Archive for August, 2014

Wet Bar Wednesday – Prickly Pear Margaritas

August 27, 2014

One of the side benefits of hosting relatively wealthy young women from around the world who are studying English in the US is that they leave behind an interesting amalgam of debris when they leave.  Our most recent student left behind one of those glitzy local magazines highlighting all the schwank and posh places to eat and shop in our area – of which there is no shortage, to be sure.  In between the fashion shots of happy shoppers and pouty-faced young women lounging seductively in thousands of dollars worth of skimpy clothing, there was a recipe for prickly pear margaritas.  My wife showed it to me the other day and we both agreed it looked delicious.

Hence my surprise when wandering into our favorite Mexican market the other day and finding a big bin of tunas!  No, not the fish (thankfully, since they weren’t refrigerated!).  Tunas is the Mexican word for prickly pear fruit.  Prickly pears are a type of cactus ubiquitous in the desert southwest.  After they bloom, the large seed pods that were at the base of the flower mature and are harvested (carefully!).  When you split them open, there is a magnificent orangey-red interior of pulp and seeds that you can scoop out with a spoon.  Once you’ve separated out the seeds, you’re left with a syrupy, gently sweet pulp.  

Tunas probably won’t show up in your local mainstream grocery store (unless you have a large Hispanic presence in the area).   But if you can find a Mexican supermarket, you’ll probably find them there.  They should be slightly soft when squeezed (and be careful!  While most of the spines are removed, prickly pear fruit is notorious for teeny, tiny, hair-like spines that will irritate and annoy you for hours afterwards!  


Prickly Pear Margaritas

  • Juice of two tangerines
  • Pulp of two tunas
  • 2 oz tequila (I made it with the requisite plata tequila, but next time I’m going to use reposado or anejo for a smoother finish)
  • Splash of Cointreau or Gran Marnier

 Split the tunas in half (again, carefully, or you’ll be picking spines out of your hands for hours!).  Use a spoon to scoop the pulpy interior into a blender.  Blend on low for a minute or so to help separate the seeds from the pulp, then strain through a sieve.  Discard the seeds.

Combine the tunas pulp, tangerine juice, tequila, and Cointreau/Gran Marnier into a shaker and shake.  Put ice into two glasses and pour the mixture into the glasses.  Enjoy!


The Goals We Set

August 27, 2014

Yesterday I gathered with a group of fellow clergy members from our local area.  The group included clergy from at least three different Lutheran denominations.  While I knew most of the people there it was my first time with this particular group, a group that has met for years to communicate and work together for the greater good of our local area.

The group is apparently at a transition point, with some of the retired clergy in the area who were active for years taking more of a back seat role to the clergy who are actively serving in parishes right now.  So the majority of the meeting was dedicated to what the group could focus on and when to meet.  

When to meet – what day, what time, and how frequently – was frankly the largest part of the meeting.  There didn’t seem to be a day or time of the week that was very conducive to everyone’s schedule.  I suggested that making time to meet would remain a problem until the members of the group agreed upon a reason for gathering together that was sufficiently compelling for each of us to clear a spot on our schedule each month to attend.  

It wasn’t that we didn’t have things we wanted to talk about.  There was considerable sharing about how this congregation and that congregation were part of a food pantry system, assembling, organizing, packaging, and delivering food to the needy in the area.  I’ve seen a bit of the operation in action and it is truly impressive.  Having lived for a few years in a desperately poor neighborhood in St. Louis, I’m well aware of how important such programs are to those who are in need.

Others shared about a program to fund a shower trailer that could be moved from location to location and provide showers to the homeless.  There was discussion about who had purchased the shower trailer and who was providing insurance for it through their non-profit status and who was working out the logistics of how to keep people clean and safe.  

Another shared about her work with the homeless in the area, interfacing directly and relationally with them, and her work with immigrants and the various training programs available or required in order to provide services to these people to help them sign up for various types of relief programs.  

There were plenty of good things going on through various Lutheran congregations in the area.  But there was one thing we didn’t talk about, and it struck me as rather odd.  Not once did anyone suggest that we should strategize how to better share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our community.

Not once.

On one level, this is understandable.  After all, we represented at least three different expressions of Lutheranism in America.  Ironically, none of the three are in altar/pulpit fellowship with one another (which means that we aren’t supposed to take Holy Communion with one another and we aren’t supposed to fill in for one another leading worship in each other’s churches).  There are sound doctrinal and theological reasons why this is the case, as depressing as it looks on paper.  So having been trained in our respective Lutheran denominations to be wary of collaborating inappropriately with other Lutherans, it might be excused that we shy away from anything concerning the Gospel and focus exclusively on social programming.

On another level, this is no excuse.

There are a lot of ways that we ought to be able to share the Gospel in our community that don’t involve joint worship and endangering our ordination vows through inappropriate joint worship.  For the topic of evangelism not to even come up is egregious, no matter how we try to justify it.  

Another explanation might be that for some of the folks there, feeding the poor and providing showers to the homeless have become synonymous with the Gospel.  I won’t venture to assert that this is their understanding.  But it could be.  But a Muslim can feed the hungry.  An atheist can provide a clean shower for someone.  And in both cases they should!  But neither one would be sharing the Gospel in doing so.  

The Gospel remains the distinguishing factor of the Christian faith.  It is unique and exclusive.  If we do not preach it, nobody else will.  We may do many, many good things, and we may do them well, but if we fail to preach the Gospel, both to our own people as well as to those outside our Christian communities, we have failed as the body of Christ.  And if all we do is preach the Gospel, and our efforts to do other things are failures at one level or another, I believe that we are closer to being faithful as the body of Christ.  

But that quite likely might require a resetting (or a reboot, to use contemporary cinema lingo) of the Church’s collective approach.  

School started today for most of the primary & secondary schools in our area.  There were tons of cars loaded with kids to drop off at school for a new year of education.  An e-mail when I got to work warned me of the danger Californian’s face because of a measure sitting on the Governor’s desk for his signature that would make kindergarten mandatory for everyone.  Nobody would have the option to skip it and just start their kids in first grade.  Justification for the measure is that our kids are struggling in academics and need an extra year of teaching to prep them for first grade.

I thought about the heavy emphasis we place on education for our kids.  Education meaning the collection of various pieces of information that are deemed important and worth remembering.  I thought about how much we emphasize math and science and reading and writing and history and music and art.  I thought about how little we talk about who we hope our children will be, and how often we talk about what we hope they might be.  We talk less about creating happy kids, or kind kids, or kids who share, or kids who are willing to sacrifice for the good of others.  We talk more about getting into the right schools, the best programs, the top-paying careers.  

Is it any wonder youth struggle?  That drugs and alcohol and mindless sex become so appealing given the other pressures and expectations placed upon them?  If our goals are always what, and not who, who can be happy?  Yay for the happy few who make the cut and succeed at the what, but for all those who don’t, if they haven’t been taught who they are and why they should be happy with that, what a crushing way to limp through life!

Churches may not be so very different.  We are so focused on the what – how many butts are in the pews?  What is the per-unit giving level of the congregation?  Can we put together a reasonable budget this year?  Can we pay the light bill next month? – that we forget by and large about the who.  

But the Church is fundamentally a who organization.  We can do most anything we like, we can determine any number of whats to dabble with.  But the Church is defined by the who, the Who being Jesus Christ.  The Church is defined by faith and hope in him as the Son of God who came into our world to suffer and die because of our inability to live.  If this isn’t the message that the Church keeps first and foremost, it doesn’t matter how many people we feed or how many people we provide showers to.  Nobody else will do this, the Church’s core duty, if the Church herself fails to do it.

Which means we ought to be talking about it.  A lot.  All the time.  Within our own congregational settings and as pastors and lay people out and about in the world.  Even if we don’t agree about everything.  




Reading Ramblings – August 31, 2014

August 24, 2014


Date:  Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost — August 31, 2014

Texts: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28


Context: As I’m out of town this week we’ll be using the traditional lectionary readings for this Sunday.  A word of note for some of the newer readers I’ve picked up in the past two months since migrating to WordPress.  

It is the historic practice of the Church to read from Scripture every Sunday.  Indeed, much of the historic liturgy of the Church (a liturgy that many congregations, such as mine, still use) is drawn from Scripture.  The oldest practice of the Church was lectio continua – the idea that when believers gather together in worship they should read as much as they can of Scripture in a contiguous chunk.  Rather than reading a few verses here and there, read all of Mark, for example.  Once upon a time lectio continua might go on for hours!
Another practice just as ancient (and inherited from our Jewish predecessors) is the practice of lectio selecta – reading select passages from Scripture.  As attention spans continue to shrink, lectio selecta has become the norm.  Traditionally it involves a reading from the Gospel, as well as several other short readings – a psalm, a selection from the Old Testament, and a selection from the New Testament.  
To help with this, lectionaries are devised to assist a minister with pre-determined readings.  For many years a one-year lectionary was the norm (an example set by the Roman Catholic Church).  From the start of the Church year in Advent (end of November), a set of readings would take hearers through the life of Christ up through the season of Easter (spring), before spending roughly the second half of the year on readings that emphasized the teachings of Jesus and the life of the Church.  
The Roman Catholic Church in the 1960’s revised their lectionary in order to provide a broader sampling of Scripture. The result was a three-year lectionary cycle.  Every three years the cycle would begin over again.  Each of the three years in the cycle (Year A, B, and C) would emphasize a different Gospel (Matthew, Mark, or Luke), with the Gospel of John used in all three years for the high festival seasons of the Church (Lent, Easter, Christmas, etc.).  The readings on any given Sunday – particularly the Gospel and Old Testament lesson – are specifically chosen to work together in some way.  Half the year the Epistle (New Testament) lesson also works with the other readings, and the other half of the year (to follow the lectio continua tradition) it doesn’t – it just works through pretty much entire books/chunks of the New Testament.  
My personal tradition is to use the three-year lectionary known as the Revised Common Lectionary – which is based on and developed out of both Catholic and Protestant input on the Roman Catholic lectionary.  My particular denomination further adjusts the RCL to create our own lectionary – for reasons that nobody seems able to adequately explain to me other than that we can be a stubborn lot.  
This summer, however, I’ve opted to abandon the RCL in favor of creating a lectionary that emphasizes and highlights the Old Testament stories of the Bible – stories we likely first heard in Sunday School but haven’t probably heard much of since.  However, as I’m traveling a fair bit this summer, several Sundays (including this one) will use the traditional lectionary to accommodate guest pastors.    

Jeremiah 15:15-21 — The verses assigned for this day are encouraging and hope-filled, yet they come in the midst of dire avowals on the part of God to visit punishment upon his people, a people that includes his faithful servant Jeremiah!  In verse 10 Jeremiah laments that his fate is bound up with the fate of God’s people under God’s anger.  While traditional interpretation reads this very personally (Jeremiah’s personal lament on his personal faithfulness), further scholarship sees ties to some of the psalms, so that Jeremiah is not necessarily only lamenting for his own fate, but interceding on behalf of God’s people.  This is likely how verses 15-18 should be read as well, continuing as they do from verse 10.  As such, God’s response in vs. 19-21 should be heard not just as a personal guarantee to Jeremiah, but as prophetic for God’s people as well.  Punishment may come but so will restoration, and the final restoration will be one that no enemy will ever be able to undo. 

Psalm 26  — This is likely a difficult Psalm for Lutherans to hear and speak.  It sounds so boastful, so bragging!  The emphasis is so heavily on our own works!  Surely this can’t be Biblical, can it?

But this psalm can also be read in terms of laying out the ideal, the goal towards which we strive.  Scripture is pretty progressive in that it acknowledges the vital link between thought and action, action and thought.  These are not isolated things but part of the whole.  To allow the Holy Spirit to continually improve our actions, we need more than just negatives—don’t do this!, we need positives—do this instead!

Who do I hope to be in Christ?  Solid and steadfast, unwavering in my faith regardless of the situation (vs.1-3).  I hope to be consistent—guarding my self and who I go to for advice and wisdom (vs.4-5).  I hope to worship in the Lord’s house assured of my forgiveness in Jesus Christ, with an open and full heart (vs.6-8).   I hope not to find myself in the lot of those who choose different paths— those who reject the Lord’s Word and way (vs.9-10).  I hope to be a person of integrity, standing firm not in my own strength and identity but to the identity given me by God the Father who created me, God the Son who redeemed me, and God the Holy Spirit who works within me towards that day when who I aspire to be is actually who I am (vs.11-12)!

Matthew 16:21-28 — We are a culture obsessed with self-definition and self-determination.  Yet the center of our life in Christ is supposed to be one of obedience,  one of willingly suffering if it means faithfulness to our Lord.  One that holds even life itself and all the blessings we hope for in it as insignificant compared to what our Lord has already done for us and promised to us.  How do we reconcile these two very different mindsets?

Most of the time poorly, I suspect.

We are apt to fixate on how we think the world should treat us than on following our Lord.  We are more apt to celebrate our material blessings than to celebrate being counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ. 

So we should see ourselves in Peter.  Peter who is sure that Jesus just needs to realize that He’s confused about what should happen next.  Peter sets out to correct Jesus and turn him away from his premonitions of death.  In the process he contributes to the same sort of temptation that Jesus faced from Satan in the wilderness after his baptism—you can skip all that suffering and dying stuff.  You don’t have to be obedient to God.  You can be obedient to me and my ideas instead!  

Jesus makes it clear that this isn’t going to work so well.  Obedience to him is likely to put us directly in opposition to the world, and the world doesn’t take kindly to people who refuse to play by its rules.  We should hear Jesus’ words here being spoken to his disciples—all of whom will suffer and all but one will die prematurely for following Jesus.  He is not speaking metaphorically.  Discipleship may require us to pick up the instrument of our death and carry it to where the world will kill us with it.  Jesus’ hearers knew about crosses all too well.  They were hideous and awful and terrifying, and every good citizen’s goal was to do whatever it took to avoid ever having to bear a cross.  How terrifying to hear Jesus tell them to prepare to pick up their cross to follow him! 

When we want to reduce Jesus’ words here to dealing with smaller scale suffering, we need to be careful.  Suffering can come in many shapes and sizes, but what Jesus has in mind here is brutal, devastating, life-ending suffering.  He knows full well that his hearers don’t think of crosses as minor inconveniences, but rather the end of all things in this world. 

Jesus doesn’t call his disciples to this lightly, nor does He call them without the promise of life and hope, just as God speaks words of hope and comfort to Jeremiah.  Suffering will come, and God’s main focus is not the elimination of suffering from your life and mine.  He is concerned with the reconciliation of all things, in which course our suffering will be taken up and transformed into glory one day.  Not on our terms.  Not by the terms of the world.  But on the terms and in the timing of the Creator of the Universe who was willing to send his own Son to suffer and die that we might be reconciled to him forever. 


More Ways to Help

August 21, 2014

A para-church organization from my denomination is providing help on the ground to Christians displaced by the Islamic State (ISIS) and fleeing to Lebanon.  

Lutheran Hour Ministries has missionaries in Lebanon who are doing outreach work and providing human care services to refugees of varying backgrounds and beliefs.  If you’re interested in providing help to these people through LHM, you can click on the link for information on donating.  

Reading Ramblings Changeup – August 24, 2014

August 19, 2014

Date:  Narrative Preaching #9—David & Jonathan: August 24, 2014

Texts: 1 Samuel 20:1-11, 18-42; Psalm 133; John 15:12-17


Context: Creating your own lectionary means that sometimes you need to revise things as you realize they could be improved!  As such, this Sunday’s readings will be different than originally planned.  This will hopefully better reflect the chronological flow of Scripture (though the use of Esther last week is a glaring exception!), as well as touch on stories that are distantly familiar and hopefully just as relevant as the originally planned lessons.


1 Samuel 20:1-11, 18-42 — The story of David & Jonathan is one often covered in Sunday School but rarely touched on again.  This beautiful story of friendship and the associated costs that can come from it seems so important in a time of increased fractiousness.  As son of the king of Israel, Jonathan’s own interests ought to dictate his rejection of David.  Yet he remains true to his friend, risking his life for him and putting David’s well-being above his own professional advancement as well as jeopardizing his relationship with his own father.  Through all of this we see the guiding hand of God the Holy Spirit, who works in this relationship to preserve the chosen successor to King Saul, David.  Yet the Holy Spirit does not coerce this relationship.  Nor do Jonathan and David become friends out of respective self-interest.  Their genuine affection for one another is—in and of itself– a beautiful gift from God. 


Psalm 133 — We were created to live in harmony with all people and all creation, as well as with our God.  Sin has fractured this original intent, so that now at best we are able to live in harmony with a handful of friends and family members.  But wherever and whenever unity is restored, there are echoes of that original harmony that existed in the first days of creation.  Oil is used throughout Scripture in terms of it’s healing qualities, as a sign of richness and blessing, as well as in the specific use of anointing—setting apart someone for a particular role or duty, such as king or prophet.  The imagery in this psalm stress over-abundance, a lavishness that borders on extravagant.  Such is the case, our blessings overflow when we are in right relationship with one another, something that is only truly possible through right relationship with God. 


John 15:12-17— Proper relationship with God propels us towards proper relationship with others.  What does proper relationship with others look like, though?  How do we fulfill the command to love our neighbor as ourselves?

Some take this as a call to social justice or disaster relief, dedicating their time and resources and prayers to the alleviation of suffering in various forms around the world.  This is one fine way of seeking to live out these verses faithfully.  But if that is where our efforts to love our neighbor remain, I suspect that we are missing the mark.

I consider myself a pretty loving guy, willing to go the extra mile for someone I barely know.  I think that more often than not, I fulfill this command to love my neighbor pretty well.  Someone riding in the car with me might disagree, however.  Vehemently.  Am I loving to the other people on the road?  The slow ones?  The stupid ones who don’t signal, who break suddenly and inexplicably, who drive the speed limit in the fast lane?  I suspect that viewed in that context, I am very unloving. 

I suspect that many of us have those areas where we would be easily classified as unloving.  And perhaps my reaction is typical—I want to justify myself.  I want to explain why I’m right to get so angry or so belligerent or so frustrated with those people on the road.  But it reveals an attitude of my heart towards my neighbor, and it isn’t a very flattering revelation. 

C.S. Lewis in his famous work, The Screwtape Letters, has his senior tempter instruct his underling to keep the human in question focused on people at the periphery of his everyday experience.  Keep him thinking loving thoughts and praying for the nameless people dying of Ebola in Africa, or being slaughtered by Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq, or starving to death in famine-plagued Africa.  But keep the human blind to how rudely they treat their mother, or their next door neighbor, or their co-workers. 

The truth is that we are all blind to some people, and the closer people are to us, the more dangerous our blindness or dismissiveness of them becomes.  To claim that I love my neighbor because I send a check to a world relief organization now and then may be all well and good, but I need to more closely examine how I treat the people that I interact with regularly.  And not just the ones I already know

I don’t think that Jesus’ words here mean for us to be nice to our friends.  Hopefully we’re already being nice to our friends!  We’re being called to an attitude of love that extends beyond our current circle of friends, family, acquaintances, peers, colleagues, etc.  Our attitude of love should always be seeking to better see those around us—particularly the ones we don’t know.  How aware are we of the check-out lady at the grocery store?  How real to us is the person serving us food in the restaurant?  Are they merely means to an end?  Are they merely tools for self-gratification?  Or do we see these as human beings created by God the Father, who God the Son died to save, and who God the Holy Spirit might be seeking actively to bring into his kingdom?   Are we willing and able to try and engage these people in interaction that might lead to a relationship, a friendship, an opportunity to share the Gospel and the love of Jesus Christ?

I am not  a big fan of evangelism that instructs us to become friends only to share the Gospel.  We need to be open to friendships because we are part of creation and these are fellow-creatures.  Who we are in Christ should shine through our words and actions and our willingness to be with other people because we actually want to love them. 


Soft Atheism

August 18, 2014

Thanks to Lois for sending me this one!

A few months ago there was an interview in the New York Times with another atheist publishing another book.  The difference here is that the author, a philosophy professor, terms his approach “soft atheism”, because unlike more embattled atheists like Richard Dawkins, Philip Kitcher prefers to allow religion to die a natural death, or evolve into secular humanism, rather than forcibly dismantling it immediately.  

Kitcher likes some of what religion has accomplished, particularly in fostering community and helping others.  He just doesn’t see the need for some sort of transcendent religious being.  By creating a Godless alternative, Kitcher believes that humanity will be better served and directed.  It will be more efficient because there won’t be all of that ritualistic mucking about with doctrines and practices that he sees as distracting to the important stuff.

Lois directed me to this response essay by a Jewish Rabbi, Eric H. Yoffie.  

I think he does a good job of highlighting several problems with Kitcher’s approach.  As might be expected, these problems fall in subjective areas.  Dismissing the religious experience of other people is easy because it isn’t our experience.  I don’t assume, as Rabbi Yoffie does, that Kitcher has never had a religious experience.  Based on how Kitcher explains these events though, Kitcher wouldn’t identify his experience(s) as religious.  He has other means of explaining them.  Of course there is no way to authoritatively prove that his explanations are any more accurate than the explanation of the divine.

Likewise, assuming that religions are good aside from what they try to point to in terms of the divine is problematic.  As Yoffie points out, creating out of scratch a compelling and universal set of values is no easy matter, and our attempts to do so thus far have failed.  Kitcher no doubt presumes that the universal values that weave their way through otherwise very different religious traditions are somehow self-evident, but that’s a pretty difficult and subjective argument to make as well.

Finally, proposing that since not all religions are true, none of them can be true is another subjective fallacy.  It may indeed be that all religions are wrong on some doctrine or another, and that 99.9% of the world religions are not true in their major teaching – but that doesn’t necessitate that none of them are true beyond the ethical imperatives Kitcher likes.  

Once again, the argument for atheism comes down to a new faith argument.  None of those religions are true – you just have to take my word for it.  I can’t prove it with the very standards I rely on, but that’s no matter – I have faith that I’m right and everyone else is wrong.  In that sense, I admire Kitcher’s devotion to his faith.  I just wish he was devoted to a different faith.

Reading Ramblings – August 24, 2014

August 18, 2014

Date:  Narrative Preaching #9—Elijah: August 24, 2014

Texts: 1 Kings 17:8-24; Psalm 147; Luke 7:11-17

Context: Why do we bother God with our problems, particularly problems that seem insurmountable, that are beyond the realms of even hope?  We draw our conclusions about our situations and even the most faithful Christians can be tempted to give up hope.  But hope is the central blessing of the Gospel.  Hope that our conclusions are not conclusive.  Hope that our struggles and problems are not final.  Hope that the grace of God is not just for the best and the prettiest and the strongest, but for all people, no matter how far removed they may feel from the center of God’s activity.

1 Kings 17:8-24 — Elijah comes out of nowhere, briefly introduced in 1 Kings 17 before immediately being shown in action confronting King Ahab of Israel.  His efforts are rewarded with the king’s displeasure, so that he must flee and hide.  Yet despite the king’s displeasure, the Lord provides for Elijah.  And despite the widow’s outsider status, she and her son are sustained by the power of God in the midst of a drought, while God’s own people suffer and perish.  In the midst of calamity the power of God is still at work, and lives are changed by it. 

Psalm 147 — This psalm begins with a celebration specifically of the God who remembers and helps the weak and the unfortunate, the outcasts and the brokenhearted.  The first six verses celebrate a God who does not judge and evaluate by the standards of the world in terms of  influence and power, but rather who sees the heart.  The next five verses emphasize the Lord’s care of his creation, his blessings of sun and rain and harvest.  But again, what we find impressive about nature is secondary to God and his concern about the condition of our heart.  The final nine verses celebrate the Lord’s particular care for his people.  Thus the psalm moves from general praise to specific, from all peoples and all creation, to God’s particular people.  Surely the God who blesses all people and all of creation will not fail to show his particular blessing upon his people!

Luke 7:11-17— Nain is to the southwest of the Sea of Galilee and south of Nazareth in the region of Galilee.  As such it is Jewish territory, and the widow and funerary procession described here are probably Jewish.  The Greek refers to him as a man, but also the only son (likely unmarried) of his mother.  The funeral procession is sad not just because of the death of the man, but also because of the hardship this would place on his mother, who we presume is now left without any means of support for herself since her husband was already dead. 

Jesus raises the man from the dead, restoring him to his mother.  Undoubtedly those who witnessed this event would remember the story of Elijah raising the widow of Zarapheth’s son back to life.  As such it is very reasonable for them to call him a great prophet, as He is acting in the power of the prophets of old.  For a people who had not witnessed a prophet for hundreds of years, this news would be exciting in and of itself!

But of course Jesus is more than a prophet, and He comes to do far more than just raise a few people to life—people who will one day die again.  Rather, He comes to destroy the power of death completely.  God’s answer to the prayer of his people for deliverance far exceeds their expectations and hopes and dreams.  God is satisfied with nothing less than the fulfillment of the promise He made in Genesis 3:15.  The power of the serpent will be undone.  Death will lose its sting.  Humanity and indeed all of creation will be restored to proper relationship with God, and the Kingdom of Heaven will once again make its home among creation. 

So it is fitting that we should never cease to pray to God for deliverance from the things that afflict us.  It does not matter whether we think it likely that God will act, or if we feel it is somehow annoying to God.  We pray, because God invites us to pray, desires us to pray, and is pleased to be with us in prayer.  We are never an annoyance or an irritation in our prayers.  Our prayers should be motivated first of all in gratitude for the fact that God the Father has already answered our most desperate pleas for rescue in the person and work of God the Son, Jesus. 

But we can be bold to come to God in prayer for those things that we may worry are silly or trivial, as well as those things that seem too big and hopeless to bother God with.  Nothing is beyond his power, and while we are exhorted to prayer we never know when or where God the Holy Spirit will be at work, answering and restoring and amazing as He always has.  


Book Review – What’s the Shape of Narrative Preaching?

August 14, 2014

What’s the Shape of Narrative Preaching: Essays in Honor of Eugene L. Lowry – Mike Gravies & David J. Schlafer, Editors

Chalice Press 2008


I’m catching up on reading I should have done in advance of my seminar last month on narrative preaching, facilitated by the Rev. Dr. David Schmitt.  This particular book is a collection of essays from a variety of academics on the topic of narrative preaching as revolutionized by Eugene L. Lowry’s 1980 book The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form.  That book and scholar are the bases for this book, providing a variety of reflections on narrative preaching.

Overall, this book is undoubtedly great reading for the homiletical academic, someone who is given over to the formal study of homiletics as a field, and who can better appreciate the diversity of names and traditions that these essays refer to.  While I was taught about Lowry and his famous homiletical “Loop” in seminary homiletics class, that’s about the extent of my exposure to the academic field of homiletics.  

Some of the essays were very helpful and interesting despite being lost amidst the name-dropping.  Others less so.  For the average parish pastor and regular preacher, this book probably isn’t going to be overly helpful.  The few insights and ideas are largely dwarfed in the larger academic background.  

Hopefully the guy (or gal) who stands up in front of your congregation regularly to preach or give a message or share a story has had some guidance on how to do this.  Better yet, hopefully this guy (or gal) is continuing to seek out guidance on the subject.  Many people are coming to the recognition that in the push for changing liturgy and music and all sorts of other aspects of worship, preaching has been neglected.  Hopefully that is changing.  I wouldn’t recommend surprising your pastor with this book as a gift unless you know that they’re really into the academic field of homiletics.  

But I commend you for considering it!

Wet Bar Wednesday – Definitions

August 13, 2014

I haven’t had a chance to try a new drink this week, so rather than send you another untested one, I thought I’d spend a moment on terminology.

Mixed drinks are relatively easy to order because they’re mixed, generally with ice.  However there is a class of drinks that can be served with ice or without (though in both cases chilled).  There are other drinks that can be served with ice, but not necessarily (and are not necessarily chilled).  Knowing how to order what you want requires an understanding of the parlance.

On the Rocks – this refers to a drink that is served over ice.  Sometimes the ingredients of the drink (or a portion of them) are first mixed/shaken/stirred with ice, then strained into a glass with ice.  Other times (like with a Jack & Coke), the alcohol and the mixer are poured together directly into a glass with ice.  Either way, if you order something on the rocks, you’re going to get a glass with ice in it.  Most drinks in this category are pretty basic, since both the initial shaking with ice (if that occurs) or the pouring into a glass with ice results in meltage – ice melting and diluting the drink.  For a basic drink (a single liquor and a mixer) meltage isn’t too big a deal.  For other, more subtle and crafted drinks, meltage can really dilute the flavor of the drink, and so you want to minimize it.

Straight Up – refers to a drink that is mixed or shaken with ice, but then strained into a glass without ice.  This reduces meltage (since the drink isn’t sitting in a glass of melting ice), but there is some meltage from the initial mixing/shaking with ice.  If keeping the drink cold is a priority, it’s a practice to fill the glass the drink will be served in with ice while the drink is being mixed, then to dump out the ice right before the drink is strained into the glass.  Another option to keep drinks cold and minimize the dilution of meltage is to use other materials that can be frozen or chilled and put them into the glass.  An example of this is a whiskey stone, which can be frozen/chilled ahead of time and put into the glass to cool the liquid without diluting it.  Another option is to use ice, but to minimize meltage by using a single large piece of ice, sometimes spherical.  Less meltage is supposed to occur than if you’re using cubed or crushed ice.

Neat – while there is frequently confusion about this, neat generally means a drink that is not chilled in any way.  It is usually a single liquor (no mixer, no other ingredients), and is poured directly into an unchilled glass and served.  This is for drinking more refined/higher quality/more expensive liquors.  Or for simply getting a drink into yourself as quickly as possible.  


VBS – Day 1

August 12, 2014

I wrote this post a year ago, but didn’t want to publish it at the time as I didn’t want to sound critical to anyone who might read it while being involved that week with vacation Bible school (VBS).  I’m not trying to be critical of the people who run VBS, but rather to offer up some food for thought on exactly what it is we’re conveying, and how we’re conveying it, and what the unanticipated outcomes might be.


I survived my first day of vacation Bible school.


I consider that no small achievement, given the level of hormones and sugar-fueled youthfulness rampant in that beautiful little church campus by the ocean!
This VBS is using curriculum by Group, a major provider of ministry resources and curriculum.  I know many churches in my denomination that rely on their VBS curriculum rather than in-house materials.  The theme for this summer is Kingdom Rock.  We are blessed to have a energetic youth group helping out with the event, in addition to more seasons folks behind the scenes organizing things, making snacks, and generally ensuring that mayhem doesn’t completely break loose.
The day begins with a session where all the kids gather together in the sanctuary as they arrive.  Teens are leading dance moves to the ‘rock’ CD and videos that are playing on the screen in the sanctuary.  The kids get pretty revved up.  The teens try to clue the kids in to the information for the day, interspersing things with more dances and music to sing along to before the kids and their crew leaders head out to the various stations where they will do and learn different things.
Midway through the morning the kids come together again for more singing and dancing to the same rock CD.  There is more teaching interspersed, but it’s hard to keep the kids’ attention as they’re jacked up on the music and dancing.  They they have a snack before gathering again for a few more songs to sing to and then split up for the ministry stations.  At the end of the morning, they spend another 30 minutes singing and dancing and trying to convey a few ministry points in between.  By this point the kids are tired or hyperactive.  Attention spans have shrunk to the nanosecond range.  Parents are hovering around waiting to take their children home.
It struck me how the emphasis in all of the group times together was on high-energy sorts of singing and dancing.  Yes, the music all is Christian in nature, focused on depending on God.  Most of the singers in the videos are kids – though most appear to be junior or senior high aged – considerably older than the kindergarten through sixth grade students attending the VBS.
Don’t get me wrong.  It’s great to sing some fun songs and bounce around and be silly and have a good time.  My kids *love* the VBS CDs, and continue to play the ones from the last two years.  They love to dance around to them and it’s fun to watch them.  Having a good time is cool.
But that seems to be the only focus in the group times together for the VBS.  Sing and dance and get crazy.  I could be cynical and decide that this is in order to ensure maximum sales of the CDs, but I really don’t think that’s what is going on.  I think that there is a deeper theological or psychological program at play.  And I’m kind of confused by it.  And that worries me.
What are we teaching kids about church?  Granted, this is no worship service – at least not in the historical sense of the term.   But VBS is happening in a church, and what is it teaching kids to think about church, and by extension worship?  What do we think kids are capable of doing and understanding in worship?  Are they capable of reverence?  Of silence?  Of thoughtfulness?  Sure, not for more than a few minutes at a time, maybe, but if there’s no time to practice these skills, how do those few minutes grow into a larger span of time?
Are we teaching the kids that we still have in church that church is essentially a concert?  That church should fill their attention in the way that a TV show does?  I’ve written on this topic before.  For churches that retain a historic orientation of the nature and purpose of worship, it might be beneficial to think about how they are training up the fewer and fewer children in their midst to conceive of worship.  That extends to vacation Bible school, or at least it could.  Or should it?
I’m glad the kids are having fun.  I’m glad that kids are hearing that God loves them.  The folks who are putting this all together are wonderfully dedicated to these kids and to Jesus, and I’m glad to be part of it all in at least a small way.   I just wonder if the kids couldn’t be learning more along the way, if nearly an hour of their time each day was spent on more than rockin’ out.  And I can’t help but wonder if learning more and different things might help them stay in church as they get older.
How often do we stress reverence to little kids in church?  Parents do, I hope.  But how often does the Church herself help with this?  It’s not something that kids are inclined towards naturally.  They have to be guided, trained, equipped to understand what is appropriate behavior and why.  That there are times when it might be very appropriate to bounce around and sing and be crazy in joy to our God (certainly adults could re-learn this I suspect).  But there are many more times when what we need to do is be quiet and really listen to what God is saying to us.
Let’s face it – adults don’t generally bounce around like little kids do.   And when things are hard, when we struggle and suffer, then the bouncing and screaming seem so inappropriate.  Not that our culture doesn’t actively encourage us to cover over the pain with more partying, but we need to realize that such things aren’t solutions.  They aren’t hope.
I watch all these beautiful children and pray that they will be in the church all their life.  But it will be a strange transition for them, and when will that transition occur?  If they go to church and Sunday School and youth group are just like VBS, when will they transition?  If they have children’s worship instead of learning to worship with their parents, when will they transition?  Do they just get dumped into the Church once they graduate from high school?  Or maybe they can delay it through a college group.  And then through a young adults group.  And then through a couples group.  And then through a young parents’ group.  And then through family groups and being active in their kids’ youth groups and Sunday school and VBS.  Then through an empty-nester group.  Then a retired group.  Then a widow/widower group.
I suppose it’s possible in some places to identify ourselves solely through the peripheral groups of a church, rather than through worship and the heart of the church itself.  In some places perhaps, that’s because the heart of the church is barely beating.  Or seen as barely beating by people looking for something more.
As if there could possibly be anything more than the Word of the God who created us feeding us with the body and blood of the Son of God who died and rose again for us.
Teaching our kids to worship is so important.  But I fear that long ago we got onto the wrong track with this.  We’re seeing the fruits of it now in churches practically devoid of children and young people, and other churches with smaller numbers of them.  There will always be exceptions – congregations with thriving youth and young adult presences.  But it can’t be denied that these are exceptions to the norm.