Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

So, you think you want to be in ministry?

Every year, one topic comes up in the ministry I work in: changes and the future. Granted, they’re teenagers so many of them don’t have much Past to work with yet. But, they spend a huge amount of time worrying about and planning  out their futures during their junior and senior years of high school.  There is no explaining to them that they cannot determine every single thing that’s going to happen for them for the rest of their lives. They believe, completely, that deciding what college or other path they’re going to take after high school is the last and biggest decision of their lives. (really, it’s pretty much the first, big decision they have ever had to make, but hey, they think they’re going to be old when they’re 28, too.)

So, Nick the Geek from the Stuff Christians Like blog came up with this quick, little ministry compatibility test to determine what type of ministry God’s going to call them into…because all youth group kids have to go into vocational ministry, donchaknow. Check it out.

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The Parable at Kruger

This video has become popular, so you may have seen it before. On the other hand, if you haven’t, it can be tough to watch. It’s better without the sound on because the narraration interrupts the flow of the video. If you start it watching it, make sure you watch through to at least seven minutes-don’t quit in the middle.

Isn’t that amazing? Maybe stop and take a breath or two to calm down. I admit it, I cried. It’s watching seven minutes of hell for a water buffalo- not exaggerating. The little guy went through something that there isn’t a better term for than hell. And came out alive enough to walk away.

It has to be one of the best, albeit unusable, sermon illustrations in memory. Get beat down, keep going. Get torn up, keep going. Get a little help from your family and friends. Let God work a miracle in your life so you can stand up and walk again.

It also has all the makings of a great story- a character that you care about, an insurrmountable obstacle, positive and negative progress, conflict, suspense and an amazing finish. I’m glad they didn’t try to figure out what happened to the little guy next. It would have ruined the story.

The video doesn’t need anyone to explain it-I get it. I mean, I GET it. To the point of tears. I can easily see that God would want to tell it to humanity- I feel God in this completely visceral way when I watch it.

Do you think there’s any chance that people don’t need us (the Church) to explain God’s point to them? Can’t we just tell the stories where we see God at work, in Scripture and in life, and simply let God speak for Himself ? Why is it necessary to take it apart, analyze it and try to reduce it to something uncomplicated? Life’s complicated-God is beyond our grasp and he created life. So, why can’t we accept that life is beyond our grasp as well and let God tell us His story?

I was more frustrated with that than I thought I was when I started-frustration is my strongest spiritual gift. What I really wanted to get into is why Hell is considered a location when we define it in terms of an experience, but I guess I can save that for another day…

Would Santa deliver presents to Baby Jesus?

My weekly blog alarm is going off with increasing frequency, so I better write something to stop it for another week or two…

I love Christmas. And, even though I work for a church and spend a lot of time with church people, the Christmas I really love is the Santa Claus, Grinch, gift-giving, silly movies, worse songs,  American, materialistic Christmas. I’m sorry, baby Jesus, it’s nothing against you really. It’s just that I love Santa!

Right about now, videos and emails start getting popular that are made to remind us that the season is about Christ’s birth and not about the other things. There’s a great one at adventconspiracy.org. I like them; I get the point. But I don’t see why celebrating the birth of Christ and celebrating generosity and loving on those we hold dear have to be exclusive of each other.

 I love that people get happy by buying stuff for other people, instead of buying stuff for themselves. And that some guy puts on a red suit and is SO generous that he’s spending his retirement years making toys for people’s kids who he doesn’t even know! Even though we spend so much on ourselves and our loved ones, we also give away more than any other time also. We embody generosity because of the silliness and traditions. Without those, I don’t think people would be willing to give so much.

Here’s a for instance: There are eight homeless teens living at a shelter I know. They need pants for school-khaki uniform pants. Nothing special, but they don’t have the money to get them. A friend contacted me about these kids, knowing that I work with teens at a church. She knows we’re already getting gifts for other needy families. She knows we already packed a bunch of gifts for kids globally to recieve on Christmas day. But she told me about these kids and the things they had on their christmas lists- school pants included. If it wasn’t for the extreme generosity of this season, I’d have had trouble finding the resources to help them out beyond just the basics. Instead, the response I’ve gotten is “what else do they want? I can get some of (insert gift items here) for them.”

Yes, Jesus is the only savior of the world. Santa’s got nothing on Him there. But if Santa gets us to act like Jesus from time to time, then maybe it’s ok to celebrate both with of them.

Brownie Brainwashing- the Girls Scout kind, not the chocolate kind

My daughter is nine years old. She the youngest of our tribe, and the only girl. So, we’re doing a few things for the first time although it’s our fourth child.

This year she joined Girl Scouts. The boys didn’t like Boy Scouts. They said it was too much like school. But she seems to enjoy her time there. At least so far-she’s gone three times. And, technically, she’s a Brownie; somehow you have to be a little magical cleaning helper fairy when you’re to young to be an actual Girl Scout. And I have to pause a minute and say that I would really appreciate if she’d turn into a little magical cleaning helper fairy for a day or two!

The second meeting she attended was the Brownie Investiture Ceremony. I was required to attend. I was not happy about it.

I like to make up more telling names for things, so the “Investiture Ceremony” quickly became known at home as The Indoctrination. That name didn’t last long because the next one was so much better: Brownie Brainwashing.

On a Monday night at 6pm, we went to the meeting.  She skipped, I trudged. We went in the room and I was handed a pin and given the instruction to “pin your daughter when it’s time.” I sat down and joked with the Dad sitting next to me about the amount of blood we were supposed to draw and wondered how exactly I was supposed to know it was time. Other parents milled around trying to find seats. Younger siblings kept themselves entertained by annoying their parents. Then the lights dimmed and the Brainwashing commenced.

First the girls entered with battery operated candles unlit. They walked to one of the troop leaders who twisted the candle to the “on” position, then the ten or so girls stood in a line facing their parents. Frankly, after watching the line I completely understood the wisdom of the battery operated candle light. Too many girls would have either been in the local burn unit, or at best been at the local Supercuts. Then the indoctrinees recited a story, moving down the row from one to the next. I think there was a mix-up because we heard the same part of the story four or five times before we moved on. Maybe they just wanted us to be really clear on that section? At any rate, as soon as they finished the story each girl went up, the leader spun them around saying “Twist me turn me show me the elf. I looked in the water and saw myself” at which point our children would look into a mirror on the floor, and, I suppose, turn into some little housecleaning fairy-elf as the story suggested. Each child took a turn at that and, when they looked up from becoming an elf, it was time. For each of the girls, a parent magically appeared to pin them and affirm their newfound elfhood. Surprisingly, no one seemed creeped out by the idea that their child had just willingly turned herself into an elf.

After the pinning, the girls participated in what the leader called a “friendship circle” in which they told eachother one thing that happened during their week. When everyone was done the leader said a few words, then the group squeezed hands and was released into housecleaning fairy land

And after all the girls succumbed, they were rewarded with cake and punch.

And by the end, I was not nearly so skeptical or annoyed.  Let me explain why:

Every Sunday, I go to church. I arrive in a flurry of people sitting down, socializing and joking a little before the lights dim and the service starts. Then a few people file up front to say, sing or do something. Often I’m asked to repeat what they say, sing or do. I listen, sometimes to a story but more often to a sermon. Then, on the forst sunday of the month, I’m offered communion-a ceremony in which I get to participate individually, but among a larger group of people. Then, we sing again and the pastor says a few words. After which we share some coffee and doughnuts.

Sound familiar?

I made a  couple mental notes for myself about it.

One was that this ritual speaks to people-our liturgical service elements weren’t developed only by human ingenuity, but also with spiritual guidance. Unknowingly, the girls scout troop picked up and developed a ceremony out of several offered elements that echoed those same liturgical elements, even down to the order. As far as I know, none of the brownie troop leaders picked up a Sunday bulletin from our church and said, “Hey, here’s a great model for our brownie brainwashing ceremony.” Which qualifies that as a Creepy God Thing to me. There is something in the make up of people, at least those in my corner of the world, that connects with that particular kind of ceremony.

The second was about my own attitude, and, potentially it’s an attitude a few others may share. I don’t feel anything close to warm and fuzzy about institutional religion, but I love my church family. I went to Brownie Brainwashing with a lousy attitude about how institutions manipulate their members. I feel the same way about churches/denominations/religions, even though I’m involved in it. I think a lot of people may fear that same idea of mass manipulation happening in church. I’m not going to argue that it doesn’t happen; it does.

On the other hand, just by holding a lousy attitude toward the brownie thing, I’m seeing something in it that the leaders did not put there. The women responsible for that ceremony were going for a touching, inclusive event that the girls would remember. They made a rite of passage that had the power to create a bond between the members through the memories of a shared experience. They did it with honesty and caring for the girls. I think most local churches are coming from a similar place of honesty and good intentions, but those of us who fear and resent institutional manipulation don’t broaden our minds to accept that what is being offered has intrinsic value that goes beyond human. That the ritual itself, that thing that makes church feel most churchy, is the place where the most treasured parts of what draws a person to a spiritual life reside. We miss out on that because we see only the trappings, or are uncomfortable with the words, or the unfamiliarity. But the people who make up that church aren’t doing it to manipulate people, they’re doing it to create a space for God to connect with us and for us to connect with each other.

I’d like to propose a sensitivity from both inside the church regarding the fears and negativity those who aren’t involved in churches may bring to the table, and from those who have had difficulties embracing the Church to allow for the idea that the people in the church are just people who are trying to make some space for God without harming or dictating to anyone in the process. (and since I’m on both sides, I’m asking more of myself than anyone else)

A one day vacation in Greece

Today was one of the most interesting, refreshing, informative days I can remember. I had the opportunity to go to a Greek festival at a Greek Orthodox Church. I don’t know the technicalities-maybe it’s called Eastern Orthodox? The heritage of the attendees was Greek and so they were having a huge church festival and sort of open house thing.

We had time for a few different tries at Greek food that didn’t come from a diner. We had Greek coffee which is very, very sweet and strong and also has cinnamon in it. There were a few artisans there who made different things. Mostly jewelry. Also there was a russian orthodox church booth with some fascinating stuff in it. And there was a booth that I think might have had things from a Roma(gypsy) tradition.

So, the shopping aspect had some neat stuff to look at and a ton of things I didn’t understand at all. But then I went into the church which was amazing. It was even more alien on one hand but felt very familiar on the other. And, I’m not sure I can evoke the right sense of the experience here. What I can talk about are the impressions. The church felt very physical.

You know how, when you walk into a place like an art museum, old library or cathedral you can feel the weight and history of the place? It’s like the place has a life of it’s own.  This didn’t feel like that at all. Don’t get me wrong, I like that feeling of the place having it’s own sense of being. This was just a completely different sense of life.

It wasn’t close or dark or heavy at all. It was actually physical-the incense was buring so there was a light smokiness in the air and the heavy perfumy smell of the incense. The church had a skylight-dome, so it was bright in the room. The skylight-dome had cryptic panels around it depicting the events from the Annunciation to Pentecost, with a huge iconic portrait of Christ on the top. I wish I could remember the exact title of that beause the wording was beautiful, but I’ve forgotten. Down inside the room, the altar area was light blue and the rest of the church was offwhite.  Music was playing; a chant, but there was a sense of movement that wasn’t really from that. It felt like movement and life happening; like a place where people could move and exist and interact in their worship. Umm…it’s felt communal. There were icons all over plus all the other necessities of the orthodox liturgical traditions which are based on communal prayer and recitation and hymns. Since it was an open house they had the Priest’s celebration vestments out and a decon’s robe and evrything else they’d need for any sacrament. It seemed pretty decorated but not overly; not so much that the feeling of movement was stifled. It felt like the people who were there left an echo of themselves there. It felt mystical; not elves-and-fairies mystical, but mystical as if a veil was pulled aside to reveal the past and the future living alongside us.

I had the unique opportunity to talk to the priest at length about the church and the icons and some of the liturgical elements. I understand I am the only person who’d be completely fascinated by that stuff. Really, I get how boring it sounds to everyone else but that’s how I feel when people start talking about taxes or politics. Well, to each his own, right? The Priest said it was pretty simple as far as Orthodox churches go. It was amazing to hear why things were ordered the way they were, who (on the icons) was where, that all orthodox churches in the world would have the same things in the same places. The relics were in a case to see, the carved tomb and the sand pits into which parish members placed their candles, the icons and incense buring all together bound the Church’s ancient past prayers and people with the prayers of the people lighting candles. Granted, the Orthodox Church is the church from which Roman Catholicism split away and maybe they have a connection that, by virtue of it’s name, remains closer to the early church than anything else we can experience today. (this blog is called Pleading the 5th for a reason….)

That was more philosophical than I intended to be about it. I have a couple of really great stories about some of the things the Priest and his wife told me, which I’ll tell soon. They stand on their own merit and deserve attention far more than this post does. Nonetheless, if you leave out the Agean sea and those gorgeous white buildings, the day was a wonderful (cheap) mini-vacation to Greece.

God’s dreams

Does God dream? Church folks talk about His plans for them, but I can’t remember anyone talking about His dreams. Not for their lives, nor for the world. In fact, I can’t remember anyone ever saying “God dreamed….” or “in God’s dreams”. Why is that?

Presumably, if we dream and we’re made in God’s image, God would have to have a concept of dreams. And, if God can create the world with such enormous variety and intricacy, can’t he dream of it all before that? Or of what it could become after His creation. Did He dream of a relationship with Adam and Eve that they rejected. Can God dream, when He is omniscient? Or does his omniscience negate the possibility of His dreaming?

So, if he dreams and he can dream a life for each of us, do we intuitively know that dream as children? (and how come we translate it as “I want to be a Fireman?”) How do we let God’s dreams for us get crowded out by the world’s messages that our dreams aren’t “good enough”? How can a person hear God when His voice and His dreams are shoved aside by our own weaknesses? What can we do to break the mental chains that stop us from dreaming God’s dreams, and reduce us to the dreams we can only come up with in our own minds? Why would we want to limit ourselves that way? If we see the human dreams as ego-massaging, maybe God’s dreams for us assume that we understand our relationship to Him through Jesus? Then I guess I can see how pitiful we’d have to be to want the power, recognition or whatever else people feel like they need from other people when God is already offering to fulfill all the needs they have. I can’t imagine how we could let ourselves be reduced to the smallness of a human imagination when we have access to the creativity of God.

Do we resent the dreams God has for us? Maybe they’re not as glitzy as the ones we have? If the dreams we have from God look like less but we follow through on them, maybe they will, ultimately, be more fulfilling than the glitzy, Hollywood dreams we think we want when we start out. Why is fame so attractive and obedience not? What will it get us-we crave being known but who can really be sure they are known once they start down a path that’s not true to their soul? It’s just not worth it

Drop the chains and Dream Big.

When is a Frog not a Frog?

The Space trilogy by C.S. Lewis. I’ve read them before; a long time ago and had forgotten how much I like them. I’m through Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. I really love Perelandra, but I was talking to a friend who said he prefers Out of the Silent Planet by a longshot over the other two. To each his own, right?

I’m not sure why these books aren’t as popular as some of this others- Not the Chronicles of Narnia because they have that appeal to children, along with adults. These are definitely more adult oriented, but they also combine Christian philosophy within the story. Perelandra in particular is a largely about a faith struggle, so it lends itself to considering the puzzles of living in the shadow of the Fall.

The other writer I’ve enjoyed that has the same manner of writing the argument into a fictitous setting, is Brian McLaren. The difference with his works that are written that way is that the story’s purpose is the philosophical discussion whereas Lewis’ writing is a story that, by it’s nature, has to wrestle with the grander questions. Making assumptions would take away from his story.

Out of the Silent Planet is an action movie. Quick moving, lots of input, lots of characters to draw the readers’ attention. Perelandra is, I’d guess purposely, the opposite. Few characters, lush descriptions, little sense of physical danger excepting one section. There’s a last book (it is a trilogy after all) but I’m not through it yet, so that review will have to wait.

What Lewis really does well, as far as Story goes, is that he understands that the conventional assumptions we make can be challenged in the context of the Story intself. It’s not necessary to pull the questions out of the context, like we usually do in children’s Sunday School classes up through the adults’ sermons and lectures. If the Story has something to say, Lewis seems able to tease it out within the story itself. He doesn’t treat his readers with condescention, as if they are unable to figure out the point; so often we feel like we have to explain the story. If the story is worthwhile, can’t it stand by itself? Why do we feel such a need to dissect it and pull out the innards? Do you remember in High School Biology when you dissected a frog? it was a frog, but then those kids tear it to shreds and, really, if anyone took a look at what was left afterward, how many would know that it had started as a frog? How would our audiences know there was ever a Story there to begin with, if we insist on deconstructing it to prove our point? Sometimes, when you kiss a frog you get a Prince-what if we dissected the wrong frog?