Wednesday Link Love: Birthday Horn-Tooting Edition

In a just world, this would be my birthday cake today. YOU HEAR ME UNIVERSE?

In a just world, this would be my birthday cake today. YOU HEAR ME UNIVERSE?

I’m back from a wonderful time of vacation with the family in Massanutten. We found a sweet little farm house to rent that had comfy rooms and no wifi. Perfect. We lazed about and did the indoor water park. By the way, there are two kinds of people in the world: people who shoot complete strangers with water cannons, and non-a**h***s.

We also enrolled the kids in a morning of ski school, which (after seeing James zip down the mountain) I’d call frighteningly effective.

It was great to be on the slopes and off the grid. But apparently I was quite busy on the Intertubes while I was away. Today’s bonus edition of Link Love is MAMD-specific. It’s my birthday, so you will indulge me:


Things Not Seen is a radio show devoted to “Conversations about Faith and Culture.” Last month I had a lovely conversation with David Dault about Sabbath, which you can listen to here.


This coming year I’ll be an occasional contributor to The Hardest Question, which is a weekly resource on the Revised Common Lectionary. I’ve got the texts for this Sunday, and wrote about the Gospel and the Old Testament texts.


Landon Whitsitt compiled many sermons and responses to the Newtown tragedy into an e-book, called A Good Word. I’m in there along with a huge number of others. What an undertaking!


And finally, my book is listed on Ministry Matters as a “must read” for 2013.

Happy New Year…


Image: CakeWrecks, where else?


Friday Link Love

And they’re off!


Blind Runner’s Despair Turns to Joy at Paralympics — NBC

After suffering a devastating loss in the 400M, Brazilian runner Terezinha Guilhermina and her guide Guilherme Soares de Santana win the Women’s 100m at the Paralympics. Great photos there including this one:

So much to love about this. The guide had fallen in the 400 which cost them the victory, and you can see the joy here! Also love that this year, guides are also receiving medals.


Gym-Pact — RunKeeper

I have joked about there needing to be a system that penalizes you financially for not keeping your fitness goals, and here it is, from the good people at RunKeeper!

Earn real money for making your workouts — paid for by those who missed theirs! With cash on the line, you’ll find it easier than ever to get to the gym and see real results.

Somebody try it and let me know how it goes. Although, so far I have been able to keep myself motivated because of…


The Benefits of Middle Age Fitness — New York Times

What [researchers] found was that those adults who had been the least fit at the time of their middle-age checkup also were the most likely to have developed any of eight serious or chronic conditions early in the aging process. These include heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and colon or lung cancer.

The adults who’d been the most fit in their 40s and 50s often developed many of the same conditions, but notably their maladies appeared significantly later in life than for the less fit. Typically, the most aerobically fit people lived with chronic illnesses in the final five years of their lives, instead of the final 10, 15 or even 20 years.

There’s some insightful discussion in the comments about whether the study says what it claims to say. An example:

What if those middle-fit people had been fit their whole lives and it was their youthful fitness that gave them the real benefit?

I’m going to keep being fit, just in case the article is right, and because nobody has invented a time machine yet. And also because I feel much, much better in every measurable way.


The Invisible Bicycle Helmet — Vimeo

Got this video about these two inventors from Brene Brown, who said, “I love these women’s daring!” Yes indeed.

The Invisible Bicycle Helmet | Fredrik Gertten from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.


The Pleasure Of… — Vimeo

Already shared this early in the week but it bears repeating. It will make you feel good. What pleasures would you add?

The pleasure of from Vitùc on Vimeo.


On Christian Platitudes — Captain Sacrament

During the FB discussion about “God has a plan” (which helped inform this) a friend shared this blog post. I appreciate this critique from someone within the church:

It may not be immediately obvious, but when people offer these phases, these stock answers, it sends a clear and demoralizing message: “I don’t take your struggles seriously, and I’m not prepared to muster the theological depth to share them with you.”

This might be a harsh assessment, but this is a great problem, and worthy of such consideration. If you use these Christian platitudes, these unholy clichés in your care for your brothers and sisters, I urge you to carefully consider dropping them. If you find your friends using them on you, forgive them, then challenge them. Muster some courage and tell them you find those words to be theologically empty and pastorally cold. It’s the only way we’re going to grow and learn to struggle together.

I think there can be another, more benign message in these platitudes: I love you so much, and am so hurt that you are hurting, that I will seek to reduce the hurt any way I can. It’s just that platitudes aren’t effective in reducing the hurt and in fact can make things worse.


A Chronological New Testament — Marcus Borg

Not really new stuff here, but it’s good to be reminded (and help people who didn’t go to seminary to understand) that the New Testament we have is organized by genre rather than chronologically. And Paul’s letters were written earliest, before the gospels.

Seeing and reading the New Testament in chronological sequence matters for historical reasons. It illuminates Christian origins. Much becomes apparent:

  • Beginning with seven of Paul’s letters illustrates that there were vibrant Christian communities spread throughout the Roman Empire before there were written Gospels. His letters provide a “window” into the life of very early Christian communities.
  • Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.

More at the link.


Prayer for the Nation — Jena Nardella

The benediction from night 1 of the Democratic National Convention. This has been shared widely but it’s here in case you missed it. Excerpt:

Give us, oh Lord, humility to listen to our sisters and brothers across the political spectrum, because your kingdom is not divided into Red States and Blue States. Equip us with moral imagination to have real discourse. Knit us, oh God, as one country even as we wrestle over the complexity of how we ought to live and govern. Give us gratitude for our right to dissent and disagree. For we know that we are bound up in one another and have been given the tremendous opportunity to extend humanity and grace when others voice their deeply held convictions even when they differ from our own.


And my last link is especially for you church folk…

A Growing Church is a Dying Church — Street Pastor

So much to love here.

Whenever a congregation goes looking for a new pastor, the first question on their minds when the committee interviews a new candidate is: Will this pastor grow our church?

I’m going to go ahead and answer that question right now: No, she will not.

No amount of pastoral eloquence, organization, insightfulness, amicability, or charisma will take your congregation back to back to its glory days.

Read the whole thing.


Friday Link Love

Some things I found captivating, thought-provoking, or just plain fun this week:


“BLOOM SKIN” — YouTube (video)

How cool would it be to do something like this in worship…


NPR Tries to Get Its Pressthink Right — PressThink

NPR has a new ethics policy:

With [the policy], NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.

Maintaining the “appearance of balance” isn’t good enough, NPR says. “If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side…” we have to say so. When we are spun, we don’t just report it. “We tell our audience…” This is spin!

May God bless them and keep them as they (hopefully) seek to live into that…


Pursuit, by Stephen Dobyns — Writer’s Almanac

Each thing I do I rush through so I can do
something else. In such a way do the days pass—
a blend of stock car racing and the never
ending building of a gothic cathedral.
Through the windows of my speeding car, I see
all that I love falling away: books unread,
jokes untold, landscapes unvisited. And why?

More at the link. Powerful.


Forty Ideas for Keeping a Holy Lent — House for All Sinners and Saints

Good, simple ideas.

Day 7: Give 5 items of clothing to Goodwill

Day 8: No bitching day

Day 9: Do someone else’s chore

Day 10: Buy a few $5 fast food gift cards to give to homeless people you encounter


Day 11: Call an old friend

Day 12: Pray the Paper (pray for people and situations in today’s news)



Tertium Squid — Gordon Atkinson

Gordon has been blogging each day during Lent—good, heart-wrenching stuff from his vantage point as a former pastor. His mini-essays have become daily reading for me, since the book our congregation is using was written by yours truly.

I don’t have much to say to God these days. No requests. No praises. No promises that I’ll be a better boy. It’s not that I have anything against talking to God. It’s just that I did so much of that for such a long time. I grew up in the Baptist church where all we did was yammer on about this and that. Then I ended up being a preacher for twenty years. I’ve done my share of talking is what I’m saying. I’m kind of in a season of quiet these days.

I like to say I’m listening to God, but I’ve never heard God say anything. I get messages now and then but they always come through a side channel.

What I do these days when I pray is get very quiet. You have to work hard at real quiet. It takes me about twenty minutes to settle in. The Quakers taught me that. At first I thought the Quaker meetings seemed kind of long. Later I found myself arriving early so I could get calm ahead of time because I was losing a third of the hour to the fidgets.


Elaine Pagels on the Book of Revelation — Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

Pagels … shows that Revelation, far from being meant as a hallucinatory prophecy, is actually a coded account of events that were happening at the time John was writing. It’s essentially a political cartoon about the crisis in the Jesus movement in the late first century, with Jerusalem fallen and the Temple destroyed and the Saviour, despite his promises, still not back. All the imagery of the rapt and the raptured and the rest that the “Left Behind” books have made a staple for fundamentalist Christians represents contemporary people and events, and was well understood in those terms by the original audience. Revelation is really like one of those old-fashioned editorial drawings where Labor is a pair of overalls and a hammer, and Capital a bag of money in a tuxedo and top hat, and Economic Justice a woman in flowing robes, with a worried look.

What’s more original to Pagels’s book is the view that Revelation is essentially an anti-Christian polemic.


We’re Starting a New Presbyterian Church — Bruce Reyes-Chow

It will be an online church.

It’s an intriguing prototype (to use language we heard at NEXT) and I think I’d sum up my opinion of this with one of the comments: “Please push the envelope on this, while regarding the en-fleshed experience of the gospel as essential.”


Why It Matters That Our Politicians Are Rich —

Politicians would like us to believe that all this money doesn’t matter in a deeper sense—that what matters is ideas, skills, and leadership ability. Aside from a little extra business savvy, they’re regular people just like the rest of us: They just happen to have more money.

But is that true? In fact, a number of new studies suggest that, in certain key ways, people with that much money are not like the rest of us at all. As a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you’d behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you’re probably wrong: These aren’t just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.

Read the studies for yourself and tell me what you think.


Have a good weekend, everyone.

You Will Be Like God

True confession time… I’ve been working on the stuff in this sermon for since 2002. I’ve preached versions of it in three different pulpits. It’s a story I love and a text that won’t let me go. Here’s the latest go-round.


MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
March 13, 2011
First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

You Will Be Like God

I remember the year the movie Field of Dreams came out, I was telling some friends how much I enjoyed it because it was about the consequences of taking a leap of faith. “What are you talking about?” one friend asked. “That movie is about the relationship between a father and son.” “No way,” said another, “that movie is about the enduring power of baseball!” And so forth. And of course, the movie is about all those things. And more.

We all think we know what this story is about, right? Original sin? Disobedience? The “fall” of humanity? That old tune that many of us have heard so much it’s ho-hum second nature?

Hold on to your hats, folks!

I’d like to offer a different interpretation of this story. Why? Because we can… because before this was part of a theological debate about sin and salvation, it was a story. Before the theologians made the serpent the embodiment of Satan, he was… a serpent. A character in the story. And stories can contain more than one meaning. It’s just that I’ve been hearing sermons on Adam and Eve my whole life, and have felt that the original sin stuff, the “fall” stuff, may be good doctrine, but just a little bit ill-fitting to this story… or at least, incomplete.

In fact, original sin is a theological doctrine that did not get layered on this story until much later. If we take away that doctrine… and put it somewhere for safe-keeping, honest!… we’re left with a whole bunch of questions:

First, doesn’t this seem pretty harsh of God? Adam and Eve make one mistake  and they’re kicked out of Eden? How are we to respond to such a God? What are the implications of worshiping a God who offers not three strikes, but one strike, and you are out, punished, forever, Paradise Lost… and not just Adam and Eve, but every single human being that would come after them. Does a God with a zero-tolerance policy inspire us to love God, love neighbor, and love ourselves, to drop our nets like those early fishermen and follow Jesus? Maybe… if we’re afraid of what God will do to us if we don’t… and that view of God is definitely out there. Some of us grew up in “golden ticket” congregations, where you believed a certain way to get your ticket to heaven because to believe otherwise resulted in God’s punishment and condemnation… but a “because I said so” God is an inadequate view of God.

This expulsion from Eden for taking a bite of a piece of fruit seems very harsh to me, especially since this is the same God who will lead a grumbling people out of slavery, who will someday die on the cross out of non-violent love for humanity, who will say “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Forgive them, God, for actions that are a whole lot more grave than taking a bite of fruit.

Where is the grace in a zero-tolerance God?

But there’s another issue with this story. Does this not seem like a setup? Why would God create a tree that God didn’t want anyone to eat from? Why would God set up this test?

Now, we might respond to that by saying, “Well, God had to do that because we have to have choices. Adam and Eve had to be given a choice to do the right thing—without that, they’re just puppets, without any free will.”

Well, yes. Except I wonder how much freedom Adam and Eve had in that garden to choose right and wrong. If Adam and Eve did not have knowledge of good and evil, until they had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, how were they in any way equipped to evaluate the merits of their actions? Punishing Adam and Eve for this would be like punishing a llama for not being able to do calculus.

And that right there is the sticking point for many folks.

The Jewish writer and theologian Harold Kushner has written about this story not as a fall story, not as an example of Paradise Lost, but Paradise Outgrown. He points to the story as an example of the ways we as humans are always seeking after greater knowledge and experience—for good and for ill. In the musical Children of Eden, the characters of Adam and Eve begin to get, well, a little bit bored by the perfect predictability of life in the garden. In this interpretation, Eve (and then Adam) are restless in Eden, where everything is perfect, everything is provided… so they eat the fruit in a search for wisdom.

That’s a fanciful way of illustrating what Kushner is talking about. He sees the decision to eat the fruit as a yearning for wisdom, for complexity and depth. We can read this story as one of being fallen… and we can also read this story as one of becoming more fully human. (Notice I didn’t say “or.” We can read it both ways.)

This is our story, is it not? It is human nature to grasp for what we don’t have. Not content with things as they are, we strive, we question, we experiment, we grow. This can happen in healthy ways (children maturing and leaving the homes they grew up in) and unhealthy ones (people who cheat on spouses because they think something better is out there).

One thing is certain, however—once that quest for knowledge, wisdom or experience has begun, life can never go back to the way it was. Adam and Eve never return to Eden. Children “can’t go home again”—things aren’t ever quite the same. And destructive deeds between spouses may be forgiven, but they cannot be undone.

In Lois Lowry’s young adult novel The Giver, Jonah is an eleven-year-old boy who lives with his family in a strange society in which everything is carefully controlled. All decisions are made by the benevolent elders of the community: whom people will marry, what jobs they will have. Even clothing and hairstyle are regulated. Strong emotions or outbursts that would be disruptive to the community are discouraged. Every aspect of life is designed to maximize harmony and the orderly functioning of the community. It’s all perfect, in its own way.

Jonah is given a unique job in the community: he becomes the Receiver of Memory. His role is to keep all of the knowledge of what has gone before, in case the elders ever need to consult that wealth of wisdom for advice. Jonah’s like a human library; he becomes the container for every piece of history, every emotion and human event. Through a series of meetings with the outgoing Receiver (now called the Giver), he learns and experiences things he’s never understood before, everything from snow to sunburn, from Christmas to a broken leg. He comes to realize how narrow the life of the community truly is. They do not know the joy of zooming down a hill on a sled… but nor do they know the horror of war. They don’t know good or evil. He alone does. And it is a terrible burden. It is a terrible burden, to have all this knowledge.

I have always pictured Adam and Eve’s experience of good and evil with a similar cinematic flair: they eat the fruit, and in an instant this knowledge comes to them in a series of powerful images flashing through their minds’ eye. The glow of family flashes to the devastation of brother killing brother. The exquisite beauty of creation is drowned in flood. They see the totality of human experience laid before them and are stripped naked by it, vulnerable in a way they never were before. And once they have gone down this path, things are never the same again.

Both these stories of Adam and Eve and of Jonah present a profound loss of innocence. And yet, Jonah realizes that his life before receiving memories was not much of a life at all. His was a world with no depth. His process is not unlike that described by Paul in I Corinthians 13, who “thought like a child, spoke like a child, reasoned like a child,” and put away those things when he became an adult.

We might think of Adam and Eve’s story in a similar way. Without the knowledge of good and evil, what are we? We are just like any other animal who walks, runs, gallops, creeps, soars on the earth. Knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human. And it is what makes us… like God.

The serpent says to Eve, “You eat this fruit, and you will be like God.” And the serpent is absolutely right. God confirms it at the end of the story: “They have become like one of us, like one of the heavenly court.”

The word “like” is very important! We are not God. But we are like God. Psalm 8 says that we are but a little lower than the angels.

And that means we have an incredible responsibility.

At the center of who we are as human beings is the knowledge of good and evil. No, we don’t know it perfectly, we probably don’t even know it that well most of the time. But our life is one of knowing good and evil… and perpetrating good, and evil.

We know the beauty of the birth of a child.
We know of the courageous fight for civil rights in this country.
We know people who minister to folks with AIDS, who visit the condemned on death row,
who work every day for justice and peace.
We know…

And we know the horrors of war.
We know there are places where women are beaten, and burned,
we know there are governments who torture,
places where children are forced to become child soldiers.
And we know of lands where people strap explosives to themselves and walk into open air markets.

Oh, we know good and evil.

We sit with the newspaper or in front of the TV news and we eat that fruit every day.

* * *

At the end of the story, God kicks Adam and Eve from the garden, and stations an angel to stand guard so Adam and Eve don’t return. But why does God do that? Just to keep us from the good stuff? Because God is a punishing, wrathful God? Because humanity doesn’t deserve Eden anymore?

Well, here’s one question that we don’t have to speculate on; we know why God expels them from Eden. Remember that second tree? The tree of life? The tree that, interestingly enough, God doesn’t forbid them from eating. God says… They know good and evil now. And now, if they eat from the tree of life, they will live forever…

And I can’t let that happen.

We are kept out of Eden, apparently, so that we will not eat of that tree of life. So that our lives will be finite.

Think about this. Think about what it means for Adam and Eve to know good and evil. The images of good are all fine and dandy, but those experiences of evil will be with them forever… Every bit of pain in the world, every act of violence, every horror of war, every cruel word, will be theirs to behold for all eternity.

When my great-grandmother reached her 90th birthday, several of her friends and family said, “And you’re going strong! We’ll be back here in 10 years to celebrate 100!” And she got very quiet and serious and said, “No… I haven’t decided whether I’m going to do that yet.” Here is a woman who lived through the 20th century and all its beauty and all its horror, a woman who outlived children and grandchildren, saying, It’s been a full life—beautiful and hard. And knowing that the burden will be lifted soon is a beautiful thing. And a relief.

Maybe God’s not punishing them by keeping Adam and Eve from the tree of life.

Maybe it’s a mercy, not to live forever with the knowledge of good and evil!

* * *

And so how do we sort through the various interpretations of this story?

Well, the original sin stuff got attached to this story because for many years—centuries really—theologians fixed on pride as the fundamental human flaw. Adam and Even flouted God’s commandment because they thought they knew better. We want to be our own gods. We think we know best for our lives. We don’t need God. We can forge our own path.

I would suggest that for people who struggle with pride, the traditional interpretation has much to offer.

But not everyone struggles with pride. Recent voices in theology have lifted up the exact opposite as a fundamental sin that some struggle with mightily: the sin of self-denial and self-deprecation: “I don’t matter. I’m not worth anything. I’m not lovable. My needs come last. Everyone else is more important, more valuable.”

For someone who suffers from this thinking, can you see how the traditional interpretation would actually do more damage to their sense of self? It also denigrates the God who created each of us in God’s image!

And so, if you struggle with this sense of self-denial, maybe you are called to hear something new in this story—namely, that you have been created in the image of God, and that you have knowledge, wisdom, and experience, that are precious gifts from God, and are not to be denied, but are to be celebrated and shared.

And so, depending on where you fall on that spectrum, this story might nourish you differently. It is up to each of us, when confronted with a story containing complex meanings, to search our hearts, to pray for guidance, and to wrestle, confident that in that wrestling there can be a blessing.

Thanks be to God.


This sermon was inspired by Harold Kushner’s How Good Do We Have to Be?

Lessons and Carols

I’m putting together the Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols service at Tiny Church. Most of the readings will be straightforward, but I’m working with a couple of readers on some choral readings of the scripture. I wrote these a few years ago…

THIRD LESSON Isaiah 11:1-9
Voice 1:         A shoot shall come out!
Voice 2:         A shoot!
Voice 3:         A shoot!
Voice 1:         A shoot shall come out!
Voice 2:         A shoot!…
Voice 3:         …shall come out!
Voice 1&2:         of the stump of Jesse!
Voice 3:         A branch shall grow out of his roots.
Voice 1:         The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
Voice 2:         the spirit:
Voice 1:         of wisdom, understanding,
Voice 3:         of counsel, of might,
Voice 2:         of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
Voice 1:         His delight is in the fear of the Lord.
Voice 3:         He shall not judge by what the eyes see,
Voice 2:         or by what the ears hear; but with righteousness
Voice 1:         he shall judge the poor,
Voice 3:         the meek.
Voice 2:         The wolf shall live
Voice 3:         with the lamb.
Voice 1:         the leopard,
Voice 2:         the kid,
Voice 3:         the calf,
Voice 1:         the lion,
Voice 2:         the fatling,
Voice 3:         the cow,
Voice 1:         the bear,
Voice 2:         and the child,
Voice 3:         the child,
Voice 1:         the child shall lead them.
Voice 2:         They will not hurt,
Voice 3:         They will not destroy.
Voice 1:         And the earth will be full
Voice 2:         of the knowledge of God
Voice 3:         as waters cover the sea.

FOURTH LESSON BASED ON Luke 1:26-35, 38; Matthew 1:18-21 (DANA AND CHEVAL)

Voice 1:         Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.
Voice 2:         An angel was sent…
Voice 1:         An angel was sent…
Voice 2:         to Mary,
Voice 1:         to Joseph,
Voice 2:         saying, “Greetings, favored one!”
Voice 1:         saying, “Joseph, son of David!”
Voices 1&2:         “Do not be afraid.”
Voice 2:         “The Lord is with you.”
Voice 1:         The angel appeared in a dream.
Voice 2:         But Mary was perplexed, and pondered the greeting.
Voice 1:         The angel spoke…
Voice 2:         “Mary, you have found favor with God.”
Voice 1:         “Joseph, Son of David!”
Voice 2:         “You will conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”
Voice 1:         “She will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”
Voice 2:         “He will be great, the Son of the Most High,”
Voice 1:         “He will save his people from their sins;”
Voice 2:         “and his kingdom will never end.”
Voice 1:         “Do not be afraid.”
Voice 2:         “Do not be afraid.”
Voice 1:         While they were engaged, Mary was found to be with child.
Voice 2:         Mary said, “How can this be?”…
Voice 1:         …While her husband planned to dismiss her quietly.
Voice 2:         The angel said: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you”
Voice 1:         “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,”
Voice 2:         “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you;”
Voice 1:         “the child is conceived from the Holy Spirit.”
Voice 2:         “the child will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

Voice 2:         Then Mary said,
Voice 1:         Then Joseph awoke…
Voice 2:         “Here am I, the servant of the Lord…”
Voice 1:         And he took her for his wife,
Voice 2:         “let it be with me according to your word.”
Voice 1:         And she bore a son,
Voice 2:         and he named him—
Voice 1:         Jesus.
Voice 2:         Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.

Image: The choir at King’s College, Cambridge, who put on a pretty respectable Lessons and Carols service