Tag Archives: Analysis

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Resolutions: The Problem of Shibboleth in 2018

It is the time of year when resolutions abound. Or if not resolutions, goals. Maybe goals are too weighty a burden: maybe wishes.

It is the time of year when wishes abound. Despite the popularity of making “New Year’s Resolutions” – and despite the popularity of articles detailing how to make resolutions “stick” – most people know that lasting life change isn’t found on the heels of New Year’s Day. Resolutions melt away along with the winter snow drifts, and if one thinks about resolutions at all mid-July, it is often accompanied by reflections on exactly when or how they crumbled and disappeared.

Yet “resolutions” are really a misnomer. If you are resolute, you are “single-minded,” “firm,” and “unswerving.” If a person resolves to do something, that person has decided to do it. The person has resolve. There is strength, and because of that, follow through. A resolution isn’t a goal; a resolution is a decision. In that sense, goals are mile-markers; resolution is the direction you are running.

It may be a short-lived New Year’s goal to drink less, but it takes real resolve to drive to an AA meeting and walk in the door. It may be a futile goal to go to the expensive gym you joined; but it takes real resolve to value your body, your health, and your future, and to examine why you may devalue any of those things.

Where goals may gather around what you want to do or quit doing, how you want to look or where you want to go, being resolute may have more to do with what kind of person you want to become.

And here we arrive at shibboleths. 

What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of culture and society would you like to take part in? Because right now, dear North America, we are addicted to shibboleths.

If the word sounds familiar but just out of memory’s reach, it is a cultural reference, yet originates – as so many cultural references do – from the Bible. In Judges 12, the Gileadites are aware that their enemies the Ephraimites may be trying to cross a stream, posing as Gileadites. But the Gileadites are also aware that the Ephraimites have a small verbal giveaway – a difference in pronunciation of a word. (Think of how the pronunciation of certain English words give away whether you’re from the North or the South of the United States.) So if an enemy is trying to sneak by, just have them say a word – one single word – that will betray their association. If said incorrectly, the speaker dies.

It was simple but effective. Long before taking off your shoes at airport security or full-body scanners, one man looked at another and said, “really? Then say shibboleth for me.”

Since then, as Rice University points out, if something is said to be a shibboleth, it is used in a way similar to a “litmus test” (a phrase lifted from one context – the science lab – into another context – a cultural standard applied for the use of making a judgment).

shibboleth is a kind of linguistic password: A way of speaking (a pronunciation, or the use of a particular expression) that is used by one set of people to identify another person as a member, or a non-member, of a particular group. The group making the identification has some kind of social power to set the standards for who belongs to their group: who is “in” and who is “out.”

The purpose of a shibboleth is exclusionary as much as inclusionary: A person whose way of speaking violates a shibboleth is identified as an outsider and thereby excluded by the group. This phenomenon is part of the universal use of language for distinguishing social groups. It is also one example of a general phenomenon of observing a superficial characteristic of members of a group, such as a way of speaking, and judging that characteristic as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, depending on how much the observers like the people who have that characteristic.

And as we sit down and pen our resolutions – or our goals – or our half-hearted dreams – it is worthwhile to take a moment and consider our addiction to shibboleths. How do we employ shibboleths to decide who we listen to on – anything?

Doing away with the usage of shibboleths doesn’t mean throwing away core principles or values: it does have to do with preserving personhood, no matter who is crossing whom’s river. Using a litmus test to decide whether or not to pay someone basic common respect isn’t a value of Jesus Christ.

So the problem isn’t an inherent issue with a system in which someone is “in” or “out” – that’s necessary, just like standards for making it to the big leagues or getting into Harvard or joining the local VFW. The problem isn’t with having group boundaries; the problem is how we treat people no matter which side of the boundary they’re on. And often, when we unconsciously use a shibboleth, we’re giving ourselves permission to treat people as less than. 

Every group has its favorite shibboleths. 

Did you just use a male pronoun to refer to God? Violation! Shibboleth. I don’t have to listen to the rest of your sermon now.

Did you just use the phrase “climate change” in a way that suggests you’re concerned about it? Violation! Shibboleth. I know all your other beliefs now and can dismiss you out of hand.

Did you just use the word “orthodox”? By that, didn’t you mean “power play by males to keep authority by ruling what everyone had to believe?” Violation! Shibboleth. Obviously, you’re stuck in a literal interpretation of faith and haven’t accepted it as myth yet.

Did you just say you’re “cisgender”? I don’t even know what that means but I know what everyone believes who says that kind of thing. Violation! Shibboleth. There’s no point getting to know you.

Did you just say you’re for women’s rights but you’re also pro-life? You can’t be, I say so. Violation! Shibboleth. We can’t ever work together for anything and I don’t have to think about your point now.

This is what happens when we employ shibboleths. We don’t engage in critical thinking, we don’t assume the value of the other person, and we don’t speak with kindness to or about those outside the boundaries of our groups. You have spoken a shibboleth: that, we say, is all we need to know. We reduce every complex particularity of a person made in the image of God to how they pronounce shibboleth, and if they say it wrong, we take their personhood from them and move on, leaving a bleeding corpse in our wake. They revealed themselves for what they were. It was a pity, but it had to be done. We were justified.

Do you have a goal to abstain from social media drive-by’s this year? Do you wish that other people weren’t so obnoxious about differences?

Or are you resolved to put shibboleths to death? To maintain your integrity, principles, and values, and yet not to give in to the wily notion that your integrity demands that you dehumanize the people on the other side of the boundary? On the contrary – your integrity demands that you raise up, elevate, and protect the humanity and value of the person across from you who is trembling as they utter the word, wondering if you will see them – the real them – or whether you will draw your sword?

Debate where it’s needed; argue when necessary. Stand confident in your principles. And yet, while you debate, while you argue, while you stand confident –

And yet I will show you a still more excellent way…

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

May 2018 find love shaping the sound of our every word.


Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Excuses, Excuses: Common Sense, Morality, and the Divine Revelation of God

Humans are expert excuse-makers.  

“Well, GOD, the woman you gave me tempted me, so…that’s why I didn’t listen to you when you told me not to eat anything from that tree.” 

“I know I’m not supposed to cut my hair, but…I mean, have you seen Delilah? I’m only human.” 

“I’d love to follow you, Jesus, but I have family obligations and an urgent to-do list first. Let me take care of those things and then I’m totally on board.” 

“I’ve followed all those commandments since I was a kid, and now you’re asking me to give up my hard-earned wealth in order to follow you? How is that fair? Surely I can have both?” 

“Learning with the men is all well and good, but Jesus, are you going to let her shirk the duties literally all other women manage? I’m in here in the kitchen and I’m happy to be, but I need some extra hands! After all…this dinner is for you…” 

“Who, that guy? No, no, I wasn’t one of his disciples, I’m just hanging out here. You must have me confused with someone else. No, *&#$, I’m telling you, I don’t know Jesus!” 

You and I can find a multitude of ways to make excuses for ourselves, and just as dangerously, for each other.  

“He’s a great leader, so we shouldn’t hold his past indiscretions against him. After all, we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so we shouldn’t expect more from our pastors than we do anyone else.” 

“She would face a lot of resistance from peers and family members, so while she did a great job preaching last Sunday, let’s not pressure her to enter pastoral leadership; there are other places she can serve, and we’ll be doing her a favor to protect her from the resistance she might encounter.” 

“I’ve fought long and hard to get to where I am. I’m finally a voice at the table. If I mentor other underrepresented people, are they going to take the opportunities I’ve worked so hard for? Is she my ally – or my competitor? Chances like this are few and far between. Someone else will give her a leg up. I have enough on my plate already.” 

“It’s just really hard to find minority speakers, we’d love to have some on the lineup, but we’re just not aware of many who have the experience for this kind of setting and this size of a crowd.” 

“If I accept that speaking invitation, they’ll just try to use me as a token representative. I’m sure it would be a waste of time. It would just be settling their uneasy consciences. I don’t think that’s how God wants me to use my time right now. I can make more of an impact somewhere else.” 

“Those women have troubled pasts, so obviously we can’t take their accounts seriously. I grew spiritually under his leadership, so it’s hard to imagine he would’ve done those things to kids. This is just Satan attacking him and his ministry. Now more than ever, we need to rally around him and pray for him.” 

Beware the excuse that lets you off the hook, or lets your friends, your ideological companions, or your heroes off the hook. If you have to jump through some hoops in a way you would never accept from your opponents, your ideological adversaries, or those you disdain, let that be a red flag: abandon hope, all ye who enter here. 

Recently I read an observation from someone on Twitter (sorry, anonymous, I can’t remember who you were). He simply said that across conservative and liberal spectrums, religious and secular, red and blue, that in North America, God is busy unmasking our hypocrisies. It occurred to me that unmasking hypocrisies is a grace – a gift. Many in the Wesleyan Methodist family have been praying for a great awakening. But is awakening possible without first coming face to face with the depth of our own sin, faults, blindness, and excuses? 

John Wesley didn’t think so. In his “Letter on Preaching Christ,” he noted,  

After more and more persons are convinced of sin, we may mix more and more of the gospel, in order to “beget faith,” to raise into spiritual life those whom the law hath slain; but this is not to be done too hastily neither. Therefore, it is not expedient wholly to omit the law; not only because we may well suppose that many of our hearers are still unconvinced; but because otherwise there is danger, that many who are convinced will heal their own wounds slightly; therefore, it is only in private converse with a thoroughly convinced sinner, that we should preach nothing but the gospel. 

In this context, he is counseling on how to preach to believers and unbelievers; and he clarifies that while preachers must preach hope, that hope can only truly be received after a person is clearly convinced of the depth of their own need for it. In other words, preaching to show how far off the mark humans generally are must come before we can effectively preach the scope of the promises of a loving, pursuing God. 

In other words, while awakening is the satisfying part, unmasking excuses and hypocrisies in both believers and unbelievers must come first

Wesley continues by pointing out that preaching that celebrates the love and goodness of God without confronting the twists of the inner heart has done considerable damage in different parts of England:  

This is the plain fact. As to the fruit of this new manner of preaching, (entirely new to the Methodists,) speaking much of the promises, little of the commands; (even to unbelievers, and still less to believers;) you think it has done great good; I think it has done great harm. 

The Spirit of God is an equal-opportunity hound nipping at our heels. The Hound of Heaven doesn’t pursue “them” without also pursuing “us.” And part of this conviction of our souls appears when we attempt to abandon common sense and morality as if they are divorced from the revelation of Scripture; as if somehow they are dispensable, unrelated to the Word of God. But of course the “Hound of Heaven” will not let this cognitive dissonance continue unchallenged indefinitely. 

God never intended Scripture to be used as an excuse to abandon common sense and general ethics. Even Satan twisted the use of Scripture during the temptation in the wilderness. Jesus actually preached against this tendency when he pointed out, “you think loving and forgiving your friends and family is a virtue? Even crooks and pagans do that.” In other words, “basic decency available through prevenient grace and general revelation of God’s goodness in the world isn’t something you should brag about. People of other religions or no religion love their families and forgive their friends.” He continued – “but say to you, love your enemies and pray for people who persecute you and make your life miserable.” (Matthew 5:43-48, Elizabeth Version) 

Jesus cuts through their feeble defense at their own righteousness like a hot knife through butter. “Don’t brag to me about the number of truckloads of supplies you sent out of your abundance to citizens of your own country going through a natural disaster. The mosque down the street did that too. So did a bunch of atheists. Instead, tell me what you’re doing to love the opponents, threats, enemies, and irritants in your life, locally, nationally, and globally.” 

The Holy Spirit, the Hound of Heaven, not only uncovers the areas in which you and I make excuses for why we can ignore basic common sense and morality; the Holy Spirit also stays in pursuit of us, moving beyond general common sense and ethical norms, pushing us further and further towards the model of Christ, so that, far from relying on our laurels of meeting basic morality codes, we are hounded to live closer to the image of Christ, pursuing peace with our enemies, loving people who have wronged us, proactively serving people who despise us, and abandoning our right to be seen in the right. 

God save us all, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, religious and secular, from “healing our own wounds – slightly.” We cannot any of us afford to live in the stench of our own excuses. 

As Francis Thompson wrote in the first portion of his famous poem “The Hound of Heaven” (that deeply influenced G. K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien),  

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
  I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
    Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
      Up vistaed hopes I sped;
      And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
  From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
      But with unhurrying chase,
      And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
      They beat—and a Voice beat
      More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’

In your relentless, pursuing grace, o God, let us get tired of attempting to outrun the discomfort of coming face to face with you. 

Photo by Valentin Salja on Unsplash

Justus Hunter ~ Noise Without Word

“Shape without form, shade without color, 

Paralyzed force; gesture without motion.”1 

Noise without Word. 

After Solomon died, his Kingdom was split in two – the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. 

Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, reigned over Judah. He lived in Jerusalem, where Solomon built the temple of the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

In the North, Jeroboam reigned over Israel. The Kings of Israel were masters of noise. 

Noise-making, then and now, has benefits. You see, Jeroboam was worried. As long as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the God of Israel, then Jeroboam’s people would travel to Jerusalem, Rehoboam’s home. Year after year they would trek to the Temple to offer sacrifices. Year after year they would trek to Rehoboam’s home. So Jeroboam was worried. 

Now the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was not like other gods. You couldn’t just build a temple anywhere for the God of Israel. This God spoke. And this God told the Israelites to build one temple, in one city. This God required one worship.  

Other gods were just the opposite; the more the merrier! A King could build temple after temple, holy site after holy site, install priest after priest for these other gods.  And though these other gods did not speak, they made a lot of noise. 

So Jeroboam gave them noise. Lots of noise. Like the Israelites before him, he fashioned his own god rather than wait for the God of Moses. Like the Israelites at Sinai, Jeroboam cast a golden calf. But not just one. He cast two, and placed them on the Northern and Southern edges of his kingdom, in Dan and Bethel. He built them Temples. He gave them priests.  

And he said to the people, “you have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”  

Just like that, Jeroboam changed their history. He exchanged the God of Exodus for cheap imitations. And unsurprisingly, the people forgot their history. They forgot the story of true Exodus; they lost the God who sets free. They exchanged truth for imitation, form for shape, color for shade, Word for noise. 

In changing their history, Jeroboam changed their worship. The gods who stole their history gave them spectacles. And so the people exchanged true worship for spectacle. They went about with spectacle in their eyes, and noise in their ears. 

So they silenced the God of David. Jeroboam built sacred sites in all the high places across Israel. He installed priests to offer sacrifices to his gods. And so, all across Israel, from Dan to Bethel, noise filled the air. No one could hear the Word of the Lord, the God of David. All was imitation, mimicry, spectacle, and noise. 

This was the way of Jeroboam. 

After Jeroboam, all the Kings of Israel followed his way. Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, all of them “walked in the way of Jeroboam and in the sins that he caused Israel to commit, provoking the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger by their idols.” More Kings made more gods. More priests made more spectacles. More prophets made more noise. And the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was drowned out. No one could hear the Word of the Lord. 

Of all the Kings of Israel, Ahab was the noisiest. Like the others, he “walked in the sins of Jeroboam.” Ahab and his wife Jezebel built a temple to Baal in the heart of the land, in Samaria. They raised poles to Asherah throughout Israel. And so they filled the land with noise. 

Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the Kings of Israel before him. 

The gods of Ahab and Jezebel were happy. The God of Israel was drowned out. Noise. But no one could hear the Word of the Lord. Noise without Word. 

And then, the Word of the Lord came to Elijah. The Word of the Lord declares a drought. On Mount Carmel, the Word of the Lord silences the prophets of Baal. Baal’s worship is a spectacle; but like all spectacles, it can deliver no fire. And so the Word of the Lord comes and rains fire, and then fires rain. 

On Mount Carmel, Elijah mocks Baal’s spectacle. Elijah’s words called down signs and wonders from the sky. Consuming fire rains down. Elijah’s words condemn Baal’s noisemakers. The Word is proclaimed. And the Wordless noise is silenced by the Lord’s Word. 

Or so it seemed. 

(The next day) Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not (silence you) by this time tomorrow.” 

The noise returns. The noisy gods declare vengeance. They are not satisfied with silencing the Word through noise, or stealing Israel’s history through mimicry. Now they must parody the Law of the Lord. And so, Jezebel vows to execute the law of noise. Noise without Word enacts law without Justice. 

Elijah despairs. The day after the consuming fire on Carmel, he flees for his life. He wanders out into the wilderness, out of the kingdom of the gods of noise, and collapses under a bush. He begs the Lord to take his life. He flees the land of noise, mimicry, and parody. He flees the law without Justice, and begs for mercy from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Better to die at the Word of the Lord than at the decree of the gods of noise. So he cries out: 

Enough! Now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors. 

But the Lord withholds mercy. The Lord will not take his life away. The Lord will not let Elijah abandon his gifts, though they afflict him; though he is no better off with these gifts than his ancestors were with theirs. The Lord will not take back Elijah’s gift of life. He is harassed by the gift of life. And he is afflicted with the gift of prophecy. 

God will not take his life. Instead, God restores it. Angels bring him food. 

And Elijah got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Sinai, the mount of God. 

Elijah feasts on food from heaven, like the manna in the wilderness. And like the manna, which sustained Israel forty years, Elijah’s food sustains him forty days. 

Forty days, fasting. Forty days, trudging through wilderness. Forty days, back through the years to the site where God created Israel. Forty days, back to Mount Sinai, where God afflicted Elijah’s ancestors with gifts of Word, Worship, and Law.

Elijah retraces the journey of his ancestors. He remembers the Exodus, Moses, the encounter in the wilderness. Elijah returns. He finds a cave and collapses with exhaustion. 

Then the Word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 

For forty days, he has staggered to the edge of his life. For forty days, he has fasted to his innermost thoughts. For forty days, he has remembered his story. And there, where the Word of the Lord meets him, he pleads his case. 

I was zealous, and yet… 

And yet, your people have forsaken your covenant. They exchanged your Law for parody – a law without justice.  

And yet, your people have thrown down your altars. They exchanged your Worship for spectacle – a worship without fire. 

And yet, your people have killed your prophets. They exchanged your Word for noise. 

“Shape without form, shade without color, 

Paralyzed force; gesture without motion.” 

Noise without Word. 

Ours is an age of noise. We exchange our history for comforting lies of other gods. We exchange our worship for spectacles. We exchange true justice for parodies, imitations, mimicry. We fill our lives with noise. We silence the Word of the Lord. 

Sometimes we expect God to cut through the noise. We look for the consuming fire of Mt. Carmel. If only God would upset our slumber with force – the rushing wind, the unsteady earth, the raining fire.  

The Word said to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard the silence, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” 

Much later in this story, the Word of the Lord came again.  

The Word became flesh, and made His dwelling among us. 

The Word ascended another mountain. And the Word gave another sign, feeding five thousand with five loaves and two fish. The Word descended the mountain heights, and worked another wonder, walking on water and calming the depths. 

And then, he delivered a teaching. And that teaching mystified the people. People living among parody and imitation and mimicry. People with eyes full of spectacle and ears full of noise. 

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. 

Eat my flesh. It is an odd teaching. It is an unsuspected teaching. It is a difficult teaching. And so, many left the Word who came down from heaven and returned to the noise.

So The Word, the bread that came down from heaven, turned to his disciples, and asked them a question: 

“Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” 

“Shape without form, shade without color, 

Paralyzed force; gesture without motion.” 

Noise without Word. 

Ours is an age of noise. We exchange our history for comforting lies of other gods. We exchange our worship for spectacles. We exchange true justice for parodies, imitations, mimicry. We fill our lives with noise. We silence the Word of the Lord. 

But the Word comes nevertheless, not in an earthquake or fire or rushing wind, but in this man, Jesus the Christ. And he offers himself to us; eat from me, drink from me. 

How odd. No spectacle of noisy gods. Just this peculiar sign, this unexpected wonder. 

“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 

And he turns to his disciples, and he asks: “Do you also wish to go away?” 

And we, with eyes full of spectacle and ears full of noise, despairing for our lives, afflicted with our gifts and our calls, like Elijah in the wilderness, respond: 

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” 

Cole Bodkin ~ The Better Place: Part III

Note from the Editor: This is the third in a series of posts on dystopian entertainmenteschatology, and the state of the church.


The Great Barrier Reef

A few months ago, an online news article quickly went viral with its title Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC – 2016). Though not yet factual, it definitely caused consternation and raised awareness of the endangered state of the Great Barrier Reef.

This immediately reminded me of renowned consultant Alan Roxburgh’s book Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood. In the opening chapter, he recounts of a majestic experience of snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef only to learn later from his marine biologist friend that within a generation it will all be gone. Unfortunately, according to his friend, the pollution damage is irreversible. Notwithstanding, it was hard for Roxburgh to come to grips with this, because he had been swimming in the reef and had seen it teeming with life.

This made Roxburgh reflect about the current predicament facing the “Eurotribal” churches in the West and their various forms (seeker-sensitive, megachurches, and so on). Within just a generation, it can all be gone. Poof. Added to the extinction list.  

Consequently, Roxburgh suggests that in lieu of wasting so much energy on church-centric questions that seek strategic, pragmatic solutions with the goal of keeping and getting more people in the doors, instead we should come alongside God’s mission in the neighborhood. We need to be asking more missional questions than ecclesial.

Like the Great Barrier Reef, there is much at stake when anything is endangered. Are various forms of church endangered, as Roxburgh suggested? Is the gospel endangered, as John C. Nugent suggests in his book, Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church.   ? Regardless, if indeed our hopes are misplaced and the story we are telling is wrong, then both the gospel and church are in danger.

Shark Tank: Everyone Has a Cause

Moving downstream to shark-infested waters, consider the ABC show Shark Tank. The premise is that entrepreneurs have one shot to pitch their company before a few millionaire/billionaire “sharks” in hopes that one of the them will be lured into taking the bait and investing in the entrepreneur’s business. In one episode a millennial was emphasizing his company’s social cause, when Mark Cuban interrupted and remarked, “Yeah, but everyone has a cause.”

Cuban noted that almost every company nowadays has a great cause or effort they are trying to work towards, reduce, or eradicate. In other words, he was highlighting the popularity of world betterment. As we saw in the previous posts, Christians used to attempt to get people to escape this world (heaven-centered view), but now we try to save the world (human-centered view) or do our best until God eventually saves it (world-centered view).

Why Fixing the World is Killing the Church

In the podcast Crackers and Grapejuice: Talking Faith Without Stained Glass Language, UMC pastor Jason Micheli interviewed Nugent about his book; toward the end, he posed a really interesting observation. He says,

During the Enlightenment, Christianity legitimated itself by trying to demonstrate how it is reasonable. In the 20th century or even earlier, maybe, we tried to legitimate Christianity by showing that it was useful, so ministry became one of the helping professions. I’m wondering if the emphasis on social justice, now, is a way of justifying our existence to a world that doesn’t believe what we believe (26:10-26:37)? [1] 

Nugent agrees with Micheli’s question. Saving or fixing the world, and our involvement in that endeavor, is extremely popular right now.

We sing it.

We read it.

We watch it.

It’s the story that everyone wants to tell.

Yet is it the story that God wants us to tell? 

Don’t think that Nugent’s argument is against fixing the world, or railing against those who do so. Not at all. What we see in Scripture validates this desire. God wants the world to be a better place, too, and one day God will restore it; however, Nugent argues that that is a task ultimately reserved for the powers/rulers and authorities (presently) and God (future). The unique vocation that God has called his people to do, however, is different. 

Stained Glass Windows

The origins of stained glass windows are fascinating. Stained glass windows were created for the purpose of visually depicting the story of the Bible for the mostly illiterate onlookers. Functionally, the reflections of the stained glass windows shined out into the streets. The beautiful artistic representations helped those outside the church get a glimpse of the overarching story and its main characters within.

A few years ago I was in a church with gorgeous stained glass windows showcasing Christ and the Gospel. Upon further inspection, though, I noticed that—whether by ignorance, mistake, or design—the light from the windows didn’t reflect the story of Christ out into the world.

“What kind of message is that sending?” I thought to myself.

Later it dawned on me that in a culture in which Christendom is (slowly) fading, it’s just as important, if not more, that the light of the Gospel penetrates into the soul of the Body of Christ. If the love, light, and life of Christ does not saturate the gathered body, then what exactly is the church witnessing to, and why would it invite others to join into the new humanity created by Jesus if, in the end, it’s no different from the old world order and structures?

Reinvesting in the Church

In the last section of his book, Nugent highlights what the better place looks like in action by examining discipleship, leadership, fellowship, family relationships, friendship, vocation, missions, and witness to the powers. At the conclusion, Nugent warns of two potential pitfalls with this kingdom-centered vision of the church as the better place: isolationism (insularity leading to complete withdrawal from the world)and utopianism (naively attempting to create an ideal society). Both are to be avoided if a church is to fully embrace, display and proclaim the kingdom.

The appendix provides some great questions divided into four topics: struggling with your church, helping those outside the church, taking social justice seriously, and striving to remain faithful. We’ll look at one question and answer from each section to conclude this post and series.

Struggling with Your Church

I’m going to combine two practical questions in this section:

I am part of a progressive church that wants to save this world or I am a part of an inwardly focused church that mostly ignores the outer world. How is a kingdom-centered approach good news for my church?

For the progressive church, the good news of a kingdom-centered approach is that the world doesn’t need you to save it, and you will continually fail because the church wasn’t designed with that purpose in mind. Therefore, take rest that you no longer have to bear the burden of exhaustion! Since God has already begun saving the world by creating a new one (the church), you can now get on with the task of embracing, displaying, and proclaiming the kingdom and new world order made possible in Jesus. [2]

For the inwardly focused church, the good news of a kingdom-centered approach is that you can still “become the body of Christ” because a church that exists only for itself and does not engage in God’s mission is not a church at all. So you can “rethink your approach to the world” by asking questions such as, “How can we as a church body creatively show our community what God’s kingdom is like?”[3]

Helping Those Outside the Church

Is God at work in nonbelievers who make this world a better place by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and welcoming strangers?

One of the points that Nugent belabors is that God is at work outside of the Church, too, including nonbelievers and political powers. Nevertheless, “[w]e must not assume, however, that just because God is doing something we should get in on the action. We are stewards of the gospel. Whether we like it or not, worldly powers rule the nations, not us.”[4]

Taking Social Justice Seriously

What about human rights? Should Christians seek to make sure people’s rights are properly protected and respected?

Without a doubt, the church should be concerned about the dignity of all people, but the church should be different in that it is the place primarily where justice and dignity are displayed. Our witness, therefore, will look different determining on how the wider society views biblical justice either accepting or rejecting it. [5]

Striving to Remain Faithful

How do we sustain a kingdom-centered church life?

Sustainability happens through regular gospel proclamation, big picture metanarratival (re)telling, and the congregation regularly soaking itself in Scripture and the kingdom-vision set forth by Jesus. Additionally, fervent love among believers is vital, along with fraternal admonition and repentance. Finally, a robust vision of the priesthood of all believers is crucial for kingdom-centered perseverance. [6]

What do you think of the kingdom-centered vision of the better place? Does your church embrace, display, and proclaim the kingdom of God? Does it function like an embassy of the kingdom of heaven?

[1] Crackers and Grapejuice: Talking Faith Without Stained Glass Language, episode 33, 26:10-26:37.

[2] Kindle Location 3650

[3]Kindle Location 3674

[4] Kindle Locations 3765-3767

[5] Kindle Location 3844

[6] Kindle Locations 3901-3932


Elizabeth Glass Turner ~Nothing Sacred: Sacrilege in the Public Square

It’s happened again and again.

Do they give out Webby Awards” for“Best Social Networking Campaign Aimed at Disenfranchised Young Men Searching for Meaning and Manhood in a Post-Religious Context”?

In the 90’s, radicalization looked like bored, angry, white, oddball suburban teenagers shooting up their classmates as they latched onto whatever Nihilistic philosophy made sense of their bullied, middle-class ennui. 

Now ISIS just Tweets. And young men sit with their laptops or tablets or smartphones, drawn to the message and imagery. 

What a tragic form of religious “outreach.”

The public response to a bombing, shooting, or terror attack ranges from dismay and compassion to fear and confusion. While Muslim representatives present a memorial wreath at the British embassy in the U.S. and immigrant cab drivers give free rides to Manchester residents, social networking graphic design pops up with endless variations of hearts, ribbons, candles, and prayers for the London Bridge victims, for the northern English city of Manchester. Just like profile pictures changed for Paris, and Nice, and Orlando. There’s been less outcry over the English driver who plowed into Muslims leaving a mosque after services.

Underneath the response that ranges from depressed acceptance of the new norm to calls for blanket discrimination in an effort to control damage, there’s a pulsing anger: is nothing sacred? Can’t holidaymakers – innocent civilians – go about their leisure in peace? Can’t children and young teenagers go to a concert in peace?

Terrorism disrupts the basic social contract we have with each other in the public square: you stay in your lane, I’ll stay in mine, and I won’t swerve my vehicle towards yours just because the impulse hits. You sit and watch a film in a cinema without standing up and screaming in the middle of it, I’ll sit and watch a film in a cinema without standing up and screaming in the middle of it, and we’ll both function within these unspoken norms because we both want to enjoy the movie.

Globally, anxiety has grown as these basic modes of interacting together in public life break down. I may intend to stay in my lane, but I can no longer assume that you will stay in yours. I may intend to go to a crowded mall just to shop and not to take out my anger with a firearm on strangers, but I can no longer assume that you will. This is different than sacrilege: it’s a problem, but it’s not sacrilege.  

There is sometimes sacrilege in the public square, and it can be easy to confuse sacrilege with the breakdown of social mores. Yet many people would say that sacrilege isn’t even possible because – and this is important – there is no identifiable or agreed-upon sacred. Sacrilege implies profaning the holy. But it assumes the existence of the holy. For a great many people, if you ask them even rhetorically, “is nothing sacred?” they would be inclined to say, “no, nothing is.” If you cannot really know anything, then you cannot name it sacred. So at the same time that the mores that govern our public interaction together are ripping and frayed, the very notion of the sacred is also disappearing from public consciousness. (And an intellectually honest person who doubts the existence or the knowability of the sacred is not likely to attend Sunday worship, no matter how well-designed your social media graphics are, no matter what your theology is.)

In recent American politics, one of the biggest tug-of-wars has centered around whether the current U.S. president is an iconoclast or a defender of the sacred. Most arguments pivot on whether he functions in the public square as someone who rips apart unspoken social contract, publicly verbalizing lewd or rude content (iconoclast) or whether he functions as a guardian of a particular ideology, specifically, certain evangelical political interests (defender of the sacred). Is he defending the sacred or smearing it? Almost all conflict condenses down to that question.

But most Americans don’t use the word “sacrilegious,” even if they mean it. Even most fundamentalists wouldn’t describe the phrase “oh my God” as sacrilegious, even if they defined it as “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” Shock-jock antics long ago ballooned to absurd lengths for ratings, so that now, this spring’s high school graduates were born years after Sinead O’Connor tore up a photo of the Pope on SNL to the instant dismay of many.

In the past few years, the most famous incident related to anything touching on the word “sacrilege” was the shooting of employees at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for its artistic depictions of the Prophet Muhammed. Extremely strict interpretations of Islam forbid portrayals of Muhammed and attackers targeted the magazine for its alleged blasphemy. Plenty of moderate Muslims still believe in the sacred; but extremists chose to kill non-Muslims for acts that they deemed sacrilegious. And so the extremists are willing to ignore western social contracts (iconoclasts) of communal and public safety for the good of guarding a particular religious ideology (defender of the sacred).

People of many religions face the challenge of how and what to expect in the public square. Like agnostics or atheists, within the public square, most people of faith hope for basic social mores to be upheld – you stay in your lane, I’ll stay in mine. The Catholic priests “live and let live” down the street from the Hasidic Jews, and the progressive Unitarian Universalists “live and let live” down the street from the Amish farmhouse. In North America, free speech is prized – but in the past, social contracts have guided how and when, as a religious person, to politely express that speech so as not to be sacrilegious in the presence of someone of another religion. Insulting another person’s religion in the public square might have fallen under freedom but it wouldn’t have fallen under good etiquette. One needn’t be a universalist to be kind. For all its political baggage, separation of church and state was a vital part of the founding of the United States, many of the inhabitants of which had come pursuing religious freedom.

It can be easy to forget that there are still places in the world where religion and state are one in the same. (Even in the Western world we have Great Britain, where the monarch is the head of the church.) But you do not need to have a fused church and state in order to have a robust approach to the reality of the sacred.  

When the average secular citizen sees the sacred defended with explosions, death, and terror, it tends to drive them harder towards deeper secularization. What Christians need to do is to present the Beauty of the sacred in self-sacrificial love. The response to violent defense of the reality of the sacred isn’t to abandon the sacred but to recalibrate our response to it and our appreciation of it.

If you are asked, “Is nothing sacred?” you may respond with a resounding, “Yes! Yes, it is!” but your response will not be filled with examples of passengers being polite to each other on a jumbo jet – that’s meeting basic social contracts, not defending the sacred. Your response will likely have little to do with putting out a flag on national holidays or keeping explicit content off television networks while children are still likely to be awake. Those may be considerate for the good of the community, but failing to do so isn’t sacrilegious.

Christians are called to witness to the Beauty of the sacred through our rituals, our service, our worship, our love. Christ, the Word Made Flesh, brought heaven and earth together, and no act of sacrilege can undo that. Christ, the great cosmic insurgent, turned the system upside-down already, and when we say we bring his Kingdom, we do not mean at gunpoint. We mean we arrive with a bowl and washcloth to clean the feet of the violent, just as Christ washed the feet of his betrayer, Judas Iscariot. We believe that the sacred can be experienced but not contained, and that Jesus wants us to love those who are sacrilegious, not to punish them on his behalf.

We are comfortable being neighbors with those of other religions in the public square, but we are not afraid to live out our understanding of our faith – that God is three-in-one, and that we are called to a lifestyle in which we are individually and communally transformed more and more to be like Jesus Christ. We do not expect the public square to bend to accommodate us, but we enter into public space and dialogue with the intent to witness to the Beauty of God through humility, integrity, and humor. 



Tom Fuerst ~ One Thing White Evangelical Parents Can Do

For many white people, and clearly about 80% of white Evangelical Christians, the election of Donald Trump feels like a high moment in our nation’s history. I’ve heard Evangelical Christians refer to his election as everything from a Cyrus-like moment to a downright deified development. For many Evangelicals, this moment represents making America great again – a return to a pre-women’s liberation, pre-Affirmative Action, pre-Roe vs. Wade, pre-pluralistic, and fully Christianized America. Some Evangelicals lament Trump’s individual morality but laud his pro-life judiciary possibilities. For many, they just did not want Hillary as president.

But the fact is, what seems like victory for many white Evangelicals creates fear in the hearts of those who feel marginalized by Trump’s rhetoric. From promises to send immigrants back to Mexico, to his threats to profile Muslims and forbid them entry into the country, to his dehumanizing imitations of persons with disabilities, to his business track record of taking advantage of small companies, to his sexual assault allegations, and to his clearly perverted antics, many non-male, non-white, non-Evangelical persons feel threatened by his presidency. And not just ideologically threatened – they literally fear for their safety and the safety of their families.

Now, you may say that the fear is unjustified. You may disregard it as the product of liberals telling people they’re oppressed when they’re not. You may think it’s the over-emotional reaction of a thin-skinned generation. Or you may try to qualify or justify his statements and attitude.

I disagree with you. But my point here is bigger than whether we agree or disagree.

Just think about someone else’s experience for just a second: Can you imagine what it must have been like for a Latino family to send their child to school on Wednesday morning knowing the kinds of things they might hear on the school bus? Can you imagine the things Muslim kids had to hear in the halls? Can you imagine the fear many of these children had when they sat down at lunch surrounded by white faces? Can you imagine the fear the parents of gay or transgendered kids felt as they released their kids to school? Can you imagine the thoughts of young girls who know their country just elected a president who has a self-admitted history of using his power to be sexually aggressive toward women?

Now, listen, you don’t have to agree with someone ideologically, politically, or religiously in order to appreciate that their fear is real. No child should have to worry about what will be said to them when they go to school the day after an election.

Yet we also know that kids are cruel. Most of you can remember a moment of racism, classism, sexism, or religious discrimination from your childhood. You can remember, even if you didn’t participate, seeing someone else socially ostracized because of the color of their skin.

In the last 48 hours, I’ve heard (firsthand) and read (on social media) numerous stories from minority parents and teachers saying that their kids are being bullied at school by other children. Latino children are being told by white children that President Trump is going to send them back to Mexico. One African American child was worried because a white kid told him President Trump was going to take his house from his parents.

No kid should have to live with this.

So, instead of just lamenting the problem, here is my proposal. Here is something you can do as white, Evangelical parents to make your world a better, safer place. Here is a way you can love your neighbor as yourself: Tonight at the dinner table, have a very serious conversation with your children about these things. Tell the truth about Trump’s rhetoric, do not justify it, do not excuse it, do not minimize it. Tell the truth about it.

Then, tell them two things very clearly.

  • Tell them in no uncertain terms that bullying is not acceptable. They need to hear you tell them that snide remarks, off-hand comments about race and gender, or downright aggression are not acceptable practices.
  • Tell them in no uncertain terms that if they see something, they should say something. They should say something to a teacher or school administrator. Or if none of them are around, give them permission to confront the bully.

I know these two things are universally valuable no matter the president or children involved. Bullying is always wrong. Yet the nature of our President-Elect’s rhetoric over the last year (and longer) suggests that this time is at least unique in its intensity.

To that end, two nights ago, my wife and I did just this. We told our kids that Mr. Trump has said really mean things over the last year and that some of their friends at school might feel afraid. We told them other kids at school might even be mean to kids who have disabilities or have a different color skin. We told them we want them to be on the lookout for this.

Fortunately, our kids hadn’t seen anything happening at their school, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going on. We don’t often see what we’re not taught to see. So by telling our children to be on the lookout for such behavior, we were helping attune them to the fears and experiences of others. We were teaching them they don’t have to just accept the injustices of the world as normal. We were teaching them the moral example of the leader of the free world should neither be emulated nor normalized.

Granted, you may think this is not a conversation you need to have with your children. Fine. I understand that. I tend to think my children are pretty good kids who would never bully someone over skin color. And I like to think if they saw something they’d say something.

But teaching our kids the habits of observing injustice and fear is not a passive act. We need to establish habits in our children of intentional observation. White Evangelical kids, who grow up in a segment of society powerful enough to almost single-handedly elect the President of the United States, can be blinded by that privilege. By establishing the habits of observing other people’s sufferings, of taking time to notice the pain and fear around them, we teach our children a genuinely Christian ethic. And in this, my hope is that they become adults who care about justice and equality for everyone. My hope in conversations like this is to sensitize my children to the lived experiences of others. My hope is that our children grow up able to hear, rather than disregard, the fears of others.

The fact is, Donald Trump is our new president. But even if you think his economic policies, foreign relations, social agendas, and Supreme Court appointments make it worth it, the fact is, his moral compass is not something we should want our children emulating. And in so far as we normalize – and do not discuss these things in our homes – we allow our children to think this behavior is acceptable.

You and I may agree or disagree with someone’s religion, politics, sexual ethics, or anything else. But what we cannot do is normalize any behavior that belittles someone for their difference. That is neither an act of love toward God nor neighbor.

So white parents, my call to you today is to talk to your kids at dinner tonight. Begin helping them observe the world around them. Empower them to act. They don’t have to be passive recipients of the way things are. You model this by taking the initiative in this conversation. You model this by refusing to participate in bullying behavior. You model this by silently standing by while you see others harassed at work or in public. It turns out, your children will follow your example more closely than the president’s.

Make it a good one.

Carolyn Moore ~ Lord, Bend Us

In 1903, Evan Roberts was 25 years old. He was a Christian, coal miner, and student who began to pray for God to fill him with the Holy Spirit. In the midst of this season of prayer, Roberts found himself at an evangelistic event where a man named Seth Joshua was preaching. Roberts heard Joshua pray, “Lord, bend us,” and at the sound of those words the Holy Spirit grabbed him.

That’s what you need, the Spirit said.

Roberts wrote: “I felt a living power pervading my bosom. It took my breath away and my legs trembled exceedingly. This living power became stronger and stronger as each one prayed, until I felt it would tear me apart. My whole bosom was a turmoil and if I had not prayed it would have burst … I fell on my knees with my arms over the seat in front of me. My face was bathed in perspiration, and the tears flowed in streams. I cried out, ‘Bend me, bend me!!’ It was God’s commending love which bent me … what a wave of peace flooded my bosom … I was filled with compassion for those who must bend at the judgement, and I wept. Following that, the salvation of the human soul was solemnly impressed on me. I felt ablaze with the desire to go through the length and breadth of Wales to tell of the savior.”

After that experience, Evan would wake up at one in the morning and pray for hours, invaded by an intense love of God and a deep desire to see others come to Christ. He began to pray together with a few others: “Bend us, Lord.”

A few weeks later, after seeing a vision of God touching Wales, he predicted a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He began preach across Wales and within about nine months, over 100,000 people had come to Christ. Five years later, reports say 80,000 of those people were still in church. The effect on the culture of the country was profound. Bars emptied out. People used the money to buy clothes and food for their families, pay back debts and give to the church. People became kinder; there was a wave of forgiveness.

Sadly, Evan didn’t last. Like firewood that wasn’t ready for burning, his own personal fires fizzled quickly. Losing his mental health, he became arrogant and short-tempered; his sermons filled with condemnation. He moved in with a woman who distorted his message. He spent a year confined to bed, pretty close to insane. He lived to be 72 years old but preached his last sermon when he was in his twenties.

Lord, bend us.

David Thomas has studied great awakenings and revivals and has written: “There is this built-in self-correcting, reanimating capacity in the Christian movement due to the Spirit’s residence in the Church. Christian history is in many ways the story of successive seasons of awakening. We love it. We yearn for it. We need it, desperately, more every day — in our culture, in our churches, in our families, in ourselves. We want to be in on awakening, to be in on a work of God in our day. Again, we have a soft spot for this, a longing for this: we want to be about sowing for a great awakening. But what about that sowing piece? … Where does it come from? Where does awakening start? How do we sow for a great awakening? … I’ve come to believe that the true seedbed of awakening is the plowed-up hearts of men and women willing to receive the gift of travail. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy (as it says in Psalm 126). Prayer is the precursor to the work of God … always the anticipating act of awakening.”

Lord, bend us.

Thomas says that a call to travailing prayer isn’t a call to feel guilty about how little we actually pray. It is a call to become more open to awakening, and to let that desire make us less casual in our prayers. “I wonder what it would take for us to move in the direction of travailing prayer,” Thomas writes. “How bad it will have to get … if we’re not there already?”

I wonder, too. Who among us is ready to take God at his word? Who is ready to spend time in repentance, time in surrender, time in confession of faith? Who is willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to be moved to their knees?Who is ready to cry out, not just for ourselves, but for the effectiveness of the Church, for the effectiveness of the gospel flowing through us, for the gospel’s power to renew the world?

Lord, bend us!

Featured image by Vincent Creton on Unsplash.

Debbie Wallace-Padgett ~ How We Lead

Lead Like Butler:  Six Principles for Values-Based Leaders is a good read in
which authors Kent Millard and Judith Cebula define six dimensions of what Butler University athletes call “The Butler Way.” Being a former basketball player and serious sports fan, the nomenclature “The Butler Way” has caught my imagination.

Indeed this concept has inspired the North Alabama Conference Leadership Team to include in our Conference’s Ministry Action Plan a value we call “The North Alabama Way.”  This value consists of the following six basic principles that guide how we do ministry in North Alabama.51nksrefrql-_sx332_bo1204203200_

Team matters.

Here in North Alabama, “team matters” is more than a catchy phrase.  It is a way of functioning based on our understanding that: 1) God is our ultimate team leader, 2) we are stronger together than as individuals, and 3) teams are typically more generative than solo leaders.

Respond rather than react.

This is easier said than done, especially in the current cultural and church context!  We are committed, though, to anticipating and responding to situations instead of reacting to them.  This includes pushing the pause button when emotions are driving conversations; turning off the computer and iPhone instead of shooting off reactive emails, posts and tweets; and prayerfully considering the ideas of those who disagree with us.

What we do is of critical importance. How we do it is of equal importance.

Content, programs and doctrine are only part of the equation.  How we deliver our message, live our lives, and handle situations can strengthen or diminish our actions and our witness for Christ.

The higher the expectations, the greater the outcome.

We have high expectations here in North Alabama.  We expect our growing churches to continue growing and our declining churches to turn around.  We envision spiritual leaders empowering life-giving congregations to transform the world.  We anticipate that we will discover, develop and deploy more and more spiritual leaders to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  We look forward to God continuing to work through the North Alabama Conference to reach increasing numbers of people for Christ.

Move as quickly as we can and as slowly as we need to, for as long as it takes.

This “pacing” principle requires three qualities: a sense of urgency, the discipline to slow down when necessary, and the patience to keep on keeping on. Such pacing is an art that allows us to move forward together.

Follow the process and honor integrity at all levels of the system.

We acknowledge that we do not always get this principle right.  However, when we realize that we have jumped steps or levels in our own processes and system, we are committed to self-correcting.

I have a deep appreciation for “The Butler Way.”  I am even more enthralled with “The North Alabama Way” – the six principles that guide how we do ministry in the North Alabama Conference.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Sermon Prompts for the Sunday After the Cubs Win the World Series

Unless you live in Cleveland, tear up your notes and call the worship pastor: this Sunday, your sermon will practically write itself.

With phrases like, “‘Next year’ is finally today,” “the curse is broken,” and “‘someday’ is now,” your parishioners don’t have to be diehard baseball fans to appreciate the unbridled glee sweeping every corner of Chicago and most parts of the nation. With these words barely a step removed from the famous, “it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!” or the Narnian, “it’s always winter, never Christmas,” the time is ripe to remind congregations exactly what hope looks like in the Kingdom of God. Or gratitude. Or perseverance. Or faith. Or loyalty. Or fulfilled eschatological hope. Or goat-related curses.


So what do you do with all this frenzy when you’re not rewatching clips of Bill Murray’s existential ecstasy? Here are a few ideas for this Sunday:

If you didn’t hold an All Saint’s service last Sunday before the day, consider honoring the “great cloud of witnesses” this Sunday. What has been said in multiple interviews last night and this morning, by everyone from Bill Murray on the field to fans in Chicago pubs? “I’m thinking about my Mom, my Dad, my Aunt, my Uncles, if they could see this, I wish they could be here.” Cue grown men weeping. One Facebook acquaintance has been posting photos of her mother’s tombstone with a tally of Cubs postseason wins in the corner. Another acquaintance commented that his father lived his entire life, birth to death, without ever seeing a Cubs World Series win.

So it’s not bad timing to consider the Church Triumphant – “(Latin: Ecclesia triumphans), which consists of those who have the beatific vision and are in heaven.” It’s interesting that a baseball game could immediately evoke deep emotion about family relationships, grief, and loss, but it’s a dynamic not unlike the Israelites who wandered in the desert vs the Israelites who entered the Promised Land. It’s also not unlike some observations from an episode of Very British Problems on feelings and emotions, in which it was observed that a football (soccer) win allowed usually emotionally restrained men to weep, laugh, and hug publicly – a useful and socially acceptable catharsis.

Preach on what it means to fail spectacularly and publicly. In 2011, a documentary called Catching Hell came out about the nauseating incident when one well-meaning fan cost the Cubs a trip to the World Series. Steve Bartman had to be escorted out of the stadium by security after attempting to catch what he thought was a foul ball. It wasn’t. It was in play, and he kept the player from catching it.  The fan’s name, place of work and even the subdivision he lived in were published in the paper the next day. He got death threats, scorned by an entire city. If there’s one person who would need an alias to have a Facebook profile, it’s this guy. Wikipedia has a page just called, “Steve Bartman Incident.” His name is synonymous now with being the guy who singlehandedly wrecks everyone’s hopes. If there was anyone praying more fervently last night than Bill Murray, it was this guy. Maybe he can sleep a little better – and safer – now. (Post-publication update on Steve Bartman’s response to the win here.)

How does this apply to a sermon? Well, redemption of inadvertent but spectacular failure is certainly a strong message. The story of Jonah might be powerful – one man’s presence due to disobedience threatening to sink a shipful of sailors. So also is the truth of what happens when a crowd turns nasty (plenty of examples of that in the book of Acts). Consider the classic hymn, too – “When I do the best I can, and my friends misunderstand, Thou who knowest all about me, stand by me.” *Note: this might best be preached by a pastor to a group of pastors.

Celebrate what it means for the Curse to be broken. According to Chicagoland lore, a local bar owner curse_of_the_billy_goat_and_chicago_cubs_cookies_2016bought tickets for himself and his goat in the 1940’s. After his intended good luck-goat was barred from the game, he pronounced a curse on the Cubs and they couldn’t manage to make it into the World Series ever after. Now, most North Americans don’t actually believe in curses, though many of us are casually superstitious about certain things. What built up though was a culture, an identity of being the “Lovable Losers.” The Cubs losing became something familiar, comfortable, but as food for the hope for tomorrow – “someday.” Someday, all the way. Next year. For the Chicago Cubs, it was always regular season, never World Series. It was Friday, but maybe, someday, Sunday would come. The fans kept coming, rain or shine, for the hope of tomorrow, because today stunk. Someday, though. Someday.

In case you’re unclear what I’m driving at, let me connect the dots: Christians believe we don’t know how many extra innings we’ll go into, but we do believe that the Cosmic curse – our fall from Divine grace – has been lifted. The Book of Revelation gives a glimpse of the fireworks and victory laps to come: it gives a glimpse of the locker room celebration, even though we don’t know exactly who will get the runs or outs, or when. But in the Kingdom of God, Steve Bartman gets invited into the locker room for the afterparty.

In the midst of Narnia’s state as C.S. Lewis described it, where it was “always winter, never Christmas,” the residents of the fictional land still clung to a prophecy:

          Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
          At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
          When he bares his teach, winter meets its death
          And when he shakes his name, we shall have spring again.

After all, we read in Revelation 22,

 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

The Curse is broken, indeed.