Paracosm: Playing in a New World with a Different Set of Rules — [D]mergent

When I teach Theodicy i.e., the problem of evil and suffering to my university students, I start out by playing a game of hangman. I draw out a random number of blanks, and start asking for letters. “S? No.”

“R? Nope.”

“E? Sorry.”

I doesn’t take long before I have a couple of blanks filled with X or Q. I might randomly add another space or two. This usually brings cries of protest.

Finally, the figure fills out. They lose.

Now they’re really howling. “There isn’t any set of English words with those letters!”

“Do you want to know what the phrase is?” So, I start writing on the board: Lawlessness and Chaos.

Sheer frustration. Somebody, usually earnest and sitting in the front row, someone used to school making sense, yells out, “That’s not fair.”

So, I ask, “How do you like it when somebody doesn’t follow the rules? Hard to play the game when someone keeps changing them, isn’t it?”

They don’t like it … not one bit.

But then again, nobody does, do they? We like consistency and predictability. We don’t like the thought that lawlessness and chaos might insinuate themselves into the otherwise stable taken-for-grantedness of our lives.

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 Paracosm: Playing in a New World with a Different Set of Rules — [D]mergent.

Shunning the Conventions of "Niceness": On the Importance of Being a Smart___ for Jesus

Shunning the Conventions of "Niceness": On the Importance of Being a Smart___ for Jesus

January 29, 2013

By Derek Penwell

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus lately.

“You’re a minister. You should be thinking a lot about Jesus.”

No. Yeah, I get that. What I mean is that I speak/write about following Jesus all the time … as if people automatically know what I’m talking about when I say it. Turns out, they don’t always know what I mean by it. Heck, sometimes I don’t always know what I mean by it.

Consequently, it seems important from time to time to think it through again, to seek to capture what it was Jesus was trying to do all those years ago, hitchhiking his way around the Palestinian outback. It strikes me that his friends, for the most part, haven’t done him any favors, painting him as unfailingly “loving.”

     “But he was loving.”

True, but a lot turns on how you define “loving.” Jesus appears in the popular imagination as the chief proponent of Frank Burns’ famous dictum that “it’s nice to be nice to the nice.” Jesus as proto-flower child, spending his time roaming the countryside tossing off bon mots, throwing impromptu picnics, and patting toddlers on the head.

All this bucolic itinerating raises a question, however: If Jesus was so nice, why did anybody feel the need to kill him?

Disgusted Young People: How Martin Luther King Predicted the Decline of the Mainline Church


"So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.

"But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust."

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

There’s been a series on NPR this past week about young adults leaving their religion behind. The thrust of the weeklong series centered on the increasing number among the emerging generations who no longer claim any religious affiliation.

Some gave traumatic grief as a reason for giving up, and others named a ponderous ecclesiastical hierarchy they no longer found useful, while still others struggled with what felt like the silliness of trying to find consolation in mythology. I get the impression from listening to them that they’ve thought more about religion than many of the people I know who’ve remainedin the church. They’ve carved their disbelief out of the cold existential marble of a future scape devoid of religious infrastructure.

Interestingly, though, some of what I heard sounded like wistfulness, a desire somehow to have the “something” they felt like religion offers. “Not consolation, necessarily” they say. “Not so much forgiveness,” they’re quick to add. For some it sounded like a desire for community. For another I heard it as a longing for the kind of taken-for-grantedness associated with a meaningful afterlife, which some religion offers.

Continue reading on [D]mergent . . .

Barbie Doll Churches and the Disney Princess-ification of Christianity — [D]mergent

Have you ever had occasion to hear a parent hold forth on the subject of Disney princess culture? You know what I’m talking about, how Disney princesses are all about beauty and helplessness.[1]Strong opinions on the subject abound, to be sure. Peggy Orenstein wrote a scathing critique of the princess industry for the New York Times in 2006, about how disgusting it is that young girls should, in virtue of their socialization, live with paternalistic expectations about what it means to be feminine. Ugh! The whole princess thing.Barbie’s another culprit that certain concerned parents and cultural critics have in their sights. Barbie, it is argued, distorts the body image of young girls.

via Barbie Doll Churches and the Disney Princess-ification of Christianity — [D]mergent.

A Prayer upon the Death of Children

I’m angry. And maybe now isn’t the best time to write—especially since I don’t have adequate words to express the potent mixture of grief, sadness, and fury.

Children. Little kids in Kindergarten, for God’s sake.

I’m bracing myself for the tired response from gun rights advocates. It’s inevitable. Guns don’t kill people, people kill … blah, blah, blah. I’ve never found this a terribly persuasive argument—even on my best days. But today isn’t my best day. Today—looking into the eyes of my four year-old, trying desperately not to imagine holding his little body in my arms after a gun shot has taken all that is beautiful and kind and good in this world—I can’t even believe those arguments are persuasive to people who think we’d all be better off if everyone had a gun.

I don’t have any coherent argument at this moment. All I have are the images of tiny sheet-draped bodies … and anger. I have lots of anger.

Anger that we live in a world in which people (Sick? Mean? Struggling? Evil? What kind of people are they?) walk into schools, stare into the face of innocence, and proceed to try to blot it out.

Anger that some folks will continue to maintain in the face of the carnage that society has no overriding interest in regulating weapons designed to kill and maim from a distance, simply by contracting the muscles in a single finger.

Anger that God watches over this fiasco in silence. (I’m not defending God on this one. God’s going to have to defend God’s own self, since, at present, I don’t even know where to begin figuring out where God is in the midst of all this. But about the only thing I have right now is the threadbare hope that somehow God is there in the midst of it all.)

I guess that’s my prayer:

God of all children, please be there in the midst of it all. In the midst of the tears, and adrenaline, and stark horror … please be there. And more than that, help us to find you there … with tears on your cheeks and the blood of your children still on your face. We need to know that you’re there with us, in the thick of it … where the vomit and the gore ruin our khakis, and the smell settles into our pores, threatening to become a permanent part of the way the world smells to us.

Please be there, O God. For those parents and friends who feel abandoned by you, please be there in ways that offer if not comfort, then at least the strength to make it through the next few minutes until the next wave hits. For the teachers and the police and the people who have to clean up this mess, who also feel afraid, and sad, and like they’ve failed, please bear them up to be able to face the horror that lies in front of them, and to be able to transform the memories of what lies behind them into something more than just raw terror and disgust.

And for us. Please be there for the rest of us who struggle to figure out how we’ve come to a point where Kindergartners must fear armed strangers in the womb of our educational system. Help us to find the words to put to our rage and despair, to find the words to comfort those who need be comforted, to find the words to speak justice and peace to a world bent on filling graves with the bodies of children, to find the words necessary not to meet this violence with more violence.

Please be there, O God. Please.

I’m a pastor, and part of my job is to help people find words for the experiences for which there are no words. But I don’t have it in me today. I can’t find them.

All I’ve got is a stupid prayer. I wish it were more. I wish we were better.

It’s time

It’s time. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the official position on sexual orientation in the military ended September 20, 2011.

President Obama announced that same-gender couples ought to have the right to marry on May 9, 2012.

Connecticut. Iowa. Maine. Massachusetts. New York. Vermont. The District of Columbia.

Joined on November 6, 2012 through public ballot referenda by Maryland, New Hampshire, and Washington as states that recognize the right of same-gender couples to marry.

The winds of change.

All over. Even in Kentucky. Yeah, you heard me correctly. Kentucky. Things are changing. On the front page of the Louisville Courier Journal this morning is this article about the way small towns in Kentucky are looking to enact legislation to make LGBTIQ people part of the enumerated classes protected against discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. It’s a big enough deal that even USA Today picked it up.

The culture is shifting.

It’s time.

Shipping: On Sidetracked Congregations — [D]mergent

Shipping: On Sidetracked Congregations — [D]mergent

Shipping. In the end it’s all about shipping.

It’s not about starting. Anyone can start.

It’s about producing. It’s about seeing a project through to completion. It’s about shipping.

Used to be, I was a good starter. I liked the process. I’d get excited about something, and I’d go out and buy a notebook to start taking notes, start planning, start getting ready to start.

And pens. I bought a lot of pens.

And calendars. Notebooks, and pens, and calendars.

How could I not be serious with all these office supplies?

Shipping: On Sidetracked Congregations — [D]mergent.

Supplanting: Will the Church Continue to Grab the Heel of the Culture? — [D]mergent

Supplanting: Will the Church Continue to Grab the Heel of the Culture? — [D]mergent

From the vantage point of those whose full inclusion is on the line, the calculation looks like this: Mainline leaders—who for the most part agree that sexual identity and gender orientation shouldn’t be an obstacle either to civil rights or to full participation in the life and ministry of the church—fear the inevitable fallout from being too far out front on this issue; but they also fear driving away LGBTIQ people and their allies if it appears the church is too far behind on it either. So, it looks for all the world like a decision to embrace welcome and hospitality can come only after it appears the culture has made it safe for the church to be faithful.  

Continue reading: Supplanting: Will the Church Continue to Grab the Heel of the Culture? — [D]mergent.

Election 2012: So, Whats the Takeaway? — [D]mergent

The election is over. But what election would be complete without the valedictory, the “take-away,” the things we learned or should learn? I have some thoughts about the election in no particular order: Healthcare—The Presidential election made a statement about, among other things, what we think of people’s access to healthcare. Whatever else Obamacare does or fails to do, it makes the case that people’s access to healthcare is a moral issue—and not simply an economic issue, or a personal freedom issue, or an assertion about the dangers of “creeping socialism” . . . continue reading at Election 2012: So, Whats the Takeaway? — [D]mergent.

President Obama and the Need for Progressive Christianity

"My positions aren't a rejection of the Bible, but an embrace of the gospel I find pervading the Bible. The danger of Fundamentalism is that it believes a simplistic, surface-level reading of Scripture is sufficient, unfortunately missing the fact that Fundamentalism's ability to focus on the spirit of the gospel is almost always compromised by its supposition that the good news Jesus announces is mostly private, concerned primarily with making sure my bacon gets snatched from the fire."

True Grit: Why Congregations Need to Know When to Quit — [D]mergent

I quit.

I used to say that when I was younger … more than I like to remember. Wrong coach. Wrong teacher. Wrong boss.

Of course, I’ve quit some things that were well worth quitting.

I quit the violin in fourth grade, because I could barely manage to make it sound like anything less than two love-starvedCarpathian Marmots in the throes of passion.

I was a horrible boy scout, inasmuch as I thought sleeping outdoors in a cotton/poly-blend sack on the hard cold ground a fool thing to do. Moreover, I don’t even like properly heated Chef Boyardee, let alone the gelatinous squares glopped from between the jagged edges of a can opened with the little used implement on a $7 Swiss Army knife knock-off.

Continue reading at True Grit: Why Congregations Need to Know When to Quit — [D]mergent.

Celebrating Heroes: A Reflection on the Indiana and Kentucky Resolutions on Ordination

In principle what the Indiana and Kentucky resolutions do is to return the responsibility for endorsing a candidate’s moral fitness back to local congregations. Instead of having a general directive at the regional level that prohibits certain categories of people, and which must be enforced by committees on ministry, these resolutions recognize that the people best situated to understand a candidate’s fitness for ministry reside within the communities from which the candidate’s come.

Determining moral fitness, under these resolutions, belongs in the hands of the people who know the candidate best, while discerning theological and professional readiness lies in the hands of the body responsible for determining whether a candidate demonstrates the gifts necessary for the task of ministry—that is, the regional committee on ministry, which acts as the professional credentialing body.

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Trashing Jesus: A Social Media Rorschach Test | [D]mergent

Social Media Rorschach Test

I took part in a social media Rorschach Test yesterday.

Before you get your knickers irremediably twisted, you need to pay attention to what’s at stake, because it would be altogether too easy and not particularly profitable to get sidetracked on the Jesus trashing.

Yesterday, as we cleaned out an antebellum mansion the church owns, preparing it for renovation—through a H.U.D. grant—to low cost senior housing, we came across a giant reproduction of Warner Sallman’s iconic, Head of Christ. In the process of trying to break the habit of saving-everything-because-you-never-know-when-Sunday-School-curriculum-from-the 1940s-might-be-useful-again, we threw out a bunch of stuff.Hence this picture of me tossing out a faded, but much beloved, Protestant icon.

What’s interesting, however, is not that we threw out a picture that many people consider something like sacred—we threw out some torn study bibles from the 1930s, too, which made some people duck for fear of lightning—but that it got photographed and posted to social media, where people reacted to it.

Continue reading at Trashing Jesus: A Social Media Rorschach Test | [D]mergent.

Miss Havisham and a Church Stuck in the Past | [D]mergent

Human beings are amazingly partial to the idea of freezing moments (both the good and the bad) as a hedge against change. Humans tend to find comfort in a past they’ve survived, rather than a future about which they don’t yet know.

Seth Godin drives home the point, suggesting that “for many of us, the happiest future is the one that’s precisely like the past, except a little better” (Linchpin, 203).

Whither the church? I want to suggest that congregations in decline share at least one factor in common: they are especially prone to setting the past in amber.

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Miss Havisham and a Church Stuck in the Past | [D]mergent.