Archive for August, 2011

You Don’t Say?

August 16, 2011

Two interesting articles today in light of the current fiscal crisis and Congressional debacle gripping our nation.

The first is an editorial by Warren Buffet – yes, that Warren Buffet – making the argument that it’s OK to tax the rich and that they’re willing to do their part to help our country out of this financial mess.  He recommends increasing taxes on the nation’s wealthiest people. Gotta admit, it makes a whole lot of sense, though he doesn’t run the numbers to demonstrate whether a slight tax increase on the wealthiest people will make much of a difference.
The second article has the CEO of Starbucks calling on other CEOs and companies to cease all donations to all political candidates until they work together to come up with a truly bi-partisan plan for improving our economic situation.   Once again, makes a whole lot of sense, since this is going to hit candidates right where it hurts the most, which should ensure a more wholehearted response than the vague threat of dissatisfied voters.  

Best Friends?

August 11, 2011

When I ran across a blurb on this yesterday, I wasn’t sure if it was legit.  But apparently it is, so I’ll weigh in.  There’s a petition afoot to have Sesame Street make Bert & Ernie get married.  The petition states that it can be done in a “tasteful way”.  

It’s tempting to take offense at this, and there are certainly plenty of good reasons for it.  On one level it’s another brazen effort to indoctrinate young children in the arena of sexuality and sexual norms.  Rather interesting, given the show’s overall non-sexual nature (Katy Perry guest appearances not withstanding).  I’m assuming however, that those pushing for this change in the show’s characters are seeking equal representation (there are heterosexual married humans on the show, though I’m pretty certain this is never an emphasis of the show!).  
On another level, it’s a reminder of how hyper-sexualized we are as a culture.  Any relationship between two people can be suspect of being sexual – or must at least hold sexual possibilities (along the lines of the ‘friends with benefits’ theme explored in yet another movie).  Any close relationship between two people regardless of gender is fair game for innuendo and smirking.  Or for being co-opted into a sexual relationship for marketing purposes.  This is what we’re taught in our culture.
It’s sick, until you realize how steeped in this we all are – even those of us who recognize it and fight against it.  I was with some buddies a few nights ago and we were discussing someone we all know who is a very eligible single person – gainfully employed, educated, professional, etc. – who we have not seen in any sort of romantic relationship.  And after a few beers or glasses of wine, there were the inevitable snickerings and musings as to this person’s sexual orientation.  After all, if you’re a normal person (whatever that means), you ought to be married (or at least divorced) by a certain age assuming you don’t have some sort of mitigating circumstances.  If you aren’t, perhaps you’re gay, right?  
No, not right.
The idea that someone could be good, platonic friends with someone else ought to be a basic one.  And at least for Biblical Christians, the idea that someone could choose to remain single without it meaning that they’re in some way gay or sexually confused ought to be a basic one as well.  After all, St. Paul has some firm ideas about the benefits of the single life in the focus and freedom it can afford someone for sharing the Gospel (1Corinthians 7:6-9, 32-35).  The Bible affirms the validity of both married heterosexual relationships as well as the single life.  Yet culturally we’ve been tweaked to assume that anyone who doesn’t marry or publicly date must be gay or have something wrong with them.
A statement from Sesame Street clarifies that Bert and Ernie (who share a bedroom but not a bed) were created to teach children that people who are very different can get along.  At the same time, the pair serves as a powerful example that people can be very close without being sexual, and that people can remain single and good friends without it meaning that they’re sexually involved or attracted to each other.  
Which is a lot for a couple of puppets to convey to 4-year olds.  Maybe more of us should be watching to be reminded of these simple and timeless truths.

Natural Law Video

August 10, 2011

A short teaser video featuring Dr. J. Budziszewski discoursing on some of the basics of natural law.  If you like this, I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of his book What We Can’t Not Know.  A great and very important read in a culture that stresses relativism and the idea that there are no universal truths.  

Click this link to view the video.  

Movie Review: The King’s Speech

August 9, 2011
It’s as good as everyone says.  
An understated tour de force, a character-driven, dialogue-dependent, emotionally uplifting, underdog, nice-guy-finishes-first sorta film.  The performances are elegant and simple.  It is quietly luxurious, confident enough in itself to eschew grandstanding.  Rush, Firth, and Carter are excellent and literally carry the entire movie on their shoulders.  Supporting cast is mostly forgettable, but then that’s pretty much the point.
All that being said, the film doesn’t take any chances, either.  The good guys are very good.  The bad guys are impotent at best.  
Philosophically and theologically, the film is pretty fluffy – essentially boilerplate for the idea that if you try hard enough, you can do it.  Take the high road and all will be well.  While there are plenty of dips in the overall narrative flow, the outcome is foregone, and the only real threat to a happy ending is the king himself.  Will he allow himself to be himself, or will the not-so-nice people around him continue to cow him into stuttering self-imposed silence?
This is unfortunate because given his role as head of the Church of England – something that is mentioned only as a plot device and historical fact rather than any type of personal issue – there is a great deal of room here for theological speculation.  George VI displays a fairly typical (if typecasting and historical speculation are at all reliable) royal practicality (and self-serving-ness) about matters of morality, encouraging his older brother to have an affair with Wallace Simpson rather than actually marry her.  And the King demonstrates admirable qualities as a sensitive father and husband.  
But on deeper implications of faith and how this faith affect him, the film is amazingly silent.  God is mentioned only by way of epithet, never as an actual aspect of the king’s or any other character’s being.  The sole religious character, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is depicted as an ingratiating, painfully obvious political manipulator who seeks to undermine the new king emotionally.  God is absent in all respects and quarters.
It would have added a depth to the movie to see theological implications and manifestations explored.  The king’s role as head of the Church of England is never a matter that the king himself seems to either deal with or be concerned about.  He has much angst over ascending to the throne, but no angst whatsoever about being the religious leader of a great many people.  
I would have loved to see the grappling with faith as a curative and restorative power, the dynamics of forgiveness and grace undergirding the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy, anything that dealt with this aspect of the king personally and professionally.  As it stands, the film is in many ways as vapid as the royalty it caricatures.  Beautiful to look at, but ultimately a carefully choreographed production for the public eye, stripped of anything deeper that might edify or provoke.
Overall a family-friendly movie, though kids are likely to find it somewhat boring.  There are two scenes of obligatory profanity.  Although it makes a certain level of sense, it seems also to be painfully intentional, as though this were the only way they could think of to avoid a G rating.  As such, beware of tender ears.  The first substantial episode of swearing is set-up nicely so you can mute it.  The last one is in the final rehearsal for the titular speech at the end of the film.  

Sobering Numbers

August 9, 2011

In case you haven’t heard, a record number of Americans are now receiving government assistance in the form of food stamps.  The numbers come out to be roughly 15% of all Americans are now receiving government assistance.  My home state of Arizona  has 17% of its population on food stamps – and there are other states in worse shape.  

This can’t be good.


August 6, 2011

Does your congregation have a vision/mission/purpose statement?  Do you know what it is?  Do you know how it applies to you, personally?  Do you characterize your involvement in your congregation utilizing this statement?  How well are the dots connected?

Vision/mission/purpose statements have become fairly ubiquitous in the past 30 years.  One of many imports from the corporate/business world, it seems that every congregation has one, or wants to have one, or has one they don’t like.  In my admittedly limited experience, I’ve yet to run into a congregation where members talk  about the vision statement, or where it seems to make any difference beyond taking up a certain amount of space in the bulletins or on strategically placed bulletin boards.
I’m not against vision – vision is necessary.  But the process of finding a vision is not one that comes easily to congregations.  A corporation has it a little easier, or at least they seem to.  You produce a product that you hope has particular outcomes in a consumer’s life, thereby providing some sort of sustainability to your business.  The larger a company is, the more all-encompassing the vision statement needs to be, which tends to make it a lot more general.  Small businesses can have very focused vision statements.  At the coffee shop where I get iced tea sometimes, they sell packaged cookies that have the mission statement of Our goal is to make the best tasting cookies in the whole world.  That’s pretty focused.
Most congregations are all too familiar with the process of seeking out a vision.  They’ve been through it more than once.  Oftentimes whenever a new pastor arrives.  A lot of time can go into the process.  Time in terms of hours invested by members reading books, attending discussion meetings, being trained by outside consultants.  Time spent by pastors praying and struggling over a direction that will unify their congregations and provide tangible footholds into…into…hmmm.
The Church universal, and therefore theoretically every congregational instance thereof, has been given a Commission.  Go.  Make disciples.  Baptize.  Teach to obey what Christ has commanded.  Matthew 28:18-20 is the go-to verse for congregations and probably has been since the beginning.  Yet congregations – and pastors – still seem forever to be spending time on how to either restate this or contextualize it in meaningful ways.  With the goal of?  That’s a good question.
What if we just don’t like the commission we’ve been given?  What if it confuses us, or frightens us?  What if the process of finding a vision is a process of making the Commission simpler, less threatening, or even no longer the focus?  Can visions cloud as well as clarify?  How do you know which it’s doing in your particular situation?  Are vision statements even necessary?  Just because corporations use them do congregations need to?  
I ask a lot of questions.  I try not to make assumptions.  Sometimes this causes consternation.  Other times it causes confusion.  But I think that it’s still worthwhile to ask questions, to probe, to poke.  How is it that after decades of working on vision statement after vision statement, many congregations continue to decline in membership and increase in their congregants’ median age?  How do we make sure that our vision is something relevant to the life of each member of the congregation, as well as to visitors that pass through our doors?  Is accountability as appropriate for a congregational vision statement as it is for a corporate one?  
I dunno.  But I’m wondering.  And wrestling.  


August 3, 2011

Every Sunday during Christian worship services, a stunning number of congregations read the same selections from the Bible.  In my denominational circles, it’s fairly typical to find three readings from Scripture each Sunday morning – one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament (non-Gospel), and one from a Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John).  

I’ve heard these passages read for years.  They cover a broad cross section of the Bible while supporting the liturgical church calendar.  But I haven’t known much about why these readings have been selected, and ultimately what their selectors hoped they would do.  Most of my effort each week in terms of sermon preparation is on seeking to understand these readings both singularly and more importantly, in relationship to one another.  My assumption has always been that these three particular readings were put together for a purpose.  However, nobody has ever adequately explained what that purpose might be (and no, Seminary didn’t cover this either).  
With many thanks to Rev. Dr. David Schmitt from Concordia Seminary St. Louis, I’m now reading up on the lectionary.  It’s kinda geeky reading, but my assumption is that if I better understand the formation of the lectionary and the rationale behind it’s order, it will make my responsibility as preacher both easier and more faithful.  
The book I’m currently working through is Normand Bonneau’s The Sunday Lectionary: Ritual Word, Paschal Shape.  It’s thus far a very accessible and informative book that in roughly the first half of the book provides a historic overview for lectionary systems in general, going back to the Jewish traditions likely in place prior to Jesus’ birth up through Vatican II in the 1960’s.  If you have an interest not only in what you hear on Sunday mornings but why, this book might tickle your fancy.  Otherwise, I’m sure it will be an excellent sleep aid.  
Next I’ll be starting Scripture and Memory by Fritz West.  I’ll let you know how that goes.  
All this being said, it’s important to note that the lectionary is not a requirement of the Christian church.  I know pastors who deal with parishioners that get bent out of shape when the pastor deviates from the lectionary, or opts not to use it at all.  Although the three-year (or one-year) lectionary enjoys a lot of history among Christians in one form or another, no where has it’s use been mandated.  I personally find it useful for exposing parishioners to a broad swath of Scripture while simultaneously (hopefully) preventing me from cherry-picking texts that I find personally appealing or compelling.  It helps me to preach the whole counsel of God rather than pet themes.  But it’s just a tool, one of many ways of allowing Scripture to permeate us on a regular basis.  

Is This the One Step Forward or Two Steps Back Part?

August 2, 2011

Short blurb in the Los Angeles Times about the mandatory free contraceptives under the new universal health care legislation.  These are to be so free, that there won’t even be a co-pay required for them.  Not just the preventative kind, either.  Morning after pills are also to be covered, gratis.  Courtesy of all of us, whether we like it or not.  

What I find particularly ironic as I adjust my budget to yet another batch of recent premium increases by my health insurance provider is that contraception is just one free service of several that all insurance companies are now mandated to provide, thus increasing costs on everyone in their systems.  One of those additional free services listed at the bottom of the article is counseling regarding sexually transmitted infections.  I find this hugely ironic.  By insisting that sex without the consequence of pregnancy is moral for every woman, (since so many people easily confuse what is legal with what is proper, and also what is free with what is proper), we now must also subsidize additional assistance for just one of the many issues that contraception doesn’t take care of – STDs.  In other words, we’re all subsidizing not just one but two programs so that people can have sex.  
And don’t forget that we’ll also be sharing in the costs for the treatment of STDs.  It would seem to me that if we’re so concerned about costs and budgets and whatnot, rethinking our insistence on sex free of any consequences except higher costs to everyone (whether they’re having sex or requiring contraceptive devices or not) might be a good place to start.  Just another reason I am not, and never will be in politics, I’m sure!

Preparing Youth?

August 1, 2011

A short article with some observations on youth ministry and how to help it be more effective, where effective is defined as youth that remain in the faith and in the pew when they go off to college and beyond.  Thoughts?
I think his points are more or less on track – though the first of the three is one that doesn’t generally click in Lutheran circles.  Yes, we want kids who are genuine in their faith.  The difficulty is that apart from externals, we don’t have a way of knowing this.  Only God the Holy Spirit knows that.   If we are determined to make sure that a person is converted, we have to fall back onto external actions and words, and this rapidly leads into shallow legalism that ultimately is no better indication of true faith than not knowing at all.  
The other two points are key.  It is not the duty of the Church to equip & prepare young people in the faith.  This is the responsibility of the parents.  And grandparents.  And aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and cousins and everyone else.  Parents bear the primary responsibility but the entire family plays a role.  The Church exists in part to prepare and support and encourage and equip family members for these responsibilities.