Fidget Spinners and Rejecting the Youth

I fidget, and I play with whatever object I can get my hands on to fidget. I have left an impressive trail of broken pen and mechanical pencil clips, springs from disassembled pen, and worn screw parts from being disassembled too many times. The battery compartment of almost every remote I have ever owned refuses to stay closed because I open it, spin the batteries, and close it multiple times a night.

I fidget. I never realized it until, of all people, a loan officer noticed us both playing with whatever object we happened to have in our hands during any lull – which we experienced a lot filling out the loan application. I sorta knew – again, many broken pen clips and ineffective battery doors throughout my life – but it never clicked with me until this complete stranger pointed it out.

I bought my car in 2015 – the loan officer for that car made the observation – and I now constantly notice myself doing it. Not in a bad way, mind you, but just an acknowledgement of, “Hey, that’s a thing I do.”

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary offered Transitional Ministry Week 1 online this year. To welcome us, they sent care packages with things to just make us feel better and set our learning spaces: colored pencils and mandala sheets, pipe cleaners, chocolates, a coffee mug, origami paper, Play-Doh, all sorts of things to help you focus no matter how it is you focus.

Including a fidget spinner.

It made me chuckle at first. I hadn’t seen one in a while – mine had gotten buried in the mess that became my home office when I stopped using it – and I never really used the one I had bought a lot. I also remember just how insanely popular they became – and how insanely judgmental and dismissive everyone became about them, writing them off as a distracting toy and fad. It became incredibly popular to hate on them, calling them a bad fidget solution and demanding people choose a different toy to fidget with.

(I will note that I always believed the light-up versions – and the Bluetooth speaker versions, because those existed – served no purpose and got designed to capitalized on the meme-like popularity of the object at one point. Please know I know things got out of hand, but also know money caused that, not the object nor their users.)

I chuckled remember all of this, then a thing happened: I stared using it during the first class session. A lot. I grabbed it out of my box and…just started fidgeting.

I have had a few meetings since – include a tense meeting or two. Every meeting since I first grabbed it has included me using the fidget spinner. It serves its purpose, and actually serves it very well; I even found myself using it while watching TV instead of constantly opening and closing the remote door on the new Google TV remote.

I find myself thinking about that fidget spinner more and more, but not the object itself or my use of it – though I mentioned the battery door thing to Nora and she gave me a knowing smile about all of our remotes.

No, I thought about how we just love to hate on anything the younger generations enjoy. We call their music, their cultural icons, and everything they like inferior. We call those who do not act like us immature – and those who do act like us mature – while ignoring both our own immaturity at that age and our own spiritual and moral immaturity now.

Like the fidget spinner, we condemn their idealism, their cultural influence, their learning about themselves and finding their identity, and their desire to move us toward a better and different world. We don’t understand it and, instead of trying to understand it, we just condemn it and write it off.

I can only speak so much for the secular world – it honestly never rejected me, but we never really got into a long-term relationship, either – but I can speak at length to the Church and its outright rejection of anything that questions the old guard and puts the onus for people leaving the church on those leading the church. I can speak to churches wanting youth but treating the youth like failed adults who would really love church and all it represents if they would just grow up. I can speak of the Church rejecting the teachings of Jesus – and acting like the disciples in Mark 10:13-16 – to make the Church serve their comfort and desires instead of serving the Body of Christ as demanded in Matthew 25:31-44.

I can speak to the Church being the Body of Christ in name only and not desiring to follow anything Jesus commanded that asks anything of them but a check or a couple of hours they will never miss.

Let me speak clearly: you do not have to enjoy the youth. You can dislike fidget spinners and have no desire to listen to BTS or…I have no idea; I didn’t even enjoy pop music in my youth. But condemning what the youth like as inferior and refusing to hear them when they speak, especially when they speak prophetically like Jeremiah, will do nothing but drive them away – and ultimately kill our Earthly expressions of the Body of Christ.

Some youth – and people – need things like a fidget spinner; because you do not doesn’t give you the right or privilege to call it pointless or bad.

Breathe in, breathe out, fidget.

Peace,
– Robby

Postscript: If you want something practical to take from this, I can actually use a previous thought to describe something you might take away. At the height of the “fidget spinner” craze, you could buy light-up fidget spinners, speaker fidget spinners, and all sorts of other pointlessly “improved” and “fancy” fidget spinners – including brass ones with high-dollar finishes and super intense bearings.

My fidget spinner is a 3D printed affair with a decent bearing – that did need a little bit of lubricant, but I had some spray silicone on hand – and weights on the points. Clean, made to do its job, and not distracting unless you find fidgeting distracting (which people do, but also…eh?). It does not need have things added to make it more attractive; its simplest and compete form does that already.

If you want to bring youth in and made them want to stay, making our faith into cotton candy and trying to make it more attractive by taking out the hard parts will not bring them in long-term – especially those from situations that actually afflict them instead of comforting them. No matter your age, you can only eat so much empty sugar before it makes you sick and you start rejecting it.

The youth know this, especially older youth. Adults had a year of their adult life shaken by the pandemic; kids and older youth had a formative year destroyed by the same pandemic. The youth see and hear the Church preaching love, kindness, sacrifice, and giving while its members – and often leaders – live vastly different lives. The youth read passages like Mark 10:13-16 while the church demands they be something other than what they are.

If you want youth to live in the Earthly expressions of the Body of Christ, you must listen to them, take them seriously, and treat them with the same respect and love Jesus treated with them. Because our culture no longer obligates them to the Church – and thank God for that – they have no reason to live with us if we do not follow the commands of our scriptures. In their maturation, they need spiritual food, not spiritual candy that adults so often demand of churches.

I truly believe using the unadorned calls of scripture – justice, love, and compassion lifted over proper worship – and addressing their faith and God’s call in their lives will bring youth into faith (even if it does not bring number to our Earthly expressions of the Body of Christ). Not cotton candy or “spiritual milk” but true expressions of faith without pretense or glitzing up.

And frankly, the youth see things we do not, and we must acknowledge their wisdom when they share it. If they call out our hypocrisy, we must confess to it and repent instead of getting defensive. If they see evil in the world, we must also see that evil instead of saying, “It’s always been that way.” If they mourn poverty and suffering, we must mourn with them, too, instead of callously misusing, “The poor you will always have with you.”

Jesus preached idealism, and I don’t hate that we decided realism plays better.

I cannot guarantee these attitudes and actions will increase your youth numbers – never had that motivation in my ministry – but I do know that not doing these things will drive away those who do not have obligation or built-in comfort in our congregations – it drove me away for many years. Do we desire to live as the holiest expression of the Body of Christ, or the church with the most Earthly success and hope that our programing will just make it happen?

Only you can answer that question, and only you can decide to change your heart and mind to the call of God. Know our youth see what you do and hear what you say, and they might have good and holy reasons to reject it.

I Am Weary

I have grown so weary.

It was supposed to get easier after Easter.  For some pastors it did.  My problems seem to not stop.

When do I get to rest?  When do I get to breathe?  Why am I so worn when I am not anything but a worship leader?

My therapist told me to not minimize my own struggles, but how do you not?  All I do is put together a worship service.  I do not go to hospitals and care for patients, I do not risk my life to stock groceries and check customers out for garbage pay, I work from home – a quite comfortable home – and have no schedule.

Why am I so weary?

Why do I put in so much effort?  Do I actually do something more than people who put in less?  Do my offerings match the effort I put into them?

Why do I worry so much about it?  Why can I not just be okay with enough?  Why can I not see my offering as enough?

If I actually put this into the public, someone will tell me I am enough and to not beat myself up.  Someone will try to make me feel better.  Someone will read it and wonder why I wrote this to complain.

Maintaining my pastoral identity – and my professional identity – makes me weary.  The amount of work I must put into to maintain my identity as a pastor makes me weary.  The energy I must give to be myself in this time makes me weary.

Nothing just works.  Zoom meetings randomly decide to not let me in.  Facebook crashes.  I forget to change a setting on my router and lose the service halfway through on Easter – a service I put many hours and much stress into.  On-the-fly corrections do not really work in this space.  Flexibility has gone from ministry because I cannot just change someone last minute.  Everything must be planned and executed, and then something not working will destroy all that work and planning.

I just want to stop.  I just want to be done.  I just want my home to no longer be my chancel and my office.  I just want to preach again in my physical pulpit.

I want to be seen.  I want people to understand the sheer volume of work I do – work I never excelled at and clearly should not do professionally.  I want people to see that I am making an offering that will be insufficient by the world’s standards but is so much more than I could be doing.  I want people to see how much I struggle to balance my need for a sustainable ministry and my call to provide a full worship service – and not chastise and scold me for it.

And I want to be enough.  But I am not.  God makes me enough, somehow, but I am not, and my offerings are inadequate.  I want people to just hear that, not try to fix it, not try to explain it away, but just hear my struggles and empathize with them.

I am weary, and I do not know how to not be weary.

My Stupid Expectations

So I have this voice in the back of my head that won’t stop repeating itself over and over again.

“It’s Easter; you’re sermon better be perfect!”

This voice never shuts up; every week, it’s either criticizing me because the sermon got done late, is going to be too long or too short, it is poorly exegeted, ad nauseam until it tries to convince me I’m a giant fraud.

I hope that’s not just me because otherwise this turned into a giant confession.  Oops.

Anyway, most weeks I can point my finger at the voice, tell it that it’s a dirty liar, and then go on with my life.  It never shuts up, but at least I convince it I’m actually in charge.

This week is different.  That voice is loud, and it has the advantage; Easter is important, and it decided to use that to break down my confidence.

“It’s Easter; that isn’t an Easter sermon!  You aren’t talking about salvation enough!  Now you’re looking only at salvation and missing any other message!  Wait, now you’ve forgotten salvation!  Where’s the empty tomb, moron?!?  That’s the same sermon they hear every year!  That’s a sermon they’ve never heard because it’s terrible!”

It’s like the importance of the day gave it a shot of steroids and made it mad.  And I listen because I’m a people-pleaser and the voice in the back of my head is someone to please, I suppose.

I swear this has a point other than me whining.

That voice has a purpose.  It does, in fact, make me strive for better sermons.  Every once in a great while the voice hits the nail on the head and makes me re-evaluate.  Even today it made me look deeper into a passage I’ve probably read a thousand times and find that thread I had never seen before.

But then it started yelling at me that I’m not allowed to preach on that!

I have this expectation that I will give the very best sermon of my career every week, and that my sermon will be the best sermon anyone hears in any congregation anywhere in the world.  I’ve worked on that expectation somewhat, but still the voice that makes me expect that of myself still lingers.

Growing up, my pastors always said that if they weren’t nervous walking into the pulpit, it was time to quit, and I have taken that to heart and applied it to myself.  And every week, painfully over-prepared or woefully under-prepared, I feel about the same level of nerves.

But my CPE supervisor said something to me that I have wrestled with since: he doesn’t get nervous preaching.  He said there’s a 50% chance he gives a great sermon, and a 50% chance he gives a terrible sermon, and that’s pretty much irrelevant because of the Holy Spirit.

Now, I don’t take that to the farthest conclusion, but I know if I’m being faithful, the Word will be preached.  I just need to drop the expectation that every week will be a master-class in preaching.

Or any week.  They can’t all be zingers, or even most.

Drop the silly perfection expectations for this week.  Yes, the Easter event defines our salvation and makes us Christians.  No, my Easter service does not.

Shut up, voice in the back of my head.

Peace,
– Robby

Bible Trivia and Ordination

(UPDATE: So I wrote this post a while ago.  Since then, this happened.  I’m leaving this up for posterity, but I can say correct decisions are starting to be made on the topic.  Hurray! – RB)

I was on Facebook last night when a pastor friend of mine posted this post from Rev. Timothy Cargal’s blog on the Office of Preparation for Ministry website.  In it, he talks about the results of this years Bible Trivia Content Exam.

And then goes on to defend this years BCE and the changes that they have made.

When I called it the Bible Trivia Exam, I wasn’t just speaking of my own opinion.  Everyone I went to seminary with – everyone – had roughly the same opinion of the test.  It doesn’t test your fitness for ministry or your professional abilities – that’s the purpose of the other four exams – and it doesn’t test your useful knowledge of scripture, but rather if you picked up the trivia of scripture that they decided to test you on this year.  For example, this year1 they were tasked with matching salutations to epistles.  Mind you, not once in my ministry would have I ever benefited from knowing off the top of my head which multiverse Pauline salutation goes with which letter, but somehow a junior in seminary needs to know that to show familiarity with scripture.

Before I really get into why I’m frustrated, I need to write out what the purpose of this exam is.  When you are a junior2 (or just finished junior year), you take a test to demonstrate your familiarity with scripture.  The point – supposedly – is to demonstrate that you are familiar enough with scripture to successfully complete seminary and also point out areas of weakness that you have within scripture.3

At least, I think that’s why you can fail it.  Try as I might, I can’t rationalize another reason why this is a necessary exam to pass and not just an evaluation of current state of knowledge.  And before someone says that it’s proof of biblical knowledge for a professional reason, the descriptions of the 5 exams specifically say this isn’t that and the senior exams are specifically professional exams in contrast to this exam.  So it must be proof of knowledge to continue into the ordination process or seminary studies.

What change recently was two things.  First, they stopped releasing the new questions to the exam.  For 30 years students could access the exams – paper form and then, in recent years, online form to take as practice tests.  The test has historically used 83% old questions and 13% new questions but importantly, those questions could pull from the entire history of the test.

And the old tests were a good study tool.  The OPM is convinced that students were just memorizing answers to pass the test, but every student preparing said that they learned things about scripture using the old tests.  It actually was quite helpful in giving us a wider primer is scripture.

I still remember who Jael is to this day because of it, and I read that story specifically because of studying for the exam.

In 2009, the OPM decided that they would stop releasing the old exams entirely.  No releasing of questions missed, no allowing CPM’s to view the exams, nothing.  So every year since 2009, the exam has been completely hidden except to test takers actively taking the test.  All you get is your score and how well you did on each section of scripture.

Every year they have come up with new questions and phased out old questions.  And as it has come to pass, this is the year when the exam is 100% previously unreleased questions.  They still recycled questions, but every question was created post-2009.  And this year, because multiple choice wasn’t quite…adequate?…they added the matching section.

Now, there is nothing particularly egregious about those changes without consequences.  Yes, it takes away the only useful resource short of stringently studying the entirety of scripture in the months before taking the exam – all while being in seminary and having an internship and trying to also remain emotionally healthy and not burning out – but if people continued to pass at a similar rate and everyone agreed the changes were good, then it’s just students complaining because they want it to be easier.

That’s not a valid complaint, no matter how much I would have wanted it to be.

Why I even took the time to write this post – my BCE was in 2011 and this has no relevance to me directly – is the results of this year’s test.

71.7% of people taking the exam failed this round.  Compared to the Fall 2009 failure rate of 18.3%.

Rev. Cargal chose to write that as a percent passed (28.3%) but I write it as the majority, not the minority, to not hide what actually happened: over 70% of inquirers taking the exam were told that they do not have the biblical knowledge to continue in the ordination process or their seminary studies (I’m still not sure which).

Which is insane.  I know that it can’t possibly be that over the last 6 years students have gotten progressively less qualified for seminary that the failure rate jumped 291.8%, and I know that people who passed previously were mostly all ready and qualified to continue in the ordination process or seminary studies.  This isn’t an indication that it was too easy before with the old exams, no matter how much the OPM wants the stubbornly claim that it is.

This is a sign that the test is flawed, and I think that everyone knows it.  Some people are good at an exam like this and have this variety of recall.  They are the ones you want on your team for Trivial Pursuit and you don’t want to go against in Trivia Crack.  But ministry is not a game, and your level of Biblical knowledge and familiarity is not based upon recall of minutia.

But what I think is most frustrating, given all of this, is the absolute defense of the changes.  Not once in the note – that was originally an e-mail to CPM’s and as such, not immediately public – did Rev. Cargal mention that they would evaluate the testing procedures, take a hard look at if students truly were unprepared for study, or even acknowledge the frustration that would come from this.  It is all a description of the changes and a strong implication – intentional or not – that the 70% failure rate should be expected.

And on top of it, when CPM members commented that the CPM’s would benefit from seeing the questions and what their inquirers got wrong, the only answer that was given was security concerns.  He implied, hopefully unintentionally, that test takers – who are studying to be pastors, mind you – are going to look for ways to cheat, and CPM’s – pastors and ruling elders tasked with preparing people for professional ministry – can’t be trusted to follow the instructions of the OPM and not give students the test questions beforehand.  There is only a security risk if someone is posing that risk.  The level of mistrust that the security comment shows is astounding.

And what is most astounding and confusing, to me, given everything else, is that this junior exam that is not supposed to weed people out but give guidance in their preparation is being made intentionally harder while the professional exams are being made considerably easier.  Not that long ago they were 3 hour exams of 3 questions, 1 open book and 2 closed book, and proctored.  And hand written not that long ago.  When I took them, they were 3 hours, 3 questions, completely open book, and unproctored, which was perfect for me but also required less preparation.  Now they are 9 hours, 3 questions, unproctored, and considerably easier because there is no effective time limit now.4

It makes no sense.  I know I probably shouldn’t write about this and blast an entire office of the General Assembly publicly, but the changes are bad and I’m going to call them bad.  The Presbyteries Cooperative Committee on Exams seems to be at least in connection with a segment of the church and actually taking comments and criticisms to heart with the senior exams (and responding to the criticisms they are not acting on) but whomever is responsible for the BCE seems to be stubbornly holding some ideal up without considering the response and a belief that they are right despite widespread disagreement.

I’m going to point out that my pastor friend is not a young friend, nor an old pastor.  She is second career, wore her Master’s robe the same day that I did, and is not rebelling against the system.  And she disagrees with the direction it is going, too.

I just wish, above all else, that the response to criticism was actually a response, and not just, “(It is an) exam security measure.”  Because if I was one of the inquirers that failed this round, you can bet I would be furious (and it sounds like at least one CPM is pretty agitated, too).

Comments?  Thoughts?  A solution?  Because, frankly, I’m at a loss, and it doesn’t even affect me.

Peace,

– Robby


1This was according to committee member on a CPM somewhere within our denomination after talking to inquirers who failed the exam.  I can’t guarantee it because the OPM refuses to give any information about the actual content of the exam so take it with the reliability you can reasonably attribute to it.  Given the content of the previous exams, though, I wouldn’t doubt it…

2Your junior year of seminary is your first year. Then you have middler year(s) and senior year.

3Mind you, my CPM and I have never discussed which areas I was weakest in with that test, only that I passed. And I don’t fault them for it in the least; I feel they probably view it similarly, even if they would never admit it.

4To answer a potential question, any candidate could work with their committee to make adjustments to the testing to accommodate learning disabilities that would not interfere with fitness for ministry.

Pretty Sure Love Won

I finally read Love Wins.  If you are wondering why it took me…almost 3 years to read it, it’s because I’m not a Rob Bell fan.  I don’t want to get this twisted – I didn’t/don’t have a problem with Rob Bell, I’m just not a fan.  He always struck me as someone who said irrelevant provocative things to stir emotions to make the relevant message more emotionally charged.

But that goes to fandom and enjoyment of his work, not a commentary on what he says.  And I don’t always agree with what he says.  I’m by no means a hard-lined conservative or literalist, but I feel like his relationship with scripture as a written instruction in faith is…looser? weaker? more fluid? insert your own word?…than mine.  But he also probably knows scripture as an academic study more than I do, so I just say I disagree.

I digress.  Why I wrote this post is because a couple of…weeks? months?…ago I read a post about how the evangelical churches have done their best to crucify (we should really use a different word, people!) him for Love Wins and how he just doesn’t appear to care.  He’s just doing his thing, sharing the love of God and preaching the scriptures.

I’m quite positive he does care – more people aren’t so self-confident and self-sure to just not care that the opposition has tried to do to your public perception and humble at the same time – but he didn’t let him stop doing what he believes God has called him to do.

But this post isn’t even about that.  All it’s about is the book, or rather the response to the book.  I read the article, I got on the Amazon, I found a used copy that was Prime eligible, and I read it.

I don’t understand why anyone freaked out about it.  Yes, it is a little bit more liberal than my interpretation, I could have done without the artsy styling, I think he could have been a bit deeper, but he uses scripture, and nothing he says is actually that radical.

His whole premise – as far as I can discern – is to interpret these things through the lens of a loving God.  I’m not going to go into it into depth here – maybe another time after another reading – but the things I remember thinking were missing were punishment as love (and maybe I missed it; I found myself skimming a bit more than I wanted to) and the good desire for piety and seeking righteousness in our lives, even if we can’t attain it.

But he asks some really good questions about the nature of judgement and confession and eternal damnation.  And he asked them through the lens of evaluating a God that is loving first and foremost.  Can a loving God condemn someone who committed a sin and then was plowed into by a train?  Can a loving God condemn someone who was only taught selfish desires and never had a chance to learn a more loving way?  Can a loving God condemn us if we don’t understand sin?  Will a loving God condemn us if we commit this sin but not if we commit that sin?

The specifics of the book I found myself disagreeing with occasionally – though asking me for those specifics is a futile task because I read it during Holy Week and funeral planning – but the whole theme is one that I’ve been pushing in this blog, in my preaching, in my ministry, and in my life.

We have a loving God, people.  There are groups that preach that message, but in the same breath preach a message where God seems to enjoy sending those dirty sinners to Hell.  There is a theme of making sure people know that they are sinners but excluding the ultimate relief in Jesus Christ.  Some of the Church and Body of Christ finds itself to be a Good Friday church instead of being an Easter/Pentecost church.  So much focus on the sins and how screwed up we are – and we really are, trust me – without much focus on despite that, we are saved and loved.

As I read the book, I could understand why you could possibly not like it – I tried to like it, and I loved the premise, but I found myself underwhelmed – and I could see you disagreeing with it – like I said, I didn’t agree with every conclusion he made – but try as I might, I don’t understand why people started railing against Rob Bell after this book.  I don’t get it.

The only answer I can come up with is that there are people who want God to punish those dirty sinners, and this book strikes at the very soul of that theology.  It strikes me as awfully arrogant to be for a judgmental God, like somehow you, and those who think, act, and look like you, have an exclusive corner on the gift of Christ.  That is the only reason you would label Rob Bell a heretic after reading Love Wins.

I don’t get it.  I read the book thinking I would disagree with his premise and his thought process.  I avoided reading it because I didn’t care about another liberal book diminishing sin.  And I was wrong on both accounts.  I did find it anemic and a bit too trendy, but I, for the life of me, can’t imagine why anyone would freak out over this book.

Unless you want a God that judges the sins of others.*

The premise of this post is simply that.  The crucifixion of Rob Bell seems to be worded correctly if you truly believe he is a heretic over this book.  The only reason you would have that big of a problem with him is if you want God to judge someone else.  To use the same story that Bell uses in the book, you have to believe that the older brother was right in The Prodigal Son to really want to bash him for this book.

The book shouldn’t even be controversial.  Heck, I’m of the opinion it shouldn’t have even raised eyebrows; it wasn’t really that groundbreaking or crazy.  Had he written a theological book (this wasn’t) and ignored scripture (he didn’t) and said Hell didn’t exist and sin didn’t exist (he didn’t, again), then maybe.  But this wasn’t it.

Three days after Easter I am writing this.  Yesterday I performed a funeral for a woman whom I only met two days before Alzheimer’s took her life.  Both times I preached of salvation and heaven and Christ’s resurrection.

I’m pretty sure love won.  That’s what Rob Bell wrote about, and I agree with that.

So I can’t have a post about Rob Bell without mentioning the last bit of controversy.  You know, how he supposedly trashed the Bible?

Didn’t happen.  Again, I think if we want to have an adult debate and conversation about the theological statements that he makes, it’s perfectly fine to disagree with him.  But he isn’t watering down scripture as much as you want to believe he is because he interprets differently.  I looked up the exact quote people are freaking out about and here it is

“I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life,

Is he implying that the here and now trumps scripture?  No.  Read it again and you see that he says letters.  Which means he said the epistles, but he always uses the vernacular of the people who are seeking, not the clergy and the choir.

Tear that down a bit.  The Gospels, which is the lens we read all of scripture through, remain in tact.  The Old Testament, as much as can stay in tact because after Jesus, stays in tact.  He says that the epistles, which were letters written by men to churches 2000 years ago, are not a solid defense for not allowing people who love one another to be with one another.

I want you to think about this for a second.  Any exegetical study is lacking if it does not include the context of which the letter was written.  When he says letters written 2000 years ago, he is saying that they were written in a different world.  God is timeless and the message of Christ is timeless; the message of men is not.

(Side-note, I’m not using sexist language.  I’m being quite literal; we are using the letters of men 2000 years ago – not all people but men in leadership.  I don’t think that distracts from their efficacy or their eligibility for presence in canon but it contributes to their context for interpretation.)

We have to consider what kinds of actions Paul – because let’s be honest, that’s who we’re talking about – is actually addressing, if they are relevant to the current conversation, or if it is a different matter of practice.  Not going to get into the discussion here, but let’s just be honest about what Rob Bell said.

He said that we can’t use letters written 2000 years ago as our justification for doing painful, hurtful, or judgmental things.  We can’t.

He isn’t wrong on the major point no matter how much you want him to be.  He doesn’t trash scripture, he doesn’t even imply that scripture is bad.  He just said that we can’t use the words in the epistles, written in a different world, as justification for actions that they don’t prescribe as response to actions they don’t address.

But you have to be fair, treat everyone as they are doing the best they can, that you aren’t somehow holier than they are, and you can’t label people heretics who read scripture faithfully different than you do.  That isn’t debate; that is arrogance.  It’s the same response Mark Achtemeier received after he defended Scott Anderson, and I know that Mark is faithful to scripture and a faithful theologian.  He didn’t trash scripture or even diminish it in the slightest.

The whole point, I believe, of this point is to get to an idea that those who violently disagreed with Love Wins want a God that saves them and judges people who disgust them.  The problem is that we shouldn’t be disgusted with others** but with ourselves.  If God is punishing all the dirty sinners, we are screwed, and screwed royally.***  So if we are championing that God, we are championing being sent to Hell ourselves.

Not the God I worship, and if that is the real God, I guess I don’t worship that God.

Now time to wrestle up some grub and then maybe write the food piece.

Peace,

– Robby


* The only major criticism of the theology of the book I can get behind is the lack of piety in it.  I don’t know if piety needed to even be addressed – and frankly, the lack didn’t bother me that much – but it isn’t there, and a conversation about Heaven and Hell without Christian living and piety seems to be lacking.  Again, though, that is my opinion and not something to start calling people not pastors over.

** There are certain actions that repulse us from a biological or cultural standpoint; I’m talking about Christian disgust, not physical or psychological disgust.  Those are different things, which I wonder if that gets at the heart of the issue more than everything else I wrote.

*** Super-Reform here.  I know our Methodist brothers and sisters might disagree, but that’s a MUCH DIFFERENT CONVERSATION.  MUCH DIFFERENT!

Fire and Ice (or, Robby Rambling about Preaching)

Last night we had a bonfire because…well, I cut up a lot of firewood Friday, I haven’t had a chance to have a fire since then, and we’re leaving Wednesday for a wedding and I wanted to actually benefit from my labors instead of just longingly looking at the wood and being sad a fire wasn’t burning.

Holy crap, I love bonfires.

Anyway, as the fire was burning I couldn’t keep something out of my mind.  A couple of summers ago I worked with a pastor who has a very intellectual mind.  Very organized, very regimented, clean desk and set schedule.  This isn’t to say he is horribly inflexible – successful pastors can’t be inflexible and unsuccessful pastors don’t stay at a church happily for 30+ years – but his mind is very much logical and rational.

Anyone who knows me in my personal life could tell you that it was only destined that we would get along very well.  We just kind of clicked when I started my rotation at that church.  I’m less regimented than him, and I’m certainly not a clean-desk sort of guy, but the logical and rationality he showed in his ministry makes sense to me.

Another thing that worked with just getting along is he is a musician and a fan of jazz. Our lunches would be a sandwich at his kitchen table and then 20 minutes or so listening to jazz records CDs before we went back to work.  I can tell you, there isn’t much in the world I enjoy more than something like that; just listening to even part of a beautiful record like Kind of Blue as a break from whatever work you are doing can reset your engines and clear your mind (especially if you are an introvert).

One of these lunch sessions we got to talking about his violin playing and he mentioned something that a conductor had given as inspiration to the orchestra he as performing with: “Hearts on fire, minds on ice.”

Something about that has resonated with me since that day.  An idea that, even in the midst of our deepest intellectual moments, the midst of the coldest logical thinking, our hearts can still be on fire.  The fire of passion and desire does not require the brain to be shut off or even reduced at all; in fact, an expression of a heart “on fire” can be a brain working at its fullest and coldest.

Last night it popped into my head because of the fire because the fire didn’t want to start.  The leaves were damp, the wood a bit wet, and the wind a bit strong to be conducive to starting a fire in a small fire pit.  I couldn’t just have a spark to easily light a fire; it required work, it required thinking, and it required maintenance.  It just wouldn’t become the raging fire that burns anything easily; even when it got hot and the wind was making it bigger than the fuel said it should have been, a small misstep could have reduced it to smoldering.

In a lot of real ways, a fire in optimal conditions is better than my fire last night.  In optimal conditions, with dry kindle, dry wood, and properly sized logs, you are only limited to the size of the fire pit and the time you want to spend with the fire.  It burns bright, it burns warmly, and it just works on every level.  It just comes out.

I’ve had sermons like this.  You sit down at the computer and suddenly 2000 words are on the page and it flows perfectly.  It’s theologically sound, artful, and just a good sermon.  I’ve had this happen to me, I’ve had it happen when I didn’t deserve it, and I’ve had it happen when I deserved to have nothing sit on the page because of the lack of preparation I’ve had.  Sometimes it just happens that way.  Some of it is obviously the Holy Spirit, the flame of our souls, and some of it is the training and experience we’ve had.

A world of change can happen to a sermon between printing Saturday night and preaching Sunday morning.  I’ll use a fire I built at camp to explain.

One night I had one of those nights that young, angst-filled college students have.  I decided that I needed to build a fire to get through it and it was a darn good fire. Literally, it is one of the best bonfires I’ve ever built.  It just burned well, stayed lit, and it was a beautiful fire.

No one enjoyed it.  I was alone, and I was angst-filled in particular that night; this beautiful fire seemed wasted because no one enjoyed it.

I’ve written beautiful sermons I was proud of, and I still love despite the need for a couple of tweaks.  I can think of one in particular that just felt right.  It was artful, different, followed a homiletical style, and I just enjoyed writing it.  I had a solid interpretation of the scripture in use, backed up my commentaries, and it was just what the spark of the Holy Spirit lit in me.  I was ready to be lauded for my beautiful effort.

It is, in my opinion, lack on small word change, the best sermon in terms of art form I have ever written.  And my church enjoyed it immensely.

That C I got on it in Preaching Class showed me exactly how much a good sermon can completely miss it’s mark.  The best manuscript, the best delivery, and the best preacher – abstract, not specific in my case – can be heard wrong, suffer from the distraction of those listening, and have a small phrase that is mostly irrelevant to the message of the sermon derail the entire thing.  The beauty of that “fire” that I wanted to share ended up putting a sour taste for preaching in my mouth.

If I’m honest, both that fire I built at camp and that sermon I gave in class nearly caused me to quit.

Pride sucks and can kill everything about you.  It just is that way.  Especially when you think you’ve done this amazing thing, no one may notice and it may feel worse after than before.

That isn’t to say that every good sermon – or every good bonfire – that went like that was wasted and caused me grief.  I’ve written good sermons, preached them, and they hit exactly where I was aiming.  I felt good, the sermon had its message heard, and it was obvious that the Spirit was guiding my lips and the congregations ears.  I don’t always fail when the sermon came out easy and came out good.

What I will also say is that the sermon doesn’t always hurt when it is a grinder.

Sometimes the fires in non-optimal conditions are so much more meaningful than fires in the best of conditions.  Last night I just felt good that I got that stupid fire to burn.  The flames never got big (expect when the wind blew and they were way bigger than I wanted them to be) and it was hard to keep a flame at all.  Yet it was good and mind-clearing to be outside, to feel the warmth of the flames, and to have time with my wife without distraction other than the constant need to keep up with the fire.

Sermons can be like that.  There are certain passages that you decide to preach on early in the week (or weeks before) and Saturday comes and the sermon just won’t come out. Even passages that lend themselves to easy sermons just don’t have a message for you every time.

But Sunday morning doesn’t wait for you.  At 10:30 I have to have a worship service planned, bulletins printed, and something to say when I get to the sermon.  I can’t just say, “Screw it!  No sermon this week!”

Okay, maybe I could, but I like not being asked to not return.

It is amazing to me, though, how often those sermons hit the mark they needed to. Even more amazing – and annoying, if I’m honest – is when that mark is nowhere near where I was aiming.  It’s not that I didn’t prepare, it’s not that I didn’t try to hit a good message, but the sermon lent itself to another message and another point without my intervention.  Often times I don’t even know how it did it, and can’t find it when I read my manuscript again, but it worked on a spiritual level.

The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.  With or without me.

I’ve also been burnt by those sermons.  Sometimes you talk for 15 minutes just to have the message, “Jesus loves you and the pastor loves the sound of his own voice” come through.  I know it’s happened; my congregation would never tell me, but I know it.  It happens.

So what about that quote, “Hearts of fire, minds on ice?”  It seems like I got derailed – and I did – but there is a point.  The first is obviously that the Holy Spirit can fix my brokenness from the pulpit.

But that isn’t the end.  Despite how many times the Holy Spirit has saved me from myself, it always works better when I’m in study and thought about my sermons.  There is a definite correlation between my working through a sermon before Friday or Saturday and the sermon coming out good and hitting its mark.  And there is a correlation between a grinder sermon actually working out and me having spent time with the scripture.

Compare it to my fire last night.  If I had just left it up to what was there without work, I would have burnt some wet leaves and then watched TV all night.  If I have no preparation and just grind out whatever will come, nothing will come of it.  “Jesus loves you and I love the sound of my own voice” is not a good or useful message.  If I had just relied of the little bit of flame I had starting on its own, it would have died.

If I rely on just the Holy Spirit to give me a message without the brain work, I am going to fail as a preacher.  Period.  I will fail as a preacher if I don’t let my mind be on ice and think through this stuff.  Passion, emotion, and fire are all good things in a preacher, but they don’t come together as a whole, cohesive piece on Sunday morning.  I offer 1 Corinthians 14 as proof of what I am speaking of; speaking in tongues is a bit different than just standing up and speaking on Sunday without preparation but the whole idea of one just using the heart while the other uses both the heart and the mind stands true.

So here is my interpretation of that ideal, “Heart of fire, mind on ice,” in a ministry standpoint.  There are people who believe we should just go out and do and let the Holy Spirit guide on the fly.  I disagree.  I believe the Holy Spirit guides my preparation, my study, and my thinking.  Preparation is holy and good, and can also lead to a refined message instead of a rough one.  Rough wood can be beautiful, but refinement can make it shine.

So I guess I’m saying let your hearts be on fire.  It requires passion and love to preach the gospel and share Christ’s love.  But when the time calls for it, set your minds on ice and allow them to do what they do: process, think, and analyze.  Both can, and should, work complimentary, not oppositionally.  Let them.

Not preaching this week so you kind of got an extra-Biblical homily. Hopefully I’ll get the second part of the sin series flushed out sometime today (but I wouldn’t bet on it).

To preaching with our minds and loving with our hearts, and also visa-versa,

– Robby

P.S.: I used four words that WordPress’s writing checker doesn’t recognize.  Either I’m brilliant or arrogant…