Saturday, October 31, 2009

Notsanim

I find myself in the peculiar position of being an Anglo pastor in a congregation that is almost entirely Asian, and majority Korean. I'm fine with this, as I actually have a tremendous respect for Korean culture. Koreans are intensely passionate, creative, and musical people. They are, as I am fond of saying, essentially the Scots-Irish of Southeast Asia. They've got all the ferocity of the Celts, uncomfortably co-mingled with a convoluted system of familial hierarchy and a taut Confucian reserve. It's a tension that can be either radiantly creative or as explosive as a kimchi jjigae suppository. Whichever way, things are never, ever dull when you're around Koreans.

When my 1.5 and 2.0 congregation introduces me to Korean speakers, I am often introduced as moksanim, which means either "good shepherd" or "pastor," best I can tell. I'm fine with that. It's kinda cool. I always feel honored and humbled whenever I hear it. I'm never quite sure, though, whether my moksanim-ness is quite the same as the moksanim-ness of some of my Korean pastor co-religionists.

I got a sense of that one Sunday a few years ago when a toilet in the men's bathroom nearest to the sanctuary overflowed prior to a service. I was the one there early, so I immediately got a mop and started cleaning. One of the members of the Korean-speaking congregation came across me doing this, and seemed both amused and appalled. I wasn't supposed to be cleaning! That..well..wasn't my place. There were people I should be telling to do that. I explained, gently, that if my house had a mess, it was my duty to clean it up. That seemed to both surprise and register.

That line of thought has surfaced repeatedly over the past several years, as I've been chastised for not being sufficiently authoritarian. Just tell people what to do! Make sure they do it! You're the pastor! In some ways, it's a fair critique. My weakness as a manager and as a pastor has always been that I am too quick to forgive. Sometimes, a good butt-kicking is both necessary and efficacious.

But in other ways, I wonder if some of the hierarchical expectations of that particular culture don't resonate with the teachings of Jesus. There are strong echoes of the desire to have someone ordering folks around still stirring in my 2.0 church. That desire for a demigod pastor runs strong in Korean culture, which serves up authoritarian corporate megachurches that make Rick Warren look like the vicar of a little village.

In spite of that, I feel deep in my being that the calling to be a pastor is the calling to be a servus servorum, a servant of the servants. When you start being too important or too holy to slop a mop across the floor or get your hands dirty or run a simple errand, you stop living out Christ's servanthood.

He did wash folks stinky, crusty feet, after all.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Call

One of the oddest things about the way the Good Lord lines up pastors with communities is that it works so very differently than we tend to expect.

My denomination has a "call process," which appears to be most closely modeled on the federal government's approach to hiring. It's an endless cycle of committees and requirements and measures that, taken individually, make sense. There's a good solid reason behind everything we do, and it all seems very official and circumspect. What it results in, though, is frustration for everyone involved...and not sufficiently better results than if folks just looked at a few resumes and made a decision. Call does not work the way we force it to work. It can work through the process, sure. But the two things are not the same.

It also doesn't work in the same way church shopping works. Pastors often ask themselves this key question: Would I attend the church I am serving? The idea behind this is simple. A pastor needs to be excited about their congregation. They need to instantly love it, and be filled with joy at the prospect of it growing and flourishing. If the community isn't a match for them, and they feel out of place or in some way distant, then they're going to stagnate or grow frustrated or be less vested in it's flourishing.

For that love to take place, the argument is simple: The pastor needs to feel that this church is their church. It's the place where they go for spiritual sustenance and fellowship with People Like Them, the place where folks are always glad they came and people are all the same and everybody knows their name.

That does not even come close to describing my church. When I started, my congregation was a tiny struggling group of elderly Anglos. The church was riven with conflict-echoes and despair after a particularly ugly break with the previous pastor. If I'd shown up on a Sunday looking...as a lay person...for a vibrant progressive community, one with a heart for Christ and for neighbor, I'd not have sensed it. I'd have felt mostly the aching pain of loss and desperation. As a church product for the savvy consumer, it had little to offer.

Now, my church is bigger, but not by much. Coming in this Sunday, I'd walk in the door...as folks do about once a month...and instantly see that with the exception of the anomalous White Guy up front, it was Not Me. Though it aspires to be multiethnic, it is almost entirely Korean. It is also very, very young...bordering on feeling like a youth group, even though it most certainly ain't. The worship is mostly contemporary, meaning heavy on the Chris Tomlin and Hillsong. It's still a little church rattling around in a big sanctuary. As a shopper for churches, I'd have sniffed it, found the scent unfamiliar, and moved on swiftly, as dozens and dozens have...sometimes before the service is even half over.

But being called to serve a congregation does not work that way. It just doesn't. Nowhere in the great story that runs from Torah through the Epistles can I find any evidence of that. Not a single call...at least, none that mattered...worked that way. Not Abraham or Moses or Jacob, not Isaiah or Jeremiah, not Paul, and most certainly not Christ.

The "process" is not like something an HR department does. It's also not like the market process by which we select consumer products. Call is more...heck...mystic than that. More God-related. It's a work of the Holy Spirit. It's an urging. It's a hunger. It's a strange compulsion driven by dreams and obscure theophanies.

And where that compulsion takes us is to places where everyone is not Just Like Us. Where things are difficult. Where we are forced to grow, and struggle, and grow some more. Where exposure to the Other and the Different makes us realize that what is not familiar is not automatically evil, and that we can come to care deeply and passionately for those who are not already neatly part of our marketing demographic.

As, over the last six years, I have.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hallelujah Nights

Around the country, there are thousands of evangelical/charismatic churches putting on "Hallelujah Nights" this Saturday evening. The reasons given vary, but there's a common theme.

It's the "highest crime night" of the year, says a church in Florida. Come be safe! Candy from a Bible Teacher is safer than candy from a stranger, says a church in Des Moines. Who knows what that scary person who lives next door might be putting in the Snickers? A Texas church lets us know that it is providing a safe alternative to the "mischief, danger, and wickedness" that comes when folks do...other things. A church in Bridgeport is providing a "safe alternative." Two churches in Albany are providing a place to go to insure that "nothing happens" to your children.

The common theme to this particular set of Hallelujah Nights is not celebration. It's fear and insularity. And, unspoken in their advertising, the whole "Satan's Night" thing, that delusion that somehow what goes on in the 'burbs on October 31st is a major pagan festival from which Christians need to cower in terror.

I actually see nothing wrong with Christians enjoying a good, wholesome evening of fun on October 31st. Keep the spirit of the event pleasant, and ditch the Golden Rule Violation pranking and destruction. But Hallelujah Night? What bugs me most are two things:

1) The name "Hallelujah Night." It's goofy. Just plain goofy, in the un-self-aware way so often manifested by low-attention-span Christianity. Christians came up with the name Halloween, dagflabbit. The evening has ALREADY been renamed by Jesus people. European pagans never called it that. For them it was Samhain, the festival of the dead. In an effort to transform that holiday and coopt it, we Christians reclaimed it and renamed it All Hallows Eve. Hallows just means "Holy Ones." It's the night before All Saints Day, when we celebrate the Christians who have come before, those mystics and holy ones and great teachers of the faith who built the church. But Christians do not know this, because we are reflexively and willfully ignorant of the history of the church. As far as we're concerned, Christianity begins and ends with us, and two thousand years of the faith may as well not have happened.

If we want to have an event around All Hallows Eve, then we should. If we want to give our kids something that's not too scary and our women an opportunity to dress up as something other than a sexy nurse, sexy vampire, sexy zombie, or sexy Fox News Commentator, then fine. But call it what it is. All Hallows Eve. Or even Halloween. It's been Jesus-fied already, eh?

2) It's Anti-Evangelical. Hallelujah nights play into that squirrelly profit-media-driven American fear of the other. We have to keep the kids safe! Terror all around, back after these messages! But frightened people make for lousy evangelists. If we hole ourselves up and hide away from our neighbors, we cannot possibly be getting to know them. We're doing the opposite. We're looking out at our neighbors and fearing them. They might be pedophiles! Or rapists! Or Satanists! Or Democrats!

This sends a message, and that message is not the Gospel.

If your community sacrifices goats on the streets and your neighbors run around naked and gibbering with their long silver knives shining moon-struck in the autumnal darkness, then by all means have an All Hallows Eve event sequestered away in your church. I'd also suggest that you consider moving.

If not, this is an opportunity to get to know people around you. Not hittin' 'em up with tracts and bludgeoning them about faith. Getting to know them, walking through your neighborhood and match faces with places. It's a chance to be known, to share a conversation, and to confront the social isolation that is such a blight on our society. From that foundation of gracious engagement, many good things can happen. Without it? We're just an unusually successful cult.

Here ends my annual All Hallows Rant. You can now return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Chicken and the Egg

This morning, my little guy asked me the question. "Daddy, you know the chicken and the egg question? So...which came first? The chicken or the egg?"

I know the answer to that, of course. I told him so, and explained why. Chickens, you see, are birds. Birds evolved from dinosaurs, which laid eggs. Before anything resembling the Gallus gallus domesticus existed, or even its wild ancestors existed, there were eggs. So the answer to that question is the egg, hands down, by tens of millions of years.

He seemed suitably impressed.

If I'd been a Creationist, though, I probably would have told him the opposite thing entirely. It's the chicken, I'd have said. Because God made the birds on the fifth day. Made 'em from scratch out of dirt and fluff, with no gestation. Just BAM! Skwawk! Chickens. Then, later, eggs.

Sigh. We can't even agree on that.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Passive Aggressive Busybody

Sunday was hard.


It wasn't the part where I talked to my congregation about the blunt as a bludgeon reality of our mortally financial situation. Yeah, Keynote charts and graphs bite as the foundation for a sermon. But if they were good enough for the prophet Isaiah, they're good enough for me.

It wasn't the part where I tried to struggle through a day at church after an evening when my lungs seemed to be simultaneously 1) filled with disgruntled biting spiders and 2) trying to fling themselves out of my body. It also wasn't the part of the day where I tried to shake the lingering effects of dextromethorphan out of my system. Cough suppressants work just great if you've got no preachin' to do the next day, but they're a pain in the tushie when you do. "Like, dude, let me tell you about Psalm...um...what? Was I saying something? Hey, man, like, have you ever looked at that stained glass window? Duude. The Colors...."

What was hard was not being a busybody. Me and the missus had some quality time scheduled in yesterday, and that took the form of the Classic Iconic Date. Dinner and a movie. Or, in this instance, a movie and then dinner. The movie in question: Zombieland. I'd had some reluctance to go see it, but the reviews were solid, and I enjoy the genre. There's just something about zombies that works with social commentary and/or hipster irony. It's like peanut butter and chocolate, or chaste dreamy vampire fiction and teenage girls. Some things just work well together.

Still and all, we anticipated a hip and savage splatterfest, a perfect storm mixture of gore and one liners, of tension and humor. We settled in to our seats in the MegaPlex. But then...the hard part.

A guy comes in. With him, he brings an 11 year old girl and a seven year old boy. I look across at Rache, who is equally aghast. What? This is going to be a brutal ride. Fun, yeah. But not for kids. Not even vaguely. We mutter. Folks around us mutter.

Then, his baseball-cap wearing friend enters. With another seven year old boy. And his two year old. Or perhaps the kid was three. Whichever way, the wee one was post toddler, but not by much. This movie is a hard R. It involves massive but contextually appropriate amounts of profanity. It will include shimmering tension, followed by screams of mortal terror. That terror will be followed by graphic death, and the undead noshing loudly and bloodily on the entrails of the recently living. And here there's a tiny kid, barely a baby, sitting four rows up.

Around us, more muttering.

My gut wanted me to do some rebuking. To walk over and ask what in the Sam Hill they were thinking. Were I Russian or Israeli, cultures where getting into other people's business is a national pastime, I wouldn't have given it a second thought. Heck, half of the theater would have gotten into it. Ultimately, law enforcement would have been involved.

But as it was, we collectively sat on our hands. If parents want to make horrendous decisions, then that's their prerogative. Heck, the kids had probably already seen worse. And anyway, this is America. If people want to do stupid things, we have no obligation to say or do anything. They are free to fail.

It wasn't our place.

Where are the boundaries of our moral obligation to neighbors and strangers? Can we gently note when decisions they're making fly in the face of sanity, or should we just remain silent?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bad Data

This weekend, two new movies will arrive in our nation's Cine-MegaPlexes. One is part of a familiar franchise, one that's moved countless buckets of popcorn and cheez-drowned Nachitos over the past decade. The other is one-a dem furrin' films. You know. Moody. Existential. Independent, with a director who views it as deeply conceptual and who has a particular vision as an auteur.

The cinematic extravaganzas in question are Saw VI and Antichrist, and while they may seem to appeal to different audiences, they are cut from the same cloth and of the same genre. In an excellent essay in the WaPo yesterday, movie critic Anne Hornaday pegged the connection. Both are what cinephiles have come to describe as "torture porn," films that focus on the relentless and graphic depiction of the bloody torment of other human beings.

Both movies attempt to make the case that they are, in fact, furthering human understanding. The underlying premise behind the Saw franchise is, apparently, that the threat of a slow and horrible death inflicted on our helpless body by a sadistic psychopath enables us to better appreciate life. A few years back, I remember one of our Sunday School teachers suggested integrating that into our third grade curriculum. It didn't go over well.

Antichrist is a bit less like something written by Dr. Phil's sociopathic younger brother. It's more intentionally obscure, more aware that it is not a movie. It is not meant to entertain. It is Film! It is Art! It's array of misogynistic and increasingly harrowing images have something to do with the power dialectic between reason and emotion, male and female, sexuality, self-affirmation and self-mutilation. Though it's made by a Dane, he's evidently one of those Danes who hasn't discovered the pleasures of a good beer. It feels more High German, with a vision probably expressed best with some long technical made up word, like, say, dafoeingeweideblutforterungschafft.

Sigh. We Americans are just so..provincial.

Here, I feel a strange desire to go all Father Ted standing self-righteous with a sign outside of the theater. It's painfilth! It's degrading hurtsmut! Stay away! Down with that sort of thing!

I won't do that, tempting though it may be. But prog though I am, I can honestly see no reason to watch films that serve up meticulously presented brutality for our prurient delectation and amusement. I mean, jeez. I had to watch the Passion of the Christ once for church, and I never ever want to go through that again. Torture porn is a spiritually blighted genre, one into which Jesus-folk should wander only with deep caution. Better yet, stay away.

Some of my fellow progs might disagree. I am being judgmental. Prejudiced, even, given that I won't go see those films. Art that expresses human suffering is still art, they might say. Speech that revels in and celebrates inflicting mortal pain is still speech, they would suggest. What right do I have to make value judgments about things that other people enjoy or find expresses the human condition?

Discernment is just so...unpomo.

I am convinced, though, that storytelling and the images and ideas we take in transform us as persons. They are not passive expressions of what is, but help form us and shape us. It's part of the reason Jesus told stories to get his point across, eh? When we take in images of brutality and cruelty as a form of entertainment, it coarsens us. Stunts us.

It is, in programming terms, bad code.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

We Can't Ever Go Back To Salem

Having mused yesterday about the peculiar goings on at the Bethel School for Supernatural Ministry, I stumbled across this agonizing article from today's LA Times. The article recounts the more dangerous side of the charismatic Christian obsession with the supernatural, as putative Christians in West Africa root out "child-witches" from among them. The kids are beaten and driven from their homes...or just killed.

This isn't just the hand-wringing of West Coast Leftists about those Kwazy Kwistians. This sort of madness is painfully real. I met one such "witch" years ago at an orphanage in Nigeria. She'd been driven from her village because she'd purportedly caused the deaths of several people. She was a frail little thing, and would have made an easy scapegoat.

As the ties between charismatics in the West and African Christianity grow stronger, most evangelicals are excited by the tremendous growth of Christianity in Africa. We have something to learn from our African brothers and sisters, they say. If only we had the tiniest fragment of their enthusiasm and passion for the faith, they say.

That is, on many levels, true. I find much to admire in African Christianity, particularly as it has cast off it's colonially imposed form and become more authentically part of African culture. On the other hand, there are elements to both traditional and contemporary African society that can put an unpleasant spin on Christian faith.

One of the more notable obsessions of African charismatics and conservative denominational types alike is witchcraft and demonic powers. This is, in large part, reflective of a culture that did not experience scientific enlightenment internally, but had it aggressively imposed through colonial domination. With a significant portion of the population still minimally educated and focused on sustenance agriculture or hardscrabble urban life, the old memes of spirits and possession are still powerful and compelling. There are plenty of African Christians who are not obsessed with the occult...but for far too many, it's a defining issue.

The African evangelist who "blessed" Sarah Palin with protection against all forms of witchcraft is one famous example. Rev. David Githii, the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in East Africa, is another. He's been the darling of the ultraconservatives in my own denomination, and is well known in Kenya for his relentless attacks on witches, Satanism, and the perils of Freemasonry. Plenty of Kenyan Christians think he's more than a little bit nuts...but his bellowing, self-righteous stridency makes him rather popular among conservatives here.

As African Christianity becomes a more and more dominant voice in our global fellowship, the reintroduction of this false and poisonous meme into Christian fellowship needs to be resisted. The challenge is, I'm not sure evangelical and charismatic Christianity can do it. There are far too many American Christians who've been raised to embrace concepts like spiritual warfare, possession, and the influence of magic and demons.

We really can't go back to Salem.

Hogwarts for Christians

On days when outdoor events are potentially imperiled by rain, or snow imperils a carefully planned meeting, I often lament to my wife that I never got around to taking Meteorological Interventions 475 back when I was in seminary. I mean, dang, I know I'm only a level 4 Presbyterian Cleric. But I yearn to muster more efficacious conjurations than Bless, Detect Evil, Remove Fear, Know Alignment and Chant. I needs me some more showy spells.

Evidently, my lack of skill in this area comes because I went to the wrong school. Here I was struggling through Greek and Hebrew and poring deeply through the Bible and the history of the church. Who knew there were more potent options? Instead of Wesley Theological Seminary, I should have gone to the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry.

I discovered that interesting little institution yesterday during a meander through the website of a well known charismatic movement. A school that teaches you how to have supernatural powers? Finally, finally, an institution that can help me level up! Flame Strike, here I come! I immediately googled them. I was both surprised and not surprised by what I found.

There were two surprises. The first was just how slickity the school's web presence was. This is not a rinky dink operation. The web page is well constructed, if non-complex. But their iBetheltv subsite is strikingly well done. It's nicely assembled series of HD videos, all of which were professionally and seamlessly edited. It's a heck of a lot more tech savvy than most of the video efforts of the major denominational institutions. Folks clearly have 1) access to a Mac and 2) some skillz.

The second surprise was that the school's leadership did not appear to be visibly insane most of the time. Folks were almost invariably well spoken, well dressed, and in possession of all of their teeth. Speakers were funny and engaging. The musicians and artists who are part of the ministry are all quite gifted, and would be a credit to any congregation's praise/arts ministries.

There were also two not-surprises. For all of my hopes, there was absolutely nothing significantly supernatural going on at the Bethel School for Supernatural Ministry. I watched a video of a healing service, which seemed like the most likely place to see some Jesus Magic. Mostly, it was people talking, singing, chanting and juddering, and then telling us about how they were sure they'd been healed. There was lots and lots of talking and crying and talking some more. But withered legs were not being visibly restored. The blind were not seeing. The deaf were not hearing. Hair loss was not being notably reversed. Cure Critical Wounds is seemingly beyond them. They seem to think they're doing stuff, but the pesky thing about hi def video is that you can actually see what is going on. And it ain't discernably supernatural.

There was also video of a required spiritual training event called "The Fire Tunnel." Yes, thought I! Flame Strike is within my grasp! But...no. All that happens during the Fire Tunnel is that folks work themselves into a shamanic frenzy. I've got nothing against lying on the ground twitching and laughing hysterically in an ecstatic trance. It's good clean pagan fun for the whole family. But it isn't a manifestation of supernatural powers. Though it's a bit of a freakshow, it's not evil, per se. I cast Detect Evil, and I get a blank. But my Know Alignment tells me that this stuff is pure Chaotic Neutral. Just no-thing-ness. It can as easily lead to good as to bad.

The second not-surprise can be gleaned from the first. This school is not meaningfully Christian. It teaches that we can all have power by immersing ourselves in "the prophetic," which is sorta like the Force. A problem: seeking power is not something Christians do. We may receive strange, unexpected, and wonderful gifts. Some are intense. Others are gentle and subtle. But desiring supernatural power over the world is not the path of Christian faith, or the gift we are all to seek.

It is, instead, the heart of our human desire for magic. We want to be able to control our world. Honestly, there's no meaningful difference between what goes on at Bethel School for Supernatural Ministry and what goes on in the Sacred Groves of Oshogbo or on some mountaintop in West Virginia on Samhain. Jes' slappin' a Jesus label on it don't make it any different. Magick is magick. And though it's exciting to get caught up in it, it just isn't the thing we think it is.

Guess I'll have to look elsewhere to level up. Sigh.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Harmonizing



I encountered this delightful little video of scientists "singing" the praises of creation through the miracle of FaceBook, and felt obligated to pass it on after offering up the requisite tip o' the hat to Jeremy over at Master's Way. It's simple enough in it's own way, just another in a series of rather marvelous applications of Autotune. Lil Wayne hath wrought far more than one might have imagined.

After watching it, I drifted for a while into a reverie about that soaring place where science and faith almost...almost...meet. What I find fascinating about this video are two discrete but related things.

First, that it comes so very close to expressing the delight in the connectedness of all things that defines the experience of mystics within each of the world's religious traditions. Listening to this assemblage of scientists autotune their paean to the interwoven and interdependent structures of spacetime, I hear them harmonizing with Thomas Merton and Jacob Boehme and St. John of the Cross. Sure, it might be Carl Sagan, but with only minor tweaking it could also be Jalal'adin Rumi, or Chuang Tzu, or Thich Nat Hanh. The wonder they feel from their science is a close cousin to the wonder that the mystic intuits in those fleeting moments of union with all things.

Second, I found myself connecting connectedness to the core ethic of Christian faith. Folks of a radically atheistic persuasion will often argue that faith...particularly Christian faith, but they'll happily go after whatever you've got...is fundamentally evil. It's inherently irrational and opposed to science. Worse yet, it turns human beings against one another. Makes us hateful naaarsty peopleses!

But Jesus of Nazareth's message is a radical proclamation of orientation to the Other, a declaration of the fundamental unity of creation. We creatures are not separate from one another. We don't exist for ourselves alone, isolated from all other things.

Instead of focusing on our own interests, the central and defining fundamental of Christian faith is the ethic of love. That demands that we see ourselves not as isolated, separate beings, but instead calls us to understand ourselves in light of our relationship both to other beings and the One Who Is.

At its essence, Christian faith and ethics do not stand in opposition to the wonder many scientists feel at the intricate interweaving of ecosystems and cosmological constants.

It's a different spin, perhaps. But a harmonious one.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Beloved Spear Bible Puzzler: Contradictions, Contradictions

One of the primary interpretive assumptions of literalism is that scripture is univocal. Or, to put that in rather less annoyingly academic terms: There are no disagreements. It is all the Word of God(tm), and as such there can be no squabbles among texts. How could there be? If it's all God talkin', God ain't gonna disagree with himself, now, is he? Just 'cause you're Three Persons doesn't mean you get into arguments with yourself. The Bible, from that perspective, is a perfect and seamless system. Just read it, do what it says, and things'll be copacetic for you in the by and by.

There is, of course, a small problem with this approach. It isn't the way the Bible works. Today's case in point was one that surfaced during my personal study this last week. It's the wee tension between the Book of Ruth and the Book of Deuteronomy.

The story of the Book of Ruth is one of the more interesting tales you'll find in the Bible. Following the death of her husband, Ruth refuses to abandon her mother-in-law Naomi, and instead travels back with her to her land. Though Ruth is not Hebrew, but a Moabite, her commitment to Naomi is complete. Despite the threat of poverty, Ruth returns to Naomi's ancestral land, where she is noticed by one of Naomi's kinsmen. Impressed with both her beauty and her fidelity, Boaz takes Ruth as his wife. It's a non-trivial union for the history of Israel, as we hear that their son Obed was the father of Jesse, who was the father of David. King David, that is.

The rub, of course, is that Deuteronomy tells us that Moabites are a proscribed people. Torah right up and says that the child of a Moabite is forbidden to enter the assembly of the Lord, even to the tenth generation. That would, by necessity, include Ruth's descendent David, who most certainly entered the assembly and was the anointed King over Israel. It would also, by extension, include her descendent Solomon, who was instructed by God to build the temple itself. So the guy who God tells to build the temple is simultaneously forbidden to enter the temple? Hmmm.

From my interpretive perspective, there's no problem with this. The injunction against Moabites in Deuteronomy are part of an old code of civil and ritual law. Some of that law still has validity. Some of it..particularly the parts that give divine sanction to old racial grudges...does not. Those little inconsistencies reflect the different ways in which the books that comprise the Bible express an understanding of God's action in our lives. They don't take away from the broader purpose and direction of the narrative, which becomes more and more filled with grace. If we look to lovingkindness for guidance in our interpretation, finding where it can guide us is not so hard.

From a literalist perspective, though, this is another time for exegetical hula-hooping, those delightful gyrations that provide such wonderful aerobic fitness for practitioners of presuppositional apologetics.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Christian Flirt

I am and have always been almost totally incapable of flirting.

That's not to say I don't get along with women. I have always been both attracted to women and completely at ease talking to them. The bonds of common humanity, of shared joy and struggle, those things make it easy for me to connect with women as very real friends. I'm also strongly drawn to da ladies in other, utterly non-Platonic ways.

But since I was an adolescent, I've found that where conversation and friendship has always come easily, the sly-eyed teasing articulation of physical interest has been something about which I'm completely witless. Flirting is one of the primary ways men and women interact, a coy dance of veils and indirection that establishes that oh-so-live tension between the sexes. And I just can't do it. Never could.

Through high school and a portion of undergrad, this was a considerable liability. Though I was attracted to many, many women as both people and as sexual beings, my ability to express interest was either painfully emo earnest or so poorly developed as to leave me in brain-locked paralysis. Just ask the first girlfriend, who was prone to wondering if I was in some way asexual. Or ask my wife. Hoo boy. She's got some stories.

Having done some research into the matter, I've discovered that this is a common syndrome: I am what the kids these days call "flirtarded." I'd say "differently flirtatious," but while that might be less offensive, it really doesn't touch on the depth of my inability in that area.

Here's the thing, though. What was once a significant weakness is now actually rather convenient. Because while flirting can be both fun and really, really helpful when you're trying to interest a mate, once you move out of that state of being, it becomes much less useful. Counterproductive, even.

As a husband, flirting with anyone other than your spouse is...well...not a good thing. It may be "fun," in that it establishes interest and tension. But the signals it sends are dangerous, because the purpose of those signals is primarily about establishing sexual connection. And what begins as teasing play can easily follow its natural course, evolving into something that can rip the heart out of a marriage.

As a manager or a boss, flirting can be oppressive. The boundary between showing interest and using power imbalances to coerce a response is too narrow. The workplace...if you're in a position of authority...is not a place to flirt. Back in my days of secular employ, there was a period of time when I managed several folks, and had other assistants as part of my work team. Though a random sequence of events, for a while every one of them was female, single, and attractive. They were my colleagues and my friends. I heard from them about higher-ups who'd hover outside of cubicles showing interest. "Flirting." "Showing interest." There was sexual tension, sure. But it wasn't fun sexual tension. For those on the receiving end, it was skeevy and more than a little unpleasant.

As a pastor, flirting is completely off limits. Well...that's not entirely true. It's not that pastors can't flirt. Married pastors should flirt with their wives. I've been taking some remedial classes in this area, and it's a good thing. Single pastors should be able to show interest in potential mates outside of the bounds of their role as pastors. But if you are someone's spiritual guide and teacher, you cannot simultaneously flirt with them. It just can't be so.

Introducing sexual tension into that relationship does two things. First, it invites the same sort of misuse of social power that comes when your boss drops a leering comment about how fiiiine you look today. Second, and much more significant, it fundamentally betrays the integrity of the pastoral relationship. When your interest in someone becomes colored by intentionally created sexual tension, your ability to teach or develop them spiritually is compromised.

Yeah, maybe Tantric priests are an exception. But even there, no, particularly there, sexuality is approached with a mystic intensity that is alien to the compulsive flirt. Parvati did not win Shiva by asking if That Was His Unbounded Infinite Lingum or Was He Just Happy To See Her.

Flirting, of itself, is not a bad skillset to have. I do sometimes wish I'd been better at it as a young 'un. But it's something that Christians who are called into positions of either covenant commitment or leadership in the church need to studiously avoid.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Don't Go Hatin' A Playa

With a sigh of only slightly premature resignation, I'm coming to terms with the likely reality of a new GOP governor in my home state of Virginny. It's been something of an inevitability since the rather uninspiring Democratic primary, in which the best the donkey party could muster was 1) a flamboyantly flagrant Clintonista carpetbagger and 2) a rather taciturn but decent and "authentically Virginian" rural state Senator.

Given the choice, Democrats went with number two...but all along, it's not looked good.

The reason for this is the GOP candidate, who is Mr. All American. He's tall. He's rugged. He's the high school quarterback who married the Redskins cheerleader, and then went on to have a really quite photogenic family. He's also a quite competent politician. I say that not by way of insult, but out of admiration. He ain't just a pretty face. He is quite evidently smart and articulate. Though his campaign has involved some impressive lowest-common-denominator assault politics, he's stayed mostly above the fray.

Ultimately, though, I think Bob McDonnell will be the next governor of Virginia because Virginians...like all human beings...like the idea of getting something for nothing. The big issue of this campaign is our crumbling and overmatched transportation infrastructure. McDonnell is convinced that this can be made better without a single additional dime coming out of the pockets of Virginians. Deeds has published that he'd support new taxes that are targeted to revamping transportation...but then can't bring himself to actually say that in public.

As Deeds has hemmed and hawed around the issue of taxation, McDonnell's folks are going to town. Deeds is a waffly stuttering tax-and-spender! Taking our money in these troubled times! Doing harm to Virginia's families! Taking your hard earned dollars and using them to..cough..build the roads you need to get to work...but it's still Your Hard Earned Money!

I've read McDonnell's plan for funding transportation. What's interesting about it is that it is largely reliant on 1) selling off public property and 2) bond revenue. If Virginia were a person, that's pretty much the equivalent of hitting the pawn shop and then taking out a second mortgage. The stuff we'll sell, like the profitable state-run ABC stores that put $104 million dollars annually into the state coffers, we ain't getting back. The $3 billion in new state bonds he'd issue...well...they have to be repaid at some point. How do those bonds get repaid? With..um..tax dollars. But only after McDonnell's finished his 4 year term, so it technically won't be his responsibility. Ka-CHING!

It's amazing how effective conservatism has been at convincing Americans that actually paying for what you need is for suckers.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Driving Off the Womenfolk

I subscribe to and regularly read literally dozens of blogs. They're all over the place in terms of content and thematic emphasis, representing my rather eclectic mess of interests. There are blogs on gaming. Blogs on tech, robotics and AI. Blogs on politics. Lots and lots of blogs on faith and religion. I subscribe to progressives and conservatives, atheists and fundamentalists, to folks on both left and right.

Some of the blogs I read most frequently are ones written by Christian women, both da lay laydies and some progressive pastoras. They're smart, funny, and insightful souls, and I am enriched by the opportunity for blog-a-logue with them.

What has struck me over the past few months is that in my own recent bloggery, there's pretty much no female representation in the comments. I've got to go back a month and a half before I find even one. While I'm not nearly as demography-obsessed as most of my progressive comrades, I do still muse about this. What about this blog is making it not conducive to conversation between genders?

In part, I wonder if it may be my enjoyment of verbal sparring. I tend to take pleasure in debate that's got a bit of fire to it. If the back and forth gets intense, that's not something I take personally. The womenfolk whose blogs I frequent tend not to have nearly as much point and counterpoint. Conversations there are often more along the lines of mutual support and affirmation. There are occasional disagreements, sure. But the tenor of the communication is gentler, more civil, and more nurturing.

So..does testosterone blog differently from estrogen?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Fight

It's always useful to pay attention to what your "adversaries" are thinking. That means reading stuff by folks with whom you disagree. You seek commonality wherever possible. It's the whole Hegelian thesis/antithesis/synthesis approach to finding new insights into life. It's a way to generate new energy, in a matter/antimatter collision sort of way. Some of the more transforming conversations I've had have been with folks with radically different worldviews.

But disagreement ain't all kumbaya, guitars, and roasted marshmallows. Certain differences are not surmountable.

I was checking in on one of my favorite fundamentalist jousting partners the other day, and found that an article by one of their contributors laid out what I think is the core issue underlying the ongoing Christian arguments about gays and lesbians. The matter, and both he and I are convinced, is less about the sexuality, and more about two different approaches to the Bible. As he describes the nature of the argument, he describes the essence of the fight as follows:
On one side are the evangelicals (and count me among them) who believe God has declared His standard for sexuality, expressly stated, once and for all, in His holy Word. On the other side are the progressives who feel the Bible is a “living word” that is interpreted by each individual to fit contemporary, personal enlightenment. Oddly many evangelicals barely acknowledge there are sides in the debate over Biblical authority and interpretation.
What struck me in reading this was that I had read exactly the same thing about four hours earlier, only written from the a perspective more similar to my own.

In his book Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, Jack Rogers lays out his approach to the Bible. Rogers, who is an evangelical, articulates essentially the same dichotomy, but from the flip side. For him, the issue is whether you approach the Bible verse by literal verse, or whether you view Scripture as something sacred that is continually deepened and redefined as we come into a deeper understanding of God's purpose. It's not about "contemporary, personal enlightenment." It's about approaching interpretation through the lens used by the original Protestant reformers, who argued:
"..that interpretation of the Scripture to be orthodox and genuine which is gleaned from the Scriptures themselves..and which agree with the rule of faith and love, and contributes much to the glory of God and man's salvation." (Second Helvetic Confession, 5.010)
That's the nature of the struggle. Are we to interpret Scripture as if it were an empirical dataset, or do we approach it as a sacred and living text, governed and defined by the highest principles and purposes of our faith?

I know where I stand. Viva la neoreformation!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Resentment

Every once in a while, that petty little beast wakes up in me, colors my eye with bitter jaundice and looks around with gritted-teeth irritation at those who are..inadequate.

This Saturday, I took a small group from my church to our local clothing closet for a few hours of sorting and setting out clothing for folks in our community who are struggling financially. I'll bring by clothes for donation often as well. It's an important thing for Jesus people to do. That's not because we're obeying an edict that says "Be Charitable Or Else." It's because real Christian compassion moves people to action...because we love as He loved, and are willing to give to others as freely as He gave himself for us.

As I moved clothes from the giant donation bins to the racks out on the display floor, I found myself growing increasingly irritated. It had been a bustling morning, and my balanced breakfast had been two equally sized cups of coffee...followed by no lunch at all. A caffeine-only diet never works well for my mood, and I could feel my snarkishness rising.

Many of the folks who come to the center in need of clothing move quietly among the racks, selecting work clothes or school clothes for their children. They politely ask the staff for help finding car seats for their children.

Others...well...others don't seem to quite *cough* grasp the system. They gather huge bags of clothes. They holler at their kids every forty seconds or so. They camp out in the back where the volunteers are sorting, hoping to snag choice items before they're set out. They ignore the staff when they're told they have taken too much, and continue to stuff bags full when the facility is closed and they're asked to leave.

Look at them! They are...undeserving! Unworthy! Or so snarled my inner Pharisee, who boiled over with indignation and outrage at these fools who were so clearly the source of their own suffering. If they were the sorts of people who knew How To Follow the Rules, they wouldn't be in this mess. Just look at them! Ignorant! Pushy! Selfish! I could feel myself growing more and more intolerant, along with a strange compulsion to watch FoxNews.

I let that mood run for a few moments, marveling at how easy it must be to live a life thinking this way. I then reminded myself of why my heart compels me to care...even for folks who don't "deserve" it...and with the Apostle Paul's help, stomped that little demon into oblivion.

Friday, October 9, 2009

On A Hill Far Away Stood A Secular Cross

I've been following the recent Salazar v. Buono court case for a while. For those of you who don't tag along with significant faith-related court cases, this one involves a cross erected on federal land to honor WWII dead.

It's an interesting and convoluted case, in which Congress got heavily involved writing legislation to specifically prevent the removal of the cross. Oral arguments in this case were heard at the Supreme Court this last Wednesday, and the case itself will be decided over the next few months.

One of the most striking and peculiar exchanges this Wednesday came between Justice Antonin Scalia and a lawyer representing the ACLU. Scalia, who is easily the most fiery and entertaining member of the court, was putting forth the conservative case for retaining the cross on public land. The ACLU attorney was putting forth the presumably progressive case for it's removal.

There are some matters of federal jurisdiction at play here, but what to me was most fascinating was the exchange between Scalia and the ACLU around the nature of the cross. Scalia, the court's most vociferous conservative, made the case that the cross was a generic religious symbol, one that universally honors all peoples and religions. He also described it as "..the most common symbol for the resting place of the dead."

The representative of the ACLU described the cross in this way: " ..a cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins."

I have two responses to this odd exchange.

First, one wonders if Scalia has ever paid a visit to Arlington Memorial Cemetery to honor our war dead. I'm a DC townie, and I've taken more than one long, slow walk through those solemn fields. The markers there are simple white headstones. On most, there are crosses. On some there are Stars of David. On others, the Star and Crescent.

To my knowledge, there are no Flying Spaghetti Monsters yet. This is not because atheists haven't given their lives for this country, but just because it sorta stops being funny at that point. However you slice it, the cross is not, not, NOT a generic grave marker.

Second, it's amazingly odd to have a progressive liberal making a fundamentally orthodox statement about the actual nature and purpose of the cross, and to have an ultraconservative claiming that the cross should be thought of as devoid of specific meaning, and unrelated to Christ.

Strange, strange times.

No Good War

Earlier this week, there was a small demonstration here in DC. That's not even vaguely unusual. There's always a small demonstration here in DC. The event was in front of the White House, and was a group of progressive organizations gathering to protest the war in Afghanistan.

Opposition to the war in Afghanistan is now the majority position among progressives in the United States. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed that 56% of Democrats favor removing US/NATO forces from the region as soon as possible.

I dislike war. I dislike it intensely. It is among the most broken of human institutions, and is in almost every way antithetical to the core virtues of Christian faith. It is never, ever, ever a good thing, any more than an amputation is a good thing. But here I part ways with the majority of my progressive brethren and sistren. The conflict in Afghanistan is not one we can walk away from.

Both the Taliban and the al-Qaeda cells that they so willingly incubated are the mortal enemies of pluralist democracy and progressive values. The systematic terrorizing of the Afghan people prior to 2001 was monstrous, and there is no reason to believe that our withdrawal would result in anything other than that for Afghanis.

Permitting Afghanistan to return to it's pre-2001 state would also be a catastrophic strategic error, as egregious a mistake as our misbegotten war in Iraq. Yes, many Americans are tired of war. Our sense of national purpose following the 9/11 attacks was utterly squandered. But we can't delude ourselves into thinking that the Taliban pose no strategic threat to the United States or our allies. Sure, they themselves do not. They have no capacity for military operations on a global scale. But the safe haven they provided for Bin Laden cannot be permitted to re-emerge.

The conflict in Afghanistan isn't a good war. No war is good. But some wars are necessary.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Whatchoo Talkin' 'Bout, Jesus?

As I pore my way through my Bible commentaries in preparation for this Sunday's sermon, I find myself facing a pretty significant "remnant" this week.

I like sermons to be toight as a toiger, with a clearly developed point and purpose. I don't always succeed, but it's the goal.

Problem is, my brain finds itself wandering off on tangents that would...if I let them get into my sermon...have me jabbering away for hours as I ran down theological concept after theological concept like a hyperactive Jesus labrador paired with a tennis ball machine.

Every week, there are "remnants," those parts of the Bible passages that I choose not to explore. What's got me running now is Mark 10:18...which is an utterly fascinating little verse, given the classical Christian assertions about the nature of Jesus. Mark 10:18, in the event you've not got the whole Bible memorized, says this:
"Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone."
This is...interesting. Mostly, it is interesting in the context of orthodox Christian teaching about the nature of Jesus of Nazareth. We...and I include myself firmly among the "we"...hold that Jesus is God. It's that whole wacky mystic semi-Aristotelian Trinity thing, and I just can't shake it loose. Don't wanna. It's central to my faith.

Yet this little snippet o' teaching sounds a challenging note across all three of the synoptic Gospels. Luke chooses to reprise it precisely in Luke 18:19. Matthew gets a bit coy with it in Matthew 19:17. But in all three of these conceptually linked Gospels, Jesus deflects praise...to the point of implying strongly that he is not to be confused with God.

Most of the commentaries I've got kicking around suggest that this is simply indicative of the focus of the synoptic Gospels. In them, Jesus pretty relentlessly deflects attention away from himself, and towards the Father whose Kingdom he came to proclaim. Unlike the more intimate Christological teachings of John's Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth really isn't the point of Jesus of Nazareth's teachings in the first three Gospels.

Still, it's one of the more striking "Whatchoo Talkin' Bout Jesus" moments in Scripture, particularly for those of us who have a personal relationship with the Second Person of the Trinity.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Defending the Bible from Conservatives

Just when you thought American conservatism could not jump the shark further than it already has, it has come across my desk that a group of ultraconservatives lead by the spawn of Phyllis Schlafly has decided it needs to correct the Bible. The Bible, you see, is too liberal. The Conservative Bible Project aims to fix that.

No, really. I can't believe it either. In fact, I was initially sure this was some sort of subversive performance art project undertaken by a mischievous progressive pastor. Heck, I wish I'd come up with the idea. But best I can tell, it isn't a joke.

On the Conservative Bible Project website, we hear that much of Scripture has been translated by "professors" and people who are "higher educated." They have a point there. If you spend your days studying koine Greek, ancient Hebrew, and Aramaic, there just isn't time enough to spend getting your daily requirement of talk radio.

These "Biblical Scholars" have rendered the Bible dangerously liberal. The language they used reflects liberal values which must now be replaced with proper conservative language. There are also sections of the Bible that are troubling to conservatism...so those sections will be deleted.

Three examples:

Number One: The project is deeply troubled by the use of socialist language. One example was the term "labor" and it's related term "laborer." Labor is another way to describe unions, which are opposed to free market values. It's clear evidence of liberal influence. I checked in the Bible to see if this was true. Lo and behold, it is. In the King James Version, the term "labor" is used one hundred and six times. Clearly, the team of liberal academics convened by King James I in 1604 were under the influence of the AFL-CIO. I'm not sure what word will be used in the Conservative Bible, but I'll guess "independent contractor" and "consultant" are in the running. I look forward to reading their version of the Parable of the Independent Contractors in the Vineyard.

Number Two: The language used is unclear. It needs to be refined. Take, for instance, the terms "Holy Ghost" or "Holy Spirit." That could mean anything. So those terms are out. Instead, the Conservative Bible Project uses the term "Divine Guide." And no, this isn't Oprah coming up with this. It's the far right. Really.

Number Three: Some of what Jesus said was too liberal. The project in particular targets Luke 23:34, which I defended here in terms of language and context just a few weeks ago. The idea that a) Jesus would forgive people and b) that he seems to forgive them based on their ignorance of His True Nature flies in the face of conservative teachings about personal responsibility. The Conservative Bible Project condemns these words of Jesus as a "Liberal Falsehood." So out they go.

Curiouser and curiouser...

Ardi Ar Ar: The Answers of Answers

This is one of the hardest things for progressives and liberals to wrap their open minds around. Fundys, or so the reasoning goes, are all bible-thumpin' snake-handlin' Gamma-Minus types. They might be fit for serving us our food on the few occasions we find ourselves in a small town where our dining options begin and end with Dennys, but they're otherwise not worth our while.

Here, progressivism makes a rather significant error. Fundamentalist Christians are not idiots. They are also not bad people, any more so than the rest of humanity. Some of the most gracious and welcoming folks I've had the privilege to know have believed in the literal inerrancy of scripture.

The issue here is not one of intelligence. Case in point: Ardi.

Ardi, in the event you didn't hear about her last week, is the name given to a recently reconstructed early primate, who dates back 4.4 million years. Her discovery adds some interesting new twists to the dynamics of human evolution, as these fossilized remains are considerably older than the previous record holder, Lucy.

Upon reading about this new find, I immediately thought to myself: "I gotta see what Answers in Genesis says about this." Answers in Genesis lies at the intellectual heart of Young Earth Creationism, that strain of Christianity that is so vested in the literal inerrancy of Scripture that it feels compelled to assert that the universe is just a tick over 6,000 years old.

The day the findings were released, Answers...well...it didn't have any answers. It hadn't quite figured out the angle. It was working on it. Come back tomorrow.

The next day, the response was up, explaining why the discovery of this fossil was actually meaningless and should be of no concern whatsoever to Young Earth Creationists. The argument was coherently structured. It was well written. This was not the work of Sarah Palin without her ghostwriter.

It was, instead, the work of someone trained in rhetoric and practiced in the art of debate. I did forensics for a while in high school, and the core skillsets required to take apart the case of an opponent are strongly in evidence in the answers of Answers.

First, find the weakness. Here, things aren't great for Creationists. The paleontologists who unearthed Ardi are competent scientists, and their work has been extensively peer reviewed. It is an exciting, game changing find, one that may indicate a different evolutionary tree for homo sapiens sapiens than we'd previously anticipated. But a competent rhetorician can work around facts, which are only one tool in the toolbox of human argumentation.

Here, Answers chooses to use two things to it's advantage.

First, science is not presuppositional, and you'll invariably find dissenting opinions. To build a countercase, you have to find seeds of doubt and develop them. So Answers dug around in publicly available articles from National Geographic, and then selected some quotes that appear to indicate some issues. Not a single one of the scientists quoted would suggest that Answers in Genesis is correct on this issue, but that means nothing. Doubt is all that matters.

Apparently, these fossils are ancient and fragmented and fragile. Could they be so damaged that reconstructing them results in flawed conclusions? Hmmm. Of course, this line of argumentation doesn't relate at all to the ancient, fragmented, and fragile scrolls that provide the written foundations of Scripture. Totally different things. Totally.

Second, you know your audience. Most of us are not biologists and archaeologists. We just don't have the ability to critically assess the data. To develop a case against it, evidence is not necessary. Just the aforementioned doubt. In that sense, what Answers is doing is less like science, and more like the law. Like a prosecutor working in front of a jury, the only thing required is to discredit and subvert the witnesses of your opponent. Your job as a prosecutor is not to find the truth. Your job is to prove guilt. The "truth" is whatever serves your case.

Years ago, that's why I stopped doing forensics in high school. I could never find the enthusiasm to argue for something when I found the evidence for it flawed. It felt like I was engaged in a carefully constructed deception.

The challenge I have with creationists and literalists does not lie with their intelligence. It's their wisdom. Being able to discern the greatness and wonder of God's work creation requires a deeper connection with the First Book. By refusing to accept the witness of the earth and the heavens, they inadvertently discredit the core message of the Bible.

It's the distinction between idiocy and folly.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

International Blasphemy Day

Yesterday was, apparently, International Blasphemy Day.

I took the opportunity to reminisce on my interactions with the neoatheists who organized the Blasphemy Challenge a few years back...and got to wondering how their little organization was doing. Having my response to them banned from YouTube as "hate speech" ended up driving more traffic to my old xanga site than almost any other post. Gotta love that controversy.

Remembering my own blas-phestival, I wandered over to the Rational Response Squad's web site, where I hadn't been for nearly two years. Jousting with them about faith used to be entertaining, even if their primary approach to Jesus people was profanity and ad hominem insult. I have an RSS feed-folder of people who are fun to debate, and I hoped to add them into that list of worthy adversaries. Yeah. I'm a troll. But I'm a kindly troll.

I found that they have not exactly prospered since they went onto YouTube and asked people to curse the Holy Spirit and get a free DVD. Since that effective little PR stunt, conversation on their site has dried up to nearly nothing. I fished around for any interesting threads on their forums, but most were completely stale. It was a cyber-shambles.

There was one interesting thread, in which it was suggested that one of the founders of the organization had actually turned to prostitution to finance their efforts. While in the church office yesterday, I made the mistake of clicking on the link that purported to provide evidence to that effect.

Oof. It was one of those "Sweet Lord Jesus Gotta Close The Browser" moments. Guess...it's...cough...true. Ahem.

And no, I'm not going to provide you with the link to her site.

So the most infamous recent blasphemers are now reduced to literally selling their bodies for cash, and their organization has collapsed into snarling irrelevance.

Sigh. I suppose I'm not surprised.

Called to Church

Several of my Presbyterian blog-comrades have recently struggled with the contemporary practice of church shopping. Church-shoppers are folks who hop from church to church, looking for the one place that perfectly meets their needs. It needs to have a well developed and professional program that focuses on their kids. It needs to have small groups....or not, if small groups make them uncomfortable. It needs to have a golden tongued pastor who by some miracle manages to both effectively lead and not have an ego bigger than his Jesus. It needs to be big, or not, but not too small, or not.

Church is approached as the primary product of AmeriChrist, Inc., and selected in the same way we pick out flat screen TVs or a cute little pair of flats.

Yesterday, though, something over at Tribal Church made me wonder if perhaps we should encourage folks to think about seeking congregations in another way.

It's not "shopping for a church." It's "discerning God's call." Yes, call. We pastorly types are always blabbering on about our sense of call, about how God has called us to ministries that just so happen to be larger and more prestigious and better paying than the one we're currently serving. That "what's-in-it-for-me" approach to pastoral calling is just not how God works.

It's also not how we as lay-folk should select the place we are to worship and serve. The question we should be asking as we try to find a community is: Where does God want me to go?

Where can I find the purpose of my life? Where can I be challenged? Where can I grow? Where will I develop into those gifts that God has given me? Where will those gifts be put to the greatest good...not for me...but for my neighbor? Call does those things.

So don't shop. Be called.