30 June 2008

Personalized Bibles

While doing some initial sermon prep, I came across something called The Personal Promise Bible. You can special-order a Bible from them where they insert your first name into over 7,000 different spots in the Old and New Testaments. That way, you can understand that God is making promises directly to you, without the confusing suggestion that God's promises might extend to all people.

You can enter your name on their website to see a sample of how the Personal Promise Bible works. This tool is kind of fun.

14 G-Rod is not a well-regulated militia.

I have to confess ignorance on the whole DC handgun ban controversy. I guess I got so used to seeing headlines about the case in the Washington Post and on DCist that I never bothered to read any of the articles. So when the Supreme Court ruling came down last week, before I could think about questions of crime or liberty, I had to overcome my initial shocked reaction: You mean handguns weren't already legal in DC? Could've fooled me. There certainly have been a lot of patriots exercising their second amendment rights in spite of the ban over the years, from the Capitol to the block next to the Sojourners intern house. The University of Maryland men's basketball program even did its part to protest this tyranical law. Antonin Scalia shall vindicate you all, faithful Americans.

Recap: Bible 101, Week One

In week one of my "Bible 101" class, we discussed the formation of the biblical canon. We focused mostly on the New Testament; since the New Testament was formed more recently than the Old (i.e. it's not just a clever name), we know more about the process by which they formalized the NT. At the same time, there seem to be a lot more conspiracy theories about the formation of the NT canon. Why did they exclude certain texts? What has the church been hiding for two millenia?

We led off with an exercise that forced them each to make a short list of the most significant films of all time; then they had to pair up and consolidate their lists (dropping a few films in the process), then pair with another pair, etc. The idea was to simulate a process of consensus-building when people are operating with different criteria.

Then we segued into some actual historical information. Using my notes from Dr. Rowe's New Testament class and a few other resources, I put together a brief timeline. During the class I also made a (probably ill-advised) attempt to explain Gnosticism in about four minutes, in order to show why the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, and Judas were all excluded from the canon. I was tempted to point out just how crazy they seem - the Gospel of Peter describes a walking, talking cross that followed Christ out of the tomb (see paragraph 10) - but given all the water-walking, blind-healing, and resurrection in the canonical Gospels, my hands were tied.

I think the thing I most regret not making time for was a discussion of what "Holy Scripture" means. We give that unique title only to these certain texts; what does that mean for how we approach them? How does this understanding guide our interaction with other texts? Is it bad to read noncanonical gospels? What about other nonscriptural texts that we revere. Can we read Augustine in church, or Luther? Can we read passages from MLK's speeches? Can we compose liturgies using the words of Bono?

This week I'll be working on figuring out how to give a one-hour primer on the entirety of the Old Testament. I have a sinking feeling that Ecclesiastes is going to get the short end of the stick.

29 June 2008

Church softball bragging.

Today I had a nice surprise: TBS was carrying the Mets-Yankees game, so I got to see my first Mets game in a while. It was fun to watch the Mets win one (too rare of a thing), and in that bizarre weekend-warrior sort of way, it was the perfect pump-up for this afternoon's church softball game. Because of the stellar performances of past Duke interns, including one who had played two years of collegiate softball, there is a lot of pressure for the summer intern to contribute on the diamond. Much to my surprise, in two games I'm 5-6 with two singles, a double and two triples; five runs scored. We're 2-0. That's more than anyone on the Mets can say.

Watch for something on Monday recapping today's first installment of "Bible 101".

28 June 2008

Book report

I have to say that it's a bit lonesome moving to a new city where you don't know anybody. As an introvert, I find it a lot easier to try to get the most out of time with myself (which is in short supply during the school year) than to find lots of ways to keep busy spending time with new people. But to be honest, I really have enjoyed this aspect of my summer, because I have been able to do a lot of reading that would not be possible during the semester.

I read about 3/4 of Amy Laura Hall's new book, Conceiving Parenthood. (See links to these books in the sidebar at right.) Dr. Hall teaches ethics at Duke, and this book looks at how American mainline Protestantism has willingly bought into the national ideal of "proper" and "model" families in a way that leads us to believe that we are justified not by God's grace, but by our ability to shape our families and homes through science, professional child-rearing, and even eugenics. It had a lot of pictures in it.

I also read Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. (Well, all but the final 2 chapters. I got the Dillard and Hall books from the beautiful public library here, and they were due back.) Here's a nice quote from Annie, on the difficulty of seeing: "My eyes account for less than one percent of the weight of my head; I'm bony and dense; I see what I expect."

William T. Cavanaugh's Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire was the third conquest of the summer. I really like his work, and I would recommend this book as a first read for someone who had not encountered him before, because it is a bit more anchored to everyday experience. He points out how the currency of consumerism isn't attachment to things, but detachment from things; the whole point of advertising is to capitalize on our infinite and ever-changing desire for anything new or exciting.
"In a consumer culture, we recognize the validity of Augustine's insight: particular material things cannot satisfy. Rather than turning away from material things and toward God, in consumer culture we plunge ever more deeply into the world of things. Dissatisfaction and fulfillment cease to be opposites, for pleasure is not in possessing objects but in their pursuit. [...]
"Desire in consumer society keeps us distracted from the desires of the truly hungry, those who experience hunger as life-threatening deprivation. [...] One can always send a check to help the hungry, but one's charitable preferences will always be in competition with one's own endless desires. The idea of scarcity establishes the view that no one has enough. My desires to feed the hungry are always being distracted by the competition between their desires and my own."

27 June 2008

On the downslope.

Hard to believe, but I (along with many classmates in other churches) am already on the downslope of my field ed summer. Last Sunday marked the midpoint of my ten-week term in Indianapolis. After this Sunday, I will only have four full weeks remaining.

My experiences this summer can be divided into learning by doing and learning by observing. I recall the summer I spent in Chicago during college, working with community organizers at The Resurrection Project; that was mostly learning by observation. By contrast, my summer running a free lunch program for kids at Wesley UMC in Norfolk, VA was entirely learning by doing. This summer has been a mixed bag, which I think is great.

The most exciting thing I have done/will be doing is a reasonable amount of preaching and teaching. There was the junior high VBS class and last week's children's message. I'll be doing the children's message again this week, and potentially in future weeks. I will only get to preach once, on July 20; I'll post that sermon once I've delivered it. The thing I am most excited about is the four-week 'Bible 101' adult Sunday School class that I am starting this Sunday. The idea is to provide an opportunity for folks with less familiarity with the Bible to get 'back to basics' in an environment where they don't have to worry about being the one who asks a stupid question. The first week's topic is "Where Did the Bible Come From?" I may do a brief summary post after each class; we'll see.

On the other hand, there is a lot that I've learned by observation. The biggest thing I would put in this category is what I've learned by watching my senior pastor navigate group settings and contentious meetings. What jumps out at me is what he doesn't say. I cannot recount to you the number of occasions where, if I were running a given meeting, I think that I would've interrupted the group conversation to say something. "What I think X means to say is this..." "That's a well-made point, but unfortunately, it is not at all Christian." "Here's what we're going to do, and I will tell you why." He doesn't say those kinds of things. I have strong impulses to correct people and to ensure the efficient progress of group discussions. I thought the pastor was able to restrain those impulses, but it turns out he doesn't really have them. We had a really fruitful conversation this week about how he has found that by observing several minimal guidelines (e.g. don't let anyone malign another person), he is able to let such conversations run their course and reach a more productive outcome than if he were simply to tell people what to think from the get-go. In short, I'm learning something about leadership from him.

The main area where I haven't been able to learn as much as I'd hoped is pastoral care. Because of the confidential nature of pastoral care, and the requisite levels of comfort and relationship, I just haven't had many opportunities to observe my colleagues in action. That's too bad, because this is also the part of ministry that is most foreign to my experience. I have a few plans that should help me gain some more exposure over the next four weeks, but if I am serious about learning pastoral care by doing, it seems pretty clear that I may have to do a CPE internship at some point.

26 June 2008

A dose of reality

A moving and provocative article in today’s NYT about Iraqi Christians faced with a quandary that is difficult for any of us to imagine: watch as insurgents target and kill your priests and parishioners, or make regular payments that will protect you, but will also fund the insurgents’ violence elsewhere.

For Iraqi Christians, Money Bought Survival

It's a good reality check for me, as someone who likes to sit at my computer and opine about Christians who are complicit in violence, Christians who choose self-preservation over self-sacrifice, et cetera. Then I read a story like this, and any impulse to judge goes totally out the window. Something about war seems to have the dual effect of simultaneously intensifying the decisions people make and muddying the waters of right and wrong. It's probably that as the stakes rise, the available options get worse and worse.

Request: Bible Translations

Does anyone know of a good resource that provides brief comparitive descriptions of some of the most common English translations of the Bible? I've been looking for a 1-2 page guide, but have been surprisingly unsuccessful. If you can point me anywhere (or if you just know a lot about the topic and can write something yourself), just leave a comment or shoot me an email. Thanks!

This one is not about politics.

At the church, there have been evening commitments every night this week: a worship meeting on Monday, minor league baseball game with the youth group on Tuesday, Ad Board and special Charge Conference last night, and tonight is our Farmers' Market and Eatin' Meetin' (which is an open-invitation community meal).

Monday's meeting was the 'next step' planned after the somewhat contentious Ministries Council conversation last month. This meeting included the staff responsible for planning worship and music, a few lay representatives of our Worship & The Arts working group, and a few lay representatives from our Racial & Ethnic Inclusivity working group. As someone who does not know much about music, I had not realized just how difficult it is to deal productively with musical recommendations coming from people who don't know much about music. The practical challenges of diversifying the genres of our hymns and anthems are tremendous, even if you have wonderfully talented musicians (as we do). Yet I think certain people at the meeting had never had the 'pleasure' of hearing a classically trained vocalist attempting to sing Mahalia Jackson. Changing our music is not simply a matter of picking different songs.

I was really impressed, however, with one woman at the meeting -- another individual who'd been involved with the racial & ethnic inclusivity proposal -- who really had her eye on the ball. She wasn't interested in abstract, liberal goals like "inclusivity" for their own sake; as someone who became a Christian at this church, she truly understands worship as a transformative force in people's lives, and so for her, changing our worship is all about our ability to make disciples. Now we're talking.

25 June 2008

This one is a joke.

In terms of the public reaction to Dobson's speech, Senator Obama made some brief remarks. Another popular national figure with a funny name, a pro-homosexual agenda, and a history of run-ins with Focus on the Family was unavailable for comment.

Dobson, part II

Here's the Wallis response to James Dobson's attack of Obama. It's well-written, and I must say it does not qualify as "flying off the handle," as I predicted. I think this paragraph is the pith of it all:

Obama said that religion is and always has been a fundamental and absolutely essential source of morality for the nation, but he also said that "religion has no monopoly on morality," which is a point I often make. The United States is not the Christian theocracy that people like James Dobson seem to think it should be. Political appeals, even if rooted in religious convictions, must be argued on moral grounds rather than as sectarian religious demands -- so that the people (citizens), whether religious or not, may have the capacity to hear and respond. Religious convictions must be translated into moral arguments, which must win the political debate if they are to be implemented. Religious people don't get to win just because they are religious. They, like any other citizens, have to convince their fellow citizens that what they propose is best for the common good -- for all of us, not just for the religious.
If you can't tell from my last post, and the comments that follow, I feel really divided about this thinking. A couple years ago, I (the undergrad Public Policy major) would have made this very same argument. Today, I am still persuaded that speaking in the language of "morality" or the "common good" is the only way to achieve positive outcomes in the public square.

And yet, the question still stands: what happens when our faith requires us to work towards something that is not really best for the common good? For example, the "common good" of the Church is global, while the "common good" of the U.S. government is really limited to citizens or residents of the country. Apart from Christian ethics, how would you ever convince an American that the life of a child in Iran or Zimbabwe is as valuable as the life of a child in Indiana?

In other words, by participating in the moral debates of our pluralistic society (even if we do so by making religious arguments that nevertheless appeal to nonreligious people), do we learn habits that eventualy render us incapable of making distinctly Christian and unpopular arguments when the need arises?

23 June 2008

Jim Wallis is about to flip out.

AP: Dobson accuses Obama of 'distorting' Bible
A couple of thoughts:
  1. People at Sojourners/Call to Renewal loved this speech when Obama delivered it in 2006. Not only was it exciting to have him at the conference; what he said resonated pretty well with the kinds of things Jim Wallis had been saying in recent years.
  2. There are many other people Dobson could've accused of having a "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution."
  3. Jim Wallis is going to fly off the handle tomorrow.
  4. When you cut through the typical Dobson crap, there is an important bit of truth to his critique - truth that applies to Sojourners as well as to Obama. The idea that religious people must translate their beliefs into the language of universal morality in the public square is nothing more than a dangerous temptation.
Watch Jim argue for this sort of translation in January 2008:

The danger of this approach is described well by my favorite quote from William T. Cavanaugh's Theopolitical Imagination: In the public square, "Christian symbols must be run through the sausage-grinder of social ethics before coming out on the other side as publicly digestible policy." In other words, when we change in order to play by the rules of liberal, pluralistic, secular society, we never end up saying what we mean to say. Instead, we end up saying things like, "Barack Obama is our hope for the future."

I understand the political pragmatism. Believe me. But for my money, I'm a lot more comfortable these days with something like what Tim Kumfer wrote about on the God's Politics blog this afternoon. Our real work is to explore the political dimensions of personal relationships. The transformation of public policies will follow.

22 June 2008

A good day.

Today was a good day at the church. First, I was responsible for the children's message for the first time this summer. The following things are all true:
  1. I literally lost sleep worrying about this task.
  2. I had to wear one of those wireless microphones that mounts on your ear.
  3. The message actually went over really well.
  4. A young child pointed out to me that my assertion that Christians all around the world were gathering for church "right now" was, in fact, inaccurate, because at that moment it was far too late at night for the Sri Lankans to be in church.
  5. I had the opportunity to describe Durham, NC as "a wonderful place where all the people do is read the Bible all day, and win basketball games."
The day got even better this afternoon when I showed up for the church's first softball game of the summer. I haven't had the best experiences with softball in the past. But by some miracle, in the five years since I last attempted the game, I learned how to hit! I had a double and a triple, and reached on a fielder's choice, and we won 12-6. I'm still a little too scared of the ball to make a very good second baseman, but we've got a few weeks to work on that.

21 June 2008

Re: Young people; Let's assume Myspace is an analogy for everything they will ever do!

I talked to this AJC reporter for almost a full hour, and thought I said a lot of good things about why I'm not ready to give up on traditional church models or give in to consumer-based church models because I believe in resurrection, but that didn't really make it into the article. He also interviewed Sierra but didn't mention her in the article at all. He also thinks I am from Cobb County, Ga. So it goes.

AJC: Meet the next generation of Christian leaders

David Allen, 25, a Fund for Theological Education fellow at Duke University, recalls going to Washington with his church youth group from Cobb County. A tour took them past the marble halls of power, then it wended into some of D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods, to tattered streets where hope was wrung out long ago.

"That was jarring to me ... and this was three miles from the White House and Congress," Allen said.

It helped point him toward the pulpit. If he doesn't wake his future congregations up to broader social problems, he will consider his ministry less than successful, he said.

I wish the article weren't quite so soaked in this language of generational difference. I think the assumption is that our generation's church is going to be distinct in the same way as our generation's culture and society are unique. I could pick it up in the reporter's questions that the story would tell of young people ready to do church their way, which is an attitude I find highly problematic. This article actually made me feel less hopeful about the future of the mainline Protestant church in the U.S. "The church leaders of tomorrow: who knows what the hell they will do?"

19 June 2008

Aesthetic grace

If you have ever pondered the aesthetic particularities of the most meaningful worship experiences you remember (e.g. "How did people come to know the Lord before 'Amazing Grace' was written?"), then you should read this short essay by Tobias Wolff. It's not long. Read it all.

This ran in the June 9th New Yorker among a collection of essays on "Faith and Doubt" (thanks, Steve). The message is more than merely "Different strokes, different folks." It's that grace moves in dynamic and frighteningly unpredictable ways. A sermon, a poem, a painting, or an anthem can be meaningless to one person and life-changing to the next. Even more alarming, that creation can be meaningless to me now, but in another moment, under another set of circumstances, can take on great significance. Can it be that factors like timing and individual attitude - that is to say, chance - matter as much as or more than the content of our carefully prepared sermons, poems, paintings, and anthems?

Most of my feelings about worship center around the insistence that worship be about God, not us, assuming that by orienting ourselves toward God, we get whatever it is that we really need. Wolff's essay, on the other hand, starts and ends with "what we really need," suggesting that the particulars of those needs may vary from person to person and moment to moment. While that contingency frightens me - I like the idea of at least being capable of "meeting people where they are" - I'm just going to choose to take it as good news that God works through human creativity, and often in spite of it, over the long haul.

17 June 2008

AP story on FTE conference

I don't think the word "coax" appears in FTE's mission statement, but it does appear in the AP headline.

Ga. group aims to coax more seminarians to pulpit

Here's one of the photos they took. The back of my head is in the foreground.

16 June 2008

The serious vocation post.

During last week's FTE Conference, I had a lot to mull over. Spending every hour with this group of seminarians yielded almost endless opportunities for hearing other people's stories and thoughts on ministry, and for having people listen to my own story and thoughts. It probably sounds lame to anyone reading this, but trust me when I say that it was a really fruitful and meaningful time for me. Ever since I finalized my decision to go to divinity school in December 2006, I have been in a sort of holding pattern in terms of my vocational discernment. Just getting myself into an M.Div. program was a major step, and I deserved a break from "figuring it out." Last week's conference injected some new energy into that exploration for me.

I feel confident now in saying that I have a calling to serve the church. There's just nothing I care about more, and no greater need that I can see. I'll be continuing to hash out what that means professionally, but it feels good to shed some of the contingency with which I have spoken about all this up until now.

One of the things I heard multiple times from friends at the conference last week was that I have gifts I need to claim or embrace, and that I'm more cautious, hesitant, or self-deprecating than I ought to be. That's a hard thing for me to adjust, because I really do strive for humility. But it reminds me of a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written a month before his execution. Not great poetry, but powerful nonetheless.

Who am I?

They often tell me I would step from my cell's confinement

calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I?

They often tell me I would talk to my warden

freely and friendly and clearly,

as though it were mine to command.

Who am I?

They also tell me I would bear the days of misfortune

equably, smilingly, proudly,

like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of,

or am I only what I know of myself,

restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,

yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,

tossing in expectation of great events,

powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

faint and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once?

A hypocrite before others, and before myself

a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

Pets = political pawns

Al Gore weighed in on the 2008 election tonight, long after his endorsement could've had any measurable impact on the race. I guess he is more impressed with Obama's environmental commitment than he was by John McCain's May speech: "if polar bears, walruses and seabirds have the good sense to respond to new conditions ... humanity can respond as well."

Gore's speech in Detroit featured a refrain near and dear to his heart: "elections matter." In the course of demonstrating this point, he made a somewhat surprising claim. "If you bought tainted pet food made in China, you know that elections matter. After the last eight years, even our dogs and cats have learned that elections matter."

You heard it here. Bush lied. Kittens died.

15 June 2008

Back online

Just returned tonight from Atlanta, where I was for the past week. I was at the 2008 Ministry Conference of The Fund for Theological Education. I have been fortunate enough to receive a fellowship from these folks, and this conference was the first step of what I expect to be a really wonderful relationship with them over the next year. The Fund is supported primarily by the Lilly Endowment, and their aim is to support and equip young people for church leadership.

The best part of the conference was the new friends I met from all over: the conservative Lutheran from Canada, the Catholic-turned-Unitarian from Denver, the women who had moved from (or remained in) denominations that would not ordain them. And my roommate, who was an undergrad at Howard while I was living a mile away in Columbia Heights.

I did a lot of thinking and writing while at the conference, and so the experience may yield a couple posts here during the week. I also did an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but I'm not sure if/when that story might run. We'll see.

For the record, past FTE Fellows of note include: James Forbes, Michael Battle, L. Gregory Jones, Walter Brueggemann, Frederick Buechner, Robert Franklin, Peter Gomes, Jesse Jackson, and Jeremiah Wright. There are also lots of female alums who I'm sure are very distinguished, but I didn't recognize their names.

04 June 2008

Obama in the Highest?

There's been some enjoyable coverage during this campaign of the almost messianic cult surrounding Obama's political ascendancy. Here's a blog committed to the topic.

Better still is Marc Ambinder's post, noting the parallels between a moment of VERY lofty promises in Obama's Minnesota speech and another, earlier bold vision for the future.

03 June 2008

Christians in the Oval Office

After weathering months of criticism surrounding comments by their pastor (and, more recently, comments by another Chicago priest who vocally supports Obama and vocally criticizes America), Barack & Michelle Obama have officially left Trinity UCC. Presumably, either their genuine disgust reached a tipping point, or they finally came to realize that these sorts of stories and questions are never going to go away.

In explaining the move, Senator Obama said: "What I want to do in church is I want to be able to take Michelle and my girls, sit in a pew quietly, hopefully get some nice music, some good reflection, praise God, thank Him for all of the blessings He has given our family, put some money in the collection plate, maybe afterwards go out and grab some brunch, have my girls go to Sunday school. That's what I am looking for."

I couldn't have put it better myself if I were trying to describe what most of us liberal middle class Protestants want in a church experience. The Obama campaign is in luck, because this also seems to be the type of church membership that Americans hope their President displays.

I'm sad to see the Obamas leave their church, but it should be a real wake-up call to Christians supporting political candidates (myself included): the President's first allegiance is to the nation, not to God, but the electorate and media cannot trust a candidate who has even been in the same room as someone who suggests any different allegiances. That's why the idea of a "Christian president" is dubious.

The Daily Show offered a light-hearted but incisive commentary a couple weeks ago (VIDEO):

Jon Stewart: "Why is it ok for other presidents, even other candidates in the race, to actively seek endorsements from preachers and spiritual advisers who have made equally inflammatory statements? Why is that okay?"

John Hodgman: "Well, because those candidates weren't members of those spiritual advisers' congregations. Obama actually went to church for twenty years; he listened to sermons; he got involved with the ministry. Heh. Rookie mistake. I mean, it makes you wonder if he's really the kind of Christian Americans want in the oval office."

02 June 2008

Teach us to pray.

Went on my first hospital visit today, tagging along with one of the associate pastors. The visit went well. At the end, the pastor asked the church member if he would like to pray, and then asked him "What do you need?" He was hoping for a discharge today, and needed the anesthesiologist to come by to do something in order for that to happen. So we circled, held hands, and prayed for the anesthesiologist to come and take care of him soon.

Having spent almost no time in hospitals in my life, I don't have much of an idea of what it is people want from their pastor when they're not well. But that prayer in the hospital room made me wonder something else: should we be praying for God to deliver on immediate, specific requests in this way? The bottom line is that I don't have the same faith in intercessory prayer that I used to. Where I used to lay prayers before God, now I feel like I want to understand first why this is a Christian practice.

A couple different thoughts come to mind for me. One is something I heard Tony Campolo say not too long ago. He was poking light at the prayers we say. Paraphrasing: "We'll pray, 'Oh, Lord, please be with Mary this week, as she has had chest pains and has to have double bypass surgery.' As if God is sitting up in Heaven and jumps up out of his chair -- 'You're kidding! I should get on that. Which hospital is she in?'" That resonates with me. I can't decide what I think I am doing by praying for a particular person. God already knows. On the other hand, Thomas Merton said somewhere (probably in The Seven Storey Mountain) that it is a special kind of arrogance to think your concerns don't warrant fervent prayer to God: this is another way of saying, "We've got things under control down here, thank you very much."

Today was the first day I realized that my desire for theological integrity and intentionality is manifesting itself as skepticism of some fundamental, revered practices. In other words, while I was trying distill these questions on prayer this afternoon, the anesthesiologist made his/her way up to the sixth floor and enabled our friend to go home.