Friday, November 29, 2013

Great Female Science Fiction Novelists

Consider this exercise. Take a year, and for the primary focus of your leisure reading, imagine reading science fiction and fantasy written exclusively by women. Let's say it's a senior seminar at the crossroads of women's studies and science fiction/fantasy studies.

What kind of syllabus would you put together? What works would you assign? Here are my favorite options right now, kind of a mix between what I actually intend to read in 2014, and what I have read in the past and consider to be the best of this genre written by women.

The Ür-Text: Mary Shelley

Challenger of Middle Earth: Ursula K. LeGuin

"The grand dame of science fiction": Octavia Butler

Steampunk: Erin Morgenstern

Because (full confession) I read the first six volumes but have never read the seventh: J.K. Rowling

The books that forever changed my childhood: Madeline L'Engle

Popular contemporary: Elizabeth Bear

The trilogy, of which this is the concluding volume: Margaret Atwood

A classic steamrollered by the movie industry: P.D. James

For a real challenge: Doris Lessing

Based on the Ozarks: Suzette Haden Elgin

Did you know Virginia Woolf wrote sci-fi under a pen name?

Others I'd like to include but it begins to be more than syllabus length: Lois Lowry, Suzanne Collins, Connie Willis, Angela Carter, Kelly Link, Anne Rice, Susanna Clarke, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey, Patricia Kennealy, and more.

Finally, this one for good measure, which really ought to be science fiction: Rebecca West

Thursday, November 28, 2013

How Dave Ramsey Started Blogging Like a Rich Brat

I honestly can't assess the entire Dave Ramsey industry, or Dave Ramsey himself, although readers of Lutheran Confessions can well imagine that I have more than a few concerns about the theology that undergirds his personal finance advice. He has made a lot of money offering advice on how to get out of debt. The fact that he says these are biblical principles has helped him sell his product quite successfully in our North American Christian cultural complex.

Challenging Johnny Depp for Edward Scissorhands II
Recently, however, he blogged 20 Things the Rich Do Every Day, and on this particular blog post, he tips solidly over the edge from Christian financial advice guru to "rich brat." And the post touched a nerve.


First of all, the title itself is over-the-top in its celebration of the rich. The rich don't do all the things he claims they do every day. For example, only 76% of the wealthy exercise four days a week, so that's neither all the rich, nor every day... (*grin*)

The bigger issue: Ramsey is confident he has figured out which came first, the (morally righteous) chicken or the (rich) egg, and it is definitely the (morally righteous) chicken. Dave believes if you act the right way, if you have the right habits, you'll get rich (or at least out of debt). It seems never to occur to him that most if not all the habits he celebrates in the list may themselves be enabled by wealth rather than the result of it.

The title of his blog post might better be titled: 20 Things the Rich Can Do Because, Well, They Aren't Poor.

Don't even get me started on his really weird comments about "third world" vs. "first world" poverty.

Perhaps the most unfortunately part of his post is his rejoinder, "a word from Dave," added after he received considerable pushback from readers. It's really a classic case of blowing up in public. The moment we start telling each other to "grow up..." well, yeah. 

The core problem, which Ramsey is unlikely to acknowledge, is that he operates out of a biblical hermeneutic that will never allow critique of his position, because his biblical hermeneutic is self-justifying. You can't criticize him, because he's just "teaching what the Bible says." Self-justifying biblical hermeneutics is in the end always about self-justification and seldom about God.

The post itself plays into the polarizing culture Dave purports to lament. It paints a far too stark portrait of the distinction between the rich and the poor. Of course many rich people have wonderful habits. I'm sure they do. There are good people among the rich and among the poor. But the post itself polarizes to such a degree, you can't get done reading it without either being persuaded by or angered by the basic erroneous point: The rich are morally superior and the poor are to blame for their own poverty.

So here we go, the 20 things Dave listed on his blog. It's a relentless and long list. By the end, responding point by point becomes somewhat tedious, even ludicrous. You'll soon see where such ridiculousness will take us. For good measure, I've inserted a few bible bullets. Let those with ears hear.

1. 70% of wealthy eat less than 300 junk food calories per day. 97% of poor people eat more than 300 junk food calories per day. 23% of wealthy gamble. 52% of poor people gamble.

Have you heard of food deserts? Many if not most of the poor in our nation live in or near food deserts. Food deserts are urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. So why do more poor people eat junk food? Because they can't afford to live near healthier food. As for gambling, I guess that all depends on whether you consider investing in the stock market gambling...

Mic. 2.2 They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance. 

2. 80% of wealthy are focused on accomplishing some single goal. Only 12% of the poor do this.

Has Dave Ramsey not heard of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs? It's awfully hard to work on things like achievement and problem solving when you lack sleep, are hungry, or are not sure where you can go to the bathroom next.

Luke 10.40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks.

3. 76% of wealthy exercise aerobically four days a week. 23% of poor do this.

Aerobic exercise is at least one of the great Shibboleths of the wealthy. If you have the leisure to pursue it, wonderful. It just so happens many who pursue it do so to offset a sedentary lifestyle. If you work on an assembly line for twelve hours a day or buss tables all day as a waitress, regular aerobic exercise may seem less desirous.

Scripture is as far as I can tell completely quiet on the topic of physical exercise. It's part of the bourgeoise bible, but not the Holy Bible.

4. 63% of wealthy listen to audio books during commute to work vs. 5% of poor people.

In order to listen to audio books, you need the equipment to do so, plus easy access to a library or the resources to purchase audio books. You need a commute to work, also, and I'm going to assume that at least some of those who are poor either a) don't have a commute, because they don't go to work, or b) have other responsibilities on their commute, such as delivering children to school. They might actually simply talk with their neighbors on the bus.

Eccl. 12.12 Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. 

5. 81% of wealthy maintain a to-do list vs. 19% of poor.

There's almost nothing in the bible about lists, other than genealogical lists, plus an enigmatic little thing in 1 Timothy about who to put on the list of widows, part of their communal discernment on how to provide a pension fund for widows in the burgeoning church. 

1Tim. 5.9   Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once;  10 she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way.

6. 63% of wealthy parents make their children read two or more non-fiction books a month vs. 3% of poor.

I just wish Dave Ramsey would read this article from The Atlantic, from which I've grabbed a screen shot...

Prov. 10.15 The wealth of the rich is their fortress;
the poverty of the poor is their ruin.

7. 70% of wealthy parents make their children volunteer 10 hours or more a month vs. 3% of poor.

Well, what counts as volunteering? My response to this one is purely anecdotal, but honestly, I know a lot of people who are poor, and quite a few who are rich. Both sets of parents make their children volunteer, or even volunteer with them, but often in different ways. Rich parents send their kids on mission trips. Poor parents ask their children to babysit the neighbor children on the playground. One is typically labeled volunteering. The other is simply being a friendly and helpful neighbor. 

1Th. 5.14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them

8. 80% of wealthy make Happy Birthday calls vs. 11% of poor.

Really? Don't we all do this on Facebook now? What?

9. 67% of wealthy write down their goals vs. 17% of poor.

See #5 above.

10. 88% of wealthy read 30 minutes or more each day for education or career reasons vs. 2% of poor.

Again, I'm highly skeptical of this comparison. Many careers that pay minimum wage or less do not require much reading for advancement in that type of work. I know a number of people in the service industry who make what would likely amount to poverty wages, and they read, quite a lot in fact, but they read for intellectual inquiry itself rather than career advancement. They read novels. They read books to their children.

As for reading the bible, the most frequent readers of the bible in my experience are the poor and those in prison, not the rich.

11. 6% of wealthy say what’s on their mind vs. 69% of poor.

What? Since when is silence in the face of injustices a virtue? If you're comfortable, there's very little reason to speak up or complain.

Rom. 12.6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith.

Hab. 1.13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they? 

12. 79% of wealthy network five hours or more each month vs. 16% of poor.

Do the rich network among the poor? One of the bigger problems, as illustrated by Shane Claibourne, "isn't that wealthy Christians don't care about the poor... it's that they simply don't know the poor."

Is. 5.8 Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land! 
9 The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. 

13. 67% of wealthy watch one hour or less of TV every day vs. 23% of poor.

I concede this point. Watching TV is a waste of time and probably causes poverty. Unless you are watching college football or Game of Thrones. Then it is clearly wealth producing and an avenue to success.

14. 6% of wealthy watch reality TV vs. 78% of poor.

Lord have mercy. We all know the wealthy watch opera, which is just like reality TV, with vibrato.

15. 44% of wealthy wake up three hours before work starts vs. 3% of poor.
Psa. 127.2 It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.

16. 74% of wealthy teach good daily success habits to their children vs. 1% of poor.

Interestingly, discussion of "habits" only occurs in the the apocrypha. By "good daily success" I assume Ramsey means being wealthy and not poor.

4Mac. 1.28   Just as pleasure and pain are two plants growing from the body and the soul, so there are many offshoots of these plants,  29 each of which the master cultivator, reason, weeds and prunes and ties up and waters and thoroughly irrigates, and so tames the jungle of habits and emotions. 

17. 84% of wealthy believe good habits create opportunity luck vs. 4% of poor.
Prov. 3.5    Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight. 

18. 76% of wealthy believe bad habits create detrimental luck vs. 9% of poor.

At this point, I've become completely exhausted by my own blog post, so I'm quoting from my favorite epistle from Paul.
Gal. 5.13   For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 

19. 86% of wealthy believe in lifelong educational self-improvement vs. 5% of poor.
Education also only appears in the inter-testamental texts. As noted above, if lifelong education doesn't necessarily pay off for the poor, the incentive to pursue it may lessen. On the other hand, the prophets do emphasize life-long learning, it's just towards the establishment of justice rather than the acquisition of riches.

Is. 1.17 learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

20. 86% of wealthy love to read vs. 26% of poor.

I like books, too, but I think this is the third item on reading in this list. If reading was how you get rich, I would be richer than Bill Gates. Who reads a lot, so I hear.

I'm exhausted. How about you?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Strengthen the United States of America | Support LIRS

Use the following sample letter as a template to advocate in solidarity with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee service. You can also use their on-line tool:
Dear (subject, your congressional representative), 
I write to raise urgent concerns about funding for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for FY 2014. Without Congressional leadership and intervention, America’s ability to provide persecuted refugees and vulnerable migrant children with safe haven and a chance at a new life would be dramatically diminished. Congress must appropriate additional funding to ORR by deadline for the budget deal on December 13 so the United States can adequately serve the vulnerable migrants under its care. 
The United States has a proud history of providing a safe haven to those fleeing from persecution, oppression, and violence. Since 1975, the United States has welcomed 2.5 million refugees. A recent surge in widespread organized crime and violence in Central America has led to an enormous increase in the number of unaccompanied children fleeing their homes to escape extortion, killings, forced recruitment, and generalized fear and crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to seek safety. These children are at special risk for abuse, exploitation and trafficking during their journeys and after their arrival to the United States. 
I see the positive contributions refugees are able to make in my community when we invest in supporting, welcoming and integrating refugees to their new lives. As a person of faith, I believe in protecting the most vulnerable among us and urge your immediate intervention to support increased funding for ORR in FY 2014. I will pray for you and your colleagues as you consider this urgent need and I thank you for your public service to all members of our community. Sincerely, (your name and signature)


Thursday, November 21, 2013

More Guilt With Your Advent?

Is it just me, or are we awfully hard on ourselves during the Advent season? 

We set unusually ambitious goals for the season---purchase the right, life-changing present for everyone close to you, dress festively and appear joyous while attending plenty of holiday parties, mail a Christmas letter hand-written in cursive to everyone you've known since elementary school, transform your indoor living space into a Christmas fantasia, and adorn the front yard with at least 5,000,000,000 lights.

Then we kick ourselves for being too busy, forgetting the "reason for the season," and not saving enough or giving sufficiently to the poor.

During Advent, we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to shop, a lot, while keeping it simple. We want to calmly sit around the fire sipping hot cider, and we want to volunteer as a Salvation Army bell-ringer.

The video produced this year for the Advent Conspiracy illustrates the point ( Take time to watch it now if you aren't busy knitting a Norwegian sweater for your grandmother:

The message is solid. I'm fundamentally in agreement with it. It's true. If we spent less on Christmas and gave more money away to help ensure clean water around the world, lives would be saved. I am totally, 100% in favor of the idea that more of us should give more of our wealth away, especially to ministries that ensure access to clean water. For my money, I suggest Lutheran World Relief (

On the other hand, our typical way of talking about this season does tend to turn the Advent narrative into one of guilt. Most of us are embedded in a culture where the sharing of gifts is an important, essential part of our holiday tradition. We aren't going to stop. It is not at all clear to me how kicking ourselves over our holiday shopping is helpful. It might even be a kind of communal self-deception--if we at least talk bad about ourselves while engaging in a practice, it may help us justify it a bit more in our minds.

It's like saying, "I really shouldn't eat this third piece of chocolate cheesecake." We don't mean it, because we're eating it, but it assuages some guilt-sensor in our brains if we at least admit our compulsions while doing nothing about them.

To be honest, I don't know what to do about this Catch-22 we find ourselves in. Every year, we dread the very season we hope for and anticipate. We distract ourselves from Jesus by celebrating his birth. We fail in our religious commitments by exercising a peculiar religiosity.

This year, as a leader of a faith community, I've decided the only real answer is prayer. We need to consider again what prayer is, what it's for. We need to learn from others how to pray.

For our Advent suppers and evening prayer, we are going to host guest speakers each Wednesday on the topic of prayer. On December 4th, Lowell Grisham, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal, will speak on contemplative prayer. On December 11th, Dennis Peterson, director of the Fayetteville PrayerRoom, will share about their ecumenical adventure in hosting a place of prayer for all people. On December 18th, a member of our congregation, Fern Kelsay, will talk about our prayer chain, and her longstanding practice of leading the prayer chain in prayer for the needs of our congregation.

Sundays during Advent will also be focused on prayer. We will consider a focus image each week. December 1st, we consider how bells call us to awareness of the need for prayer. On December 8th, we allow the hand of John to point us to prayer in Christ. On December 15th, we consider how candles represent the sustaining of our prayers, and on December 22nd, we reflect on Mary's prayer for justice and the kingdom of God.

I do not honestly know whether an Advent focus on prayer resolves any of our present Advent difficulties. Advent for me is an enigma embedded in a riddle. It is too important to abandon, and too conflicted to naively embrace. Advent drives us to pray, even as we increasingly puzzle over and complexify prayer's meaning.

I wonder... how do you think about Advent? Where does the paradox identified here resonate in your own life?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Sovereignty of Christ, Aether, and Thor

In Marvel comic book cosmology, there are things that existed before things existed. The infinity stones existed before the creation of the universe (the Nine Realms). One of these things, the aether, exists in a liquid rather than a solid state, and is roughly like a force or power that turns matter into dark matter.

In this cosmology, because these stones pre-exist the universe, they are dangerous even to those (like Odin and other godlike Asgaardians) who seem to have almost unlimited power.

There's supreme power. Then there is power beyond supreme power. Like Kierkegaard's teleological suspension of the ethical, aether represents the ontological suspension of the ontic (or something like that). It is being beyond being.

Certainly you can watch a movie like Thor and ignore the cosmological implications altogether. But with tantalizing mini-hints into worlds beyond worlds (like the short in the credits that introduces the collector, Taneleer Tivan), why would you? It's comic book joy and metaphysical frolicking all in one fabulous package.

So were there things that existed prior to creation? 

This is actually a debate in early Christianity that, although to a certain degree resolved after the second century or so, still plays in some types of contemporary Christian theology. Here's a dramatically simplified outline.

In early Christianity, there was no dogmatic statement on whether creation came from nothing or something. The early Genesis accounts allow for multiple interpretations. One account seems to indicate creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing)... perhaps (see Genesis 2 and 1:1). The other account describes creation as being organized out of pre-existing elements (the earth was a formless void... the wind hovered over the waters, see Genesis 1:2-3). This is creatio ex materia

* Side note, in the Marvel universe, there's actually a character named Ex Nihilo who can create new life on a planetary scale.

Over time, however, an orthodox consensus coalesced around the idea that God created ex nihilo. It has become the consensus tradition for most confessional Christian theologies, with a few notable exceptions, including individual theologians like Thomas Jay Oord, and movements such as process theology.

Depending on your perspective on things theological, you might consider the whole debate a kind of non-starter. However, there are some ways in which the debate has practical implications. Essentially, it boils down to a simple question.

Does God work with what exists or create that which God works with?

If the former, then God is primarily in the business of transforming and working with the given. God is always in a sense already "in" creation. For process theology, there is a sense in which God can never be considered or thought apart from creation, because God is always fully involved in temporal and material processes. 

This former way of thinking can be a complicated rabbit hole to go down, but essentially it means there is no creation ex nihilo because God is always together relationally with creation, and never apart from it (a-material, eternal, unchanging, etc.).

If the latter, then God creates even the very things that God then desires or needs or hopes for. This way of thinking is illustrated nicely in the concluding thesis of Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, which reads, "The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of humans comes into being through that which is pleasing to them."

How we think about creation either out of nothing or out of pre-existing something (Infinity Stones, formless voids, etc.) then says at least a bit about how we are to approach the current creation we are a part of as it relates to either the nothing from which it emerged, or the pre-existing elements out of which it was formed.

What does all of this have to do with the Sovereignty of Christ?

Short version again. Most Christian traditions believe that Jesus was also the pre-existent LOGOS (Word). In other words, Jesus was both fully human, in creation, and also with God from the very beginning. Therefore Christ was not a creature of creation per se but a member of the Trinity that has always been (either creating everything out of nothing or forming things out of preceding stuff as the Word God speaks in/to/of creation).

Christ's sovereignty (we are coming up on Christ the King Sunday, after all) rests to a large degree on this dogmatic assertion, that Jesus the Son of Mary was also at the same time the incarnation of the pre-existent Logos. We can ignore at least for the time-being the liturgical insight that this is a relatively new feast in Christian tradition, the Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King of the Universe, and therefore a rite in search of a theology. 

Instead, focus on passages like Ephesian 1:21, which clearly set up Christ as ruler and authority over heaven and the universe as a whole. The Christ is what Loki wishes he could be, what Thor disavows, and what Odin is. Christ's sovereignty has to do, at least in part, with his power (whatever it means for Christ to have power) to bring about the kind of kingdom Christ has a mission to bring about.

So if the Christ rules, is there a sense in which Christ rules "beyond" sovereignty? 

I always end up preaching on Christ the King Sunday some version of "Christ is a king, but not like any other king you know." Like Kierkegaard's suspension of the ethical, Christ seems to rule with an eschatological suspension of the sovereign. Christ does not seek or grasp sovereignty but is sovereign precisely through his sustaining and holding together his pre-existent divinity with his right now incarnation-ality.

Perhaps this is why we have such a hard time getting ahold of Jesus. We'd quite like him to be like us. But Jesus, like the aether and the Infinity Stones, comes at this mortal life both completely as a part of it, and completely apart from it at the same time. He is with us and in us precisely by being apart from us and outside of us. He is not us, and is just so one of us. He is the other in us, which is our own self.

That is Christ's sovereignty.

I could conclude with a quote from John Caputo in his The Insistence of God that I believe articulates the aether, Thor, and the sovereignty of Christ in a kind of phenomenological, radical theology register. Here you go:

"My theoretic (per)version of Hegel, my way of rereading Hegel, is to conceive a world in which the absolute would be neither substance nor subject but specter, in which 'substance' and 'subject' would only be provisional stand-in nomenclature we draw from the history of metaphysics for more nameless and boundless events, for events still unnamed, where Spirit has been weakened into the insistence of the event, into the specter of the peut-être" (145). 

And for a great review of more graphic novels that engage the theological tradition, see Gregory Walter's post at The Christian Century,

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Young Adults in Ministry | Six Incredible Options

What should I do with my life? We're all asking ourselves this question all of the time, but those transitioning from youth to young adulthood are asking it with focused poignancy.

Often, I want to state the obvious. If you are applying to university, God is calling you to study hard, get good grades, participate with integrity in the collegiate experience, be kind to your dorm mate. If you are looking for a job, or want to play in a rock band, God is calling you to invest all your creativity into doing whatever you do with life and faithfulness. God wants you to have flow.

But some young people I know are pondering (churchy people use the word discerning) whether they have a call to some type of specific Christian ministry. If you are wondering whether you are called to be a pastor/missionary/deaconess/youth director/mission developer/organist, or even just a saxon canon regular, here are the resources you want to dig into to help with your discernment.

1. Young Adults in Global Mission

This is the the ELCA program for global mission service abroad, including locations in England, South Africa, Argentina, Jerusalem, Madagascar, Malaysia, Eastern Europe, and Mexico.

2. Youth Encounter

Youth Encounter is an ecumenical adventure with strong Lutheran connections. Young adults lead "encounters with Christ" in local congregations and at Quakes and other youth events.

3. Lutheran Volunteer Corps

Like Peace Corps, but domestic service and based out of the Lutheran social justice tradition. Participants live in intentional Christian community and explore the spiritual dimensions of social justice activism.

4. Living Learning | Toledo

This "gap year" program is in the pilot stages in Toledo, led by a creative young Lutheran pastor, Josh Graber.

5. Treehouse

Lots of universities have amazing campus ministries you can be a part of. This is the one at Texas A&M. Go to a Lutheran college and campus ministry will be built directly in to your college experiences.

6. Project Connect

An ELCA web site designed to help young adults connect to congregations and discern their call to ministry. They host regular service learning and discernment events around the country.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Prayer Journal | Flannery O'Connor

Yes, this is a short book. It includes a transcription of Flannery O'Connors prayer journal from her time at the University of Iowa writer's school. But the quality of a book should never be judged by its length.

It should be judged by its texture and depth. And for this reason I consider the book to be essential. The prayers O'Connor has written create a landscape for prayer utterly original in the Christian tradition, if also deeply embedded in it.

I am reading one prayer per night, sometimes two. They are leading me into new spiritual insights each time. I see myself in new ways through her prayers.

The book also includes a facsimile of the journal itself. It's really a pleasure to be able to see her hand-writing first hand, to imagine her as a young student writing each day in this journal.

I guarantee if you buy this book, when it arrives, you will do more than read it. You will cherish it.

And a great review by Marilynne Robinson:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Kindergarteners, Hugs, Chuck E. Cheese and Interfaith Harmony

On Monday, per the birthday request of our eight-year-old, we went to Chuck E. Cheese for supper. It's amazing how fun pizza, salad bar, and a few game tokens can be.

When we arrived, our kindergartener saw one of her classmates from the elementary school eating pizza with his parents.

The two immediately leapt up, ran to each other, and embraced in an affectionate hug. The hug included jumping up and down with glee.

This child's family is recently arrived in Arkansas from Saudi Arabia. They are studying English this year, then doing graduate work in mathematics and organic chemistry starting next year. I had yet to meet the parents, so we spent a bit of time in conversation. They're so nice.

Then I went to eat salad with our family, but I couldn't get one thing out of my mind.

I have devoted my life to proclaiming a gospel and forwarding a movement (the church) that centers itself in a belief system that is, however you look at it, about the "layer" of reality beyond the layer we know empirically. Although Christians are committed to caring for the neighbor (and we really are, in our best moments) we believe this care of neighbor arises out of something we have experienced at another level--God, the Christ, grace, the experience of faith. We are incurably metaphysical.

But you know, that layer also introduces something into our hearts and minds that my daughter and her classmate have yet to adopt. I see this family, and I see difference. I see Saudi Arabians. I see Muslims. I think of them based on their nationality, and their religion. It helps that I'm a liberal Christian of some sort so I am favorably disposed and neighborly towards them because of my faith commitments.

But I still see them through those additional layers, and not as themselves, who they are simply as human beings.

My daughter sees her friend as her friend. He's her friend first. I'm not even sure she knows his religion, or his nationality.

I know this is not a profound revelation. Jesus himself taught us to have faith like children (Luke 18:16-17).

But it bothers me that I can't get beyond the metaphysical layers. I long ago fell in love with the Grundtvigian dictum, "Human first, then Christian." But the truth is the Christian religious layer always intrudes itself.

That hug between them has printed itself on my soul. I tear up every time I remember it.

Because any religion that would teach those two children to see each other as different, less valued, less saved, less human, is simply not worth the paper it is inscribed on or the community in which it is practiced.

I think my new religion is going to be this simple--you are my friends, and I hug you, and we dance.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

You can change the world... give more money away

I refuse to be depressed by the news that giving to religious organizations in North America is at an all time low, comparable only to the level of giving during the Great Depression. Giving as a percentage of GDP has remained rather steady at 2% (see more statistics at the bottom of this post), but has remained depressed since the recession of 2008 and is not anticipated to recover until 2018.

Given that religious organizations are losing a percentage of this total giving each year as a percentage of total giving, I could get frustrated... but I refuse.

Here's why.

It forces us to get creative

In the past three years I have done more creative work inquiring into alternative income streams for ministry than ever before in my career. I regularly write grant proposals, research Kickstarter and other funding platforms, learn from planned giving specialists, and voraciously absorb stewardship best practices ideas. I'm still a novice, but I'm learning.

I'm especially trying to learn best practices from organizations outside of the church and religious section. Cross-pollination between non-profits of all kinds and the fund-raising work of the church is a necessary win-win situation. We can all learn from each other. Non-profits can learn from religious organizations how year after year we make up the largest percentage of charitable giving, and we can learn from non-profits why some of them are gaining on us.

It teaches us to trust God

What I've learned is there are three really good ways to raise money for the ministry of the church, and none of them work that well. But we keep trying. If it were easy to raise money, if it were simple to convince ourselves to be more generous with our resources, we would tend to trust our techniques rather than God.

I can't give up, because there is a world in need

Right now, I am inviting everyone I know to donate money to Lutheran World Relief for humanitarian disaster assistance in the Philippines. The money we donate to LWR will make a greater difference to people on the ground in the Philippines than acquiring a new book or CD or t-shirt. To be quite clear, a book will sit on your shelf. A gift to LWR may save a life.

I have to keep asking all of you, and inviting myself, to give more, because it makes a difference, an immense difference, in the lives of our neighbors in need.

Typhoon Haiyan: You Can Help

The fall stewardship appeal keeps getting more fun

A lot of church leaders (and likely parishioners) get nervous at the fall stewardship appeal they conduct each year. It's not the end all/be all for encouraging benevolence to the congregation, but it is a worthy tradition. We need to hear God's call to support the ministry of the church financially. You can give your time. You can offer your presence. But if you really want to set the church free, if you want to make your church the kind of church that does amazing and gospel centered ministry, the most important thing you can do is give it such lavish and surprising gifts that it is overwhelmed with financial mission support and has to pray over what to do with the surplus.

If you want to make such a donation to a great Lutheran ministry and its mission development in Arkansas, here's your chance to do so. This year we began a much-needed transition to offering on-line giving. We plan to keep growing in this area.

When we give money away, we are free

Nothing is a surer sign that we have really heard and responded to the gospel than when we start giving ourselves away. The gospel, that we are free in Christ, sets us free, and freedom looks like no longer grasping and holding tightly the things that bind us. The most lavish givers, the free-est gifts, arrive and arise out of profound freedom. We give, expecting nothing in return, anticipating that the gift will help the neighbor in need.

Some charitable giving statistics
How big is the sector?
  • Total charitable giving rose for the third straight year.
  • Total giving to charitable organizations was $316.23 billion in 2012 (about 2% of GDP). This is an increase of 3.5% from 2011.
  • As in previous years, the majority of that giving came from individuals. Specifically, individuals gave roughly $223 billion (72%) representing a 3.9% increase over 2011.
  • Giving by bequest was $22.14 billion (down a whopping 7%), foundations gave $47.44 billion (up 4.4%), and corporations donated $18.97 billion (up 12.2%).
  • Corporate giving accounts for just 6% of the total giving in 2012 which is actually a 12.2% increase from 2011.
  • Most types of charities saw increases in donations. The two exceptions were Religion and Foundations.ArtsEnvironment and Animal organizations saw the largest increase which indicates that donors may be returning to their personal giving priorities (which they strayed from during the height of the recession in favor of supporting Food Banks and other Human Services charities).
  • Historically, Religious groups have received the largest share of charitable donations. While this is still true in 2012, the percentage dropped by 2% from 2011.
  • Even with the decrease in donations, 32% of all donations went to Religious organizations. Much of these contributions can be attributed to people giving to their local place of worship. The next largest sector was Education with 13% of all donations.
  • Billionaire donors are starting to give at rates not seen since the beginning of the economic downturn.
  • Revised Giving USA data shows that total giving as a percentage of GDP has barely strayed from 2% over the past four decades despite the huge growth in the number of charities. This figure climbed to a high of 2.3% in 2000, but otherwise tends to gravitate to 2% of GDP.
  • Total giving in 2012 was 8.2% below giving in 2007, before the charitable sector felt the effects of the recession. If the pace of growth in charitable giving stays constant in the coming years, giving will not rebound to pre-recession levels until 2018.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Five Reasons Huffington Post is Destroying the Internet

It's Friday. Make it a Blockbuster Night!

Remember the days when you spent more time scanning the shelves at Blockbuster than actually watching the movie you rented? Those were the days. 

The space-time continuum was different then. 

There was a rule: the more people who went into Blockbuster to pick the movie, the longer it took to pick one... and factorially so, like orders of magnitude. Go in alone, you could be out in five minutes with a movie. But if Jesus and his disciples all went in to a Blockbuster, it would probably take them forty days to pick a film, and they'd end up with something disappointing to everyone, like Top Gun.

This week Blockbuster announced it was closing all its remaining retail stores. So first of all, my sympathies to the thousands of retail employees who are losing their jobs. It's never a good day when a great institution like Blockbuster closes its doors.

The logical culprit to blame in all of this is Netflix. Netflix, and all the other streaming services that set viewers free to watch pretty much anything, anytime, on-demand through their Roku, have brought about a transformation in the industry, and in an insanely short amount of time.

Like, remember when the CEO of Netflix wrote that really bad letter to subscribers explaining why they were partitioning the DVD division from the streaming division? It was a really bad letter, but we all got over it and the world moved on, right?

Personally, I blame Huffington Post. I mean, obviously a liberal/left scandal rag started by a conservative pundit trying to oust Clinton fro office, acquired by AOL and the winner of the first Pulitzer-prize for an on-line journal, is the obvious cause of the demise of Blockbuster. Right?

No, not really. But it does help me write a really great headline for this article that sounds quite a lot like a Huffington Post headline.

Returning to Blockbuster, what I really think about the closing of Blockbuster is that it is the canary in the mineshaft for Christian community in North America. 

Why? Because the population used to enjoy going out to a strip mall to pick their Friday night movies, but now all those resources are on the Internet wherever we are, and we can chat with friends on Facebook while watching our streaming movies to boot. 

In the meantime, the church by-and-large is going to try and hold out and stay open much longer than Blockbuster. We will say it is for theological reasons, and perhaps that is true, but nevertheless, there are a few things worth learning from the closing of Blockbuster and the rise of Netflix.

Streaming Sacramentality

What is a sacrament, and do you have to be together in real life for it to be a real sacrament? There was something sacramental about the Blockbuster experience, for sure. It bracketed the weekend tradition of relaxing on a Friday night. Finding the movie, choosing it with friends, frustration at late fees and having to drive back to return it the next day, all of these made Blockbuster a strangely satisfying embodied practice.

But clearly not satisfying enough for us to retain it when the streaming option presented itself. So too church is struggling with how to offer the sacraments, and where to offer them, in a streaming culture. The Methodists spent some time engaging this brave new world this fall. Huffington Post covered it, of course. 

Pretty much everyone tends to agree that communion should or at least could still include bodily reception of bread and wine. The question boils down to whether or not everyone needs to be in the same place when this communion takes place. Can you and I attend the same worship service on-line, but then receive the meal each in our own homes in some fashion?

What is the sacramentality of streaming? To what degree is streaming still embodied, just differently so? There are plenty of ways in which our participation in streaming media are fluid but still physical, disparate but still communal. Rather than dismiss the sacramentality of the stream, we need to learn how swimming in it is still embodied and faithful.

Equipping Home Chapels

Never before in the history of humanity have more households had more at their disposal as resources to turn their homes into chapels of faith. And yet very few households feel equipped to do this well. It's a paradox. Everyone has a bible on their iPhone, or can download one immediately, but very few of us actually read it.

I don't have to go to Blockbuster to get a movie. I have a pantheon of movies in my own home. So too the church simply needs to recognize this fact, and get creative about bringing to greater awareness among Christians that the resources for worship in place (even beyond home, since streaming resources naturally go with you on whatever device you carry anywhere you go) are at hand, always. You can pull up and pray vespers with your friend while driving down the interstate. The entire contents of the church video library is available for viewing and discussion Sunday evening after family dinner.

People feel busy, and often they feel they are doing many worthwhile things with their time on the weekends. Nor are they wrong about this. But often these good things are not yet worship or intentional faith-formation. The church, rather than constantly trying to get people to come to their local version of Blockbuster (that is, the church building) would be well-served to start imagining how faith formation might be streamed Netflix-like.

What is the church's version of a Roku? What is our Amazon Prime?

A Seminary in Every Device

Many seminaries are already clued into the streaming-ness of the church. They haven't necessarily figured out how streaming will contribute to their institutional longevity. In fact, this is a brave and scary new world. Seminaries used to exist, at least in part, to maintain a library. I spent hours and hours in the stacks of the Luther Seminary library. There was this spectacular antiquated book smell, and the library tower had the narrowest of metallic stairs I would race up and down to get from BS to BT. Proximity to books was a core value of seminaries. Learning in community was also important, but it centered around the availability and reading of books. 

Now, all these resources (or at least most of them) are readily available on your phone or Kindle.  

Luther Seminary, my alma mater, offers resources on the weekly lectionary at If you want to create your own bible study program and read more study resources, you can also visit their Want to read pretty much any article ever written in English on religion? Then just access the ATLA database through the Luther Seminary library.

My other alma mater, Fuller Theological Seminary, offers some of the most extensive theological learning resources of any seminary in the world

Or check out the "disseminary" at These are all just for starters. They're the tip of the iceberg. 

Teachers of all types are starting to find ways to turn their classes "inside out," recording their classroom experiences on Vimeo for all of us to view. When I Google "theology lectures Vimeo" here's the top hit: A full hour of lecture on the New Testament by Tom Schreiner at South Baptist Theological Seminary.

How institutions or individual teachers will collect a hefty tuition from each of us remains to be seen. We are only now in the beginning stages of this transition. Much more needs to be considered. But there is no going back.

The Rise of Long-Form Television

Finally, notice how streaming has changed what and how we watch. Everybody thought television was dying out, what with the rise of the Internet and the destructive force of the Huffington Post, but television has made a strong showing the past few years. In fact, this might be the best era ever to watch television, especially long-form television. Long-form television is particularly well-suited to the streaming era, because you can watch it on your own time. Even if you don't subscribe to HBO, you can wait for Game of Thrones to arrive on Amazon or Netflix and then watch a whole season in one sickening binge session.

So too streaming culture will retrieve some parts of previous Christian mediation phoenix-like out of the ashes of the old. We won't always know which parts. God will catch us by surprise.

The one thing we will need to do is hold all forms of church lightly. Clinging to certain shapes or forms of mediating faith will be the one certain way to shatter them. Streaming culture is shaking up our use of space itself, and that's okay. It's really okay. Creative institutions like Netflix and Amazon are finding ways to make a profit in the new media era. Churches can learn from them, even innovate themselves on how to fund and staff ministry in new ways today, also.