Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I think I smell something...

"Regardless of the decision you make, for you it will be the right one." If you're choosing between ice cream flavors or DVD rentals, maybe. But that was a comment made to someone who is thinking of leaving his family. Really?

"If it's hard, then it probably isn't the one." This would be excellent advice for me in selecting a toothbrush, considering that my dentist only wants me to use super soft bristles. However, it was also advice given about a relationship, in this case a long-distance one. Who said that relationships were supposed to be easy, especially long-distance?

"You should do whatever makes you happy." "As long as you try, that's enough." "You can do anything you want to do, or be anything you want to be!" All of those statements, in one way or another, are either products of or contributors to the overwhelming culture of narcissism. It's like "I'm ok, you're ok." Self-confidence and self-esteem are important, but I am not always ok and you are not always ok, and to continue to spout these platitudes perpetuates the idea that life is all about how we experience it, and the ultimate goals are to do what you like and avoid what you don't. I call BS.

Then, there are the theological platitudes...
"I can be a Christian without being involved in church." Actually, you can't. If you believe we're created in the image of a Triune God, then it kind of follows that we were created to be in relationship. If you believe that we are called to be the body of Christ on earth, that requires lots of different members. And if you think that you don't need the support or challenge of being in community with others who are struggling to discern what God is calling us to do, that's kind of like elevating your wisdom and discernment to God's level. It's asserting an independence that just isn't theologically tenable. Once you've decided that you don't need the body of Christ, how much longer before you don't really need God?

"The Bible says..." The Bible says a lot of stuff. It also doesn't say a lot of stuff. And some of what it says contradicts other things that it says, so it's really never as simple as saying, "The Bible says..." Scripture is authoritative because it reveals to us the living God, and that act of revelation is an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. When I hear the preface, "The Bible says," my BS radar goes on high alert, not because I don't "believe the Bible," but because so often what follows is simplistic proof-texting that really just reflects what "I" believe, now elevated beyond reproach because it is found in the Bible.

"God only gives us what we're able to handle." I've heard this a lot. I've heard it in pastoral care situations, when someone going through a very difficult time is trying to look on the bright side, or worse, when a well-meaning friend or relative is trying to provide encouragement. Does that mean that survivals of the horrible atrocities of war, rape victims in refugee camps, children exposed to constant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, are all just that much stronger? Because God knows they can handle more than we can?

I'm calling BS. What other phrases would you include on the list?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The most beautiful sounds...

A week ago I was in Atlanta for the Festival of Homiletics, an annual event that not only showcases great preachers and lecturers, but also provides opportunities for us preachers to participate in truly amazing worship. On Thursday evening, we celebrated Ascension Day with a nearly 2-hour worship service in a cavernous sanctuary that was packed on all sides. Music was led by members of the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra and the joint choirs of the host church, Peachtree Road United Methodist Church. The magnificent pipe organ added to the experience, and I think we might just have been taken up along with Jesus.

But, there was a baby somewhere in the sanctuary. I had seen at least one mama toting around her young child for much of the conference, so perhaps it was the same baby; I couldn't see from where I was sitting. During this magnificent worship service, at particular moments, silence was pierced by the coos of this pre-verbal child. Who on earth would bring a baby to a two hour worship service?

I thank God that she did. Of all the beautiful music I heard that night, none was more beautiful than the sound of that baby. In fact, I think that a baby in church might just be one of the most beautiful sounds I can think of.

I know not everyone will agree. As a preacher, I don't mind "competing" with baby sounds or even the people who can't take their eyes off an adorable child. Particularly in churches where those over 60 vastly outnumber those under 60, a baby in worship is a tangible reminder that life continues, that God is not done with us yet. It also reminds us that of all the beauty that we create in the world - the soaring cathedrals, beautiful works of art, and perfectly executed symphonies - God's created beauty was the first and will be the final word. If we are bothered by the distraction of a baby in worship, then perhaps we need to examine exactly what is holding our focus so tightly that is keeping us from seeing the beautiful distraction that is God's activity in the world.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Consider the Sparrows

Consider the sparrows... and all the tweeting that has been going on here at the Festival of Homiletics. I have been actively tweeting, rather easily from the Buckhead Theater, with more difficulty on my crappy cell phone at Peachtree UMC. Last week I was at another gathering of clergy through the Fund for Theological Education, and again, we were encouraged to tweet there. I’ve probably tweeted more in the past two weeks than the past two months.

I have enjoyed seeing the comments from others, particularly those in the other venues. It allows me to be in two or more places at once. I hope that there have been folks not at either of these gatherings who have gotten something out of my tweets and others. In that way, I saw my tweeting as a service, and I hope it has been that. It has also been an opportunity to connect with others virtually, most of whom I haven't connected with in person at the Festival. Maybe a Tweetup would have been nice, but with as many other things as have been going on, not to mention catching up with friends from across the country, I don't know if I would have gone.

And yet, my tweeting significantly changed and shaped my experience at these gatherings. I experienced being both present and not present. I got distracted by technical difficulties, page loading issues on my cell phone, and refreshing the tweetchat stream. On the other hand, during a certain worship service I was so exhausted and brain drained, but my tweeting somehow enabled me to maintain more focus on the message being delivered. At the end of Paul Raushenbush’s presentation on the Internet, he checked his own tweetdeck, and found that those of us who had been tweeting had sent him many good questions. Great opportunity for engaging the audience, but what if he had been following those updates during his presentation? He would have been all over the place and would not have covered 80% of what he had prepared. (I’m guessing. I'm sure he is a much better multi-tasker than I am, but there are human limits.) 

Towards the end of his presentation, Raushenbush mentioned a statement from another author that the internet is neurologically changing our ability to think deep thoughts. As a former philosophy major and current practical theologian, this is a deeply disturbing thought (or as deeply disturbing as can be, considering the time I have spent on the internet).  So what’s the verdict? Finding a balance? I’m not sure, but since I’ve been broadcasting live for the past two weeks, I thought I’d continue in my thinking out loud.