Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Blogging Curiosities

September 24, 2020

I’ve been at this for nearly 15 years, blogging on a regular basis. I never expected it would be a success by any sort of commercial or industrial metric. I never expected to earn revenue from it (and I don’t). I hoped to have some conversations with people, and that has happened.

I have a small following of regular readers (that I know about). A couple of dozen folks from past and present congregations. A little more than 250 followers through WordPress, but I don’t think about that much as I know many of them followed me in the hopes of building their own sites towards commercial viability. I generally get a couple of dozen visits per day, with fluctuation in both directions. Since moving my site to WordPress six years ago, my visitors and views have gradually increased each year. There are at least a few people who read, and that makes me happy.

But it’s interesting to me that yesterday I had double my usual number of visitors. I could pat my back for saying something people found interesting enough to share with friends, but that’s generally not my modus operandi. Rather, I find it curious that some of my visits yesterday came from China, and that yesterday’s post mentioned the conviction of a prominent Chinese opposition figure. I didn’t say much about it, just referenced it in passing. But it makes me wonder just how far-reaching the tentacles of geo-political monitoring go. Did I appear on some sort of Chinese radar for mentioning a related news story? Perhaps. Is that disturbing? Perhaps? Should it be more disturbing? Probably. But I’ll leave it at the curiosity level instead.

Reporting Jesus

September 22, 2020

I don’t for a second believe this guy is legitimate in the least. That’s not the point of this post.

But in reading this news report I realized this is probably how Jesus’ death was reported by the Powers That Be. We have the underground report, the eye-witness up-close reports in the Gospels – four separate, individual reports by or of people intimately familiar with Jesus – Matthew and John, both in Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples, Mark’s account which is basically a retelling of Peter’s preaching and teaching about Jesus, and Peter was another of the twelve disciples, and finally Luke’s account which is a compilation of testimonies. Although modern, more liberal scholarship will try to argue that Matthew and Luke are basically just copies of Mark, careful reading argues against this assertion.

In any event, the Gospels portray Jesus by those who knew him best. But how would Jewish or even Roman reports have read, were newspaper articles a thing? The article above probably gives us a good taste.

It would describe Jesus as a cult leader, which immediately categorizes ahead of time how the reader/hearer thinks about the person. Cults are bad and dangerous, right? Fanatical at the least, abusive and evil at worst. Jesus was likely described as a cult leader claiming to be the Son of God. Cults are small and separated from the mainstream and therefore inherently suspicious.

Jesus would have faced charges for an illegal religion, perhaps, but certainly for blasphemy, and perhaps for allegations of abusive behavior. Jesus didn’t often mince words with his opponents, which I’m sure some might categorize as abusive. Certainly his stern rebuke of Peter in Matthew 16:23 could be interpreted as abusive. Without knowing context, or by misinterpreting context (either intentionally or accidentally) any number of situations could be classified under dire-sounding language. I’m sure the article might characterize Jesus as a former carpenter. Such wording lead the reader/hearer to question why the accused wasn’t still doing their former work, what prompted their shift to religious leader or spiritual teacher, and calls into question their credentials for doing so.

Like the article above, Jesus was apprehended by a special operations unit likely consisting of Roman soldiers as well as Temple police, guided by an informant. The desire to apprehend an influential figure away from his followers who might endanger themselves to protect him is nothing new.

A historical news report might cite how Jesus embarked in a radically new direction after a spiritual awakening in the Jordan River under the influence of another charlatan, John the Baptist. The sudden change in lifestyle would certainly demonstrate some level of psychological instability, or at least cause the reader/hearer to infer it.

The need to try and evaluate what is reported and how it is reported is important, as the ability to smear someone in the press is nothing new and perhaps easier than ever with ubiquitous, instant news feeds and the ability to create or locate condemning evidence of a digital nature. The particular charges will vary by circumstance and reflect those charges considered most odious in a particular context. Christians were accused early on of both being atheists as well as cannibals. Jesus was charged with blasphemy. Jewish people through the centuries have been accused of murdering Christian babies. Charges hardly need to be religious in nature. Consider the sudden disappearance and then reported arrest and conviction of a leading Chinese dissent figure, convicted of corruption, something odious in a Communist country.

It’s said that history is written by the victors and there’s truth in this. Likewise, news is written by people who control the channels of information. In both cases, truth is sometimes difficult to discern or separate from opinion!

Words Matter

September 19, 2020

As I’ve tried to argue here repeatedly over the last 14 years (!), words matter. Language matters, and we need to pay attention to what is being said and how it’s being said.

For instance, for the first time I can remember, the flu is being called a pandemic. I don’t argue whether or not the flu qualifies as a pandemic. I’m pretty sure it does – it affects a good portion of the world (at least I assume it does – I think press coverage of world health issues is normally pretty light, and since the flu recurs every year, there has been little interest historically in talking about it unless it’s somehow more dangerous or otherwise distinctive) and it affects a good portion of the population (in the neighborhood of 19 million Americans annually (as opposed to the estimated 6.7 million cases of Coronavirus reported in the US after 6 months).

What I do question is the curious fact that this year, the flu is being called a pandemic. Most of the news stories I see using this terminology are fear-mongering, painting dire possible scenarios since COVID-19 is ongoing as flu season begins. The other common denominator in stories referring to the flu as a pandemic is the emphasis on getting the flu shot.

The overall impact is one of creating fear. Fear is a particularly useful emotion as it is very powerful and hard to resist. It’s also hard to live with over a prolonged period of time (like, say six months or more) without some debilitating psychological, social, spiritual and even physical side effects beginning to manifest in some people. In a situation where one is afraid, the urge to remove the source of fear somehow can become nearly overwhelming.

How do you remove fear of illness? With the flu, the insistence is not on proper rest or diet or hygiene or anything else – it’s almost exclusively on getting the flu shot. It’s not that these other things aren’t recommended, it’s just that you never hear about them. The only thing that appears in the news and media is the importance of getting the flu shot, despite the fact the flu vaccine at best has effectiveness rates of 60% and regularly (four times between 2014 and 2019) still clocks in at less than 40% effectiveness. Still, the answer to easing fears about the flu is to get vaccinated.

Likewise, much emphasis has been placed on a vaccine as the answer to our Coronavirus fears. Certainly, government mandated social distancing and mask wearing is also emphasized, but particularly in the last month or two, the emphasis increasingly turns to vaccines and when they might be available. Part of this is due to the fact that like it or not, most people are resigned to the reality of masks and social distancing. There are mandated signs and other repeated emphases locally to reinforce these measures (though they are, at best, questionable as to the degree of their effectiveness).

So media decides to focus on the vaccine. As a political football (of course), and as the source to the end of our COVID-19 fears. Despite the fact there are nagging suspicions that immunity is short-lived (I’ve seen allegations of someone getting reinfected just a month after recovering from COVID-19. Other reports question anti-body likelihood after 12 months).

Vaccinations are the answer to our health fears. Health fears stoked in large part by incessant and uncontextualized media reporting. Big numbers provided in isolation from other numbers that might give them different meaning. Big numbers intended to create fear, and fear intended to be dealt with by recommended (and eventually, I’m sure, mandated) measures such as vaccinations.

Watch the language, folks. And watch what it does to you. I’m not saying there isn’t anything to be worried about. But what I am saying is the change in the way language is being used this year should be an equal source not just of curiosity but of concern and intrigue to you as well. Stay informed, but recognize that simply watching or reading the news is not enough to accomplish this.

Movie Review: Bill & Ted Face the Music

September 2, 2020

Bill & Ted Face the Music

I’ll assume you’ve seen the first two movies, or don’t care to and are going to skip this post all together. I’m not going to bother plot summarizing the other two, and there may be a spoiler or two in here. It’s OK if you aren’t interested. I’ll write something else before long.

But if you have an interest….

I think the major problem with the series of films is the characters and the premise can’t support the scale thrust upon them in the latter installments. Excellent Adventure works because the scope is plausible. Pass a history class with an epic presentation. It’s something these two goofballs can handle – just barely. But with Bogus Journey and now in Face the Music, both characters are unduly weighted beyond their capabilities. Defeating an evil genius and saving all of time and space is just too much for the basic concept to carry, and it shows. There are great moments, to be sure, but the movie could be equally compelling with a plot line of much more believable scale. This latter installment could just has easily have focused on saving their marriages to the Princesses without all the other heavier stuff. Most of the movie could be unchanged.

This movie does a good job of making the characters age-appropriate. Bill & Ted are a lot older now, and it shows. Not just in the lines in their faces, but in the grunts and groans that accompany every landing of their time-traveling phone booth. You can feel their angst and the disappointment of apparently not having achieved their purpose in life now that they’re in their 50’s. Life is good – very good. But there’s still the need for something further to be accomplished, the race against the clock is literal in this movie.

The daughters are a touching addition to the movie. Not a necessary or even compelling one, but a great update to the franchise as well as a continuation of the storyline left off in Bogus Journey. And most incredible of all in this strange little alternate universe of sorts, the film completely avoids any sexual issues or situations that otherwise are standard fare in nearly every modern movie. Bill & Ted are happily married to the Princesses, who are more or less happily married to them. Nor are the daughters used for sexual tension of any sort in the film. As the dudes comment in Bogus Journey, there is a chasteness that pervades this franchise, aside from a few innuendos mostly in the first film.

Of course, people have to look for this kind of stuff, as the author of this article in the New York Post. He insinuates homo-eroticism in the guitar riffing the dudes do when they’re exceptionally happy. He also takes time to criticize the homosexual slur in Excellent Adventure. He ponders how really innocent or happy these two can be if they are apparently exclusionary of homosexuals. I imagine the same critique could be leveled at those who use the slur Trumpers, or liberals. The fact our denigrations are ideological these days hardly implies an advanced moral state from 30 years ago.

This reviewer takes a swipe at Bill & Ted’s “unusually close” relationship to their daughters, an interesting commentary on what is expected from fathers (or not expected). It’s obvious the fathers and daughters share a love of music as well as a mutual love and respect that is so unadorned and honest it’s nearly breathtaking. Their mutual encouragement to one another is beautiful, and it’s a shame if that’s now acknowledged as “unusual”.

Could the movie be better? Of course. As I mentioned earlier, scaling back the drama significantly would be a huge help. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic, but what ending wouldn’t be after a 30-year wait? So ditch the saving space & time plot – it’s overwhelming. Ditch the sub-plot about time-traveling wives as well – it’s unnecessary and never has time to play itself out in a way that is either amusing or helpful. Frankly you could ditch the daughters sub-plot as the use of the musicians seems somewhat superfluous. As this reviewer notes, the long-sought after song isn’t all that great. I think it would have been just as effective to end the movie just as they’re about to start playing, knowing the world is saved, and so the song itself – as it was in the previous two movies – is really a secondary issue. This could also remove the inexplicable presence and focus on Kid Cudi, that completely eludes me other than that he was apparently willing and available to join in this segment. While the assassin robot was somewhat humorous at times, he seemed a rather frail sub-plot that could have been done without. Or maybe eliminate Kid Cudi to give the robot a bit more screen time.

The scenes with the marriage counselor are great and could easily have been expanded as a larger running gag through the film. I’d have been much happier with more run-ins with alternate Bills and Teds, and the hell sequences could have been shrunk down to focus in just on the reunion with The Grim Reaper – which was definitely one of the highlights of the movie.

As a commentary on growing older, I’ve definitely seen worse. There’s acknowledgment of the challenges of life, of finding fulfillment – challenges that exist despite wonderful spouses and children. If Reeves better conveys a weariness with the passing of time and the efforts to accomplish something meaningful, Alex Winters does a good job of channeling the inner youthfulness he naturally exuded in the first two films. It’s a reminder there should be some sort of balance between who we were when younger and who we are as we mature and grow older. But this film isn’t really about a wistfulness for youth. It isn’t a pining to relive the glory days, but an angst about being or becoming who Bill & Ted are supposed to be, and more specifically, accomplishing one single thing that makes all the difference.

Overall this film exudes an optimism just like the earlier two. A reminder that it isn’t how smart you are that makes a difference, but what kind of a person you are. There’s great hope that Bill & Ted will remain the good-hearted goofballs and bestest of friends status they’ve always been, and that their wives will continue to love them and their daughters will find their ways in life beyond the shadows of their father’s obsessiveness with a song.

I could foresee one more installment in this series – one that coincides with Bill & Ted’s retirement from whatever they occupy themselves with for the next 20 years or so. I’m happy to discuss script possibilities if anyone’s interested!

Writing Help

August 28, 2020

For all you aspiring writers out there, a little bit of help here. Or maybe a big disappointment here. Either way, worth giving some thought to. Definitely a new way to consider the old maxim that there is nothing new under the sun!

Pushing Preferences

August 5, 2020

What you believe matters. And the basis for what you believe matters as well. While evangelical Christianity has done a lot of damage to Biblical Christian faith in divorcing faith and belief from the strong anchors of Biblical accuracy as borne out through historical and archaeological discoveries, certainly those critical of the Bible or the Church have launched their own attacks.

Consider the Harvard professor claiming to have proof that Jesus was married, in the form of a small piece of Coptic writing. While the story made a splash in 2012, very little attention has been paid to how the story ultimately played out. This Wall Street Journal review rectifies this somewhat, reviewing Veritas, a book that chronicles how the professor was fooled – or was complicit in fooling others – with the sketchy claims of an even sketchier source for the apparently ancient writing. It appears her commitment to certain ideological ideas might have caused her to be remiss in her scholastic research rigor, ultimately damaging or destroying her career.

What you believe matters, as does the basis of your belief. What do you believe in? And based on what?

Preaching Patterns

July 25, 2020

The next chapter in the preaching improvement book I’m moving slowly through is on the importance of remembering the fundamentals of sermon preparation. It’s very easy in the hustle and bustle of other weekly activities to short cut these fundamentals. To rely on someone else’s work rather than your own. He outlines five fundamentals:

  • Study the Text – the grunt work of the sermon-writing process and the most easily short-cut because it isn’t necessarily obvious to your hearers how well you’ve done this (or whether you’ve done it at all). This step might include reading the text in the original languages for hints and clues translations might lose, consulting commentaries and other writers on the text, and other forms of help in understanding what the text is trying to tell us first, before determining what we want to say about the text.
  • Define the Thesis – clearly identify the main point you want to convey in a sermon. You can’t preach all the nuances of a text in a good sermon, so figure out what you want to hone in on. Identify that early to keep your sermon clear and understandable
  • Choose the Sermon Form – I don’t do this. For me, the sermon shapes itself in relation to the first two steps. Sometimes it’s built around a single exchange, an event or character study. Sometimes it’s more of a teaching sermon. Sometimes it’s highly emotional in nature. They tried to teach us sermon structures in seminary but I struggle here because I have been writing since I’ve been old enough to hold a pencil, and those instincts replace the structural definition step of sermon writing for me.
  • Develop Illustrations and Applications – find out ways to make the text and the message accessible and relevant to your hearers. Teach by all means, but show how the teaching applies, how it connects with the hearers. It’s too easy to simply toss out doctrines and explain a text contextually and historically and culturally without ever connecting it to Jesus and then connecting Jesus to the hearers.
  • Prepare Introduction and Conclusion – Say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you said. The basics of writing an essay in school are helpful in sermon writing as well.

Definitely good reminders. Preaching should require work and effort. Unfortunately it often doesn’t receive it. I feel I have a good grasp on the basics, though my former homiletics profs might disagree!

Listening for the Spirit

July 24, 2020

I take the Holy Spirit seriously. At least to the best of my ability. I know He’s at work, and that his methods and timings are not always ones I might expect. I don’t expect miracles in the Biblical sense, necessarily, but I do hold out the reality they could happen.

The first impression is important. As much as our culture attempts to convince us that first impressions are judgmental and flawed they remain necessary. In a sinful and broken world where trust is elusive and things and people are not always what we might want them to be, we look for clues to help guide us in how to respond.

His clothes appear clean, though he’s traveling with nothing more than a mostly-consumed bottle of Diet Coke and a jacket. He’s in his mid-to-late 30’s, I estimate. There’s a faint odor of unwashed clothes but it’s the stale odor, not the foul one. Not yet. I’ve learned in ministry that smells can tell you a lot the eyes might miss.

Yes, I have 15 minutes and I invite him in. He clearly has things on his mind though it’s impossible to tell yet what they might be. We sit in the front office and he begins to talk. Not disjointed, but the connections are sometimes complicated and slippery. He has ideas, ideas he’s trying to understand and more importantly trying to apply. He quotes passages from Scripture, demonstrates a familiarity with the Word of God and Christian concepts. But it’s also clear he’s spent time exploring many different sources and ideas, something he confirms later.

The intellect at work is not small. A good vocabulary, a line of reasoning that, while slightly flawed in terms of philosophical categories is still grappling with aspects of reality most people don’t spend much time contemplating – the interconnectedness of everything. How to make sense of the reality we are bound together in more fundamental ways than Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter might have us think. That these ties that bind us grounded in our shared creatureliness entail obligations to one another we are too quick to gloss over in our bid for Facebook and Instagram popularity or notoriety.

He asks for a pad of paper and a pen, quickly sketching and writing out things as he talks, helping him track his line of thought. It’s difficult to tell if he’s under the influence. If it is, it’s chemical as I don’t smell alcohol on his breath, no slurring of speech. Is there mental illness as well? Odds are good of that as well. He wants validation but grows fidgety when I’m talking instead of him. He’s trying to listen but clearly also figuring out what he wants to say next more than listening to what I have to say. Certainly no shortage of that these days in people who consider themselves sane and rational!

He continues trying to drive towards his point, what he really wants to apply in his life but it’s difficult for him. Minutes click by. Not unpleasantly. As I listen I also watch. Body language says a lot, like odors and clothing. Is he violent? His obvious agitation when I speak, when I try to validate aspects of his line of thought while offering tweaks and adjustments, identifying limitations to how far some of his ideas can be blended together, they convey that he’s really here to talk, not to listen, and perhaps it would be better to do that. Perhaps dialogue is too much to hope for in this setting.

Of course I wonder as well if he’s violent. Alone in the office, I try to size him up. Not a large man but size isn’t everything, depending on what substances he might be under the influence of. I know that letting him in and sitting with him like this entails a risk I’d prefer not to think about but have to. I try to stay loose physically and concentrated on him, watching for tell-tale signs that might give me a second’s warning if he becomes agitated. I don’t think he will. But my gut instincts, while right far more often than wrong are not perfect.

This is a child of God. I ache for him as he runs circles in his mind, looking for how to connect the loose ends, perhaps looking for the break in the circle that will allow him peace from these dog-eared ideas. I ache for whatever has diverted him from the channel of what we call normal and into whatever dry riverbed he’s ambling down.

I have another appointment that I’m now missing. Quick text messages to apologize. Yet this seems where I’m supposed to be at the moment, even though I look forward to my standing Friday engagement. Still, I’m apparently needed here and now with this man and his grasping for understanding and application. After an hour I beg off. I stand, move us towards the door. We’ll meet again next Tuesday, a day and time he writes in ink on the back of his hand. Hopefully it will be washed off before then. Less because I don’t want to see him again and more because I hope he’s washing himself well enough. What will kill a person quicker, unresolved mental ramblings or poor hygiene? Perhaps it’s a toss-up. A matter of how you define death.

I don’t think I’ll see him Tuesday. But it’s on my calendar just in case. Because we are bound together, he and I, this unlikely wanderer and this unlikely pastor. Bound together by a God who created both of us, redeemed us both, and offers to abide with both of us. Offers more to create a new and eternal relationship to one another. So I’ll put it on my calendar and be here just in case. Listening for the voice of God the Holy Spirit, knowing I may not realize I’ve heard it until long after it’s wandered down the railroad tracks and disappeared into the underpasses.

Covering the Bases

July 2, 2020

As I continue to work slowly through a book on improving my preaching, the next chapter deals with different ways a speaker/preacher connects with the people they are speaking to.

Ethos listeners prioritize the relationship between the speaker and the hearer. If there is a strong connection with the speaker the message will be heard better. Likewise (though not explicitly stated in the book) if the relationship is strained or not good between the speaker and the listener, the listener is going to have a harder time connecting with what is being said. Sometimes this is referred to as an issue of integrity or character on the part of the speaker or the hearer’s perception of their integrity or character. Reaching people who react well based on ethos involves reminding them of this shared relationship. Speaking about we and us as opposed to them or you. Referencing personal stories or the impact of the sermon topic or verses on you personally.

Logos listeners focus on the cerebral or intellectual content of a sermon. They want to be presented with ideas to chew on and mull over or be challenged by. They’re most engaged when learning something new, and sermons that include a focus on information sit well with this group.

Pathos listeners react on the emotional level. They love real-life stories or anecdotes, but they also are most attentive when they are part of the sermon, and can connect what is being preached to their lives.

Ideally every sermon should have some of each aspect in it to best reach as many of your hearers as possible. And that seems reasonable. I can certainly confirm that people who are not in a good relationship with me have a harder time hearing what I say in the sermon, and are more apt to take things the wrong way (or at least in a way I wasn’t intending). Likewise I believe a good preacher should be teaching in a sermon. Not like I would teach a Bible study class, but there should be elements where I’m sharing what I’ve learned rather than just rehashing what I’ve heard all my life from others. The familiar can be comforting but if that’s all I give, people get bored. Or at least I get bored! And I’ve seen firsthand how a good story can really draw people into the sermon.

I like to think my sermons involve all three of these ways of preaching, though certainly the balance will vary from week to week. I also find myself hearing St. Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth emphasizing how we should also be careful not to be too calculated in how we speak the Word of God. Ultimately the power in a sermon is God’s Word and the Holy Spirit at work in that Word. While I want to be a good and effective preacher I also realize I can only control this to a certain extent, and there are limitations to my abilities so that I shouldn’t rely on them.

At the end of the day (Sunday?) I hope people have heard the Word of God applied to their lives in a concrete way. I’m experienced enough to know this can happen when I personally think my sermon stunk. And it can not happen when I think my sermon was a home run. I resonate well with those masters of the preaching craft who insist that if the sermon stinks, it’s my fault. But if the sermon is really good, then God gets the praise and glory. That’s how it should be, not as an excuse for me to neglect my duties or be shoddy in my preparation, but as a means of keeping my humbled and my community focused on what is important – Christ crucified.

Preaching Progress

June 30, 2020

About ten years ago – oh wait, it was really just this past February! – I began a book on improving my preaching.

Then the world fell apart.

But the book remains on my desk open to the chapter I have been working on sporadically for several months. Chapter 2. I did say sporadically, didn’t I? Intermittently? More not than often? Anyways.

Chapter 2 has me go through past sermons over the last several years to determine when parts of the Bible I primarily preach out of. He divides Scripture into different sections –

  • Genesis-Deuteronomy (Pentateuch)
  • Joshua – Esther (History)
  • Job – Song of Solomon (Wisdom Literature)
  • Isaiah – Malachi (Prophets)
  • Matthew – Acts (Gospels/Acts)
  • Romans – Philippians (Pauline Epistles)
  • Hebrews – Revelation (General Epistles & Revelation)

What I learned in this is my system of saving my sermons does not lend itself to an easy examination of what texts I primarily preached from. So I had to open every single individual sermon to determine what I preached from. Which is incredibly time-consuming, and so I didn’t go through five years of back sermons. I made it through about a year and a half and I’m going to call that good.

I preach primarily on the Gospel texts. This makes good sense as I believe the Gospel should predominate in worship. However I often incorporate the Old Testament lesson or the Epistle reading or even the psalm into the sermon as well, so that even while I’m preaching mostly on the Gospel readings it isn’t exclusive to the other readings. I guess this is good. The author’s idea is that you should have a balanced use of Scripture in your sermons over time, an idea I agree with in principle so long as the Gospel predominates.

Ready for Chapter 3, I guess!