When Blogs Die

 

You know the signs. First you notice that a favored blog on your blogroll hasn’t had a post in 5 months. That is often the end, but sometimes there is a preliminary stage, akin to Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ stage of denial. The blogger appears and posts an apology for slackness. “I’ve been . . .

  1. Sick
  2. New child
  3. Writing my dissertation
  4. Rereading the Church Dogmatics in German
  5. Working too hard
  6. Leveling my blood elf ret pally
  7. Moving
  8. Despairing of life itself

Do not be fooled by this desperate act of repentance or by the pledge to lead a new and upright blogging life. Chances are this blog is going to die and soon.

Our internet presence gives us the illusion of both transcendence and permanence, but it is an illusion. Both our blogs and our selves are finite and destined to die. I have already outlived one blog, where I posted for years. When the Webmaster of the site changed programs the archives disappeared, with all my posts. Many I had saved as a Word document, but some were written on the blog, and so lost forever. There is one I wrote when Bard Childs died about a gracious personal encounter I had with him that I wish I had. Oh well, sic transit gloria mundi, sigh.

Our blogs exist as fragile lines of HTML code. They can vanish like the morning dew. Yet, it is also possible they can outlive us. I was on Linked-In the other day, and they suggested people I might know and one of them was a dear friend of mine who died way too young two years ago.

Either way, both our blogs and we are going to die, so “teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)

To replace some of the dead blogs I have added some new ones to my blogroll that I like:  Cathedral Bells,  Chrisendom,  and Intersections.  Enjoy them while they last.

Your Opinions Stink! A quick guide to the New York Times Op-Ed Pages

 

I am a long-time reader of the New York Times, and of its Opinion Pages, and lately I’ve been noticing that I know pretty much what each of the contributors is going to say about any particular subject even before I read their pieces.

To get to this point I have had to spend thousands of hours of my time and untold amounts of my money. So as a public service to the rest of you I offer this template that you can use to know what each one will say before they say it:

David Brooks: We rely too much on government and not enough on ourselves because our values stink.

Paul Krugman: If you would listen to me the economy wouldn’t stink.

Tom Friedman: The rest of the world is increasingly beating us at our own game because, although we didn’t used to stink, now we do.

Nicholas Kristof: There are a lot of stinking things going on in the world, and we stink for not doing enough to stop them.

Frank Rich: Republicans are evil, and those who don’t oppose them vigorously enough stink.

Maureen Dowd: Everybody stinks, and I get paid to judge them for it! Cool!

When Theologians Order Apple Pie

 

Not long ago I had a lovely lunch with my wife and my daughter at The Student Prince, the iconic German restaurant in Springfield, Massachusetts. After I had completed my würst plate, the waitress asked me if I would like dessert, and I said, as I patted my stomach, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” She said, “Excuse me?” My daughter, who is a student at Yale Divinity School, shot me a look, and said, “She didn’t get your biblical reference, Dad.” “No thank you,” I quickly added, “I’m full.”

I don’t know why I do this. My family is habituated to my obscure asides. My own family of origin was a biblically literate outfit, and biblical references were sprinkled liberally into our conversation. Perhaps I am nostalgic for a day gone by. I started ruminating about Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative; his magisterial account of how we got from a society where people place themselves within the Biblical story to a society where most people don’t even know it. That got me thinking about one of Stanley Hauerwas’ probing questions: “What story do you tell yourself after you have told yourself you have no story?” Or something like that.

That got me thinking about what Stanley might have said to the waitress: “What kind of apple pie do I order after I have told myself there is no apple pie?” And, just like that, a new game was born called “When Theologians Order Apple Pie.”

Please feel free to add your own examples. Here are some of mine.

Waitress, “Would you like dessert?
Reinhold Neibuhr: “The apple pie here isn’t as good as people think it is!”

Waitress: “Would you like dessert?”
Karl Barth: “Yes . . . and no.”

Waitress: “Would you like dessert?”
Rudoph Bultmann: The widespread belief that it was an apple that tempted Eve is not in the text, which merely says fruit. It could have been a date or a pomegranate. We don’t know, but the mythic form of the pericope suggests it doesn’t matter. Do you have anything with dates?

Waitress: Would you like dessert?”
Marcus Borg: I know that the apple pie here isn’t really apple pie, but I believe it might be satisfying nonetheless.”

Waitress: “Would you like dessert?”
Walter Brueggemann: “I will eschew the apple pie, which symbolizes the hegemony of the American Empire, from which the church is, or should be, in exile. Just black coffee.”

Waitress: Would you like dessert?
Mary Daly: I choose to call you, not a waitress or a server, for those are demeaning andro-centric and hierarchical signifiers. You are a “pie BRINGer.”

Waitress: “Would you like dessert?”
Paul Tillich: “The apple pie represents our eternal human longing for a pre-lapsarian Eden, despite the obvious fact that apple pie cannot be turned back into apples.

Waitress: “Would you like dessert?”
Jonathan Edwards: “We can see in a piece of apple pie the deep essence of God’s love, a reflection of the love each of the persons of the Trinity have for one another. But, no, just a glass of water for me, thanks.”

Waitress: “Would you like dessert?”
P.T. Forsyth: “Whenever I eat apple pie, I am reminded that God the holy Father acted decisively in the atoning cross of Jesus Christ to overcome the great breach between God and humans caused by our sin. Do you have any shortbread?

OK, kids, you get the idea.  All you theo-bloggers and bored theological grad students who read too much and don’t have anybody that’s interested, here’s your chance to shine.  I want to see Rahner, Van Balthasar, Aquinas, Anselm and the Cappadocians before the week is out.  Best entries get to buy a piece of apple pie for themselves.

My Top Ten Reasons why Anne Rice would hate the United Church of Christ:

 

When writer Anne Rice recently said she’s done with church, the UCC Office of Communication in Cleveland started a Facebook page called “You’d like the UCC, Anne Rice.” But I am convinced that they are wrong, and here’s why:

1. We are not the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, we Reformed Christians do believe that we are included in “the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” of the Creed, but don’t bet the farm that Anne Rice thinks that. When she says she is done with “the Church” she knows just what church she is done with. When Philosopher George Santayana said he didn’t believe in God, he clarified by saying, “And the God I don’t believe in mother’s name is Mary.” Anne isn’t looking for liberal Protestantism.

2. She would love all our social views, but hate our religious ones. Yes, we affirm science and tolerance toward women and gays, and affirm birth control, and other progressive stuff. She would like that. But she would hate our distrust of authority, our shoddy theology, our aversion to dogma, our rejection of the cross, our sloppy liturgies, our tortured language. She would do better to search the database for subscribers to the New York Times or the New Yorker or join a book group.

3. We use grape juice at communion. C’mon.

4. We’re a tiny franchise. The Roman Catholic Church has 1.1 billion members. We have 1.1. million members (about half what we had when I was ordained) and are shrinking fast.

5. We are afraid of the Dark Side. Anne is a writer of Gothic vampire novels. What would she think of our chirpy optimism. How the church of Calvin and the Puritans came to have such a sunny view of human nature is one of those great imponderable mysteries, but Anne would hate it.

6. She would have nothing to push back against. Anne likes to fight with authority, but we don’t have any worth fighting with. She would hate that.

7. She would miss the thick texture of the Roman Church for our trimmed down decaffeinated Protestantism. Think about it: no Veneration of Mary, no stations of the cross, no fasting during Lent, no confession. Anne wouldn’t like it.  She just wouldn’t.

8. Our meeting houses have too much light. Anne is a “Gothic” novelist. Guess what kind of architecture she wants in her place of worship? Trust me on this one.

9. She would hate the New Century Hymnal. Why? Because she’s a writer and respects authorial intent and felicity of language.

10. She might get tired of hearing about how great we are because of our enlightened social views, and actually want some Christianity.

Ten Highly Effective Strategies for Crushing your Pastor’s Morale

In the past most congregations’ attempts to demoralize their ordained leadership have been haphazard and ad hoc, although still surprisingly effective. In the interest of bringing more rigorous and systematic approaches to these efforts here are some of my modest proposals:

1. Schedule a weekly meeting for your pastor to sit down with the treasurer (or, better yet, the assistant treasurer) to “go over” every business expense. Be sure to inquire if certain expenses are legitimate, such as the purchase of a Marilynne Robinson or Gail Godwin novel from the pastor’s book allowance (“Should we really be paying for your chick-lit?”) Or a long-distance call to a neighboring pastor friend from seminary. Do such expenses really profit the church? And what about this big expense for 14 volumes by this Barth guy? Do you really need all of these? And his title sounds so, well, dogmatic!

2. Plan a regular talk-back session after worship so that members can query the pastor about her sermon, or the worship service, or about anything else, for that matter. It is always good to question why the pastor chose scripture lessons that are so negative, referring to such old fashioned concepts as sin, unrighteousness and repentance. Suggest more uplifting themes in the future. “And, by the way, why don’t we ever sing Christmas carols in Advent?”

3. Make sure to have an annual customer satisfaction survey where every member of the congregation fills out an anonymous questionnaire about their views of the pastor’s performance during the previous year. Make sure all the negative (or ambiguous) comments are read aloud at several meetings, and publish them without attribution in the church newsletter.

4. Vote to hold all meetings in the living room of the parsonage during the winter as a way to save money on heat, but be sure to pitch the idea as good stewardship of God’s creation so your pastor will feel too guilty to protest.

5. Cut the mission budget to balance the budget. Better yet, ask your pastor to choose between a raise in salary or an increase in the mission budget. This would be a good subject for an extended conversation at a congregational meeting. You can never talk too much about clergy compensation at a congregational meeting.

6. Set up a pastoral oversight committee to regularly monitor the pastor’s performance. Focus attention on any negative (or ambiguous) comments from the questionnaire (see # 3). Make sure to put into place measurable metrics and target goals for new members received and money raised. Hourly work logs are always effective as well.

7. Whenever your pastor goes away and returns from denominational meetings or continuing education events never miss an opportunity to ask, “How was your vacation?”

8. Make sure the pastor is made aware of the two biggest complaints, namely, that he is never in the office, and he doesn’t make enough home visits. That the two cannot both be true will not diminish their use as morale crushers.

9. Tell the pastor that there are anonymous complaints that a. your sermons are too long; b. your voice is too soft to be heard (especially by the deaf); c. your spouse is not involved enough (or too involved) in the life of the congregation; d. your child shouldn’t have been given the lead in the Christmas pageant; e. your lawn needs mowing; and f. you were seen in shorts at the supermarket. This is just a sample list. Use your imagination.

10. Constantly compare your pastor to his long-tenured saintly predecessor, with special attention made to his never asking for a raise for himself or his staff.

If your pastor balks at any of these attempts, just mutter words such as “accountability,” “transparency,” “standards,” or “professionalism. Pastors are loath to appear to be against any of these concepts so cherished by the managerial class.

(Picture:  “The Scream” by Edvard Munch)

Nebraska Football and a Parable of Sports and Priorities

I am a big sports fan, but I often feel guilty about it (so it’s OK). I recognize in NFL football or the fever of Red Sox Nation some of the same scary crowd impulses that are present in big nationalistic rallies (think Leni Riefenstahl’s movie Triumph of the Will, with a difference to be sure.)

I recall Karl Barth’s critique of big sports under the term chthonic, relating to the earth deities of ancient Greece whose cults often practiced ritual sacrifice.  And as a guy with a head injury, I am especially alert to the dangers placed on the NFL gladiators we send out week to week to do battle for us to enjoy vicariously.

For many, sports takes the place of church, in some cases quite literally.  The church management guru of a generation ago, Lyle Schaller, once commented in my presence that in America, NFL football was a significant problem for attracting men to Sunday worship, especially on the West Coast, where the 1:00 Eastern Time game was shown at 10:00 Pacific Time there.

Still, I have always been an athlete and continue to enjoy watching talented men and woman engage in competitive sports.  Can one take this too far?  Sure, and nothing sums up an outsized passion for sports better that a joke I read on Facebook this morning from my old friend Jerry, a former student of mine from 30 years ago when I was a seminary chaplain.

Jerry, as anybody who knows him knows, is from Nebraska, a graduate of the University of Nebraska, and a huge fan of their football team, the Huskers (from Cornhuskers. ) Recently, in one of those silly Facebook apps that asks you your favorite five sports teams, he put Nebraska football with three names (Nebraska football, Huskers, “Big Red”) as his first three, and then, since he now plies his ministerial trade here in the more civilized confines of New England, he put the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots as fourth and fifth.

Jerry is also a bit of a character and will exchange banter with the best of them. So when he put up a new profile picture wearing a Nebraska cap, I couldn’t resist commenting, “Nice picture, Jerry, what’s the N for, New Mexico?”

That started a flurry of comments about his love for Nebraska football that ended in him sharing this joke which I offer to you as a parable about sports and priorities. It is an all-purpose sports joke and, mutatis mutandis, could well be told about the Red Sox, Patriots, Packers, U of Michigan, or Manchester United, for that matter, if they have season’s tickets there:

A man had tickets for the Nebraska-Texas game. As he sits down, another man comes down and asks if anyone is sitting in the seat next to him. “No,” he says, “The seat is empty.”

“This is incredible,” said the other man. “Who in their right mind would have a seat like this for the Nebraska – Texas game, the biggest sporting event in the world, and not use it?”

He said, “Well, actually, the seat belongs to me. I was supposed to come with my wife, but she passed away. This is the first Nebraska-Texas game we haven’t been to together since we got married in 1957.”

“Oh . . . I’m sorry to hear that. . . That’s terrible. But couldn’t you find someone else – a friend or relative, or even a neighbor to take the seat?”

The man shakes his head. “No. They’re all at the funeral.”

Thanks Jerry.  Go Big Red!