Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book: Mere Churchianity

Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus Shaped Spirituality
by Michael Spencer

Mere Churchianity, the long-awaited book by the late Michael Spencer, our beloved Internet Monk, was released yesterday. I pre-ordered the book, and so my copy should arrive today or tomorrow. I encourage you to order your copy today. I hope to start a book club at my church in September. This will be the first book of the year.

“Michael Spencer was a self-described ‘post-evangelical’ Christian. He pointed out what already was obvious to many: that too often, churches practice ‘moralistic, culture-war religion.’ And sadly, their members are ‘church-shaped’ rather than Jesus-shaped. Almost prophetic in his railing against the prosperity gospel and efforts to turn God into a ‘convenient vending machine,’ Spencer’s book offers a timely and difficult reimagining of what living as a person of faith really means.” —Jennifer Grant, journalist, columnist for The Chicago Tribune

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Movie: Departures

Directed by Yôjirô Takita

This is a fascinating film about a young man, Daigo, who is forced by economic factors to give up a career in music performance. After selling his cello and returning to the town where he grew up, he unexpectedly finds himself in the most unusual career of preparing bodies for encoffinment.

Though the profession is undesirable in many ways, and is misunderstood and derided by society, the formal, ceremonial washing and clothing of a loved-one's body in the presence of mourners proves to be an important cultural role. Daigo comes to see how treating the departed with beauty, dignity, and reverence brings closure and comfort to their families.

In Ecclesiastes 7:2 it says, "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart." The truth of that verse is certainly borne out in the moving story of Departures. It's a story of a young man and his wife who learn a great deal about themselves and the beauty of life by looking squarely into the awful face of death.

The screenplay was written by Kundo Koyama and is loosely based on Aoki Shinmon's autobiographical book Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician. Koyama artfully weaves other types of departures into plot and character development: a father who forsakes his wife and son for unknown reasons; a son who left his mother behind to pursue a dream in the big city; a wife who leaves her husband returns to her home because she cannot accept his work; a co-worker who years ago abandoned her husband and six-year-old son because of an affair.

Deeply moving and provocative, this artistic and graceful film is not only worth watching, but also worth adding to my library. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Love Listens

The point of my Christianity and Homosexuality post was NOT to declare a position, but rather to encourage dialog, listening, and understanding. It's not that I don't have a position; I'm just tired of positions being more important than people.

Love and dialog are needed from all directions and perspectives. The issue is far more varied and nuanced than the oversimplified FOR or AGAINST approach most people try to force upon it. We need to wrestle with who we are, what the Scriptures are, what they say, what it means to follow Jesus, what it means to be transformed, and how to do this in community.

Among Jesus followers, we have wildly divergent views about the Bible, the intricacy of human physiology, the complexities of personal identity, and the meaning of personhood. Love and humility demand that we take each other seriously. This can't be done if we stop caring for each other and stop listening to each other.

Truth is usually found right in the center of tension. That's why it is so important for people who have formed opinions to keep themselves in check by staying in the conversation and continually testing their conclusions.

Some of you may be familiar with the late Michael Spencer who gave us the Internet Monk blog and podcast. He was a great example of how to have a conviction and a conversation at the same time. The Christian community lost a charitable and constructive voice when he died earlier this year. Fortunately, friends are keeping his blog up and running, and his posts are still available to read. I would encourage you to read this post: . It's right on topic and probably says what I'm trying to say better than I can say it.

Grace and Peace!

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Christianity and Homosexuality

The questions and tensions surrounding Christian perspectives on homosexuality loom larger every day. It is the constant subject of news headlines: Jennifer Knapp's music career; disgraced evangelical leader Ted Haggard's new church; violence against gays in Uganda; the appointing of Anglican bishops in the US and Canada; and constitutional challenges to same-sex marriage laws, just to name a few.

Major denominations are being stressed and divided over the issue. Social norms, civil rights laws, and religious views are increasingly being disputed, advocated, and argued in legislatures, courtrooms, pulpits, and political campaigns. It's everywhere, and it's not going away any time soon.

As a pastor of a small church in Minnesota, I can tell you that questions about homosexuality are more prevalent and persistent than ever. It is no longer a private concern, but public. It is no longer something distant and theoretical; it's close-up, personal, and practical. It's not an individual issue; it's a community concern.

In the last year it has become common for people new to our church to ask about policies and positions on the subject. They frequently raise questions at our welcome classes. They want to know where we stand, what we think, and what we're doing.

Christians and the churches they are a part of will not be able to navigate their way through these stormy waters apart from God's gracious help. We must be humble, honest, loving, patient, faithful, and teachable. We will need to listen, think, and pray. Even when there prove to be unresolvable differences, we will need to live graciously and redemptively in the tension and conflict.

It's important to remember that this is more than a matter of theology and politics. Beneath all the rhetoric and rancor, this is an issue about people. People with needs, desires, fears, doubts, and questions. Learning to understand and love "the other"—those whose experiences, beliefs, and perspectives are vastly different from our own—is a good place to start.

Here are a few things I've been reading and watching to gain insight and perspective while seeking to have a have my personal, pastoral, and theological perspectives shaped by Christ. They've been very helpful in putting a human face on this controversial issue.

Experimental Theology Blog
Dr. Richard Beck, professor and experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University, has posted a short series of helpful articles entitled Thoughts about Homosexuality.

Part 1 - Is Being Gay a Choice?
Part 2 - Is Being Gay Genetic or Learned?

Part 3 - Is Being Gay a Sexual Dysfunction?

Homosexuality: Three Christian Views

Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community
by Andrew Marin (Intervarsity Press)

Andrew Marin and his wife live in Boystown, a predominantly GLBT neighborhood in Chicago. His organization, The Marin Foundation, is conducting the largest-ever research study on religion in the gay community.

From the back cover:
Why are so many people who are gay wary of people who are Christian? Do GLBT people need to change who they are? Do Christians need to change what they believe? Love Is an Orientation elevates the conversation from genetics to gospel and builds a bridge between these two communities—a bridge straight to the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Bible Tells Me So
In this Sundance documentary, director Daniel Karslake tells the story of several Christian families who have had to confront the challenges presented when a loved one's sexual orientation is at variance with the religious beliefs and traditions the family has held.

Interviews include V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion, and Chrissy Gephardt, the lesbian daughter of former U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt.
The interviews with the Reitan family of Eden Prairie, MN hit especially close to home.

The movie is decidedly pro-gay in its handling of the subject, which is an important perspective to hear. The best reason to watch the film, however, is the opportunity to hear people telling their own stories.

Jesus Freak

by Sara Miles

This is not a book about homosexuality, it's a book about being a Christian. It's a book in which the author "tells what happened when she decided to follow the flesh-and-blood Jesus by doing something real."

I'm including this book in this particular post because Sara Miles is an openly gay person who is pouring herself heart-and-soul into Christian ministry. Theologically conservative Christians who read this book are likely to find themselves both inspired and disturbed.

Sara Miles is the founder and director of The Food Pantry, and serves as Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Book: The Cross Shattered Christ by Stanley Hauerwas

The Cross-Shattered Christ is a short book of meditations inspired by the the seven last words of Christ as he died on the cross. Hauerwas, Professor of Theology and Ethics at Duke Divinity School, scrutinizes each of these crucifixion sayings and thoughtfully explores the questions and mystery they provoke.

I read the book during Lent and Holy Week this year and appreciated many of the new ideas and insights Hauerwas presents. I'm thankful for this thoughtful little book and the ways it encouraged me rethink and reflect on the cross of Christ—the crux of our faith. Rather than write more commentary, I think I'll just give you a taste by sharing a short quote from each chapter.

The First Word - Luke 23:34
"Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing."
"To so be made part of God's love strips us of all our presumed certainties, making possible lives...[that are]...lived in the confidence that Jesus, the only Son of God, alone has the right to ask the Father to forgive people like us who would kill rather than face death." [p. 33]

The Second Word - Luke 23:43
"Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise"
"How could we ever think we need to know more than this thief? Like the thief we can live with the hope and confidence that the only remembering that matters, is to be remembered by Jesus." [p. 44]

The Third Word - John 19:26-27
"Woman, behold thy son!" ... "Behold thy mother!"
"So may we never forget that we, the church, comprise Mary's home. A home, moreover, that promises not safety but rather the ongoing challenge of being a people called from the nations to be God's people. A people constituted by faith in the One who refused to triumph through the violence the world believes to be the only means possible to achieve some limited good..." [p. 54]

The Fourth Word - Matthew 27:46
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
"...any account of the cross that suggests God must somehow satisfy an abstract theory of justice by sacrificing his Son on our behalf is clearly wrong. Indeed such accounts are dangerously wrong. The Father's sacrifice of the Son and Son's willing sacrifice is God's justice. Just as there is no God who is not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so there is no god who must be satisfied that we might be spared. We are the spared, because God refuses to have us lost." [p. 66]

The Fifth Word - John 19:28
"I thirst."
"...the thirst of the Son through the Spirit is nothing less than the Father's thirst for us. God desires us to desire God. We were created to thirst for God (Psalm 42) in a 'dry and weary land where there is no water' (Psalm 63)." [p. 77]

The Sixth Word - John 19:30
"It is finished!"
" 'It is finished' is not a death gurgle. 'It is finished' is not 'I am done for.' 'It is finished' will not be, as we know from the tradition of the ordering of these words from the cross, the last words of Jesus. 'It is finished' is a cry of victory. 'It is finished' is the triumphant cry that what I came to do has been done. All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled work." [p. 83]

The Fifth Word - Luke 23:46
"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."
"Jesus has become the Father's Psalm for the world, fulfilling Israel's undying hope that death, and the judgment death must be and always is, is not the last word." [p. 101]

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Book Review: Untameable Heart by Sara Wheat

Earlier this year, I heard Sara Wheat interviewed on the The Nick and Josh podcast. She answered questions about her faith and the new book she had written and self-published: Untameable Heart: Confessions of an Emergent Christ-Follower. Her winsome personality and humble spirit were refreshing as she spoke about her life experiences and the process of writing her book.

Having taught college for five years and worked as a campus pastor on the University of Minnesota campus for fifteen years, I'm a sucker for a young adult faith story. I love young people and I like to encourage them in creative endeavors. So I hopped online, bought her book on Amazon, and became a fan of her Facebook page.

Untameable Heart isn't exactly a memoir, but it leans heavily toward being one, and that's when the book is at its best. To tell you the truth, I'm not convinced Sara really is "an emergent Christ-follower," and it would not surprise me to learn one day (perhaps even now) that she regrets having labeled herself as such. That being said, she is most definitely someone who is openly and humbly allowing the
"emergent conversation" to challenge and deconstruct the version of Christianity she grew up with.

To understand the questions that shape the emergent mindset, you'd be better off reading Doug Pagitt's A Christianity Worth Believing or Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity. But if you'd like to get a front row seat of what it looks like to see a young Midwestern woman's evangelical fundamentalist background pulled apart by honest questions, Untameable Heart is a book worth reading.

While Sara rightly questions the naive certainty and legalism of her childhood old-time religion, I'm not sure she has yet learned to rightly question her new-found emergent ideas. I have no doubt that she will eventually. Her untameable heart will discover soon enough that the new pat answers aren't really any better than the old pat answers, and then she'll be able to simply savor the questions and live in the mystery.

Sara is so likeable and her writing style is unpretentious and exuberant. She strikes me as someone I would enjoy having as a friend. I'm glad she is telling her story and hope she will continue to tell it as it grows and matures. It's a story sure to unfold in wild and wonderful ways as she follows Christ, learns to wear his name alone, and casts all other labels aside.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Mozart and the SPCO

For the last two or three years, my wife and I have enjoyed season tickets to several series packages offered by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Two weeks ago, May 14, we attended the last concert in our Friday Evening Chamber Music Series. It was terrific, as usual.

The brightest spot in the concert was Mozart's Quintet in E-flat for Horn, Violin, Two Violas, and Double Bass, K. 407. The piece was quintessential Mozart--perfection in form, orchestration, and voicing. This piece is typically performed with cello rather than double-bass as Mozart's orchestration note allows for either. The grace and agility needed to pull it off on double-bass is considerable, and Christopher Brown's performance was perfection.

If you've never attended SPCO concerts, now is the time to start. Visit their website and check out the wide variety of series options available. You'll be impressed by the choices you have for dates, venues, and pricing. The SPCO is on my list of best things about life in the Twin Cities.