Someone asked the other day, what I have been reading. At that point, the answer was not much. I was part way through a Booker prize winner from a few years ago, which was not really grabbing my interest, as well as a book called Lamb, by Christopher Moore, a comical, but thought provoking, fictional epistle recording the childhood of Jesus, through the eyes of his childhood friend, Biff. I haven’t finished either of them and they continue to languish, one on my ipad, the other on the bathroom floor.

Three more books have come into my life since the question was asked. One from the questioner herself, the rest through a web page suggestion from Nettie at This Dusty House. None are fiction, all have to do with the Christian church, and they just seemed to compliment each other, as I read them together, over this past week.

imagesThe first was Mark Buchanan’s Your Church is too Safe (Zondervan). Following on the theme of his earlier book Your God is Too Safe, Buchanan pulls out well known, well loved, Biblical passages and presents them in a new light. He portrays God as a God who expects us to take “some hell-bent-for-leather risks” if we are to truly be faithful. He encourages churches not to try to choose between fellowship and mission, but to see them as partners together. He suggests that we get back to the basics of being church, devoting ourselves to “teaching, fellowship, sacraments, worship,and stewardship” and to stop spending energy on vision casting. He points to the “religious spirit” which works its way into many churches as being the most difficult to remove, the most harmful to the growth of the church, and often the most counter to God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s working. Buchanan is Canadian and writes with a Canadian accent, which I appreciate,

cover30351-smallThe second book this week is a brand new one, due to be published this week. Aliens in the Promised Land (P&R Publishing), by Anthony B. Bradley, provides a hard hitting, frank, overview of the place of minorities in American churches. As a Canadian, I’m sure some of the criticism Bradley aims at the white dominated denominations in America can be brought across the border as well. As part of a bi-national denomination his words come with a sting. His language and writing style are colourful and provocative, setting the tone already in the introduction by labeling some of his detractors as “John Calvin-loving racists” and going from there to point an unwavering finger at all of the mainline churches as he enumerates their misdeeds and missteps. Bradley has gathered other voices as well as his own African American one. Chapters by Asian, Hispanic, Latino, and other African Americans all tied together by the work of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and their report: Racism and the Church. The book is not all negative. Each chapter provides corrective words and encouragement to the church. Its final chapter is a what’s next, step by step plan for the future. Bradley himself states, in the closing words, his hope that this book will start a conversation, to get folks to listen to someone outside their tribe, to move toward embracing our common human dignity.

cover27745-smallFrom moving to unsafe, uncharted territories, to the issues of racism  it just seems right that the final book of this trio be one on we one thing we as churches, in one way, or another, share, worship. R.C Sproul’s How Then Shall We Worship (David C. Cook) is coming out in it’s second edition. First published in 2006, this book takes us through the Old and the New Testament in an effort to reground our worship practices in scripture, to reclaim the symbolism of the sacraments, and to have us rethink the meaning of worship. I was particularly taken by his study of the Church as a house of prayer recognizing that the practice of worship in ancient Israel included praise, prayer, and sacrifice, he wonders why  Protestant churches in North America are not houses of prayer, why prayer is pushed to the side by other elements we apparently find more exciting. Sproul does a wonderful job of connecting the elements we find in worship to scriptural anchors, in a very readable way,  resonating with my own Calvinist background.


The Lectionary

How do you choose a text for a sermon? I haven’t got all that many sermons under my belt  yet, but this question always dogs me as I begin to write new one. My tradition in the Christian Reformed Church leaves the choice of the text fairly open, each pastor finding an appropriate passage to work with. There is the mandate, stated in the Church Order, to preach weekly from the Heidelberg Catechism. As second Sunday services have declined, so has catechism preaching. Many pastors roll through the Bible choosing texts, some will preach a series of sermons focusing on a particular theme, chapter or book of the Bible. Some will use the work of a popular Christian authour to guide them through a theme and provide a starting scripture for their work.

One of the beneficial bits coming from my training at the Waterloo Lutheran Seminary has been my introduction to the Revised Common Lectionary. The lectionary provides scripture readings for each Sunday of the year in a three-year rotation. These choices include and Old Testament reading, a Psalm, an epistle, and a reading from the Gospels. Each year focuses on one of the first three gospels so that parishioners will hear a consistent gospel voice over the year rather than the random readings often found in non-lectionary churches. This common lectionary is used by liturgical protestant churches, Lutherans, Presbyterians along with others, and by Roman Catholic congregations. While it is not mandatory in these situations to always follow the lectionary, it is advised.  There are a few pastors in the CRC using the lectionary regularly, but not many.

The lectionary serves to tie the churches together. Recently, I preached a sermon on the parable of the Prodigal Son which just happened to be the lectionary assignment that day. As I drove to the church, I passed others where the sermon theme was posted on the sign out front and saw all sorts of renditions of my sermon title. It was neat to realize, even though we may be separated denominationally, we are hearing the same word and are joined in it. This week will be the same, but in this case, I actually went to the lectionary for the text and found it both challenging and new. Preaching from the lectionary takes away the tendency to find a text which matches the theme of the sermon you want to preach. It forces the sermon writer to begin with the text.

0664237983Those in the pew can benefit from the lectionary as well. Since the texts for the week are set, they can study those texts, live with them, for the week, and then recognize them as they are blended into the service. A number of study helps have been designed just for this purpose. One of these came a cross my desk this week from Westminster press. Daily Feast:Meditations from Feasting on the Word, provides a structured approach to meditating on the texts for the week along with thought-provoking questions to take the reader further into the text and to apply it to real life. Written reflections, while short, are well written and take the reader to the heart of the text, preparing the reader for Sunday worship, but also keeping them in the Word throughout the week.

The Bible (2013)

I received an email, earlier this week, from a friend, urging me to promote and watch The Bible, a mini series that premiered on the History Channel last night. Initially, I was going to ignore it, particularly since we don’t have access to the History Channel. If the buzz about the show was hot enough, we would find it on DVD or watch it later on the internet. But, yesterday afternoon an invitation came to watch it with a friend, so off we went.

I was disappointed on a number of fronts.

The producer of the series, Mark Burnett, quoted in USA Today says “By telling these emotionally connected, big stories, hopefully millions of people will reopen their Bibles,” he goes on to state “If you know the Bible, you’ll enjoy  seeing the stories come to life. If you’ve never read the Bible, I think you’ll love the stories,”. There is truth in both the statements, but I’m not sure it.s the truth he was looking for.

As we watched last night, we did indeed reopen our Bibles. It wasn’t because we were so excited about the story we were seeing, it was to somehow verify the things we were seeing were actually there. I some cases they were, but somewhat obscure, in others it would appear the writers of the program started with the biblical story, closed the book, and then said “how could we make this better?”

The seeming need to portray gratuitous violence is a good example of the odd way stories were chosen. Abraham’s story is generally one of peace. He lives in the promised land as a nomad, he even buys, at his own insistence, a piece of ground to bury his wife. There is one instance of violence recorded in the Hebrew Bible, the rescue of Lot. This little story doesn’t have a lot to do with the main story line except to give an indication of how large and strong Abraham’s community had become. It did, however, offer an opportunity for sword play, blood, gore, and adrenalin flow.

Later, the program depicts a couple of ninja angels fighting their way out of Sodom (I can’t find a reference for that one), a sword fight between the young Moses and Pharaoh’s son (extra biblical), and in the final scenes of the first episode, a sword fight between the two spies and the residents of Jericho (their presence was suspected, but I don’t remember dead bodies in their wake). Is this violence just inserted to keep the male in me engaged? It could be, but by highlighting the violence, God’s work, and power, are diminished.

Choosing episodes which can draw the excitement oriented audience also means other, more important parts of the story need to be left on the cutting room floor to make the show fit into ten episodes. All of Jacob story, along with the migration to Egypt, and care God gave the people through Joseph, is missing. We just suddenly, inexplicably, begin a new scene in Egypt four or five hundred years after the preceding scene. When Moses comes down from the mountain with the tablets of stone, I am expecting the story of the Golden Calf, but instead, we suddenly jump ahead fourty years to Joshua and the city of Jericho. Anyone, not familiar with these stories would have been lost trying to connect the dots.

Another area of disappointing choice made by the writers is in their depiction of women. God’s redemption has often come through women, seen as the weaker part of the ancient society. We do see Eve take the fruit, cause the fall, however, the roles of Sarah, Hagar, Miriam, and Rahab are diminished to the point, in some cases, of being unnamed. We don’t even get to meet Rebekah,

I’ve made it sound like the show was all bad, and that’s not true.  It was cool to sit and watch someone else’s visualization of the well known stories of the Bible and compare it to the one in my own mind. The task is a daunting one when all of us have images burned into our minds by Sunday School teachers of how the promised land must look and feel,  what the plagues were like, and how beautiful Sarah was.

The Bible is trying to tell me a story that I already know intimately, can picture vividly, have grown into, and unfortunately they just won’t be able to get it right, but they did manage to achieve one of their goals, they did get me to open my Bible again if only to try to figure out what they were thinking.

Interaction with Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated

     Just the other day, I was sitting, having a wide ranging discussion, with a number of people. It wasn’t a particularly theological discussion, until one of the participants took our visit in a whole new direction, by asserting that she had not understood the Trinity until she had read The Shack by William P. Young. What was particularly troubling was the fact that all of the others admitted they too had read one of the more than ten million copies of the book, and also had gained a much clearer understanding of Trinitarian theology. That deeper understanding, accepted as gospel, is being gleaned from a self published book written by a former office manager and hotel night clerk, whose goal was probably more about writing a good piece of fiction than a theologically instructive statement.

Young’s contribution to the theological wisdom of this era is not the first of its kind. The very popular Left Behind series by Tim Lehaye and Jerry B Jenkins has had a profound effect on the general understanding of, what is seen to be, the Christian eschatological viewpoint. The theology of the books has widely permeated our western psyche in both the Christian and non-Christian communities. Over 60 million copies have been sold and three Left Behind movies have been made. Inspired Media Entertainment released the PC video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces in 2006 and has followed up with two sequels to date.  The games, which are based on the same end times stance as the books, have been criticized for their violence and apparent bigotry but have added to the message of the books and the movies. While Lehaye is an ordained minister and served a church in California for twenty five years, his view of eschatology is not one that is held by most of the major North American denominations. Yet his books have found their way into Christian bookstores and church libraries across the continent where they sit not far from The Shack.

     Thomas de Zengotita, in his book Mediated: How the Media Shapes your world and the Way You Live in It, presents us with a wide ranging rapid fire exposition of the influence that the media places on our lives. While he does have something to say about the way that the Christian media works, describing its TV programming as being presented from sets that are “almost a parody of gracious living in a gated community” by people who are “addicted to a particular rhetorical gesture, the inevitable redemptive climax to their multifarious tales of woe” , and he does touch God as a back grounding item in his descriptions of the world, de Zengotita, spends very little time actually discussing the effect that “mediation” has had on the Christian church, and the life of faith. This may be because he holds to the premise that God is dead, that “God died slowly, unable to sustain Himself as the subject of a world that no longer displayed His designs” . He sees this as the reason that religion has retreated from the public to the private realm in our march toward modernity making the corporate entity, called the church, redundant. He makes a good point, but I wonder if some of media’s effect on the organized church, its weakening its place in society, has come through through the virtualization and commoditization of God.

The proliferation of media to the masses, through the availability of the printed word, after the invention of the movable type press, allowed for the initial breaking of the power of the Roman Catholic Church. New ideas could be spread more freely, discussed, and written about and distributed again. The church lost its monopoly on doctrine, its ability to control the story, its high standing as the primary source of truth.  From a time when a single entity was able to dictate truth to the masses, we have come to a place where the multiple truths held by the masses are all equally valid. We have been so indoctrinated by the media to consider all opinions, and hopefully, choose the one they are currently espousing, that we have forgotten, corporately as churches, how to hold firm to a single idea or principle. We have instead become groups of people who hold, individually, more or less the same ideas, and cannot, in many cases, articulate what the stand of the whole is on any number topics. While the stated doctrinal standards of many denominations, stored in dusty books, and in the heads of aging professors and pastors, may still clearly show distinct hermeneutical lines between denominations, the proliferation of media has irretrievably blurred the lines. In the blurring, the message, that is supposed to bring hope to a suffering world, is so distilled, diluted, and distilled yet again that many are not exactly sure what the message is, or if they would even recognize the messenger. Yet, the Christian media machine continues to churn out a river of material, exemplified in The Shack and the Left Behind series, that is more geared to a profitable bottom line for their media giant owners, than any inherent desire to illuminate the truth. It is also more likely to feed into the ego-centric themes of mediation, as described by De Zengotita, aiming to help the consumer create an image of themselves to reflect back onto themselves.

De Zengotita leaves us with a picture of doom, hopelessness. He prophesies terror on the way that will rock our insulated world as the suffering masses rise up. This terror will challenge the virtual reality in which he argues we live, it will break it, and then the mediation machine will form a new reality in which we, the survivors, can be cradled. It’s all so discouraging, so Matrix like, with forces beyond our control, beyond our sight, planning and directing the world in such a way that even the way we think and feel is influenced.

And yet, I just cannot accept that God is gone, that God is not in some way at work, that God has been, according to De Zengotita at least, killed by science and technology; by the media.  Certainly, the old Christian ways of being and the old Christian liturgies, practices and even beliefs may not be holding much sway in a mediated world that is screaming for our attention, wanting us to be sure to take our place at center stage. I’m also not willing to turn our reflections on God, and the interpretation of biblical truths, over to the characters in The Shack or to the latest Left Behind video game, but their popularity does leave me with some hope that there is a searching for deeper meaning inside our mediated society. Maybe it’s in the silences between the media bombardments that we’ll find God. He’s been found there before, providing an anchor, something that is real rather than a virtual construction or fictional representation purporting to be truth, so that we can find some hope, real hope for a real future. Maybe we just need to step outside the blob which media has created (an impossible task according to De Zengotita) and listen.

An Interaction with Neil Postman’s Technopoly (1993)

On Monday September 17th 2012 Apple announced that orders in the first twenty four hours, for its new iPhone 5, had reached over two million units. Most analysts had estimated that sales would be in the 1.5 million range. Apple will not be able to deliver against these orders on time because their production facilities just cannot keep up with demand. By Christmas of this year, sales are expected to exceed twelve million units. For Neil Postman, the author of Technopoly, this smart phone feeding frenzy is another indication that our Western, and particularly North American, culture has been surrendered to technology.  Postman’s writing comes from a perspective of loss. He does not see many benefits from this new regime and, in fact, enumerates many casualties along the way. One of the biggest losers in the age of Technopoly, according to the author, is organized religion, the church.

Postman describes a world in which the influence of the church has been, and continues, to decline. Pointing to the power that the church was able to wield during the tool using age, the beginning of its decline in the age of technocracy, particularly with the invention of the moveable type printing press by Gutenberg, he proposes a trajectory of redundancy as we continue into an age where information has become the god of the masses. Postman envisions a bleak future for religion in general and the Christian church in North America in particular. Most sociologists would agree with Postman’s analysis of the decline of both adherence and influence that is being experienced by the traditional mainline church. The question needs to be asked, however, is the church in its traditional form worth saving? Is the real issue that the church has failed in its mission to be relevant in the world, or is the current culture destroying the church?

In Acts 1:8, just before his ascension, Jesus tells his disciples that they will receive power through the Holy Spirit and that they would become his witnesses both in places that were familiar to them, Jerusalem and Judea, but also in unfamiliar and alien places, Samaria and the ends of the earth. He doesn’t tell them to bring their culture along with them; in fact the book of Acts relates a number of instances where debate over the need for maintaining Hebrew tradition, and law, led to the understanding that these were not essential parts of the message. The gospel message was to be made relevant to the culture in which it was delivered. Paul demonstrates this principle in Athens as he recognizes the deity worshipping culture which had set up an alter to an unknown god, just so that none are left out, and uses this as his springboard to share the gospel in this culture. While the New Testament does present us with a gospel that is redemptive in nature and does cause change in lives and societies, it does not provide a specific picture of what a proper Christian community or society should look like. It gives general illustrations of the loving (1 Corinthians 13), unified (Philippians 2), generous (2 Corinthians 9), nature of such communities and gives direction as to the attributes of its leaders (1 Timothy 3), families (Ephesians 5), and gatherings (1 Corinthians 14), but it leaves the culture to form the character of the institution.

Postman seems to be saying that the shift that has taken place from tool using to technocracy to the Technopoly now upon us, is too much for the Christian church to handle. The same could be said of the atrocities of the Roman Empire, the indiscretions of the medieval church, the attacks of the Enlightenment, the insidious spread of Marxism, and yet, the Church has survived with its message of hope and restoration. Survival has not always been pretty. It has been, and is being persecuted, maligned, and marginalized, but it has continued to live and be effective in the liminal space between the sacred and the profane. The societal changes, Postman describes as a result of the rise of Technopoly, are certainly real and must be recognized, but to try to hold the church outside of the flow is unrealistic. Christ sends us into the entire world, not just the parts that fit our way of thinking.

While the church is called to be culturally relevant it is also called to be counter cultural, to act prophetically in pointing out injustice in the world. Jesus certainly did this in his ministry and the description of the American Technopoly resistance fighter provided by Postman is likely a good place for many churches to begin. In this list he does not suggest that the resistance fighter, in this case the church, needs to turn its back on the advances of technocracy or Technopoly, but rather, we need to understand where our priorities lie. We cannot allow our craving for information, for the next poll, the next research breakthrough, to take the place of our love of God and our neighbor. We need to be able to hold on to the basis of our faith while making use of the tools of  Technopoly, and the cultural norms of this era, to share the message of hope that we carry. We need to act as resistance fighters inside the system, defending the weak and helpless who are being left behind, trampled upon. We need to learn new techniques and be willing to leave the old and redundant ones behind. Our institutions may need to change, our methods might need to be different, our way of being may become unrecognizable, but our mission and our master are still the same. We are still to be salt and light in the world.

Postman’s book presents a cynical view of the world and culture in which we live, a world where sales of the iPhone 5 makes headlines and the homeless and helpless do not. He looks back at simpler times with fondness, even yearning for a return to the tool using era of the middle ages. In the final paragraph of the book he recognizes that there is no turning back but holds out the hope that, by somehow distancing ourselves from the Technopoly in which we now live, we will be able to criticize and modify it. This is the role of the church as well; to be in the world; but not of it; to criticize the injustices of our day; to live in the culture in a way that models love for God and for others. Technopoly is here, God and His church can be a relevant part of it.



VBS: Sonrise National Park

VBS is over for another season. We had nearly 70 kids show up for five days of fun and learning. Very few of these kids are affiliated with our church (we just don’t have many) so it really is an outreach program. This year the program had a park theme and the organizers went to a lot of work, building cabins and decorating the church to bring the outdoors in.

In the past couple of years, I have been quite involved, up front and center every day playing the role of “Commander Ken” , Chef Pierre, and Dr.(?). I enjoyed hamming it up for the kids. This year, because of the uncertain timing of the coming of BT, I could not commit to actually being in Ontario during the week of the program. Other plans were made and, other than one request to help with a drama on one of the days, the week was mine.

That changed Sunday morning. It appeared that I could be of value as a group helper for a large and potentially unruly group. I agreed to help, with the exception of Thursday which was already filled with Greek. By Tuesday, I had been recruited for another drama presentation (a short, unscripted item presented five times in two hours)

It was good to be there as part of what  churches should do best:share the gospel. It was good to see volunteers pull together to bring off something that was bigger than any one of us. It was good to see others from our community help out as well. It was cool to see God at work both in the kids that came and also in the organizers and volunteers, in our community.

I think one of the kids, T, likely one of the most disruptive of the group, the kid that you would hope would just stay home, the kid that you have a hard time liking, the kid that others turn away from, the kid that you are just not sure is getting anything out of being there, gave me pause on Friday, when he said, with dismay in his voice ” How come there is no VBS tomorrow?” God is working, we just need to keep watching. I, and others judged this little fellow unfairly. We might have forgotten that he too is a child of God and that God through our little VBS program is working in him as well.

It wouldn’t be the first time that we find ourselves choosing differently than God does.