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Faith is local – The testimony of Jennifer Knapp

An increasingly large number of national organizations and spiritual leaders in America today believe that when they speak, they are the voice of Christianity in America. They exert their influence through radio and TV programs and in print. Increasingly they serve as talking heads in national news programs. And many of them endorse political candidates who they say will represent the true faith in their public office.

This trend was illustrated in 2010 when Jennifer Knapp, a popular Christian singer/songwriter re-entered the music business and came out as a lesbian. In the middle of a very successful career, Knapp disappeared from the public in 2004. She resurfaced in 2010 with her new album “Letting Go,” and the announcement that she was in a relationship with a woman. This caused a huge stir in the evangelical world. She was kind enough to give Christianity Today this interview to tell her story. But most significant for me was her interview with Larry King. Following her one-on-one interview with King, Bob Botsford, the self-proclaimed spokesperson for those who believed her relationship was sinful came on camera to discuss the issue. In this video segment, Jennifer fended off Botsford’s claim that as a minister, he was in a position to publicly “pastor” her on this issue.

“I have spiritual leadership in my life… pastoral counsel of those who are dear to me, who understand the scripture as sacred text. You are not that man in my life. You do not know me, and you do not have the right to speak to me in the manner that you have publicly. [You’ve said that you have the role to stand up for the truth, but that is] in your congregation and community. I ask you not to do that with me.. not to say that you are doing that on my behalf.”

I think she is totally right about this. Faith is lived in a specific geography; among communities and neighbors. We live alongside spiritual family and spiritual leaders. The voice of local pastors and spiritual friends is often drowned out by the shouting of people ministering in Nashville, Denver, or Washington DC. If we plug our ears to them and stop and listen, the Spirit may be leading us in directions completely divergent from those who think they speak for us. Focus on the Family can’t clothe and feed the poor down the street. Christianity Today won’t be there when tragedy strikes. And TBN won’t be at the wedding to celebrate the union of a couple in love, or the baptism of our children.

We need to follow Jennifer’s lead and focus our attention on our own spiritual communities. Only secondarily, if at all, as national or international.

Faith is local.

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Don’t let the sun go down on your anger

While visiting a Bible study, a couple shared how they dealt with conflict in their marriage. “We don’t let the sun go down on our anger.”

When I heard this, my first thought was, “Is that in the bible?” There are many sayings attributed to the Bible that aren’t actually there. For example: “God helps those who help themselves,” isn’t in the Bible. It’s from Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack.”

A quick search of my Bible revealed that it is actually there. In the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus he instructed them:

“Be angry, and do not sin”:
do not let the sun go down on your anger. – Ephesians 4:26

Many a couple has spent a sleepless night trying to work through a fight with each other based on this passage. They’ve been taught that Paul was telling them that they can’t sleep until the problem is reconciled.

But that is not what Paul was saying. The command was for each person to take responsibility for their own anger; not to make sure that there is no anger between them.

This is an excellent example of how the Bible gets distorted, even with good intentions, to mean things it doesn’t say; sometimes causing great harm. And it is an opportunity for us to untrain our eyes in an effort to see more clearly what it is actually saying.

Paul’s audience was not married couples. He was speaking to all relationships. It is so important to learn that we have no control over other people’s actions. If they are angry, there is nothing we can do to control that. We aren’t responsible for their anger. And they aren’t responsible for ours. All we can do is take responsibility for ourselves.

When people insist that a fight be resolved immediately, they are trying to control each other, saying “You need to meet my need to resolve this issue. We can’t leave this conversation until you do.” That is focusing on yourself. Because you have no control over whether or not another person will resolve an issue, you may never sleep.

The better way is to ask yourself “how can I do my best to resolve this?” Your focus is off of yourself and on to the other person. The conflict still might not be resolved, but now you know, it’s not up to you to resolve it. Simply do your best. If you aren’t able to find some resolution, the next step is to follow Paul’s advice to make sure that you are not carrying anger away from the conversation. But remember, you are not in charge of the other person’s anger. If they continue to be angry and push the issue, then politely decline. The sun may go down on their anger, but it doesn’t have to go down on yours.

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Seek Beauty

In one day, enough information is consumed by internet traffic to fill 168 million DVD’s.

But that doesn’t mean we know anything…

Frank Zappa said:

“Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best.”

A friend might recommend the perfect sunflower for my garden. If I share the link on Facebook, everyone will see the picture. But no one will see the flower. Hands need to turn soil, and seeds need to be planted, watered and tended for the beauty of a living flower to be experienced.

Sharing is only information. A flower is beauty.

Seek beauty.

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Becoming Like a Child

I frequently teach in elementary music classrooms. This experience differs from being in a regular classroom because I get 30 minutes alone with many grades instead of spending an entire day with 5th graders or High School math students.

One of my favorite songs to teach Kindergarteners is “Eight Clay pigeons.” The kids line up single file on one side of the room and we sing together:

Eight Clay pigeons
Eight Clay pigeons
Eight Clay pigeons, sittin’ on a wall.

When we sing the last line, I announce with a surprised voice: “There goes another one, flying away!” and the first child flaps her arms and flies to the other side of the room. Then each takes their turn, “Seven clay pigeons… ” “Six clay pigeons…” etc. until everyone has had a chance to soar from one side of the room to the other.

I love watching their innocent play. They swoop, and swirl from one side to the other, devoid of self-consciousness. They proclaim with pride that there are only seven clay pigeons left when one of the original eight flies away.

I’d love to hold on to the child-ness of children. When I look at pictures of my young sons and daughters, I miss those little toddlers. But when I sit across the living room with them today as adults, I get to talk with them as equals, and revel in the young men and women they’ve become. If they stayed forever five, I wouldn’t get that experience.

One stage children go through as they grow is comparing themselves to each other. They begin placing each other in a pecking order of popularity and abilities. Some children are chosen first for the playground teams, while others are left to watch from the sidelines.

Jesus’ followers had the same problem. They believed Jesus was going to overthrow their Roman occupiers and take the throne of a new Israelite kingdom. As members of his inner circle, they assumed he would appoint them to high ranking positions in the court of his new kingdom. So they quarreled amongst themselves over who would get the highest positions in his new kingdom.

One day, after a long journey, Jesus and his disciples arrived at a house in Capernaum. As they were traveling Jesus overheard them talking about these things. Once they settled in he asked: “What were you talking about on the road?” They kept quiet, because they didn’t want to admit they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest.

Jesus called over a child from the home and stood him in the middle of the room and said to them:

“…unless you change and become like little children, you won’t even get into the kingdom of heaven. People who humble themselves like this child are the greatest in my kingdom.”

This sounded just as absurd to the disciples as it does to us. A government doesn’t just run itself. There is work to be done if you are going to rule people. It would be a place of honor, and responsibility to be on Jesus’ left or right making important decisions. They had their resumes prepared. Letters of recommendation. They had the qualifications.

Jesus took the wind out of their sails when he told them their posturing was useless. Childlikeness was the qualification he was looking for. The real action, he told them, was with Kindergartners flapping their arms across the room.

This makes no sense. Worldly affairs are not the place for children. They are kept safely on the sidelines. They can handle play money, but they don’t get to run our banks. They get toy guns to shoot pretend bears, but civilized people don’t give them assault rifles to kill their enemies. Children aren’t in-the-game. It’s the grown-ups’ job to strategize, scheme and fight.

Rest assured, Jesus isn’t handing the reins of this world over to the elementary school. He knew that children aren’t a perpetual class of human beings. The stork doesn’t bring a population of 5 year olds to this earth who stay eternally 5 year olds. Children grow, and mature until they become adults. They become you and me.

We are grown-up versions of the children we once were. My father-in-law has a sign in his living room that reads “Inside of every old person is a young person wondering what the hell happened.” Jesus’ message to his disciples was “When you grow up, you need to be like the child you once were. You have to remember that child inside you.”

Notice that Jesus did not give his followers instructions about how to be child-like. Children don’t have a job description. You don’t teach a child how to be a child. Imagine Jesus giving them this list.

  • Eat graham crackers at 11am.
  • Share your toys
  • Don’t take other kids’ toys.
  • Color inside the lines.

Being like a child simply means paying attention to children and then imitating them.

One way we to be child-like is to play. The last time my grandchildren visited I took them to McDonald’s to play on the plastic playground. As I watched them careen down the slides, I imagined adults would have fun on a grown-up version. McDonalds once constructed an adult play-land in Syndey Australia. But they only used it for a commercial, and only the extras were allowed to play in it. How unfortunate that grown-ups were never allowed to play on something constructed as a symbol of their child-likeness.

Being told to be more like a child is unsettling. Some childhood memories are unpleasant. Imitating children means opening ourselves up to the same vulnerabilities we had as children. Sometimes those vulnerabilities come from religious people. Parents would bring their children to Jesus so he could bless them. Jesus’ disciples once rebuked them for doing this. When he found out, he got angry and told them, “Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” Then, gathering the children up in his arms, he laid his hands on them and blessed them.

Jesus is on the side of children. And if he is on the side of children, he is also on the side of child-like people. What can you do today to be more like a child? What risks might you be taking? How can knowing Jesus is on your side give you the courage to take those risks? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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Priesthood of the Baristas

I once had a discussion with a pastor regarding the question “How are you?” This informal greeting is friendly, but no one expects an honest answer. So we respond.. “Fine, thanks. How are you?” No one is asking for a rehearsal of our woes..

There are, however, places where I will actually share an honest answer. One is Starbucks. I have enough camaraderie with the baristas there that in those brief moments while making my drink, we will strike up a conversation and share little bits about our day. I won’t go into my financial problems, but I might say “I feel bleh.. it’s been a long day.”

The pastor I was talking with said that two types of people we feel safe making confession to about our lives are bartenders and hair stylists. These people work in what sociologists call a “Third place,” distinct from our work and homes. Who can forget the hearty “Norm!” in the TV show “Cheers” that epitomized the bar as a third place where “everybody knows your name.” When you walk in, all the stresses of life are put aside and replaced by friendships.

But then my pastor friend added an insight that is beyond the sociologists’ theories.

A “third place” can become a place for the giving and receiving of absolution.

Absolution is a word we don’t hear much, if at all. The definition is: “a formal release from guilt, obligation, or punishment.”

We are more familiar with the act that comes before it: Confession. We have commonly witnessed the confessional, either in a church, or on a TV show. There, the penitent sinner sits and confesses his sins to a priest. But what we don’t usually see is the absolution given at the end. Having confessed their sins to the priest, on behalf of God, they are proclaimed forgiven of their sins.

The pastor with whom I was having this conversation proclaims this absolution, or forgiveness of sins, over the members of their church every Sunday.

Almighty God in His infinite mercy, has given His Son to die for us and, for his sake forgives all our sins. As a servant of his Church, a fellow member of the priesthood we share by baptism into Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sons, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN

It moves me every time. Sometimes my eyes get moist. Because even though I was raised in the church, and know that God has forgiven my sins, I forget. And as my sins pile up I begin to feel that I have gone beyond the point of grace. I’m not alone. Paul, a leader in the early church, wrote a letter to the church in Rome, confessing his own sins.

“For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. a For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want!” (7:18)

But we are not left there. A disciple of Jesus named John wrote in a letter:

“But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.” (1John 1:9)

When a pastor proclaims absolution for our sins, he is not making it up. When we confess our sins, God will forgive us. So hearing it is a reminder of what John has already taught us. But I forget. And I need to be reminded. Every week. And I am in awe that looking at my life, a god would forgive me, and eternally grateful that God has.

There is one last thing to notice about this prayer: the pastor is proclaiming absolution as “a fellow member of the priesthood we share by baptism in Christ.” In some churches, you can only receive absolution from the priest. But, Peter another disciple of Jesus proclaimed that Christians are “being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood.” We are priests. And so, when we are talking to a barista, a bartender or a barber, it may be that they are also Christians. This becomes not simply an opportunity for confession. It can be a time of absolution as well. We need to be in the habit of reminding each other that our sins have been forgiven. Because we forget. We think our sins are too great for God’s grace. But they aren’t. We just need to be reminded.

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Memories are like tree rings

A few weeks ago my wife and I drove our sons to my parents so they could stay a few days while we attended a foster parent training. On the way, I decided to swing through my hometown and show the kids where we used to live, work, and play. We drove through the backroads where “The slow guy” would drive 15 mph, in his little Toyota pickup, often without a shirt, accompanied by his big black dog riding shotgun. We pointed out landmarks of our lives during their childhood, like Pheasant’s Orchard, and the field where we fed llamas.
No one knew it, but this was a big step for me. I was dipping my toes in healing waters. More than a few events took place there that haunt me today. I try to put them behind me, but my mind won’t let me. Each event is stored as a memory that can be recalled at the slightest trigger.

We had a wood stove in our basement meant to be used for heat. We never figured out how to use it without smoking the house out. But one year, in preparation for winter, we drove to our church camp to retrieve firewood. The campground had cut many trees to thin the forest and reduce the risk of fire.

One thing you notice when you look at the stump of a tree is rings that spread from the center to the edge. “How did they get there?” children ask when they first see them.
Tree rings are a record of events that take place in a year. One year might have excessive rain-fall while the next has a drought. Fire might ravage a forest this year and a plague of insects the next. Each event leaves a mark on the tree; a darker circle one year, and a lighter one the next. As long as the tree still lives, it will keeps growing, forming new rings recording the events of the new year.

Memories are a lot like tree rings. They mark in our mind events that happen from one season to the next. Some years are full of love and growth. Others include stagnation, trials, pain or heartbreak.

When I become fixated on troubling memories, I am learning to tell myself that they are only rings on a tree. Those events are part of me, just as rings are part of a tree. But if I fixate on them I am staring at a stump. That is not where life occurs. Like that tree, I am still growing, meeting new challenges. Life is to be lived now.

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“Fast” Food

FiletOFish-ad-600On your drive to work this morning, look closely and you might spot an Easter Egg hidden in plain sight. It won’t be a hard-boiled egg splashed with food coloring. Or a candy-filled plastic egg. These easter eggs are deep-fried breaded fish between two hamburger buns slathered with tartar sauce.

Every year towards the end of February, I point out to my family that Lent must be near because the fast food chains began displaying fish sandwiches on their reader boards.

Most people don’t know about Lent. It originates from the 2nd century practice of baptizing new members on Easter Sunday. In preparation, novices spent 40 days receiving instruction in the Bible, and a week of praying, fasting, and study culminating at Easter. Over time this practice extended to family, friends and the entire church community. It became traditional to fast during this time. It usually wasn’t a complete fast, often involving only meat.

Lent is a season that the modern church pretty much has to itself. Christmas and Easter have Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Christians have black crosses on their foreheads on the first day of Lent, known as Ash Wednesday. Comedian Mike Birbigula posted on Facebook: “Either it’s Ash Wednesday or a lot of people have been experimenting with calligraphy.” Christians imitate the early church and fast during this time. Some fast meat. Others fast coffee, or TV. Our family is fasting Friday night pizza.

Here’s where the fish sandwich comes in. In 1962, Lou Groen, a McDonald’s franchisee realized he was losing a lot of business during Lent. So he invented the Filet-O-Fish, knowing that his largely Catholic customer base was allowed to eat fish during Lent. It was a hit, and is now on menus all year. Ever since, the fish sandwich heralds the coming of Easter just as the pumpkin spice latte is the culinary signal that autumn has begun. It is the “Shamrock Shake” of Lent. Fast food became “fast” food.

It would have been unimaginable to the first Christians that people would profit from this season of spiritual devotion. They were imitating Jesus’ fast in the wilderness. When the devil tempted Jesus to break his fast with bread, he didn’t ask if it came with a side of fries and a cola. He declared to his tempter that life is more than food.

“We rely on words spoken by God Himself,” he said. “God humbled the Israelites, allowing them to go hungry, so He could feed them with a food they had never seen before.”

Jesus’ point was that our lives have meaning beyond food. Our lives have meaning when we come to Him in poverty and humility, relying on hearing God’s voice, in whatever form that takes.

When Jesus came out of the desert, he taught his disciples to fast like he did. Some people intentionally looked gloomy, and disfigured their faces when they fasted, so that everyone around them would know they were fasting.

“These hypocrites have their reward,” Jesus said. “But that’s not what you want. When you fast, shampoo your hair and wash your face so that the people around you don’t know you are fasting. Your Father will. And he’ll give you a reward far greater than those hypocrites’.”

McDonalds won’t instruct it’s employees to wear sackcloth and ashes for Lent. But they will certainly have their reward when they sell an estimated 25 million fish sandwiches. That’s not what we want. God’s reward for people who don’t draw attention to themselves when they fast will be far greater than a sesame seed bun. We will hear God’s word and be all the more alive. And be given riches that money can’t buy.

The stories of Jesus’ temptation in the desert and instructions for fasting are taken from the 4th and 6th chapters of Matthew’s account of his life.

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Are you playing the notes, or are you playing the song?

As a public school teacher, I spend time with young children who are learning their alphabet, vowels and consonants, and how to pronounce words. Of course, they don’t need to know this to talk. We don’t learn to talk by studying consonants. We learn to talk by being around talking people. But to write and read, children need to learn the grammar of the English language.

But teaching English does not end in the 1st grade. This year, my son Elijah brought home a mural that showed that he had moved to the next step after grammar. He had combined those consonants and vowels into a story. Complete with pictures, it showed that he could do more then string words together into sentences. He could use those letters to create something that had never existed before. A story about himself and me.

At some point, music students must cross this same divide where their piano playing moves from a recitation of notes to the performance of a song.

Music, like English is made up of its own grammar. It is called music notation. In place of consonants, vowels and verbs, notation includes the notes, and rests, sharps and flats to communicate how a song should be played or sung.

The system we have and us for writing music developed over many centuries. But it is the means to an end, and not an end in itself. When a melody gets written down, only the surface elements are transmitted: pitch, and very bald rhythm. And if it is all that is used to communicate music, as a musician you are simply parroting the notation, like a 1st grader reading a sentence.

In her book “Creative Hymn Singing,” Alice Parker uses singing to describe playing the song, rather then reciting the notes. She says

“For millenia, music was transmitted only aurally; that is, from parent to child, from one village to another. A melody transmitted aurally keeps its tempo, pulse, pitches and phrases with all their subtlest inflections, to be modified as desired by the next singer.” – Alice Parker, Creative Hymn Singing, p. 6

In other words, the song is not a stoic representation of notes and rests. It lives and breathes. As players or singers, we must wrestle with the song, tapping into our own creativity to own the song for ourselves.

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Just say no!

A few months ago, a picture taken of my daughter and I at her wedding smacked me upside the head. It was a side-view. I posted on her Facebook page “someone needs to tell the father of the bride he needs to lose some weight.”

I’ve never wanted to talk about attempting to lose weight, because I didn’t want to be a whiner when the pounds didn’t come off as expected. But as many of you know, I really don’t do a good job not talking about something that’s on my mind or in my life.

I began by trying some of the ideas in Tim Ferriss’s “Four hour body” book, with pretty good success.The diet is dubbed “slow carb.” The rules were pretty basic. Eat a mixture of super-vegetables like spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, sauerkraut to name a few, legumes and beans, and meat. Stay away from processed foods. And don’t drink your calories. I lost about 10 pounds, and at least 2 inches off that wedding-photo-belly.

But the success hasn’t been long-term. Every week I seem to lose about 5-10 pounds, but then regain it. Fortunately, I’m not doing the rebound people talk about, where you gain m-o-r-e than you lost. I’m not horribly discouraged, because I know I can lose weight. I’ve seen the evidence. And, I’ve started studying nutrition, so that I’m using a more balanced approach.

I’ve learned a powerful lesson about my body through this experience: my body doesn’t just crave food; it craves crap. I didn’t realize that my body wanted a certain amount of sugar every day because I never deprived it of it. I’ve heard people talk about sugar addiction, and I believe them. My doctor says that when you are hungry, your body will scream at you to go eat something with empty carbohydrates because it knows it can process it fast, give you a dopamine high, and can store the fat. A certain level of sugar is part of a healthy diet, though it should be primarily eaten in fruits and vegetables. What I’ve discovered is that as a result of food choices I’ve made my whole life, my body wants more sugar than it needs. And it’s being rather demanding when I don’t give it what it wants.

There is a life-lesson here. I had no idea my body wanted too much sugar until I deprived it of it. In the same way, many faults are so much a part of who we are that we don’t even know that they are there. It’s not until we start making choices to change that we notice them. When we discover them, it is time to go to work at addressing these issues. While in some cases God waves his magic wand and poof, all of our sin-cravings are gone, it’s my experience that it usually doesn’t work that way. Instead, we have to work at it, just as I have to work at my diet. And just like my diet, it’s often 2 steps forward and 1 step back.

It’s important to not give up. As I compare dieting to making life choices to turn away from sin, I see a principle at work. When I see that it is possible to lose 10 pounds, I have hope for myself, even when I rebound. But if I focus on the times of failure, I will give up, believing change is impossible. So, it is important that when we seek change in any sphere of our life, we pay more attention to the times of victory, even if they are only a week, or month at a time.

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The state of my faith in 2012

[Editor’s note: This was the first post of my theology blog: I am reframing that blog with a different purpose, and felt this fit better in my journal here.]

I have always felt a tension between maintaining a professional presence online and speaking clearly about my faith. I’ve steered clear of writing personally for fear it would turn people off. As a result, I lost my “voice.” In 2012, I decided it was time to find it again and started my theology blog: Untrained Eye.

I have lots to say on a variety of subjects. But the themes I keep coming back to are why Christianity doesn’t work for some people and what to do about it.

I am one of those people. Here in 2012, Christianity as I’ve known it hasn’t been working for me. But for whatever reasons, I can’t abandon it. So I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about it.

It’s been a rough road. Is there anything more fundamental to our understanding of ourselves and our world then our faith? In many religions adherence is a life and death matter. Believe the wrong thing and you could wind up in hell. So questioning the faith I grew up with has been a rather hazardous endeavor.

About three years ago, in 2009, I had an intensely emotional debate on Facebook about the potentiality of leading people astray by being honest and failing to faithfully represent Christian ideology. I finally threw off the survivalist instinct to shoehorn myself into the beliefs of the Christians I felt I needed to agree with. That event became my declaration of independence. I haven’t looked back.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not critical of everything. In fact I am part of three Christian churches that I find very genuine. I believe in Jesus and the centrality of his life and teachings as the way to God. But some of the things Christians believe have been an obstacle to my faith and that of many other people I know.

My journey up until now hasn’t seen the light of day because I was attempting to write it like a book. But while reading another blog, I realized that my opinions are not simply a systematic and linear critique of Christianity and what to do about it. Faith isn’t a dry and dusty academic matter. It’s very personal. So, I’ve decided to present it that way.

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