The Unexpected Pastor Goes to Camp

Mar Lu Ridge Chapel View

View from Mar Lu Ridge Chapel

What does hope look like?

For me last week it looked like 70-some young people, from 8 years old through high school age, singing crazy camp songs, laughing, learning, and listening to camp stories, swimming and zip-lining and sitting in circles sharing questions – tough questions – during “Ask the Pastor” small group Bible Study time.

Hope looked like a dozen or so young adults serving as camp counselors, enthusiastic even when they were exhausted, patient with the diversity of their campers’ needs and quirks and fears, not just teaching but modeling what unconditional love looks like.

And all of it – whether it was silly or exciting, new or passed down through the generations, quiet or top-of-your-lungs loud – all of it based on the foundation of God’s love in Christ.

It was my privilege to spend last Sunday through Friday as “Pastor of the Week” at Mar Lu Ridge Lutheran Summer Camp.

I left for camp basted in the bad news that has been so pervasive lately, and certainly there was more it while I was there. But being with those young people – campers and counselors – experiencing God’s creation and God’s love and yes, God’s FUN – was a hope recharger. At the end of the week I was thanked and given a Camp Mar Lu Ridge baseball shirt in recognition of the chapels I spoke at and the Bible studies I helped with, but I was the real recipient of a gift – of grace.

The gift of hope.

I also had my conviction renewed in the importance of camps and other opportunities to get young people out of their element, to get them away from the comforts of modernity I certainly appreciate but which sometimes shield us from the glories of the natural world, and to get them away from media that threatens to fill our minds, hearts, and even spirits to overflowing with human-generated artifice so there is no room left for organic awe and wonder, and even for unmediated interaction.

My belief in the transformative power of transitory immersion in creation predates my belief in a Creator. When I was an atheist/agnostic in my twenties I worked for two years as a counselor at a secular Wilderness Camp for troubled youth. The young men who spent a year or more in our intensive program became part of a group that built the structures they lived in, took weeks’ long backpack and canoe trips, and chopped a lot of firewood to get through the winters in the North Carolina mountains.  The camp – and others like it – had the lowest recidivism rate of any residential program in the state, an achievement attributable not just to the structure of the program but especially to the nature (pun intended) of the environment in which the program took place.

A few years later when I was working as a Juvenile Probation Officer, I was part of a multi-agency team that held “Family Nurturing Camp” weekends.  We designed a program (I say “we” but I only was responsible for the adolescent small group piece) that combined parent education and camp activities. The camp served families with children at risk of out of home placement, and even a weekend in the woods served as at least a foundation for transformation for many of those families.

Now that I am a Christian and a pastor, to combine my faith in camp programs with my faith in Christ is something I can get excited about. But until I spent last week at summer camp, I had not realized – or perhaps had forgotten – how important and effective this combination can be.

Because of my adolescent falling away from faith, I had almost forgotten the two summers I spent a week each at Camp Hanover, a Presbyterian camp in Virginia. But last week the memories returned of those experiences in the summers following my fifth and sixth grade years.

Some examples:

  • Torches! The second year my group had a counselor from England who told us the first day that later in the week we would be taking a “night-hike with torches!” The anticipation built as we pictured walking through the dark woods, our way illuminated only by the fiery sticks we held aloft. Imagine our disappointment when we found out “torch” was only British for “flashlight.” The night hike was still pretty cool, though.
  • Crush! My first exquisitely painful crush focused on a blonde-haired little girl in my group who obviously had no interest in me. That was of course only because she didn’t know of my deep feelings for her. I decided only a grand gesture would do. On the last day of camp, when it was her turn to ride on the tire swing that arced out over a chasm that probably is not as deep as my memory of it, I would jump on the swing with her when it swung back to the ridge from which it was launched. Unfortunately, my fear of heights exceeded my fear of girls and my love remained undeclared.
  • Protest! I did not like Crafts. I wanted more time on the Mudslide, a hill covered in mud (obviously) with bobsled-like ruts you slid down into a pond. That was definitely one of the best things about Camp, and for me Crafts was not, both due to my ineptitude with tools and the lameness of the craft options in those days. But my rebellion was short-lived and utterly failed.
  • C. S. Lewis! Each afternoon during quiet time, a female counselor read a chapter to our group from a book in the Chronicles of Narnia series. I still remember the feeling of the pen strokes on the back of my hand as she wrote “Prince Caspian” on the day we had to leave so I could find and finish the book when I got home. I did. I would go on to read all the Narnia books and two decades later when I returned to faith the theological books of C. S. Lewis would be a tremendous influence. I first heard of him at summer camp, a seed of faith that would not germinate for years.

Who knows what other seeds of faith were planted in those two weeks at Camp Hanover? I remember bits and pieces of chapel services – a counselor talking about the hands God had given her and what she could do with them if she thought of them as God’s hands, a skit about racial prejudice (which would have been quite radical for mid-70’s Virginia), singing “Pass It On” at campfire worship, and so on.

Camp Hanover then – like Mar Lu Ridge now – was not an institution of indoctrination like you may have seen in the documentary film“Jesus Camp.” God was not – and is not – forced down campers’ throats but rather acknowledged and honored as the creator of the natural world in which the camp exists and as an abiding, unconditionally loving presence in the lives of campers and counselors. Participation and even questions are not only allowed but encouraged during Bible studies.

At Mar Lu Ridge, Bible studies happen two or three times a day within groups. They focus not on doctrinal purity but rather on campers’ experience of God during their time at camp as well as in their “normal” lives. There is something about the separateness of camp from those normal lives, something about unfettered engagement with creation, that facilitates a deeper connection with God. God just seems nearer and more real somehow in the majesty of the mountain views, in the refreshment of a summer breeze, in the crackling of a campfire and the chorus of campers singing around it.

The loving presence of God is also expressed in the compassionate care of counselors and other camp staff.  The counselors in particular embodied empathy and grace as they wiped away tears, assuaged fears, built group cohesion, negotiated peace between temporary enemies, and responded to the myriad and ongoing needs of young people away from home, many for the first time.

I was impressed by these young adults, some a third of my age (18×3=54). I told someone that I felt both very young and very old during my week at camp. But where else can a young adult have so much responsibility, and have the opportunity to undertake it as admirably as the counselors I met at Mar Lu Ridge? Where else can those barely above camper age themselves build relationships with young people and be looked up to as role models, and also influence their spiritual life not just at camp but also by planting seeds of faith for the future?

Those counselors will undoubtedly be leaders in our churches and in our communities. I have read that a good percentage of pastors and other church leaders were campers and/or counselors in church camps. It is no wonder many were counselors; what an opportunity to put faith in action caring for others!

All of this serious stuff is not to negate perhaps THE essential of the camp experience. FUN!  If it wasn’t fun then no one would show up for the other stuff. And it is fun. I did not hear a young person all week claim that they weren’t having a good time. Fun was evident in their smiles and in their laughter, in their singing and dancing and overall joy.

Songs and skits are at the heart of fun at camp, and there were no shortage of them at Mar Lu Ridge complete with motions and dancing and verses that get faster and louder. Some of them have been around for a long while; I remembered “The Rattlin’ Bog” and some others from Camp Hanover! The skits were of the same type as well, except there are more fart jokes than I remember . . . but I’m sure that’s okay at a Christian camp because after all Jesus was fully human and I can picture him and the disciples around the fire at night . . . well maybe not. Anyway . . .

Last week in addition to general camp fun, last week there were several specialized groups. There was a cooking group (who named themselves the Crazy Dabbing Cupcake Unicorn Chefs) easily identifiable by their tall white chef’s hats. I particularly liked this group as they shared their culinary creations at dinner each evening; the Teddy Bear Bread was excellent, and the S’mores Ice Cream Cake was the biggest frozen dessert I’ve seen off a cruise ship.

Another group participated in Science Camp, with experiments including “How many rubber bands can you wrap around a watermelon until it bursts?” and incasing themselves in huge bubbles.  There was also an Adventure Camp Group that I didn’t see much of because they were off white water rafting or hiking or otherwise testing their mettle against the challenges of nature.

About halfway through the week, a counselor asked me what impressed me most about camp. I answered it was the fun. I think he was surprised so I explained that we in the church have made the mistake of divorcing fun from Christianity. Too often our religion is a dour affair especially for children with so many rules – don’t run in church, don’t talk in church, don’t dress too comfortable for church,  take your hat off in church, sit up straight and pay attention in church – that it is a wonder any young person sticks with it once they have a choice.

Jesus undoubtedly knew how to have fun.  He was fully human, not just the solemn parts. His first miracle was at a wedding party (turning water into wine).  Jesus was the kind of person you invited to parties. People liked to be around him. I doubt if he was serious all the time.

What Mar Lu Ridge and similar camps do is demonstrate, through the opportunity to experience it, that following Jesus can be fun, at least sometimes. Christians do not have to conform to H. L. Mencken’s definition of puritanism (“The haunting belief that someone, somewhere may be having a good time.”).

At summer camp, young people internalize not rules but JOY as the center of our relationship with God.  Rules are important – they keep us safe and help us get along with each other – but they are for us not us for them (as Jesus said about the Sabbath).  Learning that is a great gift, one that is given by the camp program and by those who make it happen.

I had the privilege of being one of those people last week. Sort of. It was my first time as Pastor of the Week, and I hadn’t been to summer camp since those two weeks at Camp Hanover 40-some years ago (yeah, I am old – Nixon resigned during one of those weeks). I wasn’t always sure what I was doing. A lot of my time was unstructured and my introverted nature kicked in so I wasn’t as involved in as many activities as I might have been. I also took some time each afternoon to write (my book, Too Smart for God will be finished this summer!), which was an awesome opportunity but I’m sure I missed some stuff by doing that.

But what I did participate in and see was more than enough to convince me, or re-convince me, that camp programs are one of the best things churches and denominations do for their young people and for the future – and present – of those churches and denominations.  I am blessed to be part of a Synod (equivalent to districts, presbyteries, etc. in other denominations) – the Delaware Maryland Synod of the ELCA – that prioritizes the Christian camp experience through its support of Mar Lu Ridge.

As I reflect on my week at Mar Lu Ridge, two specific encounters with campers, both on the last day, stand out.

One is the camper who told me at the closing cookout, “I had so much fun this week I actually forgot I was an atheist for a while.” My prayer for that young person is that they will remember – someday – how much God loves them. Like it did for me, that may take a while but it sounds like seeds for that epiphany may have indeed been planted during the week at camp.

The second thing that happened was at the closing worship service with campers, parents and staff present. Not having done Pastor of the Week before, I wondered all week if anyone was listening to my talks at chapels or the other pastorly things I did, especially in light of my inexperience in that environment.

At the closing chapel I had the opportunity to speak again. I addressed the parents, telling them campers had asked great questions during “Ask the Pastor” Bible Studies and encouraged them to encourage their young people to keep asking questions because that’s how they’d learn. Then I turned my attention to the campers, ending by quoting the assistant director of the camp I worked at in my 20’s who always said to young people who left that camp after a year, “Go home and make home a better place because you are there.”

When I was done, I again wondered if what I had said had been appropriate for the situation and thought maybe the campers had tuned me out by now.

Later, it was time for one of the campers, not much older than 10, to pray. His prayer? Basically, “God, help us keep learning about you and help us make home better.”

At least one person was listening!  Maybe I planted a seed or two during my week at camp.

If I did, I’m sure it was the environment and not me, but it felt good, anyway.

It was part of that gift of hope I talked about at the beginning of the post.  It is a gift not just for me, but for the campers and their families, and for the staff, and for everyone (and every church) who makes the camp happen through their time, talent, and financial resources.

Posted in Bible, Christian Living, Christianity, Church, ELCA, Faith, Lutheran, Pastors | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Deconstructing the Narthex

Last Sunday I removed the narthex from the church I serve.

Some of you may be wondering, “What’s a narthex?” It is for you that our narthex was eliminated.

In a church building, the narthex is the entrance lobby, the room where one enters and is greeted (hopefully) before going into the worship space.

To be clear, I did not physically demolish our church narthex. It’s still there.

I performed a semantic renovation. And, I hope, sparked a perceptual reformation in our church.

At both worship services, I announced that I had stricken the word “narthex” from my vocabulary. From now on, I will call the lobby . . . the lobby. Because I edit our church publications, all future bulletins and newsletters will reflect this change.

No longer will I say during Sunday morning announcements things like, “See Nancy in the narthex for information about Orioles tickets.”

Because if someone is new to our church – and especially if they are new to church in general – then such an announcement will only provoke confusion.

Who’s Nancy?

Where or what the heck is a narthex?

Why not the Nationals? (That last one is my own lonely query as a Nats fan in adrift in a sea of O’s supporters).

By proclaiming, “See Nancy in the narthex,” we have instantly divided the congregation into insiders and outsiders. Insider, long-time members of the church will of course know Nancy. She’s involved in lots of things and loves the church. Who doesn’t know Nancy?

Guests and newer members of the church, that’s who.

“In the narthex” makes outsiders of those who do not have a church background, folks we want and need and are commissioned to reach with the message that God loves them. It reminds them that they are in fact “them” and not “us” who know how to find the narthex. It reinforces their feeling of being out of place even as they have courageously ventured into the unknown territory of the church, into our midst in spite of the prevailing (mostly self-inflicted) perception of Christians as a judgmental, closed-minded bunch.

No matter how welcoming we say we are, our hospitality rings hollow if it seems predicated on having some foundational knowledge about God, the Bible, and church architecture.

Some of you church folks are thinking (if you’ve read this far), “But they could just ask.”

I hear that sometimes from long-time church folks. “We don’t need signs pointing the bathroom, guests could just ask where it is,” or, “You don’t need to remind everyone each week how the worship book works, guests could just ask where the liturgy is.”  These sorts of statements bring memories of my own introverted nature and the time in my life when I, an unChristian, ventured into a church. If the vibe I got was, “I could just ask,” I would have never gone back.  Fortunately, I had someone to guide me through the strange rituals of worship (and to tell me where the narthex was).

But that is less and less true as more as more of our guests come to us without any background or guide.

And for everyone, whether introvert or extrovert, if we are serious about welcoming everybody then we will do whatever we can to reduce the insider/outsider dynamic.

I am blessed to be part of a growing congregation. We are reaching out to some folks without a church background, but of our 14 baptisms so far this year only five have been of adults. (It is disappointing and should be unacceptable that five is “a lot.”)  I love baptizing babies – it is one of the best things I get to do as a pastor.  But an adult who is baptized is usually someone who is relatively new to the church experience.

We can and must do much better at what is the primary mission of the church, reaching those who don’t know that God loves them with the Gospel message that God indeed loves everyone no matter who they are, no matter what they have done.

In the never-to-return past, most folks had at least a foundational familiarity with church. To operate on that basis in the current culture limits our reach – and more importantly, the reach of the Gospel – to the ever-shrinking pool of people who still possess that background.

Excising the word “narthex” from my vocabulary is of course a small, symbolic gesture. But it is a way for my church (and maybe readers of this blog) to consider how we perpetuate an insider/outsider dichotomy to the detriment of our Great Commission.

For my next trick, I’m going to try to start talking like a normal person when I’m leading worship. Sometimes I hear myself employing church-speak  I have picked up somewhere – “At this time we will read the Scripture for this day” – and I want to slap myself.

How about, “Now we’re going to read today’s Scripture.”

Then, maybe I’ll try to do away with all the insider names for communion linens. With apologies to my worship teachers in seminary, I can’t remember the difference between a corporal and a purificator anyway . . . and what’s a fair linen again?

Posted in Christianity, Church, Lutheran, Worship | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

It’s Not Just About Brock Turner: The “Rape Culture” Is US

(NOTE: This post contains some graphic language. If you are offended by the language, I hope you are infinitely more offended by the pervasive culture of rape and sexual assault this post addresses.)

Men, we have to speak up and speak out. To be silent is to give mute assent to a culture of rape that victimizes women with both physical violence and spiritual dehumanization. We must change that culture, a culture that we – men – have actively and passively allowed to pervade not just our college campuses, but just about anywhere men and women gather. That includes, I should confess as a pastor, the church.

We have acquiesced to systems – both formal and inherent – that place men above women in business, education, and, yes, religion. Why not? It certainly serves our purposes. Superiority has its privileges.

In our position of supremacy, we have not taken seriously the suffering women experience. We have responded with silence or sly grins or ribald laughter when women are objectified and even when that objectification is enacted on their bodies. It’s just how guys are, after all, and some women are just asking for it.

This boys-will-be-boys BS must end.

The first step: Stop blaming women for the evil – and I use that word advisedly – actions and attitudes of men.

Over the past few days, a powerful corrective for our rape culture has been read and shared through the various conduits of social media. It is a wrenching missive germinated in pain. The author is a 23-year old woman, a victim of sexual assault. Those words, “sexual assault,” sound almost quaint in light of the violence and aftermath she describes in this letter she wrote and read in court before the sentencing of her assailant.

The letter addresses that violator directly; “You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today,” she begins.

Her detailed description of the devastation of her body is difficult to read.

(M)y breasts had been groped, fingers had been jabbed inside me along with pine needles and debris, my bare skin and head had been rubbing against the ground behind a dumpster, while an erect freshman was humping my half naked, unconscious body. But I don’t remember, so how do I prove I didn’t like it.

The saga her ongoing victimization indicts our culture and all who remain silent, accepting the way things are.

I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me. It is the saddest type of confusion to be told I was assaulted and nearly raped, blatantly out in the open, but we don’t know if it counts as assault yet. I had to fight for an entire year to make it clear that there was something wrong with this situation.

She is violated by the assailant then violated again and again, especially by a legal system that seems more intent on protecting the person and reputation of her attacker:

I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name.

Read it. Seriously, read it. Or watch CNN anchor Ashley Banfield read it. Even if you don’t finish this post, it is more important to me that you read this sure-fire empathy-inducer.

When you are done reading it, share it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

If you have a teenage son, make him read it. He may not want to; it is rather long. You may not be sure if he should read it as it is graphic, but therein lies the impact. It is real. It is no more explicit than the movies he watches or the video games you let him play (and the attitude toward women enacted in the assault is no different than in many of those “entertainments”). Bribe your son if you must, perhaps tell him he must read it and discuss it with you before he is allowed to date.

Do this because your son lives in the rape culture, and is immersed in media that too often tells our sons that the only value of our daughters is how they look and what they are willing to do for men. Do this because empathy is something with which all adolescents struggle, and this letter will give him some insight into the real feelings of the real woman who was really scarred by a real-life sexual assault.

This is a discussion that needs to happen in homes and in schools and, yes, in churches.

It is appropriate to ask, “Where is the church on this?” I doubt the church is the first place most victims of sexual assault think of when they are looking for support. Not in this day when Christians are known more for their judgment than their compassion. Not when the church on the whole has been woefully quiet about the culture of rape and sexual assault.

I always spend some time in the Confirmation classes I lead with middle schoolers talking with young men about respecting women, but that is not enough. We have to equip our parents to have this conversation with their sons, not just once, but over time. We must make it part of our youth groups and Sunday School curriculum. We have to face and counteract the reality that for years the church taught (and some still do) that men are in charge and a woman’s job is to please her man. Those who espouse this view will protest that they don’t mean a woman is less important, just that her role is “different.” I’m not buying it; if a woman’s worth depends upon a man’s evaluation, then men have power that can be misused . . . and will be.

In the wider culture, we must rethink the idea of “dressing appropriately” and “dress codes.” Have we given our daughters the idea that they are responsible for the sexual restraint (or not) of the males around them? Have we given our sons license to act out their fantasies of dominance because a girl’s dress or actions makes it so s young man just can’t help himself?

More BS.

So much of that BS in the case of the 23-year old woman. Brock Turner is the perpetrator in her case. He was found guilty by a jury of:

Assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman,
Sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and
Sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.
Three felonies. Brock Turner is a felon. Brock Turner is a sex offender.

During the trial, Brock’s attorney promoted the underlying message that the victim was complicit in her assault because she was drunk. Because she had gone to a party and drunk too much, she deserved what happened to her.

Some girls just have it coming.

And poor Brock, he was drunk and you know boys will be boys . . .

There’s the rape culture, folks.

I don’t really blame the attorney. He was doing his job in an adversarial legal system where justice is (hopefully) achieved by vigorous prosecution and defense. That’s a good thing, even the vigorous defense part, because sometimes people are accused of crimes they have not committed.

The problem is that the type of blame-the-victim defense perpetrated by Brock’s attorney works. Because the rape culture is so pervasive, attorneys use this tactic because it is effective.

That is a cultural problem, not a legal one.

In this case, it was indeed an effective tactic. For even though Brock was convicted of those three felonies, he received a sentence of . . .

Fourteen years? That was the legal maximum.

Six years? That was the recommendation of the prosecutor.

How about six months? That was the actual sentence, but in reality Brock will serve about.

Three months.

The judge said he thought a long prison sentence would have an adverse effect on poor Brock.

Isn’t that kind of the idea?

The judge took into consideration that Brock was a star swimmer at Stanford who lost his scholarship and that he had a good, supportive family.* He thought it was relevant that both Brock and the victim were intoxicated at a college party.

Boys will be boys.

The judge also said Brock’s “remorse” played a role in his decision. But the only thing Brock seems to have expressed remorse about was getting drunk. He has promised to do public service stuff warning against “alcohol and promiscuity” after he gets out of jail.

More rape culture BS. Alcohol did not assault the victim.

And promiscuity is about sex. Rape is not about sex. I thought we had this discussion decades ago.

There is a petition circulating to recall the judge, Aaron Persky (who also happens to be a former Stanford athlete. I’m just sayin’ . . .).

And then there is the letter Brock’s father submitted to the court. Apparently he is concerned that Brock will no longer enjoy grilling and eating the steaks his dad bought for him (I’m not making that up).

I don’t blame Brock’s father for the ridiculous attempt at rescuing his son. It’s what parents do, I guess. But again, the letter is reflective of a cultural cancer.

In the most maligned portion of the letter, Brock’s dad urged the judge not to put Brock in jail over “20 minutes of action in his 20 year life.”

It is not the “20 minutes of action” that is the root of Brock’s crime. It is of course the choices he made.

But we must acknowledge that his choices are a result of a thought process marinated not in alcohol, but rather in a culture where rape and sexual assault are minimized along with the worth and humanity of women. His choices brought him into a legal system where sexual assault is under-reported, under-prosecuted, and under-punished.

Brock’s choices were grounded in the BS of the boys-will-be-boys rape culture.

He is most certainly responsible for the choices he made.

We, especially we men, are responsible for changing the culture.

——

*How would an African-American young man with three felonies and no opportunity to go to college and a broken family fare with the same charges? That’s a topic for another post . . .

Posted in Christian Living, Faith, Family, Father | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Jesus, Water Fountains, and Wedding Cakes

In the 1960’s, “States’ Rights” meant the “right”to discriminate against people of color.

Today, “Religious Liberty” means the “liberty” to discriminate against LGBTQ folks.

Advocates of both have invoked Christ.

But Christ no more died on the cross so you could have “whites only” water fountains than he did so you won’t have to bake a cake for a same gender wedding.

Today I read yet another article about a state legislature passing a so-called “Religious Liberty” bill. This time it is Mississippi, that paragon of “liberty” where the Confederate Flag remains embedded in the state’s standard.

But it’s not just Mississippi – many other states are considering such action, Georgia and Virginia‘s legislatures passed laws that were mercifully vetoed by their governors, and of course North Carolina finalized a “religious liberty” law last week.

Last week was Holy Week.

How heartbreakingly ironic.

It libels the name of Christ – who died for the whole world on Good Friday- to rationalize any kind of discrimination with his name.

Our nation already fought this battle. We decided decades ago that we could not be a country that stands for liberty and freedom while treating some of our people as less-than-us.”

During the Civil Rights era, businesses invoked  freedom and liberty to deny serving people of color. Worse, from my perspective as a Christian, they said God – the Christian God – wanted races to be separate

But forces of inclusion – many of them Christians – eventually won the legal war.

Why now do some think it is okay to exclude based on sexual orientation or gender identity? Why do they think God desires separation on this basis?

If you want to dislike LGBTQ folks, that is your right. If you want to believe their sexuality is sinful, go for it. Christians can and do certainly disagree about this in good faith.

But “public accomodation” means all of the public, not just those of whom you approve. It means you can’t keep people of color away from the lunch counter, or deny medical treatment (as the Mississippi law allows) to an LGBTQ person.

And please leave Jesus out of it.

Jesus hung out with those disapproved of by the upstanding folks –  especially the “good” religious people.

If last Friday teaches us anything, it’s that Jesus wasn’t executed for being too exclusive; it was his radical inclusivity that got him into trouble.

Some might answer, “Yeah, Jesus hung out with sinners. But he said, ‘Go and sin no more.'”

But nobody did that. “Sinning no more” is impossible in this life. Nobody stopped sinning.

Not even you.

———-
I realize this post has a more strident tone than is typical. Why am I so passionate about this? First, because some of the people I care about most dearly are LGBTQ and  therefore directly affected by these laws.  Second, because I am committed to sharing the Good News about Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, surveys show that one of the first things young people who are unChristians think of when asked about Christianity is, “Christians hate gay people.” These “religious liberty” laws are not only discriminatory, they are anti-evangelism; they reinforce the perception of the church – and of Christians – as judgmental and exclusive.
Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Homosexuality, LGBTQ, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

If Jesus going to the Cross was all about love, why do I see so much hatred and judgment in churches?

This year’s Easter sermon responded to”Five Easter Questions to Answer for Millennials.”  Here is an excerpt, responding to the question in this post’s title. . .

Hatred and judgment in churches.  As a pastor, should I be defensive?

No.

As a visible representative of the church – not just this church, but the church of Jesus Christ – what I need to do is say . . .

“I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

One of my favorite books is Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. In the book, Miller tells of being a Christian at a college known for its hostility to religion. He convinced the small group of Christians on campus to set up a confession booth during a school festival.  But it wasn’t the kind of confession booth you usually think about – people weren’t invited to come in to confess their faults, but rather to enter and be confessed TO by the Christians inside.

 blue like jazzListen:  “We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus . .. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”

 And confession is my first response to those who ask this question about hatred and judgment in churches. To confess the church has not always done a great job of expressing God’s love for the whole world.  To say “I’m sorry” to those who are apart from the church – and even separated from God – because they have been let down or hurt by the church.

Although Jesus came to lift up the marginalized, the church has a history of affirming the powerful. The church has participated in the marginalization of women, of people of color, of the poor, of LGBTQ folks – and those failings are certainly not confined to the past in our churches.  Church authorities have perpetrated abuse, and have covered it up, caring more about the institution than the victims.  And I’m not just talking about the Roman Catholic church.

As a member of the Body of Christ, as a leader in the church . . .

“I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

My own  perception of the judgmental nature of the church and of church people was one of the things that kept me out of church and away from God when I was a young adult. But what I came to understand was that the church is made up of people, and the Bible is exactly accurate in describing people as  imperfect, essentially messed up beings.

One of the primary reasons I have come to believe the Christian claims about Jesus is because the Christian view of corrupt human nature is so consistent with my experience of who I am.

The reason we’re in church, the foundational basis of our faith, is that we are messed up and need forgiveness.  We need a new start. That’s what the Cross and the Empty Tomb are about.

What happens, though,  is once we get into church we’re liable to forget why we’re here.  We look at all the folks on the outside and see how they need to change. We insiders look down on the outsiders.  We forget that we are still messed up and we become judgmental especially of those whose failings are different than ours.

I’m sorry. Please forgive me.

Part of our messed up human nature is that we give in to our desire to associate with only people who are like us, and exclude those who are different. That is reflected in our churches; What Martin Luther King, Jr. said in the early 1960’s is still true today – America is never more segregated than it is on Sunday mornings.

Our first step as individual Christians and as the church is to acknowledge that we fall short, to remember that we begin each worship service with confession and forgiveness because WE NEED IT, to strive together to be the people God calls us to be, loving unconditionally and letting God’s love so fill us that there is no room for hatred and judgment.

We’re working on it.

But, as much as I love the church, as much as I love being a Lutheran Christian, we are not saved by religion.  We are saved by Jesus.  We are saved by the Cross and the Empty Tomb.

 So my answer to this question is to acknowledge that yes, there is hatred and judgment in churches.  But that is not a reflection of God, but of the messed up nature of the people who are the church.

The church was never meant to be a haven for saints. It is a hospital for sinners. Sometimes we lose sight of that, and of the fact that we are saved not because we are better than anybody else but because the Cross and the Empty Tomb happened even when we were too messed up to save ourselves. We have received God’s grace – God’s undeserved, unconditional love – and we have failed to share it.

I’m sorry, please forgive me.

——

These are the five questions answered in the full sermon:

  1. How do I know Jesus was a real, historical person?
  2. Why should I be convinced a man really rose from the dead?
  3. If Jesus going to the cross was all about love, why do I see so much hatred and judgment in churches?
  4. How do you think this story could change my life after I leave the doors of your church?
  5. Is it ok for me to question what you’re saying?

You can hear the full sermon here.

I encourged those in the congregation to keep asking questions. If you have questions to which you’d like me to respond, you can ask them in the comments below or by using the “Contact Me” link above.

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The Unexpected Pastor’s Best Picture Countdown 2016

Best-Picture

It’s time for my annual ranking of the films nominated for Best Picture.  As in the past, these are not predictions,  but rather my opinion of which films are most worthy to win the Best Picture Oscar. (In fact my #8 probably has the best chance to win.) Tune in Sunday night to see what happens, and what host Chris Rock has to say about #oscarssowhite.  It should be an interesting show!

2016 revenant8. The Revenant

I begin with a declaration of independence from the critics and Oscar-pundits who have predicted and promoted a Best Picture win for “The Revenant.” Many also believe Leonardo DiCaprio deserves to finally win an Oscar for his portrayal of Hugh Glass, the Man Who Refuses to Die. Sorry, but I found this film to be sadistic and silly.

I am not opposed to movie violence and even gore if it is necessary for authenticity or to bolster a theme. The depiction of the D-Day invasion in “Saving Private Ryan” is an excellent example. But the bloody slog that is “The Revenant” is more analogous to horror movies like “Saw” that exist as a sort of viewer endurance test. I’ve read comparisons of “The Revenant” to Roadrunner vs. Coyote cartoons, but I believe a more apt comparison is to professional wrestling. In these ‘rasslin’ matches, the hero usually receives a furious and often bloody beatin’ and looks to be down for the count numerous times. But no! You can’t keep him down!  Such is the plot of “The Revenant.” There is no nuance.

“The Revenant” is unremittingly dark; there is not much if anything that is redeeming, The film is ultimately inexcusably ambiguous about the morality of revenge, as if Director Alejandro González Iñárritu is too busy laying on the carnage to worry about anything as bothersome as meaning. That’s fine for what it is, but it’s not enough for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

BUT . . . Let me take a moment to sing the praises of Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. You may have heard the old saying about great actors, “I would pay to watch him read the phone book.”  Well, I would pay to see a movie where Lubezki filmed the phone book. I first became aware of his work in the 2006 dystopian classic (and one of my 5 or so favorite films) “Children of Men,” and fell in love with his artistry in “The Tree of Life”  (one of my 3 or so favorites).  He has won the past two Cinematography Oscars (for “Gravity” and “Birdman”), and he should win again this year for “The Revenant.” Lubezki’s camera glides through, over, and around even brutally violent scenes as if floating  on a sea of molten glass. The beauty of stark wilderness shot with only natural light is a revelation. Lubezki’s work makes “The Revenant” worth seeing.

As does Tom Hardy’s acting. He should win Best Supporting Actor in recognition of his work not just in “The Revenant,” but also in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” But as for Leo’s predicted Best Actor triumph, I do believe he has turned in Oscar-worthy performances in the past, but not the grunting, suffering, perpetually downcast Hugh Glass.

  1. 2016-martianThe Martian

I enjoyed “The Martian” more than I did some of the films higher on this list. But regarding the Oscars, I feel about it the way I did about “Gravity” a couple of years ago – a great experience, a well-crafted fun ride of a film, but not Best Picture.  You could probably convince me that Matt Damon deserves the Best Actor award as much as anyone, because he carried the film with his humor, charm, and whiz-bang science knowhow. Ridley Scott deserves lots of credit too for turning what could have been a very tedious science-fair-on-Mars story into the crowd-pleasing entertainment that is “The Martian.”. I will probably watch “The Martian” again when it is on HBO, but for this Sunday it is definitely in the “It is an honor to be nominated” category.

  1. 2016-mad maxMad Max: Fury Road

Confession: I would not have watched “Mad Max: Fury Road,” at least not that I had to pay for, if it had not been nominated for Best Picture. I am no fan of action pictures; “Jurassic World,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Furious 7” were all  top-ten grossing movies of 2015 without any of my ticket purchase money. And I see lots of movies. I guess that makes me either discerning or a snob depending on where you sit.

But I digress . . . what I’m trying to say is that for “Mad Max: Fury Road” to be anywhere but #8 on my list is something of an upset. Being the discerning snob I am, I found something deeper than the admittedly awesome action set-pieces Australian director George Miller staged as he crashed and blew up millions of dollars’ worth of vehicles in the desert.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is a feminist myth of female empowerment, to which I say . . . good on ya, mate! “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has been widely praised for the centrality, independence, and competence of Rey’s character, but Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa paved the way months earlier in 2015. On a more visceral level, Miller has created a totally original world for a movie that at its heart is a 2-hour long chase scene. I was surprised how much I cared about how it ended. I won’t be surprised when “Mad Max: Fury Road” sweeps most of the technical awards on Sunday.

  1. 2016-spiesBridge of Spies

This may sound strange, but one of the strongest testaments to what makes “Bridge of Spies” such a fine film is Tom Hanks’ lack of a Best Actor nomination for it. What I mean is that his performance doesn’t look or feel like acting; he is not nominated because he makes it look so easy. As lawyer and unexpected (especially to him) spy negotiator James Donovan, Hanks comes across as a determined, somewhat flawed, normal person in an extraordinary situation. He’s just plain real. Which is the genius of this film – it feels real.  Especially in the East Berlin scenes, Director Steven Spielberg’s attention to detail brings us right there in time and in place.

“Bridge of Spies” is certainly the best Spielberg/Hanks collaboration since “Saving Private Ryan,” and I was happy to see it nominated because it is an excellent film that was somewhat overlooked; like Tom Hank’s performance, it’s just expected to be good because of the people involved. That includes screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen, by the way, something I did not realize until they were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (along with co-writer Matt Charman).

  1. 2016-room.jpgRoom

The conversation about Best Actress begins and ends with Brie Larson. Her wrenching, brave, and utterly convincing performance in “Room” is a statement by a young actress that this will not be her last nomination. There are many elements to admire in “Room,” but Larson’s performance carries the film.  Jacob Trembly’s portrayal of her character’s 5-year old son is also noteworthy because he comes across as an actual young boy, not one of the “wise beyond his years” kids who so often populate movies.

“Room” could easily have been an exploitative thriller about a woman and her son held captive for years in a garden shed, but it is tempered and humanized by the choice (as in the book) to tell the story from Jack’s perspective. Some critics have written that the second half of the film loses momentum, but I found it just as compelling and real, if not as pulse-pounding, as the first. “Room” is probably too small a film to win the Oscar, but it is a worthy nominee.

  1. 2016-spotlihgtSpotlight

“Spotlight” is a film that successfully evokes both anger and gratitude.  It leaves one furious not only at the Boston priests who perpetrated the abuse of young people, but especially at the Roman Catholic Church authorities who convinced themselves to cover it up “for the good of the church.”  It is an important movie not just because of the specific outrage it covers, but as a cautionary tale for anyone in power who becomes enamored of the self-deluded belief that their institution – whether church, business, or government – is more important than the people it and they serve.

The film’s focus is not on the perpetrators, however, but rather on the intrepid journalists who painstakingly documented the church’s sins. No film since “All the President’s Men” has been as effective an homage to the importance of a free and diligent press.  The former film took home the Best Picture Oscar 29 years ago; it would be no great surprise if “Spotlight” does the same on Sunday. If that happens, who would’ve thought five or ten years ago that two Michael Keaton films would win Best Picture in back-to-back years? (Although Mark Ruffalo is the actor who shines brightest amongst the excellent ensemble cast.)

  1. 2016-big shortThe Big Short

“The Big Short” is probably the best film I saw last year, but I’m going with my heart over my head and placing it at #2 on the list. (It’s my list. I can do that.) It is a genre hybrid of a sort that has never been made before, at least not that I have seen. “The Big Short” is a comedy/drama/based on true events/economics lesson.  It comes across like a movie for smart people, but allows everyone feel smart (even economically ignorant folks like me) with its effective use of sexy models in bubble baths and Jenga blocks to explain the insane group-think that led to the mid-2000’s economic collapse.

Even though you know the crash is coming, the film builds suspense as those who predict it are doubted, scorned, and shunned. The film is appropriately tough on those whose greed and self-delusion caused the collapse, but there is an undercurrent of moral ambiguity – the heroes of the film ultimately profit, greatly, by the inevitable collapse that caused so many regular folks so much misery.

Like “Spotlight,” “The Big Short” features an excellent ensemble with a standout actor; in this case Christian Bale, whose transformation into the math genius whose personality resides somewhere on the autism spectrum is worthy of the Best Supporting Actor award if Tom Hardy is overlooked.  Director Adam McKay and Editor Hank Corwin should also take home statuettes for pulling all the disparate elements together into a whole that not just made sense but thoroughly entertained.

  1. 2016-brooklynBrooklyn

My standard for a very good film is one that I am thinking about the next morning when I wake up. A great film is one I feel the next day as well. “Brooklyn,” much to my surprise, is a great film.
The other nominated films are bigger than Brooklyn. Their ambitions are bigger, their canvases are bigger . . . even the mostly claustrophobic “Room” deals with bigger issues and emotions than “Brooklyn.”  But it is subtlety that I most admire about this film.

The story is simple – an immigrant’s tale. There is romance, even the hackneyed plot of a love triangle and a decision that must be made between two suitors  . .. and between two countries. I don’t recall a film which does the familiar so well, and makes it fresh and new . . . like an immigrant experiencing a new country for the first time.

There is a moment in “Brooklyn” that I still “feel,” the moment when Saoirse Ronan’s Ellis steps through the door at Ellis Island and enters America. There is no fanfare, no speech, no “look at me” film-making . . . but no scene ever (or in a very long time) has caused me to thrill at the promise of America and the hope of those who risk everything to make a new life here.

Moments like that are what makes this film special. “Brooklyn” may not be as artful a film as “Spotlight” or as original as “The Big Short,” but for me it is the Best Picture of 2015 because of its quiet beauty and because it is a reminder in this age of Comic Book Blockbusters that there is power in subtlety and that understatement and honest emotion can be as compelling as explosions.

000

THE BEST PICTURE NOT NOMINATED FOR BEST PICTURE

“Inside Out” would be #3 or better on this list if it were nominated. It should have been. If you haven’t seen it, don’t let the fact that it is animated put you off. There is more depth in the first 15 minutes of “Inside Out” than there is in 2-hours of “The Revenant.”  And then some.

2016-inside out

 

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Too Smart for God – Chapter One – Who’s This Book About?

TOO SMART FOR GOD Book CoverHere’s the first chapter of the book I’ve been working on for the past several years. If you have comments or suggestions for improvement I’d love to hear them. Or if you know of any agents or publishers who might be interested that would be good, too – it’s getting close to the point where I’ll be looking in that direction. As always, thanks for reading!

Being absent-minded means stepping up to the urinal and hoping you have to unzip your pants.

If you’re really absent-minded you’re not worrying about whether your zipper is up, but hoping there is a zipper at all. Did I remember to put my pants on this morning?

Please look away for a moment while I check.

Okay. I’m pantsed and they are zipped.

Because this book has such a conceited title, I thought I would start out with an admission of my struggle with incognizance. As I told Alex Trebek during the contestant interview segment of my Jeopardy Tournament of Champions Semifinal, my kids made a lot of money from my air-headedness when they were younger. I would tire of looking for my wallet, or my keys, or my glasses, and I would shout out, “I’ll give anybody a dollar who can find keys!” or whatever.

Alex asked, “Did they ever hide those things on purpose so they could collect the reward?”

I don’t think so . . . but you can never tell about kids. They can be sneaky little suckers. I’m pretty sure they didn’t hide my glasses that one time they were on my face.

Do you see what I’ve done so far? At the same time I was being all self-deprecating about my absent-mindedness, I casually mentioned that I was smart enough not only to be on Jeopardy but to win enough games (four, if you insist on knowing) to earn a spot in the Tournament of Champions . . . and I made it into the semi-finals, no less.  Plus I name-dropped Trebek.

But I’m not simply sneaking in a humblebrag (at least that’s not all I’m doing). One of the foundational ideas of this book is that smart folks can be Christians . . . and Christians can be smart folks. We’re not all like the doofuses who seem to get most of the publicity.

It would be easy to blame “the media” for the popular conception of Christians as dumber than dirt, but we Christians shoulder the blame, too. We keep sending our money to television preachers who give simplistic answers to questions like “Why do terrible things happen?”

Usually their answers revolve around God trying to punish people those TV preachers happen to hate . . . and who aren’t in the donor database.

One of the things I’ve learned since I’ve realized I was a Christian – and especially since I’ve become a pastor – is that I don’t have to know all the answers, or even many of them. Christianity ain’t Jeopardy, or even Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (the other gameshow I’ve been on).

In real life, sometimes “I don’t know” is the smartest thing I can say.

So if I don’t have all the answers, why should you read this book? I can see you, standing there in the bookstore, perusing Too Smart for God in the midst of stacks of other fine books. The authors of some of those books – especially in the Christianity section – claim to have everything figured out. They even have God figured out!

Why should you march up to the register to invest your money and the promise of your time in these pages? Is it worth hearing another sales pitch about the bookstore’s Preferred Reader Program?

Or, if you’re reading this Sample Chapter on your laptop or phone or e-reader . . . with an almost infinite universe of other bits and gigs of data to download, why should you click on the button that says, “Add to Cart” and expose your credit card data to the possibility of being hacked by a teenager in his parents’ basement who in turn sells it to Russian gangsters or Nigerian scammers?

One good reason to take the plunge at the register or online is that someone has said Too Smart for God is “simply the best writing by an American author since The Great Gatsby, if not Huckleberry Finn.”

But because praise for my book by friends, family – or in this instance, myself – probably isn’t very persuasive, let me give you my strongest argument for buying this book:

IT’S NOT ABOUT ME.

I’m not just ripping off Rick Warren, who sold millions and millions of copies of The Purpose Driven Life, a book that started, with, “It’s not about you.”

This book really is not about me.

“Wait a minute, Dave,” you might protest. “Isn’t this your story? How you grew up in a family that went to church every Sunday, but became an agnostic/atheist (depending on the confidence of your unbelief on any particular day) by the time you got to college because you thought you were Too Smart for God, and that God was only for weak, stupid people? And about how you returned to the church in your early 30’s because it  was the only way the woman who is now your wife would date you and you eventually became not just a Christian but an unexpected pastor? Then how can you say this book is not about you?

Because this book is about GOD.

I know that might seem like a pretty bold claim, but it is actually meant with the deepest humility. Yes, I am going to be the vessel for the story; my life is the vehicle by which we’ll take this journey together.

A few years back I had to change planes with some friends in Edmonton, Alberta as we flew across Our Neighbor to the North. We had four hours between planes, so we rented a car and drove into the city to explore. If you’ve ever been to Edmonton, you know the North Saskatchewan River (a River to Remember if you ever want to be on Jeopardy – Trebek’s from Canada) separates the city from the area where the airport is located. There are only a few bridges over that river.

When it came time to get back to the airport, we couldn’t find the way onto any of those bridges. We would drive toward one, then find ourselves on a road way below it with no ramps to it or signs showing the way to get to one. We spent increasingly hectic time driving aimlessly trying to get on a bridge, but we would inevitably lose sight of the one we were seeking and get lost again. Edmonton is surprisingly hilly for a city located in Alberta, one of the “Prairie Provinces” (a nickname Jeopardy-aspirants should know).

We did not have GPS in the car or on our phones. We had declined the map along with the insurance at the car rental counter. How hard could it be to get from the airport to the city and then double back to the airport?

Too hard, apparently, for us.

Eventually we did find our way back, just in time to get on our plane. But we had no idea how we had blundered there until I got home, pulled up Edmonton on Google Maps, and traced our route. It was certainly not a straight line, and I could see how we had missed many opportunities to get back on track. On the other hand, we had seen areas of the city and its environs that we never would have experienced otherwise.  And we had a good story to tell.

This book is sort of my attempt to piece together a Google Map of my journey back to faith. Now that I’m a pastor, there are times when I am up front leading worship and wonder, “How did I get here?” Like the trip back to the Edmonton airport, it was not a straight line. Writing this account has given me the opportunity to see how the twists and turns led me to where, or rather, who, I am today – an Unexpected Pastor who was once Too Smart for God.

So please be patient with me as we go on this journey together. How it all works together is something I’m figuring out along with you. God is the real author of my story. God had a plan even – and especially – when I didn’t acknowledge God’s existence. All the time I thought I was running away from God, or more accurately, rejecting the very idea of God, God was writing this story in and through me.

Even when I kept driving around aimlessly, even though I didn’t have a map, God always knew I’d end up back at the airport.

Or back at church.

I don’t want you buy this book under false pretenses, however. Mine is not a story that climaxes in a dramatic moment when I see the light and realize I was on the wrong road.

The prototypical conversion story in the Bible involves a man named Saul who literally saw the light. When we meet Saul in Acts he is a despicable person. He hates Christians (which doesn’t in itself make him despicable), in his eyes Jewish apostates who are multiplying like rats ever since their leader died and supposedly came back to life three days later. Saul puts his enmity into action by rounding up members of the early church and throwing them into jail. At the stoning (death by throwing actual stones, not the use of mind-altering substances) of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, Saul didn’t have the guts to partake in the actual execution. He held the coats of those who hurled the fatal rocks. There’s something particularly smarmy about that kind of “I don’t want to get my hands dirty” participation.

In the ninth chapter of Acts, Saul is on his way to the Syrian city of Damascus. He is “breathing murderous threats against” Christians. They really piss him off. At his request, the authorities have given him a mandate to round up Damascus Christians and imprison them. Saul is portrayed as such a villainous villain that when I read this story I picture him twirling his mustache and rubbing his hands with glee as he nears Damascus.

But then! There’s a brilliant light from heaven, so bright it instantly blinds Saul. A voice says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” It’s Jesus! Saul gets the point, and after a follower of Jesus restores his sight he became the greatest evangelist of the New Testament and maybe ever.

And, like many others in the Bible (and many modern celebrities), his name got changed. Saul was hereafter known as Paul.

Now that’s a great story!

My story is not like that.

Because of the change he made – or rather that God made in him – Paul is my favorite New Testament Bible character. (Gideon is my favorite person in the Hebrew Scriptures – you’ll have to read the rest of the book to find out why.) There are similarities between my journey and Paul’s, but his is a different kind of adventure. I rejected Jesus, but I didn’t kill Christians. I just made fun of them. I was never knocked off my horse by a blinding light, nor did Jesus ever rebuke me personally.

If that ever happened, this would be a much shorter book.

As long as I’m being up-front here at the front of the book, I should probably tell you that my story is different from others who write books in the Spiritual Conversion genre. I didn’t do a lot of the dramatic and (self-) destructive things they did. I drank too much, but I am not an alcoholic or a drug addict. Before I was a Christian I got divorced and I lived with a woman who’s not my wife, but my sexual exploits are pretty tame compared to say, Wilt Chamberlain. I don’t have a tale of child abuse and/or neglect to share; the family I grew up in was pretty “normal,” whatever that means.

But I suspect my story is more common than dramatic stories like Paul’s and many others that get turned into books. It is more like the other great conversion story from the Bible, the one that happened not on the road to Damascus but rather on the road to Emmaus.

Luke tells this story in chapter 24 of his Gospel. It happens on the first Easter Sunday. Jesus died two days before. Two of Jesus’ followers – Cleopas and one who Luke doesn’t name, so I’ll call him “Dave” – have just left Jerusalem. They are walking toward Emmaus, a few miles away.

Cleopas and Dave’s journey is symbolic of their emotional and spiritual state. Jerusalem was the city of hope, the city where the Hebrew Scriptures promised that the Savior would take over and establish a perfectly just rule over the world. Cleopas and Dave, along with many who followed Jesus, had thought Jesus was that Savior. But then they had seen him nailed to a cross where he died just like any other man.

That wasn’t what the Savior was supposed to do! So Cleopas and Dave were walking away from Jerusalem. Away from hope. Away from faith.

They were at the end of their hope.

As they walked, Cleopas and Dave discussed the events of the last few days. They were joined along the way by another traveler. Luke tells us in an aside that this newcomer is the resurrected Jesus, but Cleopas and Dave don’t recognize him.

Jesus asks why they are so sad. They can’t believe their new companion hasn’t heard what happened to Jesus. Cleopas and Dave tell him the whole story.

Jesus gets angry. “Don’t you get it! Don’t you know the Scriptures?! Dying was what the Savior was supposed to do all along.” Then Jesus teaches them a Sunday School lesson about how the promises in the Scriptures had been about, well, him.

Then it’s time to stop for dinner. Cleopas and Dave sit down. They invite Jesus to eat with them. A meal is laid out. Jesus picks up some bread, breaks it, and blesses it. That’s when it comes to Cleopas and Dave.

This is Jesus!

This is the Savior they’d been waiting for!

Because he didn’t fit their idea of what the Savior should be, they had rejected him. Cleopas and Dave had walked away from their faith, but Jesus had been walking with them.

Luke goes on to tell us that Cleopas and Dave ran back to Jerusalem and told everyone their story of walking with Jesus, of finding him – and their faith – even though they didn’t know they were looking for him – or for it.

And that, my new friend, is what I will do in the rest of this book. I’ll tell you how I walked away from my faith because God and Jesus didn’t meet my expectations . . . and didn’t answer all my smart-guy questions. I’ll show you how Jesus walked with me even when I didn’t recognize him, much less believe him to be my or anybody else’s Savior. Finally, you’ll see how I realized, not in a flash but over the course of the walk, who Jesus is not just for the world but for me.

Like Cleopas and Dave, I can’t help but tell the world about it.

            That is what you’ll get when you read the rest of Too Smart for God. That and how to get on a game show.

And, if you buy this book today, I’ll throw in a FREE BONUS Christmas Short Story. It’s at the end of the book.

For now, take this book to the register or click on “Add to Cart.” Let’s take this journey together. I’ll be Dave. You can be Cleopas.

 

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