Thinking Out Loud

January 24, 2015

Weekend Link List

Carlos Whittaker explaining technology to Pete Wilson:

Pete Wilson and Carlos Whittaker

In order to highlight that the links are now on PARSE on Saturdays, I’m running the latest list here. Remember that these are especially keyed for pastors and church leaders, but I try widen that focus a little with things of interest to all of us. Feedback from Thinking Out Loud readers is always welcomed.  The decision to move to Saturday was made by CT, but we’re now in direct competition with our friends at Saturday Ramblings at Internet Monk, where you’ll also find a great summary of the week in religious news; and an especially busy list this week, too (including a sermon excerpt that’s not safe to play if your kids are in the room).

  • A New Church Metrics Paradigm – Instead of counting bodies in the pew, you could count the times members invited their friends, relatives and neighbors. “I want to suggest a measurement that I believe would bring many benefits. This key measurement stat is ‘how many people have you asked to church this past week?’ Why that question? …[I]t does measure how enthusiastic the congregation is to want to talk about their church and what is going on there.” The writer sees eight benefits resulting from stressing this type of measurement.
  • Americans Need a Counter-Script – Brian Zhand: “As Americans we are given a script from birth — it is our shared and assumed formula for the pursuit of happiness. Without even being aware of it we are scripted in the belief that our superior technology, our self-help programs, our dominant military, and our capacity to obtain consumer goods should guarantee our happiness. Said just so it sounds silly, but when it is communicated in the liturgies of advertising and the propaganda of state it becomes believable…  But it’s a lie. It’s a false gospel, yet enormously popular. The only possible way to resist that dominant script is through the adoption of what Walter Brueggemann calls a counter-script. For the Christian that counter-script is the gospel of Jesus Christ — at the center of which stands a cross!”
  • Sunday Night, February 22nd – Is your church calendar open that night? Author Phil Cooke has an idea which, even if you don’t pursue it, will definitely get you thinking: Host an Oscar Party. “Recently, as I’ve been speaking at conferences and events around the world I’ve been urging Christians to stop looking at Hollywood as the enemy, and start looking at Hollywood as a mission field. After all, what if Christians stopped just criticizing, and actually started praying for the most influential industry in the world?” This isn’t a packaged simulcast; you’re on your own as to what it might look like.
  • Essay of the Month: Our Hunger for Transcendence – “These men go to church on Sunday with the question of why eating holes in their guts, and the church tries to answer that transcendent question with a supposedly transcendent answer, yet nothing of those men’s experience in church from week to week ever takes them anywhere into the genuine transcendent light of God. You can’t meet transcendent needs of people who are stuck thinking only of fish, if all you can talk about is the fish itself. And churches today are absolutely mired in talking about the fish. You can blame the leaders, but the fact is, most of them are generations removed from the last transcendent moves of God in this country.”
  • After a Year Without God, Pastor No Longer Believes – You’ve probably already been tracking the story of Ryan Bell, the pastor now turned “agnostic atheist.” Branson Parler writes: “Bell illustrates that our beliefs and life practices are inseparable. We can’t act as if God doesn’t exist and assume that we’ll keep believing. In the context of his famous wager, Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal recognizes that believing is not merely a matter of reason and the will, but of our heart, habits and passions. We can’t just will ourselves to believe something; the process is more mysterious than that… Bell is Pascal in reverse. If I spend a year living like God doesn’t exist, it’s not surprising that after a year of living that way, I believe it.”
  • Unconditional Election, Meet Modern Worship – There are some who will disagree with this song’s theological mindset, the manner in which it is adapted from another well-known chorus, or both. No matter, it’s an eye-opener. The author justifies some of this in history: “One of the things [Thomas] Cranmer did was to take the Church’s inherited worship practices and, in a sense, “hijack” them… He took people’s beloved traditional prayers, for instance, and “edited” them to emphasize God’s work and de-emphasize our work.” In a second article: “We’re attempting to capture the spirit of the Reformation for modern times.” Listen to the remake of “I Have Decided” and decide for yourself.
  • An Addiction You May Share – “On November 7, 2012, I stopped watching the Fox News Channel (FNC). That might not seem like a big deal if you didn’t know that I probably averaged 7-10 hours a week for years. I was a news junkie. I LOVED watching the news, hearing different angles on the news, and listening to incredibly smart commentators share their opinion about the news. I watched other channels too, but I was probably 90% watching FNC…I just knew my steady diet of Fox News wasn’t good for my soul. So I walked away. I’ve noticed several things have changed in my heart and mind as a result…”
  • One Christian’s Reasons for Marrying Someone Divorced – “[E]ven though God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), he doesn’t hate divorce in isolation, as though he just thought up something arbitrary to hate. He hates it for a reason, and that reason–stated in the verse–is because divorce is a form of violence against the person one has married… God is in the business of redeeming messed-up, broken, and sinful people, not avoiding them… He didn’t abandon Adam and Eve to their fate, and create a new pristine pure species who had never fallen to be his people. His plan for salvation didn’t involve a command from On High, but rather involved God himself becoming human, choosing to be one of us, mixing together with sinful humanity… the truth is that God has involved himself with sinful humanity throughout history, and I for one am deeply grateful.”

 

December 2, 2013

Connecting to the Bigger Christmas Story

Christmas Banner

For several years now we have either attended or participated in a walk-through re-creation of the Christmas story that takes place in a small village north of our town. In a world of blockbuster budgets and special effects, it always amazes me that people are willing to spend an hour in the variable (usually cold) weather to watch an amateur cast of volunteers do their best at being shepherds, tax collectors, innkeepers, etc. There are about 16 ‘stations’ on the tour for each imaginary ‘family’ to visit, and the event wraps up with an optional hayride followed by hot chocolate or cider and a cookie in the basement of the community hall.

People are drawn to this event. I don’t know what compels people to come. No one has any high expectations concerning the dramatic or musical ability of the participants. It’s like a holy hush falls over each little group of 10-15 people as their guide heads out on the quarter-mile walkabout. People simply receive the story.

The event was started by people concerned that the scriptural version of the story gets lost in all the other narratives that have been layered over what happened in Bethlehem.  Christmas ≠ The Little Drummer Boy, Christmas ≠ Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies, Christmas ≠ Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s not about mistletoe, fruit cake, or ugly sweaters. The story is not the story of a boy who wants to buy his mom some shoes, a little match-stick girl, a bell causing an angel to “get its wings,”  or Tiny Tim saying “God bless us every one.”  (And nobody “saw three ships” because Bethlehem is land-locked.)

Of course, the purpose of the annual event we attend is to keep alive the real meaning of Christmas. This is the moment in the busy rush of seasonal activities where, figuratively speaking, Linus steps out on the stage to tell the story to Charlie Brown from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. For about 20 minutes, we’re reminded of something really messy that took place two millennia ago in the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire. Something still a major force in the lives of people today.

But does this repeating of the story from Matthew or Luke really tell the full Christmas story? I wonder to what extent people are able to connect the dots if you don’t prompt them somehow? Something in me wants to put the cookies on a lower shelf (and not the ones that come with the cider). Would preaching a sermonette at the end ruin it? (Or as Jon Acuff would say, juke it; but how do you juke the Christmas story when Jesus is already at the center of it?)

Still, if asked, here is what I consider the real Christmas story:

  • First of all, the centerpiece of the Christian church is Easter, not Christmas. In Matthew and Luke, the narrative receives a total of 39 verses versus 744 for the Easter narrative. (This might be the only sentence on the internet that reads verses versus.)  You can skip the birth story entirely — like Mark and John do — but you can’t ignore the how or the why of Jesus’ death. And resurrection. The baby, the sheepherders, the wise guys, etc., all eventually segue toward an event involving betrayal and brutality. The latter is not the bedtime story that the former is.
  • Second, the Christmas story is part of a much larger story arc. Seen in isolation it really goes nowhere, it’s just a story about a woman and a baby born to an unwed mother in adverse conditions, while she and her fiancee were out of town. Rather, the birth of Jesus needs to be seen as the fulfillment of a promise; the completion of a covenant; the entry-point or heralding of the initiation of a new covenant. Turns out the novella you purchased is part of a series. The little town of Bethlehem scenes were just a trailer for an epic movie.
  • Third, somewhere along the way, you have to introduce the element of who Jesus claimed to be, and how he came to understand his own mission. The holiday celebrated in the western world on December 25th is all about incarnation, and frankly, you either get what that word means, or you don’t get the story at all. Like most Alfred Hitchcock movies, this is the scene where God steps into his own play, the director suddenly has a role, and not a small role. Jesus’ claim of equality of with God makes him appear like someone who is nuts, until you remember the parts about healing blindness, raising the dead, and predicting his own death and resurrection. We’ll avoid the theological differences of opinion on the divinity/humanity question, except to say that if you’re asking the question at all, you get it when it comes to who Jesus really was. And still is.
  • Finally — and there are other things we could introduce, but this is my imaginary sermonette, and I only have ten minutes — I would want to include the idea that this story didn’t end 2,000+ years ago. It continues to this day and (and this is so very important) it demands a response from everyone. The awkward phrasing of the KJV in Matthew 22:24, “What think ye of Christ?” is probably the question that should be on everyone’s lips each December, though you might choose a more modern rendering. The story is not content to have its hearers close the book on the final page. Rather, the book gets stuck open, simmering, percolating, demanding something of each individual with whom it comes in contact. It’s like a computer program you can’t shut down until you respond to a question in a dialog box. It stares at you, and goes, “Well? …Well? …What about it?”
  • And then, in a single sentence, I would squeeze in a mention that the story we repeat is simply Jesus’ first coming; he left us with the phrase familiar to millions of Arnold Schwarzenegger fans, “I’ll be back.”

That, Charlie Brown, is the true meaning of Christmas.

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