A Review of Traci Smith’s Seamless Faith: Simple Practices for Daily Family Life

seamlessfaithbanner-2“May God bless you and keep you while you sleep, May you rest in God’s mercies, and wake to God’s grace, May you dream of God’s blessings, and know that you are loved.”

Each night, my spouse whispers these words to my daughter as he tucks her into bed.  It is one of the most meaningful moments of his day.  Every day.

“Are we doing enough?   Will her faith life be integrated with the rest of her life?  How can we help her to recognize God’s presence in her life? Is her spiritual being developing as well as her mental and physical being?”

Each night, I wonder.  I sit in the chair where I have just snuggled with my not-quite-2-year-old listening to my husband’s blessing and I ask myself those questions.  As a mother and a children’s pastor, it is one of the most disquieting moments of my day.  Every day.

For that reason and others, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Traci Smith’s Seamless Faith: Simple Practices for Daily Family Life.  Traci has written a practical guide for helping family’s integrate faith into both the ordinary and celebratory moments of the family’s life.  Built on the premise that “faith is learned when it is woven seamlessly into the fabric of everyday life,” the book is divided into three sections:

  • The tradition section provides ideas that draw the family to encounter God in rituals for daily life and holidays.
  • The celebrations section invites families to remember God’s presence in the major transitions of life including everything from the birth of a new baby to moving out for college.
  • The spiritual practices section offers ways to implement prayer, almsgiving, hospitality and numerous other practices into family life.

Each outline of the fifty practices in the text offers a two-to-three page description with an introduction, a how-to, notes and variations.

The creativity of these practices is wondrous but each is presented in an accessible format.  Traci has thought of all the little details.  In “Traumatic Current Event: Sheltered under God’s Wings” there is a pattern for the bird used as part of the exercise, and also a thoughtful guide for talking with children of varying ages about the traumatic event.

The mother in me is thankful for this thoughtful, practical resource.   But the pastor in me is even more grateful for a resource that I can place in the hands of families in my congregation to help them adapt spiritual formation at home.  More than giving lip service to the idea that faith must be practiced in the home in order for faith to be fully integrated into the child’s life, this text gives busy, uncertain parents the tools to help their child recognize God in the ordinary and the stressful, the celebratory and the mundane.  Though the instructions are detailed, there is enough flexibility to adapt this text to a variety of faith traditions.  I want to give a copy of this text to every family in my congregation, and I will be giving a copy of the book to acknowledge births and adoptions.  The bottom line is that Seamless Faith is an invaluable resource in creating opportunities for children to encounter God and the mystery of faith.

This week, following the instructions in the outline titled “Anxiety: Wash Away Worries,” I am writing my concerns about my daughter’s spiritual formation on the driveway in sidewalk chalk.  My daughter and I will have a wonderful time playing in the water hose, and I’ll watch those aforementioned worries wash away, knowing they have been released to the Holy Spirit.  I’ll probably pick them back up later but I have a creative, thoughtful, practical text to help me not worry so much.

Seamless Faith is available for purchase through Chalice Press.  Receive monthly articles, tips and resources on faith and family by signing up for the Seamless Faith Monthly Newsletter.

The Gravity of Prayer

praying handsI know I’m a little late to the game, but two weeks ago my husband and I went to see the movie Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. I thought it was a decent movie, but not worth all of the awards it has won. That being said, there was one part that struck me particularly hard, and that I believe has implications for Christians.

Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, is a scientist turned astronaut on her first mission. Things go horribly wrong, and she ends up as the sole survivor after a series of disasters. At one point, she is in a Russian space capsule, trying to get to a Chinese station, to get back to earth. The only problem is that she is out of fuel and can’t reach Mission Control in Houston. She hears a man speaking in presumably Chinese, and tries to communicate without much success.

At this point, Dr. Stone starts a monologue, convinced that she is dying, and concludes with: “I’m really scared. Nobody will mourn for me, no one will pray for my soul. Will you mourn for me? Will you say a prayer for me? Or is it too late? I mean, I’d say one for myself, but I’ve never prayed in my life, so. Nobody ever taught me how. Nobody ever taught me how.”

No one taught this woman how to pray. And I began to wonder how many people in our churches have never been taught to pray? Or perhaps are not comfortable praying? Praying is simply being in conversation with God. It may happen verbally, through music, art, cooking, gardening, sewing, silence, walking, and so much more.

It’s easy for me as a pastor to say, “praying is simple conversation,” yet, every week at Bible Study or at a meeting when it comes time to pray, people sit and stare at one another. No one will look at me. It’s like being back in school when none of the students did the homework and are hoping against hope the teacher will call on someone else. And I wonder, where have I as a pastor failed?

Growing up, my pastors, Sunday School teachers, other church members, and my parents modeled prayer for me. I learned by watching and participating. I learned by experience. Prayer became a part of me and my life. I thought others who grew up in the church learned the same way. Little did I know that this isn’t true.

Somewhere along the line, we as pastors have stopped expecting much from our laity. Perhaps it was after families started needing a two-income household to make ends meet. Perhaps it was gradually over time as ministry became more and more of a professional field where we pay a pastor to do the ministry on our behalf. Or maybe it was as a result of trying too hard to make church accessible and lower the bar of expectations in an attempt to seem “hip” and “cool” with a society that was rapidly leaving church in the dust as the religious “nones” grow faster than any other religious group. Regardless of how we got here, the fact is that somewhere along the line we stopped teaching discipleship.

However, I think that all hope is not lost. Sandra Bullock’s character is the quintessential American who has a passing knowledge of faith, but doesn’t truly understand anything about it. Her character is facing what seems to be imminent death, and all of a sudden she is concerned with the afterlife and the state of her soul. Faith becomes real in the midst of tragedy.

And therein lies the beauty of this situation. Dr. Stone is opening herself up to the possibility of something more, something greater than herself. She is curious and desires more. As a Christian, whether pastor or lay member, it is our job to help her and people like her. It is all of our jobs to pass on our faith to others. We don’t have to have the “right” words to say or a special knowledge of the Bible or prayer. All we need is the ability to share our own story; the story of what God has done and continues to do in our own life that has transformed us from what we used to be. If we can’t share our faith with others then we will be seeing many more people like Dr. Stone, people that we have forgotten or neglected, wondering who will say a prayer for them, since “I’ve never prayed in my life…Nobody ever taught me how.”

Reviewing Her

When a friend encouraged me to see the movie Her a few weeks ago, my obligatory “What’s it about?” was met with “Huh?” when I learned it was about a romance between a human being and an operating systemLove. “You will love it,” was the confident response. I did.

The film is stunning on many levels with beautiful cinematography and art direction and a thought-provoking screenplay. Most of all, though, Her is remarkable in its restraint. Whereas so many movies portray the future as a place of frenzy and hyperactivity with all sorts of moving parts and beeping gadgets, Her is brilliantly understated. There is nothing in this film to distract the audience from the fact that it is, fundamentally, a love story. In the end, when Theodore (the human) says  to Samantha (the operating system) “I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you,” it’s completely believable.

Those who evaluate Her on its success as a critique of technology’s role in our lives (as Richard Brody did in the New Yorker) completely miss the point. Her is a movie about love, more specifically what happens to love when people change. When Samantha is “born” at the beginning of the film, Theodore is understandably skeptical. “How do you work?” he asks. She tells him that she’s intuitive and has a lot of data, but more importantly, she is constantly evolving and changing. As the movie continues we realize that, just like in any relationship, Samantha and Theodore have to decide how they will cope with the fact that the other is changing.

There is a lot of material in this movie for preachers and theologians: What is real? What is connection? What is true love? Most compelling for Christians (in my view) is the question What does it mean to be alive, yet not have a physical body? These questions and others provide rich questions for discussion.

That said, this is probably not a movie for a church discussion group to watch together, for variety of reasons. First, Her is distractingly full of the “f-bomb.” Not since Good Will Hunting has the “granddaddy of all words” been tossed around so frequently in a film. (At least a film I’ve seen.) Second, there’s a couple of significant sex scenes in this movie. By that I do not mean clothing flung everywhere and naked bodies prancing by, yet it’s still steamy. Not for kids. Incidentally, the fact that the clothes are not flung and the bodies are not prancing leads to an even more intense and poignant moment, which is yet another topic for discussion.

Her is a beautifully written, directed and shot film with so much great material for discussion. I highly recommend it and if anyone asks me “What’s it about?” I think I’ll just say “Go see it for yourself.”

What Jesus has to do with My Grocery Bill

GroceriesIn the last few years, I’ve gotten really interested in food. I’ve always loved eating it, but since getting married and cooking for another human being, I’ve begun to love selecting and preparing it as well. What’s more, my eyes have been opened in a small way to the incredibly extensive impact that food has on my own quality of life, on the dynamics of human culture at large, and on the earth in which we all live. In other words, food is a pretty big deal! A friend of mine once pointed out that the average American spends 9 years of his or her life eating. 9 years! As a Christian, which means a person whose whole life is given over to the lordship of Jesus Christ, I’ve begun to realize that Jesus probably has something to say about what I do with that incredibly important time.

That being said, I don’t want to focus on an argument for or against a certain “school” of thought concerning diet, purchasing choices, etc. Rather, I want to confess that in the last few years, the Lord has been convicting me to submit even this part of my life to Him as an act of worship, obedience, and love. What I have found is that this call challenges idolatry on both “sides” of my heart as it pertains to purchasing and eating food:

First, it challenges my idol of pleasure and convenience. Like I mentioned earlier, I have always loved eating. In fact, I love the taste of food so much that I can be in a bad mood all day if I don’t get exactly what I want for lunch. Yea. In other words, eating what I want is pretty dang important to me. What if Jesus calls me to abstain from certain foods because of the way those foods are produced? Thanks but no thanks, Jesus. I’ll just pray for people in other countries while I chow down on this chocolate that is a product of their enslavement. I’ll just wax poetic about God’s care for animals as His own creation while I enjoy this mutilated and mistreated chicken that was overgrown for the sole purpose of me getting more meat per bite. Or, maybe I’ll be convicted enough to make an effort to be “choosy” when purchasing food, so long as it’s within a price range I deem reasonable. Spend more than $2 for a dozen eggs? Don’t think so. I’d rather go on claiming that I “can’t afford” to do things like that, so that I can keep spending $3 a day on a latte.

Second, it challenges my idol of control and pride. As I’ve slowly, over time, found some of the above to be a little easier to follow through and do, I’ve been quick to award myself the badge of “Awesome Human Being.” On more than one occasion, I’ve noticed myself cruising the aisle of Whole Foods (or some equally granola-laden store) feeling oh-so impressed. Wow, look at all of us and our ethical choices! We are truly global citizens, and such good stewards of our own bodies. It’s a shame the rest of our fellow Americans haven’t fully embraced the truth yet. In other words, I easily begin to believe the lie that I have total control over my own future (“if I eat like this, I won’t get cancer”) or that my own obedience somehow gives me the right to look down on others (“if you really cared about people in Africa, you’d stop eating that.”)

But the reality is that submitting to Christ’s lordship over what goes in my grocery cart and what goes in my mouth calls me to repent of both of these idols. I am to obey Him, not my belly or my beloved checkbook. And I am to worship Him, not my (meager!) attempts at following His lead in my life. I am to relinquish autonomy over my eating habits, and the delusion that I am the savior of the world. Christ’s lordship takes priority over “the desires of my flesh” to overeat or indulge despite my convictions, and it takes priority over “the desires of my flesh” to control my own health. He is Lord, which means He’s in charge– of my choices, my checkbook, and the cancer cells that may or may not develop in my body. It is His lordly care– for chickens, coffee farmers in Africa, and me that makes relinquishing “control” to Him a life-giving and freeing activity.

What about you? Have you given much thought to what Jesus has to say about food? Which idols do you tend toward? What are your fears, values, struggles, or concerns when it comes to food?


Disney, Sisters, and Wise Trolls (thank goodness!): A Review of Frozen

8448479486_14f7e416b0I’m a sucker for a love story. And a musical. And a Disney movie. And something I can see with my kids and my husband and my father-in-law and my sister and her family on the day before Thanksgiving.  Frozen, Disney’s new feature length animated film, was, needless to say, a big hit with us.

Frozen is a princess story, though I was pretty sure that Disney announced a few years back that they were taking a break from princess movies.  A cynic might point out that it’s actually worse than a princess movie: there are two royal protagonists (one for each of my daughters to emulate!), sisters named Anna and Elsa, voiced by Kristin Bell and Idina Menzel.  The merchandising possibilities boggle the mind.

But I am not a cynic, and I will tell you that I loved it. The animation is incredible; the music is catchy, though I did (okay, cynically) wonder if Idina Menzel insisted on the power ballad the composing team clearly wrote just for her. But beyond the amazing ice sculptures and aurora borealis, the amusing sidekicks and the love triangle (hooray for PG-rated love triangles! All long glances and accidental touches and crossed signals.  And songs!), Frozen is a fairy tale about sisters.

Anna and Elsa are said sisters: Anna is the younger, Elsa is the titular Snow Queen of Hans Chrstian Anderson’s source material.  The girls are inseparable and imaginative, using Elsa’s magical gift to make snowmen in the palace ballroom, until an accident changes everything.  Elsa lives in isolation and fear rather than risk endangering her sister. But, ultimately, she cannot contain who she is, and a frosty apocalypse breaks out.

The adventure that leads to their reconciliation involves handsome princes, and trolls, and several wonderful musical numbers, as you’d expect.  The humor works on a couple levels, so my kids enjoyed the slapstick, my father in law enjoyed the puns, and my husband and I enjoyed the unexpected asides; but on all levels the jokes are sweet, neither raunchy nor mean.

What makes this story different from those that have come before it, however, at least in the Disney princess line, is that all the relationships in the story seem multi-faceted, particularly that of the sisters. Frozen passes the Bechdel test, even though it’s a romance and a musical. Its female characters have names, goals, motivations unrelated to men. And the salvific sacrificial action taken at the film’s climax counters expectations.

For girls, then, Frozen offers something great. But for adults, and preachers, there’s even more.   The catchy, troll-sung ditty “Fixer-Upper” might as well be a paraphrase of one of the historic catechisms: we all need a little work, but there’s nothing love can’t fix.  We make lousy choices when we’re afraid or alone… we need grace.

There’s no real villain in Frozen, at least not a traditional one. Anna can’t understand why her sister keeps shutting her out, and her bewilderment will be sadly familiar to many; but Elsa suffers for her isolation too. She is afraid of hurting others, afraid of being her authentic self. But the wise trolls (hooray for wise trolls!) remind her and us, that most powerful things can bring both great beauty and great risk.  Life is full of ambiguity, we need love to cast open the doors.  We need freedom to be ourselves, and grace to be ourselves in community and relationship.

Our family didn’t see Frozen in 3-D, but it’s apparently worth the extra money; still, the beauty of the work, and the beauty of the story, is obvious even in the cheap(er) seats.  On second listen, I haven’t loved the songs as much as I’ve loved others in Disney movies; the Broadway roots of its creators are obvious, and none of the songs seem to have a proper lead-in.  This is nit-picky stuff, however. Frozen is worth seeing. We’ll probably be back before Christmas.

Thinking Twice About My Mac

Alter of the iPhoneLast week, my husband and I watched a documentary on the history of advertisement (yes, nerd alert. We know it). It was actually more fascinating than I expected, and somewhat surprising in its main point. The argument was that by the late 50’s, “information based” advertising had pretty much run its course– commercials boasting “get the whitest teeth ever!” or “have the cleanest carpet money can buy!” became trite and, frankly, impossible to prove. So marketers switched strategies and instead of informing potential clients as to the actual product, commercials began to sell something else entirely.

The experts learned that what people are really after, what they fundamentally want, is not just whiter teeth or a cleaner carpet: what drives the consumer is a desire for transcendence– a way to understand their lives as having meaning– and a desire to belong to a community. So ads slowly began to adjust accordingly. No longer do beer commercials, for example, tout their great taste or caloric make-up; rather, they show the beer-drinker surrounded by beautiful people living “the good life.” No longer do Chevy commercials ramble on about the specs and perks of having a pick-up truck; now, they depict a father and son finding themselves in the great outdoors, rediscovering the meaning of life together. The idea is if you want that kind of life, you need their product.

Thinking about this phenomenon in advertising, I was a bit shocked at how little to do with actual products this strategy employs, and a bit impressed at how effective it is. I mean, I’ll admit it– I wanted an Apple because it was cool– because I wanted to be part of the community! And yet, one of the interviewees on the documentary shared the ironic reality behind such strategies of branding: “We are selling transcendence and community, and obviously the products we sell can’t really provide that. So people keep shopping.” (Then he laughed.)

As a Christian, the marketing experts’ observations make sense to me: as God’s image bearers, we are created not to live as animals, roaming around just looking for the next meal, but to want to make sense of our lives; to crave transcendence, to find meaning in something bigger than ourselves. And what’s more, as God’s image bearers, created things can’t fill that space. As much as I loved my shiny new iPhone, it is not quite transcendent enough to quiet the longing in my heart. Neither is a beer, or an engagement ring, or the best kitchen HGTV can design. So this documentary affirmed that those longings are real and true and valid– not to be stuffed, ignored, or shamed– but that they can only be found in the One who created me, the Transcendent One, who gives my life meaning and invites me into the community that has been shaped by His love and redemption.

And I hope it will help me to think twice the next time I feel the “need” to shop.

Hannah King is a student at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, TX. An intern at her church, Hannah plans to enter the ordination process with the Anglican Church upon graduation. She blogs at hannahmillerking.blogspot.com

Review of Amy Fetterman and Teri Peterson’s “Who’s Got Time? Spirituality for a Busy Generation”

picWhos got time cover-1 copySunday, September 29th To Do:

  • Hit snooze button.
  • Shower, make coffee, struggle with zipper on clergy dress.
  • Confront sea of baked goods for annual appreciation breakfast at church.
  • Slice and display said sea of baked goods while lamenting gluten intolerance and pondering how much of pastoral leadership is actually event planning.
  • Church.
  • Appreciation breakfast.
  • Wardrobe change and 30 minute commute to 2nd job.
  • Work with volunteers to create activity for youth experiencing homelessness.
  • Peel stickers and glitter glue from hands and ponder how much working in community outreach is a lot like event planning.
  • Grocery shop.
  • Cook dinner.
  • Finish reading Who’s Got Time? Spirituality for a Busy Generation.
  • Write this book review.
  • Prepare for week.
  • Sleep.

While the details of my to-do list may be unique to me and my work they are not unique to our generation.  Our to-do lists from our multiple jobs, family roles, volunteer responsibilities, and other commitments are endless.  I would love prayer to play a more central part in my life and as a pastor I know it should.  I often wonder what my ministry would look like if prayer could find a place of priority on my to-do list.  But at the end of the day, I don’t want prayer to be another item on my list, I want something more – something that refreshes and relieves me, something that give me peace, and strength to live out my to-do list in love.

As I drive home at the “end” of my day on Sunday, I run through all the frustrating moments – an annoying conversation I felt ill-equipped to deal with at church, a frightening fight on the street that stopped traffic during my commute to work, failing to be as attentive as I’d like to the volunteers I coordinate…the list goes on.  My mind drifts to Amy Fetterman and Teri Peterson’s new book, Who’s Got Time? Spirituality for a Busy Generation, they encourage me to pay attention to those frustrating moments and look for the movement of the Spirit.  My breathing slows, the setting of the sun on the autumn evening strikes me, and I feel Her movement blanketing my overwhelming life and the car where so much of my life is played out.

In their book, Fetterman and Peterson set out to address the ravenous spiritual hunger of today’s generation, the particular challenges we face (including never-ending to-do lists and unheard of economic instability), and while doing so, offer creative, life-giving spiritual practices to experiment with and adapt for our own unique spiritual hunger and challenges in life.

Each chapter of their book can stand alone or be read as a whole.  As I ate up their book I excitedly planned how I will take it to both my congregation and friends.  I am astounded by the breadth of ideas Fetterman and Peterson offer in a way that is engaging, hilarious, and rooted in current research, contemporary culture, and ancient spiritual traditions.  I don’t believe there is another book out their that draws on the hokey pokey, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Samuel ‘mother-bleeping’ L. Jackson,” Mumford & Sons, midrash, lectio divina, more than one Buffy the Vampire Slayer quote, and John Wesley that leaves you both laughing out loud and silently pondering God’s loving presence.

From creative engagements of Scripture to outlining ancient spiritual practices like prayer beads and the examen, to yoga and boxing, to chanting the psalms and defending the shower as “one of the most holy, creative spaces left in our wired world,” Fetterman and Peterson bring the Spirit into our to-do lists, our loves, and our frustrations and ask us to creatively and unabashedly experiment with how we might engage Her there.

At the real end of my Sunday, I stood at the threshold of my bedroom door in darkened silence.  I asked God to be with me as I crossed that threshold, I asked that I might find the peace, relaxation, and the deep breath necessary to face the following day.  I asked that I might let go of my to-do list and find some holy rest.  But before my foot could cross the threshold my mind darted, “Where did I put my car keys!?”  Suddenly my mind raced back to the day, creating new lists while playing out old and anticipated conversations.  I turned the lights back on, walked to where I knew my keys would be and placed my hand on them, I prayed that I might let my worries sit on the kitchen table with my keys for the night, knowing full well they’d be there for me in the morning.   I turned the lights off again, stood at my bedroom door, breathed, “Peace,” crossed the threshold and slept more soundly than I have in weeks.

Perhaps what’s best about Who’s Got Time? is that it is not a how-to book.  Fetterman and Peterson state, “We’re not here to tell you what to do, we’re here to spark conversation and ideas in your own community.”  Praying at the threshold of my bedroom door or resting my hand on my car keys are not ideas from their book. Instead, Fetterman and Peterson’s creativity, joy, and awareness of the deep spiritual hunger within us all challenged me to listen to my own hunger and create prayer that relieved, centered, and attuned me to the God dwelling in my to-do list, my anxiety, and my tired, bare feet crossing the bedroom threshold.

Whether you work with Gen X or Gen Y (or whatever we are currently being labeled), are one of us, or are of any age hungering and seeking the Spirit in your daily life I’d encourage you to visit http://www.chalicepress.com/Whos-Got-Time-P1280.aspx to purchase the book.  There will also soon be a website to accompany the book at spiritualityforbusypeople.com.

Rev. Corein Brown serves at Spirit of Hope Catholic Community in the Twin Cities and is the editor of Jesus Review.  When she’s not sharing bread or playing with glitter at church or her day job you can usually find her biking, baking (gluten-free), laughing with friends, and looking for God in this beautiful, messy world.


Breaking Bread with Bashar


Lately I’ve felt a little paralyzed in my preaching. All of the news out of Egypt and Syria has, for some reason, left me feeling rather empty and powerless when I step into the pulpit. I’d like to blame Karl Barth for this particular feeling of existential angst, but I’ve recently learned that it may not be (entirely) his fault.

Like many good seminary students, I was thoroughly steeped in the idea that one should preach with “the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other.” For a while (confession: until this past week, so my entire preaching career…) I thought this idea implied that I should exegete current events to my congregation with the same competency and care that I apply to scripture. I thought Barth was telling me I needed to be both a scholar of the scriptures and a policy wonk, as devoted to The Economist as I am to my Hebrew lexicon.

For a while, I was able to sustain this in my preaching. Through a tricky combination of picking the right current event, the right Bible story, and ending every sermon with “Jesus says love everyone. So, love one another,” I was able to make this work. For a time. A lot of current events can be safely responded to with a little bit of “Jesus loves you! And you! And you! And you!” It’s almost Oprah-ish: “Everybody gets a car! You get a car! You get a car! And you, you get a car!” Guns in schools? Easy. Jesus loves people, don’t shoot them. Divisive election? Simple. Jesus loves all of us, no matter how we vote. It’s not deep, but it works. Kind of.

And then this week I came up short. Syria, it turns out, is a little too complicated for my simple equation. Sure, Jesus loves everyone. But what does that mean? What does that mean when we’re talking about a country with a dictator actively slaughtering his own people? What does it mean when ousting the leader might lead to the full-scale genocide of his supporters? What does it mean when chemical weapons are in play? Against children? What does it mean when there are over two million (million!) refuges, and they’re only the “officially reported” refuges? What does it mean when the US is considering targeted attacks, but France is the only other international ally in support? What does it mean when Christians support Bashar al Assad? What does it mean to say Jesus loves everyone?

I was coming up short, and so I did what any good, reformation-brewed Protestant would do. I went back to the sources. I used the Google machine to search out where good, old Karl had said we should preach with a newspaper and a Bible. Because I wanted to know what he really meant, in context. And you know what? Something funny happened. According to the Barth Studies Center at Princeton Theological Seminary, Barth never said this exact quote. He danced around this idea on a number of occasions, but he never actually said it. I thought that was interesting, and it started to make me think, maybe I had gotten something wrong in my desire to be both a preacher and a politico. So, I did a little digging. And what I found, well, it challenged me.

Although I couldn’t find the original quote, I did find something else Barth once said, in the 1963 cover article from Time magazine:

Barth recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” Newspapers, he says, are so important that “I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church – in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by the world around him – either East or West. He should make his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there is peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?”

In all of my frantic desire to preach the “right” message about current events, to say something substantive about Syria or Egypt or whatever, to be both preacher and politician, I had glossed over a very important message. Christ came for all people. Christ sat at a table and broke bread with women and men, children and the elderly, prostitutes, tax collectors, Pharisees, and fishermen. Christ sits at a table today with my congregation, spread with our Green paraments and pale blue pottery. Christ sits at a table with the refugees, spread with their rationed bread and black market wine. Christ sits at a table with Bashar, spread with I don’t know what, but Christ is there.

It calms this preacher’s heart to look back at my dear, thoughtful Karl and realize he was never asking me to be an expert on both Syria and the Sacraments. Karl was reminding himself and each of us to stay connected to this world we are in, because in the end, we need to know the stories of our context, but our job is not to offer solutions. Our job is to proclaim. It’s not my job (praise the Lord!) to solve the civil war in Syria. It is my job to stand up and proclaim. Proclaim the peace of God, peace on earth, the “Christmas Message” that God has come to us in the form of a tiny, humble baby. A baby who was a refugee in Egypt, a poor carpenter in Nazareth, an itinerant teacher throughout Judea, a friend of dirty sinners and uncouth workers. A man who was executed for political crimes, a God who triumphed over death, a friend who sits at the table with us, still.

So, yes. This week, I think I will keep my Bible in one hand and my newspaper (laptop) in the other. But I think I’ll hold the two, not because I feel called to answer all the questions, but because I feel called to remind my people (and myself) that we believe in a God of peace. A God of reconciliation. A God who resurrects life out of the darkest and most hopeless corners of our world. Because that resurrection is a message I need to hear. Again and again and again.

God, Grace, and Breaking Bad


In preparation for the debut of the sixth and final season of Breaking Bad on AMC on August 11th,I have been imagesengaging in a marathon of previous seasons. I held myself back from watching the show for a number of years. The subject matter seemed depressing, and I tend towards more positive escapism. However, I was reminded as I watched the first few seasons again of the divine drama that sucked me into this gritty show in the first place.

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Majority rules

Image originally at: http://clclt.com/theclog/archives/2013/06/26/struck-down-doma-a-big-ol-license-to-hate

Image originally here

The day the Supreme Court declared Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional in its failure to offer all people equal protection under the law, I did something I’d never really thought I would do.  I celebrated a simple communion service with my boss, a couple of parishioners and their best friends, in honor of the pair’s fifteenth wedding anniversary.

I never anticipated an event like this for several reasons: one, I’m a Methodist, and in my experience Methodist laity are far more likely to think we “do” communion too often (and that the liturgy takes too long) than to ever request what amounts to a private mass.  Secondly, though, I’d assumed that my status as ordained clergy in the United Methodist Church, and as such, as someone largely bound to uphold our Discipline, precluded me from getting to care for parishioners like Dan and Allan in this way.  I never thought I’d be the only straight person at a post-communion lunch, the only one at the table whose marriage has been legal for years and years and years, in every state of this union, even though I’m not yet 34 and they were all in their sixties. (How ridiculously unfair is that?) I did not anticipate this because I thought my denomination, to whom I have pledged, in this arena reluctantly, to be loyal, would mean that I didn’t get the privilege of marrying my gay parishioners.

Now, technically, I have not married my gay parishioners. I didn’t even celebrate the Eucharist last Wednesday. But I led some prayers, and I typed up the bulletin, and I celebrated the coincidence of their event falling on the auspicious day that it did.  Perhaps more importantly, if the opportunity arose for me to officiate at a same-sex marriage, and not just hang out reaffirming commitments, I have pledged before my annual conference that I would do so (along with several hundred of my colleagues committed to marriage equality and full inclusion).

I feel afraid typing those words, or rather posting them on the internet for all God’s children and all the trolls alike to see. I feel afraid telling this story. I feel afraid of zealots in my denomination, who think the Good News of Jesus Christ is, well, not the same as I think it is, and who would love to bring me and my comrades up on heresy charges which would challenge our standing and our ability to serve. And then I feel ashamed of my fear, for I am truly among the most privileged in any number of categories, and what I stand to lose is so inconsequential – and unlikely — compared to what so many LGBT folks have already lost and suffered daily and throughout the years.

As we got in the car to drive to lunch that day, my boss and I chatted about the ruling of the court, and I vented some of my frustration with my denomination, and how our last church-wide discussion of the issues surrounding LGBT inclusion went down.  (It was ugly. If you missed it, rest assured that it was not like the UCC joy-filled denominational affirmation of gay marriage this weekend.) She noted that the times are a’changing (she didn’t say that; she’s British and would never say that), and that soon the denominations will see what the masses see, and will come around to know what the majority of Americans know: that people are born gay, that sexuality exists on a spectrum, that this is the same love (S/o Macklemore!) poets and the faithful have extolled for years.

When she said this, I nodded. But I confess (as I blundered to her), that I am not sure what to make of a theology that is staked entirely on shifting majority opinion. That’s not really what she meant, of course, but in conversations with unchurched friends, I have heard similar sentiments. The church is off base (surely), how can they not see? Similar sentiments are echoed in the Barna Group’s work, published in Unchristian. Young people are staying away from the church in droves, because they perceive the church to be homophobic or, if not afraid, simply exclusionary and hate-filled toward their gay friends and family members. But — and I do so love cultural wisdom and popular culture — surely the church has to have better justifications for changed understanding then “well, if we want to popular with the post-college set…”

After the Supreme Court announced their decision in this case, Ralph Reed appeared on Meet the Press and suggested that the next step for Christian conservatives was to take this issue back to the states, and to work hard to turn out the evangelical vote to pass statewide measures to limit same-sex marriage. Rachel Maddow offered a response that suggested that Reed and his cohort had turned out the evangelical vote, and had yet lost. In increasing numbers of states, and in the hearts and minds of public opinion.  The culture is shifting. And what is interesting now is that a whole host of Americans – and the vast majority of my facebook feed – rejoiced when the Court finally saw fit to get with the cultural program, to see what we had already seen – that DOMA was wrong-headed in 1000 different ways.

But this feels new, for the Court to be behind the culture, at least in the most obvious of analogous cases. When Brown v. Board of Education was decided, a good chunk of the people affected were not in favor of desegregating the schools. It was not a popular decision, and it was one fought tooth and nail by some state and community governments; we have the pictures to prove it. The Civil Rights movement was mobilized in response to a dominant popular culture rejecting the “elitist” decision of the Court. The Civil Rights movement helped bring the court’s decision to life and give it broader authority and legs.

In the United Methodist Church, the formulas which produce our representation in our democratically structured legislative body have left us in a place, still, where the majority can’t agree that living as a non-celibate gay person is not a sin. We can’t even agree that we read and interpret the Bible differently. After General Conference last year, I dreamed of a more authoritative body, a Supreme Court, to tell us that our homophobic disciplinary language had to be thrown out. But there is no such structure. We only have the majority, and for now, the majority of the church looks nothing like the majority of Americans.

In thinking this through with friends this week, I was offered two brilliant thoughts. The first is an experiment; imagine this:

What if you were a liberal Methodist preacher in North Carolina in 1954 when Brown came down? You might be with nine justices, half or more of the yankees, and  approximately none of your neighbors. That’s probably a good example of a time when the church was more liberal than some of its laity. How would you speak? How would you act? Can the pastoral clergy person challenge their congregants so directly?

The second expands on the first: Methodists (following H. Richard Niebuhr’s typology) like to view ourselves as working through Christ in transforming this world…but with LGBT inclusion, we (and others in a host of churches) find ourselves in a situation where we want the world to transform the church, at least to some degree.
This all goes to say that this week, I’m celebrating, and delighting in this huge milestone for so many people I love (and the accountants who will help them navigate the implications of this great news on their tax status). But I continue to want the church I love to find more and better ways to speak theologically about why same-gender love, sex, and marriage are holy and fraught, wondrous and difficult (just like they are for straight folks). I remain a Methodist for a host of reasons, and one of them is the conviction that the Spirit can speak through the democracy of the church, can speak through a majority. But I read J.S. Mills and the other Niebuhr, and I know the majority can be a tyrannical one as well; I heard about the decision around the Voting Rights Act last week, and knew the same could be said of a group of highly elite, appointed judges.
I celebrated with Dan and Allan, then I missed Pride. I didn’t actually marry them, but I did baptize the twin babies of a nice young lesbian couple a few days later. The opportunities we have for bearing witness are manifold, and I can’t help thinking that Christians have got to seek them out. But we also have work to do, to think about what it means to be a part of a cultural majority and a theological minority, and how we can best welcome all God’s children to the table and to full inclusion in our society and in our churches. Maybe the most important realization for me, though I love my theology and politics to be closely linked, is that society and our churches are not one and the same, and that might be to the good.