Saturday, July 31, 2010


One of my go to blogs is by Rami Shapiro. Rami is a rabbi who has a wonderful sense of humor, a sharp mind, and a keen sense of religion in the modern world. He writes a great deal about his own tradition - he is a rabbi - but much of what he says has clear implications for my tradition as well.

In a recent post he wrote about the problem for Jews when the historicity of the Torah becomes suspect after all but the fundamentalists had already given up any sense of supernaturalism in the text. You can read his blog for his brilliant take on his tradition.

As for mine, we have similar problems. Karen Armstrong speaks of religion as poetry. The truth is that far too many Christians experience religion as prose (and not particularly good prose at that). How many times have you heard someone refer to the Bible as an owners manual for human beings as if you could look in an index and find entries for how to deal with horrible life events on page 436, or "insert tab A in slot B" under sex? As Rabbi Rami says, we need to read the text with imagination. We must see the text as the sweeping story of our ancestors struggling to make sense of their experience of life and of the Holy. Their story is our model, not literally and directly but in what they sought and what they struggled with. Then it becomes for us a vital and living word, relevant to our daily experience and challenging us to figure out God's yearnings for all of humanity in the context of our daily lives and daily experience. Then it becomes poetry... read not as simple instructions but as deep and evocative images calling us forward as people of God.

Friday, July 30, 2010

rejecting Christianity

This week Anne Rice announced on Facebook that she is rejecting Christianity. She said "I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life." She went on to say that she will remain committed to Jesus.

I understand the sentiment. I have a number of friends who are walking the same journey. I understand... but I'm not convinced. Who says that Christianity is anti all of those things? Certainly not me and not any of the groupings of which I am a part. The journey presumes that there is one Christianity, one Church. There isn't and there never was. In spite of what many evangelicals will tell us about the "Early Church" there have always been a wide variety of understandings of doctrine, of practice, of the role of revelation... Yes, there are versions of Christianity, likely even a majority that are anti-gay, anti-feminist, etc. etc. but there are also versions that are both welcoming and affirming of GLBT folk, that stand with Paul in saying "in Christ there is no male or female," that are for all of the things Anne Rice sees Christianity as being against. Diane Butler Bass has a wonderful commentary on Rice's journey where she argues that Rice is really arguing for the need to return to an authentically liberal faith. I agree. Those of us who embrace a progressive version of Christianity need to stand up and own our faith publicly.

I do see another piece in Rice's journey and perhaps even more so in the journey of my friends... being a part of a community is messy. Disagreements happen. People get hurt. Organizations do stupid things and eat up resources that clearly could do more good somewhere else. In their optimism, these folk want to see a perfect community of faith where these wounds do not happen. When they cannot find it (or build it), they abandon the search. And they exit the community. I fear that their faith and their commitment to following Jesus will suffer without the support of a "church." I do not believe that following Jesus can be done as a lone ranger. It takes a community to which one can be accountable. It takes a community who do mission together. It takes a community who provide caring and support and challenge. I don't care how you name it, it is a "church" and it requires some degree of institutionalization. You have to plan to meet together, arrange for whatever leadership is required to make sure there is a time and a place and maybe even a plan for once everyone arrives. As the group gets larger, there needs to be a budget for space and a strategy for living out faith as a community. Like it or not, it is a "church." So yes, please reform the churches. Please build smaller and larger communities that truly reflect the ministry and person of Jesus. Do build institutions that struggle with their use of resources. Do meet together and ask the difficult questions, laugh together, cry together, eat together, play together, worship together, work together... They are and always will be institutions full of human beings with all of their strengths and weaknesses. They do fall short and sometimes even derail the very yearnings of God... but they are still necessary if we are truly to follow Jesus.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Fat World

My daughter has taken a new job working for Fat Uncle Farms. They a small company in Santa Barbara selling amazing almonds and products made from those almonds and are looking to expand into other areas. They have a wonderful commitment to local production, building community, and providing for their employees. Alexis will be working to expand the business into the bay area and is excited about the possibility.

There is a great deal of talk these days about the growth (pun not intended) of obesity in the United States but also around the world. With good reason, fat has gotten a lot of bad press recently. That is not what I want to talk about here and it is not the way Fat Uncle uses the term.

Historically, "fat" was often seen as a good thing and in many cultures being overweight was a sign of status. In the days before fast food and processed foods with tons of empty calories, ordinary people didn't have access to enough food to gain excess weight. In that setting, fat equaled opulence and was symbolic of inequality in a world of scarcity. I don't want to go there either.

Instead, let me use the word the way Fat Uncle does, as a metaphor. They talk about a "fat world," one filled with abundance rather than scarcity, one with enough for all, one that is good and rich and full. A fat world is one where there is more than enough of everything important. They talk about "fat truth..." the idea that there is more than enough revealed to build bridges between people, to find our way to a better world, to begin to address the important problems we face. Fat Uncle's farm grows wonderful almonds, provides jobs, and builds community... all given from a creation rich, abundant, and available.

As a follower of Jesus, this strikes me as good theology. The grace and love of God is always more than adequate. Indeed, God's gifts are extravagant. I'm even tempted to change my blog title from Thin Places to Fat Faith...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Be Happy

Some time back I heard Tony Campolo talk about generational differences. He said that when he was a child, his parents wanted him to grow up to be successful. Most parents now would say they want their children to grow up to be happy. I would guess the reason is that as a culture we have discovered that happiness is much more illusive a goal than success and that when one is happy, they are by definition successful but the converse may not be true.

I'm struck though that our culture works against genuine happiness. Wired UK reports on Nic Marks' talk at TED 2010 regarding happiness. Wired reports Marks give the following 5 strategies for finding happiness...
1. Connect
Invest your time in your loved ones, in your friends, family and acquaintances. Meet people. Talk to them. Understand how they improve your life, and also how you improve theirs. Knowing that you mean something to someone can be one of the most powerful positive forces in the world.

2. Be active
When exercising, the level of serotonin in your body rises and you get a powerful feeling of wellbeing. Something as simple as kicking a ball or throwing a Frisbee around a garden with a friend can knock both this and the previous point off in one go. If you're feeling down, go for a brisk walk and get some air. You'll soon feel better.

3. Take notice
Keeping an eye on what's going on around you keeps your brain running smoothly. If you see an application for planning permission pinned to a lamp-post, and even the tiniest part of your brain wants to know what it says, then go and read it. On a train or bus, rather than burying your nose in a book or your mobile phone, look out of the window and see what's happening outside.

4. Keep learning
Humanity's relentless curiosity is behind almost every single one of our species' accomplishments. Once you've finished your formal education, that's no reason not to stop learning. Actively seek out different viewpoints, and if you don't understand them then find someone knowledgeable to explain them to you.

5. Give
Finally, be generous. A survey gave £100 to two groups of people, instructing one group to spend it on themselves, and another to spend it on other people. Afterwards, the latter group's spirits were significantly higher. If you don't have cash, give your time, your attention or your expertise instead.

I'm struck that Marks' 5 strategies to find happiness are counter-cultural at their core. Our hectic lives keep us from 4 of 5 of the goals. Number 5 stands in stark opposition to a cultural worldview of scarcity where accumulation is the first goal. I'm struck that the church is a perfect place to nurture these strategies. Most of all, I'm reminded that I can choose to be happy and to work towards attaining happiness.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

a vacation report

The longest portion of our vacation was in Pennsylvania and the setting was as different as possible from the first days of our trip. We went from the heat, unrelenting sun, and barren landscapes of Phoenix to the hills and bridges of Pittsburgh and the fecundity of central PA. Christian got to see lightening bugs for the first time and we enjoyed the lush greenery of that part of the world - walking in the woods, enjoying the lakes and rivers, and even driving down country roads and across bridges in Pittsburgh. We stayed in a wonderful little B&B in central PA called Crampton Manor, that I would highly recommend to anyone visiting that part of Pennsylvania. My in-laws live near there and we will certainly be staying there again. We had great visits with family and friends and truly enjoyed being away. Two weeks allowed both Cheryl and me to disengage and it was good.

On July 4, we visited a United Methodist church in McConnelsburg, PA. The worship space was full and seemed representative of the small town and surrounding rural areas. The service came straight out of the 50's with very traditional music and an electronic organ. Much of the language was reflective of a conservative church from that same era with one huge exception - the pastor's sermon. While it certainly reflected that same theology and worldview, it diverged in a very significant way. His text was from the book of Jonah. The title was Praying for Osama Bin Laden.

The service was full of nods to patriotism and American civil religion and I was more than a little apprehensive about the sermon. I was afraid it would be some call to arms and revenge. Instead, the pastor called the congregation to pray for Osama Bin Laden... not that he be killed or even captured (although the pastor did say that Bin Laden needed to be held accountable for his actions), but that he would know grace. The service ended with a hymn This Is My Song, with which I was unfamiliar but I found deeply moving. The tune is Finlandia - one of my favorite hymn tunes - and the words both acknowledged patriotism and pride in our own country while seeing the humanity, pride, hopes, and dreams of others and praying for their peace as well.

It was a church that I'm sure I would not attend if I lived there but I was deeply touched by the courage of the pastor to call for actions that are clearly counter-cultural, especially in his setting, and also clearly based both in the text he was using and in the message of Jesus.