Archive for December, 2011

“Joy to the World,” Vinebranch-style

December 20, 2011

Here’s a highlight from Sunday’s “Christmas in Vinebranch service. That’s the amazing Joanna Stotter singing lead.

From my trip to the Holy Land: Bethlehem

December 19, 2011

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night."

Yesterday in Vinebranch, we showed this video I prepared for my sermon on Luke 2:1-20. I use pictures and video from my trip to the Holy Land earlier this year. Enjoy!

Blog replay: Christopher Hitchens debates Tim Jackson

December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens died this week. I disliked his ideas and nearly everything he stood for. (I’m not meaning to disrespect the dead; he would want people like me to dislike him and say so.) In one important way, however, I owe him a debt of gratitude. He influenced me to start this blog and to formulate my own responses to the often shallow arguments put forth by him and his fellow New Atheist writers. He shook me out of my complacency about defending the Christian faith.

Not that I think I do the work of apologetics very well, but most of my fellow clergy (none of my blog readers, I promise!) don’t do it at all. They don’t seem to care about the ideas of people like Hitchens. For whatever reason, I do. Passionately. I think his ideas matter to many people—people who will never darken the door of a church. So I care about them, too.

Don’t get me wrong: No one comes to faith because of ideas alone. No one reasons their way into becoming a Christian. No argument by itself will cause someone to be a Christian. It’s a much deeper, more emotional decision (made possible by the Holy Spirit, of course). But arguments and reason do play an important role.

Regardless, I saw him in Atlanta in 2007 on his book tour for god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As part of this tour, Hitchens had been going from city to city, staging debates about God and religion with whichever local believer his publicist could find to debate him. Often, these debate opponents were overmatched (Al Sharpton in New York? Really?) or unprepared for Hitchens’s aggressively derisive debating style—often confused for wit by his tour’s enthusiastic fans. “Oh, you thought this was going to be a fair fight?” Hitchens seemed to say. “It’s personal, and I’m going straight for the jugular.”

Sadly, Hitchens often took advantage of Christians’ well-meaning impulse to be nice, which they sometimes mistake for the virtue of kindness. Niceness is not a virtue, especially when debating someone like Hitchens. Sometimes, as the song says, you’ve got to be cruel to be kind.

Dr. Tim Jackson, kind—even nice—but he knows the difference.

Fortunately, Timothy Jackson, my Christian ethics professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, understood this distinction when he debated Hitchens at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. This time, Hitchens seemed unprepared. Not that there was much give-and-take. Hitchens rarely responded to what Jackson said. He was mostly reciting a script. Still, even he conceded a few weeks later on a blog that Jackson was, “by far” his best opponent. I’m sure he was!

This audio recording is from the second of two debates that day. I attended the first. I assume the second is similar, although Dr. Jackson told me in an email that both of them were a bit grumpier the second time around.

UPDATE: Now it’s on YouTube!

About the new Vinebranch coffee mug

December 16, 2011

Wouldn't you love to drink coffee from this mug?

One challenge we’ve had in our Vinebranch service is collecting information on visitors. It’s my fault. I haven’t made it a priority. I invite people to fill out a visitor’s information card, but you know how that goes… I haven’t been deliberate enough about following up on visitors even when we receive their information.

Why? Do I not want them to feel welcome? Even more importantly, do I not care whether or not they are in a saving relationship with Christ? The best way to find out how I can most effectively minister to them is through a personal relationship. How can that even begin if I don’t know who they are?

To that end, I’m pleased to present this coffee mug…

It’s not much. But it’s a gift for first time visitors. Starting this Sunday, I’ll announce that I would love to meet any first-time visitors in the narthex after the service—and to present them with this gift as a way of thanking them for coming. While I’m at it, I can make sure that they filled out a visitor’s card.

If you’re a member or regular visitor in Vinebranch, you may notice that I’m asking everyone to fill out the information card—which may seem redundant and unnecessary. In part I’m asking you to do this because I want visitors not to feel put on the spot when they’re filling out their information.

Make sense? I don’t know a better way to do it. If you have any ideas, let me know!

But you gotta admit: this coffee mug rules!

A beautiful Christmas carol you’ve probably never heard

December 16, 2011

My favorite musical discovery this year is of an English folk-rock band called Steeleye Span, not to be confused with the much more famous American band Steely Dan. The two bands have nothing in common except for the decade in which they did most of their work.

Regardless, I inherited a box of moldy records from a friend of a friend, who was obviously a fan of the Steeleyes. Now I’m one, too!

While they were mostly unknown on this side of the Atlantic, Steeleye Span were (and remain) beloved on the other side, charting several hits in the early- to mid-’70s, including the subject of today’s post. (Here is their biggest hit, “All Around My Hat,” which is amazing! Four-part harmony that also rocks.) Their success there reflects a quirky difference between British and American popular musical tastes. Britain embraced English folk-rock and Celtic music in a way that we never did.

They were also different from other popular English bands who frequently drew upon the style, like Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull, in that they only performed traditional songs—setting centuries-old Child ballads and other folk music to rock arrangements.

Here’s an a cappella Christmas carol that, believe it or not, was a Top 20 hit in Britain in 1973. Wikipedia tells me that it was one of only three Latin-language songs ever to make the charts.

The English translation is below. (Click to enlarge.) I appreciate the song’s theological richness. May we all “lustily rejoice” this Christmas!

Sermon for 12-11-11: “Journey to Bethlehem, Part 3: Mary Visits Elizabeth”

December 14, 2011

This sermon is part 3 in our Advent sermon series, “Journey to Bethlehem.” Today’s scripture challenges our understanding of what it means to be “blessed.” Three times, Elizabeth tells Mary that she’s blessed, but her “blessedness” certainly isn’t related to job or home or health or wealth. Mary’s blessedness came to her because she opened up her heart to God; she gave herself completely to God; she answered God’s call.

God wants all of us to be blessed in that same way. And we can be!

Sermon Text: Luke 1:39-56

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Bill Cosby told a story once about the challenge of getting his kids ready for school one morning, all by himself, without his wife’s help. His wife was sick and in bed. We have a rule in our household that Lisa, my wife, is not allowed to be sick, so this never happens to me. We dads do our best when it comes to taking care of the kids, but let’s face it: no matter how hard we try, things are just different when dads are in charge of the kids. I’m not saying it should be that way, and I hope we dads are getting better at it. But still…

When I was a kid, I had Napoleon Dynamite hair, very curly and kinky and tangled up. Parted on the side! And I hated when Dad was in charge of getting me ready to go somewhere. He had this shiny metal comb, and it was like a medieval torture device, and he would scrape that thing, mercilessly, across my head. And I’m like, “Ow, Dad! That hurts!” When he got through, I would reach up and feel my scalp, to make sure I wasn’t bleeding! Do you know what I mean? Things are different with dads in charge of kids.

Anyway, Bill Cosby described making his kids breakfast while his wife was in bed sick. And because he was a dad he was thinking about what would be easiest to do. And they had chocolate cake from the night before. So he thought, “Why not? Cake is made from good things like eggs and wheat and milk.” I mean, we eat doughnuts for breakfast, and that’s nothing but cake that’s been fried! So what’s wrong with cake? So he gives his kids chocolate cake for breakfast, and they’re so happy and so excited that they run around the kitchen literally singing, “Dad is great/ Gives us chocolate cake/ Dad is great/ Gives us chocolate cake.” Of course, they make so much noise they end up waking up Mom, who is not happy that her husband gave chocolate cake to the kids for breakfast.

But the point is, they were so happy that they literally broke out in song. Do you know how that feels? My two boys have done this recently. They’re so happy about Christmas coming that they have made up their own Christmas songs. And they sometimes want to sing these songs first thing in the morning when I just roll out of bed and haven’t had coffee yet. But kids are better at experiencing this unbridled kind of joy than we adults are.

In today’s scripture, Mary—who, remember, at 13, was hardly a grown-up herself—experiences such happiness and joy that she feels like singing. And she does sing… a song the church calls the Magnificat, Latin for “magnify,” as in “my soul magnifies the Lord.” We often read these words of scripture in such somber tones, but, really, this whole scene between Mary and Elizabeth should be read as nothing but pure joy! We should be singing and dancing! Read the rest of this entry »

Science rules out questions of meaning and purpose before it starts

December 13, 2011

My friend Paul, whose blog you can and should read here, is a scientist and theologian. In a post today, he says something important about science that I’ve tried to say many times, but not so concisely or clearly.

The success of science is because of its finite scope, not in spite of it. It’s not an unusual idea, really. There is rarely success without boundaries. By eliminating entire classes of questions, science can address its own with integrity. By disallowing certain kinds of evidence, science can focus on what matters to it. By insisting on reproducible, falsifiable, and continuous results, science can happily ignore everything that does not fit these categories.

For example, questions of meaning are right out; science eliminates all notions of purpose before it even gets going. So there should be little wonder that the world uncovered by science appears, of itself, pointless. By turning a deaf ear to the combined witness of hundreds of generations of religious believers, science can avoid the difficulties of theology. By saying “no” to all discontinuities, science can ignore claims of divine action in the world.

My point is not that the meaning of the world is self-evident, or that all religious believers are right, or that obvious miracles happen every day. I’m just saying that, even if it was and even if they were and even if they did, science qua science wouldn’t know it. It couldn’t know it. It just doesn’t go there. Scientists would know it because they’re people, not because science would tell them so.

Religion in the world of the New York Times

December 12, 2011

There’s little substance to this recent New York Times op-ed about God and religion by writer Eric Weiner. I don’t mean to be overly harsh. Weiner feels what he feels; and I’m sure plenty of people agree with him. Of course churches have failed him repeatedly. Whenever human beings do anything, we tend to disappoint.

Citing a recent poll that says that 12 percent of Americans have no religious affiliation, Weiner says that he belongs to that category—the “nones.” The nones, he says, are hardly agnostic or atheist. Fully 93 percent believe in God, about the same as the population overall. But they are, he says, dissatisfied with organized religion.

Well, no… That’s not exactly what he says. I think that’s what he wants to say, but his thinking isn’t clear.

The nones, he says, are dissatisfied with some vague idea he calls the “national conversation” about religion. This public discourse—whatever that means—has been co-opted by “the True Believers, on the one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?”

I don’t know, Mr. Weiner. If you and your cohort want to join the “national conversation” about religion, I suppose you could publish books and op-eds about it!

But who are you speaking for when you say the “rest of us”? The nones are only 12 percent of the population. Atheists, “angry” and otherwise, are much smaller, about three percent. Are fully 85 percent of Americans a part of these dreaded “True Believers”? After all, I read the New York Times. I’m well-educated. I’m reasonably “urban and urbane,” just like you.

The difference is that unlike you, I understand, along with the vast majority of Americans, that what counts most about a religion is not talking about it, but practicing it. And nothing you say here indicates that you have the first clue what that’s like. (I love the way you enlist Chesterton for support, as if Chesterton—who was well-aware of the shabby reputations of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches of his day—would agree with you!)

You say there’s very little “good religion” out there these days, by Chesterton’s measure, because we religious people can’t “joke about it.” Really? Meet me next June at the North Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in Athens! Read our tweets and Facebook posts. Hang out with some Methodist clergy. We don’t take ourselves very seriously. And laypeople even more so!

The point is that even in your “secular, urban, and urbane world,” you must know people—neighbors, friends, coworkers, family—who are sincerely religious but who don’t fit your stereotypes or fit into your predefined categories.

If you don’t, you need to get out more!

“That he already possesses everything”

December 12, 2011

From Thomas Merton, the 20th century Trappist monk who wrote The Seven Storey Mountain.

The monk does not come to the monastery to ‘get’ something which the ordinary Christian cannot have. On the contrary, he comes there in order realize and to appreciate all that any good Christian already has. He comes to live his Christian life, and thus to appreciate to the full his heritage as a son of God. He comes in order that he might see and understand that he already possesses everything.

Thomas Merton in Common Prayer: a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, et al. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 61.

“Just give me plain, baby-Jesus-lying-in-a-manger Christmas!”

December 10, 2011

The look on Jim's face (on left) is classic!

Every year, the folks at NBC’s The Office serve up a special batch of Christmas cheer with their annual Christmas episode. These episodes are usually among the best of the season. Last Thursday’s was no exception.

The premise is that manager Andy Bernard is trying to personally fulfill each employee’s holiday wish. Or should I say Christmas wish?

The following is an excerpt from the cold opening. The employees are gathered in the conference room.

Andy: “Who’s excited to get their holiday wishes?”

Stanley, under his breath: “Holiday wishes.”

Andy: “What’s that, Stanley?”

Stanley, looking up from crossword: “We know exactly what holiday you’re referring to.”

Andy: “It is important to be mindful of all belief systems at our holiday party.

Stanley: “I’ve been here 18 years and have suffered through some weird thematic Christmases: a Honolulu Christmas, a Pulp Fiction Christmas, a Muslim Christmas, Moroccan Christmas, Mo Rocca Christmas. I don’t want it. Christmas is Christmas is Christmas is Christmas… I don’t want no Kwanzaa wreath. I don’t need a dreidel in my face. That’s its own thing. And who’s that black Santa for? I don’t care! I know Santa ain’t black. I could care less! I want Christmas! Just give me plain, baby-Jesus-lying-in-a-manger Christmas!”