29 July 2008

It's okay, Barack. Jesus had trouble finding privacy in Israel, too.

It's hard to assess to what extent this is true, but I like to think that as a student at Duke Divinity School, I am part of a community that will hold me to a higher standard than the old "I will not lie, cheat, or steal..." of the Duke honor code. When our present community covenant was introduced in 2003, it was met with quite a bit of resistance - much of it from the undergrads on the staff of the school newspaper, who just didn't get it. (How presumptive for the school to think that it can meddle in the moral formation of its students!)

I was reminded of all this by a small story that emerged from Obama's trip to Jerusalem. He took part in the custom of writing a prayer to God and placing it in a crack of the Western Wall. A local seminary student went to the wall, found Obama's note, and shared it with a newspaper, which printed it. This is viewed as a profound desecration of a very holy place; the Duke equivalent might be if a student snuck a tape recorder into Coach K's confessional booth at church. Public confession and atonement are often necessary for these kinds of breaches. So yesterday the yeshiva student appeared (anonymously) on Israeli television to apologize. He also seems to have taken the opportunity to endorse Obama's candidacy. Whatever.

25 July 2008

What's that smell?

Lost in all the noise surrounding the New Yorker's insufficiently satirically covered July 21 issue was an intriguing book review by Elizabeth Kolbert about the anti-lawn movement. ("How could we have missed such a hard-hitting article?" you ask.) She touches on perhaps a half-dozen different books from the last couple years that form part of this movement's growing corpus of literature. I never had stopped to wonder about the history of our classic grassy lawn. As it turns out, none of the common American grasses is indigenous to North America, and lawns were invented in the mid-19th century.

Around the time I was reading this article, I had a conversation with my host Mary Beth about the front lawn at our house here in Indianapolis. Instead of grass, they have a lawn full of thyme. Now, it's not the most ecologically noble endeavor; they wanted to grow something they could park a car on, and they put an industrial-strength plastic grid just underneath the topsoil to ensure that this would be possible. But after experiencing a summer with this thing, I can say that a thyme lawn has downsides, such as being uncomfortable as hell to lie down in, but it also has upsides: when you walk across the lawn, it smells like pork chops.

Winding down.

There will be no full-blown Summer Wrap-Up post. But it is the case that Thursday was my last day in the office, and Sunday will be my final worship services at the church. My last act as an intern will probably be on the softball diamond Sunday afternoon.

I've learned a lot this summer, including new words such as Carb Day, tornadic, and cornholing. I also learned some things about life in the church. When I consider all I've learned, and all the people I've met, May 10 (when I drove out here) feels like it was a very long time ago. At the same time, I've been saying that I really only felt like I "hit stride" out here during the final month, and from that perspective, it feels pretty abrupt to be finishing up right now.

In either case, I am ready to go, and looking forward to a little time in New Jersey, a place where we don't need weathermen with special adjectives telling us to get in the basement right now.

24 July 2008

You could call it that.

St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, N. Illinois Street, Indianapolis:

But where's Yugoslavia?

Check out this drag & drop interactive map quiz. It covers the mysterious and geopolitically insignificant area from northern Africa to central Asia.

Got this on email via Heather, via Melissa, via Jacob.

23 July 2008

Well, we all make mistakes.

Bob Novak is having a bad week.

After starting rumors on Monday that a McCain VP announcement was imminent (a claim from which he has since backed off), the columnist apparently hit a pedestrian with his Corvette at 18th and K streets in D.C. this morning, and drove a full block before someone stopped him. Oops.

UDPATE: The bicyclist who stopped Novak at the scene is a 1982 Duke graduate.

Final week in Indy

I'm told that in past summers, the church has had their Duke intern preach on the final Sunday of the internship. I'm glad that I was able to preach on my second-to-last Sunday, so that I could focus on the sermon without simultaneously needing to focus on packing and goodbyes.

However, I'd been pouring so much of my time into preparing the sermon (and the final session of Bible 101) that I really don't have much to do this weekend. Apart from some final evaluation type things, there is nothing immediately obvious that I should be doing, and there's not much incentive to go find things to do. I feel done.

So, this is a good week for reflection & wrap-up discussions with folks here at the church, and I'm grateful to have the time to do that. I'm also looking forward to packing up the station wagon and heading back east in five days.

21 July 2008

Speaking of offensive caricatures...

A new web site, apparently supported by some folks with interests in ethanol, is called Nozzle Rage. I missed this, but it is almost two weeks old. Included in the site is a professionally produced video that aims to portray how Average Americans seem to have no choice but to buy foreign oil, thereby financing Hamas, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, who will extort us for more money, strangle us, and (apparently) sodomize us. Most of the web chatter I could find about this video was pretty positive.

I'm not a fan of dependence on foreign oil. (Or of domestic ethanol. Or of light-hearted references to gang-rape). But setting all that aside: don't you think this bit of puppetry might be in poor taste?

New Yorker, get back to what you do best: making fun of people who don't read The New Yorker.

I've been fairly surprised by the size of the dust-up over the Obama New Yorker cover. Most of the articles about the whole affair haven't been particularly helpful, but I did enjoy Lee Siegel's piece in the NYT this weekend. Recognizing that the cover offended or bothered a lot of people, I'd been thinking about how the same cartoon could've been done in a more unambiguous way, and I assumed it would need to be more outrageous: a gay marriage happening out the window, a placard that said "President HUSSEIN Obama," a poor person being treated by a physician, stuff like that.

Siegel says that the problem isn't that the cartoon is insufficiently outrageous. It's that "The New Yorker represented the right-wing caricature of the Obamas while making the fatal error of not also caricaturing the right wing ... But if that very same New Yorker cover had been drawn in a balloon over the head of a deranged citizen - or a ruthless political operative - it would have appeared as plausible only in the mind of that person." I'll buy that.

However, Siegel also makes a curious argument about whether the caricature of the Obamas is even viable fodder for satire. He says that since it has only been propagated by the "lunatic fringe" and "lunatic establishment" of Fox News, it cannot be satirized; satire only works when pointing out the absurdity of something widely accepted. How, according to Siegel, do when know when an idea is widely accepted? Once it has been published by the New York Times, of course.

For the record, the NYT's circulation is just over 1 million on weekdays, and 1.6 million on Sundays. Fox News averages almost 2 million primetime viewers every night of the week. That doesn't get them out of the "lunatic" category, but it does get them off the "fringe" list.

Odds & Ends

I'd call it a Monday Roundup if I had ever done this before, or ever planned to do it again.
  • Reporters staked out the D.C. police office to interview the first person to register a handgun, but they missed him -- because it wasn't a man, it was a woman.
  • Obama's speech in Berlin later this week is expected to draw "between 10,000 and a million" listeners. In related news, tonight's game between the Indianapolis Indians and the Charlotte Knights should attract between 5,000 and a gajillion baseball fans.
  • Speaking of baseball, the Mets have won 11 out of the last 13, and are tied with the Phillies for first place. The Mets and Phillies begin a three-game series in Queens tonight Tuesday.
  • Apparently in the West we have a wild horse problem, and the government is holding some 30,000 horses in federal detention centers. NPR could not confirm that a single lawyer has been able to visit with any of the horses.

20 July 2008

Sermon audio!

Sermon went pretty well today. Thanks to everyone who sent a good word my way last week! If you're interested, you can listen to the audio by clicking this link. (Or right-click it to download the file, which is almost 5 MB.)


Otherwise, you can also find it on iTunes by searching for "North Church Sermons Indianapolis."

Also, here's the text.

17 July 2008

Just believe in the Bible, okay?

The biggest issue I've had to wrestle with this summer has been how to understand the authority of Scripture. It's a lively question here at the church; many in the congregation are retired clergy, and many others have gone to seminary. There's a strong current of folks who find Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong to be the most helpful biblical theologians. They are great people, really active in the ministries of the church, and really sincere in their desire to grow as disciples. But they're alarmingly comfortable with dismantling biblical texts in order to identify the "spirit" of the text - God's real meaning. I have yet to meet someone who has uncovered a "spiritual reading" that convicts them of anything.

So that's been the backdrop for my teaching the Bible 101 class, and my preparation for this Sunday's sermon. I've heard the horror stories of seminary interns or new pastors who come out into the church, guns blazing, trying to set everyone right. It's always a disaster. I think I am more humble and sensitive than that. But how do I encourage people to see the presuppositions they are bringing to the Bible - that it must make rational sense, for example, or that God must be "moral" by some objective standard - and to consider a different presupposition: that this is the word of God, for the people of God?

I emailed one of my preceptors from the Divinity School to ask him if he had a book recommendation - something that might be a sort of indirect response to Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. He came back with a superb suggestion: N.T. Wright's The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. I'm almost done with it. At only 140 pages, it is an ambitiously concise survey of the history of approaches to Scripture, including his assessment of how we find ourselves snarled by the false choice of literalism-or-liberalism. The final chapter contains a lot of specific ideas for moving forward, but I haven't read that yet.

In the meantime, check it:
“There is a great gulf fixed between those who want to prove the historicity of everything reported in the Bible in order to demonstrate that the Bible is ‘true’ after all and those who, committed to living under the authority of scripture, remain open to what scripture itself actually teaches and emphasizes. Which is the bottom line: ‘proving the Bible to be true’ (often with the effect of saying, ‘So we can go on thinking what we’ve always thought’), or taking it so seriously that we allow it to tell us things we’d never heard before and didn’t particularly want to hear?” (Wright, 95)

14 July 2008

"Vertical farms"?

Don't know much about it, but I'm just going to assume this is a bad idea. I mean, a bad idea: the kind that our kids will laugh at, the way we look back at the early, schematic drawings of whimsical flying contraptions.

It seems like a decent idea - after all, it's someone talking about investing heavily in a form of local agriculture, and that is good news. But if we're talking about "hundreds of millions of dollars" to build even one of this guy's dream agri-skyscrapers, I have to think: why can't we generate half that capital to support traditional small farms that have proximity to cities? Let's give it to Liz's farm!

Tangentially, this is remarkable:
"Stephen Colbert jokingly asserted that vertical farming was elitist when Dr. Despommier appeared in June on 'The Colbert Report,' a visit that led to a jump in hits to the project’s Web site from an average of 400 daily to 400,000 the day after the show."

Recap: Bible 101, Week Three

For some reason I had a smaller group for class this Sunday: about nine people, instead of the 15 or 20 I’d had the first two weeks. As Heather pointed out to me last night, a week ago I was frustrated with how sidetracked our conversation had gotten when discussing the OT, and was wishing for fewer students so that we could have a better conversation. So, that’s what I got, and on the balance I think it probably was a better conversation.

In trying to give them a background against which to read the NT, I decided to start by talking about Acts, and almost all of our time ended up being consumed by the details of Acts and what we know about the earliest days of the Church. I feel pretty good about this; I’d rather spend time focusing on the actual biblical witness than talking about the quest for the “historical Jesus” or some similar diversion.

Things hit a bit of a snag when we got to the end of Acts, where I asserted that Paul made it to Rome and preached the Gospel there (true), that Acts says nothing of the end of his life, but that he mostly likely was executed (true), and that he didn’t want to be executed in the same manner as Jesus, so he made them crucify him upside down (false; that was Peter).

This week’s handout is a one-page spreadsheet of the books of the New Testament with information about their approximate date and probable author.

13 July 2008

Pastor Conan O'Brien?

Perhaps they have a church mascot.
N. Washington Blvd, Indianapolis.
Posted by Picasa

Flip-flopping is for girly-men.

Actually, it's not - Arnold says so.

On ABC this morning, host George Stephanopolous and guest Arnold Schwarzeneggar compared notes on who has bigger arms (Arnold) and the longer last name (tie).

Schwarzeneggar also defended a candidate's right to change his mind over time:
"Let me tell you something. Flip-flopping is getting a bad rap, because I think it is great. Someone has made a mistake. I mean, someone has, for 20 or 30 years, been in the wrong place with his idea and with his ideology and says, 'You know something? I changed my mind. I am now for this.' As long as he's honest or she's honest, I think that is a wonderful thing. You can change your mind..."
I really appreciate this, and I think it's something important to keep in mind when the whole world cries 'foul' over an apparent shift in a candidate's position. That's not to say that we should give them a free pass; just recognize that it's not necessarily a bad thing when someone's thinking evolves.

Via Political Punch.

Two weeks to go.

As of the conclusion of worship today, I officially have only a fortnight left in Indianapolis.

12 July 2008


So I am persuaded by Mark Bittman's crusade to cut back meat consumption (and his advice for how to do it).

But there is competing evidence. Whom to believe?

Of course, taste and quantity are two separate issues. So maybe the answer is to eat less meat, but eat the Real Good parts when you do. That probably excludes the Genoa salami I bought at Kroger today.

(I know, this is not relevant to field ed or to the election. We'll all get over it.)

11 July 2008

Play time

This morning our Children's Pastor led a training session in the children's teaching method we use with the 1-3 graders. It's called Godly Play. It has been around for a couple decades, and they use it for the kids at Duke Chapel, among other places, but I really didn't know anything about it.

It's a really interesting program in that it structures the whole class time with great intentionality, from the moment each child enters the room (one-by-one, with a personal greeting) until they leave (one-by-one, with an individual blessing). Each week they move the hand on a big clock-like liturgical calendar. The main part of each class is the story, when a storyteller recites (from memory) the Godly Play story for that week. The stories all use unique sets of figurines & props. The stories are written by the Godly Play curriculum, and they are based on either biblical narratives, parables of Jesus, or (occasionally) on more abstract concepts, like "I am the light of the world."

I was really shocked by how theological it is. I really don't know how to relate to children as people, and I have very little concept of what they can understand or remember. But compared with the high-fructose VBS curricula that are out there, Godly Play is just wonderfully solid. It is totally oriented towards creating a reverent, sacred space in the children's classroom. To be honest, the only thing other than church worship that it reminds me of is Mr. Rogers: when the show shifted over to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, you knew that something special was happening. It's like that.

Anyone else have any experience with this program?

09 July 2008

Is America Ready for a [fill-in-the-blank] President?

Black: sure! Extremely old? Questionable.

A Gallup poll released today indicates that a higher percentage of Americans believe McCain's age will make him a less effective president than believe that Obama's race will make him a less effective president.

I have a hard time believing ageism is more pernicious than racism in this country. On the other hand, ageism is extremely ingrained and often overlooked. In part, it is ingrained and overlooked because it has some limited merit: in general, a person's age does impact his/her capabilities in a way that race does not.

Interestingly, if you scroll down through the poll results, they break it out by candidate preference. McCain supporters pretty much agree with Obama supporters that Obama's race does not impact his effectiveness as president. But 37 percent of Obama supporters believe McCain's age to be a negative factor, compared with only 8 percent of McCain supporters.

What gives? Is this a reasonable judgment to make about a 72 year-old man who wants to take on one of the most taxing jobs in public life? Or do Obama's young, progressive, enlightened supporters have a blind spot when it comes to valuing the elderly?

Pastoral Care

I knew at the outset of this summer that among the many duties of a minister, pastoral care is my biggest blind spot. The situations in which people need their pastor to be present - illness, divorce, imminent death of a loved one, unexpected death of a loved one - these are, for the most part, foreign to my experience. Furthermore (or perhaps as a result), I don't really know quite what they hope the pastor will do or say during a visit, and intercessory prayer presents something of a challenge to me.

But I'm learning. Next week I'm going to spend half the day with our Pastor of Care & Nurture, and this afternoon I will go to a nursing home with another associate pastor. But I wanted to get something in here about my trip to the hospital last Wednesday afternoon.

We (the associate pastor & I) visited a woman who had been in a coma since having a stroke on that Sunday. She was in her forties, and had had a really tough time over the years with alcohol and with heartbreak. It had taken a toll on her body, and here she was, being watched over in the hospital by her mother. That Wednesday morning, the doctors had told her that the brain damage from Sunday's stroke was something from which she would not recover, so by the time we arrived, they were mostly just watching her breathing, to make sure that she stayed alive until her brother arrived from Wisconsin. She passed on Saturday morning.

Both mother and daughter have had a long relationship with the church, but the mother is very active here, and right now is totally standing on the church, and on God, to support her; in the last eighteen months she has lost a husband, a grandson, and a daughter. Today we will plan the funeral.

I don't have any grand lessons from the visit, but it was a confusing time. I was uncomfortable, and scared by the situation; I have never been in the room with a dying person before, or been part of a conversation about a person's imminent death. When we got out of the room, I was sweaty and choked up. On the other hand, it was a very peaceful time. There was no uncertainty about what was going to happen, and the mother's sorrowful resignation to God was really a profession of faith. Those really are sacred, grace-filled moments.

08 July 2008

Recap: Bible 101, Week Two

This week's topic was the Old Testament. I figured that the most profitable thing for everyone would be to spend the time trying to get our minds around the basic contours of the story of Israel. I'm talking mainly about the political history: enslavement, exodus, entry into Canaan, monarchy, exile, etc. Any piece of the Old Testament, from the short stories we learn in Sunday School to the prophetic books and even the wisdom literature, cannot be fully understood except in relation to this long narrative of God's gracious election of Israel to be a light unto the nations.

We did some of that, and you can view the information I prepared here. But predictably, we also spent quite a bit of time discussing the interpretive challenges that the OT poses for (some) modern Christian readers. When I asked what these challenges are, class members quickly brought up divinely sanctioned violence, divine anger & retribution, and the male focus of the narrative. Nobody directly brought up the question of how to see Christ in the OT while still respecting the OT's integrity as Hebrew Scripture. But in a way, all those questions are related to our impulse to disregard the difficult parts of the OT -- to consider it, in a word, old.

We ran into a few pretty strongly held alternative perspectives. I understand the desire to feel free to pick and choose which Scriptures are normative for me, but I am surprised with how comfortably people talk about actually doing that. There doesn't seem to be much sense that such an approach even needs defending. I didn't respond as well as I wish I could have; how can I take three or four Divinity School lectures and turn them into bite-sized nuggets that I can use in a setting like this? Sometimes you have to throw up your hands and say, "Well, yes, if I thought God was some sort of ethereal process, then I probably would feel free to do whatever I wanted with the Bible, too." I was helped a lot by having Heather in class with me; she was visiting Chicago and Indianapolis over the holiday weekend, and she brings a lot of knowledge about the Bible and biblical studies to the table. Also, she don't mess around.

I'm starting to see that each week, we are getting into the topic I intended to cover in week four: how to approach the Bible both critically and faithfully. I don't have any idea yet what we will do during that class, but I actually am preaching that day, and my subject is our reverence for Scripture. That's fortuitous, but it leaves me thinking, "What do I say during the hour-long class that is different than what I say during the sermon?" Maybe I can just give them an hour of B-material that didn't make it into the sermon itself.

Next week is the New Testament. I'm not sure what direction we'll head yet, but I think I am going to put on the brakes a little bit. This is supposed to be introductory, background information, not a discussion of hermeneutics.