Advent and… (the series)


This is the dedicated post page for the Advent series “Advent and…”. In it, we looked at the various ways Advent connects to seemingly unrelated parts of our life and existence.

Welcome to Advent, 2012.
This was the series introduction. I looked at how Advent speaks to our whole selves, including a whole host of “un-Christmas-y” kinds of things.

Advent & Sex: we are holy ground
When you think of Christmas time, you don’t often think about sex. This post talks about the implication of Christ’s arrival for our sex lives.

Advent & Sex-lessness: here’s to singleness & celibacy!
The Advent story is a notably sex-less affair. What this means for us is huge. This was by far the most widely read post of this series, and in the top five most widely read posts in this blog’s history.  Continue reading

Acorns: The only way I’ve been able to save money


First off, no, this isn’t some “Sponsored Post”. But yes, I am passing off a link that could get me and you $5 for free. (So is this a sponsored blog post then? I don’t know.)

Anyway, this blog is mainly about big things, deep things, human things. Religion, Culture, Politics, Cities, Justice, Beauty, and others. But it’s also about me–a thing neither big nor deep, but still quite human.

And there are few things that expose our humanity more than money. How we relate to the resources under our care shows so much about who we are and the ways we’re wired. For me personally, I’ve had difficulty saving money. Not because I don’t make enough or because I spend too much–I’m just pretty undisciplined and disorganized.

If statistics are any indication (although research differs), for one reason or another, you might have a similar difficulty with saving money.
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The Weight of Gratitude: A Sermon of Mine

job-silohetteI’m going on three decades of attending church services. I’ve heard a lot of sermons on gratitude and almost all of them are the same.

They spend much of their time trying to convince us Americans that we actually are far more wealthy than we ever thought. We have more stuff than most any other people in human history, and so we need to stop being so consumeristic and unsatisfied and just learn to be grateful and give thanks for what we have—because we have a lot. And us Christians have even more reason to be thankful, as we have the greatest gift of all: Jesus!

But all this does is lead us towards some brief, unsustainable, inch-deep emotion of happiness which we then call “gratefulness” and then walk out the door thinking we’ve gotten our annual “gratitude shot”—all while being able to ignore the violence raging in the world and in our souls.

So where is gratitude when we face violence and doubt, or when we hit the muck and mire of life, the pits and poverties of existence, the pain and injustice? Does gratitude have nothing to say?

Well that’s what my most recent sermon discusses (I’ve also written about this before). The sermon text is Psalm 40,  Let me know what you think. Here’s the audio:

You can also download it here, or subscribe to our podcast. If reading is more your style, here is my manuscript for your perusal. Continue reading

“Selma”: A Post-Christian Treatment of Christianity

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Lyndon_JohnsonI recently re-watched Selma, the movie about the Civil Rights Marches in Selma, Alabama led by Martin Luther King, Jr. I really, really love this movie. Watching it again, I couldn’t help but notice some powerful dynamics in how faith is represented in the film.

It was directed by Ava Duvernay, who, with this movie, became the first black female director to ever be nominated for an Academy Award. I don’t like artist analysis in approaching a work, as I think a piece of art should stand on its own regardless of its creator. But at times, after the fact, it can illuminate some aspects. And indeed, in looking into Duvernay’s background, I found that she is a very helpful symbol for the spiritual place many in our society find themselves.

She grew up in Compton, in the midst of many of the structural, generational, and long-standing effects of political and economic segregation, disempowerment, and white privilege. She went to an all-girls Catholic high school where, no doubt, she received a very robust religious education.

And yet, now, as she made this film about a man whose legacy is built on acts flowing from his religious convictions, when Rolling Stone asked her, “Are you religious yourself?”, she responded with, “No, not religious. But I love God.”

This, I think, captures well the dynamic of a film like Selma in our day-and-age, when it comes to the relationship between faith and culture. Let me be clear: the film is not in the least hostile to faith. This is not some Christian cultural martyrdom post. The film powerfully depicts the religious tenor and foundation of King’s movement.
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In Philly TONIGHT: Mayoral Candidate Forum on Homelessness & Poverty

client-mouth-beard-bwIn Philadelphia, there is a non-partisan group called Vote for Homes that advocates for political action around issues of homelessness and poverty. Tonight they are hosting a forum with the candidates in Philadelphia’s mayoral race to ask them all the same set of questions regarding housing, economics, social justice, homelessness, and poverty. The event will be moderated, and the candidates will be pressed hard to really answer the questions and not give political non-answers. It should be incredibly eye-opening to the values of the candidates. Here’s the info:

Real Solutions for Hunger & Homelessness Mayoral Candidates Forum
Thursday, May 7 from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm
Broad Street Ministry
315 S. Broad Street, Center City Philadelphia

Location is wheelchair accessible. Sign language interpretation will be provided.

Some of the Best Must-Reads for #Baltimore & #FreddieGray

If you’re anything like me, your social media feed is overwhelmed by chatter about Baltimore and the ensuing unrest after the death of yet another unarmed black man, Freddie Gray, at the hands of police. I have my own thoughts, emotions, and passions in all of this (some of which I’ve talked about before), but at the end of the day I’m still a white man–there’s only so much I can speak to these issues.

With that in mind, I want to offer the voices of others in some of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read the past few days (in both good and bad ways). I hope this offers context, understanding, and perspective, stretching our minds and getting us thinking (and hopefully talking) in ways we perhaps have not been. Add links to any of your favorite pieces in the comments below.

Mandatory Reading

“Nonviolence as Compliance” | The Atlantic
“When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself…. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.”

“David Simon on Baltimore’s Anguish” | The Marshall Project
“[How to fix Baltimore?] We end the drug war. I know I sound like a broken record, but we end the fucking drug war [that’s destroying] police/community relations, in terms of trust, particularly between the black community…”
(This is the best summary I’ve read on the context of what’s going on. But it’s long. If it’s too long for you, The Washington Post has a brief summary.)

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New Seminary Post: Holy Week Music & Readings on Death

Jesus & The Cross

I have a new post on the site Going to Seminary. I am putting up occasional posts giving different things to read around the interwebs, and this week focuses on Holy Week and its theme of death–Christ’s Death, Our Death, and Death conquered. I also give some classical music suggestions for this week (more Lent music suggestions here). I link to articles about a sister in Christ who recently died well, a New York Times piece about watching family die, and some writings by non-Christians about death. It ends with one of my favorite quotes ever. May these writings help you press into this time and our Savior all the more deeply.

Read the full post:
“Around the Web: Holy Week Edition

Check out the rest of my Going To Seminary posts.

My Sermon on Judgment, Poverty, Sheep, & Goats


Yesterday, I got to preach the hardest sermon I’ve gotten to preach (so far).

The text is Matthew 25:31-46, what is commonly called “The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats”. It’s also the one where Jesus shows up as a naked and hungry beggar and prisoner. It’s one of the most difficult, confusing, and doubt-inducing texts in the Gospels. Let me know what you think. Sermon cameos include Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Martin Luther, and homeless Jesus. Here’s the audio:

You can also download it here, or subscribe to our podcast. If reading is more your style, here is my manuscript for your perusal. Continue reading

National Geographic (& a poem) on International Women’s Day

Sandorfi-KalfonariumToday is International Women’s Day, and to honor it, National Geographic has a powerful photo spread of women from around the world, called “Portraits of Strength”. While looking through some of the comments, I saw this beautiful poem posted by the poet herself. Read the poem, see the pictures, and listen to the stories of a woman today.

I am a tree
Helen Bar-Lev

Did you think I was a woman?
Oh no, I am a tree
rooted and immovable
impossible to conceive
the scenes
that I have seen

Now gnarled and warped
weathered and aged
wrinkled and withered
bent to the ends of recognition
too rigid to give in
to the whim of man
I stand true to the tune
of the wind echoing
my own inner rhythm
persistent, consistent, constant

Perhaps every tree
was once a woman –
only a woman could stand so strong
fall so proud
when the axe of age claims her
and earth sets a bed for her

© 10.2006 Helen Bar-Lev

[image credit: “Kalfonarium” by Istvan Sandorfi]

No, ISIS has nothing to do with the end of the world. Please stop saying that.


It’s been a long time since I’ve been immersed in Southern Evangelicalism where a certain brand of interpreting world events looms large. I grew up in the Bible Belt, where Saddam Hussein, Desert Storm, the fall of the USSR, the growing rise of Israeli nationalism, and “slipping societal morals” were all “signs” of the “end times” or “the last days”. I sat through youth group meetings where our senior pastor would talk about how the book of Daniel had coded prophecies about nuclear weapons in space.

(Being in high school, I saw no problem with him making that argument by saying that the book’s “original language” uses the Greek word dynamos from which we get the word “dynamite”; it was only later that it clicked for me that Daniel is written in Hebrew and Aramaic, not Greek.)

Moving to the Northeast, the bastion of mainline Christianity; and attending two different seminaries from traditions very different from this prophecy-interpreting one, I was under the false impression that this whole game of interpreting current events in apocalyptic ways was rightly losing steam.

But then, this past week, the tragedy of ISIS (or the so-called “Islamic State”) beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians happened. I first found out on Facebook, when I saw a procession of ancient Christian articulations of mourning filling my news feed. “Come, Lord, Jesus.” “Lord, have mercy.” “Kyrie Eleison.” I, myself speechless, decided also to lean heavily on old words from our Christian family to find comfort and express lament.

Not everyone went this way, though. After these initial responses, my Facebook and Twitter feeds began to fill with phrases and out-of-context Bible verses that I hadn’t seen in years. People were posting blog posts and verses all of which were trying to say that these deaths amounted to some unique act of “global Christian persecution” that was somehow emblematic of the world’s “last days” or “end times”.

Today I’d like to offer a seven reasons why this is wrong-headed and unhelpful:
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ISIS, The 21, and Letting The Bible Speak For Itself

Paul Burkhart:

Featured Image -- 12968

Yes and amen.

Originally posted on Josh Howerton:

Yesterday, shortly after WG’s ended at The Bridge, news broke of ISIS releasing a video in which 21 Egyptian Christians – scornfully called “the people of the Cross” by the terrorists  – were marched to a secluded beach and savagely beheaded by men in black masks. After huddling our little family around the computer to talk about it, I was going to write a post. But sometimes a horror is so deep it’s best to place your hand over your mouth, unchain the Bible, and let it speak for itself…

Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.  – John 16:2

Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God… They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.  – Revelation 20:4

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life…

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For the Dead & Living: Prayers for the Martyrs of ISIS


For the Dead

Eternal Lord God, we remember before you today your faithful servants,
the 20 Libyan martyrs; we pray that, having opened to them the gates of larger life,
you will receive them more and more into your joyful service, that, with all
who have faithfully served you in the past, they may share in your eternal victory.

Almighty God, who, in joy and felicity, lives with the spirits who die in the Lord,
and with the souls of the faithful: We give you heartfelt thanks
for the good examples of your servants, who, even in the fear of their final moments
finished their course in faith, and now find rest and refreshment.

Father of all, we pray for those we love, but see no longer:
Grant them your peace; let perpetual light shine upon them;
in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work through their deaths
the good purpose of your perfect will.
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Leading & Blogging Publicly


I’m currently reading through Ruth Haley Barton’s Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. Occasionally, I’ll post reflections on my reading.

The chapter I just read had to do with leadership being something that is meant to be a public good. Leadership is never simply for the sake of those you’re leading. It’s meant to overflow into the systems, institutions, cultures, and communities around you. And so, our avenues of leadership are meant to be vehicles to change the world.

Thinking about this, I realized that my most public form of leadership is probably through this blog.

Of all my Christian friends (including my seminary classmates), I keep up with politics more than any. I say sadly, because I don’t have many people and places to get my thoughts directly challenged, critiqued, and kept accountable. And for me, that’s what I need. I feel like I need my mind to feel a freedom to wander and stretch and try things out–but I need others to reign me in.

This is also how I lead. My tendency is to constantly reshape my sphere of influence; to try new things and keep things fluid. For me, then, team leadership works best, so that I have people to tell me I’m crazy and need to relax. This is also why I blog. A blog is, in essence, “public writing”.

Because I tend to dwell deeply in the political realities of the world more than many other Christians in my life, I see much of my role as a public writer as bringing Christian truths to bear on real-world issues in ways that both challenge and further the polarized conversations in the world today. Through national political campaigns, I write frequently on the debates, the State of the Union, the issues, etc. in order to communicate in a clear way to the everyday person what’s going on and why they should care.
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Torture is Spiritual Depravity [QUOTE]

“Just as the persistence of torture is unnerving, so are the costs of torture incalculable. Torture corrupts. It corrupts everything and everyone it touches. It corrupts them profoundly and often irreversibly. There is a political level to this corruption, but the category of the political is not sufficient. Likewise, there is a moral level to it, but neither does the moral suffice to capture what is at stake. At its deepest level the corruption represented by torture is spiritual.

The category of the spiritual is descriptively required because, as many have observed, torture tends toward becoming an end in itself. That is the deepest horror. As if by some invisible yet inexorable force, torture seeks and creates domination for its own sake, even as it also seeks and creates cruelty for its own sake. It seeks and creates cruel dominion and wanton cruelty toward another in disregard of the other’s inherent dignity as a human being. …

When torture is conducted as an end in itself, and has therefore become demonic—when the purpose of power is power, and the purpose of cruelty is cruelty, when torture’s purpose is tyrannical subjugation and sadistic degradation—then the divinely given meaning of life is unspeakably distorted and destroyed. The relation of the torturer to the tortured, and of the tortured to the torturer, makes a travesty of the most basic relations given by heaven to earth. In so degrading the human being and human community, torture blasphemes against God, neighbor and self.”

–George Hunsinger

H/T Kait Dugan [Twitter/Facebook]