Do I really want to add something to the Duck Dynasty Fiasco?

Prolegomena:  This whole ordeal has very little to do with the First Amendment.  Freedom of Speech refers to the government’s role in censorship.  Phil should be able to say what he believes as he speaks from his own ideology and experience, and A&E should be able to suspend him if they believe it’s in their company’s best interest.

Next, the Robertsons will be just fine.  I don’t write this because I feel any pressure to defend Phil.  (Nor do I think he feels he needs defending, as if he’s a martyr or a victim of persecution in some significant way).  In fact, I think the whole idea that a gritty, backwoods, wildman needs the conservative masses to come to his defense from the so-called “liberal media” is kind of laughable.  It seems he’d be happy to get back to whatever redneck life he lived before any of this went down.

But after observing numerous Facebook threads, and reading several articles both attacking and defending Phil (including the original GQ story), I do believe there are some significant things at stake.

First, I want to make it clear that whether or not I agree with Phil about any of the things he said, I can be certain that I would not have said things the way he said them.  Anytime a Christian is going to articulate a belief, especially one dealing with an issue as charged as sexuality, it’s important we choose our words carefully.  The particularities of any religious belief system or ideology can be divisive and yes, even offensive.  But it’s important that one doesn’t add to that offense by being unnecessarily crude or shocking.  Perhaps part of what made Phil’s remarks so inflammatory was that he seemed somewhat flippant, and I can understand how that was off-putting.  However, many of the things he said would have angered people no matter how he said them (Are we not aware that ideological differences exist in this country?).

However, certainly much of Phil’s discourse was simply his iteration of what he believes to be orthodox teachings of the Christian faith, and while many today do not identify with that version of Christianity, to deny that it represents a widely held and historically orthodox interpretation of Scripture is to be dishonest to one’s faith tradition.  This article in a “liberal” media outlet (The Atlantic) makes a cogent point, and it’s an important read for liberals and conservatives alike.  Here’s the thrust:

Instead of acknowledging this tension, however, A&E, GLAAD, and their supporters have responded with disingenuous expressions of shock and horror.  And it matters that it’s disingenuous, because if they actually acknowledged that there is a genuine conflict between orthodox Christianity and homosexual sex (along with several forms of heterosexual sex) they would have to confront head-on the fact that calling for a boycott or pressuring for Robertson’s suspension tells orthodox Christians that their religion is no longer acceptable, and that’s not a very politically correct thing to do. Right now, they are trying to weasel out of it by characterizing Robertson as a backwoods bigot who takes his moral cues from Deliverance rather than from a straightforward reading of the Bible and the historic teachings of the Christian religion.

Phil did not articulate a marginal or fringe view of sexuality that can be dismissed as lunacy.  Let’s just be honest about that.

Furthermore, as many have pointed out, Phil’s comments on sexuality were not the only things that contributed to the firestorm.  The GQ story also quoted Phil on his experience in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era.  Now, I’ve come to realize that there’s an experience and narrative about race in the Deep South that I know nothing about.  I’ve heard from persons of color and white folks alike that if you’re not from the South, then there are things you just simply won’t “get.”  It seems Phil’s comments belong to that world, so I’ll leave judgment to those who might actually have a clue what he’s talking about.

But to that point, Phil’s comments aren’t too unlike something eminent bioethicist Leon Kass discovered during his time in Mississippi in 1965, from which he reflects: “I came back from this place with this conundrum: Why was there more honor, goodness and decency in these unschooled black farmers than I found in my fellow graduate students at Harvard, whose enlightened and liberal opinions I shared?”  See link.

Nevertheless, I see how Phil’s interpretation of race relations in that time shows a lack of awareness for the wider context of race in America, and his off-hand dismissal of racial struggle today was, again, not helpful.  But here’s the rub, this whole situation has highlighted a dangerous reality about the way we disregard each other nowadays:  We are at a point where if someone contributes to a conversation and shows themselves to be under-nuanced, ignorant, or old-school in some way, then we can rightly brand them a bigot, a racist, a homophobe, a wolf in camo-clothing, etc.

I constantly see this among my peers, many of whom were colleagues in college and graduate school or are now working in ministry or higher-ed.  Congratulations to all of us!  We learned the language of social justice and reconciliation while at school.  We learned to be critical of evangelicalism and conservative politics, and we now get to show the world how educated, diplomatic, and socially aware we are!  We are privileged to use words like “privilege” and “systemic injustice.”  And because of this, we get to stand at the Temple gates, thanking God we are not like those ignorant, backwoods, bigoted sinners.

I hope we see the irony in all of this.  Not only does it betray the values we allegedly espouse (but isn’t this justified, for the oppressive patriarchy does not fall under the category of enemies I might be called to love?), but it is also essentially a power ploy – precisely the kind of power we are called to lay down – power that can silence and marginalize those we might classify as “other.”

I’m speaking to my generation, my peers here.  If we haven’t noticed, among other young, educated, so-called post-evangelical Christians, the social and professional rewards for being progressive, moderate, or even simply well-spoken, are now greater than those of regular conservatives (I speak from my own observations here, where I see far more “likes” and cyber pats-on-the-back when someone asserts a progressive ideal as opposed to a traditional one.  And certainly the rewards in higher-ed slant progressive, except in the case of ultra-conservative private institutions).  What was once cutting edge, emergent, daringly critical Christianity is now the status quo for millenials.  I withhold judgment about whether that’s good or bad, but we do need to be honest about the power dynamics now in play, and thus dialogue responsibly and respectfully.  Being harsh and dismissive towards conservatives in the name of “justice and concern for the marginalized” is still harsh and dismissive – and it conveys the same spirit and tone of those who dismiss the poor, or the gay, or the immigrant, etc.

To me, that’s what’s at stake.  In Miraslov Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace he makes the point that there’s very little that keeps marginalized groups from becoming just like their former oppressors once the power has shifted.  If we are not aware of that dangerous tendency within ourselves, and if we haven’t honestly asked Christ to make space within ourselves for receiving the other, then our cycles of judgment, marginalization, and exclusion will continue.  Currently, it seems we’re cool with that.

How Both Sides have a lot to Gain, and we all have a lot to lose…

[Note: Please read comment thread for important clarifications and dialogue.]

Behind every sarcastic meme or inflammatory facebook rant is a real person who perhaps spent a lot of time settling into his or her beliefs.  And in front of every sarcastic meme or inflammatory facebook rant is a real person who is perhaps deeply hurt by what they read.  Remember that.

The recent bout of activism, anti-activism (or shall we combine these into a single term, “slacktivism”) on the facebook and blogosphere regarding the Supreme Court case seeking to overturn DOMA and prop 8 has caused a lot of frustration.

Now, being that I’m a pastor in a traditionally conservative denomination, you might assume my frustration is due to the vocal and visible acts of advocacy for LGBT rights, most recently symbolized by a red equal sign in place of peoples’ profile pictures.  That assumption would be wrong.

And if I’m not angry at the pro-LGBT folks, then my frustration must be at the reaction from the conservative folks who started posting anti-memes or strips of bacon or red crosses instead of equal signs.  They bit the bait; they drew their lines in the sand; they marked their territory.  Or at least they made jokes. If that’s not what facebook is for then I don’t know what is.

In reality, the whole scene was rather disheartening, and has been for quite some time.  The recent “equal sign” campaign was one more experiment showing how good we are at reducing issues to the simplest, and thus least nuanced or sensitive talking points, so that when our opponents disagree, we can – with the wave of a hand or the click of a meme – show them to be ignorant, bigoted, or destined for hell.

And we do this because we have a lot to gain in doing so.  If we can reduce the marriage debates to slogans like, “It’s about love!” or “Equality for all!” then we can prove to ourselves that those who disagree are clearly anti-love and anti-equality.  This is great news, because if they are anti-love and anti-equality, then I don’t have any obligation to listen to them, or consider why they may have come to the conclusions they’ve come to.  In a way, I get to dehumanize them.  Because after all, that’s what they’re doing.

But when we do this, we ignore the very real possibility that our opponents have come to their conclusions through a lot of tears and anguish.  A lot of real conversations with real people full of real pain.  Perhaps a lot of prayer, and maybe even a trepidatious searching of the Scriptures.  Or they might have come to their conclusions because they happen to disagree with you about what makes for good social policy or American jurisprudence.  Oh yah, there’s always that.

But the other side has a lot to gain by reducing the conversation as well.  If we can show that our opponents celebrate complete amorality, or are entirely anti-God, or blindly ignorant of Scripture, then we are able to reassure ourselves that we have no reason to listen to them.  Why would I listen to someone who tossed their moral compass in the creek at the last fundy youth camp they ever attended?  Why would I listen to someone who is so blatantly against family values and so sadistically violent toward Scripture?  They don’t deserve the dignity of a conversation.

And when we do this, we ignore the very real possibility that our opponents have come to their conclusions through a lot of tears and anguish.  A lot of real conversations with real people full of real pain.  Perhaps a lot of prayer, and maybe even a trepidatious searching of the Scriptures.  Or they might have come to their conclusions because they happen to disagree with you about what makes for good social policy or American jurisprudence.  Oh yah, there’s always that.

So yes, each side has a lot to gain by reducing the conversation to red equal signs and crosses.  We get to end the conversation right there, we get to be right.  That just feels good.

But we all have a lot to lose.

Why I’m Not a Grinch Anymore: A Reflection on the Incarnation

Obviously I’m not trying to be unique when I say Christmas is my favorite holiday.  I love snow and twinkling lights and I get warm-fuzzies when I look at Normon Rockwell paintings of people ice-skating on quaint ponds with bright red scarves and rosy cheeks.  This season turns me into the most kitschy, nostalgic sap on the planet.  And I’m okay with that.  I really love Christmas.


But I’m also not naïve, and as I’ve grown up I’ve realized the Christmas that gives me those warm-fuzzies isn’t very closely related to the holiday that’s supposed to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Incarnation of God.  The religious Christmas and the secular Christmas both happen to fall on the same day, but they celebrate two very different, perhaps contradictory things.  Sure, if we try really hard we can convince ourselves that buying lots of stuff and eating large meals is a perfectly meaningful way to celebrate Christ’s coming, but it’s a stretch.


Darn, there I go being grinchy.  I thought this post was supposed to be about why I’m not going to be a grinch this year?  What was I getting at?


Oh yah…so it should also be obvious that I’m not trying to be unique when I rag on the consumerist, materialistic bonanza that Christmas has become.  I’m not the first person that’s been troubled by this, and you don’t have to be St. Francis to realize that Black Friday and doorbusters and evergreen trees surrounded by boxes don’t point us to Jesus.


Consequently, throughout the last several years it’s been difficult for me to truly celebrate the great Christian holidays (Christmas and Easter) because I’ve been so bothered by the secularization thing.  What does a stocking hung by the chimney with care have to do with the Virgin Birth?  What do a bunny and a basket have to do with the Resurrection?  These are real questions, and as a young husband and father I’ve been trying to figure out how my family is going to celebrate these holidays in a way that honors their true significance.


And while I was busy figuring this out, I forgot to marvel at the God lying there in the manger; I forgot to rejoice at the empty tomb.


This is a big problem.  In my effort to reclaim the true meaning of the Christian holidays I had, in fact, ceased to celebrate them.


As I reflect on it now it seems so silly: I’m all bothered that our celebrations ignore and contradict the religious events that propagated them; so instead, I’ll spend all my energy worrying about how everyone is doing it wrong.  God came to earth and then defeated death, and now this same God needs me to be all grouchy about the way people spend their money.


Don’t get me wrong, as someone passionate about theology and Christian ministry, I care deeply about who the church is and what the church does.  In fact, I spend a lot of my time pondering the ways we can more faithfully follow the Christ we profess.  I want to be an effective Christian minister and participate in communities that earnestly follow Jesus, thus I’m motivated by our potential to be different, to be better witnesses to the God we worship.  The way we celebrate these holidays is one of those areas we can be better.


But like I said, whether my energy this Christmas is wasted on Best Buy’s latest sale or wasted on how badly I want to kick everyone in the head who waits outside Best Buy for that sale, it’s wasted nonetheless. It just doesn’t make sense, in light of the Incarnation, to feel such pressure to fix everything that’s wrong with Christmas.  That’s kind of the point of the Incarnation of God – we were having trouble fixing anything, so Jesus came and fixed it for us.  This is a truly liberating reality, and it’s helped me enjoy this season so much more.


I love Christmas.  I really love it.  And this year I will pour myself a cup of coffee and sit by the window while it snows and turn on Pandora’s Christmas station…and be happy.  Christ has come, and Christ will come again.


This is My Father’s World

A hymn a day keeps the devil away.

Just kidding.

And I’m not going to post a hymn everyday; that would be annoying.  But I’ve decided it might be interesting to occasionally post an old hymn that I have found particularly meaningful or relevant at certain times.  Here’s one I’ve been humming for the last week:


This is my Fathers world
And to my listening ears,
All nature sings and round me rings
The music of the spheres.

This is my Fathers world,
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas,
His hand, the wonders wrought.

This is my Fathers world,
The birds, their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white
Declare their makers praise.

This is my Fathers world,
He shines in all that’s fair.
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass,
He speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Fathers world,
Oh let me neer forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.

This is my Fathers world,
The battle is not done.
Jesus, who died, shall be satisfied
And earth and heaven be one

Chew on some of that theology for a while.

Christians and Creation, Part II

Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park

There are flood and drouth
Over the eyes and in the mouth,
Dead water and dead sand contending for the upper hand.
The parched eviscerate soil
Gapes at the vanity of toil,
Laughs without mirth.
This is the death of earth.
~ T.S. Eliot

My wife and I spent consecutive weekends in September at the weddings of some of our closest friends.  First, I stood with my friend Chris as he said his vows to his wonderful wife, Jess, at her home in Montrose, CO, with the smell of summer peaches still lingering in the air and the San Juan Mountains decorating the southern horizon like crooked teeth.  It was beautiful.

The following week my wife stood next to her friend, Tonia, while she smiled up at her husband, Mike, beneath the flame-tipped maple leaves and crisp autumn sunshine of northern Wisconsin.  This, too, was beautiful.

For the first wedding, we drive six hours across the Rocky Mountains and gazed at the scattered groves of Aspens flaunting their first golds of the fall.  For the second, we drove 5 hours on Highway 8 through the forests of Wisconsin, which are just now bursting with the pockets of blaze and burgundy that will color the landscape until the snowflakes fly.  This is a marvelous time of year for outdoor weddings and road-trips, and it’s made for some further reflection on Christianity and creation, and the wild, wonderful places that I love.  Oh, and I finally finished that book I was blogging about, so here are a few more thoughts about creation-care and the Church:

It’s been my experience that the majority of Christians are encouraged to appreciate the greatness and beauty of God’s creation on things like spiritual retreats and camps, which at least at a superficial level, engenders some sort of ecological appreciation.  Growing up, nearly all the youth camps I attended took place just outside Rocky Mountain National Park, and there’s no doubt that when the wind whistled through the giant pines and the sun shined off Longs Peak’s diamond face, I gained a deeper sense of who God is and what this God is capable of.  Every time I return to the mountains I am overwhelmed and humbled by the greatness of those places and the God who made them.

And the same thing happens still today with different churches and different landscapes.  This August I led a cabin of high school boys at YoungLife’s Castaway Club in Pelican Rapids, MN.  On the final evening the students were asked to spread out across the grounds and spend 10 minutes alone as the red sun receded over Pelican Lake and the prairie wind carried the waves quietly across the water.  Later that night many of our students expressed the significance of that time for them.  For whatever reason, we all find it easier to pray when we’re alone beneath the northern sky and the starlight creates shadows in the trees and the loon cries out from somewhere in the darkness.  These sorts of experiences seem fairly common among religious people.

So why the disconnect?  Why are so many Christians skeptical of, if not outright against, today’s “green movement” and other ecological advocacy efforts?  I’ll offer a few of my own thoughts as to why this is, and then share some of Bouma-Prediger’s suggestions for reshaping the way the majority of Christians think about the earth.

I mentioned in my previous post that for most Christians this issue is perceived as too politicized and secular.  Environmental issues typically form part of the leftist platform, thus many Christians won’t align themselves with a cause that will get them labeled “liberal,” or worse yet, suggest that they somehow support PETA or Ale Gore or other supposed wackos.  While in some cases I understand this reservation, it’s actually kind of ridiculous to determine your beliefs and opinions based on the types of people that might agree with you.  That would be like choosing not to feed your children because your neighbor feeds his children but he also lets his dog poop in your yard and “we wouldn’t want to be confused with that sort of person.”  If something is the right thing to do, like, say, feeding your kids or protecting an endangered species, we should do it regardless of those who might also agree.  It’s called having a conviction.  Unfortunately, too few Christians have any convictions regarding the created world.

A related issue is that many people are now turned off by how doggone trendy it is to be “eco-friendly” these days.  You can’t turn on the TV or read a magazine without seeing some new company flaunting the greener version of itself (which is usually not all that much different than the old version).  This now even happens in some Christian circles, like the University/Seminary I attend, which recently tried to capitalize on the fact that a few of us seminarians and one undergrad student actually garden and make our own organic compost.  In at least one publication the University tried to spin these small, normal efforts as some sort of grand initiative by which the University is going green.  As an institution, we may be going green, but for now, we are still hot pink.

As annoying as this trendy-ness can sometimes be, we ought to agree that just because something has become popular doesn’t mean we should abandon it.  That’s like those people who can no longer listen to Kings of Leon because they overheard the homecoming queen humming “Use Somebody” while pulling Starbucks receipts out of her Coach bag.  Oh, and if teenage abstinence ever becomes super-cool I don’t think we should all ditch that bandwagon just because it’s too popular.  Anyway, back to ecology…

Another big problem is the imbedded sentiment within conservative Christianity that feels that any statistic suggesting the earth is in some sort of ecological crisis is so skewed and slanted by the left that we must throw out any claims they might make.  Truth-telling around environmental issues is a big problem, and I don’t necessarily fault conservatives and evangelicals who feel like the facts are always being manipulated.  Many of the facts are being manipulated, and unless you’re an expert on the environmental sciences, you are at the mercy of someone else to tell you what our problems are.  And that person probably has an agenda.

But I think that if you’re paying any sort of attention, you’ll notice that we are having a negative impact on the earth, and even if we aren’t going to die tomorrow, we should be trying to fix it.  The evidence is everywhere.  In 1995 a bunch of schoolchildren studying around a pond in Minnesota were horrified when they came across a number of deformed frogs, many with missing limbs.  And when I moved to Minnesota eight years ago I couldn’t walk to the end of my driveway without sending at least a few leopard frogs into a panic as they leapt for the ditch.  By the time we left that house four years later, after the area became more and more developed, no frogs could be found.  That sucks because I like leopard frogs, and their presence in an ecosystem is suggestive of health and balance.


And when you drive to Denver from my parents’ home in Fort Collins, as soon as you crest the hill near Longmont, you can see the brown cloud that hovers over the Mile High City like a dirty rag.  It’s ugly and it smells like barf.  We should be doing something about that.  And admitting this doesn’t make you a tree-hugger.

So hopefully most of us can agree that God’s green earth is a pretty nice place, and we’d like to keep it that way.  This isn’t too radical of a statement.  However, as soon as we start discussing the things we’d have to do and the changes we’d have to make if we really wanted to start lessening our negative impact on creation, people start to get real uncomfortable.  For instance, it’s my opinion (and shared by many others) that environmental issues are largely related to our consumerist, materialistic habits as a culture, thus consuming less would naturally lessen the stress and exploitation of the non-renewable resources needed for material production.  And last time I checked, simplicity and self-restraint, especially with respect to material wealth, are not something invented by environmentalists.  They are, one could argue, quite biblical.

But the common argument against this sort of solution is that our way of life would collapse if everyone started consuming less, and even if some Christians did this, it’s ridiculous to think any grand-scale change could ever happen.  Bouma-Prediger addresses these two objections quite nicely.  For the last one, he argues that the probable results or consequences of our moral actions do not determine whether or nor we should do the right thing.  We ought to act justly and rightly whether or not there will be any noteworthy consequences.  And to the first objection he writes, “Truth be told, however, our current way of life is in many respects unsustainable, and it is already showing signs of collapse.  Maybe our way of life ought not revolve around the constant quest for more stuff.”  I agree, and I also recognize that this is an unpopular stance.

There are many good people who make things, sell things, work in retail, etc.  I understand that.  And to suggest that our consumer economy is somewhat to blame for the abuse of the earth, and that we need to change, has deeply personal and scary implications for a lot of us.  But what if he’s right and we do need to consume far less than we do right now?  Is it possible that there are other ways of making a living and being happy on this earth that don’t revolve around this way of life?  And can’t we be more creative about producing goods in sustainable and less wasteful ways?  After all, we are bursting at the seems with good ol’ American ingenuity; let’s put that to use thinking of ways we can consume less, not more.

As a Church, we can start being radical about more than just personal sin issues.  For many of us, when asked what makes us Christians different, we say something like, “I don’t get drunk, I don’t sleep around, and I don’t cuss.  Plus, I go to church and I tithe.”  This is all good stuff, and certainly these may be some of the ways that Christians can distinguish themselves.  But what if our answer to that question involved things like, “As a Christian, I want to be part of Jesus’ activity in renewing the world.  Which means loving my neighbor, restoring broken relationships, and taking care of the good earth that God created.”  What if part of our radical stance as Christians was about more than not sinning but about actively participating in the restoration of all things.  This should inform the way we think about the environment.

And on this point, Bouma-Prediger makes it clear that the Bible presents a gospel concerned with far more than saving individual souls.  He accurately portrays the false sentiment shared by many Christians who think, “We should take care of first things first—saving souls, feeding people, preaching the gospel—and worry about timber wolves and northern falcons only after we have attended to God’s primary concerns.”

This is a false dichotomy.  The gospel is not about one or the other, and Bouma-Prediger is careful to assert that concern for the environment should in no way be construed as anti-people.  The gospel is definitely about human relationships, salvation, and reconciliation, but this gospel also involves the earth.  Poignantly, he states, “This objection wrongly assumes that the gospel is somehow unconnected to the earth, as if the message of the bible concerns only disembodied souls in some netherworld, as if in the eschaton the canvas of creation will be annihilated, as if our Redeemer is not our Creator.”

And this is really the most important point.  Many of us haven’t even considered what it would mean for us and our churches to start showing concern for the earth because we think this has nothing to do with our duty as Christians.  But we need to change the way we think.  And when we’re on that retreat in the mountains, or a hike with our kids, or a fishing trip with Grandpa, we should look out over the landscape and sense the presence of God, and know that our lifestyles and efforts as Christians have a lot to do with this place, this good earth.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing no less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
~ T.S. Eliot

Christians and Creation, Part 1

Lake Superior, McLain State Park, the U.P.

As promised, I’m going to offer some reflections on Steven Bouma-Prediger’s For the Beauty of the Earth.  The book begins much like I expected, with depressing statistics about the present state of the earth and our inevitable demise if we don’t drastically correct our influence on creation.  This is, of course, a necessary starting point for the case he is making; but, unfortunately, will do little to persuade those who are convinced these statistics are slanted and inflated by those with something to gain politically.  In spite of Prediger’s well-substantiated evaluation of the ecological problem, many of us have no problem walking away unaffected.  (And this reality, I believe, is truly one of the biggest impediments for Christians in taking this issue seriously:  It has become so politicized and even fashionable lately, that any recognition of the ecological problem is seen as a political and secular move that many conservatives and evangelicals aren’t willing to make.  I’ll have to address that troubling dilemma later.)

After spending some time explaining the charge some ecologists make against Christianity as the primary cause of our ecological crisis, Bouma-Prediger does a nice job debunking this accusation.  Not only are our ecological problems the result of a complex interplay of industrialism, modernism, consumerism, population growth, etc., he asserts that Christianity, rightly understood, actually places a high value on the created order.  Even if Christians and the church haven’t always faithfully applied this, Scripture and the Christian vision are not to blame.

This leads to what for me has been the most interesting and helpful section of the first half of the book.  Bouma-prediger visits five biblical texts from which he draws out thick themes significant for ecological ethics.  He seems hermeneutically faithful with these scriptures and avoids the temptation to simply dance around waving his arms every time the term “creation” shows up in the Bible.  I’ll highlight two of his more unique and refreshing interpretations:

Looking at the flood narrative in Genesis 6-9, Bouma-Prediger asks the question, “With whom does God make a covenant?”  Those who are familiar with the story are aware that it ends with a rainbow as God promises to never flood the earth again, but Bouma-Prediger makes some interesting observations.

First, it should be blatantly significant to us that God deems it necessary to preserve two of every species on the earth.  This wasn’t just about saving righteous humans, it was about saving all God’s created beings.  More important, however, is the covenant made by God in Genesis 9:8-17.  Most notable here is that the covenant is between God, Noah, and every living creature; and the rainbow is a sign of the covenant between God and the earth.  In all my hearings of this story throughout my life I had never caught the significance of that reality:  Every living creature on God’s earth is covenant-worthy.  There’s no minimizing the significance of covenants in the biblical narrative, and the fact that God makes a covenant with even non-human creatures says something about the importance of the created world in the divine program.

The second argument that caught my attention was Bouma-Prediger’s explanation of the ecological significance of the Job story.  He focuses on the divine speeches, which, if we recall, are those humbling words of God that ask Job to stand in awe of the overwhelming magnitude of God’s creative power.  For Bouma-Prediger, the question being answered here is “Who is at the center of things?”

We may be (or try to be) the measurer of all things, but we are not the measure of all things.  Behemoth and Leviathon – not to mention the mountain goat and the wild ass – remind us that the scope of God’s creative will reaches farther than any human individual or community.

Then, quoting Carol Newsom, he writes:

The contrast between the horizon [of meaning] within which Job presents himself and the horizon within which God asks Job to locate himself could not be sharper.  Job’s primary horizon of meaning was the village and the family. God challenges the parochialism of Job’s moral imagination by making the starting point nothing less than the whole of creation.  We, too, often tend to think of the moral world as having simply to do with the relation of humans to other humans…

This was so startling to me.  It’s as if, in the midst of Job’s unthinkable tragedies, God says, “Look around you, Job, there is more to consider here than yourself and your own present experience.”  As much as this is relates to our self-understanding in the midst of suffering, I think Newsom is right in showing how the divine speeches assert that the human perception of goodness and justice is only properly formed when considering the vastness of the created world.

And finally, dealing explicitly with suffering, Bouma-Prediger writes:

…in times of grief and pain, there is great solace in fierce landscapes.  When God is at the center, and the human thereby displaced, there is a world wide and wild enough to absorb the pain of human suffering.

Most of us can relate to that last point, and I think Christianity across the spectrum has done a pretty good job of asking people to appreciate the wonder of God’s creation on things like spiritual retreats and camps.  We have no problem doing that.  The problem comes when we are asked to consider the ways our lifestyles and habits may be adversely affecting this creation.

I’m wrestling with how we are going to get past this hang-up.  More on that later.

Patriotism, War, and My Friend

This last weekend, like most Americans, I celebrated our country’s independence with grilled hamburgers and parade candy and sparkly explosions in the sky.  I love the 4th of July and I like the country I live in, so it’s all good.

But these past few weeks I’ve been doing some thinking about this country, and our armed forces, and my friend who will be off to Army training camp in a little over a month.  It is taking me a while to process how I feel about all this, all this patriotism and war and people who wear our flag on their camouflage uniform – my friend soon to be one of them.

My friend and I are Christians.  We grew up in the same church and sang the same songs.  We try to serve Jesus as best we can; but somehow, in my efforts to follow Christ I have come to a place where I don’t want to be involved in the military.  And it’s not just because I don’t want to get up at 4 a.m. and run around with a heavy backpack and potentially get shot at sneaking around in another country.  It’s because I have read the New Testament as offering a different picture of how the world will be changed, and it seems like Jesus’ Kingdom operates with a different currency than the world’s.  Instead of violence and retaliation, the Kingdom offers love for the enemy and forgiveness for those who hurt us. And the King who rules this Kingdom actually got beat up and bloodied and killed, and commanded us to take up our cross and follow him.  For me, I have trouble reconciling that with participation in the military.  And it used to be easy for me to say that Christians who join the military are missing an obvious point of Jesus’ message.  But something tells me it’s just not that simple.

The problem is, however, that for many Christians (arguably the majority of the American Church), it is quite simple.  For them, there is no tension between Jesus’ command to love our enemy – to take up our cross to follow Him, and our own country’s call to overcome the enemy and retain its power in the world.  The solution is in some sort of “two kingdoms” approach in which we argue that the Church may try to function the way Jesus commanded, but we can’t expect our country to do so, thus we adopt a love for our enemy on a very private, personal level in which we try not to freak out when someone cuts us off in the interstate.  But in a political, national level we recognize that we can’t really love our enemy or else America would sort of lose its edge.

Even more dangerous, however, is that a lot of us don’t even take a two kingdoms approach, but have somehow confused the political and nationalistic efforts of America as congruent with the mission of God in the world, so we think that God might actually be behind America’s tanks and fighter jets.  There’s a certain premillenial-dispensationalism that lends itself to that thinking, especially in America’s political alliance with Israel.

So I’m uncomfortable.  I’m uncomfortable with those who think America and the Church and Israel are all working together.  I’m uncomfortable with those who think we can’t possibly hold our country to a Christian standard of loving our enemy, but we can hold it to a number of other Christian standards about abortion and homosexuality, etc.  And I’m uncomfortable with myself, for often being disrespectful and insensitive to Christians in the military because I’ve thought they were totally wrong.

And now that one of my best friends is joining the Army, it has become a deeply personal issue.  I know this friend.  I love this friend.  And I know he loves Jesus and he really loves others, often better than I do.  If you keep reading I’ll explain some of the things that make this guy so great.  And he’s joining the Army, so now what do I do?

About my good friend:

During my wife’s first pregnancy, this friend fasted junk food and meat and committed himself to prayer for my wife and me and our child to be.  In my wife’s ninth month he came to a campout with us and ate bread and coleslaw and had to forego the delicious entrees and desserts that covered the picnic table.  It was humbling to be with him those few days, watching him paw away at whatever meatless, sweet-less dishes he could find.  I am grateful for his friendship and prayers during that time.

This friend is more helpful than anyone I know.  He came to visit a month after our second child was born, and while I was busy chasing our two-year-old and my wife was keeping our newborn alive, he was in the kitchen, elbow deep in soap-suds and dirty dishes.  It’s always like that with this guy – picking up our bags or cleaning things up before we can even ask him for help.

And in that same visit he dozed on my couch while holding my oldest daughter after rocking her for what seemed like hours.  She slept peacefully in his arms as his head rested against the back of the couch in our quiet living room.

I’ve stood next to this friend in the blazing Colorado sun, our tool belts weighing on our hips while we carried bundles of shingles across a scorching rooftop.  And I’ve stood next to this friend in the blazing Colorado sun, our snowboards strapped to our backpacks while we traversed an 11,000 ft. peak in the fierce and bitter January wind.

When we were young we were both dragged through his backyard on the legs of his older brother, trying to bring him down before he carried the football to the edge of the field.  I played more backyard football with him and his brother than anyone else in my life, and while many games ended with punching and swear words and tears, we rarely stayed mad long enough to keep us from teaming-up the next time the snow filled our tracks and we could armor ourselves with thick coats to pad the blows from his powerful older brother.

On hot July afternoons we crouched in his backyard with matches and smoke bombs as we tossed Blackcats into his mom’s flowerbed. We arranged toy soldiers and plastic trucks along the flowers like an enemy base, and we barraged the small hillside with explosives and BB’s from my Daisy.

But soon those Blackcats will be replaced with an M-16 in the hands of my friend, and those plastic figurines will be real men with skin and muscles and weapons that can shoot back.  And it scares me.

This post began with some reflections on the Christian Church and American patriotism, and whether or not they should have anything in common.  One of the ways this relationship is often expressed is through churches that offer prayer for the troops or put American flags on their stage.  So as I think about my friend joining the Army, and my own internal conflict with patriotism, militarism, and Christianity, I have to consider what my prayer for the troops will look like – what I will and will not pray for.

What I will not pray for:

I will not pray that he kills lots of bad guys, or blows lots of stuff up, or “gives all them terrorists exactly what they deserve.”  I’m glad giving people what they deserve is not a prayer we pray in Church, or we’d all be in big trouble, we’d all need to hang from a cross.

I will not pray that America is successful in whatever our military exploits are, with little regard for whose family we are displacing or whose son is being killed.  I pray we find lasting solutions that are good for America and good for the world.

I will not pray that we “win” whatever war he might find himself in.  Certainly as an American, and someone with children, and someone who enjoys baseball and apple pie, I don’t want us to lose our country or our freedom or whatever it is we might lose.  But as a Christian, my first allegiance is to Jesus Christ and his Church, which has no country or military.  So if my country does someday fail, I pray that my friend and I, and every other American Christian, can hold fast to the hope we have in Jesus Christ and his ultimate victory, recognizing that this hope far surpasses any hope we could ever have in the Red, White and Blue.

What I will pray for:

I will pray for peace and stability in the world, so that my good friend doesn’t have to jump out of a plane into hostile territory.

But if he is asked to fight in a war I will pray that he is safe, and that he doesn’t die, and that he comes home when his tour is over.  When it’s supposed to be over – not earlier or later, because the reasons for that are rarely good.

I will pray that as a drill sergeant screams in his face, or in his long walks through the dark carrying heavy packs and stiff gear, or when he sees blood and limbs and death on the battlefield, he will not become hardened and cold.  I pray he does not lose that gentleness that allows him to fall asleep with my daughter in his arms.

I pray that as he swears allegiance to our country, and he promises to follow the orders of his superior officers, he is still able to hear the voice of Jesus reminding him where his true allegiance lies, and who he really belongs to.

And like the soldiers gathered around the Cross when the Temple curtain tore, I pray that my friend will follow Jesus in such a way that those around him might come to Christ and say, “Surely you are the Son of God.”

The Book of Common Prayer page 823

25. For those in the Armed Forces of our Country Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad. Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Kids and Contextual Theology

My wife and kids are staying with my wife’s family in Wisconsin for the week while I attend a summer school intensive 8 hours a day.  After class yesterday I went for a long run, and as I climbed the hill approaching the seminary apartments I was pleased to find a number of children careening down the slip-and-slide and splashing in the miniature kiddie-pool.  My head was pounding with dehydration and sweat dripped from my chin, so I knelt next to 3 yr old Timmy and his older brother Calvin and I asked,

“I’m hot, should I go stick my head in the sprinkler?”

Calvin shook his head in approval, then a few moments later, after a silent pause in which Timothy seemed to ponder the question with utter seriousness, he looked up at me and said enthusiastically, as if a great idea had just occurred to him,

“I think you should go stick your head in the sprinkler.”

Well okay, Timmy, that settles it.

After soaking my head in the cool water that poured over the slip-and-slide, I walked back toward Timmy and noticed Kenneth, my 7 yr old neighbor, sitting on a towel in the grass.  Kenneth was wearing a winter stocking cap.  It was 87 degrees and sunny.

“Kenneth, why are you wearing a stocking cap?” I asked.

“I am wearing a stocking cap so that mine hair doesn’t get wet.  Because if mine hair gets wet, the water might drip down into mine mouth and then I might drink it.  And if mine hair gets wet it might drip into mine eyes, too, and it will hurt mine eyes.  That’s why I’m wearing a stocking cap, so that mine hair doesn’t get wet on the slip-and-slide.  But I don’t always wear a stocking cap, only when it’s the slip-and-slide.”

Good enough for me.

So after spending 8 hours a day talking about redemptive-trajectory hermeneutics, or the relentless contextuality of interpretation, or the interplay between cross-communal dialogue and communal self-reflection, I get to come home and have conversations like this.  And it keeps me from thinking I’m more important than I really am, or taking myself too seriously, or feeling I need to maintain a certain level of pretense and sophistication.

Kenneth and Timmy don’t care about my theology or my ability to articulate myself.  They care if I can relate to them while they run through the grass carrying sticks like sabers.  And my two-year-old doesn’t care what sort of hermeneutic I hold to; she wants me to sit by her while she does a puzzle and run underneath her while I push her in the swing.

That doesn’t mean theology is unimportant; in fact, it informs the way I treat my kids and those in my community.  But if doing theology becomes an end in itself instead of a means toward greater worship and service and relationships with my neighbors, then I’m in big trouble.

My current course has challenged us to consider who really cares about our theological discourse.  If the only ones who are going to give a crap about your latest project are you and the professor who will read your paper, or your fellow Ph.D. candidates, or the faculty in your department, then we are missing the point.

Theology ought to serve the Church, and the Church is made up of people writing dissertations, and single mothers who must choose between groceries and rent, and kids like Timmy and Kenneth.  Our theology ought to take that into account.

I’m grateful for this contextual theology course, and for my family and community at the seminary, and for the youth in south Minneapolis who come to our church, for reminding me who and what theology is for.

A Thought on the Sacraments

Joos van Cleve (Dutch artist, 1485-1540), detail "The Last Supper," oil on wood" (c. 1530)

I’ve been doing some thinking about the Sacraments lately.  The Body and Blood.  The Water.  This past quarter in seminary I had to form some personal theological statements about the Sacraments – about what I believe and why.  It was challenging and formational and significant for me.  I guess that’s part of what seminary is all about.

In its most basic and traditional definition, a Sacrament is a visible means of an invisible grace; something we can experience with our senses that carries with it the gracious work of God.  There are various nuances and interpretations of what this means and what these are, but the most universally accepted Sacraments are the Lord’s Supper and Baptism:  The Church’s tangible experiences of God’s grace.

The Anabaptist John Howard Yoder offers another helpful definition, arguing that the Sacraments are those activities of the Church for which God has said, “When you act, I act.”  There are certain things the worshipping community does that are both symbol and source of the activity of God; and when we do them, God is there.  In this sense the Church must continually worship and celebrate the Sacraments in order to participate in the work of God.

And in a similar sense, the Church’s life must also be sacramental in Her ministry to the world.  The Church itself is the visible means of God’s grace to the world.  In other words, just as the worshipping community knows and experiences God through the nourishment of bread and wine, the world will begin to know and experience God when the Church feeds the hungry and clothes the naked.  The Church is established in the grace of God and thus She can convey that grace to the world for which Christ died.

Here’s an excerpt from something I wrote to my brother as we discussed these thoughts:

The church’s activity in the social sphere is only sacramental if it is rooted and grounded in the Grace of God, i.e. the Sacraments.  Thus, the Church does not do social feeding ministries just because food is good, but because God graciously gave Himself up for us, and was broken on our behalf, and will one day feed the world at the Great Banquet.  The Sacraments make sure that our table fellowship is rooted in the Lord’s Table.  And we do not make friends with people who are different from us because diversity is good, but diversity is good because we have all been baptized into our death and raised with Christ and we are all the family of God, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.  It is the Sacrament that makes that real, and not the other way around.

That about sums up my view of the Sacraments.

But then I recently finished Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (yes, I have a break from class for a while so I am back to reading novels), and I am reminded of another aspect of the Sacraments – the place where the mystical presence of God meets the flesh and blood of our world.  In Greene’s novel, the character Sarah struggles with her disbelief in God, and after looking at an image of Christ on the Cross she thinks:

“So today I looked at that material body on that material cross, and I wondered, how could the world have nailed a vapour there?  A vapour of course felt no pain and no pleasure…

…Suppose God did exist, suppose he was a body like that, what’s wrong in believing that his body existed as much as mine? Could anybody love him or hate him if he hadn’t got a body? I can’t love a vapour…”

The Sacraments make sure we never forget that God isn’t just a vapour, and God’s work in us isn’t merely an idea.  The bread sticks to our tongue and our teeth bump the metal cup… and we swallow something that is real. We hold our breath and fall into the water and feel the cold and the wet and the darkness all over our bodies.  And it’s real.

Jesus is real and we don’t worship merely a vapour.  The bread and the wine may not be Jesus in full, but they affect and involve our physical senses the same way Jesus affected his disciples – reclining beside them at the table with smelly hair and hot breath.  And we experience Jesus now at the Table as a foretaste to our experience with him when he returns, when we will touch and feel him like a friend.

Why We Garden, Part IV: Special Spaces

There’s a place at Grandma and Grandpa’s house where everything is always good.  Up the hill behind the kitchen window the woods are cleared and the sun hangs out all day above a little crest of earth where Grandpa used to pull tomatoes.  This June marks six years since he last turned a shovel in that ground, yet still, in the middle of the overgrown grass and twisted thickets is a small wooden sign proudly announcing “Grandpa’s Garden.”

Grandpa’s Garden has always held a sort of magic for me.  Before we lived in Minnesota my family used to vacation at their little house in the woods, and while Grandpa would be up there yanking weeds I’d be chasing garter snakes at a safe distance or catching the leopard frogs that sprung from the grass as I ran by.  Once, when it was just him and me, he picked a tomato and I followed him back to the kitchen where he sliced it and put it between pieces of toast and melted cheese.  I received that sandwich from Grandpa like a child at his first Communion – goodness and grace from the ground he’d toiled over.  The woods and rivers surrounding their house are full of all sorts of mystery and adventure, but that bright garden atop the hill is a special place, alive with critters and sunshine and images of Grandpa before he passed.

I often work night shifts patrolling our relatively quiet campus, and last week, during our third consecutive night of rain, I walked up to the garden with my powerful Maglite and studied the ground in its darkness.  I was in a place not used to visitors at that hour, and it felt like I was intruding on some mysterious secret, like a child walking downstairs late at night for a glass of water only to find his parents playing cards and drinking wine with strangers.  And there in the dark, with the rain falling sternly, the garden seemed to possess its own urgency.  In the daytime when the sun is bright the humans come with their watering cans and shovels and they poke around as best as they know how, but here in the darkness the earth and the rain seemed to be getting some real work done.  And the worms! Oh the worms! Wherever the light fell, the giant, swollen nightcrawlers slurped back into the dirt as if I’d just burst in on them changing underwear or toweling off after a shower; and there were hundreds of them, some as thick as fingers and others like spaghetti, working the soil as only worms can.

The more time I spend around gardens the more I appreciate them for their energy and beauty.  Whether it’s the wisps of steam curling from the giant compost piles at Growing Power or the way Grandpa’s hilltop feels warm even in the frozen January sunshine, gardens are fascinating and full of life.  Yesterday morning, as we enjoyed our first seventy-degree day in several weeks, a fellow seminary gardener commented in wonder at my impressive sunflower seedlings, “It’s amazing how dirt and sunshine can somehow take these little seeds and turn them into plants taller than you or me.”  And then, as I mixed rich compost at the base of my young tomato plants I marveled about how weeks previous this dirt was nothing more than the eggshells and coffee grounds I’d discarded after breakfast.  What wisdom and strength the earth must possess!

About the Triune God the Nicene Creed reads:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible…


And in one Lord Jesus Christ… by whom all things were made…


And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life…


Those last words strike me – The Giver of Life.

The life-giving work of the Spirit can be perceived in various ways, but I can’t help but sense that the same Spirit that gave life to Grandpa as he shouted from his pulpit is the same Spirit that gives life to Aleah as she drops her granola bar in the dirt…and it’s the same Spirit giving life in a garden where the soil and sun make strawberries so sweet you can hardly stand it.  All of creation hangs on the life-giving breath of God.

Gardens are special places.  Some of Jesus’ last moments before his Passion were in a garden, his sweat turning to blood as he anticipated his death.  And Grandpa’s sweat dripped upon his garden as often as his wheezing chest and failing heart would let him six years ago.  And now, in my family’s corner plot of the seminary community garden, I can spy on worms as they soak in the midnight rain or listen as the stems seem to stretch and straighten in the morning sun, or kneel next to my wife while our necks turn red and sweat darkens our shirts.

Gardening isn’t always profound.  It doesn’t always remind me of Grandpa or witness to the Spirit’s work in creation.  Sometimes it’s nothing but blisters and ambitious bugs.  But spend enough time in a garden and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about.  Gardens are fascinating, and if bright vegetables and stunning flowers aren’t enough to keep you interested, consider gardening simply for the fact that something amazing is going on in there.  You’ll see.


I wanna fit in to the perfect space,
feel natural and safe in a volatile place.
And I wanna grow old without the pain,
give my body back to the earth and not complain.
–The Avett Brothers, The Perfect Space