Monday, January 30, 2012

Echoes of Church

The Cleaners/Oil Distributor/Millinery/Baptist.
As part of a Doctor of Ministry project to explore the history of my congregation, I recently found myself digging through some fascinating background research done a decade or so ago into the history of my 150-plus year old community.  It's nifty stuff, because I love the richness of stories that echo from the past.

Part of the research included poring through a listing of all of the historic buildings in the little town of Poolesville, along with pictures and a short blurb about the provenance and use of the buildings.  Leafing through the pages, one building in particular caught my eye.

It's a yellow-painted brick building, one that sits to the left of the road as you approach the intersection of the One-Oh-Seven and Elgin from the East-South-East.  It houses a dry cleaner now, but according to the historic documents, it was not always a business.

It began as a church.

Poolesville Presbyterian
It was Poolesville's first Baptist Church, built in 1865 or so, about twenty years after the construction of my congregation's sanctuary.   It isn't, as best as I've been able to tell, the formal progenitor of the healthy and dynamic Baptist community now thriving in Poolesville.  

Having driven past it for nearly four months, I'm amazed I didn't notice the similarity.  The front facades are nearly identical, sharing that blocky, built-out-of-Lego stepped appearance.  The windows facing the street are in nearly the same position.   Peeking in to the glassed in reception area of the cleaners, you can see where the original door into the church was once large...a big church door, one that would have received worshippers before they arrived.    The two buildings are close enough in appearance to be sisters.

I couldn't help but wonder about the community that once gathered there, worshipping and praying and singing.  Back then, as the glowing ashes of the Civil War settled, these two small fellowships would have been very similar in size and dynamics, if perhaps not in the less-relevant points of theology.

Digging deeper into the history of the community, providence passed a book my way written by one of the keepers of the town lore.  I find that the Baptists who built that church began their fellowship as a tenant congregation of Poolesville Presbyterian.   When the time came to build a church of their own, they just built a slightly nicer version of the church they'd been worshipping in for a decade.

Poolesville Presbyterian has chugged along for over 150 years.  It sputtered and dimmed for a while, closing for a handful of years in the middle of the last century before re-opening.

But for the little sister Baptist church, well, faith didn't stick there long.  It ceased to be church, sometime around the turn of the last century.   By 1900, it was a millinery.  Then a fuel oil distributor.  And then a cleaner.  

Yet still, if you stand at the front of the building, there are echoes of the faith that must have started her. In the left "eye" of the facade, the topmost window still holds a little flash of color, a little twinkle of stained glass as an echo of the church that once lived and hoped and worshipped there.

Odd, how the faith in buildings can remind you of the faith of people.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Registering Grace

Nothing gives more opportunities for being graceful than being an idiot.  I get more of those opportunities than I'd like.

This last Fall, I donated my aging Yamaha to the Salvation Army.   It was time to move on to a newer motorcycle, one with a riding position that didn't overly tax my aging frame.  So I did, and did all the requisite paperwork to transfer title.  That included notifying the State and the County that I no longer owned my vehicle.

A week or so later, I received a bill from Fairfax County.  It was for 2012 Registration for the bike, which, of course, I no longer owned.  I assumed things had crossed in the mail.  No point in registering a bike that isn't yours, now, is there?

Two months later, I got a past-due notice for the same registration fee, for the 2012 registration for same bike that I no longer owned.  I went online, and re-confirmed with the County system that the vehicle had been donated.  Yes, they knew I no longer owned it.

And then, with Christmas and doctoral papers and coursework consuming my brain, I completely forgot about it.

This last week, I got notification that because my registration for 2012 was past due, it had been referred to a collections agency, with a modest penalty attached, plus a service fee.   A bit of more fervent research revealed that in late 2010, Fairfax County quietly decided that "registration" no longer means "registration."  You're not paying a fee so that the county can know you own something, like, say, the registration fee you pay to own a dog.  There is no "decal."

You're paying retroactively for the privilege of having owned the vehicle in the previous year.  It's called "registration," but what it really is now is a county-level personal property tax on a vehicle.  So the law had changed, and I was now on the wrong side of it.

I really hate such things, and they tend to make me a tick irritable, something I'll remember come next election.  The payment would just have to be made.  But the call also needed to be made to the collections agency, because we all know how much fun those folks can be once their database has got its teeth in you.

I spent a few moments centering myself, getting calm.  To do this, I needed to talk with another human being, another soul.  

With form in hand, I made the call.  On the other end, a young man's voice came on after a brief hold time, by inflection clearly African American.  He went through a mandated schpiel about the call being monitored for quality assurance.  His voice was guarded and tight.  I asked him to confirm the amount, which he did.  I asked him to confirm where the check needed to be sent, which he did.

Then, I laughed at what an idiot I'd been, and explained how I'd botched it to him.  He "mmm-hhhhmmmed" his way through it, as he could tell payment was about to be made and could be heard typing away on the other end.

I thanked him for his help, and then remarked that he had a totally thankless, stressful job.  "I'm sure everyone you talk to is always sooo glad to be talking to you," I said, and he laughed.

"Oh, maaaaaan," he said, and you could hear him relax.  "Seriously.  Seriously.  You have no idea, man."

I told him to hang in, and to have a good one.  "You too, man," he replied, voice still smiling, and the call was done.

Venting grace is so much more satisfying than venting anger.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

God Fearin'

In an interesting piece of  bloggery, Carol Howard-Merritt finds herself wrassling with the concept of "fearing God."  It is, or so our sacred tradition speaks it, the root of all wisdom.  Her struggling with that concept mirrors my own struggling with that concept, which generally takes two tacks.

Tack number one is theological.  If God is love, as we Jesus folk consistently and relentlessly insist, then why would we fear God?   It seems illogical and emotionally inconsistent.

Tack number two is sociopolitical and anthropological.   Within human institutions and cultures, fear of punishment is used to enforce conformity within autocratic cultures and family systems.  Do what I say, because you fear that if you do not, I will verbally abuse you and/or hang you, cut out your intestines in front of you, and then pull you apart with horses.   Generally, the former is family systems and the latter not, although I will grant that some families are worse than others.   If that is the character of the fear we are meant to have of God, then God would be little better than an abusive parent or medieval despot.

So is this a salvageable theological concept?

I tend to think so, with some notable caveats from the Apostle Paul.  Here, I'm talking about Paul, the author of the seven letters, not deutero-Paul, the follower of Paul who wrote in his name.  In his letter to the churches in both Rome and Galatia, Paul makes it clear that the purpose of Christian faith is not fear.   We are not meant to be slaves, living in fear, he tells the Romans.  If the Spirit of God lives and moves in us, then our connection to the gracious nature of our Maker frees us from the fear of coercion.  Christian faith is antithetical to "power over," both in our relationship to others and in our relationship with our Creator.  It is not a vassal/liege arrangement and not a social contract, with all the punishment/protection dynamics that such things entail.  That's the heart of the joyous anarchy of grace Paul proclaimed.

Fear of God, then, needs to be decoupled from the idea of social obedience and legalistic interpretations of Christianity.

But when it comes to our encounter with God...those transforming moments that take our faith out of the realm of ritual and abstraction and into the realm of the existential and experiential...fear takes on a different character.

Fear of God arises from the knowledge of God.

First, there is the fear that comes with unbidden theophany.  This does not happen often.  Being in the presence of the Numinous Other is the sort of thing that causes hair to stand on end, buckles knees, and leaves you unable to speak.  I've heard it described as a feeling of vertiginous awe, like looking out over a vast precipice.   That's close, but in my experience it's a bit more like that feeling when the railing you're leaning against gives way.  You are not observing the vastness from a distance.  It is grasping you, utterly present to you.

Fear?  Yes. When there is nothing between your face and God's face, yes.

Second, those moments when we feel most frequently connected to our Maker, at least in my experience, are moments of immense grace and calm.   We get there through prayer and meditation, through contemplation and self-stilling.  Emptied of self, we feel no terror, because we are consumed and suffused with God's Spirit.  "Feeling," in the sense of emotional affect, almost disappears in that great radiant wash of peace.   As a still fledgling and semi-competent mystic, I cherish those moments.  They are the existential anchor points for my faith, just as I'm sure they were for dear brother Paul.

That said, I don't live every moment that way.  I get angry.  I get confused.  I become lustful, and bitter, and impatient.   I get lost.

And in those all-too-frequent moments, I recall that depth of connectedness.  The light of that grace is a fearful thing when you are in the thrall of something...else.  Seeing how deeply the brokenness in yourself impedes your ability to live into the grace you have come to know is frightening.  Loss of that connection, of that grace, of the hope and strength it entails...that is a terrifying thing, because God as Other is a terrifying thing.  Not just because you're lost.  But because you know how deeply your lostness is incompatible with the grace you have known.

That fear is the root of right action, even in the separation.  Feeling the loss, and in the throes of the dark night of the soul, you nonetheless conform yourself to the grace you cannot feel.

And as wisdom is right action, that form of fear is, as I see it, the root of wisdom.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians

When the Presbyterian Church (USA) recently moved to open the door for the ordination of gays and lesbians, it was inevitable that those for whom this action was a line in the sand would seek ways to distance themselves from the denomination.

So when a gathering of conservative Presbyterians coalesced in Miami, the output of that event seemed inevitable.  There was much praying.  There was much worshipping and preaching.  After it all, to no-one's great surprise, there is now yet another denomination.  Or sort of a denomination.  A denominish?  Denominette?  It's a bit difficult to tell yet.

What was formed at the Miami gathering has been called, somewhat opaquely, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.  This name has the advantage of sounding a bit like the campus ministry at Hogwarts, or better yet, a league of oldline superheroes with a secret subterranean sanctuary.   "To the Bat-Nave, Robin!"

For branding purposes, they're going to call themselves ECO.  Coupled with an appropriately leafy-growthy logo, it feels rather more contemporary than the blockish and fusty logo of the PC(USA).

Getting into the meat of this movement, though, there are a few telling things.  As has been noted by others, there's almost no indication of the "why" of the creation of this entity.   For example, as a "covenant order," there is a covenant that you need to affirm.   Reading through the covenant, I can see little in it that I wouldn't be able to affirm in both practice and/or principle.   Nor, quite frankly, do I see much in it that a practicing, open and married lesbian teaching elder couldn't affirm.

Going more deeply into their theological statements, I'm there with the exception of one or two sentences out of many, many pages.  This I can say as someone who stands on the other side of the fence they're in the process of teetering on top of.  If your raison-d'etre is the Divine Nyet to gays and abortion, it's a bit odd that this isn't more evident.

This highlights something of a conundrum for the fledgling ECO.  They are positioning themselves as a back-to-the-roots conservative movement, one embracing eternal biblical truths while being open to new forms of being church.

But they are not the conservatives who believe that the universe is 6,000 years old.   They are also not the conservatives who reject global warming and climate change as a Wiccan/Democrat/Bilderberger plot to contaminate our precious bodily fluids.   They are also not the conservatives who reject women's roles in leadership.

ECO is only fundamentalist when it comes to gays and abortion, and those positions are hedged and hidden by indirect language.  They'd slide into the denominational continuum to the right of the PC(USA), but just a smidge to the left of the EPC, and several notches more to the left than the PCA.

Further, while ECO seems to be taking on the form of a denomination, that form seems remarkably close to the thing they've just left.   Or rather, left-ish.  A tremendous amount of depresbyribonucleic acid is still evident in the ECO genome.  For example, their constitution includes in its entirety the PC(USA) Book of Confessions.  Their materials indicate that a congregation can can be both PC(USA) and ECO at the same time.  They focus a great deal on the pensions and benefits for pastors, an odd thing for a movement.  I'm fairly sure Luther didn't include a benefits package rate sheet underneath the theses he nailed to the door in Wittenberg.

The challenge for this group would seem to be the Aesop's Bat Conundrum.  That classic fable describes the Bat, who claimed himself neither beast nor fowl in a war between air and earth.  Are you a bird of the air? Are you a beast of the ground?   

As much as I like the via media myself, claiming to be both often gets you neither.  

Still and all, I can appreciate the positivity with which ECO seems to be trying to launch.  They're not fulminating or raging, which is a welcome thing in our binary, demonizing culture.  For those who choose to participate in whatever this new thing proves to be, I'd hope PC(USA) folk will choose to be as gracious as our Master calls us to be towards them as they semi-depart.


Friday afternoon, I popped by our local Bloom grocery, looking to snag some food and supplies for an overnight "man-trip" to West Virginia with some old friends.   It's the closest store to us, a seven-minute walk from our home.  It has only been in operation for a few years, replacing a frayed Magruders that had been there for just about ever.  

To my dismay, the store had signs all over the front of it announcing it's imminent closure.  It weren't just our Bloom, neither.  The Dutch holding company that owned the brand evidently wasn't making money on it.  So they are now, in the BizSpeak of their US CEO, closing all their stores to "solidify our U.S. operations and enable our company to focus on our successful brand strategy repositioning."   The success of their brand strategy repositioning comes as a great comfort to the five thousand souls they're laying off, I'm sure.  A bummer for them, although only a minor bummer for us, as there's also a Giant, a Safeway, and a Harris Teeter within a two mile radius of our home.  Retail density is one of the few advantages of living in an inner suburb, and not out in a small town.

Like, say, my recently adopted bi-weekly church home in Poolesville, which has in living memory only had one grocery store.  Poolesville, hermetically sealed away in the growth-restricted Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, stands as a kind of last redoubt of Small Town America.  It is the Helms Deep of denominationalism and the family owned grocer.  

From the moment I arrived in Poolesville this last October, I knew the family owned grocer was in trouble.   

Selby's was one of the first places I saw and heard about in the little 'burg where my little church lives.   As a family-owned and named small town grocery store, it was one of the few remaining examples of a dying breed.  It was one of those "hubs" of the community, a place where folks could go to shop, where girl scouts could camp out to hawk cookies to passers-by, and where pastors of local congregations could put up flyers announcing events at their churches.

It was in putting up my very first flyer that I noticed the unmistakable marks of a business on its last legs.  Light foot traffic and empty, unstocked shelves mean only one thing.  Suppliers are drying up.  Credit is short.  Restocking can't be done.  

It felt a great deal like other businesses I've watched go under.  Corporations are not people, not quite, but small businesses die in much the same way human beings die.  One system fails, then another, then another, until the cascade makes continuing existence impossible.

The scuttlebutt amongst the folks who actually live in the town was that after a long run, Selby's was finally succumbing to the same cultural and market forces that have taken down Mom-and-Pop stores everywhere.   The Walmart in Germantown may be nearly 12 miles away, but what's 12 miles?   Your average soccer/ballet/karate mom puts in twice that before breakfast.  And the Harris Teeter that recently encamped on the Western front of Darnestown?   That's just 8.4 traffic free miles from P-ville.

David sometimes beats Goliath. But if Goliath is wearing powered Chobham ceramic composite armor and wielding a AA-12 Combat Shotgun with Frag-12 rounds, the odds get considerably worse.  The greater selection that comes from larger stores, the increased leverage with suppliers that comes from being a Big Box Corporation, and the expectation-meeting advertising and store-design resources that come with brand marketing, those things are just too much.  

Now that the going out of business signs are up, though, the challenge for this little community is that with the loss, it will become a slightly less desirable place to live.   Not having the option of shopping locally may feel like a minor inconvenience for those used to driving everywhere, but come the next Snowmageddon, not being able to walk to get groceries will be notable.  More significantly, it will be more difficult for those for whom driving is an issue.  

Where to get groceries, if cash for gas or a car itself is lacking?   There's a CVS for milk and eggs.  There's a friendly but pricey organic food store run by the local klatch of Buddhists.   Whichever way, it's going to be a challenge for those in the community who are struggling to get by.  The local pastors are already wrassling with what that will mean.   

It is also having an effect of the geist of the town.  The closing of Bloom will mean a bit more blight on one of the strips in my native Annandale.  But Bloom was a recent and unsuccessful incursion by a faceless multinational corporation.   

It's a very different context than the environment in Poolesville.  The depth of relationship, the personal knowing and histories of a small town, well...that makes the closing of a place like Selby's more difficult.  When it has a face, it's more than just losing a business.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Leading and Following

A week ago, I sat in a classroom of fellow Doctor of Ministry students, all pastors, all learning more about leadership dynamics in congregations.   Leadership studies are the big thing now in both ministry and business circles, a pairing that is somewhat telling.  It's useful information, though, and good grist for the book project that will come right after I'm done with the next one in the hopper.

My conversation partner in the one-on-one class conversations was a Baptist pastor, a genial African American woman with a gentle smile and a voice like honey-butter on warm bread.  Though we shared about a number of things, one of our moments of reflection still hangs in my memory.

The class was asked to pair up and discuss the assumption, oft repeated in oldline vision statements, that "everyone in the congregation is a minister."  We're all empowered.  We're all living into our gifts, creative and engaged.  The goal of a leader, or so that assumption goes, is to create a congregation that is completely full of folks empowered to be Holy Ghost large and in charge.  We're all equal, all masters of our own Jesus domain.

Our conversation wandered a tiny bit off track, as a question stirred in both of us.  Is it better to have a congregation that thinks of itself as full of leaders, or a congregation that thinks of itself full of followers?  Which of those things should a pastor be most intentional about modeling for a community?

We hate the idea of following.  Followers are weak.  Followers are, in the parlance of blogosphere trollery, "sheeple," the mindless masses who are utterly incapable of thinking for themselves.  In this land of fiercely held individualism, the idea that we'd hand over the keys to our life-direction to another is utterly alien.  

We love the idea of leading.  Leading is strong.  Being the leader means being in front, being empowered, being the captain, being the one behind the wheel.   Being the leader means casting a golden vision of glory before the amazed, or coming up with a product that is so magical that everyone who touches it becomes an instant fanboy/girl.

And yet, as was so delightfully illustrated by Derek Sivers in his TED presentation last year, a movement is ultimately not defined by a leader.  What makes for a movement is followers.  No followers?  No movement.

As churches try to articulate Christ into a culture of radical self-absorption, that's a bit of a challenge.  On the one hand, we're aware that all of us are gifted with the blessings of the Spirit.   All stand equal before our Maker, who is no respecter of persons.  Authentic Christian faith rejects all forms of power over others, and in that is as radically egalitarian as you can get.  Trotsky and Ron Paul ain't got nuthin' on Jesus folk.

On the other hand, we need to ask ourselves which is healthier:  A congregation in which everyone sees themselves as the pastor, or a congregation in which everyone sees themselves as a disciple?

One Up

Forty three feels, on the surface of it, to be a singularly unremarkable number of years to have been alive.

Forty?  A big deal.  At forty, you are officially Not Young, no matter how desperately our youth-addled culture wants to push that boundary further and further into the recesses of what used to be called middle age.  This was the year I began wearing vests, brown corduroy pants, and bright-white old-man New Balance sneakers with pride.

Forty one?  It's a year over forty, that year that nails you into your forty-ness.   That counts for something.

Forty two?  It's the Hitchhikers Guide Meaning of Life year, and that also counts for something.

But Forty Three?  I'm at a loss to see where there's anything to it.  I'm just one year older than I was before.  The age rolls in like a rental Chrysler Sebring, utterly unremarkable but getting the job done.

As a day, it's been a good one.   My eldest son presented me with a hand-drawn framed Skyrim logo for my office, reflecting our shared enjoyment of that game.  My youngest made me a mutant birthday dirge in Garageband, culminating in his altered booming voice counting off all 43 years.  In the evening, family gathered from all around for beer and wine and delivery Chinese food.   Nothing epic.  Just basic goodness.

Perhaps that's the point of it.  You kick back, look at the day, and realize that you're smack dead center in the middle of your probable lifespan.  You're not a bazillionaire.  You're not world famous.  You are where you are.  And if you can be cool with it, well, then that's where you need to be.

Further up and further in!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA Blackouts, Censorship, and Jesus

Today, a significant chunk of the 'Net is either going dark or protesting a bill wending it's way through Congress.  That bill, entitled the Stop Online Piracy Act, or "SOPA," is intended to prevent folks on the web from copying and profiting from content that others have created.  It would allow owners of Intellectual Property to sue and/or take other legal action to shut down any site hosting or linking to purloined copyrighted material.

That's the idea, anyway.  The reality is different.  The reality is that such provisions would paralyze YouTube, Facebook, and Google.  It would make the broader functioning of the least, a net as we know it...impossible.

Having experienced Net censorship myself a few years back, I know how quickly something like that could deteriorate.  Having pitched up a bit of gentle YouTube push-back against some neoatheists, someone claimed terms of service violation, and my video was summarily removed.  To the credit of the atheist film-maker I was satirizing, he spoke up in favor of leaving the vid up...but no dice.   Once the censorship djinn is out of the bottle, things get bad fast.

There are a couple of places you can school yourself about the ramifications of this bill.  One of the better ones was pitched out by Gizmodo, and came my way via the net-savvy Vice-Moderator of my denomination.  Reading through their description, and following the link to the folks who are supporting SOPA, I encountered something that presses my buttons.

Among the many entertainment industry intellectual property holders that were actively supporting this misbegotten piece of legislation were the following:
Given that I'm reasonably sure that True Religion Brand Jeans isn't actually faith-based, this means that amidst the corporations that put their own profit above a just measure of Net-freedom, and alone among the world's religious traditions, we find Jesus people.  Or, to be more accurate, we find representatives of AmeriChrist, Inc.

These are the community of folks that send the letters to churches, pressuring Jesus people into paying for the right to sing songs about Jesus, and honeychild, that has always ticked me off in a Matthew 21 sort of way.

Way I figure it, if you write a song and say you're singing it to the glory of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, you have no right to keep other Christian people from singing it too.  None.

Sure, we should pay for your albums and download your stuff from iTunes and not try to sneak in at your big venue events.  We should buy your hymnals and songbooks, those few of us who still do that sort of thing.  Let the oxen eat what it's treading out, as the Apostle says.

But the moment you tell me that I need to license your song before my choir or praise team can sing it in worship is the moment I know you're not really serious about the whole Jesus thing.  The moment you tell me I can't put my rendition of your song about Jesus up onto my congregation's YouTube/Vimeo account as a way of sharing the Good News, well, that's when you're no longer in the Gospel business.

You're just in the entertainment business.

Because the Gospel is always free, brothers and sisters.  The Gospel is always free.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Success, Failure, and Tebow

I am painfully oblivious to sports.

There was a period when I was not, back when I was a youngling.  While living in England, I was an earnest supporter of Aston Villa, for the sole reason that my youth league team wore their colors and coopted their name.  During my teen years, I was briefly into the Redskins, until I realized that I did not enjoy the psychological anguish that inflicted nearly every Sunday.  Life serves up enough pain as it is without being a 'Skins fan.

And so, gradually, I drifted into this place where sports are just part of the background noise of culture, part of the chatter, as immaterial to me as fashion trends or the behavior of B-list celebrities.   Still, it serves up some interesting stuff now and again, and the phenomenon of Tim Tebow has enough resonance with my actual interests that I can't help notice it.

Tebow is the goalie for the Denver Nuggets, and...wait...hold on.  Let me wiki that for a second.   Oops.  Start again.

Tebow is the quarterback for the Denver Broncos.  He is, best I can tell, an average-ish QB by the standards of the National Football League.  Winning the Heisman Trophy is not the mark of an average college ball player, and he did indeed win it while playing for the Florida Gators.  Pro ball does have a tendency to chew up and spit out Heisman winners, in my recollection, but Tebow has hung in there.  His physical gifts are enough to make him competitive, and while he's far from the best in the league, he's a young professional player with acceptable talents.

That, of course, is not what has made Tebow such an iconic figure.  He's a conservative evangelical Christian, home-schooled by missionary parents.  As such, he views the world through the lenses of that faith community. He prays a great deal.  He is earnest, and wears his faith on his sleeve.  Interviews almost invariably begin with him thanking his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and then thanking his team.  He makes a habit of kneeling to give thanks to his aforementioned Lord and Savior frequently, so frequently the action has become known as "Tebowing," and is effusively thankful to Jesus after a win.

This bugs people.  As a progressive Christian, I understand this.  Despite what is mistakenly taught to many young evangelicals, folks who are all up in yo bidness with their faith can be annoying.

Last week, as the New England Patriots were in the process of delivering a monstrous shellacking to the Broncos, I logged in to Twitter for a while, searching for hashtag #Tebow.   The game?  Meh.  Not my thing.  I was more interested in observing the overflowing cup of 140-character hateration on Twitter.   It did not disappoint.

Almost without exception, tweeps were gleefully rejoicing in Tebow's comeuppance.  Quip after quip poured from the Twitterverse, mocking him for his expressions of faith.   While I'm cut from very different theological cloth than Tebow, I confess to have found it really rather unpleasant.

Sure, God doesn't care who wins football games.  It's just a game, dagflabbit.  God is no more vested in the outcome of an NFL game than God is vested in a multiplayer round of Call of Duty, or in a really bare-knuckle game of Canasta.  In the broad scheme of things, it doesn't matter in the slightest.  This is why folks like Jimmy Fallon are so eager to creatively poke fun at Tebow.  How stupid of him to pray about it!  What a dumb-dumb-head he is!  Or words to that effect.

But as easy as it would be to go that route, I can't.  Why?

First, Tebow shows no signs of being a smug, self-righteous human being.  Yeah, he's got a bit of Jesus-Turettes in his speech patterns, but what sort of person does that make him?  By all accounts, his team members really like him.  In the locker room, he's patient and supportive and kind.  In interviews, he comes across as gentle-hearted and soft-spoken.  He is, best I can tell, a bit like a larger, beefier Ned Flanders.  I've known folks...conservative, Bible-believing...who were unbelievably giving, kind, and gracious because of their simple faith.  Mocking such a soul serves no purpose.

Second, Tebow is a football player.  That is what he does.  Football is a game, true.  But how much less meaningful is it, honestly, than any other human activity?  If I manage a small IT consulting business, is that really more meaningful?  From his faith, he chooses to pray and be grounded in his Maker on a regular basis as he goes about what he does.  That seems well within the bounds of the acceptable.  The question is:  what sort of football player does it make him?   The answer seems to be similar to the above:  a well-liked, supportive, good-hearted one.  If he wins, he's thankful and humble about it.  If he loses?  He's gracious.  

That, boys and girls, is the point and purpose of prayer.  It is not magic that bends the universe to your will.  It is, instead, the magic that allows you to maintain your integrity as a soul in the face of whatever comes your way.  I just can't see the problem.

With the season close to done, and the one football game I watch annually coming up, I do find myself wondering if the hum and crackle around Tebow will continue next season.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Burning the Bible

Over the last two weeks, in the midst of absorbing about 50 hours of nonstop doctoral coursework in seminary, I popped into the bookstore.  Using a gift card given to me by some of the saints of my former congregation, I bought myself a spanky new bible.  It was a Harper Collins Study Bible, functionally identical to the bible I've been using since 1996, when I first went to seminary.

This is far and away my preferred text for study purposes.  Yeah, the NRSV is a bit relentless on the gender-neutral language thing, to the point of not really accurately reflecting the meaning of the original text on occasion.  But the translation is otherwise sound, and better yet, it has exceptionally good footnotes.  Seriously.  The footnotes alone are worth the price of admission.

In many "study" bibles, the footnotes tell you what you are supposed to believe about the text.  They do the interpreting for you.  Given that the whole point of the Reformation was that we were to be set free to explore the texts on our own, this is a nontrivial thing.  Rule of thumb about scriptural study tools:  You should wield them, not the other way around.   In the Harper Collins, they give you historical context, details about variances in translation, and provide clear linkages to other relevant passages.

This left me in a bit of a conundrum.  My old Bible was dead in the water.  Repeated applications of clear packing tape, made necessary through daily use over a decade and a half, had finally failed.  The inner binding had come apart, to the point at which I could no longer use it in worship or study.   Books would just fall out of it, which isn't great in a class and even worse when you're up leading a service.  It was spent, a ruin of a book.

So it was time to...what?  Just leave it lying around?  No.  I despise clutter, perhaps because I'm so prone to it.  If a thing is broken and past its use, I'm not going to cling to it like a hoarder.  That kind of grasping thing-orientation is one of the more persistent demons of our culture.  

Throw it in the trash?  I couldn't see doing that.  Here was a book that had been by my side through seminary.  It had rested in my hands during literally hundreds of important conversations and sacred moments.    Dumping it in with the coffee grounds just didn't feel right.   

Neither, quite frankly, could I bring myself to recycle it.  Stuffing it into the pile of old newspapers and stacks of Best Buy and K-Mart advertising just didn't feel right either.   

So, in a moment of willful ritual carbon positivity, I decided to burn it.   

I made a little stack of wood in our fireplace, nestled the bible on top of it, open to Isaiah, and lit the pyre.   It took a bit to catch, but when it did, those thousands of pages burned long, hot and bright.   For about forty minutes, I sat by the flames, intermittently turning the pages with a poker, opening the book so that fire could dance in and devour the text.

Words would appear, here and there.  I saw Micah consumed, and a chapter on Hezekiah the king.   My face and chest burned, as the room grew hot with the heat of it.  

As the burning tongues licked text after text to ashen nothing, I remembered the feel of the book in my hand, the many times I'd sat with it preparing a sermon, or trying to open the gracious traditions of our faith to those who knew only enough about it to get themselves into trouble.

I reflected on the importance of those words, as bearers of concepts that have the power to change the direction of a human life.  I reflected on how far the Bible is from being a book of magic, as much as we want it to be.  

It's just ink and paper, text on media, no more infused with sacred power than the air we breathe or the light that plays across a room.   The message it conveys draws truth from a place beyond the pages and the language we print upon them.  Burning it does not destroy anything of what matters about it.  It's good to have a sacred text like that, I think.

And then the flames faded, and all that remained was ash and a faint sense of reverence.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Resolution 2012

Last year, I rolled into 2011 promising myself that I would do a range of things.  There was the usual weight loss/fitness yearning, of course...but I've found that's a commitment best made continually.  Linking it to the New Year has just never quite worked out for me.  Instead, I pledged myself to e-publishing a book I'd written in college.  That was done, thank the Maker.

This year, the creative project that's sitting on the back burner is an exploration of M-Theory, multiverse cosmology, and the Biblical narrative.   It's tentatively titled, "New Heavens, New Earth," but I'm thinkin' that feels a bit grandiose.  Ah well.  A better title will come.

It has sat untouched on this laptop and my backup drive for a few months, crowded from my day-to-day by the demands of kids and work and my D.Min. program.  But I'm 20,000 words in, almost half a book.  I'm still hoping to get it finished.  It's still interesting to me, dagnabbit, and even if it goes nowhere, I want to get 'er done.

So...that's the resolution.  I'll get this manuscript done by the end of August, hopefully well before the Mayan universe comes to a crashing end in December.

To stir my discipline in getting it done, I'm also hoping to make it an independent study elective for my doctoral work.  Structures of accountability are remarkably efficacious in getting yourself motivated to do the things you know you really need to do.