The Art of Selling a Virus

An insurance company has taken its message into the viral universe. It has invited wannabe dancers to avail their dancing skills to its reality show.  Once accepted, the dancers must be prepared to break out in impromptu dance at any time the show does it’s ‘reveal.’  One dancer is on an open air bus, another in the middle of a coffee shop.  The dance routines are captured by hidden cameras and presented on Youtube. The best dancer and routine will then be rewarded with a $10,000 prize.

Fun stuff, except that the whole thing is a set-up.  There are no innocent tourists in the open air bus and the coffee shop is really a stage on a movie lot.  The dancers are real-life professionals. The faux-reality is actually a sixty second commercial aimed at making the stodgy insurance company look like a corporate frat house.

For all the fun that exists in the viral universe; cats that can fit in milk bottles, boys with bats slugging their fathers in the privates, and babies falling asleep in their birthday cakes, there is an overwhelming wish-fulfillment element.  We want to be special. If we can’t BE special then we want to witness something special.

This week in our reading of ACTS 12,13 there is an overriding theme and that is that the author of ACTS, the good doctor Luke, sees that we ARE special. Humankind is so special that the message of Jesus must be taken to those who need to hear that they are special. In chapter 13 Paul points out that this message of good news is one that has come down through centuries and is so freeing that a listener can scarce believe it to be true. But it is true brother and sister.  This is not an Ashton Kutcher Punk’d episode.  This is the God of the universe telling you how important you are.

The other thing these two chapters tell us is that not everyone is happy that you are special.  In some people’s minds, membership has its privileges and they want to keep it that way.  It stuns me time and time again that James was beheaded, Peter locked in prison with a death sentence and Paul beaten to within an inch of his life because they all shared the good news to people who needed to hear it.

Be like Paul today and shake off the dust of phony religiosity or intellectual hubris and readily discover the benefits of life in the family of faith.

Sheepdog of the Miscreants

Before my present gig as pastor began, I team-taught an adult Christian education class at the large Presbyterian church in my city.  The  two other leaders, Tim and Jack, agreed with me that we should offer a six-week summer lecture series on faith and culture.  In our minds, there were fascinating Christians out in our world who were working on interesting fields of study in science and art.  There were experts in gene sequencing, alcoholism research, and brain function as well as artists who could talk about St Matthew’s Passion, Blaise Pascal or photojournalism.

It was our assessment that although the Protestant movement had a strong emphasis on the “priesthood of all believers”  there was very little opportunity within church life to give the average pew member a chance to talk about faith in everyday life.  Business leaders who attend church really don’t hear much about the work world in the average pastoral sermon and, I admit, I was curious about what my friend, the agronomist, would say about the ethics of genetically modified foods.

Well, the lecture series was an immediate hit and over the past six years we’ve heard some brilliantly interesting people talk about their passions. I have personally learned so much about God’s beautiful world and people.

One of the unexpected consequences of launching a speaker’s platform to the masses was, however,  that the “fringe” element really comes out of the woodwork and wants to push their particular agenda.  It also means that there would be a fair amount of disagreement expressed when issues of global warming or dealing with terrorism are discussed.  Jack, the newly retired member of the trio, was given the dubious honor of communicating with the miscreants that surfaced at every lecture and for six years he has admirably held the rag-tag series together.  He has really been the person most responsible for the success of this effort.  His reward was that we gave him the honorable title of “Sheepdog” and, just to prove he is as “hip” as he wants to be, he still signs his emails to us with ” ‘dogg.”

In the book of Acts there is no shortage of dynamic and charismatic leadership shown by the apostles Peter, John and Paul.  James and Philip also perform their eldership duties with aplomb.  They are rewarded for their dedication to the message of Jesus resurrected by being summarily executed or exiled. Before they are killed or sent to Patmos we find their contribution etched into the life of the early church.

Such dynamic leadership is not without the potential for disagreement and you’ll find plenty of that on the pages of Acts. Alongside the disagreement  and debate is the additional element of miscreants making their way into the flock to stir up trouble.  The early church clearly needed a sheepdog to manage the divergent and divisive influences and in chapter 11 of Acts it becomes clear that person is, once again, Barnabbas.

What a great gift it is to encourage those who are trying to find a place for their faith and to excise those influences that detract from the message of hope and charity.  Let’s determine to be more of a Barnabbas-like encourager or “sheepdog” today.

Anthill Theology

Mark Medin helped introduce me to the “Faith and Leadership” website of Duke University.  He also played the Bill Evans’ Trio piece, “Time Remembered,” on Sunday at church.  It is one of my favorite jazz pieces and it sounded great on a flute.  Earlier Mark had sent me a link from the Duke website which included an interview with Phyllis Tickle. Besides launching the religion department at Publishers’ Weekly, Tickle also writes on subjects pertaining to religious life in America.

Her book, “The Great Emergence” suggests that periodic upheavals in church life are part of a regular pattern of disruptions that have occurred throughout church history. She maintains that every 500 years or so, structures of familiarity are challenged and new expressions of faith rise to the surface to provoke challenges to stolid hierarchy as well as providing vitality and invigorating change. Citing the seismic effects of the Reformation, the Great Schism and the Great Transformation, Tickle argues that our most recent cultural shift is a Spirit-led opportunity for Protestant and Catholic churches and followers to renew and refine themselves in the wake of growing communal challenges.

For me, the notion of a less hierarchal structure in church life is not only very appealing but downright necessary.  After more than thirty years of leadership positions; sitting in meetings discussing marketing strategies, and constructing elaborate long range forecasting models, I’m ready for a more communal, organic experience of faith. I’m also less interested in doing a Bible study on prayer than in actually bending knees, lifting voices with hurting brothers and sisters and turning to a God who thrills at the prospect of hearing his children call out to him. I regularly forget how often Jesus pointed out the relational nature of faith rather than the doctrinal nature of religion.

This compassionate Sovereign actually showed us in Acts 9,10 how he uses disruption to bring about his redemption plan.  Not only did he call the Apostle Paul into service (Mark Almlie referred to S(P)aul as the Osama bin Laden of his day), but God also prepared Saint Peter’s heart for the convulsing shift of the Gospel that would come with Paul’s conversion.

As I read through the book of Acts, I see a repetitive pause where the main characters of the storyline are forced to stop and ponder what is happening; repeatingly asking the question, “What does this mean?” When the question is asked in earnest, there is usually a breakthrough that follows.

Phyllis Tickle’s prescription for the present moment encourages believers and leaders alike to ask the same question. Her summary judgment is that the Emergence movement is like an anthill in that no single authority or praxis drives the moment by moment activity.  But, instead, the intuitive nature of life in the Spirit is leading individual believers to break out and challenge pre-conceived notions of religious life and devotion. When organizations re-imagine their place in the gospel, they are rejuvenated.  When they remain intransigent, they are ultimately replaced.

For me, I love the anthill illustration because it means that as a man of faith I can commune with others and discover a deeper passageway into the Gospel. It’s a commitment to love and walk our way into the next stage of life and belief.






Kindergartners with knives

Each week I’ll try to post a bridge commentary on the materials I am using for my weekly sermon prep and for the sermon that comes on the following Sunday. Before the end of the year I hope that the sermons themselves will be posted here via audio files but I am so computer challenged! I hope it all works out for the benefit of more than a couple.

As the sermon series has focused on the book of Acts, this week’s message explores the important drama found in Acts 9 and that is, namely, the conversion of Saul and his consequent ascent to the role of Apostle and Saint Paul.  S(P)aul’s biopic in chapter 9 has coincided with author Luke’s deliberate inclusion of three main characters found in the second panel of Acts. Stephen, Philip and, now, Saul are three Greek speaking Jews who have become followers of Jesus and through whom the genesis of the church is taking shape outside Jerusalem.

Paul’s conversion and his subsequent role as the chief theologian of the New Testament is not a popular subject these days. Especially among the literati that I hang with.  He is seen as a misogynist, a curmudgeon and a desperately repressed ancestor of the puritan movement. Even while I was at Oxford recently, I heard a professor speak of Paul’s “no fun” outlook as being the seedbed of the Victorian era sexual frustration.

I was perplexed about this construct until I recently read Sarah Ruden’s little book, “Paul Among His People.” Ruden is a classics scholar in Greek and Roman literature but she also holds a teaching position within Yale Divinity School.  In her book, she has pointed out a dynamic that I experienced in graduate school as well.  At seminary, there is very little scholarship done on the secular literature that corresponds contemporaneously with biblical texts and, at the humanities graduate level, there is no study of biblical materials even though they might be considered historically significant.  To be sure, I studied Thomas Aquinas and even a little Augustine but there was never biblical text required in any reading assignment. Virgil, yes; Cicero, yes; Sophocles; absolutely. Paul, no.

Thanks to Ruden, I’ve been re-united with Paul.  Instead of dreading the inevitable dispersions cast about his crusty chauvinism and homophobic outlook, I’m re-discovering the decrepit state of affairs the Greek and Roman outlook held during the time of Paul. I’m also seeing with new eyes the revolutionary attitude Paul took in personal and societal freedom. In many ways, it’s the freedom of thought that Paul gave to the western world that is now being used to disabuse him of his sense of liberty and faith.

At the very least, give Ruden’s book a read if not a complete re-fresher course on Paul’s letters. I think you’ll experience the sentiment that I had with Ruden when she writes, “How did I ever accept the fairy tale of the apostle walking into communities of happy pagans, at peace with nature and their bodies, and shutting down the Maypole dances…. Instead, he [Paul] sacrifices his home, his health, his peace of mind and eventually his life for the sake of Greeks and Romans…[a culture] it should be called were kindergartners with knives.  He must have helplessly, sufferingly loved them.”