The Sweet Kingdom of Jesus

The Sweet Kingdom of Jesus

“Listen to what your heart is telling you.”

I had the delightful experience of attending a middle school play recently: Cinderella and the Candy Kingdom. It’s the usual Cinderella story, but set in a world of chocolate, sugar and sweets. Plenty of puns made it a very fun show: the wicked stepsisters of Cinderella were named Kit and Kat. The prince of the kingdom was named Reese, who rarely appeared without his squire, Hershey.

While Hershey won the audience with his consistent jokes and eager banter, it was Prince Reese who brought home the underlying meaning of the play. In the world of the Candy Kingdom, everyone loves sweets: first dessert, second dessert, third dessert. Whip cream and chocolate syrup on everything. You get the idea. Yet the young prince has a secret: he doesn’t like sweets. In other words, he’s not like everyone else. He doesn’t belong. Not only that, he’s in line for the throne, but isn’t the “right kind of prince.” Continue Reading..

Why I Can’t Agree to Disagree

Why I Can’t Agree to Disagree

The Gospel Coalition posted a piece today asking whether or not Christians can “agree to disagree” on the issue of homosexuality and marriage. I deeply understand the desire for unity in the church and share it myself. I have quite a few friends who hold to a conservative view on these matters. I disagree with them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or don’t have a relationship. But can we be in the same worshiping body? [By which I mean denominational/institutional affiliation—not a worship service] That is another question.

I am inclined to not want to “agree to disagree” on this issue. There are a couple of points at which unity is very difficult here.

1) Understanding of the Bible. Most who have an “open and accepting” view toward our LGBTQ brothers and sisters have evolved in their understanding of Scripture, based in large part upon biblical scholarship, personal study, experience, reason and prayer. Some of this scholarship is recent, much has been around awhile. Continue Reading..

Ecstatic about SCOTUS, but it took awhile

Ecstatic about SCOTUS, but it took awhile

Guest post by Mike Clawson

20 years ago I would have been among those who believe today’s SCOTUS ruling signals the moral and spiritual decay of American society – a sign of the end times.

15 years ago I still thought homosexuality was a sin, but no worse than any others, and didn’t think Christians should be making such a big deal about it. Also, my political views had shifted and I no longer believed it was right for religious people to impose our morality on society by opposing equal rights for gay people. Continue Reading..

Why Does the Church Insist That People Stop Learning?

Why Does the Church Insist That People Stop Learning?

AS A PARENT, it is a particular delight when I see one of my kids reading. I love to see when they become immersed into a story, or discover something they didn’t know before as they pore over a book. It is a thrill to watch their imaginations and worlds expand. Which makes it hard to imagine a parent saying to a child: “Stop reading! You’ve learned enough already. You’ve learned all you need to know.” Yet in my experience in the church, I’ve been told exactly that. And I know my experience isn’t an isolated one. Continue Reading..

Worship as the Ultimate Act?

Worship as the Ultimate Act?

THE WESTMINSTER SHORTER CONFESSION famously says that the “chief end of man (sic) is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This classic theological assertion is held with conviction by many in the Reformed tradition and beyond. God created us to give him (or her?) glory. The point of the universe is to glorify God.

It is often assumed that the way we glorify God is through worship. And worship is often understood as: singing songs on a Sunday morning, hearing a sermon, putting some money in the collection plate, and drinking some stale coffee afterward while dissecting the second point of the sermon or talking about the upcoming bake sale. Continue Reading..

We Must Listen AND Respond

We Must Listen AND Respond

“Homosexuality is a condition of disordered sexuality that reflects the brokenness of our sinful world.”

Ouch. That is the opening line in the position statement on homosexuality of the Christian Reformed Church of North America. I wonder how many gay individuals had a chance to review that before it went to press. I’m guessing not too many. That is a hurtful and embarrassing statement. I am ordained in the CRCNA. This statement does not represent me.
Continue Reading..

Show Up or Else: The So-Called Scandal of the Semi-Churched


Apparently there is a new category for the less-than-faithful-church-goer: not the ‘unchurched’ or ‘de-churched’ or ‘sick of church’ or even the ‘nones’, no, these new targets of evangelical exuberance are the semi-churched. Which probably describes many of you. Probably even me. Who are the semi-churched? Those who go to church usually, but not always.

Well, the word is out. A pastor in Michigan is on to your scheming and conniving ways. You’d think a pastor concerned with the kingdom of God might have an issue to speak about like hunger, or armed conflict, or global warming, or local housing issues, or building up his own community. Because there are real problems and challenges facing churches, neighborhoods and all of us.

But instead, who is the target? That empty pew from last Sunday. The pew that should have been filled with the sophomore college student in his congregation who didn’t show up last Sunday, or the middle-aged couple who went up north for a few weekends this summer, or the single mom who works weekends, or the executive who sometimes just needs a quiet morning at home. These folks? They’re the real problem.

Using words like intermittent, nominal and derelict, Pastor Kevin DeYoung goes on in today’s post to note such wonderful things as:

  • going to church is more important than having french toast for breakfast.
  • try cutting your weekend visit to the grandkids short by a day so you can be in church on Sunday. (After all, you still have the whole day of Saturday to spend with them! Well, part of Saturday, if you include traveling time. OK, just don’t expect to see them as much.)
  • enjoy going to your cottage for the weekend? Well don’t. Or at least, don’t enjoy it too much, and feel guilty if you also went during Labor Day.
  • feel like going to church is a chore? Well, consider Jesus: he went to the cross. [YES, HE GOES THERE]. He compared the challenge of showing up to a Sunday service with ‘the way of the cross.’ Enough said.

Perhaps you think I’m being too hard on this pastor. And maybe I am. But remember: he’s being even harder on you. Not fazed by the above? Well, he saves the best for last:

If you don’t show up to church every single Sunday, there’s a decent chance that you’re actually going to hell.

“Who knows how many people God saves ‘as through fire’?”

Who knows indeed? Apparently someone has at least some idea. Better to be safe than sorry. Thinking about skipping church for that brunch with friends? Think again. You might consider skipping the roasted sweet potatoes rather than find yourself roasted for eternity.

Let me close this commentary by noting that I’m grateful for the community I find in many church settings. I’m grateful for my own community here in DC. And yes, it is nice—and important—to see each other regularly. Any group seeking to develop community needs time together. But is it the way of Jesus to become legalistic about showing up to a one-hour service? Is it loving to treat people like children, wag your finger, and say: “You’d better be there…!”? I think it communicates trust when we treat people like adults and assume that when they aren’t in our presence, they may well have a good reason for it. Many folks who miss Sunday gatherings do so for very legitimate reasons: work responsibilities, travel, family visiting, illness, transportation challenges or gasp, serving their communities! Why not give people the benefit of the doubt instead of first thinking: “They’re up to no good, those slackers!” And if there is a concern about someone in particular, the place to address that is within the context of that relationship, not a general blog post bashing more than half your congregation (and all congregations).

As a side note, many have found that churches aren’t even the best place to nourish their spiritual journeys, and after reading a post like this, one can hardly blame them. Many find time in nature, at home in silence, in a yoga studio, on a boat, or getting their hands dirty in a community garden as much more spiritually-invigorating endeavors.

In fact, it could even be argued that too much church attendance isn’t good for you. It anesthetizes you to thinking that you’re making a huge difference in the world or that you’ve done your Christian duty, and that now you can get on with your week. It can insulate you to one particular way of thinking. Not that the writer is advocating church attendance as the only thing one should do as a Christian, but you could come away from the post thinking it’s at the top of the list. The piece—to my reading—is fraught with legalism, the need to control, and a yearning for ‘how it used to be.’

Well, it’s a new day. Unless you’re planning to attend a certain church in the mitten state on Sunday. In that case, best be early.

Pub Theology Is (not) a Waste of Time

Pub Theology Is (not) a Waste of Time

This post originally appeared in HuffPost Religion as “Pub Theology Is a Waste of Time”.

You’ve read, perhaps, about churches making use of beer to gain traction in connecting with people. NPR put it more starkly in a story recently: “To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer.” But you’re skeptical. And I don’t blame you. It sounds like a gimmick. Trying to be trendy. Throwing a few jokes into a stale sermon to appear witty, humorous, relevant. Young. People increasingly like beer. People increasingly don’t like church. So it makes a certain amount of sense. You can’t blame churches for trying.

pubtheology waste of time_FI have my own experience connecting beer and faith. I help facilitate pub theology gatherings every week. Pub theology is simply open conversation over a pint. You’re still skeptical. “So, you go the pub to drink beer,” you might say. “Great. Some of us are actually spending time doing things that matter. Helping the poor, working on housing and jobs, advocating for justice, mentoring people and more. Going to the pub to talk about faith seems like it increases what we don’t need any more of: talk. Why do we need more talk? More hot air does not make the world a better place.” You might conclude: “Pub theology is a waste of time.”

–Related: Bar theology: Burgers, beer, and a side of spirituality in D.C. (Washington Post)–

I’ve heard some criticism along these lines, and I’ve had some of these thoughts myself. Pub theology — gathering with folks to talk about life over beer — is nice. But isn’t it time to start doing some things that really matter? Isn’t it just dressing up a relic without really changing anything?

I wonder, though, if there isn’t a small flaw or two in this line of questioning: it assumes that pub theology is the only thing one is doing. Or that one is doing it as a gimmick to attract new church members. Neither of those things is true. Pub theology is not the newest trendy outreach effort. It is open, honest conversation, wherever that leads. It may lead someone to your church. It may also lead someone out of it. Now if you’re a regular reader of mine or follow me on social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that pub theology is all I do. If it was, I think I’d be in heaven already. But that’s for another discussion!

So I hear these legitimate questions and critiques and occasionally wonder to myself: maybe pub theology isn’t so worthwhile. Maybe I need to find something else to do on Tuesday nights.

And then we have an evening in which a Buddhist sits across from an atheist, and a liberal Lutheran sits across from a conservative evangelical. A member of a Unity church pulls up a chair. And the discussion is rich, full, and meaningful. We talk about issues of justice, evil, and whether or not an all-powerful God is culpable for the bad things that happen in the world. Some share stories of hope and powerful religious experience, while others talk about why the church is no longer the place for them, and still others say they’ve abandoned God years ago.

Is all that is happening here just “talk”? When we can sit and learn from someone who gave up his Catholic faith in college and has subsequently been practicing Buddhism for over 30 years, something is happening. When an atheist who gave up his religious views because of deep philosophical considerations, yet is interested in issues of meaning and life enough to join us and contribute — something is happening. When a person who hasn’t stepped into a church for years, but still considers herself spiritual pulls up a chair to listen: something is happening. When ten of us from very different perspectives can wrestle together about questions like — “Can violence make the world a better place?” or “Is the weight of history unbearable without the idea of God?” or “Is privacy a God-given right?” — something is happening. When we build relationships with a bartender, a server, a pub owner, something is happening. When a beer distributor attends an interfaith event during DC Beer Week and says, “Man, this is so refreshing compared to other beer events I go to,” something is happening. When someone says, “I just don’t go to church anymore because it doesn’t mean much, but I come here because it is participatory, thoughtful and open” — something is happening.

And so as I reflect on the ongoing place of gatherings like pub theology and similar events, I liken it more and more to a spiritual discipline or practice. In other words, it is something that I intentionally participate in because it shapes me in important ways (again, it is not a gimmick to attract new members — though some might seem to use that approach). And like any other discipline or practice, it isn’t everything. So it isn’t fair to compare it to something that it isn’t, and that it isn’t trying to be. It isn’t those things, and it doesn’t need to be. It is one thing, among many things that a person might be involved in. And like a practice of, say, contemplative prayer — which incorporates deep moments of silence, one might say of it: “Nothing is happening. You should be doing something.”

Yet when I engage in contemplative practice, though it appears nothing is happening, much is happening: deep wells are being opened up within me. Space is created which heightens my awareness, deepens my senses, gives me more patience and love in which to encounter the very real challenges that life contains. My connection to the Spirit of God is renewed. It is far from nothing. In silence, I find that much is happening. And as a discipline, when I participate in it regularly and intentionally, it adds to the other things I am doing, which includes engaging in “action” and more visibly constructive types of things like building relationships in my neighborhood, being an activist for issues like peace instead of war, dismantling mass incarceration and recidivism, tuning in to environmental /climate realities and how I might be a participant in and advocate for the natural world, creating a community of people seeking to engage their world while deepening a connection to Jesus and more.

And so pub theology, like prayer, or fasting, or Scripture reading, is a discipline. One might be tempted to ignore or skip such a practice in favor of ‘doing more’. But when I skip it, I miss out. I miss out on learning from people with experiences and perspectives that are vastly different from my own. I miss out on constructive dialogue on issues we all face together. When I am tempted to abandon the practice, I remember that for some folks, this is a first step toward re-engaging their spiritual side, or their first chance to speak honestly about their doubts, and is perhaps their only opportunity for deep, constructive dialogue and reflective thinking.

It is also, in a way, like preventive medicine. When I know someone as a person, I am less likely to judge them harshly based on preconceived stereotypes. If I know a peace-loving evangelical or Muslim, I am less likely to judge all evangelicals or Muslims as endorsers of violence. If I meet a deeply thoughtful, liberal Christian, I realize that they aren’t just about feelings or dismissing orthodoxy, but are about careful, deep reading of Scripture and tradition. If I meet an atheist, I may well realize through her caring presence that atheists are just as thoughtful and intentional as anyone else. If all I have are stereotypes, I’m likely to help perpetuate them.

So is pub theology just talk? Yes. And no. It is deep relationships. It is barriers coming down. It is stereotypes being proven wrong. It is new friendships occurring. It is lines being crossed. It is deep thinking about the issues we all face as humanity, being discussed from varying perspectives. It is a movement to deeper understanding, where new possibilities are opened up. It is a practice that I value deeply, and — in many different ways, under many different titles — it is happening all over, and needs to be happening, and I’m glad to be a small part of it.

bryan-2Bryan Berghoef is a pastor, writer, and pub theologian, and author of the book, Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God.  Bryan currently facilitates weekly conversations at a bar in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC.

A Soothing Aroma – Atonement, part 3

A Soothing Aroma – Atonement, part 3

This is the third in a series of posts about atonement.
Previously: When Jesus Died and Wonder Working Pow’r.

Today I want to get into the background of sacrifice in ancient Israelite practice. Stephen Finlan, professor of NT at Seton Hall and Fordham (and whose work inspires much of this post) notes that “For many centuries, sacrificial practice and interpretation in Israel resembled that of Israel’s neighbors: Canaanites, Moabites, Babylonians and others.”

A sacrifice often involved the killing of an animal, most often a bull, a goat, or a lamb. Sometimes birds such as doves were offered. Sometimes grain offerings were offered. At base, sacrificial meat was considered “the food of the deity.” In Numbers 28:2, YHWH calls it, “My food, the food for my offerings by fire, my pleasing odor.” The phrase “pleasing odor” occurs 42 times in the Hebrew Bible. Finlan notes that figuratively it means a sacrifice that God accepts, but its literal and older meaning is smoke that is tasty to God. The verbal root of nuah (which occurs in the phrase ‘pleasing odor’ or reach nichoach) means rest, so it is a restful or “tranquilizing” aroma, pacifying God’s anger, as is evident in Genesis 8:21, where “Noah’s sacrifice assuaged God’s wrath.”

A soothing aroma
A soothing aroma

Finlan extrapolates:

This is what the term “propitiation” means: appeasing and making peace with someone who is angry. Sacrificial ritual preserves this idea of the offering being persuasive or even coercive, but other ideas are added to the understanding of sacrifice. The food-offering gets described with the more dignified label of gift, thus emphasizing respect and obeisance rather than manipulation. However, we must notice that the gift still consists of the culture’s best available food items, just what an anthropomorphic god (and one capable of being persuaded) would want.

What’s interesting is that there are varying threads of how sacrifice is perceived in the Torah (or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) by its various authors. One of the authors (or one group of authors) is labelled P by scholars. P, notes Finlan, is uneasy with the notion of God smelling the sacrifice, of ‘receiving pleasure from the sweet aroma.’ Perhaps too archaic a notion, or perhaps they’re trying to modernize the reasons for carrying out the sacrifices. So they bring in a new concept: sacrifice as a kind of technology for spiritual cleansing, not for persuading God. Impurity is taken quite literally, as a stain on the sacred installations and altars of the Temple needing to be removed. God will abandon the Temple if impurity is allowed to persist. Impurity stands – in this view – for disorder, for a kind of spiritual chaos. Ritual sacrifice then, is seen to restore order, and is protective, rather than propitiatory.

Another author of the Torah, H (standing for Holiness Code), reintroduces anthropomorphism, and repersonalizes the cultic transaction. For H, it is the attitude of God that matters most. The role of blood remains, but is lowered in importance. The notion of the pleasing aroma returns, but here it is added with a ransoming effect. 

Finlan summarizes:

So we have three distinct concepts: sacrifice as a food-bribe (indicated by the “sweet aroma” in J [standing for JHWH – originating from the German in which Y’s are J’s]); sacrificial blood as a spiritual detergent (P’s purification idea); and sacrifice as ritual payment (H). Blood has literal, payment value in J and H. It has supernatural power in P and H.

The ritual was the means by which forgiveness was attained. No ritual, no forgiveness. The social corollary is: no professional priesthood, no forgiveness.

And if you perform the ritual wrongly, or are unauthorized in performing the ritual (not part of the priesthood), there is a narrative of divine violence upholding the mythology of holiness, says Finlan. Note the stories of Uzzah, who reached out to steady the ark of the covenant and was struck dead, or if you offer the “wrong fire” (or strange fire) as Aaron’s sons did: also struck dead. Or if you are a non-Aaronid and you approach the incense altar: “fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense” (Num 16:35).

In light of this, it is no surprise that independent prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist meet strong resistance from the professional priesthood. Why? Because a God who says, “come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) can grant forgiveness without the intervention of the ritual class, and this is a threat to their power, authority, and reason for existence.

So the argument around atonement as found in the Hebrew Scriptures often boils down to two views: a) propitiation, or persuasion, appeasement, a payoff or gift meant to soothe God’s anger; and b) expiation, a wiping-away, a cleansing. Most scholars would concede that both ideas are present, though they argue about which is primary and which is secondary. Most hold to the idea of appeasing God’s anger (propitiation) is the older, or more primitive view. But in light of the development of the priestly class, expiation or cleansing due to lack of holiness later took the primary focus.

There is much more to say along these lines, but in light of this cursory overview of sacrifice, what are your thoughts? Do any of these reflect the kind of God Jesus seems to represent? Is it possible to hold to an ancient Near Eastern view of God’s anger needing to be appeased through blood being spilled? Do you think Jesus thought of himself, God, or his own mission in light of any of these views? Or was Jesus more in tune with an independent prophet, outside the establishment, like Isaiah or John the Baptist? If so, does it make sense to define his life and death in terms of establishment ideas? Or would it be even more radical if Jesus was echoing the idea that the God is so loving and forgiving, that he can be approached directly, apart from the priestly class, without sacrificial or ritual intervention, that indeed, God “desires mercy, not sacrifice”?

The Pistol-Packing Pastor


The LA Times had a story recently about a pastor who carries heat: “He shows others how to put their trust in God and take their security into their own hands.”

From the story:

BEAUMONT, Texas — Two years ago on Super Bowl Sunday, Pentecostal preacher James McAbee was getting into his car after services when he heard a commotion. He saw two men break a window and enter a church hall that was being renovated.

McAbee called 911. The dispatcher said it would take officers at least 11 minutes to respond.

He lingered outside for a moment, frustrated.

“I could hear them snapping the lumber and carrying the sheet rock,” McAbee said.

The pastor drew a .380 pistol he wore in an ankle holster and burst into the hall — only to find two adolescents.

McAbee, who’d had a troubled youth, saw himself in the pair. He lowered his gun to offer some fatherly advice, but the older one, a 17-year-old with two outstanding drug warrants, rushed the pastor with the pointy end of a broken 2-by-4.

“I got my gun back out in time,” McAbee said. “He froze in his tracks. I said, ‘Son, you better not move or I’ll put one right in your watermelon!'”

The pastor held them until police arrived.

Some laud this pastor as exemplary, and he’s become known as Triple-P: “Pistol-Packing Pastor.” He began teaching gun classes shortly after he earned his nickname, and cites Scripture that he says justifies the classes: Psalm 144:1, “The Lord has trained me for battle”; and Luke 22:36, in which Jesus instructs the disciples to arm themselves.

I actually posted Luke 22:38 earlier today on Facebook:

So they said, “Lord, look! Here are two swords.”
He answered them, “Enough of that!”

Typical translations will have Jesus reply: “That is enough,” but I like this version. It’s as if Jesus is dismissing such talk. Yet in either case, Jesus is noting that his disciples are not to be about aggression and violence. Two swords would be laughed at in the face of even the smallest contingent of Roman or Herodian soldiers. He would face their worst, and was not about to respond in kind.

RELATED: Christianity, Gun Violence, and the Nihilism of Mike Huckabee

But back to our pistol-packing pastor:
He was expecting more than 100 people to attend his latest class, mandated by the state for concealed handgun licenses. The class costs $50, and in recent months, McAbee’s business has tripled and he’s trained more than 1,000 people.

What do you think? Is he doing a good thing? Is it possible to teach someone to trust in God and take security matters into their own hands? My own sense is that the need to carry the gun points to the opposite of trust in God. “Sure, I’ll trust you, God, up until the point I actually need to trust you. At that point, I’ll take care of things myself, thank you.”

There’s more to the story:

Guns were a normal part of McAbee’s life. He was raised in the small town of Clover, S.C., where his grandfather took him hunting. His mother worked in law enforcement and carried a gun.

One day at the range, his mother accidentally shot and partially paralyzed herself. McAbee was 9.

He grew up caring for his mother, and the stress took a toll. As a teenager he started using drugs and stealing to feed his habit.

When he was 18, McAbee was caught breaking into an elderly neighbor’s house. He was convicted of burglary, aggravated assault and battery, and served 2 1/2 years in a maximum-security prison.

There, McAbee felt called to preach.

This is a fascinating story. This guy spends time in prison because his mother shot herself with her own gun, yet he’s still enamored with them. Amazing. In prison he finds God. You’d think perhaps he would turn over a new leaf in regard to guns. The story continues (you’re not even going to believe this part):

In 2008, his mother again wounded herself with her own gun. Weakened by the shooting, she died later that year.

Seriously? She does this twice?! And she worked in law enforcement. You’d think this would be it for McAbee and guns. There’s no way he can look at one and say, “Hey, this is a good thing, more people ought to have these…” Except he does.

McAbee’s attitude about guns was unchanged: “Don’t blame the tool.”

Don’t blame the tool. Indeed.

MacAbee was hired three years ago at his present church, which is in a low-income neighborhood where gun crimes and celebratory gunfire is not uncommon. The day after Obama was re-elected, he bought an AR-15 assault rifle for nearly $1,000. He noted: “If the thugs are going to have one, I’m going to have one too.” If he insists on referring to people in his neighborhood as thugs, people who need the kind of help and life his church can offer, he might as well be armed. And apparently he is.

On occasion, the article notes, McAbee wears two guns to church — the .40 on his hip and the .380 in the ankle holster. His wife also carries a concealed gun. Neither has a safety on the guns they carry, and they like to keep a bullet chambered.

People think I’m a gun nut and gun crazy, but I’m not. I don’t want to hurt anybody. I believe the Bible teaches peace. But that doesn’t mean I should let them hurt me.

That’s like saying: “I believe the Bible teaches peace. But I don’t actually believe in trying it for myself.”

Imagine if Jesus had said, “My way is peace, and how dare you lay a finger on me, Pilate! I’m locked and loaded, baby!”

I invite you to read the rest of the story and draw your own conclusions.There’s been obviously tons of talk about guns of late, beginning with the Newtown tragedy and recent attempts at gun legislation. There are differing perspectives as to what the second amendment should mean today (or even meant originally).

Personally, I am amazed that someone who spent part of his adult life in prison and lost his own mother due to guns would have such a perspective. My own sense is that a ‘pistol-packing pastor’ is an oxymoron, and such an example doesn’t teach people anything about trusting in God, or about the way of Christ.

But I could be wrong about that.