Monday, December 22, 2008

Advent Article 2008

Christmas Time is Here…

As we rush headlong toward Christmas 2008, we cannot escape the obvious impact the current economic climate will have this year. However, I have a prediction to make: We will still witness an excess of over-indulgence. Advent, for us who keep the Christian year, is the antidote to the madness of the mall, the straight line to Christmas and the madly rushing train which rides on it. Advent is the time when the prophets call us to take stock of ourselves, to decide how ready we are for the coming of the Christ child ... and not in terms of whether the presents are bought and the turkey stuffed.

Advent is sacred time, God's time, time to get ready for the return of the Light – and it is present time. It is the time for listening to the prophets who tell us how far we have strayed from God's plan for us, and for sincere and prayerful change. For us who live in the part of the globe in darkness at this time of the year this is especially acute. Regardless of the twinkling lights and the glitter in the mall, the darkness is out there all around us. We would do well to heed the prophets now. They are telling us what is missing, and it is terrifying. They are telling us how far we have strayed from the loving circle of God's sacred time, and they are calling us back into it from the darkness. We would do well to heed them, especially at this time of year when the wheel is turning again, and the child is waiting to be born.

We would do well to begin again in this Advent season, to look clearly into the darkness and the cold out there and pray and work for a decent and warm and orderly place for the baby to come into; to make ready in our hearts and minds a place for the Christ Child to come once again. This is the task of Advent, indeed of all our time as Christians. The prophets are right: we must be ready, and the time is short.

Grace and peace,
Pastor James

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Faith and Politcs, Revisited

This article first appeared in our church newsletter, The Proclamation.

In April, our church invited several guest speakers to come and be a part of our four-week study on the relationship between religion and politics. We considered the role of the church and the role of the faithful Christian in the secular political arena. These are very different roles. As our country has now moved passed the Olympics and the convention meetings of both political parties, our televisions and radios will become even more inundated with a constant barrage of political advertising, punditry, and talking-heads. I think this is a good time to revisit the topic.

Some in our congregation will become more heavily involved in the political process than others – I suppose that is the nature of things. I hope those who are a part of our church family will help bring Christian civility to the process. I know we can. In recent generations in our secular political culture the strategy for winning elections has become all too clear. The way to win is to attack your opponent. The way to win is to demonize him or her. The way to win is to create an “evil” enemy which must be defeated. This strategy is taught by political strategists and seemingly embraced by every part of the political process. However, I believe this strategy to be decidedly anti-Christian.

Jesus never taught us it was appropriate to smear, attack, or demonize another – even if his or her policy opinions stand in direct conflict with my own. Republicans will try to tell us all Democrats want to destroy families and have the government control everything. Democrats will tells us all Republicans are war-mongers who hate poor people. Both will claim their opponents are anti-Christian. Both will be wrong. We will hear a great deal about a supposed “Christian worldview,” as if someone other than Jesus has been able to completely elucidate this concept.

Unfortunately, we will also hear politicians of every persuasion talking about the Bible, even using the Bible. The more I hear politicians using scripture, the more I wish politicians wouldn’t use scripture; they are not very good at it. However, as Christians we should certainly allow scripture to frame our decision-making. Our faith will always be a vital part of who we are and how we vote. However, we should not allow politicians, TV analysts, or talk-radio personalities tell us what being a “Christian voter” should mean. And we should not allow the bitterness in our culture to keep each of us from doing our part (voting). The challenge will be to refuse to lower ourselves to what has become the standard in the world. Our church has among its membership faithful Christians who are Republicans and faithful Christians who are Democrats. If we follow the lead of the world and begin to demonize each other, we will have become, regardless of our policy opinions, anti-Christian.

Grace and peace,

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Friday, July 04, 2008

A Very Busy July...

This next week begins three weeks of travel for me. On Monday I leave for youth camp (MFuge) with a group of eight. We will be on campus at University of Missouri-St. Louis and will participate in community missions & ministry projects every day. Our young people are really looking forward to this camp, and so am I. It should be a wonderful experience. The following week (July 13-18) Tara and I will travel with a group of seven from church to New Orleans for a mission trip. Our experience last year was great, and even though we have lost a couple of attendees at the last minute, I'm sure this year will be great as well. Then, one week later still, Tara and I will be going on vacation - to Cancun, Mexico. This will be our first vacation that does not include family since our honeymoon (seven years ago), so we are really looking forward to it.

Throughout each week I will try to send blog updates and pictures and a very regular basis - hopefully at least every other day. We'll see if I have the time and tech-savy to pull this off!

Grace and peace,

Thursday, May 08, 2008

What I'm Reading - May 2008

Thought I would give another update on what I'm reading right now. I have finished all but the Lamott book from my most recent list - and her book may have to take a back seat to higher priorities.

Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Steven Waldman. This is a very recently published work on a controversial and particular poignant topic: The American History of Religious Freedom. I'm only a couple of chapters in, but this book feels very balanced. The author has few biases, and owns those he has. I find even being an American who is a student of religion and the history of religion I have discovered historical nuggets I find valuable. This book would be accessible to those with or without expertise in the history of religion or American history.

The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God--Getting Beyond the Bible Wars
by N.T. Wright. Just picked up this book this week. My interest in this work came out of a conversation with one of our Christian Education/Sunday School teachers who is looking for resources for a course on canonical history, particularly regarding the New Testament. I've only read the introduction, but this short work appears to be classic Wright -- very readable and insightful. I'll plan to comment more on this work in the future.

The Town: A Novel of the Snopes Family by William Faulkner. I've nearly finished the second book in Faulkner's "grand" trilogy of the Snopes family in his fictional Yoknapatawpha county, Mississippi. And I still have never decided how I would pronounce Yoknapatawpha. There are moments in the first Snopes novel, The Hamlet, which I think are among the best fiction I've ever read. The Town has fewer of these moments, but actually functions more smoothly as a single novel. The story is set in Jefferson, the county seat located near but not too close to Frenchman's Bend - the "hamlet" of the previous book. Three characters, with three very different perspectives, tell the the story. Each narrator has limitations, whether it be a tendency to romanticize or naivety of age. By the end of the book the narrators even begin to become frustrated with each other as their competing perspectives each try to convince the reader of their "truth." The climax is surprising, though upon reflection I'm not sure it should have been. There are no heroes to be found (not one), but there is incredible insight into the human condition. This is classic Faulkner, and I agree with the back cover of the book: These book are best experienced together.

From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible
by Eric H. Cline This is the final book I am reading right now, and it is a book which, in a way, chose me. Each month, invited readers to apply to receive free advanced copies of books which are "coming soon." Usually many more requests are made of each work then are copies available -- however, I submitted a request for this book and recently received my free copy. In return, LibraryThing asked those who receive books to submit a review (good or bad). I look forward to this. This book explores the archaeological evidence for such biblical locals and items as the Garden of Eden, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Ark of the Covenant (among several others). Since the author is an accomplished archaeologist (and I am not), I will likely be reviewing whether I find his arguments persuasive, rather than arguing the evidence. I will post my formal review as a separate post upon completion. Note: This is a revised paperback version of a work published last year in hardcover.

I'm sticking to Wisdom Literature in my biblical studies at the moment - Ecclesiastes. Read any of these books? Reading something related? Share a comment!

Grace and peace,

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Eternal Hope of Spring

Those who know me well know that in addition to Biblical studies and classic fiction, I have a true passion for baseball. It is around this time of year we see a multitude of articles, diaries, and blogs on the wonder of Spring baseball. Better writers than I have waxed and waned poetic about the hope and grandeur of our national past time in its inaugural throes.

Here in St. Louis there are a variety of standard April jokes concerning the rival Chicago Cubs. Most of them are along the lines of "Hey, even Cubbie fans believe their team has a least until May 1st." This year, the Cubs are proving to have some fight in them. However, the jokes illustrate how quickly fans can lose the hope which is so empowering during the weeks leading up to opening day. One wrong injury, one early losing streak, and suddenly the sky is falling.

My team, the Atlanta Braves, are an unfortunately perfect example. Three starting pitchers from the opening day rotation have spent time on the disabled list - and two are still there. The ace of the staff, John Smoltz, now appears to be planning to return as a reliever. Since the team's closer and top set-up reliever are also on the DL, he might be as needed in such a role anyway. The team is 12-15, and at least one Braves fan (yes, fan) has told me he thinks their season is over. In a recent article on, one scout was quoted as saying pretty much the same thing.

As of this afternoon, the club from Atlanta is averaging more runs per game than any other team in the NL East. They have allowed fewer runs than any team in the NL East. Yes, they are in fourth place - a whole 2.5 games out of first. Their record is largely a product of two mind-numbing statistics. In games decided by more than 1 run, the Braves are 12-6. In games decided by exactly 1 run, the Braves are 0-9. What a way to torture fans! Baseball historians and professional statisticians can demonstrate how such streaks are often the result of luck (and sometimes a bad bullpen)and tend to even themselves out, particularly in a sport with 162 regular season games. However, knowing this has not made all nine of those one-run losses less painful, and finishing one or two games behind the Phillies or Mets in September would be excruciating.

I have no idea where the Braves, or Cubs, or Cardinals will finish this year - though telling a friend of mine that I think the Royals have more talent, player for player, than the Cardinals this year did not win me points in this town. Regardless, I think hope can be pretty cheap for most baseball fans, myself included. Why should any of us give up on our teams on May 1st?!? Perhaps we should use words like "wish" or "desire" to describe our Spring feelings, rather than hope or anticipation. Yet, the romantic baseball fan in me clings to the spiritual elements of baseball (ah, a future post, TBA), and the transformative power of hope - even hope unrealized. I mean, really, weren't most Red Sox fans a lot more fun to be around when all they had was inevitably tragic hope?

Grace and peace,

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

By any scale with which one could measure, I am a lousy sick person. The last week has affirmed this truth, and I am sure Tara would eagerly agree. I knew I was in trouble when a couple of well-meaning persons commented after choir practice last Wednesday night, "James, you don't look too good." By the next evening (Maundy Thursday), it took me five cough drops to get through our worship service. Days (and nights) of coughing, hacking, headaches, and a fever led to no rest for James.

I think one of the reasons I'm a lousy sick person is because of my attention span -- or lack thereof. I usually keep pretty busy, and being sick requires not being busy. In fact, I didn't leave our house from early evening Friday until Monday morning, when I made the trek to my doctor and the pharmacy (OK...and I spent about 1 hour up at the office. Being gone on a Sunday, especially Easter Sunday, and not knowing what was going on at church was killing me!). Then it was back home until Wednesday morning, when I reemerged to the world. As it turns out, Tara was right in nearly forcing me to the doctor as the bronchitis I was determined to fight off on my own had transitioned to pneumonia (Yeah! a new illness to cross off the never-experienced list!). Tara being right is becoming annoyingly habitual.

Honestly, the most difficult part of being sick is not the strain on my attention-span, or even the physical pain - though neither of these are pleasant. No, the most difficult part is how completely reliant on others I must become. Tara took wonderful care of me, making several trips to the store for food and/or medicine, even though she had a multitude of responsibilities of her own. Leaders at our church, both lay leaders and ministerial staff, stepped up to make sure my responsibilities were covered in my absence. In fact, it can be quite a kick to the old ego when we discover how well everyone can get along with out us.

It seems like each time I am truly ill, God reminds me of how ridiculous my pride in my own self-reliance can be. I think most of us would be better served is we would allow ourselves to be "better served." There is great wisdom in both asking for and receiving aid from those willing and able to give it. Each time I make this realization and allow myself to receive help, I have the same reaction: My heart swells with gratitude for those who give it. We are not intended by our Creator to tackle the world on our own. The strength God grants us through the divine presence of the Spirit, as well as the combined strength of other persons, always exceeds our own.

However, now that I'm starting to feel better...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

What I'm Reading -- February 2008

One of the questions many of our church members, and even some of my non-church friends, ask me on a regular basis is, "What are you reading right now?" I don't know if those with careers other than ministry receive this question on a regular basis, but I find it a very positive question. As one who spends a great deal of time promoting education in general and Christian education in particular, I encourage reading. One of the ways we are formed both intellectually and spiritually is through what we read. Every month I will be updating my blog with a list of what I am reading and my reflections on these books.

The God-Hungry Imagination: The Art of Storytelling for Postmodern Youth Ministry by Sarah Arthur (published by Upper Room Books). I have only recently begun reading this work, but I already am very encouraged by what I have found. The author appears to be well grounded in the struggles, trials, and blessings of modern youth ministry. In a time which finds youth ministry books promoting the latest programming fads saturating the market, this book appears to be taking a refreshing approach. I look forward to continuing to read, and sharing more next month.

Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott (published by Riverhead Books). For those unfamiliar with Anne Lamott, I would describe her as insightful, though at times irreverent. Some of her frank and even harsh language can put one off, but throughout her writing there is a wit, humor, and wisdom which shines through. This book has been no exception. The individual chapters are fairly self-contained, and I find that I am unable to put a chapter down until I have finished it. For someone like me, who has a short literary attention space which causes me to hop from book to book and back again, this is high praise. Those who are easily offended by periods of irreverence when reading about faith issues will want to avoid this book.

The Hamlet by William Faulkner (published by Vintage). The reformed English major in me keeps me going back to fiction on a regular basis. I find that reading fiction, whether modern or "classic," keeps my creative side well fed. The Hamlet will certainly not be a novel for everyone. It is the first of the "Snopes trilogy," which chronicles the rise to influence of the Snopes family in a rural Mississippi county and small town. As with most of Faulkner's work, it is very dense reading and can be a little bit inaccessible. However, Faulkner had a gift for painting complex characters and for allowing characters to speak with their own voices. This can lead to entire chunks of narrative shared by an unreliable narrator. For those who find this technique frustrating, another novel (or even writer) would be best. While this has not been my favorite of Faulkner book thus far, I have managed to by drawn in by the characters. This book has even been able to affect my mood on occasion, which I can rarely say of any book.

Thank God It's Friday: Encountering the Seven Last Words from the Cross by William H. Willimon (published by Abingdon Press). Since encountering some of his writing while in seminary, Dr. Willimon has become one of my favorite preachers/writers. I am just beginning this book, but I am already enjoying it. Whenever I encounter one of his sermons or reflections on a Biblical text, I nearly always come away considering something new about the passage -- What could be a higher complement for a preacher? I am sure some of his insight (and maybe even a story or two) will make their way into a sermon of mine down the road. I look forward to gladly giving him credit. Though I am only a handful of pages in, I have no reservations in recommending this book.

Wow -- I'm pretty positive so far in my reviews. I'm sure the harsh critic in me will surface in the future. By the way, the two books of the Bible which I am reading right now are the Book of Job and the Gospel of John.

Read any of these books? Let me know what you think.

Grace and peace,