Wednesday, January 4, 2017

On Church: Episode 27, THE FUTURE OF THE CHURCH

Happy New Year, everybody! In this episode, Matt and Dalton talk about the future of the church. What will it look like? How will we do church in the coming years? We look into the crystal ball and speculate.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Innkeeper's Lament

The Innkeeper's Lament

Every good story needs a villain, I suppose, so at least in that way, I understand. Cinderella had the wicked stepmother, Sleeping Beauty had the wicked fairy Godmother, Peter Pan had Captain Hook. You apparently need somebody who is either wicked or whose hand has been eaten by an alligator to set the mood, to start conflict so that the story progresses. So it isn’t so much that I resent the fact that somebody’s got to play the villain in this story--I get that--but more so that I don’t understand why it’s got to be me.

I mean, for one, let me tell you how hard it is to be an innkeeper in first Century Palestine. It’s not like we have electricity to turn on the no vacancy sign out front, so people are knocking on my door, waking my family at all hours of the night, knocking and knocking. Tell me, do you answer your door in the middle of the night? When somebody pounds on your door in the middle of the night, do you feel good about that? No! So you can understand how I wasn’t really happy when these two kids knock on my door at two in the morning or whatever it was, and he’s agitated because they don’t have a place to sleep, as if that’s my problem, and she’s breathing really heavy and grabbing his arm so tight you can almost see five small bruises start to form on his bicep. Look, I really didn’t have room that night--you want me to have kicked out that nice family who paid for a whole week up front just so I could house these kids for half a night? But you better believe that when I realized *why* she was breathing so heavy, *why* he was so agitated, that I *definitely* wasn’t going to put them up for the night, because all I need is a screaming baby around this place rattling my guests. I mean, sure, this ain’t the Ritz, but the one thing we have going for us is that we have no screaming babies. I ought to put that on my business card. Besides, I’m still sort of smarting from that one time I let the pregnant couple stay because they caught me on a particularly soft day, and I will spare you the details of the cleanup that was involved, but suffice it to say that my wife calls it “the day we had to set fire to the linens.”

Everybody likes to pick on the innkeeper, like I’m some horrible person. I’m just a working Joe like you, got a family to feed, a business to run, got to keep my customers happy and I certainly can’t run them off on the very rare night that the inn is full. What do you think this is, the salvation army? I’m just trying to make a buck like the next guy. What would you have me do? Bend over backwards to help every teenage couple who bangs on my door in the middle of the night claiming to be pregnant with the son of God?

I actually thought I was doing them a favor, letting them use the stable out back. I could have just straight up sent them away, but I do sort of feel bad for these kids. They can’t be more than thirteen or fourteen, and it’s a cruel world out there for teenage parents, and with this census thing going on, with the king requiring everybody to register, you can’t imagine things ending well for these two. Honestly, I’m not even sure this girl is going to last the night. It’s cold. Childbirth is dangerous, especially without a midwife. I have a sneaking suspicion that her husband, such as he is, is not the world’s foremost fourteen-year-old expert at emergency c-sections.

So all I am saying is that I did feel bad for them, let the record show, and I thought I was doing them a favor letting them use the barn out back. No it wasn’t a room in the inn, and yes, the animals were there, but I did not send them away, which I had every right to do. So if you ask me, I don’t deserve to play the villain in this story. I deserve a medal, a plaque, some sort of proclamation that declares December 25 Innkeeper Appreciation Day. Instead, when there’s a play, when the kids get dressed up and reenact the whole deal, I get played by the one kid everybody is afraid will forget his *one* line so when Mary and Joseph knock on the door, he just shakes his head no and points to the back, and everybody boos.

I’ll tell you who the *real* bad guys are: the stinkin’ shepherds. I mean, seriously, those shepherds *stink*. So I’m minding my own business, trying to sleep after the girl finally gives birth out back, and all of a sudden these shepherds come out of nowhere and gather out back and all of a sudden, the whole joint smells like a skunk blew up a stink bomb inside a rotten egg. You probably picture the shepherds looking all beautiful, and lovely, and clean, “and lo, the angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and everything smelled like Irish Spring.” No! These guys literally sleep next to animals all night. They literally lay down next to sheep, every night of the year. They eat things they find on the ground, they shower, like, never, and they straight up stink. I can’t have that kind of thing around my inn. I have a reputation to uphold, a business to run, and after all of it, these guys show up and stink up the joint. Nope. Not going to play that game. So feel free to argue that *I’m* the villain here, but first, go sit next to a shepherd for five minutes, if you can bear it, and then come talk to me.

I’m just a guy out here trying to make it, trying to keep food on the table, and so before you decide I am the one who messed up, ask yourself this question: would you have done anything differently? Who would you have kicked out of the inn to let these two kids in? Do you make it a habit of letting strangers into your house in the middle of the night? I seriously doubt it. So lay off me a little, why don’t you?

No, wait, let me apologize. I really don’t mean to be so defensive. For as tired as I am of being treated like I was the one who forced the baby to be born outside, like they are unclear about what recreational activities lead to someone becoming pregnant, that’s not really what upsets me the most. Treat me how you want to treat me. I’ll get over it.

But what I can’t get over is this: I can’t seem to shake the feeling like I missed something, like I got left out, like everybody else got to play but nobody picked me. Maybe that sounds childish. It feels a little childish. But it’s real. It feels a little bit unfair, like just because I was looking out for me and mine, like you’d expect, just because I was doing the thing you would expect any good businessperson to do, I missed something pretty spectacular. And I just have to wonder: what if I’d ignored the logic that tells me that my business is the most important thing. What if I’d not prioritized the well-being of people I love over people I don’t know. What if I had made room?

So, sure, call me the villain. I don’t care. I’ve got bigger problems, like wondering what I’ll do if I ever get another chance at welcoming God into my house. My God, I hope I get another chance.

Friday, December 9, 2016

On Church: Episode 26, Evangelism

In this episode of the podcast, Dalton and Matt talk evangelism: why Dalton loves it, why Matt doesn't, and why they ultimately agree about it anyway. (Here's a hint: we might just start calling it "Bob.")

Monday, November 28, 2016

On Church: Episode 25, Cleaning Up Messes

In this episode, Dalton and Matt talk about that most wonderful of pastoral tasks, cleaning up messes. In fact, the only thing clergy may be better up than cleaning up messes are making their own. Take a listen.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Evangelical Conundrum

For several years now, I have considered myself an evangelical. I’ve not always thought of myself this way, but it is a term that does represent my upbringing in a nondenominational church. Now, I serve a denomination that considers itself to be both mainline and evangelical, which is a pretty find needle to thread.

And for several years, I have had to argue, at times, with those who do not believe I deserve to be called an evangelical. I was too focused on social justice, or I had too loose an understanding of Biblical interpretation, or my politics did not align with the Moral Majority, or I struggled too much with the idea of inerrancy: never mind the fact that I chose to go to seminary at Emory, where I would argue that the announcement of the death of God was quite premature.

I have also argued, at times, with those who claim evangelicalism as being little more than ascribing to a specific political platform or rigid set of doctrines; I believe evangelicalism to be a richer tradition than this.

I realize now that the evangelical conundrum is this: do we prioritize purity or breadth? That is, is it our top priority as evangelicals to defend the purity of the faith, thus leaving some people out of the family, or is it our top priority to spread the Gospel as far as possible, even if the message gets muddled every now and again, like a game of Telephone?

In other words--and forgive the limits of these metaphors--are we called to be couriers or defenders? Yes, we are called to be both, but there is a sense in which each of these sensibilities runs headlong into the other.

As for me, I have a tendency to believe that being a courier requires more courage than being a desk-bound defender. A courier risks broken relationship, being labeled an almost-Christian. It is easy to hide behind a computer and accuse everybody else of being heretics. It is more difficult to go out and do the face-to-face work of making disciples.

But then, others would say that the army loses a whole lot more soldiers than UPS loses couriers. Faith requires limits, after all. I can still hear my seminary professor Luke Johnson reminding us that if the Biblical canon were not closed, we would not be able to do the work of Biblical interpretation, for we would have nothing to protect us from completely going off the rails.

I tend toward the courier side of things because it is the nature of my personality to deliver. It is also in my nature to question whether boundaries are in appropriate places, or whether we’ve just marked the lot at the corner of the driveway because that’s how it was marked when we moved in. But that's my personality. It is a reflection of the way God made me, but it does not stand in opposition to the way God made you.

I wonder: if much of my own understanding of what it means to be an evangelical is driven by the makeup of my personality, how much religious infighting is just personality conflict masked as Truth?

In other words, what if we're both wrong, and the missing ingredient is actually humility?

Thursday, November 10, 2016

On Church: Episode 24, Lay Leadership

In this episode, Matt and Dalton talk about the joys and challenges of working with lay leadership in the church, including strategies for recruiting good leaders and setting them up to lead.

Monday, October 10, 2016

On Church: Episode 23, Clergy Health and Wholeness

In this episode, we welcome the Rev. Monica Harbarger, the Executive Director of United Counseling in Birmingham, AL. She talks with us about clergy health--such as it is--and strategies for maintaining mental health, even as clergy.