Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Quaker Youth Skit Night

A friend recently struggled to find creative ideas for a Quaker youth skit night. I suggested the following themes:

10. My Favorite Experience with Pine Needles

9. Traveling to Youth Yearly Meeting: A Melodrama

8. If Clowns Were Quakers

7. When Black Meets Gray (A romantic comedy about an Amish girl and a Quaker boy. Of course, their parents don’t approve. It’s kind of an Anabaptist Romeo and Juliet set in Pennsylvania or Indiana or something.)

6. Levi Pennington’s Wife (such a cool title)

5. George Fox’s Space Oddysey (Church of England represented by the Empire and headed by Darth Vader)

4. If Food Found Religion (How would different foods such as oatmeal, carrots or beef speak out against injustice?)

3. A Day in the Life of a Hymnal Selection Committee

2. The Night Before Christmas: Day 24 of the Live Nativity Scene (A new take on reality game shows. What really goes on in the stable? If we had the nativity up for a month with limited breaks for food, water and bathroom runs, what would happen? This one calls for audience participation.)

1. Barney the Purple Dinosaur Goes to Meeting (How will he handle open worship? Will Friends love and accept him?)

Unfortunately, my friend didn’t use any of my ideas.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


A kid I know earned Eagle Scout. His dad choked up, speaking of what makes a man: “A series of accomplishments.” But he’s wrong. Who I become is more important than what I get done.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Religious Crazy

Exhibit A: some
people still drink
instant coffee.

There's a lot of crazy in the world. England has a cheese chase (canceled this year for health and safety reasons). Spain has a tomato fight. Lind, Washington, has a demolition derby for combine harvesters. And crazy comes in all shapes and sizes. Exhibit A: some people still drink instant coffee. Exhibit B: Tootsie Rolls.

But the kind of crazy I'd like to discuss here is the kookiest, scariest kind of crazy I know, the kind of crazy that doesn't know it's crazy: religious crazy.

Early Monday, nine members of a religious militia were charged with conspiracy to "kill an unidentified member of local law enforcement and then attack the law enforcement officers who gather in Michigan for the funeral. According to the plan, [they] would attack law enforcement vehicles during the funeral procession with Improvised Explosive Devices."

The men and women involved in this group identified themselves as followers of "the testimony of Jesus." They claim on their Web site that they "live by faith" and that they have been called to "stand, stay and pray for the defense of the word." They claim Jesus has called them to a full-on fight with the government.

I can see that this kind of thinking is inconsistent with the message and witness of Jesus. So can you. Neither one of us is in danger of falling for such a specious reading of scripture. Or are we?

The real problem is that this fringe group wasn't as far out on the fringes as maybe we'd like to believe. Their ideas about faith (as promoted at their Web site) don't sound so different from things I've heard at my own church.

So how does this kind of crazy come about? It has to do with belief. Belief serves as a prism through which I filter experience. As a result, my beliefs also direct my interactions, dictate the ways in which I view others and the treatment they will receive from me.

Dr. Jerry Falwell, now deceased, held the belief that every event is an act of God. Not so crazy. Is it?

Here's how the reverend used that belief to filter his experience. He said the collapse of the Twin Towers in 9/11 was a God-ordained act that killed thousands of innocent Americans in order to teach the country a lesson about the evils of homosexuality, abortion, and feminism.

This belief justifies acts of terrorism. Definitely crazy.

Author and historian David Barton, founder of WallBuilders, published an online essay in which he indirectly called for the elimination of the capital gains tax, federal minimum wage, inheritance taxes, and the end of a progressive income tax: "In the Bible, the more profit you make the more you are rewarded. . . . The landowner had a right to determine the wages his workers received. . . . The current income tax structure in the United States mandates a higher tax rate or percentage the more a person makes. This tax system is contradicted by scripture."

This belief favors the rich over the poor, encouraging those who have to gain even more at the expense of those who have not. Might not be crazy, but it certainly is inconsistent with Jesus' teaching.

One of my favorite thinkers, Erich Fromm, claims the real problem is belief itself (although he refers to it as dogma). Fromm suggests that evangelical Christian churches created a problem for themselves when they decided to do away with high-church tradition and symbolism: "Religions which are consolidated by extra-religious elements are able to dispense almost completely with a system of dogmas."

What's wrong with a little dogma? It tends to control the mind. Again with Fromm: Dogma is a "powerful suggestion, which is experienced subjectively as reality because of the consensus among believers."

What he's saying is that if it's you that's crazy, it won't feel crazy. And if it's me that's crazy, I'll probably just call it "faith."

At Barclay Press

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Have our efforts
been to transform society or
just to control it?

Religion stabilizes society, instills patterns of behavior that ensure a community's longevity. But is that what it's supposed to do? what it was created to do?

As for us, have our efforts been to transform society or just to control it? Have we left room for creative engagement (or burned our bridges)?

Empires have tended to use religion to exploit. So what do Christians do about a world in which religion for so long has been an empire (if not the empire)? What responsibility do we have for exploitation done in the name of religion?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Backwards Bible

If the oldest book of the Bible
gives us a frame for reading scripture, then
Satan isn’t really that important.

So I’m sitting next to Matt. Kind of halfway listening to the sermon, halfway thinking about whether I should have said anything during open worship. Flipping pages in the Bible, pretending to follow along. Gregg says something about Job’s questions and God’s showing up at the end of the book. And it hits me. What if it’s all wrong? What if we’ve been reading it upside down and backwards? What if everything we think the Bible says isn’t what it actually says?

An example: Most of my life, I’ve heard the reasoning about why Jesus had to die on the cross, why it works, how I’m supposed to respond, what that will do for my life.

In one ear.

Out the other.

Something about the language never felt right. Like Jesus, who is fully God, had to die in order to satisfy his own wrath. He did it because he loved us so much that he wanted to be with us. But he couldn’t be with us because God can’t tolerate sin, so he came to be with us in order to die so the debt would be paid so he could finally be with us.


I’ll try again.

See, God, who is omnipotent (that means all powerful) gave us the power to give Satan power over us, and in order to regain that power – the power he needed to save us from Satan who had the power that was meant for us – God had to trick Satan into trying to take even more power. When Satan fell for the trick, he forfeited what little power he had, and God got back all the power so he could give us enough of that power to make the right choice this time. Amen.

That’s more like Saturday morning cartoons than real life, and as you can see, it doesn’t work very well.

For a long time now, we’ve been reading the Bible through C.S. Lewis’s view of Wesley’s view of Luther’s view of Augustine’s view of Paul’s view of Jesus. Or, if we’re open-minded, postmodern and emergent, we’ve been reading the Bible with Jesus as the end result that makes the mess of the Old Testament make sense. Here’s the hang-up. Both views fail to offer an answer to the central question of human experience: suffering.

Don’t get me wrong. We have lots of answers. God is testing us to make us stronger. We suffer the consequences of poor choices. God is in control.

But how well do any of these answers actually work? If my best friend is dying of cancer, do I tell him that it’s part of God’s plan? that it’s punishment for secret sin? that there’s no need to worry because God is in control?

Friends don’t do that.

So I’m sitting next to Matt. And I realize that the story of Job is the oldest book in the Bible. I wonder if maybe this story might be THE story, if what comes after is commentary – a working through and a working out of the themes introduced in the first story, the story of Job. And what exactly is the story of Job? It’s a story of suffering.

Unexpected. Undeserved. Unexplained.

I ask myself some questions.

What is Satan’s role? He’s implicated as the cause of suffering, but he plays a bit part. Satan doesn’t even show up after the end of the second chapter. In a book with 42 chapters, Satan accomplishes little more than a setting of the scene. If the book of Job were one of Shakespeare’s plays, Satan would be the clown. He helps to transition us from one scene to the next, but he has no real role in the greater story. If the oldest book of the Bible gives us a frame for reading and understanding the rest of scripture, then Satan isn’t really that important.

Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen at all? The book of Job actually takes up quite a bit of space discussing the problem. Each of the friends introduces an idea as to the source of suffering and how we should respond. Job argues. The friends argue back. If the book of Job were a short story, the issue of suffering would offer the central conflict. The arguments for and against constitute the rising action. But it seems that suffering is not the moral, only the motivator. Without suffering, Job – a stand-in for humanity – might have no reason to consider his reason for being. If the oldest book of the Bible gives us a frame for reading and understanding the rest of scripture, then suffering is and always will be the central problem.

What, then, is humanity’s purpose? Why do we exist? What is it that we are designed to do? Job’s call for vindication implies that we have a need to know God, to see God, to speak to God. When God shows up to speak with Job, he doesn’t answer Job’s questions. But in the end, Job is satisfied. The book implies that it is God’s presence, God’s willingness to show up, that is important. If the oldest book of the Bible gives us a frame for reading and understanding the rest of scripture, then humanity’s central need is not an end to suffering (although that is our goal) but an experience of the presence of God.

And then.




The answer.

“Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.”

We read the Bible as a series of answers to our questions. Who am I? A child of God. Why am I here? To be in relationship with man and with God. How ought I to live? As Christ.

It’s kind of a cute concept. And it sure does make me feel better. Mostly.

But the Bible isn’t a series of answers. It’s not a map or a constitution, a list, a handbook, or an instruction manual. And Jesus didn’t announce the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven as a solution to our problems (both spiritual and physical). The Bible is a set of questions. And God exists to challenge.

Job asks why, and God responds, “I ask the questions here.”

Who told you that you were naked?
Why are you angry?
Where is your brother?
Is anything too hard for the Lord?
How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?
But what about you? Who do you say I am?
Why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?
Friends, haven’t you any fish?

May we fully experience and grow in the power of God’s presence. May we rise to God’s challenge. May we be ready for and sensitive to God’s questions. That's the point of the Bible, after all. When we read for questions instead of looking for answers, then we come to realize an important truth about scripture:

The story isn't over yet.

At Barclay Press

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

After all, formal
structures tend to support the
status quo.

Sometimes I find myself inwardly resisting ideas shared in conversation, and I try to pay attention to the emotional tug. It often reveals new insights -- thoughts I didn't know I was thinking.

I was in a meeting where folks were discussing issues of structural change. I didn't like one man's view of doctrine. I disagreed with another man's concept of authority in the church. When a third shared his view of our shared history, I disagreed; and the fourth man's corporate metaphors made me uncomfortable. I wondered whether my discomfort was coming from the content of the discussion or the concept itself, so I decided to spend a few moments, consciously sorting through my feelings.

I took up the word "structure" since that was the issue under discussion and immediately sensed a feeling of futility (even despair). After all, formal structures tend to support the status quo. As I was processing, someone in the meeting described oversight as a form of "machinery" that would guarantee consistency and quality.

The church?

A machine?


Tuesday, March 09, 2010


It makes me
wonder, what's wrong
with redundancy?

I dropped a piece of doughnut on the floor, and now it's covered with ants. Two ants are hauling off a section while a third crawls around on top. A fourth and fifth ant push and pull, stopping the portion's progress for a moment before letting it go again. Still, the work gets done. It makes me wonder, what's wrong with redundancy? Why do we as humans feel such a need to streamline our efforts, to make our institutions efficient? What do we really accomplish with such work?

Here are the effects of our efficiency-minded efforts: we make people unnecessary; we divest ourselves of "extras"; we demonstrate our value of programs over people. Is that what we're really about? Is getting it done as important as we think?

Monday, March 08, 2010

If a question
has a right answer, it's not

Sometimes, it's good for me to be reminded that I'm not Jesus, that it's not my job to save the kids in my care, that I don't have to worry about controlling the direction of conversations. To keep myself on track, I try to review the following concepts before any interaction with a small group of students:

1) I will only ask open-ended questions. If a question has a right answer, it's not open-ended.
2) I will let kids be honest rather than "right."
3) I will remember that conversation time isn't my time.
4) I will not be tempted to respond to what kids share unless it is to clarify, to make sure I understand what they mean.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Getting to the End

What if people
lose patience with us or
respect for us?

As task forces come to the end of their work, I've noticed that many get caught up in discussions of accountability. The members often argue as to what other body should see the finished program or plan before it's enacted. The points against an additional step are enumerated with passion, but I wonder whether the reasons we give have anything to do with the truth. What follows is my analysis of some of the more common complaints:

1) "We have a job to do." "People trust us." "It's an unnecessary step." -- We fear what others might do or say. We don't want to lose control.

2) "We were selected as experts." -- We dare not or cannot admit fallibility.

3) "We'd be wasting their time." "It would be a waste of our time." -- We don't want to start over and are already impatient with the current process. What if people lose patience with us or respect for us?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

If the
roof caves in, it could
kill us all.

In a visioning meeting, almost every item on our wish list is dependent on current denominational structures. Are there new models for connection?

For instance, we can improve the structure. We can shore up the building, make it earthquake proof, put on a new roof, remodel the foyer to let in more light. But what if the time has come to move out? to build something new?

To suggest starting over is exciting to me, but internal change is hard. It's dangerous to take out walls while you're still inside. If the roof caves in, it could kill us all.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Paralyzed. Afraid?

I get frustrated when people fail to say what they mean. Incomplete sentences, vagaries, awkward pauses, filler noises -- they make me angry.