through the wardrobe

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

West Wing Christianity

Emily and I have noticed that it seems like there haven't been many strong, admirable Christian characters in mainstream TV in recent years. Usually you end up with someone like Kenneth on 30Rock or Angela on The Office, characters with an extreme and quirky, comedic sort of faith. Ned Flanders on The Simpsons may or may not be an exception. (And there's always Shepherd Book from Firefly!)

Martin Sheen as Josiah Bartlet
But one Christian character from just a few years back who stands out in my mind as intelligent, likable, well-written, and just real, is President Jed Bartlet from The West Wing, played by Martin Sheen. Here is a character who struggles to be faithful amidst the burdens and ambiguities of his work and the tragedies and hurts of life, on a show that consistently and ably addresses some of the most pressing and divisive social issues of our time.

If you couldn't tell, I'm a fan.

Well, at the Hixon home we've recently begun watching The West Wing on Netflix, from beginning to end (the show premiered in 1999 and wrapped up in 2006). I haven't seen an episode of this in years, but as I'm getting reacquainted, I haven't been disappointed. The show, which is consistently ranked as one of the best-written shows in television history, is smart, witty, full of great performances, thoughtful, and powerful when it raises the important questions.

Last night we watched an episode from season 1 that raises one of those questions: "Take This Sabbath Day," where the President and White House staff wrestle with the question of capital punishment as a man's execution hour draws near.
There are characters on all sides of this debate: a Jew and a Quaker who object for religious reasons (Quaker Christians have consistently opposed all violence since the group emerged in the 1600s); 'bleeding heart liberals' who reject the death penalty; apathetic characters; others who feel this is simple justice for a man convicted of a double-homicide; and a character who passionately supports capital punishment because his mother was a cop recently killed in the line of duty. President Bartlet himself is a devoted Roman Catholic, and so he is opposed to capital punishment (the RCC is resolutely pro-life - anti-abortion and anti-death penalty).
The episode isn't meant to settle the debate on capital punishment, just to get you thinking. They debate the Torah, talk about the limits of executive power, and consider the writings of St. Augustine. In my opinion, it's really excellent television.

But why am I bringing this up?

At the end of the episode, the President is in the Oval Office talking with an old friend, who is a priest, about the situation and how he struggled with his decision. Then the priest asks him, "Did you pray?"
President: "I did, Tom. I know it's hard to believe, but I prayed for wisdom."
Priest: "And none came?"
President: "It never has. And I'm a little pissed off about that... I'm not kidding."

Have you ever felt that way? I've prayed for wisdom, I've prayed for direction, and nothing came. It never has.

What comes next is powerful. (The whole scene is worth watching, but the part I'm talking about begins at 1:35 on the video.)



If you don't have a few minutes to watch the clip, here is what the priest says next:
You know, you remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town, and that all of the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, 'I'm religious, I prayed, God loves me, God will save me'. The waters rose up. A guy in a rowboat came along, and he shouted, 'Hey, hey, you! You in there! The town is flooding! Let me take you to safety!' But the man shouted back, 'I'm religious, I prayed, God loves me, God will save me!' A helicopter was hovering over head, and a guy with a megaphone shouted, 'Hey you, you down there! The town is flooding! Let me drop this ladder, and I'll take you to safety!' But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him, and that God would take him to safety. Well, the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. 'Lord', he said, 'I'm a religious man. I pray. I thought you love me. Why did this happen?' God said, 'I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?'
He sent you a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker, Mr. President, not to mention his Son, Jesus Christ. What do you want from Him?

It's an old, familiar joke. When the priest started to recite it, I thought this would ruin the end of the episode, honestly. But it worked. You prayed for wisdom, and God sent you a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker - not to mention Jesus! What do you want from him?

Maybe sometimes the answers to our prayers are right in front of us, but we refuse to see them. Maybe sometimes the wisdom we need is right there, but we just don't want to listen to it. We wait for God to zap us with lightning from heaven or send a golden shaft of light and an almighty voice to answer our questions, and we ignore the answers God actually sends.
And the greatest irony is, in Jesus God actually did miraculously come down from heaven and offer us some direction, but so often we won't even listen to that.

Usually TV shows just use Christianity for an easy laugh. But sometimes they preach.

Have you ever recognized the answer to a pray that was right in front of your nose? Do you ever struggle to listen to the wisdom and guidance God offers you?
Are there other likable, faithful Christian characters you've seen on TV?

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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

the #1 factor in teens keeping their faith


Christian Smith is a professor and researcher at Notre Dame who's spent years studying the faith of American youth and young adults. The Church has owed him a great debt in the last decade for his books detailing our youth's views of God, how their faith is changing over time, and the factors affecting their religious commitments, among other things.

Last week the latest findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion, which has interviewed and re-interviewed over 3,000 youth periodically since 2003, were released, and the media is starting to report on it. The Huffington Post has a clear, helpful summary of the new findings here.
When this study began in 2003, the interviewees were between 13 and 17 years old; today they're in their mid-to-late 20s. I hope you'll read the article on the study's latest results, but let me share the big takeaway with you. The biggest factor effecting these teens' continued religious activities as young adults is their parents. Christian Smith is the lead researcher on the study, and as he put it, no other influence "comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth." As the Huffington Post report highlights, "82 percent of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs and were active in their congregations were themselves religiously active as young adults."

Young adults in America today have been dramatically affected by the faith of their parents. There are exceptions to every trend, but it's a clear trend nonetheless.

You can learn more about the National Study of Youth and Religion here, and, again, you'll find the Huffington Post article on the study here.

Is this surprising to anyone? Parents, what does this information mean to you?
I hope that anyone concerned about their children's faith and the future of the Church in America (particularly the mainline denominations: Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists) will read over this and take this data seriously. What kinds of examples are we setting? What do we need to do differently?

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

animal blessings

St. Francis of Assisi

October 4th every year is the feast day of St. Francis, a day set aside to remember and celebrate the life of the beloved Christ-follower and patron saint of animals. (A "feast day" is the formal term for a Church holiday; for instance, Easter is also known as the Feast of the Resurrection. For more traditional churches there are feast days all over the year, commemorating dozens of saints and events.)

At Grace UMC we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis each year with our annual Blessing of the Animals service, a fun, unique service that's held near or on the feast day, depending on how the weekend falls. For this service, folks are invited to bring their pets (or other domesticated critters) to the church for a little prayer and singing, followed by a chance for each animal to receive an individual blessing. In the United Methodist Church, we generally say something like 'Bless, O Lord, this creature, and fill our hearts with thanksgiving for its life'. We just had the service this past Saturday, and you can read a bit about it and see some pictures here.

While I was getting ready for an afternoon of asking God's blessing on these animals, I couldn't help thinking of how, so often in scripture, it works the other way around: God uses the animals as a blessing to us. Elijah would have starved without those ravens (1 Kgs 17:2-6); Jonah would have drowned without that big fish (Jon 1:15, 17); Balaam would have been toast without his famous talking ass (Num 22:21-33).
The circumstances may be a little less dramatic, but this is really still the case today, isn't it? The Lord frequently uses animals to bless us. And that's something to celebrate and give thanks for. So I'm wondering: how have you seen animals be a blessing to you or to others? Please share - don't keep God's works hidden from the rest of us!

I stumbled onto a story of animal blessings last week that really is of almost biblical proportions. In Tanzania, one organization is training rats (yes, rats) to sniff out old land mines. You read that right. These rats are busy detecting the lethal explosives in places like Mozambique, where there are still innumerable land mines unaccounted for after a 15 year civil war that ended in the early 90s. The rats can clear a 200 square-foot area in less than an hour - a human working to detect the mines in the same area would be at work for about 50 hours. There are some pictures, as well as details on how rats are being trained to identify people who test positive for TB (!), in a news article here.

You'd be surprised at the stories about gorillas and pigs I heard this week too. But what stories have you got to share? How has God used his creatures as a blessing in your life or the life of someone you know?

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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

is faith obsolete?

We were sitting in a sea of nerds.

Dressed up like superheroes, elves, Jedi, and Hogwarts students, they were all eagerly awaiting the arrival of the five panelists, actors and actresses from the recent hit TV show Battlestar Galactica.
'We were all eagerly awaiting', I should say, because Emily and I were just as excited as the rest. We weren't in costume, but we did wait in line an hour and half to get good seats, close to the stars. That's what you do at DragonCon, Atlanta's annual, Labor Day weekend convention celebrating all things nerdy and geeky.

Some of the stars of Battlestar Galatica at DragonCon.

This particular panel was meant focus on faith and religion in the sci-fi series. On the one hand, that makes sense, because God/the gods and faith are huge issues on the show. On the other hand, it seemed a little silly that we were expecting these performers to have an hour's worth of thoughtful things to say about religion, and they didn't seem all that comfortable with the task themselves.

In a room of about a thousand, mostly-younger folks, many of whom are deeply engaged in science and many of whom spent the weekend going to panels and discussions about skepticism or atheism, in that room it wasn't really surprising when the question finally came: 'do you think the major world religions might soon be obsolete, in the next 100 years or 200 years?'

After a brief silence, one of the actors, in his characteristically gruff tone just said, "... Pardon?"

The question was passed to another actor, who is a pretty thoughtful person, and he spoke for a minute about how, he hopes, the adversarial, us-versus-them, character of some religious beliefs will disappear in the coming decades and centuries; everyone clapped; the panel moved on.

But the question stuck with me: are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, are these faiths soon going to be obsolete? The young speaker seemed to be assuming the correct answer is 'yes'.

I think the idea that these faiths will prove obsolete and just disappear is ludicrous. And I think this man's question and his assumptions about the future of faith are based on some equally ludicrous and sadly uninformed notions. Of course I can't read his mind, I don't know exactly what he was thinking, but these questions and these ideas are all over the place - and if he wasn't thinking this, plenty of people in that room were.
You see, it seems like a lot of people expect faith to go away because they're confused about the role it plays in a person's life, and they're confused about the foundation it's built on. 

Some people think faith mainly plays an explanatory role in someone's life, like 'Q: where does lightning come from? A: angry gods'. Of course, now that we know more about the meteorological phenomena behind lightning, you don't need gods to answer that question any more. Faith is an answer, and now we see it's a bad answer, so it's obsolete.
Some people also think that faith - say, Christianity - is built on a foundation of claims that are obviously and demonstrably wrong. Christianity is all about Jesus' life, death, and resurrection; science and history disprove all of that, therefore the faith is wrong and obsolete.

Of course the problem is that this isn't really true.

I don't know anyone who is a Christian only because, or even mainly because, she needed an explanation for rainbows, or even an explanation for why the universe exists at all. No doubt some people fall into this category, but not very many.
People follow Jesus for a lot of other reasons: because we think the Christian message about God and the world and sin and redemption is true; because we think it's compelling and beautiful; because we've experienced the Holy Spirit's presence and work in our lives; because we decided the church is a body we wanted to be a part of; because we've seen things we can only attribute to the hand of God. People believe in all of this because they've developed a meaningful relationship with this Jesus - he's helped us find meaning and hope in life. You might as well say spouses or friendship or life aspirations are going to become obsolete.

And anyone who has actually studied the history of the New Testament can tell you that history hardly 'disproves all of this stuff'.
I love this radio interview with historian Bart Ehrman (who is himself not a Christian), where he struggles to make the atheist interviewer understand that Jesus was a real, historical person. Check it out if you have a few minutes:


The young man takes for granted that history has done away with Jesus, but it's simply not true. Unfortunately, most of the people who periodically declare to the internet that Jesus didn't exist have never actually read or listened to any of the historians and experts.

If faith was just a set of outdated explanations for the weather or the seasons, if it was built on a slab of superstitious legends and myths, then I'm sure it's days would be numbered.
But what if it's not? What if faith has a future, and it's not going anywhere?

"Obsolete"? ... Pardon?

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Christian perfection

Rev. John Wesley
"Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." - Matthew 5:48

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Several years back, while I was gathering books for the LSU Baptist Collegiate Ministry's new library - really more of a 'resource shelf', but 'library' sounds nice - I was browsing through a series of inexpensive, trendy-looking Christian classics, and I found a short book by John Wesley (oh, cool!). It was called "A Plain Account of Christian Perfection" (... huh?).
I never really got past the title. "Perfection"? No thanks. I'd met some Christians in college who believed once they had faith they never did sin again, but I'm not sure how well that was working out for them. And I knew the scriptures: "there is none righteous, no, not one" (Rom 3:10).
I'll pass on the 'perfection' talk, thanks.

Fast forward three years: I'm in seminary, and I'm a United Methodist (long story). Suddenly, not only am I reading a lot of John Wesley (you might call him the 'father of Methodism'), but I'm entering into an ordination process at the end of which I'm going to be asked, "Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?"

And they expect me to answer 'yes'.

So "Christian perfection" isn't any longer some weird, foreign teaching I can just set aside and move on with my day. Christian perfection is now central to the gospel tradition that I've identified with.

And you know what? Now that I've been forced to study it and actually learn what Wesley meant by 'perfection', I have a very different opinion on the matter than I once did.

Wesley's classic sermon "The Scripture Way of Salvation" provides a summary that's as simple and clear as they come:

'Go on to perfection.' But what is perfection? ... it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul... For as long as love takes up the whole heart, what room is there for sin therein? (I.9, III.14)

Here is my dry-erase doodle interpretation of Wesley's doctrine of perfection:


God's love fills your heart up, and there's just no room left in there for sin. That's the hope of Christian perfection.

But why would any realistic believer hope for something like that? I know me. You know you. Nobody's perfect - there's none righteous! We're not going to be free from sin in this lifetime. Where did Wesley even get an idea like that from?

Well, he got it from the Bible.
Jesus, in Matthew 5, calls his followers to "be perfect." Is this some impossible burden Jesus has placed on us, or is it a real option for a Christian?
And in 1 John (one of John Wesley's go-to books), we read: "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin" (2:1). Maybe it is possible, at least for a time, to be free from sin's power, to be able to not sin.

That's something to hope for, at least.

This is what John Wesley meant and what United Methodists mean when we talk about 'perfection'. If it still sounds a little strange, a little different, I understand. And I understand if you're thinking 'that probably won't happen to me'.
But, who's to say God couldn't transform your life, won't fill your heart up to the brim with love through the Holy Spirit (see Rom 5:5)? Wesley never claimed to reach perfection himself, and he was routinely skeptical of of those who did claim it - but don't we say that for God all things are possible (Matt 19:26)?

So maybe, just maybe, if we open our hearts up to Spirit's work, you might, one day, just for a minute, feel like you're answering Jesus's call to be perfect as the Father is perfect, like your heart is so full of God's love there's no room for anything else.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

a trip to the storage room


This weekend we spent some time helping clean out our family storage unit.

We had a lifetime of random objects - a dresser, a bed frame, a desk, clothes, old toys, VHS tapes, and so much more - efficiently crammed in the metal storage unit. We'd stacked and squeezed things in so well it was hard to tell how much there was... until we got it out, and you could barely get through the corridor of units for all of our stuff. Don't even bother trying to get into one of the units around us; those were totally blocked. A hallway filled with boxes on boxes of things we needed so badly that we'd pay rent every month to keep them, things we needed so badly we could go almost a decade without using them or even seeing them. (And of course our homes are full of things too.)
How did we get all of this stuff?

But it's not just us. The sterile, while halls of this climate controlled storage warehouse are so narrow it's hard to tell just how big the place is. The units are all numbered, though: I found number 327, so there are at least that many. In this place. There are other storage facilities around town. And other towns. And other states.
Just how much stuff do we have?

Sometimes it's fun to look through everything, maybe find some hidden treasures, definitely take a walk or two down memory lane. And sometimes it's just sad, remembering buying this or that, so important at the time, now in the pile for Goodwill. What a waste. If I could only do some things over - we could have ended up with a smaller storage unit.

A few quick facts from the Self Storage Association:

  • There are over 50,000 self storage facilities in the United States.
  • By comparison, there are over 3,000 in Canada and over 1,000 in Australia.
  • Close to 11 million US households rent a self storage unit.
  • There is 7.3 square feet of self storage space for every man, woman, and child in the nation.
Of course there are times in life when you might really need a storage unit. Military personnel serving overseas, or a missionary; someone moving to go back to college; your house is having major renovations, and you have to clear out; you name it. 

But we sure do have a lot of stuff. So much that we have to build bigger barns to hold it all.
You know that story? It's one of Jesus':
Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ (Luke 12:16-21)

We know we store up some treasures for ourselves, but what about being rich towards God? How are we doing on that front?

Jesus prefaced the parable with another important word: "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions" (12:15). Sometimes, at the rate we go (read: acquire), you'd think life must consist in the abundance of the things we possess. Why else would we race to own more and better stuff? 
... Why do we? 
Maybe we need to be on our guard.

Of course, sometimes you might really need a storage unit.

But what about all of the stuff we put in it?

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Saturday, August 02, 2014

the community of creation

one of Edward Hick's "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings

I love the lyrics of the old hymn "All Creatures of Our God and King." They reflect the picture in Psalm 148, which depicts the whole creation offering praise to its Creator:
Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! (148:7-10) 

And on it goes. This is a different way than many of us are probably used to thinking about the animals and the natural world around us. The hymn echos these lines and gives us a chance to join in creation's song of praise.

But, the lyrics get a little weird when you start singing about "O brother sun," "O sister moon," "O sister water," and, of course, "dear mother earth." When a pastor is already afraid his congregation will blow off his emphasis on creation care as liberal, hippy gibberish, this doesn't help. (I noticed David Crowder left all of that out of his nice version of the tune.)

Of course, just because something seems weird doesn't mean it isn't true. Christians of all people should know that. ("Turn the other cheek"? "Seventy times seven"? "The Word became flesh"??)
So before we roll our eyes at St. Francis's song, we should ask if there's perhaps something to all this talk of sisters, brothers, and mothers.

I just started reading Richard Bauckham's book, The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation. For my money, Bauckham is one of the most brilliant and important biblical scholars in the world today. His close attention to the texts and his encyclopedic knowledge of the contexts consistently yield fresh and utterly compelling interpretations.
This particular book aims to highlight the many, frequently overlooked passages and themes in scripture addressing the wider, non-human creation and how we ought to relate to the rest of God's creatures. One of Bauckham's main arguments from the get-go is that "humans are fellow-creatures with other creatures" (ix). Yes, we have unique capabilities, and God's given humanity a special role in the world, but we are still fellow-creatures with the others, sharing this world in community with them.

This is a point, he suggests, that we might have noticed in the first chapters of Genesis, if we could just see beyond chapter 1's talk of human dominion (1:26-28).
For instance: we all know that God forms Adam "from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being" (2:7). Sometimes that very personal, physical picture is used to emphasize humanity's uniqueness among the things God made. But maybe we need to notice a few other things here:
  1. You may have heard about the connection in the Hebrew language between the man and the dirt he's formed from. The word for man is 'adam, while the word for ground or soil is 'adamah. There's a connection between the man and the dirt that you miss in translation. God made people out of peat. Or, "God made humans out of humus," as Loren Wilkinson put it. (And that's "humus," not "hummus.") According to Bauckham, "this earthiness of humans signifies a kinship with the Earth itself" (21).
  2. And not just a kinship with the earth, but with the animals too. A few verses after the Lord forms the man, he goes to work again: "out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air" (2:19 - and compare that to 1:24). The man and the animals are cut from the same cloth! They're cousins of some kind, you might say.
  3. Now, the Lord doesn't breathe the breath of life into the animals here in Genesis 2, but, if you look ahead to Genesis 7, notice how the cataclysmic destruction of the Flood is described: "All flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings [that reads like a summary of 1:20-27]; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died" (7:21-22). Verse 22 is simply a reiteration of verse 21, but it makes clear that every creature has received the breath of life from God. Which makes sense. How else would things be alive?
Right there are three connections that Genesis makes between human beings and the other creatures of the earth. Humanity is certainly distinct in several ways and even has "dominion" over the other creatures (whatever exactly that means), but there's a relatedness we can't miss. We're related to the soil; we're related to the animals - we all received the gift of life in our nostrils from the Lord.

Our connection to our fellow-creatures is even implied by our very call to have dominion over them, Bauckham suggests. How is that? "Since Genesis 1 presents this authority as a kind of kingly rule, it is relevant to recall the only kind of human rule over other humans that the Old Testament approves" (32). This takes us to Deuteronomy 17:14-20, where the Lord describes the kind of kingship that will be permitted in Israel. These stipulations begin and end with one particular emphasis: "One of your own community you may set as king over you... [not] exalting himself above other members of the community" (17:15, 20). The vertical relationship of having authority over others must be founded on the horizontal relationship of being members of the same community. That's the sort of authority God approves. And so our dominion "is rightly practiced only when we recognise it to be dominion over fellow-creatures" (33). We are called to have dominion over the creatures of the earth precisely as fellow-creatures of the earth. We are all members of the community of creation together.

Maybe, just maybe, it's not so crazy to talk about "brother sun," "sister moon," or "sister water." Maybe there's a biblical truth there we forget, that all of God's creatures are members of one community of creation, all children of one Creator. 
Maybe, the next time we hear Jesus answer the man's question - "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29) - we need to think more about what that animal is doing in the story.  

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