Archive for July, 2009

Twitter Less

July 17, 2009

In case any of you are breathlessly wondering, I don’t favor Twittering in church.  This blog provides some cursory explanations for why Twittering in church ought to be accepted and even encouraged:
But I don’t buy them.  For these respective reasons:
  1. What is the purpose of worship?  Is worship an opportunity to extend the reach of the worship experience?  By the logic used here, we ought to also encourage people to be creating their own audio/video clips to post to YouTube or other media sites, to extend the benefits of the music to a larger population.  However, many churches do this in a very organized way.  How much more important is it that the meaning of a sermon be captured accurately to be conveyed to a larger audience?  Aside from a pithy quote here or there, how much meaning are you going to capture in 140 characters, out of a sermon that runs anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more, depending on your tradition?  And if you manage to convey a 140-character thought accurately, how helpful is it taken out of the larger context of the whole message?  And what about you in the meantime?  You who are actually present in worship, how well are you listening to the rest of the message if you’re busy texting one little tidbit that you particularly liked?  
  2. Same as above.  This may be a very true thing – but does it have to occur during the worship itself?  You are transforming worship form a receptive and responsive event into a delivery and proactive event.  You are no longer receiving God’s grace in Word and (hopefully) Sacrament, but rather you are moving on already to the next step.  You are curtailing your feeding in hopes of feeding others.
  3. Agreed completely.  It’s not an either/or dichotomy, though.  One can engage the Internet world and the Twittersphere, but it’s a matter of the time that this should happen.  Is your worship service so powerful and enlightening that you want to spread the impact to as many people as possible?  Praise God!  Bring a digital recorder into the service to capture the sentiments more precisely so that you can Tweet them later.  Better yet, find out if your church is already capturing the service digitally, or if your pastor has his sermon in .pdf format.  Find out if your church is already Tweeting and otherwise engaging the Internet world with the specifics of each service.  Then refer your followers to those feeds, rather than duplicating and possibly confusing the issue by trying to do it on your own.  If your church isn’t doing these things already, approach your pastor about volunteering your services in this regard.  Do something that truly benefits your church and the vital message being proclaimed there, rather than approaching it in a piecemeal fashion that ultimately may be tempting as a means to build followers.
  4. Great idea.  A digital recorder – or the Pastor’s sermons in digital or hard copy – will do this exact same thing a LOT more accurately.  Then make your notes in the margins, or attach digital notes with the original .pdf file.  By all means build a library and take notes – but do it in an appropriate way.
  5. Or, here’s a crazy idea – how about training your mind so that you don’t wander during the sermons?  Most sermons I’ve heard (and given) have some points that are a little less riveting than others.  But don’t assume that these are less important, and don’t assume that a wandering mind is inevitable.  
Additionally, here are some other thoughts:
  1. You don’t exist in a vacuum.  While you’re busily thumbing your keypad, others are being distracted by your actions.  The glow of the screen, the creaking of the device or the keys as you work away – all of these are distractions to those around you who may not have reached the conclusion that this is a good place in the sermon to find other ways to occupy their minds.
  2. In addition to distracting or irritating your elders who may not be so Twitter-enamored, you’re setting an example for the younger and more impressionable minds around you.  This may just be younger siblings – or it may be the youth group kids who look up to you.  
  3. Worship is experiential.  If you are focused elsewhere, you aren’t experiencing the worship any longer.  Don’t pull yourself out of context to do something else.  I’d argue that it’s better that you doodle on the back of the bulletin, because your brain is less engaged with this sort of activity than with the complexities of spelling, textspeak translation, etc. that are required by texting.  What this means is there’s a better chance with doodling that you’re still hearing something of what is being said than if you’re texting.
  4. The idea that “individuals should Twitter in church” contains in itself the underlying assumption about the issue here – individuality and personal liberty.  I ought to be able to Twitter in church if I want to, is sort of the destination of this logic.  However, the act of worship is one that should be downplaying individual autonomy and emphasizing our oneness in the Body of Christ.  You are not your own – you were bought with a price.  It isn’t just about you and what you feel like you ought to be able to do – regardless of how helpful or pious your reasoning might be!   
  5. Technology is not the issue here – purpose is.  Don’t pretend that folks against Twittering in worship are Luddites.  That’s a simplistic way of dismissing those who disagree with you without having to examine their rationale – and your own.  It’s a matter of what the purpose of worship is.  

Mass on the Moon

July 16, 2009

Part of my long fascination with history is the intriguing little tidbits that are littered amidst the major dates and big wars and towering personalities.  The details that are never deemed worthy enough (or politically correct enough) for a history text in a classroom, but which come out where and when you least expect them.

For example, the first things that a human being ate and drank while on the moon were the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.  That’s pretty cool.  That in the midst of such a profound accomplishment of human ingenuity and determination, someone made arrangements to celebrate God’s greatest accomplishment on behalf of mankind – our salvation.

Ritual de lo Habitual

July 15, 2009

Our culture is becoming flatter.

By flatter, I mean more uniform in our treatment of everyday circumstances and situations.  The formalities that used to distinguish certain events are growing scarcer.  Church is a good example of this.  There is overwhelming pressure, it seems, to move to less formality, less pomp and circumstance.

In some ways, this isn’t a bad thing.  When in the corporate world, I enjoyed casual Friday’s as much as the next cubicle-inmate.  The formality of dressing for church on Sunday mornings as a child was gladly given up when I found a campus ministry that assumed that college kids weren’t going to dress up for worship.  My wife and I struggle with getting our children to address adults as “Mr. Vang” or “Miss Andrea” or “Mrs. Pederson”.  It’s a struggle in part because most of these folks, although they were likely raised in a culture that expected such formalities, aren’t concerned about reinforcing them with younger generations.  And so the formalities get lost.
For a long time, I thought this was a good thing.  We’re all created equal, right?  Why should we be hampered by formality in addressing one another, or in dressing a certain way for certain occasions and situations?  Why not just let it all hang out, so to speak?  Does it matter if a pastor is robed, or wearing a clerical, or wearing a trendy t-shirt with jeans exactingly faded to convey the proper attitude of not caring how faded the jeans are?
But I think more and more that people like formality.  Not simply like it, they crave it in some ways.  Note how fervently the British fawn over their royalty.  More at home, note how fans seem to go nuts for the pomp and circumstance, the tradition deliberately preserved in the rites and rituals of something like baseball:
(props to my colleague Chris at for providing the above link)
Note the very deliberate pomp and circumstance.  The men in their red blazers.  The formality of the moment.  The president is an impressive figure, yet even he becomes simply a part of a larger drama that has been played out season after season after season since well before he was born.  Pomp and circumstance provides a context, wherein we are not the be-all and end-all of things.  It helps remind us that we are so fleeting, and the extraordinary emphasis the world places on our sense of self-worth and self-importance is ultimately damaging and misleading in so many ways.
If people are willing to accept such formality in a baseball stadium, why do so many balk at it in a church?  Or why do so many people assume that people will balk at it in a church?
Perhaps our incessant focus in the church on the individual as consumer, rather than the individual as recipient, has a lot to do with this.  There’s part of me that would be much happier in Levi’s on a Sunday morning.  But there’s another part of me – a growing part of me – that knows that this isn’t entirely true.  When I wear the clerical and the robe on Sunday morning, I’m contextualizing myself.  I am not simply Me.  I am not the focus.  I am simply the latest in a long line of mouthpieces that stretches back to the prophets of the Old Testament, to the judges of the Old Testament, to Moses, to Joseph, to Abraham.  Simple people made extraordinary not by their own accomplishments and abilities, but because the Creator of the Universe supported them, walked beside them, fed them strength and power and words that were always known to be His, not theirs.  
Wearing my Levi’s on Sunday morning, attempting to just be ‘one of the crowd’, denies the fact that I have been called to be out of the crowd, and that this is not only expected, it’s good.  That whether it’s the scape goat or the prophet or the pastor, God utilizes people pulled out of one context and placed into another.  The pomp and circumstance and formality ultimately is not there to elevate the pastor, but rather to diminish him (or her, in some quarters).  To keep them mindful that they are like the grass of the field that is here today and gone tomorrow.  That it doesn’t matter how many people are in your congregation, or how many books you’ve sold, or how many conferences you keynote – what matters is that your life is prostrated before God, so that when others see you, they realize that there *has* to be a God, because you’re so completely incapable on your own.
As painful as that position of prostration can be, that’s what I pray for.  Because regardless of what the TV or the radio or the movies tell me, I’m really not that big a deal.  Not really.  I’m just a child of God that is deeply blessed beyond my ability to adequately acknowledge and give thanks for it.  Someone who loves the knowledge that I’m part of something bigger and deeper and more pervasive than the short span of my lifetime.  Maybe this is what worship is intended to do – not to focus us on our act of worship, but to contextualize us as part of a long, long history of God sustaining and feeding and forgiving His people.  
Maybe that’s worth dressing up for, regardless of which side of the altar you’re standing on.

Garden Grounds

July 14, 2009

Our garden suffered some damage Sunday night.  It appears that there was a little party on our property.   A bottle of whiskey and close to a dozen extra large beer cans littered the garden area.  They broke the wooden post that the small “Happy Friends Club” sign had been mounted on.  As well, the rows of peas closest to one of the sidewalk extensions had been ripped up – likely when the posts and twine that they were growing on were knocked over.

In all, it doesn’t look like vandalism to me.  It looks like some folks had a little party, got rather drunk, and probably stumbled into the twine and posts holding up the peas.  Would have been harder to explain how they broke the other sign, but if they had been out to massacre the garden, the damage would have been far worse.  We have pumpkins that are bigger than your head (bigger than my head, even, which is saying quite a bit with my ego), corn plants over eight feet high, and multiple rows of ripening tomatoes all inviting carnage – but all were untouched.
I think it’s odd to choose a church property as the site of a late night party, but there are lots of trees and shadowy areas that provide a lot of privacy.  We’re investigating some flood lights to make the area a little less enticing.  Overall, I hope that next time (if there is a next time) they’re more careful – both about themselves and about the garden.  We’re over 150 pounds of donated produce thus far, not counting stuff that our members have taken home with them.  It would be a shame to see that good put to an end through malice or carelessness!

Questions to All Your Answers 2

July 14, 2009

So can God change the past?

This is Olson’s litmus test for the all-too-often knee-jerk answer that God can do anything.  If God can’t change the past, then God can’t do everything or anything.  Olson posits that the Bible does not give examples of God changing the past, nor does the Bible encourage us to pray for God to change the past.  Add to that the complexities posed by the concept of someone traveling back in time and changing something, and it seems clear to Olson (and apparently other scholars) that God cannot change the past (page 24, Questions to All Your Answers)
Olson really ignores the classical response or qualification of the assertion that God can do anything.  The classical qualification is that God cannot do anything against His nature.  In other words, as a perfectly loving and good being, He can’t do anything evil.  He can’t act contrary to His essence.  Olson implies this on page 25, but never comes out and says it.
Rather, he makes a big deal about how irrational and illogical it is to think that God can change the past.  Once again, this demonstrates a good limitation on the arena of reason and the intellect.  True, in popular science fiction as well as scientific theory, it is posited that any change made to the past by someone traveling to the past would result in cascading changes of an unforeseen nature.  I think of Ray Bradbury’s classic short story A Sound of Thunder about just such a situation (  
These theories may be accurate, but they also presume that these changes would be detectable in some way – at the very least, detectable to the person(s) returning from a visit to the past.  Is this necessarily the case?  
Some Christians talk about the redeeming and reconciling act of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the idea of the effects of that atoning event rippling out into time.  Are the ripples only extending into the future, the future we now live in and our children and grandchildren will live in?  Do we know that those ripples don’t extend equally into the past in ways that we can’t understand and can’t detect?
Olson appears to say that because of the complexity involved, God can’t change the past.  But if God created the past – as well as the present and the future – how can we reasonably say that the past is fixed and immovable?  It’s a small point, but an example of assuming that because we think we’ve thought out how things ought to be, that God is therefore limited in some respect.

Questions to All Your Answers 1

July 14, 2009

I recently finished reading Questions to All Your Answers: A Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith by Roger E. Olson.
As popular theological writing goes, this wasn’t bad.  Olson is an evangelical who has a beef with the theologically skimpy, bumper-sticker bound theology that has dominated much of evangelical Christianity.  His premise is that pat answers to hard questions are not answers at all.  If they aren’t properly qualified and wrestled with, they do more harm than good, and that a thinking Christian is what we are called to be.  He takes on ten popular pop theology sound bites and shows their deficiencies.  
This isn’t a difficult task, of course.  There are plenty of popular slogans in cultural Christianity which are flawed on so many levels that it’s mind-numbing.  But for folks not inclined to do some hard thinking about what they claim they have devoted their lives to, the sound bites sound good enough at the surface level.  But with any sort of real reflection – or when faced with the agony of very real loss, very real sin, very real suffering, very real tragedy – they quickly crumble.  If they are all a person’s faith was built on and around, there wouldn’t be much hope of that faith surviving.  Olson wants to make people think harder about their beliefs.  He’s very keen to defend and maintain his evangelical background and self-identification – something I don’t entirely understand.  Perhaps he feels he’s more likely to be heard in evangelical circles if he can convince them that he still is one of them.
While we are called to be thoughtful, thinking Christians, we have to be careful about this.  So much of the identity of thought and thinking is bound up with secular notions, that if we question a secular assertion, we are labeled as luddites and written off.  The alternative is to simply swallow popular wisdom or education as if it were equivalent with Truth, when it may very well not be.  And at times in this book, it felt like Olson was siding a bit too much with reason and logic over and against faith, when that isn’t always necessary.  He asserts on page 21 of his introduction that reflective Christianity does not “fly in the face of of brute facts of science or mock serious philosophy and other intellectual endeavors.”  I agree about the mocking bit.  But in terms of “brute facts”, who gets to determine what a brute fact is?  Is there a difference between a brute fact in a piece of bone that has been discovered in the ground, and the brute fact that it is a dinosaur bone?  What about the brute fact that this piece of bone fills in the missing gap in an evolutionary line?  These things may all be presented as brute facts, and yet are they necessarily so?  
Reason is important, and a gift from God.  But we need to be careful about what we agree is a fact, and what is an interpretation of a fact.  The two are almost inseparable.  We perceive and understand the world around us, but in the very act of perceiving our mind is organizing, making sense of what it sees and experiences before we’re even aware of what we see and experience.  It would be good to keep this in mind when assenting to whatever brute facts our acceptance is being demanded of.

Education is the Key…

July 14, 2009

…the question I guess, is what is the lock?

If the UK is any indicator, it ought to remained lock.  And the key thrown away.


July 10, 2009

In a self-obsessed culture based on individual happiness, reading something about the suffering of another person is an odd exercise. To remove oneself from the incessant narcissistic din of “buy this sell that”, to be still with the words and heart of another person who has suffered loss and injustice and deprivation of a sort we can’t even comprehend – this is an important thing. For the greatest abuses of power and authority would seem to come about in an environment where no one believes that such abuses of power and authority could ever come about. If we focus only on Self, we never see the truncheon of The Other until the first blow has landed.
Night by Elie Wiesel should be required reading for everyone. It is a deceptively short and simple book. It is unadorned. It does not wax poetic. Such wax was stripped away long before the author set pen to paper. It is the rawness, the simplicity of suffering that pervades these pages. Denial, shock, confusion, hope, anger, hate, despair. These are the only adornments you will find here. They are the only adornments left to Wiesel.
It is easy for some people today to insist that the lessons of the Holocaust have already been learned and need not be focused on. Those who wish to dispense with the necessity of empathy in suffering and injustice risk exposing themselves too readily to those very things.
The power of this book is in helping one to realize that abuses of power are rarely foreseen by the abused. That the chief weapon in exerting control and maintaining it is to prevent people from knowing that it’s coming, or that it is ongoing at the moment. The baffled expressions of 1930’s and 1940’s Jews that such atrocities could not be happening in such a modern era are instructive. As instructive as the recent Iranian election disputes, or ongoing censorship efforts in China. Technology can be circumvented to a great extent, even completely silenced in some cases. There is no guarantee that the world will know when you have been imprisoned, deprived of your human rights and treated as an animal fit only for slaughter. And even if the world does know, the world is very unlikely to care, or more importantly – act.
If we suffer, we are very likely to suffer cut off from human commiseration, from the hope of rescue, from the opportunity for defense. If we suffer on any scale remotely approaching that of mid 20th-century European Jewry, we will likely suffer very much alone except for the abiding presence of God. Justice will remain where it has always remained – in His hands. We will simply be made more keenly aware of that fact when we are laid low in death.

Reading Culture

July 10, 2009

I am a huge proponent of exposing young people to great literature.  I am a huge fan of trying to instill a thirst for reading and self-education, when people are young and more malleable so that such notions might take root and flower and grow throughout their lives.

But there is a danger as well.
The danger is that by having 14-18 year olds read great literature, they will assume for the rest of their lives that they have read great literature, and never see a need to revisit it.  Having been made educated by reading Orwell or Steinbeck or Whitman, they in fact retain little if any of the lessons of those works of art.  And while one can be very precocious at that age, one cannot be said to have lived a whole lot.  While one might appreciate the beauty of words, or their pathos, or their humor – there is very little room for interacting with the work based on the experience of one’s own life.  The words remain like a painting under glass, unassailable in their designated and authorized Beauty or Truth.  
But great works of art are meant to be more than just intellectually apprehended.  They are meant to be worn.  Like a shirt or a dress, something that we take into ourselves, and there determine in part the Beauty and Truth of the work.  And without that lived experience, we simply remain receptacles that Beauty or Truth can be poured in and out of, incapable of assenting in any meaningful way to that Beauty or Truth, and reliant almost completely on the authority of others to determine what is Beautiful, what is Truthful.
So educate and expose young people to great art, great literature, great music, great film – but also firmly plant the notion that they don’t know this stuff.  Not really.  Not yet.  Regardless of what grade they get on their essay or exam.  That they need to come back to it in time, over the course of their lives.  Like visiting an eccentric aunt or uncle every decade or so.  The relationship changes over time.  The understanding and empathy grows.  The impact deepens.

Drive Time NPR

July 9, 2009

I enjoy listening to National Public Radio (NPR)( whenever I have the opportunity in the morning.  That’s not very often these days, due to a short commute that I desperately need to replace with a bike ride to work, now that Alec is done with school for the summer and foreseeable future.  I’m not a fan of talk radio, but I appreciate the “in-depth news coverage” (to quote NPR’s publicity) that is provided – even if it is woefully lopsided or even one-sided.  I listen to NPR on our local affiliate, KCLU (

This morning, there were two news items that caught my ear – one local and the other global – and made me think about how we go about things.
The local tidbit was about a man the next town over who walked into a bank, announced that he had a gun and was going to rob it, and then immediately turned around and walked out, having changed his mind.  He was immediately arrested and found to be unarmed.  He’s being charged with attempted robbery.
There were two things that I found curious about this.  First off, rather than being commended as someone who had made a poor decision and then decided not to follow through on it – albeit slightly late – he was lampooned as an inept robber who was not “dedicated” enough to his work.  No mention was made as to whether or not he has a previous criminal record, or what the impetus for his initial decision to rob the bank might be.  I found the mocking of the person to be rather counter-productive.  Would it have been better if he had traumatized everyone in the bank and actually taken money?  I would think that – with the exception of never considering robbing in the first place – this would be the hoped for outcome.  A man makes a poor decision, but comes to his senses.  How is this mockable?
The second thing about this story that intrigued me is that he’s being charged with attempted robbery.  He didn’t take anything.  The story made it sound as though all he did was walk in, yell out that he had a gun and was going to rob the place, then turn around and walk out.  There was clearly some sort of intent to rob, but no robbery took place.  While I can see charging him with something, attempted robbery seems both inaccurate and overkill.  Assuming this man has no prior criminal record, he’s going to face prison time for a statement that he made but did not act on.  I’m sure that there are other situations where announcing an intent without following through with it might still merit full legal punishment – but this sure doesn’t strike me as one.  When our prisons are already overcrowded, how does sending this guy to prison solve anything?
The second story relates to the current G8 ( leadership summit occurring in L’Aquila, Italy this week.  The eight richest nations in the world are committing to not raising global temperatures by more than two degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).  The draft of their committment can be read at  
I find this sort of committment odd.
Not we’re going to committ to specific changes in practices and regulations in each of our nations.  Not we’re committing to eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels.  No specific committment at all to changing any particular practice or regulation.  Rather, this broader, amorphous committment to not raising global temperatures more than another two degrees Celsius.  
I’ve talked with folks who are passionately convinced that mankind is behind global warming.  The more intelligent of them will admit that this is at best a hypothesis, an assumption that because mankind is pumping particular forms of contaminants and gasses into the atmosphere and environment, there is logically going to be some sort of measurable change in temperature.  The more intelligent of them recognize that while this is logical, it is not necessarily true or accurate.  Pretty much all of them will admit readily the standard scientific maxims that temperature on our planet has apparently fluctuated rather markedly over time, alternating between very warm periods and very cold periods.  
So a committment from some wealthy nations not to prevent the Earth’s temperature from rising more than another two degrees Celsius seems ridiculous at worst, and naively well-intentioned at best.  Make a committment to some measurable, controllable change in practice.  Don’t make wild committments when you really have no way of knowing whether or not anything you change will slow down the warming trend we’re supposedly in.  
I’ll make my standard disclaimers when discussing this issue.  I fully support pollution controls and taking better care of our environment.  This ought to be a standard position for any Biblical Christian, as it falls well in line with the original charge to Adam and Eve back in the first chapters of Genesis.  We are to be tending creation, not exploiting it.  However, we also need to recognize the odd incongruencies between claiming that the Earth goes through temperature fluctuations, yet insisting that if we’re in such a fluctuation now (and data seems conflicted, at times), that it may not necessarily be related to our industrial pollutants.  Again, make the changes either way – we certainly won’t be worse off with a healthier Earth!  But try to stay grounded in what you’re able to reasonably promise.  This particular promise from G8 members smacks of grandstanding, and allows all of them the opportunity to throw up their hands in the future and claim that it wasn’t their fault – that their intentions were good.  I don’t tend to care a whole lot about intentions – I prefer to see tangible evidence of those intentions.