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Jostling Angels

I have several friends who have recently been through diversity training at their companies. This is not uncommon these days. Many corporations are scrambling to keep up with the ethos of the moment, desperate to demonstrate the appropriate levels of commitment to equality and inclusion, terrified that they might be held liable for a stray comment or inappropriate action by one of their employees in the domains of sexuality, race, or gender. Diversity training is the way to cover their backsides. “Oh, and so said or did bad thing x? Well, we did what we could. They received diversity training. We can’t really help it if it didn’t take.” Read more

Busy Bees

I’ve been preaching roughly forty sermons a year for the last decade. I preached around twelve per year during the three years before that. By my (admittedly atrocious) math, that’s in the vicinity of four hundred fifty sermons. Which is, I suppose, a decent sample size from which to extrapolate. To detect some trends, to observe a trajectory. Or, I suppose, to chart a decline, depending on your perspective. Read more

The Shadows of the Night

It’s pretty quiet at the church most days during this pandemic. There’s a cat without a tail that walks by the window of my study every now and then. Occasionally a driver will slowly meander through our parking lot confusedly staring at their phone (Google sometimes leads people astray). A family of deer has wandered by a few times. And last week, there was a woman sitting on the lawn. I’ll call her Danielle. Read more

A Mighty Warrior

“A pandemic is a cruel time to die,” I mutter to myself under my breath. I am in the foyer of a palliative care home. I have been through security, filled out the barrage of COVID paperwork. I make my way over to another desk, get my temperature checked. All is good, I am told. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, I am not carrying the plague. I walk down a long hallway armed with the two security codes that I will need to finally be granted limited access to a dear old soul whose race looks nearly run. “It was easier to get into the local prison than this fourteen months ago,” I grumble to myself. Read more

Mixed Motives

Earlier this week, I set out on a rather mundane and (I thought) noble task. I wanted to buy local. I had a relatively ordinary purchase to make, but it was one that I knew I could either get at some anonymous big box store that’s already made buckets of money during this pandemic or a local shop that I imagined would have been having a harder time of it. Over the course of this pandemic, I have rid myself of Facebook and sworn off Amazon. I’ve tried to avoid Wal-Mart and other big box stores. This would be the next step in my evolution as a conscientious consumer. Or at least some reasonable facsimile, thereof. Read more

Is Justin Bieber Allowed to Suffer? (and Other Indecent Calculations)

Over the last few months, no fewer than three people I know and respect have told me that I should listen to Justin Bieber’s new album. These are all people that know me well enough to understand what a musical stretch this would be for me. Each recommendation was met with slightly hostile incredulity from yours truly. Justin Bieber?! Seriously?! You might as well ask me to forfeit my soul. How would I even begin to salvage the tatters of my reputation? But three people. And people I respect. Hmm, what to do. Read more

Running on Religious Fumes

Freddie deBoer is, I gather, known as something of a “nice atheist.” He’s not explicitly hostile toward religious belief. His atheism represents more of a surrender than a decision. He believes an atheism that doesn’t come out of a process of loss and pain isn’t worth a whole lot. He’s not going to try to convert you to his unbelief. He has no evident interest in a world where people suddenly cease to believe in God. He would, however, like for you to take it a bit more seriously if this is in fact what you claim to believe. Or, at the very least, for you to be a bit more consistent. If God is the point of the whole show, then you should at least have the courtesy to act like you believed it. Read more

Risk Assessment

I got the COVID vaccine yesterday. Given all the hopeful freight that this solitary word—“vaccine”—has carried in our cultural discourse over the past thirteen months, it was a rather understated affair. I phoned a local pharmacy on Monday night inquiring as to when I might receive my precious dose. “Tomorrow morning?” was the unexpected reply. So, on a bright Tuesday morning, off I trudged toward my equally bright, post-pandemic future. Read more

On Textbook Characters

There’s a scene in the opening pages of Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel, Jack, where the eponymous protagonist has contributed to an unpleasant dinner experience with a certain bishop’s daughter named Della. The walk home is tense and the dialogue is strained. Jack has, evidently, really stepped in it:

She said, “I have never been so embarrassed. Never in my life.”
He said, “Well, you haven’t known me very long.”

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Final Exam

I often talk to people who feel like they’re failing. Failing God, failing their kids, failing their spouses, failing their church, failing their colleagues or shareholders, failing to realize their potential, failing to optimize, prioritize, maximize. Sometimes the people I talk to about all this failing are the voices in my own head. Life is conceived of as some kind of a test or a race or contest with winners and losers. It’s remarkable how frequently people who, by all outward appearances seem to be thriving, or at the very least keeping their heads above water, feel like they’re not measuring up. Read more

The Monstrosity of Easter

 

I remember a few years ago I was hunting around for some music to listen to while preparing my Easter sermon. It was Holy week, so I thought I should try to find something a bit more inspirational than my usual fare. Perhaps some classical music. I surveyed the options on my streaming service. I was presented with two choices for Holy Week. How delightful! I read the description of each.

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I Spy

A strange thing happens on the Wednesday of Holy Week. Jesus is in the home of Simon the (former) Leper when an unnamed woman pours out an expensive jar of perfume on his head. It’s an extravagant waste. It is done with little evident regard for the cost or for what those gathered might think. And Jesus calls it a “beautiful thing.” Read more

“You’re Not Very Nice”

There’s a woman who calls me at the church with some regularity. She calls from two or three different phone numbers and uses a handful of pseudonyms. I have a file full of the various names and numbers she’s used. I’ll call her Mary. The stories she tells vary. She’s dying or mortally ill. She has to get somewhere far away for a surgery and needs gas money. Her kids are terrible and mistreating her (and will probably be calling me soon to ask for money—don’t give it to them!). Her grandkids need food. She needs a hotel room. She needs a thousand dollars, but she’ll settle for fifty. This has been going on for the better part of a decade. I suppose most churches have a story or two like this. Read more

Sunk Costs

Last week marked an anniversary of sorts, at least in the life of many churches. It’s been one year since the pandemic closed our doors, drove us online, kicked into motion myriad restrictions for eventual physical gatherings, etc. It’s obviously been a long and difficult year for many, and for a wide variety of reasons. Read more

Beyond the Limits of our Puny Selfhood

Well, here’s a breath of Friday fresh air from the New York Times. It’s an article by Leigh Stein called “Influencers are the New Televangelists” and it compares modern-day social media quasi-spiritual wellness influencers like Glennon Doyle to religious hucksters from yesteryear like Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson. The comparison is apt, in my view, even if the content of their message could hardly be more different. Read more

If I Ran the Zoo

My wife got a little heated over breakfast today. Not at me, thanks be to God. No, the object of her displeasure this morning was the story of Dr. Seuss running afoul of the cultural gatekeepers that broke yesterday. Evidently, six books from the well-known author and illustrator will no longer be published due to “racist and insensitive imagery.” Classics like The Cat in the Hat and The Sneetches are safe (for now), but And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and If I Ran the Zoo did not make the cut. My wife does not normally have much interest in the culture wars, but, like many, she grew up on Dr. Seuss and this was just a bit too far. “I need a platform to protest this!” she said. I reminded her that I had a platform, modest though it may be. She wasn’t interested in writing a guest post, strangely. At any rate, I don’t run the zoo, but if I did, here are three things I might say.  Read more

Wonder Shining in My Eyes

I wonder if one of the central tasks of faith at this middle stage of life is that of reimagination. To unlearn the notion that faith is a “whoever dies with the most correct ideas about God in their head wins” kind of game. To open oneself to the possibility that when it comes to the things of God, it’s less about arguing than evoking, less about proving than reminding and revealing, less about heroically thinking enough right God-things or doing enough good God-things than loving mercy. Sigh. Even as I look at the preceding three sentences, I hate the soppy mid-life cliché that they sound like. Perhaps one of the other tasks of the middle-stage of life is to somehow come to peace with the cliches that we inevitably become. Read more

Forgive Us Our Sins

Last year at the beginning of Lent I decided that rather than giving something up I was going to take something on. I would read Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. What better way to journey toward Good Friday than by immersing myself in a serious theological reflection on the cross of Christ? I made it just over a hundred pages. I wish I could say I had a good reason for quitting, but I don’t really have one. I suppose I could blame COVID’s arrival in Lent 2020 and the way it colonized most of my mental bandwidth, but mostly it was just a combination of distractibility, apathy, and preoccupation with other (lesser) things. What can I say? The truth isn’t always flattering. Read more