Do “Meaty” Churches & Sermons “Feed Us” Where We Hunger?


During my tenure as a coordinator of Christian education, I heard a lot from people about their hunger to know the Bible, so I hired professors from a nearby seminary and offered regular courses on the Old and New Testaments. People told me the descriptions sounded like just what they needed, but that was usually the last I saw of them. The classes were small and sporadically attended…. Yet every quarter, people asked for more Bible courses. They said they wanted more; they were not getting enough. So I offered more Bible and still no one came.

Finally I got the message. “Bible” was a code word for “God.” People were not hungry for information about the Bible; they were hungry for an experience of God, which the Bible seemed to offer them.

— Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life

The above quote was so insightful and helpful to me. At my church, we’ve spent years hearing people talk about wanting more “meat” or wanting to be “fed” more. When they say that, they often are thinking they need to feel cognitively challenged and stretched by information about the Bible or Theology.

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“One Race, Different Ethnicities” [spoken word]


This is a beautiful piece by a friend of mine, Aisha Monique, from my previous church. She is a wonderful spoken word artist who wrote and performed this a couple of months ago as a way of prophetically processing the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, and hwo they fit into the broader narrative of the Black experience in America. I recently found myself watching it again, and I thought I would share.

Like the biblical book of Lamentations, this is a raw cry from the heart wrapped within the rhythm and boundedness of poetry. So grab some coffee and a quiet place and watch this. Let it sink in and sit with it. And most importantly, especially if you are part of the majority culture, just listen.

“The End & The Beginning”: On Houses, Wise & Foolish [sermon]


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A couple of weeks ago, I got to finish up our church’s series going through the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon was such an experience to prepare and give. For one, this was my first time ever preaching two weeks in a row (if your pastor does this regularly, give him or her a hug for me–it’s hard!)

Second, this was my firs time preaching on a text I previously preached on. This text was the same as my first ever “real” sermon. It was the oddest experience diving back into this text and it feeling so new–as if I’d never read or studied it previously.

And lastly, this is the shortest set of verses I’ve ever been able to preach on–5 verses! This gave me the freedom to slow down, and experiment with how I wanted to structure this and go about writing the sermon.

This sermon tries to serve both as a summary of the entire Sermon on the Mount as well as a conclusion and call to action for those of us who have sat under it all Summer. If that piques your interest, feel free to listen to or read the sermon below. The text is Matthew 7:24-29. 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

Do “Meaty” Churches & Sermons “Feed Us” Where We Hunger?


Prodigal Paul | the long way home

peter-preaching-statue

During my tenure as a coordinator of Christian education, I heard a lot from people about their hunger to know the Bible, so I hired professors from a nearby seminary and offered regular courses on the Old and New Testaments. People told me the descriptions sounded like just what they needed, but that was usually the last I saw of them. The classes were small and sporadically attended…. Yet every quarter, people asked for more Bible courses. They said they wanted more; they were not getting enough. So I offered more Bible and still no one came.

Finally I got the message. “Bible” was a code word for “God.” People were not hungry for information about the Bible; they were hungry for an experience of God, which the Bible seemed to offer them.

— Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life

The above quote was so insightful and helpful to me…

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September Book Club: What IS Reformed Theology, anyway?


luther-95theses-humor-memeSeptember’s Books
(just pick 1)

Welcome to a Reformed Church: A Guide for Pilgrims by Daniel Hyde

Reformed Theology by R. Michael Allen

One thing I appreciate about my church is that we don’t wear our labels on our sleeve. That does mean, however, that a lot of people can go to our church for quite a while and not know that there is a very real theological ethos woven into everything we do.

We belong to the oldest American denomination–the Reformed Church in America–which ascribes to a theological tradition called “Reformed Theology”. And because many, many people in our church likely have little idea of what that especially means within the broader Christian family, we’ll be spending this Fall exploring these ideas in our monthly Theology Book Club.

So how are we going to do this? Well, I really struggled with this one, because though Reformed Theology has some general contours, there really is quite a bit of diversity and flexibility within that definition of being “Reformed”. In looking for a good book, the problem I kept finding was that most books on this topic tend to define Reformed Theology very narrowly and very dogmatically. I don’t think this is helpful.
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Let There Be: Visual Mysticism in “The Tree of Life”


The iRON AVIARY

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  And so, director Terrence Malick prophetically joins God in asking us this at the beginning of Malick’s 2011 film, The Tree of Life.  This question from the book of Job sets up a certain amount of distance, a rift between two very different beings—God and people.

It’s the first of a number of dichotomies that Malick gives us: the rift between eternity and time that pervades the film; nature and grace, which resound as a counterpoint; there is life and death; suffering, happiness; darkness and light.  While the film spins on the reel, it becomes obvious that these fissures originate from the initial chasm set up between God and people.  “How does one bridge the gap?” an astute film admirer might ask.  The answer lies shrouded in mysticism.

As Malick is Christian, it is no surprise that he…

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“Do Unto Others”: The Golden Rule of God’s Kingdom [a sermon]


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As part of my church’s series on The Sermon on the Mount, I got to preach this past week on the Golden Rule, as well as Jesus’ call to action at the end of the Sermon.

For many of us, when exploring Christian faith, what we’re really looking for is what makes Christianity distinctive. What does it have to say that any other perspective on existence doesn’t—or can’t? I can imagine many people see Jesus offer the Golden Rule and think that he is acting as just one more ethical teacher repeating this ethical principle that most anyone who wants to be a nice person knows about. And it’s true: much of what Jesus says is, technically, not new in human history.

But here’s the trouble: as a human race, we’ve had a lot of practice with the Golden Rule. It’s in us. It’s in our laws. It’s in our societies. It’s in our intuitions that guide and shape how we move through the world. It shapes our sense of justice and morality. And yet we still fail it every day. We’ve had so much practice legislating it, commanding it, manipulating it, teaching it, and hoping for it. And yet it is not the predominant reality in our world or relationships.

That’s why when Jesus comes on the scene, it’s not enough for him to simply repeat the same old teachings in the same old ways. We need more than that if we have any hope for living his vision out. And in this sermon I argue that what Jesus offers here is an entirely new framing and context of the Golden Rule. What Jesus offers here is so much more than a simple ethical maxim. It’s not even Ethics at all! Further, if we see Jesus as just one more religious authority trying to tell people how to act, then we’ve profoundly missed Jesus’ point and what he’s trying to offer us here.

So feel free to listen to or read the sermon, and let me know what you think. The sermon text is Matthew 7:12-23. 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

Secularity Was Not Built in a Day


Last month, I led a Book Club through James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular, itself a summary of the much larger book, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. There were so many lessons culled from those pages–most of which I am still processing and will be in the months and years to come. And yet, the biggest takeaway for me was how Taylor described the “feel” and cause of our current secular existence.

Taylor challenges the story of our cultural and philosophical moment, affirming that we did not stumble or trip into our secular age. Secularity is not the “neutral” space of human existence once all forms of power, influence, control, and superstition are done away with. Rather, secularity is a cultural and philosophical achievement. The gravity of human progress does not necessitate secularity. We’ve had to build it.

Secularity: A Fall or Climb?

We first need to remember that when we talk about “secularity”, we’re not talking about some sort un-religious, “neutral” public space. A society is “secular” (in our sense) when disbelief in God becomes a viable option. We take for granted that the vast majority of humans in history (and even in the non-Western world today!) have no comprehension of such a world.

But this isn’t due to ignorance. As Charles Taylor tells us (by way of James Smith), “secularity” isn’t just a lack of belief, but rather an emergence of other alternative ways of being human in the world. As Smith puts it,

So it wasn’t enough for us to stop believing in the gods; we also had to imagine significance within an imminent frame, to imagine modes of meaning that did not depend on transcendance…. The secular is not simply a remainder [after belief is subtracted]; it is a sum, created by addition, a product of intellectual multiplication.

If this is true, then to tell the story of how we went “from a time (in, say, 1500) in which atheism was virtually unthinkable to a time (in 2000) when theism is almost unbelievable”, we shouldn’t focus on when certain beliefs fell out of style, but rather when certain things were added to human experience that made disbelief a realistic option.

In other words, instead of trying to see how the world “fell” into secularity, we need to start seeing it as an accomplishment; something into which humanity had to climb.

So what changed? We can’t see how we got to our world today simply be recounting theoretical movements. We have to talk about how it felt to be human and how that changed as time went on. Taylor gives us five “elements” that, when added to the cultural air we breathed, started to create a world of disenchantment and disbelief.

The Climb of the “Buffered Self”

1. A Meaningful Mind. Premodern humans believed the world was “infused” with meaning, significance, and power. If you wanted to experience fullness and meaning, you had to have an openness to the world around to connect with it.  With modernity, “meaning” moved from the world around us to being within our own minds. Things were only “meaningful” in so much as we ascribed it to them. We became very interior and rather than being “porous” to the world around us, we become closed-off and “buffered”. Our existence and pursuit of fullness moved from the world around us, to the world within us.

2. The Social Fabric Tears. The premodern self was not just connected and open to the world, but also towards their human relationships. You had to be vulnerable to the people, institutions, and communities around you, because that is where you exercised your humanity–not in your own head and private interior life. This is why being labeled a heretic was such a big deal. Atheism was not just a rejection of God, but a rejection of the society in which you were embedded. But if we all just live in our own heads, then what I believe should have no bearing on your life, right? Live and let live!

3. The Good Life is Now. There was “a tension between what ‘eternity’ required and what the mundane vagaries of domestic life demanded.” We experienced the responsibilities of daily life as having some implication for eternity. The Church calendar and weekly worship were not just things to shape our individual private experiences, but connected us to eternity in some mysterious way.  In modernity, this tension is broken. When the tension breaks, you have religious puritans and fundamentalists rise who cast off the mundane for eternity; and you have others who cast off eternity and to find ultimate significance in the here and now.

4. Back to the Future. This new modern self also dramatically affects how we experience Time. While we experience it in linear, chronological tick-tock fashion, our ancestors believed it had some higher dimension that was almost “thematic”. Taylor summarizes the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997.” There was a kinship across time and space that people shared with one another. But now, in our buffered existence, “nothing higher impinges upon our calendars–only the tick-tock of chronos, and the self-imposed burdens of our ‘projects’.”

5. From “Creation” to “Nature”. The last key ingredient in the mixing bowl of our secular age was how we viewed the natural world. We went from living in a cosmos where the whole of reality was bigger than the sum of its natural parts, to a “universe” where it was all sustained and created by way of mechanisms within itself. Taylor concludes that this shift “makes it possible to now imagine meaning and significance as contained within the universe itself, an autonomous, independent ‘meaning’ that is unhooked from any sort of transcendent dependence.”

Tomorrow we will look at these and other lessons to see what it might look like for us to live faithful in our secular age.


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August Book Club on Christianity & Race: “Divided by Faith” by Emerson & Smith


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Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion & the Problem of Race in America
by Michael Emerson & Christian Smith

Last night’s book discussion went really well, and it makes me even more excited for this month’s meeting.

For my church‘s monthly Theology Book Club, I’m excited to have us read an especially timely and important book, Divided by Faith by sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. The opening lines of the Preface summarize their purpose beautifully:

To learn more about American life, this book examines the role of white evangelicalism in black-white relations. Our argument is that evangelicals desire to end racial division and inequality, and attempt to think and act accordingly. But, in the process, they likely do more to perpetuate the racial divide than they do to tear it down.

In America, we have a problem with race. White Christians, I think, genuinely act in good faith to play a positive role in race relations in America. And yet, they often end up unintentionally exacerbating some of the broader cultural problems that feed into racial injustice.
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Is the Democratic Party the New Home for Conservatives?


philly-city-hall-flagI think I found the bright side to Donald Trump. This election has left Conservatism as the only political philosophy not really represented. Even the Bernie Bros have a lot of their biggest concerns represented in the newly minted Democratic Party platform. But real Conservatives? Who speaks for them?

I (and others) am starting to think it’s the Democratic Party.

People keep talking about how this Donald Trump candidacy is reshuffling traditional party allegiances into  a never-before-seen arrangement. And yet, watching the Democratic National Convention speeches last night from Tim Kaine, Joe Biden, and especially Barack Obama, it looks like a reemergence of the blue collar, Southern Democrat.

Maybe, rather than a reshuffling, there is a course correction: a return to politics as it was prior to Nixon, Goldwater, and Johnson. Perhaps (dare I say?) this is actually a moment for normalization of American politics?
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On the Trump Convention Speech: We are better than this


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The hardest thing about writing anything about politics (or religion, for that matter) is not having someone write you off immediately by placing you into one of the Right-Left boxes that dominate our national discussion. I am really not a liberal progressive. I have voted Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and even Green Party. In 2008 I voted down the ticket but conscientiously abstained from casting a vote for President as a “none of the above” protest vote.

All that to say, on most any issue, I can see both sides of it. I can see why people believe what they believe and I can see much of its merits. But (as so many written sentences this election season have concluded), that was until Donald Trump.

I am so strongly against Trump for President. I am not against critiquing the foreign and domestic policy views of the Obama administration and Secretary Clinton. I am not closed off to new recalibrations over trade and foreign policy. I understand the economic forces that have driven wedges between the working class and all others, and I can see the pain and malaise in middle America and groups that have been so forgotten and overlooked.

I see the forces that have given rise to Donald Trump and though I want to validate the cynicism, pain, and feeling of disempowerment, I struggle to know how to communicate to these voters that Trump is not the answer. He will not help you. People may respond that he’s better than Secretary Clinton. He’s not. Crunching the numbers, it is clear that Clinton’s policies would be far more effective in ameliorating these cultural and economic pressures.

You may not like Clinton personally, then, but we can’t overlook one candidate’s personal foibles only to condemn the other for theirs. On moral, legal, ethical, intellectual, and religious grounds, Trump is far and away the lesser of the candidates. If character, morality, and heck, even legal uprightness are important to you in choosing a candidate, Trump is worse.
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Philly TONIGHT: Open Sanctuary Time for Reflection & Prayer


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We live in a time and place that is happy to tell us all the things we need to do to be the kinds of people we want to be. And churches are good at telling us more things to do and occupy our time with in order to live in greater closeness with God.

But there are some parts of being human and knowing God that don’t involve doing more, but rather stopping and doing less.

At my church, over the summer, we want to try and create space where people can come and just stop; to experience silence, reflection, prayer, meditation, and a little guidance in those things. This is a spiritual muscle we don’t exercise much, but it’s an essential one to work out if we are to become more human and know God more deeply.

So starting tonight, from 6:30-8pm and every Thursday in July and August, we’ll be having an open, unstructured time for prayer, reflection, contemplation, journaling, and meditation.

A few times I’ll get up and read some Scripture, but outside of that, it’s a space people are free to come and go, lie down, walk around, sit on the floor, or whatever they need to connect with themselves and connect with God. No matter your church home, religious tradition, or lack of belief, feel free to use this space in whatever way you need.

So feel free join us at 17th and Sansom St in Center City Philadelphia between 6:30 and 8, and each subsequent Thursday.

A Prayer Service of Lament for Race & Injustice


job-silohetteLast week I led a prayer service of lament at my church for the racial injustice and violence experienced in our country. I put together the below order for the prayer service and it ended up being a helpful expression for us. I wanted to share this with anyone else interested in using it in their own contexts.

Another benefit of this service is that the contemporary prayers below are not mine or any other white males, but were written by women of color and slightly modified for our context. I hope this acts as a helpful outlet to give voice to our hearts as brothers and sisters.

[Prayer Guide: pdf/docx ; Leader’s Guide: pdf/docx]

Preparation

Encourage other voices that are not typically heard at your church to read the Scripture sections. In the times of silence, encourage open prayer from those sitting in the pews. Allow space for up to 5-10 minutes of silence, and be sure to let people know beforehand to expect such long silence.

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Join the Liberti Church Theology Book Club!


July’s Book book-jamessmith-hownottobesecular

How (Not) To Be Secular
by James K.A. Smith
Amazon


Wtsbooks

For those of us that are Christians, we come to church on Sundays to get re-grounded and re-oriented in the rhythms and truths of the Christian life.

Many of us also try and live life in various small groups and Bible Studies throughout the week in order to press these truths all the more deeply in our hearts and communities.

But still, some of us are wired to wrestle with big ideas in a different way. That’s why at my church we’re starting the Liberti Theology Book Club: a way to walk with others through different perspectives and insights on theology, the Bible, and Christian thought.

It’s been designed to take up as little of your time as needed, while also letting us really work through some deeper and harder parts of faith. Also, because of the decentralized nature of it, anyone across the country can join in!

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Book Club Blogging: Intro to a Secular Age


de-Goya-The-GiantFor the Book Club I’m leading at my church, we’re reading James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular (a summary of a much bigger, denser book, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor). To begin, we turn to the opening pages to get our bearings and become acquainted with the general contours of the pages to come.

Introduction

Honestly, if the Preface and Introduction were all there was, this would be worth the price of admission. It is such a helpful 50,000-foot view of the ideas unpacked in the rest of the book.

Smith’s account begins with an attempt to narrate some of what our day and age “feels” like. He speaks of the disconnect between typical American Christianity and the way the rest of the world experiences reality. He points out that nonbelievers in the Christian faith are actually able to find meaning, fullness, and significance without appealing to any divine Being. And yet, even those without belief can’t seem to shake a certain “hauntedness” to our world.

In short, neither adherents to religion nor those that don’t find much usefulness for it can construct a way of experiencing reality that takes into account all of what it means to inhabit humanity today. We’re all sort of stuck in this liminal space, this limbo, seeking distraction of reductionism to break the tension.  We’re all “suspended between the malaise of immanence and the memory of transcendence”.
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