Thinking Out Loud

December 26, 2017

Of a Christmas Yet to Come

Filed under: Christianity, Christmas, writing — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:31 am

This is the third of the four stories we’re presenting over the Christmas season; two by myself and two by my wife.

by Paul Wilkinson

The Winterfest parade snaked its way down the main street and stopped near the town hall where, as had been the custom of the past few years, local performers entertained the crowds which had followed the parade’s last float.

You could still sense a little unease, particularly among the older residents at the changes which had taken place. By the start of the 2020s the so-called “silly debates” about saying “Merry Christmas” had ceased and had been replaced with genuine interest in the historical roots of the season. But now, here we were a decade later, the few remaining local churches had lost their tax exempt status and the mere verbalization of partisan religious sentiment had become a misdemeanor.

I was so relieved not to have to have this event as an assignment. The reporter for the regional news organization I work for didn’t dare use the C-word, and even when covering things in an historical sense, or clarifying the laws, I had to get special permission to include it in an article.

Especially upset were those who had held membership in local churches which had closed. I stood next to two men who I’d seen in one church the week of its final services.

“Sure ain’t what it used to be,” said the one.

“No it isn’t,” said the other.

They left it at that, speaking a forced code because city police were milling about and any sustained references could constitute an unlawful assembly. Better to save that for the living room of a private home.

It is strange though how they look the other way sometimes. It was widely rumoured that a few weeks before the 25th about 60 of the faithful attended a house meeting in a suburban neighborhood, parking their cars at the mall to avoid attention. When nearby residents confronted the situation the town said they knew about the event and that it was a “discussion of philosophical and ethical concerns” to avoid it escalating into a mass confrontation.

I remember just a few years ago when business owners were told that signs and decorations bearing “Merry Christmas!” should not only be removed, but that they should be taken to large bins where they would be pulped and recycled. “Season’s Greetings!” and “Happy Holidays!” replaced them, but in quiet whispers I often would tell friends that the word holiday actually means… well, you know. I don’t think anyone envisioned how far things would go.

As the talent portion of the program began, I chose a spot standing next to Mayor Jason Herold whose reputation is such that everyone else is afraid to be anywhere near him. We know each other personally, and generally get along.

The selections this year were especially traditional and they had invited some talented younger vocalists from other cities to participate; I wondered if perhaps they had won a contest or something like that. First, a girl from a nearby city did a jazzy version of Winter Wonderland and then a boy from a town several miles west with an incredible vocal range did Sleighride and at one point we all sang Deck The Halls.

Next, a young man stepped to the platform and completely unaccompanied began to sing,

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for his bed.

Everybody knew where he was headed with this and a few people turned around to glance at Mayor Herold at the same time as two members of the police also looked as though waiting for a cue from the Mayor.

“Let him finish it,” was all he said.

…Mary was that mother mild.
Jesus Christ, her little child.

Mayor Herold left the spot where we were standing and slipped backstage as the young man, his voice shaking, sang all five verses. As he left the stage he was escorted by the two uniformed officers into a waiting cruiser, his eyes filled with tears.

As my colleague would post to our website, “The talent portion of the Winterfest parade was marred when a guest ameteur artist performed a song which was deemed inappropriate. He was charged under the recent act banning public religious expression and released several hours later to await further trial.”

In the meantime, I decided to walk nearby where the two men I’d seen earlier were standing.

“Sure ain’t what it used to be,” said the one.

“No it isn’t,” said the other.

As I made my way to the parking lot, I heard more than one person humming the tune. It seemed that with each try to suppress Christmas it seemed they were making it stronger. As I keyed in the code to unlock my car I heard a woman singing openly,

…Mary was that mother mild.
Jesus Christ, her little child.

Seconds later, who should walk by but the two men I’d been watching all day.

“Mayor Herold seems quite upset,” said the one.

“Yes, they must have contracted out the printing of the evening program to some place where they don’t know him,” said the other; “They’ve misspelled his name without the letter “l” in all three places.”

I turned around to go back to grab a souvenir copy of that since it was a sure bet he’d find a way to get them reprinted before the event started.

“Sure ain’t what it used to be,” said the one.

“No…” said the other, “If you look back, I think it’s always been like this.”

 

 

Advertisements

December 21, 2017

Merry Little Christmas

Earlier this year, my wife and I participated in a Christian Christmas short story contest writing two stories each. The competition was tough. This story is actually part of a series of stories she wrote featuring the same characters. We’re sharing all four of our stories here; this is the second.

by Ruth Wilkinson

This was Tony’s first Christmas on his own for, well, ever, really. First with his parents, then with Meg, then Meg and Shane. Last year, with Meg moved out, Shane had been with him, then off to his mom for New Year’s.

So this was Tony’s first real single guy Christmas and he wasn’t going to let it suck. He was going to decorate and play the tunes. Eat tourtiere, eggnog, and nanaimo bars. And not feel sorry for himself.

Christmas Eve was going to be OK. He’d found a sign-up sheet on the bulletin board at work for a charity hockey game. One of those 24 hour things to raise money for the hospital. A few guys had already signed on, and Tony thought it sounded fun. He hadn’t played in a few years but he hadn’t been bad in his day.

Over coffee he told Walt all about it. Walt had become a good friend since the winter when Shane had set out to make money shovelling driveways and ended up adopting him and Esther as extra grandparents.

Walt smiled and said, “Sounds like fun!” Then, more seriously, “Now what about Christmas Day? You’re on your own?”

Tony shrugged. “Looks like it. No plans, exactly.”

“Same here. Let’s get together! Christmas dinner!”

“Great! I didn’t know you could cook.”

“I can’t. I was hoping you could.”

Having established that neither of them knew one end of a turkey baster from the other, Walt asked around. He found out about a church downtown having a turkey dinner on Christmas day that was open to everybody, especially the homeless. He was excited. Tony less so.

Oh, well. If nothing else, it would be an adventure. And, Tony thought, I won’t be in any danger of feeling sorry for myself.

He wondered what to wear. Seemed like you should dress up for Christmas dinner, but in the basement of a downtown church where most of the diners would be homeless or slightly better off?

Walt would wear the same thing he always wore. Shiny black shoes, neatly pressed trousers with a matching suit jacket, a snappy fedora and, of course, a tie. Walt had the most amazing tie collection. Dozens of them. Some spectacularly “vintage.” He’d told Tony that he’d kept buying them over his years of wearing priestly black with dog collar. He just kept buying ties, promising Esther that someday, he’d wear them. Every single one. She’d just laugh. His favourite sound. Gone now.

Aside from the occasional hideous cravat, Walt was sharp, neat, respectable. Not a wrinkle, not a speck of lint. Tony had never known such a tidy person. He was kind of looking forward to seeing Walt surrounded by rumpled street dwellers.

❄❄❄

The Saturday before the big day, Tony launched an expedition into the crawlspace under the basement stairs. It was amazing how much stuff was crammed in there and even more amazing how all the stuff you wanted was behind and under all the stuff you weren’t looking for.

He ploughed through the foothills of disco albums and old clothes only to get lost in the forest of yearbooks and hockey equipment (there it was!) He waded knee deep through Shane’s toys, ages 1 through 9 — no mean feat, bent over at the waist — to get to the Christmas decorations in the far back corner. Crouching in the dust and cobwebs, looking back across the great landscape he’d just traversed, imagining the return journey with each of 4 boxes, his enthusiasm faded a bit.

Buck up, Tony, lad, he thought, You’ve come this far…

Soon enough it was all out and it only took a few minutes to make his spine the right shape again.

He decided it would be tree first, outdoor lights second, and finally the creche. Start with the worst, end with the easiest. He hated putting up the tree.

It was the one he and Meg had bought when they got married. Ugly as dirt. Kind of green — sort of an army tank colour. There were some nice ones now that almost looked real. This one had no such pretensions. It was wire and plastic, all bent in strange directions from sitting in the box for 11 ½ months. Dozens of assorted bits that had to be laid out on the floor and sorted by size so your tree didn’t come together upside down or worse.

But it was his and he loved it. Or maybe he just had no intention of shelling out for a new one. Maybe a bit of both. Sentiment is not always a pure thing.

He put on a few really good Christmas albums — Cockburn, Guaraldi, Motown, Cash — and a couple of hours, half a pound of shortbread and one beer later he had an honest to goodness Christmas tree.

By then it was dark – no time to go out and hang lights, so he dug out the creche: a little stable kind of thing, a ceramic donkey, a couple of sheep. Three wisemen, two shepherds, an angel. A little manger and a baby that fit in it. Mary, dressed in light blue. Joseph. A carpenter. Like Tony.

He held Joseph in his hand for a minute. Picked up his drink. Took a sip. Sat down.

He’d never noticed the look on Joseph’s face before. He looked a little stunned.

Tony smiled. Yeah, well, you probably were, mate. Stunned.

Thought you were going to marry a pretty girl, settle down, build things, have a family. Probably had a nice workshop at home, full of tools, a few unfinished projects waiting until you got back. Back from a trip to someplace you didn’t want to go. A trip that wasn’t nearly over yet.

Doing the right thing. What you were told to do. Being faithful. Being brave. Protecting and providing. Looking after a kid that wasn’t even yours. Because it was right.

An ordinary man doing ordinary work. But it was what God had told him to do. God had gone to a lot of trouble to tell this ordinary man to just keep doing the ordinary right thing. Don’t be afraid, be true, look after your family.

God had told him to do that.

Such a small thing, but it mattered. A lot.

Just a little family. That changed the world.

❄❄❄

Christmas Eve.

The game was about half over. They’d started at 8 that morning. They’d finish at 8 tomorrow. The stands were surprisingly full. Tony had his old skates and new sticks and he was having fun. This was a good day.

He was sitting in the box when he heard a voice behind him.

“Hey, dad! Dad!”

He looked over his shoulder. There was Shane, halfway up the stands. He was standing beside Walt and — oh. Meg.

Shane and Walt were wearing big foam hats with ‘TONY’ painted on them and big foam fingers that they waggled at him, and red rubber noses, grinning like idiots, each wearing three of the ugliest ties ever to see daylight, two straight and one bow.

Meg sat and looked bored.

He grinned and waved. Shane and Walt waved back. Meg made a gesture that was half wave, half checking her watch. Tony wondered whether she’d practised that move in front of a mirror and got annoyed. He thought, She didn’t have to come.

And checked himself. No, she really didn’t have to come…

Shane shouted, “Score any goals?”

Tony nodded, took off a glove and held up 3 fingers. He’d got lucky. Then he was back on the ice.

Waiting for the puck to drop, one of the guys asked him, “That your family?”

Tony glanced over at his son, the old man he was just getting to know, and his ex-wife. He took a deep breath and said, “Yeah, that’s my family.”

And he laughed and wondered whether he looked stunned.

He’d take time later to ask God for help — help to do the right, ordinary thing.

He was kind of busy right now.

December 19, 2017

Christmas Sunday: The Best Music and the Toughest Theology

Filed under: Christmas, writing — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:56 am

Over the last several months, my wife and I participated in a Christian short story contest. I’ve never actually entered one of these before; it was blind judging so the process by which you remit your entries was rather complex. We each submitted two entries, but apparently the competition was fierce. Over the next two weeks we want to share them with readers here. This story appeared here before in a slightly different form.


by Paul Wilkinson

Doug and Gary were always the last to leave the office and this day was no exception. Doug always turned off the lights as Gary set the alarm and as it was the weekend, he turned down the heat.

“It’s December, Gary,” Doug reminded his co-worker; “It was freezing in here on Monday morning; the company’s not that broke.”

If it was a Friday, Gary always asked Doug if he wanted to join him for church that weekend. Usually the excuse was sports related. In summer, a weekend at the cottage or heading Stateside for some cross-border shopping. In the winter, a child’s hockey practice or cross country skiing with his brother’s friends. So Gary was a little surprised by the response.

“Actually, I’m going to church with my wife on Sunday,” Doug replied.

“Oh right. I forgot. You’re a CEO,” Gary said smiling.

“A CEO?”

“Christmas and Easter only.”

They both laughed, then Gary continued, “You know it’s good that you’re going, but you always pick the two hardest days.”

“I know,” returned Doug, “The parking at that church is miserable at Christmas.”

“No, that’s not what I mean; you always choose what we could call incarnation and atonement Sundays. They’re the toughest ones to grasp.”

“Wait a minute, I thought you wanted me to attend church.”

“I do, but think about it; if you show up for The Good Samaritan, the message is ‘love your neighbor,’ that’s easy! And if you show up for Mother’s Day and the preacher’s text is ‘husbands love your wives,’ well, two minutes in and you’ve got that one. Come with me on Thanksgiving and the message is ‘give thanks.’ But incarnation –“

“Do you mean the flower?”

“No it’s the idea of God becoming man, God becoming one of us. People who study theology have wrestled with that for centuries. How can I describe it? See, God is like those triplicate forms we use to requisition materials from head office. The kind where what you write on the top part goes through to all three. It’s one form, but with three parts. But then God Himself rips out one of the pages — let’s call it the middle one –“

“You know, Gary,” Doug began, “I did go to church when I was younger and I’ve heard people talk about the trinity before, but that triplicate form thing is a first. Did you just make that up?”

Gary was on a roll now and ignored the interruption. “– and then the letter to the Philippians tells us that that part of God took on the role of a servant and entered into the human condition, even to the point of experiencing human death, and a rather excruciating one at that.”

“So you’re talking about Jesus. Incarnation is saying he was 50 percent man and 50 percent human. Like a centaur?”

“No it’s not 50/50, more like 100/100.”

“So that’s gotta hurt. Why would he do that? Why bother? Why go to all that trouble?”

“Well that’s the Easter part, the atonement part; the part that tells us why bother. In another letter, to a young disciple named Timothy, the same writer wrote that ‘Christ came into the world to save sinners, of which I’m the worst.'”

“The guy who wrote part of the Bible said he was the worst?”

“We’re all pretty much the worst, when you think of how pure God is. Jesus himself said he ‘came into the world to look for and save people who were lost.’ In another part he said that he came into the world to give his life to pay off a debt for all of us; and in yet another written account of his life we read that he didn’t come to condemn — which is what a lot of people think church is all about lately — but that through him everybody could have life that never ends.”

“Preach it! You really know this stuff. So now you’re talking about going to heaven when you die?”

“Well, actually, eternal life starts now.”

“How come I never heard that at a Christmas service before?”

“You did, but you probably weren’t tuned in to it. You’ve gone to church for so many Christmas services…it’s like…well…did you get a flu shot?”

“Of course I did; you know that.”

“Then tell me this,” Gary asked, “What did you get? What was in the shot?”

“I think it’s an inactive form of the flu strain. The body reacts to it and boosts your immunity.”

“Well, that’s you. You’ve showed up at so many Christmas Eve services that you’re immune. You sang the carols, and you enjoyed the soloists and maybe some years your kids were shepherds or sheep in the play, but you missed the connection between incarnation and atonement, and you can’t have the one without the other. Ultimately, Jesus — the baby in the manger — came to die for the world, for me, for you. The people in your church already know this so they don’t stress the big picture story. They get locked into the micro details to the point where they forget to explain the big story arc for CEOs like you.”

“Well…” Doug paused for a few seconds and then added, “Thanks for explaining that.”

By now a light snow was falling and it was time for both guys to get in their cars. “Don’t get me wrong;” Gary concluded, “The details are amazing, but our churches tend to forget to connect the dots in the macro story for those on the outside. Once you’ve got the big picture, it’s a story that you can’t ignore; it begs some type of response.”

While they’d been talking, a light snow had started and some flakes were sticking on the parking lot. Doug was thoughtfully mulling over all his friend had said. He opened his car door, but Gary had one more thing to add; “I think I can also help you with the Christmas church parking problem.”

“How’s that?” Doug asked.

“All you need to do;” Gary smirked, “Is show up at church ten minutes earlier.”

December 10, 2017

Deleted Content

Filed under: blogging, Christianity, personal, writing — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:15 am

I bookmark articles I think will be useful to myself or to readers. Occasionally, I return to some of these only to find the writer has deleted that particular item. They continue to post daily, but I guess they want their site to reflect well on them, or perhaps they’ve recanted certain perspectives, or perhaps something that was quite current at the time is no longer relevant or even amusing.

The internet’s ability to be updated is both a blessing and a curse. I will often write an article, hit “publish” and then minutes after the subscribers got their copy, I’ll notice an omission, a spelling or grammatical error or a lack of citation. Some pieces are subject to constant revision over the course of the day.

A few of the earlier pieces here are perhaps a little embarrassing. I didn’t fully understand the nuances of an issue. I weighed in on an issue that was above my pay grade. I quoted a source I would not endorse today. I predicted an outcome which never took place.

But delete them? It never occurs to me. It’s what I wrote that day.

These things are called blogs because it’s an abbreviation for web-log. It’s like a diary. You wouldn’t rip out pages out of your personal diary just because…well…okay, some of you might.

We sometimes operate them more like websites than blogs, and at that point we lose the personal aspect. Yes, I have some training in journalism, but this is also my personal online diary. It contains the things I was thinking out loud that day.

Deleting content would be revisionist. To use a journalistic term: Stet. Let it stand. Leave it as it is. Warts and all.

November 9, 2017

The Essential Art of Concision

I debated between calling this “The Lost art of Concision” versus “The Developing Art of Concision.” First, a definition is in order:

Therefore, when I speak of the concision as a developing art, I mean the necessity of being able to put ideas across in a short-and-to-the-point manner; something you need in a world of soundbites. Last year I wrote,

It was Noam Chomsky who introduced me to the idea of concision. I’ve taught it as, “You’re selling your car through a media which is charging you $1.50 per word. How do you describe your vehicle persuasively, but keep the cost down?”

But when I speak of it as a dying art, I’m thinking specifically of the migration of many bloggers from what I’m doing now — typing/writing words — to podcasting; and to Twitter’s decision to gift everyone with 140 additional characters on Tuesday evening.

Twitter is obsessed with the number 140. (Originally videos were limited to 2 minutes and 20 seconds, which is 140 seconds.)  The new length, 280 characters, doubles this even though 160 would have been a nice gift in itself. Or 180 or 200. 280 seems long, it seems to rob Twitter of it’s basic character, heretofore. But I didn’t always feel that way. When I joined, I wrote:

I can’t say what I have to say in 140 characters.

In case you missed it, I tend to write long.

But the word concision has come up on this blog somewhat frequently. Earlier this year I wrote,

I have for a long time questioned how much time sermon has left.  With all due respect to those of you currently honing your homiletic craft at either the undergraduate or graduate level, I really think that this particular form is destined to go the way of the CD or the land line phone. I’m not saying there aren’t some great preachers out there; I spend my evening hours listening to sermon after sermon online. But that’s me. For others there are a host of reasons why sermon doesn’t work. ADD or ADHD comes to mind. Some sermons are simply too long. Some say it’s just not how they learn. Some claim that high profile Christian pastors have simply set the bar too high and average pastors can’t achieve the quality that is now widely available online. Others would argue that we’ve become accustomed to media bursts, sound bites, and increased concision.

The Bible itself is amazingly concise. Readers are often fascinated to learn how narratives they had heard about — Creation, Jonah, The Prodigal Son — when they actually got around to reading them, were expressed in a very limited fashion. In an article about Christ’s ascension the subject was raised (pun intended):

A reader wrote, “We’re told… at his ascension that he will come again in like manner as they have seen him go.” But what do we know about that manner? How long were the disciples staring as he rose into the sky? Was there a low cloud ceiling that day? The Bible’s tendency to brevity and concision makes me think that perhaps God didn’t just beam Jesus up, but his ascension may have have been more prolonged; a vertical processional to heaven.

It also came up in a piece on diminishing attention spans:

You see this in the way books and articles in periodicals are written now; in fact you’re seeing it in the piece you’re presently reading. Pick up an older book — say 60 years or more old — and you might find an entire page consisting of a single paragraph. You might even find several consecutive pages consisting of a single paragraph. (I’m told that some chapters of Paul’s epistles were often a single sentence in the original Greek, no doubt a weaving of dominant and subordinate clauses that the reader of that time would follow easily.)

Today we use paragraph breaks to keep the content flowing; to keep the eyes moving on the page; to force us writers to adopt a greater degree of concision. Our writing is also broken up by more numbered or alphanumeric lists, by bullet points, by sub-headers and by pull quotes. (We use them often at Christianity 201, where the devotions are by definition somewhat longer, and we want to make what would otherwise be an entire page of text more interesting.)

The trend towards podcasting is actually surprising, given the push toward brevity in a bullet-point world. Have you ever thought of what a full transcript of your favorite podcast would look like printed out? It would run for pages and pages. A blog post on a similar topic would be less than 2,000 words, and easily digested in under 7 minutes. (Or spoken in 15 minutes. Compare word length to spoken time at this speech minutes converter.)  We wrote about podcasts on an article on the trend from literacy to orality:

Inherent in podcasting is the right to ramble. Listeners get the nuance that’s missing in a traditional blog post (and this is one of the great liabilities of email) but they have to take the time to wade through the host(s) stream-of-consciousness narration. There’s no concision, a quality that decades ago Noam Chomsky had predicted would be, moving forward, a key asset in communications. A great concept that’s probably a seven or eight paragraph blog post instead becomes a 53 minute podcast.  Andy Warhol’s comment that “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes;” might be modified to, “In the 21st century, everyone will have their own talk show or be the host of their own radio station.” 

As Christian communicators however, we have to be careful when we try to reduce to mystery or complexity of the gospel to a concise motto, slogan, tag line or formula. In an article titled What is the Gospel, I wrote,

I also think that, when considered in the light of the Jewish appreciation of the scriptures as a great jewel that reflects and refracts the light in infinite ways each time we look at it, the idea of trying to formulate a precis of the Bible is to venture into an endless and perhaps even frustrating mission. What would Jesus think of trying to consolidate something so great, so wide, so high, so deep into a finite number of words?  Concision is great, but maybe it doesn’t work here.

Anyway Twitter, thanks for the extra characters; but I earnestly hope I have the wisdom to not overuse them. Readers, it’s a busy world out there; keep it short!


Yes, today I basically quoted myself throughout this article. To further embellish Chomsky’s teaching on concision would have made the article…well…not so concise.

For those mystified by the final graphic image, TL/DR stands for Too long, didn’t read.

For further reference in thinking about the difference between podcasting and blogging, this article is less than 1,100 words; you can halve the minutes in the above example.

 

August 14, 2017

Of Bees, and Larks, and Doors

Filed under: Christianity, Church, Humor, writing — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:08 am

For authors and readers alike, the use of satire in Christian writing can be a touchy subject. As someone who grew up with Christian humor books consisting of about 100 pages of single panel comics, I found them to be helpful on a number of levels.

First, I learned there were other people who thought like me. Second, they broke through the tension of thorny issues. Third, they pointed out the various foibles of Evangelicalism.

Today, Christian satire has moved beyond single-panel or even 4-panel cartoons. Baptist Press is one of the greatest distributors (or hoarders) of those, but their rather mean-spirited copyright statement prevents us from including a sample at this point. Elsewhere, Adam Ford’s Adam4d.com is a good example of the comic format.

Rather, today we have the sophistication of longer form pieces which mimic news satire site The Onion. The Wittenburg Door somewhat owned this form for many years, first in print and later online. Growing up, a Christian musician and leader who greatly influenced me said, “That magazine is my conscience.”

With the internet came Lark News, which still has an online lot caster if you’re facing a tough decision.

Mission recruiters may be disappointed if everyone gets the same outcome as I did

Since 2012, Roman Catholics have had the artificial news site Eye of the Tiber. Lutheran’s have Lutheran Satire as well as its popular YouTube channel. Baptists have Landover Baptist. Megachurch members have the videos of John Crist. The homeschool crowd has the insanity of Matthew Pierce.

Then we have the most recent arrival, The Babylon Bee, which turned out to also be the brainchild of Adam Ford, though it uses multiple authors.

Some of the things you might stumble into online are written by outsiders. Often these people have an axe to grind. The best and funniest though usually are produced by people within the particular movement. The best satirists on Baptist life are Baptists; the best person to poke fun at The Salvation Army is an Army soldier or officer. You need to know the nuances of spiritual life within any given faith tribe in order to best deal with its idiosyncrasies. You also need the sensitivity of an insider to avoid crossing the line into mockery or ridicule. But if the given tribe has no sense of humor, then sometimes it takes an outsider to step up.

While not everyone is gifted at writing what is essentially fake news, sarcasm and satire can easily creep into our emails and online writing. Twitter makes it possible to be especially pithy, as do various meme sites. One blogger, Matt Marino at The Gospel Side includes a “snark meter” for most of his posts, so you can tell toward which side of his cheek is tongue is pointing.

Readers should check the meter before reading the article

Does all this have a place in God’s Kingdom? Do Christians have the ability to laugh at themselves? Can we be funny without offending people?

It’s a tough row to hoe.

In one church I attended as a twenty-something, there were two twenty-something women who felt they needed to address my penchant for humor, both in a general sense and also in terms of being able to point out the various elephants in our ecclesiastical room. Their admonitions were based on an application of Ephesians 5:4 which speaks of “foolish talk or coarse joking.” The type of silly talk or crude jesting in view has to be seen in the context of the verses before and after, which are dealing with sexual immorality and impurity. I think we all know what it’s like to be in a room where that’s going on, and there is clearly a difference.

They also would bring in I Peter 5:8 about being “sober minded,” though again, contextually this is speaking of an undistracted spiritual alertness; it’s not saying, ‘Never tell jokes; never point out the humor of anything.’  I think they just wanted to impose a rather Puritanical standard on their Christianity, and mine, and everyone else’s.

At the end of the day, each of our local churches and each of our denominations have some unique characteristics which are simply funny. Lacking the ability to see the rather odd distinctives we possess is to take a high-minded, scriptural view of our group’s perfection. No group has the right to claim that. We see as though through greasy glasses [ref], we know in part, we prophesy in part [ref], we stumble in various ways [ref]. We’re fallible.

The Bible contains humor (think of the kids calling Elisha ‘Baldy’) and certainly also irony (Haman’s demise on the gallows built for Mordecai) and also hyperbole (Paul suggests a group of legalists simply castrate themselves) but not specifically satire. So we give ourselves permission that a story can be humorous, but if something written parallels life in the modern church, certain people stand up and declare that unacceptable. They don’t allow us to find humor in speaking in tongues (which is a rather unusual gift) by Pentecostals or the wearing of bonnets (the Bible does speak about head coverings) by Amish women; or any of the distinctives of Baptists, Catholics or anyone else.

That’s unfortunate. Laughter is a gift from God. Where would the modern church be without the practical observations of Phil Callaway, the church drama of Adrian Plass, the resilience of the late Barbara Johnson, etc. The dry wit of Plass is an especially good example of what we’re discussing here with both the Plymouth Brethren and Charismatics in his sights. And after several decades, how can we can forget Garrison Keillor’s hilarious weekly look at life among the Lutherans.

Like my musician friend taught me all those years ago, satire can address something in our church culture which is ripe for reconsideration.

 

 

 

February 25, 2017

ThInKiNg OuT LoUd TuRnS 9

Filed under: blogging, Christianity, personal, writing — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:52 am

TOL Banner Red

 It’s our 9th Birthday…which means we’re now in our tenth year!

Who would have thought I’d be doing this 9 years later? I thought this year, instead of taking the time to reminisce and blow my own horn, we’d look at you guys, readers. If you’ve been with us since the beginning, thank you for your support. If this is your first day, welcome.

.

First you guys have forced me to discover who I am. Yes, the various labels are annoying sometimes or a caricature of what people truly believe, but writing every day and interacting with such a broad base of news stories and opinion pieces have helped me clarify my positions on a variety of doctrinal subjects and crafting a personal theology.

.

Second, you readers have inspired me to read some really great books. There are times I got on the bandwagon of trending authors and now wish I’d focused on different types of material — more from IVP perhaps — but I appreciated tracking with the titles that have frequently topped bestseller charts.

.

Third, the off-the-blog fellowship that has resulted from this project is something I greatly treasure. True, it’s often still confined to the world of electrons — emails and direct messages on Twitter — but I’ve also been blessed to meet a few of you face to face.

.

Finally, without Thinking Out Loud, there would never have been a Christianity 201, which has benefited me spiritually in so many ways. I thank those of you who tell me, “I read both blogs;” it is humbling to think you spend that amount of time with me on a daily basis.

.

So this time around, it’s Happy Birthday to you the regular readers here at Thinking Out Loud. Thank you for keeping us among the top Christian blogs in North America.


TOL Banner Teal

January 31, 2017

Before Screens There Was Newsprint

Filed under: Christianity, writing — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:26 am

From the time I was 20 to the time I was 30, four of my friends started Christian newspapers. In the times before screens, there was newsprint and anyone with minimal ability to do basic layout and the funds to pay a printer could have their very own outlet.

Oddly enough, the type of offset printing used to print newspaper was called web printing — or fully, web-fed printing, to distinguish it from sheet-fed printing — a term which has taken on a different meaning in the digital age. Most of us had worked on high school newspapers and understood the low-tech technology.

In a world where it seems that everybody has a handful of social media platforms on which to share their poetry or prose, their political views or their literary skills; it’s important to realize that those living in a pre-internet age had no fewer opinions or no less desire to see their words in print reaching a mass audience. (Also, unlike today, we knew how to insert paragraph breaks. But alas, I digress.) I had a byline at some point in each of the following ventures.

The first paper I became involved with started by friend Steve, who named it Deluge. On page four of each issue, we were reminded that “Deluge means flood…” but I can’t remember the rest of the purpose statement. The paper was officially published by the Toronto Christian Activist Forum, which to the best of my knowledge consisted of Steve. I don’t believe the group had held a meeting, or a forum, or done any activism, but I could be wrong. My job was to write music-related content. The 12-page paper was distributed free on college and university campuses at a time when a great host of other interest groups were also distributing newspapers. Together, we contributed to the demise of many forests.

delugeWhen Steve grew weary of the project, I took it over, dropping the activist group reference. The paper became wholly subsidized by a business I had started, and showed up at more Christian gatherings than college campuses, but basically consisted of advertising for music related products and events.

That caught the attention of a local concert promoter and radio program host, Gord who started the paper Triumph. Unlike the rest of us, Gord had a friend named Tom who was a professional graphic artist and was able to upgrade the quality considerably.

One of the people who worked on that paper was another Steve. He dreamed of doing something to reach the same basic audience — twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings — but on a national scale with rented commercial office space in the heart of downtown Toronto. His publication used the same type of web printing, but rather than a tabloid size, was printed in magazine form. The magazine was called Destiny. The idea was to focus on a much wider variety of interests; not just music.

Although it was a given that I would write for Destiny I was initially hired as advertising sales manager. This was based on the assumption that because I had been involved in writing for a variety of publications — both these and much larger U.S. magazines — I knew something about selling ad space. We now know that this assumption was somewhat flawed. Did I mention that during much of the time I was supposed to be traveling the city meeting with clients I was having to borrow my mother’s car?

Destiny had a truly beautiful layout concept, but the initial issue was printed on the same paper stock that had been used in each of the earlier ventures which gave rise to it. In other words, it was a magazine printed on newsprint. But not only that, it was a magazine that was somewhat ink-saturated, with the result that after only a few pages, one was leaving fingerprints on everything they touched.

Furthermore, the official launch issue of Destiny was shipped in bulk across the country to Christian bookstores who had not requested it. While there are ways to put a positive spin on negative-option or consignment sales; the particular retail climate of the day meant that store owners were not entirely receptive. Bundles of that first issue started returning, many of them unopened.

Eventually, while some nicer full-color issues on better paper stock appeared, the magazine wasn’t destined to survive long-term. It was at Destiny that I was asked to commit what I now see as a breach of writing ethics. Or maybe not. (You’ll have to tune in on Thursday for that story.)

The final venture with which I was associated brought things back to a more regional territory and was in fact sponsored by a local church. My friend Vince started Crosswalk — ah, that poor name, used to this day by so many ministries — which was the print outreach of a dynamic youth outreach in Toronto’s northeast suburbs. It was the product of a particular time and place; so many people talented in the arts producing music, writing and visual fine art. Minus the aspect of living in community, it was a smaller scale of what Chicago’s JPUSA was doing with Cornerstone magazine and Resurrection Band; and the house band at the coffee house ministry which sponsored the magazine was actually good friends and toured with Rez Band…

…And where you live there are similar stories. Visiting different cities and connecting with different youth ministries as an itinerant speaker, I would always pick up copies of whatever publications were stacked up on the lobby of the concert hall or church basement. If we really liked a graphic image we would literally cut and paste it. (Yes, the thing you know as Ctrl-V actually had an element of glue to it.)(Or command-V for you Mac users.)

These publications were the way we promoted our youth events, sold our t-shirts and shared our testimonies. When an issue was ready to go, we didn’t press a “publish” key, but took the finished layouts to a printer where we told they would be ready in 3-to-5 days. If you noticed a mistake after going to press, you couldn’t edit printed copies; you had to live with it. As for stats, if your copies were still lying in a pile a week later, you knew the response wasn’t great.

Later, a generation who worked on such things would move on to writing for denominational publications and national ministry organization newsletters; but there was nothing like the early days of just starting something, even if it left black fingerprints all over everything you touched.

 

December 1, 2016

Devotional Details and The Shortest Distance Between Two Points

Christianity 201 - newAt least once a month, I try to let readers here know what’s going on at this blog’s sister site, Christianity 201. This time around I thought I’d get into more details.

C201’s tag line is “Digging a Little Deeper.” What I mean by this is something deeper than those little devotional booklets that offer a key verse, a paragraph with a cute story, three more paragraphs, a poem and a prayer. I know many people who use these, and I support the ministries which print them, but often they’re over and done with in 60 seconds. Even with the devotional website I read each morning, it’s easy to be in a hurry and read the key verse, skim the rest, and then move on to other computer activity.

I started C201 at a time when Thinking Out Loud was mired deep in some investigative stuff about the latest Evangelical scandals. I needed balance personally. I started with some short quotations and brief Bible expositions that had a huge faith-focus and then C201 found its identity with pieces which went a bit longer. There are no points for length, but I felt there was too much online that was just too short. Eventually I got into the rhythm of scanning the internet for people who were writing deeper devotional and Bible study content. Some days go deeper than others.

Presently we have two regular writers; Clarke Dixon is midweek (usually Thursdays) and Russell Young is Sundays. I try to do one a week. Most of our writers are people who have appeared previously on the blog. There is a very broad range of doctrinal perspectives. We’ve only had two take-down orders in 2,435 posts and both of them were Calvinists. Just sayin’. (I am looking for one more writer if you are familiar with C201 and feel qualified to contribute.)

On a personal level, I need this. I need the personal discipline that comes from coordinating this project. I need the input of the material that is used. Because Thinking Out Loud posts in the mornings (usually) Christianity 201 posts between 5:31 and 5:34 PM EST. Again, it’s a personal discipline, and with great humility I say, even on my worst days spiritually, I am always in awe of how the daily devotional Bible studies come together.

…So a longer set-up this time around. Here’s what we’ve been up to lately, and as we say regularly at C201, click the title below to read this at source.


The Shortest Path to Reconciliation

Last Sunday, Andy Stanley spoke on the the three “lost” parables of Luke 15: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and The Lost Son. While this is very familiar to most of us, I am always amazed at how the various dynamics and nuances of this famous story result in the situation where good preachers always find something new in this parable.

The premise of the parable is set up very quickly:

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

The last seven words have been amplified and expanded in expository preaching for centuries, but Andy noted:

Andy Stanley 2013This son was gone relationally long before he left home. This relationship was broken.

The father wanted to reconnect with the son so bad, he chose the shortest road back. The father wants to reconnect relationally so much; he knows the relationship is broken; the conversation is the pinnacle of a bunch of other conversations that probably went on… He knows the son is distant… the son is gone, he’s just physically there. The father wants him back; not his body, the relationship. He chooses for the shortest route back. He funds his departure.

What the audience heard when Jesus said this was that the father loved his son — don’t miss this — the father loved the son more than he loved his own reputation, and for that culture, they summed the father up as a fool. This is when you need to go to Leviticus and find that hidden verse that says, ‘stone the rebellious children,’ because this kid deserves to be stoned. In the story the father says, ‘Okay. Let’s pretend that I’m dead. I’ll liquidate half the estate…’

…Here’s a dad who is willing to lose him physically, lose him spatially, lose him to (potentially) women.

He didn’t mention this, but I couldn’t help but think of Romans 1, verses 24, 26 and 28:

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.

28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.

Implicit in this is the idea of God “letting go” of someone, giving them over to their sin. This particular message in Romans 1 seems very final. But in I Cor. 5, a book also written by Paul and in a context also dealing with sexual sin, we see Paul using the same language but with a hope of restoration:

4 So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.

The language in the last phrase isn’t found in Romans 1 but occurs here. Eugene Peterson’s modern translation renders it this way:

Assemble the community—I’ll be present in spirit with you and our Master Jesus will be present in power. Hold this man’s conduct up to public scrutiny. Let him defend it if he can! But if he can’t, then out with him! It will be totally devastating to him, of course, and embarrassing to you. But better devastation and embarrassment than damnation. You want him on his feet and forgiven before the Master on the Day of Judgment.

Back to Andy’s sermon! The story in Luke 15 continues:

20b “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

Andy continued:

He ran to his son and threw his arms around him…

…Why, when the son was leaving; why when the son had his back to his father, did the father not from that same distance, run throw his arms around him the son? Why does he let the go? He doesn’t chase after him throw his arms around him and say ‘Stay! Stay! Stay!’? Why now? It’s the same son, it’s the same distance. It’s the same two people But now he’s running toward his son to throw his arms around him and bring him back. Why? What’s the difference.

This is Jesus’ point. This impacts all of us… The father desired a relationship. The father desired a connection the father desired a connection. — not a GPS coordinate, it was not about not knowing where the son was — it’s not spatially, it’s relationally. What the father wanted more than anything in the world was not the son living in his house, but to be connected with the son and when he saw the connection being made when he saw the disconnected son begin to reconnect he ran toward his son and he kissed him.

He concludes this part of the sermon by reminding us that Jesus is telling his hearers:

‘My primary concern is not the connected; I know where they are. And I’m grateful that we’re connected. My priority, my passion, the thing that brought me to earth to begin with was to reconnect the disconnected to their father in heaven.’ This answers the question, why would Jesus spend so much time with irreligious people? …The reason Jesus spent so much time with disconnected people is because they were disconnected. The reason Jesus was drawn to people who were far from God is because they were far from God.

The gravitational pull of the local church is always toward the paying customers. It’s always toward the connected. It’s always toward the people who know where to park and know how to get their kids in early and find a seat… The gravitational pull and the programming of the local church is always toward the 99 and not toward the 1. …We all, individually and collectively, run the risk of mis-prioritizing… how we see people.

There’s much more. You can watch the entire message at this link; the passage above begins at approx. the 50-minute mark in the service.

October 22, 2016

Overcoming the Fear of the Other

This is a re-post from Aaron’s blog, Voice of One Whispering. Click the title below to read at source.


img-102216Attitudes on Race – What You Can Do

Sure, let’s talk about race on the internet. This will end well.

Race has been on my mind recently.

Perhaps tensions are growing or perhaps I’m only now becoming aware of them. As soon as I start to forget about them, there is a new protest or a new shooting. We’ve seen the Black Lives Matter campaign contested with All Lives Matter. The US election is stirring the pot. We’re a bit tense.

Worse yet, there can be no impartial voice in this. Everyone belongs to a race. I am white. I cannot speak for black communities and I can’t even speak for every white person. So what can I say?

I think it’s important that we occasionally hit the reset button on these larger topics and examine how we think about them. We should think about how ideas are formed and how ideas are received. Here’s a golden question: “What will build bridges? What will lead to reconciliation and what do I have to do on my part to make that happen?”

Some don’t want solutions. Some are happy to live a life of prejudice but others among us are looking for solutions. We want to build bridges. The problem is that relations between various races are very complex and difficult to reconcile. It would seem very foolish for someone to claim they had easy answers.

I have easy answers. I have had wonderful friendships with people from lots of different races. We’ve made it work. It’s possible and it’s been done by many besides me. What are my friends and I doing differently? Lots of things, but here are three that are harder.

Humanity Before Race. If we put our race before our humanity, we cannot build bridges. When we do this, we begin with a “us vs them” mentality. Game over. We must start with a common understanding. We are all humanity first. We then acknowledge that we don’t enjoy the suffering of the other. Our common enemy is prejudice and selfishness. When we imagine the other race as the enemy, we are creating conflict, not healing it.

Furthermore, when we put humanity before race we will not be deluded with ridiculous ideas about racial or cultural ‘purity’. Races and cultures evolve. They should. Being white today does not look like being white 500 years ago. There is no ‘purity’ here. Fusion cuisine is awesome. English is a mix of Germanic, Greek, French, and Latin words. Let your culture be molded by another.

Amnesty. This is when my European heritage becomes a problem for some. I did not enslave anyone or steal from anyone. I have not hurt anyone and I am not racist. Agreed? Agreed. The more interesting observation is that among my Caucasian inheritance are things gained unfairly. I live on land that was taken. So how do we address this? Whose is this land? Does it rightfully belong to today’s native peoples? Is it to be taken away from my generation which didn’t hurt anyone?

We cannot erase history. If we want to, we can carry our bitterness indefinitely. There will always be something to retaliate over. If we can’t find reasons, we’ll invent reasons. That is why a wise man once said to “turn the other cheek”. That is the only way to definitively end conflict. Someone has to have the last hit.

Your power to break the cycle lies in your ability to restrain your own hand.

I like to put it like this: “I will not apologize for what I did not do, but my door is open.” I often hear the well-off getting the first part of this right while ignoring the second half. Fortune is not a sin. Neither is success unless it is at the expense of others. Complacency is a sin. Selfishness is. I will accept my responsibility to give to those less fortunate. In turn, I expect to not be resented or portrayed as a villain.

Overcoming Outrage. We cannot work through our prejudices or pain if we only speak out of anger or rage. It’s entirely understandable for a person so be angered and furious over seeing their people hurt but we cannot found reconciliation on outrage. CGP Grey has some relevant thoughts on this.

Revenge will not bring closure. Hatred will not bring healing. There is a time to call for justice but it must be done for the right reasons.

So if this is so simply, why do we still have a problem?

1. We are all born with fear of the other. This fear inevitably tries to manifest itself as hatred. If we don’t do the work, our default state is hatred.

2. The work is hard. We have to put aside a lot of anger and pride in order to do what I’m asking. But we’re adults so that shouldn’t be a problem.

3. It is a problem anyway because some people are just bad. Some people are just evil and cannot be helped. We can stand by their victims but we can’t fix them. Focus on building the bridges that you can, rather than dwelling on the ones that are impossible.

The answers are easy. Humility, forgiveness, generosity, and selflessness. Living those out is harder. It will mean letting go of some things that are yours and it will mean making compromises. Every relationship does. But don’t be a doormat – find people who will be self-sacrificial in kind. Strengthen those relationships and let those people pour into your life as you pour into theirs. Defend others and value their welfare above your own. Hold on to what you have lightly and give generously out of your time, heart, and wallet.

We can’t heal the whole world but we can make a difference. We can strike a blow against prejudice when we put others first.

Older Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.