Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

The Biblical DO’s (vs. don’ts) of Sex

What does a positive, life affirming, biblically inspired approach to sex look like?

Is it possible that the Bible is actually not consistently clear about the “do’s and don’ts” of sex and sexuality?  Is the expression, “biblical sex,” a bit of a misnomer?  Baptist minister Jennifer Wright Knust thinks so, and she has recently written a book on the subject.  Unprotected Texts:  The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire- which is on my list of books to read- has apparently caused a stir in certain circles.

For the time being, author of Sexless in the City Anna Broadway has written a helpful review in the latest issue of Books and Culture, in which Broadway offers a constructive response to the controversy surrounding “biblical sex.”  Broadway makes the case that the church and Christian culture have over-emphasized boundaries, the “don’ts,” so to speak, at the expense of crafting a more positive, life-giving ethic that embraces the “do’s” that go along with loving one’s neighbor.

Here is Broadway: “…what if we recovered the more positive aspects of the biblical sexual ethic, paying attention to the God who says, ‘Do this, not that’?  When Jesus told his disciples that they should be known for the quality of their love, he did not give them a pass on how they showed love in sexual relations.  If we are called to strive for self-giving, self-denying, other-serving love in general, then this must surely apply as much to sexuality as to hospitality and friendship.”

Self-giving, self-denying, other-serving…in bed.  How’s that for a fortune cookie message?  You will be self-giving, self-denying, other-serving…in bed.  (I must confess that ever since my husband taught me to insert the words, “in bed,” at the end of each mysterious declaration on those tiny, white strips of paper all bunched up and buried in our post-dinner munchies, I’ve never again looked the same at a fortune cookie; the ritual makes the Chinese take-out experience that much more entertaining.)

But seriously, I think Broadway has a point. We Christians waste too much hot air talking about all of the things we shouldn’t be doing in bed, as if we might just as well put a great, big red “X” in front of the topic of sex and sexuality and then wear that “X” on our foreheads, so that no one else will want to talk to us about sex, either.  Because they’ll only get judgment or a fear-laden picture, rather than a vision that exudes the beauty of intimacy within a covenantal relationship.  (Incidentally, A.J. Swoboda, a pastor in Portland, Oregon, has written a great chapter on “messy sex” in his newly released book, Messy: God Likes It That Way, which I’ll be reviewing in the next week.  I hope you’ll tune in again.)

And we Christians have managed to thrust our hang-ups about sex on the rest of the world for centuries.  Augustine in the fourth century actually believed that it was in the act of intercourse itself that the plague of original sin was transmitted from generation to generation.  (How’s that for pressure in the bedroom? At which point I say, “Get thee to a nunnery.”)  And if you find some of today’s prevailing rhetoric against the “evils” of homosexuality a bit tiresome in certain circles of the church, consider this: in the Middle Ages there were whole confession manuals that articulated in fine print which sex positions would land you in the confessional with a priest, or worse, the fiery flames of hell.

Broadway goes on to offer up some embodied practices that might encourage greater obedience to God in the realm of our sexuality, towards this more positive biblical ethic.  Fasting (especially for those wrestling with sexual self-control and restraint), living in community and even cooking are some of the tips.  In the meantime, Broadway’s corrective- an emphasis on the biblical “do’s”- is one I hope to implement in my own conversations as a wife, mother and minister.


Cyber Evangelism

I’ve missed you all!

If you’ve missed me, it’s because I’ve been playing single mom on the home front to two young children who have decided that they would prefer not to sleep at night when Daddy is away.

Until my brain adjusts to this week’s new “normal,” here is a helpful post from friend and Episcopal priest Jake Dell on three ways the mainline church can be reaching out at this very minute to a world hungry for Good News:

“Three things mainline Protestant denominations should be doing right now”

The Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes 2012 conference is chock full of ideas and take-aways. Here are a few that I came up with on my own.
Number 1: Start buying Google search traffic. People go to Google before they go to their therapist or minister. They Google “Does anyone care?” or “God, do you exist?” or “I need peace” or “Is Jesus real?”
We should be buying this search traffic and routing it to custom landing pages, based on location, so our local churches can start answering these cries for help.
Marketers call this “lead generation and conversion.” I think Saint Paul called it that too.
Our outreach and evangelism committees are going to be quite busy.
(Not surprisingly, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is already doing this. Check out SearchForJesus.net.)
Number 2: Publish a mainline trade magazine. One estimate I’ve heard states that the Episcopal Church alone (and taken as a whole) generates 2 billion dollars in annual revenue. Assuming that figure is roughly the same for the United Methodist, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America then we mainline Protestants are an 8 to 12 billion dollar a year industry. Maybe even more.
Any multi-billion dollar industry I know of makes common cause. They start a trade association. They publish a magazine. They share best practices.
Oh, and there are these people called advertisers with lots of money to spend to reach that 8 to 12 billion dollar market. Maybe it’s time (once again) to let the Procters and the Gambles of the world underwrite some of our mission and ministry.
Outreach magazine is a great example of a church “trade” magazine, but it targets the evangelical Christian audience. In the spirit of the new journalism, we should aggregate this content and add to it so it reflects our own experiences as America’s historic churches.
Number 3: Develop a common calendar of marketing opportunities. Let’s face it, real news doesn’t happen very often. Instead, the media we consume and most of the events we attend or care about from March Madness to the Academy Awards to church on Sunday happen according to a calendar that’s been planned out months, sometimes years in advance.
(In fact here it is: http://www.zapaday.com/home/.)
Do the mainline churches have a prophetic word or a word of comfort to say to mainstream culture? If so, let’s put our heads together and think about how we’re going to engage God’s world and God’s people, where they already are, from Coachella to Cannes.

How I First Met the Invisible Children

Joseph Kony poses with his invisible children. (Credit: Kony 2012 Campaign)

The “invisible children” performed a praise song for us on the day we visited their makeshift home.  We had pulled in to this cluster of refugee huts at Uganda’s border with Sudan for an afternoon of worship together, while the National Geographic photographer accompanying us conducted a string of back-to-back interviews of some of the children in the settlement, most of them Sudanese refugees.

I remember now, almost ten years later, that very few of the children wore smiles.  The smiles were themselves a miracle.  Because with nightfall, most of these boys and girls would go into hiding in the bush, bearing the lesser evil of venomous snakes and other nighttime predators in order to elude a far greater threat: a shadowy group of men led by Joseph Kony known as the “Lord’s Resistance Army,” or LRA, who under the cover of night would raid and loot the villages, forcibly conscripting the boys as child soldiers and the girls as sex slaves, and in one fell swoop, robbing these children of their families and future.

I remember thinking as the day wore on that we, this team of five Westerners, were royalty precisely because we could leave this place.  Those who stayed behind when our old, rickety pick-up truck pulled away- I remember never being more nervous about whether a vehicle would start than in that moment- were tied there.  They really had no where else to go, thanks to a war back home in south Sudan and a second-class identity as refugees in a neighboring country.

That was nearly ten years ago.

Nowadays, when my five-year-old child has a bad dream in the middle of the night and asks to snuggle with mommy and daddy in bed, I also wonder about the parents of those children and the hell they have to endure.  I try to wrap my mind around the fact that the things that keep these children awake at night are real.  That their worst nightmares are grounded in reality, and that the very best comfort a mother might give- to hold her child in her arms- she must often forsake in order to protect her child from these real-life monsters.  I try to imagine what it feels like to send your child into the bush each night knowing full well that the next morning you might never see them again.

That is when I think of the woman in the settlement who told me that she had simply stopped sleeping.  When she tried to go to sleep now, she couldn’t.  I wonder where she is today.  Or if she is.  All I could do that day was pray for her.  Desperate words catapulted from the abyss.

Which is why I am thankful that these children who have played years of a lethal game of hide-and-seek, often hidden from the world’s view, are now finally emerging from the dark.  Maybe now for the first time in a long while they have names and stories and are no longer invisible.  And maybe one day this side of paradise God’s justice will really roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, for them and their families (Amos 5:24).  I pray so, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The following video, produced by “KONY 2012,” the campaign to capture Joseph Kony and bring him to justice, tells the story better than I can.  It is well worth your time:

YouTube Preview Image




Disorganized Religion

We preachers have our most embarrassing moments.  I imagine it’s true for musicians, too.  The other night I witnessed one.

Mumford & Sons’ lead singer Marcus Mumford, performing for a full house at Ryman Theater, in Nashville, Tennessee, first forgot the lyrics to one of the band’s more popular songs, and then later in the evening, mid-song, had a full-fledged coughing fit that required him to walk off stage, eventually sending the other band members off to look for him with an awkward, “give us five minutes, guys.”

Throughout the concert, but especially in these moments, the audience was nothing less than enthusiastic and supportive.  They applauded, shouted words of encouragement like, “I love you!,” and sang along with Mumford.

After Marcus and company had returned to the stage to finish up with a few more songs, the band chose as its final parting the well-known hit, “The Cave.”  As he began to strum the familiar tune, Marcus in a moment of vulnerability looked out rather tentatively upon the audience and asked, “If I forget my lines or throw up, will you sing along for me?”

Everyone cheered wildly by way of affirmation, so that soon Marcus was stepping away from the microphone in order to listen to the audience sing along.

And they did.  Loudly.  A bit out of tune.  But enthusiastically, with the lyrics down pat.  To which Marcus at one moment could only exclaim, maybe a bit like God would have been entitled to do after setting creation in motion and stepping back to see that it was grand, “That’s f&*king awesome!”

Everyone cheered again, and in the exchange, “grace” happened.  A kind of freeing synergy.  A creative exhalation of sorts.

And I suppose that what it means to be “church” is really this: that when I or any other of God’s children forgets their lines (the refrain of the Good News that God loves them), there is a community to remind them; that on the days when I find it hard to believe the creeds we say every week, I’m able to know that there are others there who do believe, who in a sense, are believing in that moment for me.  They’re singing the lyrics for me when I can’t do it for myself.

And this kind of exchange is a beautiful thing.  I suspect it is a bit of what the apostle Paul has in mind when he urges the church in Galatia to share life together and bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6).  Maybe more pastors need to “forget their lines” every so often- or at least step away from the mic-  so that those in the pews can pick up the slack.

Mumford & Sons’ Free to Love and Love to Free

The British folk rock band, Mumford & Sons, sings tonight at the Ryman.

Tonight Mumford & Sons is playing at the Ryman, in Nashville, Tennessee, and I’ll be there.  In addition to some really enticing blends in sound- a mandolin, accordion and banjo often infuse the tunes of keyboard and guitar- the band’s lyrics, while not explicitly “Christian,” are both poetic and philosophical, raising themes such as human nature and divine love, grace, and justice.

Take, for instance, this refrain from “Sigh No More,” the cover song for the band’s recent album: Love will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, It will set you free. Be more like the man you were made to be. There is a design, An alignment to cry, At my heart you see, The beauty of love as it was made to be.

Or, consider these lyrics from my favorite of their songs, “The Cave,” which I think is really about learning to see oneself and the world through the lens of God’s grace and truth.  This requires journeying, in a very Platonic sense, from “the cave” out into the light, where we are able to distinguish the shadows and illusions that can enslave us from the light of Truth, which will set us free to be the people we were meant to be:

It’s empty in the valley of your heart
The sun, it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears
And all the faults you’ve left behind

The harvest left no food for you to eat
You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see
But I have seen the same
I know the shame in your defeat

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

Cause I have other things to fill my time
You take what is yours and I’ll take mine
Now let me at the truth
Which will refresh my broken mind

So tie me to a post and block my ears
I can see widows and orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults
And despite my growing fears

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

So come out of your cave walking on your hands
And see the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence
When you know the maker’s land

So make your siren’s call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say

Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be

And I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

Here is Mumford & Sons in an acoustic performance of “The Cave”: YouTube Preview Image

A Dog, A Chicken and An Armchair Theologian

"The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them." -Isaiah 11:6

My husband jokes that I cry at road kill, so you might imagine my reaction when yesterday’s stroll turned into a scene from the PBS program, “Predator and Prey.”

The scene started out almost bucolic-like. There I was with two kids and a geriatric dog taking a stroll through the local farm.  (We’re fortunate to live next to the only urban farm of its kind in downtown Atlanta.) Clear, blue skies following the storms of the previous night.  The scent of an early spring in the air. Long, undisturbed rows of purplish, flowering cabbages.  And then, of course, the chickens, happily ensconced in their cages, clucking away.  The picture was so idyllic that I let our dog, Carter, off his leash and leaned back against an old, rusty lawn chair to rest my feet on the stump in front of me and bask a while in the sun.

I almost didn’t notice when Carter began to circle the chicken coop.  I almost didn’t notice when he crouched next to the rooster’s cage waiting for an opportune moment to pounce.  If truth be told, I had figured that my dog was too old, too slow and too dumb to be a threat to a rooster safely locked away in a metal cage.

I was wrong.

In one long, fateful moment, the door to the cage jangled open with one nudge of my dog’s nose.  It was just long enough for me to see Carter pounce on the poor, hapless rooster.  In just a few more moments, Carter had managed to grab the rooster by what I think was its buttocks- (do chickens have butts?)- and slide the rooster out of its cage and across the grass some feet away, during which time I had sprung into action, sprinting to Carter and a squawking, flapping rooster, all the while frantically screaming at the top of my lungs.  By the time I had arrived at the scene, Carter had begun the primal death shake, flinging the rooster back and forth in his teeth.

So there we were, quite the spectacle, three levels of the food chain locked in a full-blown, life-and-death drama: a rooster fighting to survive, a dog engaged in a an age-old, blood sport, and a frantic dog owner grabbing her dog by the collar and hitting him with all her might to get him off his prey- and all the while my five-year-old and two-year-old looking on in suspense, like curious onlookers at the scene of an accident.

I must have smacked my dog hard enough for it to hurt, because he did finally and momentarily release the rooster just long enough to let it stumble away shell-shocked, leaving a few bloody feathers in its wake.  With the help of a friend, we managed to scoop the poor creature up and transport it back to its cage, and then to leash Carter.

But the chicken wasn’t the only one reeling.  I was, too.

It got me thinking about the cruelty of a world in which Darwin’s principle, “survival of the fittest,” plays out just about anywhere and everywhere.  In the food chain, to be sure.  But also in families, in the work place and- on a day when the Syrian government resumed its genocidal attacks on its own citizens in the city of Homs- whereever power-hungry dictators prey on the weak, treating human beings made in the image of God as disposable.

And, it seems to me that when the church is living into God’s best for her, she is proclaiming in word and deed that there really is another, better, more life-giving way to live together.  That in God’s plan of redemption in Jesus Christ, no power or principality is worthy of such worship that we would let even one person become disposable. Because the church, as I was reminded in worship last Sunday, exists to call into question our idols, those things that would tell us it’s a “dog-eat-dog” (or, in this case, “dog-eat-chicken”) world out there, in which every person is for her self.

To the degree that the church models this kind of God-breathed, cross-shaped community, she lives into God’s mission of restoration.  To the degree that she does not, the results are nothing short of diabolical. The church becomes just another vehicle for the exploitation of the weak, as we saw in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and as we see today in less dramatic but still diabolical ways, when the church institutionalizes abuse or chauvinism of any kind.

Each week, as a chaplain in the workplace, I have the privilege of visiting and praying with a certain group of hard-working men and women who for minimum wage spend long, grinding days working on a factory floor.  Whenever I show up and no matter the workload, these friends greet me with smiles and an enthusiastic “Let’s pray!” And we do.  For a brief opening in their day, despite the ceaseless whirring of machines and an endless assembly line of manual labor, we hold hands and bow heads to lift up praises and petitions.

Last week my friends looked especially weary.  That’s when I learned that the management of the company had recently denied their (blue-collar) workers their two, legally required fifteen-minute breaks, and had shortened their lunch break from one hour to forty-five minutes.  The implicit message? “You’re at the bottom of the food chain, which means we can treat you how we want, even if it’s against the law.” Yet another case of “dog-eat-chicken,” I guess.

Someone who teaches theology for a living at a fancy university recently chided me for my tendency to see the world in terms of this dialectic of power.  And I guess he’s right: I do.  But it seems to me that there’s biblical precedent here. The apostle Paul, in writing to the church in Ephesus, wrote this: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). Whenever employers exploit their workers, and dictators oppress their people- even when dogs viciously attack chickens purely for blood sport or the thrill of the hunt- these powers are at work in full diabolical display.

But God gives an alternative picture of how life God’s way can be.  It looks something like this: “the wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard with…the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).  And, the church, to the degree that she lives into this beautiful, life-giving picture of the dawning kingdom of God, is God’s visible judgment of a “dog-eat-chicken” world. This, I suppose, is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus.  It means caring about those at the bottom of the food chain, because Jesus does.

“I’d Like to Talk to You About Jesus”

Jim Gaffigan

Once again, in the spirit of G.K. Chesteron who said, “the test of a good religion is whether you can joke about it,” here is some fodder for a good laugh (or being offended).  My apologies if you’re in the latter category.  This is stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan’s take on “I’d like to talk to you about Jesus,” confession, heaven, the Fall, Moses and other funny stories from Scripture: YouTube Preview Image



R-Rated, Dirty Laundry: The Temple and Jesus Epithets Continued

Next time I do laundry I'll be wearing one of these helmets.

“‘Destroy this Temple,’ replied Jesus, ‘and I’ll raise it up in three days.’

‘It’s taken forty-six years to build this Temple,’ responded the Judaeans, ‘and are you going to raise it up in three days?’

But Jesus was speaking about the ‘temple’ of his body.” - John 2:19-21

The biggest annoyance factor for this (mostly) stay-at-home mommy is not the occasional “give lip” sessions from her five-year-old.  It’s not the daily excavation digs my two-year-old makes in every room of the house, which regularly lend a post-apocalyptic feel of unmitigated chaos to our living surroundings.

The real bane of my existence is this- that two kids and a husband generate a “s#%t load” of laundry.

The other day this expression took on literal significance.  I opened the dryer, in what would be yet another Sisyphean task of extracting and folding clothes, to discover a very unflattering smell. No lavender scented, Walmart-brand laundry detergent here.  No, the smell was more akin to what I would procure if I were to stick my face in my daughter’s dirty diaper dispenser.

It was a bit of a Sherlock Holmes moment.  The mystery of the poop-smelling sheets and clothes was one this mommy had to solve, and quickly.  As a mother and world traveler, I’ve set foot in many a hygienically dubious setting, but this was beyond even my limit.

And sure enough, I got to the bottom of the mystery pretty fast.  Aha!  There in the dryer, looking like a very large, dried-out, wrinkled pebble, was a generous-sized nugget of fecal matter, “poop,” in other words.  By this point it looked so perfectly rounded that it could pass as a paper weight- or at least some precocious kid’s science experiment regarding what happens when poop spins around at high temperatures.

Sherlock Holmes’ next question?  You guessed it.  ”How, my dear Watson, did this specimen of fecal matter make it into our dirty clothes hamper in the first place?”

In this case the principle of Ockham’s Razor proved its merit.  The simplest explanation was indeed the right one.  My five-year-old had had an accident in his pants and thrown both undies and their foul-smelling deposit into the dirty clothes hamper, unbeknownst to his mother…

In Jesus’ time you might say the temple was the arena for doing spiritual laundry: it was supposed to be that clean, set-aside, fresh-scented place where God had come to rest and dwell among His people and to renew in them clean hearts and right spirits.  People healed from leprosy and other ailments that had separated them from Israelite society would go there to show themselves to the priest and be officially declared cleansed. Only those with the “cleanest” hands, (in Israel’s time, these were to be the priests themselves), could enter the temple’s most “holy of holies” to offer sacrifices to God.  The temple, as a kind of sanitation site for sick, broken bodies and a laundering place for impure souls and spirits, was intended to be a physical reminder of a God who is not only with us in the messiness of life, but like a dutiful mother, takes all our dirty laundry.

But on the day Jesus visits he finds instead a boatload of dirty laundry that His people are pretending they can do all by themselves.  The place is stinking to high heaven with all of the ways that God’s people have used the temple for their own devices, making holy ground look a bit like the Mall of America.  You might say they’ve gone and left a very large, foul-smelling deposit right in the middle of the temple.

And I would venture to say that not a lot has really changed since then. You’d think we religious types might have learned our lesson by now, but of course, we really haven’t.  We’re slow learners.

Instead, we make our churches into altars for celebrity pastor worship.  We do our best to brand ourselves as “cool,” or to market our “programs” for the widest segment of consumerist believers. We reduce the challenge and costliness of God’s love in Jesus Christ to little more than a hip label or enjoyable Sunday worship experience.  We make our dysfunctionality and, in turn, the depth of God’s love- in the light of which even our best works look like “dirty rags,” to quote the Psalmist- we make these things a big secret, by glossing over the hard, messy, cross-shaped reality of a life with God.   Instead, in the quintessentially American, capitalist way, “church” has to be “big;” church has to be “successful;” church has to be about pleasing the consumer and making our own selves look good, relevant or worthy.

Funny thing is that this Jesus who intrigues many of us, this Jesus whom some of us try and fail to follow every day…this Jesus chose just twelve committed followers, none of them especially noteworthy for anything in particular.  Then this Jesus told these twelve to keep his whole identity as Messiah secret. The disciples’ dysfunctionality?  That, on the other hand, was as plain as day.

But back to the scene at the temple.  Because much like God came walking through the garden looking for Adam and Eve after they had sinned and gone into hiding, God in Jesus took a stroll through the local church (the one with the biggest parking lot and prettiest building at least), again looking for His people to see where they had gone. And what He discovered this time is that His people had managed to get worlds away from Him without having even left the building.  They were at the spiritual “laundromat,” so to speak, and they may even have been kidding themselves that they were actually doing the laundry, but no matter.  Because it was all coming out stinky.

Ask yourself this: how many times have you hoped to find and be part of healing and restoration in a community of believers and the world, but have come out feeling like you’ve been trading in smelly, dried-out paper weights?  Yuck, and no thank you.

This reality angered Jesus.  I bet he even said some cuss words (albeit in Aramaic).  (I bet these were probably edited out later.)

But in that moment Jesus also got it. He got that the s$%t load of laundry required something more than a new detergent.  Or, the “perfect” church.  Or, a better set of directions for pleasing God.  Or a self-help manual for how to sound like we Christians have figured life out.

Jesus got that what His people most needed was not a building and rituals but God Himself.  In the flesh. In intimate relationship.  And Jesus had shown up like a dutiful mother who does the gathering, sorting, purifying and cleansing for her children right before their eyes, all the while calling, dressing and sending them out in a fresh set of clean-smelling clothes.

This God, who was with and for His people, is also a God who is with and for us.  No more self-promoting, self-help answers.  No more religious pretenses that we can “fix” our messes. No more big secrets about our dysfunction, as if by becoming Christians we stopped being human beings with struggles like every other human being God ever placed on this great, green earth.

Jesus in essence said “No more of that bull s$%t,” and, “Leave the dirty work to me.”  And, He said this knowing full well that the job He had signed up for would get him killed.

Thank you, Jesus, for doing the job, anyway.  

Sermon Karaoke? Yes!

What if the Shakespearean-slow death of the mainline church in America were really an opportunity?

I think it is.  In fact I would venture to say that the possibilities for new life for God’s people and the world are breathtaking.

With declining church membership and budgets, the older model- of a seminary-trained minister “professional” called and salaried to shepherd a flock- appears more and more clunky in places.  The opportunity? We face a critical juncture when maybe for the first time in a long while the church as “the priesthood of all believers” will step into the gap.

I am grateful to friend and minister Jake Dell for introducing me to how his pocket of mainline Christianity, the Episcopal Church, is responding to this challenge.  Through an online initiative called “Sermons That Work,” the Episcopal Church is equipping “lay ministers” to fill empty pulpits where professionally trained ministers once stood, by giving these lay ministers and others all that they need to deliver sermons. “Sermons That Work” shares real and relevant homilies for Sundays and other feast days and seasons throughout the liturgical year, with a view to making them available for use, teaching and inspiration.

You might even call it “sermon karaoke.”  Any good sermon, like any good song, shouldn’t have to be shared just once.  Consider, for example, how many times some jilted lover after a break-up sings and swoons to “I Will Survive” in the corner of some random karaoke bar lounge.  You don’t have to be Gloria Gaynor to find strength in her lyrics or courage in her manifesto.

“Sermons That Work functions a bit similarly.  Sure, it would probably be forced and artificial to transplant and reproduce exactly (word for word) an original sermon in a totally different context.  But the refrains and the anecdotes might be very much the same.

By way of example, the sermon for this upcoming Sunday addresses the critical distinction between the church and just another “do-good” club or organization. It’s an age-old question, really, and I suspect it cuts to the heart of a common misconception about why we Christians believe what we believe and do what we do. The Rev. Danáe Ashley’s simple but profound answer, “following Jesus,” becomes the lead-in to a conversation about what it means to follow Jesus (apropos this season of Lent).

So I applaud “Sermons That Work” as a very helpful and ecumenically accessible response to the needs and opportunities facing the mainline church in our contemporary landscape.  You can find Ashley’s sermon and others here:  http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/

The Gospel According to Joe

"We wanna go where everybody knows your name..." Cheers

The other day the blog, “Real People, Real Lives, Real Spirituality,” asked where I feel most “spiritually connected.”  (You can find the interview and others of ordinary people trying to make sense of life at the intersection with God here: http://blog.spiritualbookclub.com/).  I gave an answer that I realize was incomplete.

Because the truth is I feel most spiritually connected these days at my local coffee shop, Joe’s. The intoxicating aroma of coffee beans. The warm, reassuring tones of conversation and laughter. The ceiling fresco that, in the gilded, powdery blue style of a Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, records what really happened in Genesis- when God created coffee, saw that it was good and bequeathed it to Adam and Eve.  There is something truly life-giving in the universal welcome and acceptance of a place where people come together around something as simple as a cup of joe: it signifies an eclectic communion of sorts in which no one is a stranger.

And maybe it is not a coincidence that I do most of my writing at Joe’s.  The mantra, “know thy audience,” applies here: if my book, Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls, is primarily for those who would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” Joe’s is where these “spiritual but not religious” come to life, embodied as real people with real faces and real stories. Joe’s is their local watering hole, and not unlike the Samaritan woman at the well, they come, often regularly, to fill up their cups and be refreshed.

And much like Jesus came to the woman at the well, I believe Jesus meets us there, too.

Because this little coffee shop has become for so many of us a kind of “holy” or “set apart” space.  A safe place in which to come as you are, and in the act of being known, to find acceptance and belonging; a sacred outlet for sharing questions about life and God without hiding, fear of judgment, or judgment itself.  Entering Joe’s is a bit like inhabiting another world in which time bends and “grace,” as God’s unconditional acceptance, really happens.

It is rare to find this kind of free, grace-filled encounter in the church.  (When it does happen, I like to celebrate it.)  At Joe’s, it happens all the time. In fact, I suspect this kind of spiritual community happens at coffee shops all over the world.

This past Sunday in church someone shared about a time when he had hit rock bottom and his family and work life were in shambles.  He said he showed up one day at a coffee shop to buy a cup of joe only to reach for his wallet and discover it was not in his pocket.  In that moment, the barrista registered his despair.  She told him not to worry about it- that the coffee was on the house.  The man said it was in that simple exchange that he palpably sensed God’s presence.

These days when I’ve gone for days without a stop in at Joe’s, the folks behind the counter will notice. They’ll ask about me- how I’m doing, how the writing is coming, how the kids are.  Usually they remember my name.  If they forget it, they call me “Beautiful.”

The really great thing is that they do this sort of thing for everybody.

Yes, grace and the Good News that God loves us can be as simple as a cup of coffee and a room full of people sharing it with one another.

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