicalism. I felt that it was my role to reach out to these kids. And if it took a few shenanigans to win them for Jesus, I thought it was worth it. I don't really know if I believed any of this.

Right up until that last sentence, I was with him. Like it or not, "church" is a dirty word to some people and their perception of God is mediated by their animosity towards shiny, happy Christians and our stainless steel church. Unless we can break down those (I can't really say misconceptions because there is an unfortunate degree of accuracy in their views) barriers, the love of Christ will ever be hidden behind our peppy songs, coffee carts in the lobby and catchy sermon titles. And I really do believe that.

I was nervous about desanctifying this, the most sacred point of...many young people's lives. But [my teenagers] were mock-sobbing, loudly blowing their noses, hardly able to keep from busting out laughing.

Ahhh, the value of derision and arrogance to achieve existential bliss. The thing that really bothers me is that these kids were assigned to him - they were not necessarily the disillusioned, disaffected youth that he believes would not connect with the message of the youth conference. These kids could have been me! They could have been someoen whose life was forever changed by a momentary experience that would not let them go, by the haunting memory of joy and the pursuit of love, and this guy destroyed that opportunity. And for what? So he could make a point? So he could make himself feel better about his own bad experiences by forcing them on someone else? I sincerely hope that I never fall victim to this kind of mentality, and I'm not saying that in a "thank God I'm not like that sinner" way. I have been like that at times in my past - thought I knew more, was too cool, or whatever, to listen to what others are saying and dismissed them without a second thought - I hope I never fall back into that place again.

I asked my kids what they thought of the altar call. No one had been paying enough attention to even know what was being said. Disgusted, I went to explain the whole program: just how and why [the youth conference] had been trying to save them, and how I had been trying to save them from that.  What I had been trying to teach them that week was that salvation isn't enough. You aren't altogether without merit before you accept Jesus and you certainly aren't altogether good once you do accept him. You can't judge others based on whether or not they call themselves Christian or if they've had some special experience where Jesus entered their life. I don't know what happens after you die, I told them, but if Jesus is up there separating the sheep from the goats based on whether or not they get all weepy when Amy Grant songs are played soft, I don't want anything to do with it.

Salvation isn't enough. This idea has been rolling around in my head since I read this article. If he means merely getting saved isn't enough, that knowing (or just thinking) "I've got a ticket into heaven" but that doesn't translate into any real change in ourselves or in our lives, then yeah, salvation isn't enough, because quite frankly, that ain't salvation. And this, I think, is the central deficiency of Protestant salvation theology. It is granular, happening at a single point of time, which renders verses like Philippians 2:12 utterly meaningless. How can you "work out your salvation" if it happened in a split second? I think the irony in this whole article is that it is the minimalist understanding of faith, salvation & theology that permeates evangelical thought, and its willing cooperation with pop culture in the name of Christ, that produced this author and influenced his actions. Would he have had the same struggles in a fuller tradition? Would he have regarded Christianity as facile & unthinking had he faced the weight of Patristic thought? For the sake of the kids entrusted to me, what can I learn from this?


Not the only one

I just had lunch with the gentleman doing the in-town church plant in conjunction with my church. He had expressed some things he did not like about the way church is done here and ways he would like to do things differently with the plant, but I had no idea how deep his misgivings really went. Today he brought up our complete lack of depth and the worshitainment* we do on Sunday morning that tends to only nominally include the Bible, and the fact that we as a staff never get into the Bible together. (The most we do is pray at staff meetings, and that is normally focused on specific prayer requests.) He pointed out our lack of growth both numerically and in the spiritual maturity of our congregation, which is what has sent alarm bells ringing in my head in the past.

Now, in my mind, the most interesting part is how the plant is being viewed by him and by our church, and by extension our denomination. I've noted in the past how his vision seems to be a significant departure from the way our senior pastor describes his vision for our multi-site approach. The planter wants a worshipful, Bible-plumbing church that is deeper, more spiritually mature and that has a stronger commitment to the Gospel than it does to being relevant. Whereas our senior pastor and the head of church plants for our denomination has gone so far as to suggest the church plant be a video venue** for the senior pastor's sermons. As he pointed out, our lack of numerical growth kind of indicates that what we're doing isn't really working, so why should we try to make an exact copy in your plant? All 3 of them have a meeting tomorrow and the CP says he is going to address these issues and state in no uncertain terms that he will not be reproducing a carbon copy of this church because he cannot get on board with what we do here. I asked him what he would do if the respective positions were too far apart and no compromise could be reached and he said he didn't know. What I do know is that his denominational financing will be running out and our church can't afford to finance this church plant on its own, so it may end up being a on/off kind of thing with no middle ground.

I cannot tell you how much relief I feel knowing that someone else on staff shares our concerns and problems with this place. The CP is a very mature, dedicated, prayerful man, so it encourages me to a great extent that he shares my misgivings. But damn! we had just resolved ourself to staying here for a couple of years and now I'm wondering if that was the right decision.

*I don't know if anyone has ever used that word before (someone probably has) but dang if I dont' like it! I may need to look into a copyright or something. :)

**For those of you who don't know, a video venue is a site that plays a tape, either of a complete service or just the sermon, to a group. Some churches have experienced good success with the video venue approach. Personally, I think it is antithetical to what church is about and should be avoided except under very specific situations that render it better than nothing.

A disturbing new reality

As the situation in Iraq either deteriorates, improves or remains constant depending on whom you listen to for your news, one thing is abundantly clear; the remaining "Axis of Evil" states are making a mad-dash for the nuclear finish line while we are tied up in Baghdad. Which only makes sense - up until the Iraq situation, America's military was considered so vastly superior to any other force on the planet that no nation would have thought about risking open conflict with the US. But now, our military superiority, while still unmatched in actual war-fighting, has shown its soft underbelly in post conflict management and counterinsurgency. A point aptly made in this month's Atlantic Monthly in an article by James Fallows (subscription required for the online article - I read it last week at Border's) who points out that the threat of our military was more effective than actual combat in some ways.

So now we have Iran and North Korea moving towards uranium enrichment for "peaceful" reasons while the US is hamstrung in Iraq. Yes, we can destroy those nuclear facilities with longrange missiles or a direct air strike, but the consequences in both cases could be disastrous. North Korea could respond with a conventional attack on South Korea, and considering it has several thousand artillery pieces and rocket launchers within striking distance of Seoul, a conventional response could be as equally devastating to the South Korean capital as an actual nuclear weapon. And this before a single troop crosses the DMZ. With Iran, a strike would likely result in thousands of Iranian fighters moving into Iraq causing even more destabilization in the Middle East - extending this conflict considerably and likely causing a huge increase in US casualties, not to mention Iraqi deaths. The reality is that a strike against these nuclear facilities is not a good option and the UN is being only slightly less ineffective than it normally is, so what real options are open to us? Not many. We may have to face the reality of a nuclear Iran, which is clearly going to destabilize the region more than a democratic Iraq (still little more than a dream at this point) can hope to counter. Iraq may prove to be the single greatest strategic blunder in US history.


Workable Solutions - IV

Hat tip to neothelogue for this link. There is also some commentary on Christianitytoday's news blog - scroll down a bit to find it.

From the article - "Yet such discussions [about communion] are important because they go to the heart of the Christian faith, say clergy and denominational officials. They affect the way believers perceive and take part in one of the most sacred events in Christian history: the meal Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his crucifixion. And they affect efforts to foster unity among Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians and end theological and liturgical disputes that have created deep divisions in Christianity."

This quote is a bit broader than the topics of my posts, which is finding workable solutions towards the problem of Protestantism's schismatic tendencies. But it does highlight another key area that will have to be addressed, one that follows closely in parallel with the other issues discussed thus far.

Historically, Protestantism has tended to relegate communion to a secondary status, probably in an overreaction to all things Catholic. This has meant communion being downgraded to a symbol and not a sacrament, and being practiced infrequently. My church, for instance, practices communion every 4-6 weeks and even then it is not the focus of the service. One of my biggest problems with our approach is the fact that communion is inserted where its "appropriate" in a sermon series, but it normally doesn't feel appropriate to me, and it usually doesn't relate very well to the topic of the sermon. I'm not sure how typical this is across the Protestant spectrum (which ostensibly includes Anglicans, who seem to be of a variety of opinions on communion according to Pontificator), but I'm pretty certain it is not at all out of the ordinary.

Finding a workable solution on this issue requires us to ask: How central is communion to our worship and why? How does communion fit in with and compare to other worship practices? How should we view communion - symbol, sacrament or somewhere in between? How frequently should we take communion? And, of course, is our communion open or closed?

Step IV - Develop a broad consensus on exactly what communion is, how we should practice it and membership/faith requirements necessary to receive it.