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A Job Announcement

Monday, November 11th, 2013

For the last few years, I received the same dreaded question time and again: “So, what is it that you do exactly?”

“It’s complicated,” was the most honest answer to that question. Since 2009, I have completed a doctoral degree, written two books, taught

religion part time at a community college, traveled to speak at pastors conferences and academic meetings, and worked freelance as a writer and editor. And had a baby. And moved three times.

It is for this reason that I’m happy to report I now have a somewhat simpler answer to the question, “What do you do?” As of November 1, I am on staff at New Life Church, and my primary responsibility is to oversee the development of a partnership between New Life Church and Ouachita Baptist University that we hope will lead to offering college courses at NLC next fall.

That’s a little vague, I know. I’ll be able to say more in a month or so. But here’s what I can say for now: I am overwhelmed by God’s sovereign provision. This opportunity allows me to pursue two passions at one—local church ministry and Christian higher education. It’s a job I wouldn’t have had the imagination to design for myself, but it truly feels like this is what I’ve been preparing for all these years.

I can’t help but think of the words of that beautiful hymn, “Has thou not seen how thy desires e’er have been granted in what he ordaineth?”

As work on the partnership with OBU continues, I’ll have lots of opportunity to explore the Bible and theology with the congregation here at NLC. So whether I’m in the classroom or behind the pulpit, I’ll be serving through teaching and putting all that education to good use. And I’ll be grateful that God’s providence is not limited to my view of what’s possible.

Trendy Tradition

Friday, July 19th, 2013

A couple of articles discussing the appeal of tradition among younger evangelicals have circulated the web this week. One of them, by Andrea Palpant Dilley, encourages traditional churches to be slow to abandon their traditional worship style and values if their primary motivation is attracting young people. Not all young folks want a contemporary worship experience. Or as she so eloquently expressed the matter:

Consider that some of us in time renew our appreciation for the strengths of a traditional church: historically informed hierarchy that claims accountability at multiple levels, historically informed teaching that leans on theological complexity, and liturgically informed worship that takes a high view of the sacraments and draws on hymns from centuries past.

Dilley is telling her own story; she avoids making any sweeping claims about trends toward tradition. The other article, “Young Evangelicals Are Getting High”, explains that young evangelical Christians “are going over to Catholicism and high Anglicanism/Lutheranism in droves.” And here’s why:

The kids who leave evangelical Protestantism are looking for something the world can’t give them. … theology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. … They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents’ churches and not finding it.

I’m glad this discussion is still getting attention. You can’t talk about tradition for long before you start talking about history, and that makes this church historian very happy. But it’s not a new discussion, and the trend toward tradition isn’t new either. It was Robert Webber, back in 1999, who pointed out in Ancient-Future Faith that young evangelicals seem hungry for deep roots. (That’s when I joined the conversation.) Chris Armstrong reported for Christianity Today on the appeal of the early church for twenty-first century Christians in 2008. And I helped put together an issue of Leadership Journal called “Rediscovered Roots” in 2009.

The story of movement away from low-church worship to liturgy is definitely a popular story. It’s my story (another day, perhaps). But it’s important to remember that the movement runs both ways. Lots of folks I know who now worship in low-church, nondenominational congregations grew up in Roman Catholic, Anglican, or otherwise liturgical churches. For them, what some outsiders consider rich tradition they themselves consider dead formalism. Many of my community college students grew up in Roman Catholic or Orthodox (Greek, Russian, you name it) churches and left having no idea what was going on in the worship services. These students are attracted to contemporary, nondenominational, informal worship experiences. (See this, for example.)

What is really fascinating to me is that it’s not only young evangelicals that are returning to tradition. Judaism and Islam are also encountering flocks of young faithful who want to recovery ancient practices—more Hebrew in the synagogue and more interest in sharia law, and so on. (See this great article for more.) It makes me wonder: is there anything in particular about our tradition, Christian tradition that appeals to young people? Or does my generation simply long for some connection, any connection, to the past?

Sometimes I wonder just how deep my generation’s appreciation for tradition runs. Sometimes I feel like we want to adopt the parts of tradition that seem meaningful to us, that give us that sense of connection we long for. But we are slow to submit to tradition; we don’t want to be burdened by it. I hope this interest in tradition ultimately sparks an interest not just in liturgical worship but also in the actual facts and faith and practice of Christianity past. I’d hate to see the trend for the contemporary replaced by trendy tradition.

Writing Tip: Write with Your Ears

Friday, July 5th, 2013

Writing in a natural voice is important for every writer, and finding your voice can be a lifelong pursuit. (Personally, I don’t feel like I’m quite there.) But it is especially important—and sometimes especially difficult—for people who speak publicly for a living. These days it’s typical for someone to become a writer because they’ve already become well known as a gifted communicator. Whether pastors or professors or politicians, people who speak publicly for a living have an audience of folks who like what they have to say and like the way they say it. This makes them a publisher’s dream.

But a speaker who is well-liked because they have a distinctive way of communicating can often find it difficult to translate their naturally distinctive voice from the pulpit or lectern to the printed page.

One way I find my voice in print is to read everything I write out loud. Reading aloud accomplishes several things at once. It helps me catch awkward phrasing or identify places I need to vary sentence length to maintain a readable pace. It helps me identify passages that are redundant or unnecessary. Most important for present purposes, reading aloud also helps me achieve a natural writing voice, because it forces me to identify words on the page or turns of phrase that I would probably not use in normal speech.

Friends and family tell me that when they read my writing, they can “hear” me saying the words. This is good news. It’s also really hard work. Typically, my first couple drafts of anything are stilted and unnatural. It takes several drafts before I begin to sound like myself. Typically the first step in the right direction is when I stop writing with my eyes and start writing with my ears.

Our Next Church Wish List

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Seven and a half years ago we drove away from our East Texas wedding, crossed Arkansas through the middle, turned left at Memphis, and made the long drive with no turning that takes you to Wheaton, Illinois. Next week we make darn near the same trip in reverse to begin the next season of our life in Arkansas.

A lot has changed in that seven and a half years. We have more stuff. For the northbound trip, we pulled all our worldly belongings in a trailer behind my dad’s pickup. For the southbound trip, we’ll rent a big truck. Also, our family of two has grown by a cat and a kid. We’ve become grown ups, more or less. At the very least, we have a better idea now who we are and what we want than we did seven and half years ago. But that’s another story.

One thing that’s changed since that last cross-country move is what we look for in a church. Seven and a half years ago, my main criterion was that the church we attend must be completely unlike the church I grew up in. That’s not very mature, I admit, but it’s the truth. I didn’t really care where we went as long as it was different. Now our priorities have changed. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but this time we’re looking for a church:

1) that functions like a family. This is more than smiling and hugging and knowing everybody’s business. It means that older men and women rise to the challenge of offering guidance and godly example to younger men and women (as here and here). It means weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice. It means bearing one another’s burdens—whether physical or financial, spiritual or emotional. We found this sort of community at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, and now I can’t imagine living without it.

2) that creates opportunity for intergenerational fellowship, worship, and service. This is related to number one, but it deserves its own line.

A church

3) in which men and women of color hold visible leadership positions. Here’s an item I didn’t anticipate. Amy’s background in international churches has had her longing for a culturally diverse community for some time. But the older Jamie gets, the more eager we are for him to experience—and for him to see us experience—the spiritual leadership of godly black ministers.

4) in which children are invited and encouraged to participate in the worship and mission of the church. There’s a theme developing here. Basically, I’m for having the generations together more often than they’re apart. We want our children to know ow to worship and serve because they have done it all their lives.

And, most important, a church

5) captivated by the majesty of Christ and animated by a vision of the gospel that brings life and light to the darkness. Jesus is not my homeboy; he’s my savior and king. And I’d like to worship in a church that keeps that straight. A vision of the majesty of Christ should send us out into the world with confidence and joy, whether we’re barbers or bankers or editors, to do whatever it is we do for Christ and his kingdom.

There are other things to consider, to be sure. And maybe a week from now I’ll have a slightly different list. But these items are priorities for us. We’re eager to see where God leads. And I’m interested if anyone else would like to share their own top 5 (for the sake of conversation).

Sermon: The Parable of the Talents

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

I was privileged to preach this past Sunday on the Parable of the Talents. Here’s an excerpt:

And this is why the parable of the talents troubles me so. Just like I’m supposed to, I always associate with one of the characters in the story. The problem is, I always associate with the wrong one. There are three servants in the tale, and two of them are identified by the end as “good and faithful.” But no matter how I try, I always see myself in the one the master calls “wicked and lazy.” He seems insecure and afraid of failure. And I resonate with that. I cringe at the idea that someone like him, someone like me, would end up out in the “darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

But there’s a bigger problem. On the surface, it sure looks like this parable teaches that we are saved, that we earn God’s favor, by works not by grace. Think about it: three servants are given a task and the ones who excel in that task are rewarded. The one who fails is punished. If this is a picture of how God decides who’s in and who’s out, it is a frightening picture indeed.

Here’s a link to the full manuscript: Parable of the Talents.