Tread Lightly

John Pavlovitz found himself buying bananas the day after his father died. He was going through such a normal part of life, but inside he felt anything but normal.

Everyone around you; the people you share the grocery store line with, pass in traffic, sit next to at work, encounter on social media, and see across the kitchen table—they’re all experiencing the collateral damage of living. They are all grieving someone, missing someone, worried about someone. Their marriages are crumbling or their mortgage payment is late or they’re waiting on their child’s test results, or they’re getting bananas five years after a death and still pushing back tears because the loss feels as real as it did that first day.

I can vividly remember, in 2007, taking a walk on my lunch break from work, after finding out that my father was terminally ill. It was the most beautiful day imaginable, the sun was shining and the temps were in the seventies, but I was completely unable to feel the comfort of the perfect weather. I couldn’t even contemplate ever getting my way past that internal ache that was so much stronger than anything nature could provide as soothing balm.

Who among us hasn’t had these times? There are almost inevitably seasons where we’re unable to feel the cool breeze cutting through the punishment of a blazing sun. We don’t go around wearing signs, but Pavlovitz visualizes how helpful it would be, anyway. There often are no noticeable signals. No helpful indicator lights to let people know our emotional tanks are almost on empty.

Whether your reference point is Ecclesiastes or The Byrds, “to everything there is a season.” It can be hard to know in which season a person is dwelling, though. So we have to tread carefully with those around us.

Pavlovitz sums it up nicely.

We need to remind ourselves just how hard the hidden stories around us might be, and to approach each person as a delicate, breakable, invaluable treasure—and to handle them with care.

Christ and a blue heaven.

It’s the End of Advent, Merry Christmas

This year, around the holiday season, I’ve had a shift in my thinking about Christmas and the period of waiting that comes before. In the past, I’ve thought of the season of Advent as a joyous preparatory time for the a celebration that is Christmas. The onslaught of cheerful Christmas songs, that starts just as the tryptophan induced coma from Thanksgiving wears off, contributes to that way of framing things. Bing lets you know when it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and he doesn’t seem at all concerned that the holiday is almost a month away.

Recently though, I’ve started to view Advent in a more Orthodox way, as more like Lent. As a time of fasting, rather than feasting. A time that starts in the darkness, as we make our way toward the light. It’s a period of quiet contemplation, instead of the exuberant cacophony of bells from a sleigh, furiously driven to the big box stores in search of Black Friday door busters. Advent is to be waited out with patience and solemn hope.


We Demand A King

According to a new Pew Research poll, the number of Republicans who say presidents could operate more effectively if they did not have to worry so much about Congress and the courts has increased 16 percentage points since last year, from 27% to 43%. Among only those classified as conservative Republicans, the number of those in favor of more presidential power has doubled in the past year. The fears that this president has promoted the idea of a totalitarian state to his followers seems to have been well founded. That should come as no surprise to those who noted the president’s open affection for dictators, including those as brutal as Sadam Hussein.

It appears a certain segment of the population, particularly conservative Republicans, essentially want a king of the United States. This was the state of affairs in ancient Israel, in the time of the prophet Samuel. The prophet warned the people against putting themselves under the yoke of a king. However, the Israelites had lost faith in God as deliverer and wanted a king to lead them to victory over the Philistines.


Lord of Scripture

Pete Buttigieg recently gave a very candid interview to Rolling Stone. In the interview, he opens up about his Christian faith, which can probably best be described as “progressive.” Often, Christians on the more progressive end of the spectrum are thought of as having low biblical fidelity, sometimes even rightfully so. Buttigieg responds to those who accuse progressive Christians of cherry picking the passages of scripture that suit their world view.

Well, I think for a lot of us — certainly for me — any encounter with Scripture includes some process of sorting out what connects you with the God versus what simply tells you about the morals of the times when it was written, right? For example, the proposition that you should execute your sister by stoning if she commits adultery. I don’t believe that that was right once upon a time, and then the New Testament came and it was gone. I believe it was always wrong, but it was considered right once, and that found its way into Scripture.

And to me that’s not so much cherry-picking as just being serious, because of course there’s so many things in Scripture that are inconsistent internally, and you’ve got to decide what sense to make of it. Jesus speaks so often in hyperbole and parable, in mysterious code, that in my experience, there’s simply no way that a literal understanding of Scripture can fit into the Bible that I find in my hands.

Though I don’t agree with Buttigeig on every position he takes, and wouldn’t label myself necessarily as a progressive Christian, I do understand what he is getting at in this statement. There are contradictions in scripture, and it requires some critical thinking, research and prayer as to what to make out of those contradictions. It is undeniably true that Jesus speaks in hyperbole and parable. In fact, he tells his disciples that his wisdom is exclusively imparted to others in the form of parable.

He said to them, “The secret of God’s kingdom has been given to you, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables. (Mark 4:11, CEB)

From this statement, we can take away that the form of teaching that Jesus used requires discernment.


Reformation Sunday

Two years ago, in 2017, was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. For those of us in the reformed tradition, it was a pretty big deal. This Sunday, we celebrate our annual “Reformation Sunday” in the Presbyterian Church.

Internet Monk recently had a repost from the late Michael Spencer, on the Reformation. Spencer studied the Reformation extensively. Though he remained a proud Protestant, he also came away with some pretty frank observations and critiques of either the Reformation movement itself or the way we have come to view it.

The post contains a list of insights (is it a listicle?) that came to Spencer during his studies. Here are some that particularly resonated with me.

  • I do not believe true Christianity was restored or rediscovered in the Reformation.
  • I’m convinced that it didn’t take long for Protestantism to accumulate enough problems of its own to justify another reformation or two.
  • I believe that a lot of Protestants say sola scriptura when they mean solo scriptura or nuda scriptura or something I don’t believe at all.
  • I now believe that tradition is a very good word.
  • I believe the Reformation was very secular, political and, eventually, quite violent. To act as if it was mostly a spiritual revival movement is naive.
  • I believe we ought to grieve the division of Christianity and the continuing division of Protestantism.

I would also tend to agree with Spencer that, after consistently saying the Apostles Creed, and confessing belief in the one catholic church, it does seem a bit odd to be celebrating Christian division.


Some Called Her A Prophet

I have been following the health status of, and praying for, Rachel Held Evans recently, as she lay in a coma induced to keep her brain from constant seizures. Yesterday, Evans passed away, after a fight to keep her alive following an ordeal that started with a reaction to antibiotics.


The Danger of Using the Bible Instead of Letting It Use You

One thing that angers me a great deal is the misappropriation of passages from Holy Scripture. Tyler Huckabee writes in Relevent Magazine on the dangers of dividing the Bible up into bite-size chunks appropriate for bumper sticker sloganeering:

An unfortunate consequence of littering the Bible with the little demarcating numbers we call “chapter and verse” is the ease with which it allows the Bible to be split up piecemeal. We study and memorize the Bible in bite-sized chunks, just long enough to fit on a day calendar or scribble on a bathroom mirror. Chapters and verses are useful things for finding your place, but they can give the impression that each sentence of the Bible was spoken in a vacuum, with no pertinent information around it. Using Romans 13 to defend obeying the government, as Jeff Sessions did, is a bit like using Moby Dick to defend mid-1800s whaling practices.

This particular moment in time has made it manifestly clear just how deficient a theology can be when it is built this way. Christians who claim to be adherents to the Bible seem to miss many of the themes that consistently run throughout the text.

The real secret of living according to the will of God is not to collect enough Bible verses to defend your latest socio-political fancy but to let God transform you entirely. Not to bend God’s Word to your will, but exactly the other way around. And to do that, you must take in the whole of Scripture, every jot and tittle. It’s not easy.

Huckabee is right that it’s not easy to get the bigger picture within scripture. That is why study is necessary and communities of faith are important.


Dunbar’s Number and the Church

Even as members and pastors have changed over the years, one complaint I’ve consistently heard about my church is that there are too many cliques. It’s an easy thing for a church culture to fall into. In fact, it may be impossible to avoid.

Research into human relationships has given us insight into the number of close personal connections a person can maintain. This limit is referred to as Dunbar’s Number.

First proposed by British Anthropologist Robin Dunbar, Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships – relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.

Dunbar’s Number – Wikipedia

When thinking about relationships in a mid-sized church in the context of Dunbar’s Number, cliques are almost inevitable. Some churches seem to recognize this and embrace the concept within the institution by facilitating the formation of small groups.These small groups serve to anchor people within a number of manageable relationships in order to facilitate close bonds within the church. Rather than rejecting the cognitive limits of the human mind, these church’s have acknowledged those limits and given sanction to living within them.

I used to fault church members for not being welcoming enough. For some time after I joined the church, I felt somewhat left out. I didn’t feel like anyone was going out of their way to include me in their circle of friends. I faulted the church and the culture within it. One day I realized that, by holding church members to a higher standard than everyone else, I was setting myself up for disappointment. Humans who are members of a church are making a commitment to be better, more spiritual people. They’re not perfect, though. They are still bound by the same mental limitations that are part of being in the human race. Those limitations make it hard to go out of our way to expand our social circles (this is obviously harder for some than others). Every Sunday, we make a corporate confession of sins and acknowledge our unwillingness or inability to rise above them. We are all burdened by sin, imperfection and limitations. How could I have believed otherwise?