Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Vatican “Nunsense”: Why Old “Habits” Die Hard

Catholic school never had been so fun, thanks to Sister Bernice.

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers…” – Genesis 3:15

“But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” – Luke 24:11

I’ve been following with interest the Vatican’s crackdown on women religious and in particular one group of American nuns, the “Leadership Conference of Women Religious.”  There’s something laughably ironic here: only recently the Vatican was coming out with loud censures of the movie, “The Three Stooges,” for the movie’s caricatures of nuns as loose and naughty; now the Vatican is denouncing these same women in orders for their “unlicensed” theology, and with a similar effect; women like Elizabeth Johnson or Margaret Farley, brilliant, thoughtful theologians in their own right, are made to look like loose, naughty hussies with little respect for authority- “radical feminists” out to bring down centuries of church tradition.  (I guess the implicit assumption at play here is that you have to first belong to the family if you want to throw chauvinistic insults at the mothers and sisters of the household.)

Just last week the Franciscan friars became the first Catholic religious order to come to their sisters’ aid, calling the Vatican’s crackdown on the women “excessive.”  I applaud this move, and hope it signifies the beginning of more support in the direction of genuine, mutual dialogue in which power and authority are no longer wielded as weapons but as instruments in service of truth and love.

That said, I’m also pessimistic in my optimism here.  The Bible describes the reality of the world we live in as one in which, after the Fall, men and women’s enmity against one another is an abiding sign of their accursed state.  This world is one in which men do not believe their female friends and sisters- even when these women bring joy-filled tidings of a God who has conquered the grave out of love for us.  The men dismiss their accounts as mere “idle tales.”

Does this reality justify complacence with the order of things? I don’t think so.  The kingdom of God is a place in which there is no male or female, Jew or Greek (Galatians 3:28).  It is an oasis where lambs peacefully lie down with leopards (Isaiah 11)- where, in fact, the one who rules is both the Lamb and the Lion of Judah (Revelation 5).

I am left wondering how we as brothers and sisters in Christ are to incarnate this kingdom of God when the conflicts before us, often in the form of hot-button issues such as abortion or gay marriage, threaten to undo us.  What does it look like to live as if our prayer, “thy kingdom come,” is coming true?  Maybe a realistic start is simply remembering how our world works and vowing to be different.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts below!



It Takes an Imagination to Raise a Faith

"God just talked to me as a burning bush." "Sure he did, Moses. I think you've been 'burning some bush.'" -Jim Gaffigan

I wonder if we tire of or become bored by the life of faith because we have stopped using our imaginations.  Maybe we’ve never learned how to use them in the first place.

Just imagine that you and I are “living tabernacles.”  Outward and visible signs of God’s grace.

Just imagine that everyone else is, too.

Just imagine that “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God,” in the words of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Will we live the day before us differently?

Maybe we need to ask God to ignite our imaginations.

The below sermon, “Living Tabernacles,” by fellow saint and sinner Jake Dell, is an implicit invitation to do this very thing:

It’s not unusual for me to get taken for a Roman Catholic priest.

Sometimes, it’s easier to just go with it, rather than try to explain everything. After all, explanations tend to kill mysteries.

Just ask Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas is best known for writing some of the most highly developed theology that we have about the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, or simply, the mass.

One might say that he went so far as to explain away all of the mystery, and that he reduced what happens here at this altar to a logical proof.

Perhaps that’s why, near the end of his life, he had a vision of all of his work and declared that all of his writings were nothing but straw.

The nature of a sacrament is that it’s an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace.

But we have to train our eyes to see what is hidden in plain sight.

Let me give you two examples of this that happened to me last week.

As I said, it’s not unusual for me to be taken for a Catholic priest … on the other hand, most days when I’m wearing a collar on the subway riding to work at the Episcopal Church Center on Second Avenue, absolutely nothing happens and no one notices me at all.

Last Friday morning was different.

People were noticing. Moreover, they weren’t just noticing, they were engaging me.

The first person to notice me was James.

“Excuse me, are you a Catholic priest?” he whispered to me as the subway lurched out of the station.

I hesitated.

“No,” I finally answered, “I’m Episcopalian.”

“Ah,” he smiled as his English accent became noticeable, “I am a seminarian with the Blessed Sacrament Fathers.”

How funny, I thought, because I knew I was getting ready to preach a sermon today on the Feast of Corpus Christi.

James was dressed neatly in a white shirt and black pants. But he also looked like he’d been out all night.

No sooner did I think it then he confessed it.

“I had a little too much beer last night.” The train pulled into the station and he got off to hurry back to the rectory where he was staying.

“God bless you,” he said, and then asked me my name.

“Jake,” I answered. “And yours?”


Hmm. James, I thought. James, the brother of the Lord and training to be a priest in the order of the Blessed Sacrament fathers.

Coincidence, yes; but I was also beginning to let my imagination take over and to think sacramentally … that is: I was starting to look past outward appearances to inner meanings.

No sooner did James get off, than a young woman approached me.

Now often it’s the crazies who approach me on the subway to talk. They want to tell me about the end of the world and the coming one-world government ruled by the Antichrist.

But this woman clearly was not crazy.

She had been watching my conversation with James and apparently it gave her the courage to come up to me.

“Excuse me, are you a priest?” she asked.

Again, what good are explanations at a moment like this?

Should I tell her I was a deacon? Should I tell her that I was an Episcopalian? Both of which were true, but neither seemed at all relevant right then and there.

She was responding to an outward sign — my clerical collar — with her inward and spiritual need.

She asked if she could pray with me.

I told her, “Of course!”

Then I asked her what her name was.

“My name is Miriam,” she said. “That means Mary,” she added.

I knew that.

But still, here I was talking to Mary, like in Mary, the mother of God.

And Mary wanted me to pray with her.

Mary told me that she was facing lots of “stressors” in her life; that she was afraid that she was losing her way in life, and most poignantly, that she was afraid of losing her faith.

Here I was, minding my own business, and a woman comes up to me and tells me that she is afraid of losing her faith — something that is so essential to our inner life and that it’s hard to go for very long without it.

How’s that for bringing something inward and spiritual to the surface so that we can see it?

I put my hand on her shoulder and she and I prayed. I told her that she was loved and that she was not walking alone. I prayed and we asked God together not to let Mary lose heart.

Mary, our Lord’s mother, and the one who pondered many things in her heart.

We finished our prayer and I got off at 59th Street to change to the E train to continue my journey to Penn Station.

Transferring to the E at 59th Street is like walking a labyrinth.

You get off one train, do an about-face, walk to the center of the platform, walk up a flight of stairs to a mezzanine, turn left through a corridor, take an escalator ride up, walk down a corridor past the “Infinity Shoe Shine” and then take a long escalator ride down.

The escalator shaft is so long you cannot see the landing at the bottom.

The shaft is a tiled tube that goes down and down; and I as I was riding it, the sound of someone moaning and groaning was echoing and reverberating off it.

It was a racket; it was a din and it seemed to be coming from a child.

But it wasn’t a tantrum. This wasn’t a disobedient child in the throes of acting out. This was someone having a fit; perhaps due to some kind of mental disorder.

It was a disturbing sound — other riders on the escalator were commenting — and, as we descended, the moans and the cries became loud and shrill.

“How odd,” I thought. First, I meet James, then Mary and now it seems like I am descending into hell.

I reached the lower platform and the train came. I could no longer hear the moans.

As I stood on the subway heading downtown, I looked at the people around me.

I was still praying for Miriam. She may even have been praying for me then too.

For a moment I stepped into God’s eye. And I saw as he sees. There is a prayer that some priests pray after mass that goes:

“Blessed, Praised, Hallowed and Adored be our Lord Jesus Christ upon His Throne of Glory in Heaven, in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, and in the hearts of his faithful people.”

And then in that moment, right where the hearts of each of these people should be, I saw a small, round wafer.

A communion host.

Sometimes these hosts were in a small monstrance; that decorated stand that holds the consecrated bread.

Other times they were in a ciborium, which is the dish or cup that priests use to hold communion wafers.

Now you may say that I have an active imagination, and you’d be right. And I think that’s okay.

Imagination and the Christian faith go hand-in-hand.

Imagination can serve the faith well, provided one doesn’t become unhinged.

And the point of my vision of the little communion wafers — of the little Corpus Christis — on the hearts of all those subway riders was to remind me that God is active in outward and visible ways in this world.

Most especially, he is active in the people we meet every day.

When I first moved to New York three years ago, I was overwhelmed by the number of people.

I used to think as I looked at them all, “How can God keep track of them all?

“How can he care about all of their problems as much as he cares about all of mine?”

Moreover, I wondered, “How can God love so many people?”

And I have to confess, I even doubted that he could.

Last Friday morning, he answered my question.

When I saw those communion wafers emblazoned on the hearts of all the subway riders, I knew that I was in the real presence of Christ.

For a moment, in my mind’s eye, the subway was full of living tabernacles. Human beings made in the image of God.

Each person on that train: black, white, Asian, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Christian or of no faith at all; young and old, male and female, gay or straight — all of these outward labels and orientations no longer signified.

They fell apart.

Those old wineskins were bursting as the love of God radiated from one living tabernacle to the next.

If you’re like me, then you’ve fallen in love once or twice in your life.

If you’re like me, then you tend to adore whoever you’re in love with!

It’s an adoration that’s intense enough to see past any flaws and content to gaze only on perfection.

Of course that kind of adoration is hard to sustain.

And no woman (or man) can survive for very long on that kind of pedestal. It is, after all, a form of idolatry.

But that is not what is going on here.

In a moment or two we’ll take a consecrated wafer of bread, place it on the altar, and adore it.

And as we adore it, I want you to practice seeing it with a mystical eye.

The gateway to the mystery of God is your imagination, so use it.

You may see something right away, or you may not.

The sacraments can work like that. Sometimes they can affect you immediately.

Other times, it can take years before you start to notice what’s happening.

So suspend your disbelief for a moment or two. Let yourself “play along” with the idea that this bread and this wine have somehow become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

You see, God makes a good playmate. If you ask him, he will play along with you.

He’ll make you into his own outward and visible sign of grace.

He’ll send people into your lives with uncanny names and uncanny stories.

He’ll help you see things you never saw before, yet were always in plain sight.

Like the crucified, risen and victorious Lord in a thin wafer of bread, or in a sip of wine.

Have you been using your imagination lately? Got something to share with the Fellowship? Leave it below or send it my way: kristinarobbdover@gmail.com.

Mutuality in Ministry

Yesterday marked the end of a week-long “Mutuality” series with Rachel Held-Evans.  For technical luddites like myself, it was also an introduction to “syncroblogging”: Held-Evans invited bloggers everywhere to reflect on the theme of mutuality between men and women in the home, church and world, and then share their post at the same Twitter address.  The Mutuality 2012 Synchroblog, especially the list of submitted articles by gifted men and women bloggers, is most definitely worth a visit and a browse!

My own submission this morning, being late, probably will not appear on Held-Evans’ list, but you can read it here: http://blog.beliefnet.com/fellowshipofsaintsandsinners/2011/10/damaris-who.html.  (It also appeared in the September 2011 issue of Arise, a publication by “Christians for Biblical Equality.”)  Enjoy!


What Does It Mean To Pray Boldly?

“And this is the boldness we have in [Christ], that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.” – 1 John 6:14,15

This week the precocious ladies in Clairmont Presbyterian’s weekly Bible study were asking our questions again.  We couldn’t quite wrap our minds around the above verse.  Its logic was about as confusing to follow as I have to imagine driving through a roundabout would be when all the signs are in Arabic.  But if I’m correct in tracing the logic, it goes something like this: we have obtained our requests when we know that God hears us in whatever we ask, and we know that God hears us in whatever we ask when we pray according to God’s will.

Which had me wondering if God just puts on headphones when we’re asking for the luxury sedan or a second home in Barbados.  Or, if God like a snooty DJ only plays the techno requests, plugging his ears when I ask for “Dancing Queen.”  Another mother in the study probably had a more accurate intuition: maybe God, a bit like a parent who wants the best for us, just tunes out when we begin to ask for those things that really aren’t good for us or in accordance with what God wants.

“But how could praying for God’s will be bold?,” another mother had wondered.

Her question gave voice to what a number of us were struggling to understand.  “Boldness” in our books was more like “approaching the throne of grace with boldness” as the writer of Hebrews puts it: it meant going to God with the conviction that God out of God’s love for us, wants to give us our heart’s desires; it meant presenting our requests in the form of our own hopes and wants, and asking God to act in accordance with them.  (God after all could always decide whether these requests were really in accordance with His will.)

Yet I suspect that when Jesus tells us to pray daily for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, He really is asking us to be awfully bold, only in a way counter to what we’re typically attuned to understand as boldness.  Because if truth be told, I want nothing more than my own will to be done.  God in Jesus overturns my order of things, an order in which I and those I love come first.  But this doesn’t stop me from on most days waking up with an agenda- my own agenda.

There is something terrifying about letting God take the reigns on our lives, isn’t there?  It is hard to imagine that God could have something better planned than what we have planned for ourselves.  Maybe “boldness” according to God’s definition, then, looks a whole lot different from what you and I would usually describe as “boldness.”  “Boldness in Christ” consists in going to God with a blank slate and asking God to write on it, trusting that God is far more than a capricious politician with an Etch A Sketch, but rather has our very best in mind.  All the time.  In every circumstance.

Maybe the hardest part is relinquishing our will with the knowledge that our very best- God’s very best for us- will take us down a path of suffering.  “Whoever follows me must take up his cross,” Jesus says.  No wonder most of us our timid in our prayers.

Stand-Up Comedian Tim Hawkins Waxes on Church Culture

I’ve just discovered church stand-up comedian Tim Hawkins.  His below routine- especially the part about the church’s obsession in recent years with hand sanitizer- will make you chuckle.  Tomorrow, some thoughts sparked by 1 John on what it means to pray “boldly”:  YouTube Preview Image



The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The world's oldest cave drawings found recently at Chauvet cave in southern France.

I watched Werner Herzog’s documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” the other night.  The film tells the story of the recently discovered Chauvet cave in southern France that houses the world’s oldest paintings- paintings of a prehistoric people whose life and times can only be faintly reconstructed through the remains they left behind.

Their story is as much the story of those now doing the excavations.  These eccentric men and women- archaeologists, paleontologists, curators and art historians, even a perfumist, whom we meet strangely sniffing for air holes along the cave’s periphery- share their connections to the subterranean mystery of this silent monument to a past people.  They are the few who have been let into the one steel, locked door that seals off this land of forgotten dreams; and, it is a place where only these perfectly preserved etchings of the first human beings, and their bones and those of the animals they drew, have lain undisturbed for thousands of years under layers of calcification.

I suppose we, many of us, have our caves of forgotten dreams.  They are those places where our once youthful aspirations and our highest ideals, or our visions of life as we had thought it would be, or our once restless zeal for adventure, or our place in grand, suspenseful stories of heroes and villains, now seem like artifacts from a far-off past.  A magical, wonder-filled land where we once dwelt but now only catch glimmers of.  A place guarded by a padlocked door that we dare not open for fear of what it might show us about who we once were, or how little we’ve known our selves, or how far we’ve strayed from the people we once were.

When Jesus bids the little children come to him, for “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14), I wonder if he has in mind something along the lines of this cave of forgotten dreams.  We must go through the small door- through the tiny opening- in order to enter into the depths.  To do this, I must not run away from those things that call me out of my comfortable, often myopic status quo, in this case, the hypnotic tedium of a mostly stay-at-home mother and her domesticated hopes and dreams.  Such things call me back to the joy of a little girl whisked away to the mission field in Malaysia, growing up in an exotic, foreign land.  They remind me of a young woman dancing among her Sudanese friends in a camp in northern Uganda.  They call me to a life of freedom in the Spirit and adventure, passion, and purpose.  They tug at me, these strange, forgotten dreams, telling me that there is more even as “the More” may be here now, right in front of me.

I suspect the church has its cave of forgotten dreams, too- its “forgotten ways,” as missional church thinker Alan Hirsch puts it.  Somehow the subversive, foreign ways of a people in exile, on the margins of empire, meeting in houses to pray, break bread and share everything in common, including the truth about our brokenness, seems so far away from the church most of us know today.  The institutionalization of power and the gradual calcification of traditions over time- these layers of sediment- need to be gently poked and prodded away in order to see how we once danced, how our lives once exuded motion, like the legs of a running bull scribbled on a wall epochs ago.

Yet these old, prehistoric dreams are still there, mysterious and subterranean as they may seem.  They call out to the “eccentrics” among us to go looking for them.  To excavate them.  To keep their memory alive.  To dare to open the door and traverse the depths with our headlamps and tools.  To remind the rest of us that the forgotten dreams are still there, wooing us back to where the dreams first originated.  To go sniffing out all the air holes where the Spirit is still wafting as it once did long ago.





A Response to Psalm 23

Fellow saint and sinner Jake Dell is a minister in the Episcopal Church.

Fellow saint and sinner Jake Dell (@jakedell73) has written a response to Psalm 23 and yesterday’s post which I have posted in full below.  It captures in a beautiful, C.S. Lewis sort of way, the nature of faith in God’s dawning kingdom (as a place where “goodness and love follow us all the days of our life”).  Such faith, Dell suggests, finds grounding in an experience of what is indeed real, only fleeting.  Maybe my own “unbelief” around Psalm 23, then, is  really more of an inability to live into these real, fleeting experiences of God’s love and goodness as if they actually were the whole point of existence rather than mere window dressing…

I like your reflection on Psalm 23. I was thinking this morning of how my experience of love and affection has been like that of child walking into a delightful room full of toys, tucked away on some upper floor of a large country house, and finding at least one special playmate to play with.

Outside you can see the pretty English gardens, and it’s a warm, sunny day.

The sad part is that I’m seldom let up into that room to play; and when I am, no sooner are the toys off the shelf and the fun has begun, than the nurse (or is it a warden? A jailer even? Could it even be God?) pulls me by the scruff of the neck, and I’m back out in the corridor, alone.

I never know what happens to those toys or those playmates. Did someone make them go back to their chores too? Or did they get to keep playing? Did they find others to love and to love them? Maybe my erstwhile playmate didn’t even want me there in the first place and I was made to leave.

To be sure, for a few minutes I can still feel what love and play felt like. But after a little while, a cynical doubt sets in. And I start to listen to the voices that tell me that there never was such a room full of toys, such a playmate, such fun, such love.

But maybe those brief moments in the playroom really are “all the days of my life” and the time in the corridor is a kind of living-death-in-purgatory. Maybe it’s the corridor that’s not real. But that’s little help.

I don’t find myself asking God to help me believe. I know what I experienced. That room was real. I find myself asking God to open that door back up, to let me back in, and this time, to let me stay.

Moreover, I want that now, with the people I know now, with the woman I love now, with the children I have now. I don’t want it in the future. And certainly I don’t want to wait for some proposed life-after-death.

Another psalm tells us plainly: “The dead praise not thee, O Lord: neither all they that go down into silence. But we will praise the Lord, from this time forth, forevermore.”

If the psalm is true, then I want to be back in that room. Back with my toys. Back with my love. From this time forth and forevermore.

Got a comment for Jake or a response to Psalm 23 of your own? Leave it here, or send it along and I’ll post it!

Why I Don’t Believe Psalm 23

"Baa humbug, that I shall not be in want."

The nineteenth century philosopher and theologian Sören Kierkegaard recognized that every individual must wrestle with the implications of God’s Word for herself.  The “collective,” or, in this case, churches and religious institutions, do violence to this necessarily subjective, deeply personal relationship between an individual and her God when they impose a particular, general and “objective” reading or interpretation.

In a work titled “Judge for Yourselves” from among the twenty volumes of his Journals and Papers, Kierkegaard writes: “When each individual does as I have done when I write, shuts his door, reads for himself, fully conscious that I have not- and this indeed is true- in the remotest way wanted to take liberties with him, or speak to others about him, since I have thought only about myself- then truly I need not fear that he will be angry with me for what I say.”

All of this is to say, that I, too, won’t be afraid that you will be angry with me for what I am about to write, because it comes from this same place of having prayerfully and personally grappled this morning with the words of a familiar psalm.

Funny thing is I’ve heard this psalm so many times before that it has become little more than an anodyne Hallmark card greeting.  As a hospice chaplain, I would often read Psalm 23 at people’s bedsides.  I remember one night in particular.  In the middle of the night, from her lonely watch in an intensive care unit, one woman awaiting surgery had paged the on-call chaplain for a Bible.  Even the sleeping pills hadn’t helped her insomnia.

When I came, she asked me to read Psalm 23, the fear so clearly etched across her face. The words of the psalm were a comfort.  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

“Thank you,” the woman had said meaningfully.  I, in turn, had felt like I had just dispensed some magic potion.

This morning I read those words again- and these: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.”  And, “surely, goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.”  And when I read these words, I am struck by how little I believe the claims they make- today at least.  (Maybe tomorrow will be different.)  It’s not that I don’t want to believe these things.  I do.  It’s just that I don’t really believe them much of the time.

That God “makes me lie down in green pastures”?  Maybe.  When I couldn’t lie down for myself, it is true that You, O God, made me do so; but when I lay down, forced to recuperate from a debilitating depression, the “green pastures” looked for a long time a whole lot more like wilderness.  On some days they still do.  Dry, uninviting wasteland.

And truth is I’m not sure I want “a table spread before me in the presence of my enemies.”  Those enemies are there, to be sure, even if I can count them on one hand.  But to have to sit across from those who, if they don’t wish me harm, have utter contempt for me, makes a root canal sound like fun.

Still, when I am forced to stare my disbelief in the face, when I am obliged to look at all the ways that I am unable to praise those things that God Himself finds praiseworthy- things like a banquet feast with my enemies, or love and goodness that follow me all around like the nine-week lab puppy we just adopted- I, like Peter, can only say, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”  Because there really is nowhere else I want to be than in those green pastures and near those quiet waters next to a Good Shepherd who is guiding this headstrong, often foolish sheep.

So I am left this morning with a simple prayer: Lord, I really don’t believe.  Help me to.

Got a memory, association or reflection to share regarding Psalm 23? Leave it below, and I’ll republish it.

Runway or Runaway Religion? Thoughts on “Christian Fashion”

If Pastor Ed Young's 24-hour "Sexperiment" didn't do it for you, his "Pastor Fashion" gig may...

Some of you have heard about mega-church pastor Ed Young’s latest initiative to coach the church on what to wear and what not to wear.  I was made aware of it through a post by saint and sinner Lance Ford, and admit to being quick to write off Young and his efforts as yet another example of celebrity pastordom gone awry.  (And, they may still be this!)

Young, who pastors Fellowship Church in Dallas, Texas and Miami, Florida also blogs regularly.  His website, “Pastor Fashion,” is actually a well of resources for fashion-sensitive men and women striving to be hip in a relaxed, trying-to-look-like-they’re-not-trying sort of way.  From what I gather, the site is very popular- and I must confess to having scanned the articles for some help on my own dilemma of the sexy, black dress, which to this day I have yet to find an excuse to wear: http://blog.beliefnet.com/fellowshipofsaintsandsinners/2011/12/the-minister-and-the-skimpy-dress.html.  (Stay tuned: I may write Ed an open letter to solicit his advice.)

Then the other day friend and fellow saint and sinner Jake Dell sent on another helpful fashion resource- this time in the form of a female Episcopal priest-blogger who has turned the presentation of women’s clerical collars into more appealing, fashion accents than your average dunce cap.  (And I would argue that it really is about as fashionable to wear a dog collar these days as it once was to march through the streets with a dunce cap on one’s head.  Just think, for example, of the latest intrigue and controversy swirling around the Catholic church regarding a butler-turned-spy and the Pope’s missing papers.  The guilt by association can be unavoidable here for all you dog-collar wearers, and I extend my sympathies.) You can read Erin Jean Ward on clerical fashion and how to redeem the dog collar look in her own words here: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/?s=erin+jean+ward.

So, where does all of this fashion talk leave us?  Is it all just silly, frivolous chatter? Or, is there something potentially life-giving here for the church and, more importantly, the world?  I would answer, “yes” to the first query, and “maybe” to the second.

To be sure, the question of whether to wear a bolo tie or a Hawaiian shirt to the party is a quintessentially first-world dilemma.  Maybe only in America do we have conversations about whether skinny jeans, testosterone and faith go together.  Elsewhere in the Majority world, where people are fortunate to have two or three outfits that they regularly recycle, and maybe one pair of shoes tops, such “hot-button” subjects on the radio and talk show circuits seem superficial at best.  They are usually a function of a church whose concerns are so totally removed from those of the rest of the world.  At worst, then, these conversations can become an almost diabolical distraction from the things that break God’s heart and should break ours, too.

Still, I would like to believe that God can use even something as frivolous as fashion to further God’s mission, insofar as God’s mission is as contextual as it is universal.  Because let’s face it: fashion is an issue of concern to much of our wider, Western culture, even if it can also be frivolous.  If we’re not obsessing about how groovy we are, most of us would at least like to think that what we’re wearing matches, or isn’t a throwback to the Middle Ages, not to mention the seventies (although am I right in hearing that the seventies look is coming back?).

I’m still not sure to what extent Ed Young intends for us to take his fashion focus as more than merely tongue-and-cheek engagement with our culture.  (The below video that appeared yesterday on Young’s blog is absolutely hilarious, and I would submit, is a light-hearted way to engage the issue.)  Young seems to be saying, though, that if we Christians don’t look hip or cool, then God won’t, either, which begs the question: do we really want to promote a God who relies on the name brands we wear in order to be more attractive or enticing to people?  Is evangelism just about self-beautification, in the same way that we doll up our church services so that more people will come on Sunday mornings?  I would hope not.  Still, if the question of what to wear was relevant to the apostle Paul in his own time (take, for example, Paul’s admonitions to the Corinthians) should it not be relevant for us, too, and if so, how?

Where I would leave us, though, is with the question of how much this quintessentially first-world dilemma is ultimately, like the barrage of so many other things flung at us in our media-saturated, consumerist culture, just another distraction from God’s mission in Jesus.  The mission that Jesus inaugurates is one of preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind and release to the oppressed (Luke 4:18).  And this message is not just for us as first-world Americans but for the whole world.

If the scope and content of this message remain unchanged, how we present it, in our various contexts, will look different.  Our task as the church, then, seems to be one of discernment.  We need to be constantly asking ourselves if how we’re presenting the message is actually furthering or obstructing the content of that message (namely, God’s mission of freeing us and our world from all the powers and principalities that would enslave us).

Not long ago I was standing in a receiving line after serving as the morning’s guest preacher.  When I preach I am often asked to wear my clerical gown, which these days consists of a man’s hand-me-down robe with shoulder pads that make me feel like I’m playing linebacker for the Saints.  (I guess I’ll have to consult with Erin real soon.) So, on this particular day, in addition to donning the garb of the latest draft pick in football, I had also chosen to wear a pair of stylish, red flats.

An attractive, fashionably dressed older woman came up to shake my hand: “I liked your sermon,” she said, “and I love your shoes!  Where did you get them?”

If truth be told, I appreciated the compliment- although I can’t help but wonder if she spent more time that day thinking about my red shoes (yet another proud yard sale find) than about the sermon.  I seriously hope not, but then again, they were some pretty hip shoes.

The apostle Paul in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica commends the Thessalonians for letting the real stuff of their lives be the living message of the Gospel (1 Thessalonians 1).  Fashion is fun.  It can even be a way to engage our first-world context with the aesthetics of a God who loves the world He made and paints it in many different forms and colors.  But if fashion as the how of our message becomes mistaken for the content of our message- if it replaces the actual stuff of God’s mission- then we will  ultimately be trading in Christ’s convicting message of grace and truth and a whole world restored for little more than a cheap pair of shoes.

So, what do you think?  Is all this talk about fashion just a cheap distraction from God’s mission? Are there ways it, too, might be conscripted for God’s mission?   If so, how?  Leave your thoughts here.  I’ll compile them and send them along to pastor turned fashion guru Ed.

Watch Ed Young’s latest video introducing a line of clothes called “Averagé,” a.k.a. “America’s Most Popular Clothing Line,” below: YouTube Preview Image






“What Is a Third Place?”

“Third place.”  If it’s not my position in a race to the ice cream running neck and neck with a five-year-old and a two-year-old, what is it? Fellow saint and sinner Lance Ford has posted an enlightening article (credit: Sentralized) on the nature of these “third places.”

And, having read the article, I’m struck by two things in particular: that on a list of our primary gathering places, “church” as it has traditionally been defined doesn’t even make the cut (home, or neighborhood, and places of work, are first and second places, respectively, with cafes, book shops, salons, farmer’s markets, pubs and other communal spaces vying for third); and, second, that according to a description of the eight characteristics of “third places” as defined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, in his 1999 book, The Great Good Place, “Fellowship of Saints and Sinners” qualifies (albeit as a virtual gathering place).

All of this to say…I want Fellowship of Saints and Sinners to be that “third place” for us.  A place where we can find safe, neutral ground away from our churches and their tiresome, denominational feuds and political in-fighting.  A place where it doesn’t matter where we come from or what we look like or believe- because ultimately we’re all somewhere on a journey of conversion- and where conversation happens across all these divides.  A place where we can laugh and poke fun at ourselves.  A place where we can ask hard questions and disagree respectfully with one another.  A place where there really aren’t any expectations for showing up- and when we do, we keep it low-key, fun, engaging and conversational, like a home away from home.

Here are the definition and characteristics of a “third place,” as excerpted from the Sentralized article:

But what exactly is a Third Place? According to Oldenburg the first place is our home and the people with whom we live. The second place is where we work and the place we spend the majority of our waking hours. A Third Place is a public setting that hosts regular, voluntary, and informal gatherings of people. It is a place to relax and have the opportunity to know and be known by others. It is a place people like to “hang out.”

Oldenburg identifies eight characteristics that Third Places share:

  • Neutral Ground. People are free to come and go as they please. There are no time requirements or invitations needed. Much of our lives in first places and second places are structured, but not so in Third Places.
  • Act as a Leveler. People from all walks of life gather in Third Places. There are no social or economic status barriers.
  • Conversation is the Main Activity. The talk is lively, stimulating, colorful, and engaging.
  • Assessable and Accommodating. They tend to be conveniently located, often within walking distance of one’s home.
  • There are Regulars. It is easy to recognize that many patrons are regulars at the establishment. But unlike other places, newcomers are welcomed into the group.
  • Low Profile. As a physical structure, they are typically plain and unimpressive in appearance.
  • Mood is Playful. With food, drink, games, and conversation present, the mood is light and playful. The mood encourages people to stay longer and to come back repeatedly.
  • A Home Away From Home. At their core they are places where people feel at home. They feel like they belong there, and typically have a sense of ownership.

Why is it so important for Christ followers to understand the concept of Third Places? Because the vast majority of people in the United States are living isolated, relationally impoverished lives. And Third Places offer an opportunity for missionally minded people to do life in proximity to others.

So, my question for you is this: how might Fellowship of Saints and Sinners better live into its identity as a third place? What are some things that we can be doing that we’re not already? What features, ethos, content can we cultivate to make this online gathering place a safe and fun hang-out where folks can be themselves (as much as they “virtually” can be)?  Leave your input below, or, if you’d prefer more confidentiality, shoot me an e-mail: kristinarobbdover@gmail.com.

Tomorrow, thanks to a number of your suggestions: pastors as fashion gurus??? WTF?

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