Thoughts About Church (1)

In an earlier post, I talked about differences between the liturgical style of the church I now attend and the more free-flowing style of the church I grew up in. I wanted to expand on some of those differences in a short, observation style.

In the Baptist church I grew up in, and many other evangelical churches I’ve been to, communion is a strictly symbolic ceremony. The grape juice and cracker symbolize the blood and body of Jesus Christ, and unlike the Catholic or Episcopalian versions, it’s simply that. There’s no transubstantiation or anything that would grant anything more than symbolic meaning. It’s juice and crackers.

Yet if it’s simply symbolism, why is the service so incredibly formal and stiff? I’ve noticed many communion services where the ushers and pastor rigidly serve one another in a regimented order that you fear cannot be broken on penalty of death.

While I don’t necessarily agree with the pomp and circumstance of communion in the Catholic or Episcopalian churches, it makes sense. Their theology grants special importance to the bread and wine (notice that it’s actually bread and wine), and they treat it as such.

Yet other Protestants seem to not even understand what they’re doing. It comes off as a ritualistic religious ceremony. Sometimes I wonder if all the forms of communion I’ve described are just missing the point. Jesus broke bread and shared wine, something the people of his time did every day. It’s akin to unwrapping a burger and popping open a can of Coke. I think that it’s through these daily rituals, shared with believing friends, that we are to be reminded of Christ’s sacrifice for us. Not in once-monthly batches of Welch’s and saltines.

The Broken Church

A few days ago I posted a story I wrote about what a modern Christmas might look like. Those thoughts really jaded my Christmas church experience, though I wonder if I’m just too cynical or if I’m truly disillusioned with the faults of the modern church.

On Christmas Eve we dressed up with the family and headed to church. A lot of my complaints stem from differences between a liturgical-based service and the more traditional free-flowing service I grew up with. But aside from those differences, I was just put off by how cliche Christianity has become. We sing about the Messiah finally coming and spending his first night on a bed of hay, and it just rolls off our back as part of the story. It doesn’t seem odd or challenging or amazing or any of the things it’s supposed to be.

Later in the service we sang about the dumb speaking, the lame walking, and the leper rejoicing. Those mean nothing to us. We say we believe in a Messiah who can make wheelchairs obsolete, but do we really believe it? This Messiah hangs with AIDS patients, why don’t we? The mentally handicapped that speak in slurs and we avoid, this Messiah approached them and brought healing. We can’t even approach them, much less think our God would heal them.

And then comes the fact that we dressed up for the evening. We dressed up to come to church, which is completely contrary to everything that Christ came for. It seems so right that we should put on our best before God. I’ve thought that many times in my life. But do we ever think how that appears to God? We are crap, and somehow a nice shirt and tie is going to make everything OK? God asks us to come as we are, not to dress ourselves up and pretend that everything is cool. God approaches us as we are in our brokenness, which is the very foundation of our faith, yet we’d rather tidy ourselves up to come to church.

We’re denying our faith, and what’s worse, we’re driving people away because we refuse to accept them as they are. So many people are hurting in this world, just needing to be loved as they are. If only the church was doing our job these hurting folks would find welcoming arms in church, instead of judging eyes.

So many people who are put off by God are actually put off by Christians who despite all their claims don’t know anything about God.

My only prayer is that I can stop pretending to know anything about God and allow God to reveal himself in me.

2003 Reading List

It’s time for the annual reading list, the semi-gloating summary of books I read this past year. Since losing my job in July and the end of my daily bus rides, my reading time plummeted. Sadly, I couldn’t match the blistering pace of last year’s reading when I devoured 49 books.

I’ve got a lot of books lying around I’ve been meaning to read, including G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, the rest of the Lord of the Rings series, Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog, and Red Moon Rising among others. We’ll see if I get to them in 2004.

One of these days I’ll get around to posting a book reading/reviewing blog and I can do away with this annual list.

100 Questions Every First Time Home Buyer Should Ask by Ilyce R. Glink
Bought a home this year, so I had to educate myself a bit.

The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky
He’s an interesting writer, but his novels are just so thick. It’s like reading upstream.

About a Boy by Nick Hornby
Great book. I love Hornby. The movie’s not too bad either.

Dear Mister Rogers by Fred Rogers
With the death of Rogers I figured I should get around to reading this book. That guy was so cool.

How To Be Good by Nick Hornby
More Hornby. This one’s a little darker, a little weirder, but I still enjoyed it.

Telling the Truth by Frederick Buechner
That guy can write.

Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
This one took me a few tries to get through. I think I’d prefer his devotional material.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Never ceases to inspire.

Patterns by Mel Lawrenz
Uh, book review book. (review)

Firefly Blue by Jake Thoene
Another book review book, though I had fun thrashing this one.

Empress of the Splendid Season by Oscar Hijuelos
Now there’s a guy who can write. On the basis of this book alone I made sure I own everything he’s written.

Wrestling with God by Rick Diamond
Another Relevant book grappling with being relevant. So-so.

Deeper Walk Vol. 1
Intriguing shorter essays from Relevant about living the Christian life.

Deeper Walk Vol. 2
Round two was just as good.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Anne Brashares
Saw it advertised on the back of a bus, bought it for my wife. Entertaining tween reading.

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
Powerful social commentary. Should have read this a while ago. (review)

Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott
Her latest novel isn’t as good as some others, but still worth the read. (review)

The Gospel Reloaded by Chris Seay and Greg Garrett
Another book review book, though I would have read it anyway. I’m not sure why they released a book in the middle of a trilogy that would be completed later this year. The book certainly suffers, though a crappy trilogy doesn’t help.

Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl
Mmm… kids’ books (i.e. padding the list)

Finding God Where You Least Expect Him by John Fischer
Now this was a book review book I actually liked. Check it out. (review)

The World According to Garp by John Irving
Finally got around to reading some Irving. Whacked story, but some good writing.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
Fattest Potter yet. Can you say lack of editorial control? (informal review)

The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey by Henri J.M. Nouwen
His incredible devotion to God — yet still feeling like he fails — makes you feel like dirt.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
Funny political essays. I heard her give a reading on NPR and it was quality.

Sexual Character by Marva Dawn
Frank discussion of sexual ethics. (review)

A Matrix of Meanings by Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor
Pop culture and the church. Been there done that (another book review book).

Walking with Frodo by Sarah Arthur
Sigh. Another book review book. Not worth the time. (review)

The U2 Reader
A collection of U2 press clippings. (review)

Cash by Johnny Cash
With Cash’s death, I figured I should finally read his autobiography. He lived a grace-drenched life.

Pray by Tony Jones
The skinny on prayer in a digestible format (Tony used to write for me when I worked on

Posers, Fakers , & Wannabes by Brennan Manning (didn’t finish)
Nice reworking of Manning’s Abba’s Child for teens.

Releasing the Rivers Within by Dwight Edwards
Another book review book about spiritual empowerment.

The Pursuit of God in the Company of Friends by Richard Lamb
A challenging book review book about the place of friends in our lives.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
It’s time to read the series again.

The Man Comes Around by Dave Urbanski
A book about Johnny Cash’s faith, written by another writer I used to work with.

I Didn’t Get Rich By Writing Big Checks

In my ever-expanding battle with computer frustration, I switched to Mozilla’s Firebird Browser today. A few people (Jordon Cooper, Josh Lewis, etc.) said good things about it, so I figured I’d give it a shot. And it’s not IE.

For the past week Internet Explorer has decided to not load certain web sites. For no reason they show up as “This page could not be displayed.” It’s possible that went down for an hour, maybe a day, but after a week I figured it was my problem. Pretty soon about 25% of the sites I visit wouldn’t load, and I decided enough is enough.

Every time I’ve tried to upgrade or reinstall IE it’s failed, so I decided it’s not even worth the time to try. I gave Firebird a shot, and I was up and browsing in less than 30 seconds. IE is no longer welcome here. Consider this yet another nail in the coffin of this PC user.

God with Us

The Christmas rat. (photo by Kevin D. Hendricks)

The following is a story I wrote to read at my youth group’s Christmas recital. I tried publishing it a few places just for the heck of it, but so far no luck (UPDATE: Though it sounds like Relevant Magazine will be publishing an edited version on Christmas Eve). So here it is.

Christmas has never made much sense to me. It centers on the little baby Jesus, born into a world of nothing, so we celebrate with overabundance, presents and goodies and decorations festooning every nook and cranny starting the day after Halloween. We’re over-compensating for the whole manger thing, hoping Jesus won’t hold it against us.

In reality, that first Christmas so long ago wasn’t the saccharine scene we see depicted on Christmas cards, where a dank and drafty hut looks positively homey. That first Christmas wasn’t clean and polished, and if it happened today no one would notice.

Imagine Mary and Joseph, youth group alums getting married in college. Maybe Mary is 19 and Joseph is 21, incredibly young, but not irresponsible. They’re the excessively cute, engaged couple, wearing matching sweaters and registering at Target. They’re excited and eager and scared all at once.

But then the bride is pregnant, the husband-to-be floored. There’s talk of visions and dreams that the family tries to keep quiet, but everyone knows. It’s an episode of Jerry Springer, and the unrepentant Mary — holding her head high and spouting about the Messiah — is shipped off to stay with her cousin –- the older, wiser, pregnant-after-she’s-married cousin, leaving Joseph behind. The big day is forgotten in a cloud of shame.

Despite what everyone says, Joseph knows they didn’t shack-up. His fiance is either a slut or crazy. He’s not sure which one’s worse, until an eerie nighttime visitor gives him a third option -– he’s the crazy one.

In the midst of all the gossip and leering eyes, Joseph comes to Mary’s defense, not exactly touting her Savior story, but not denying it either. Mom and Dad wish they’d just fess up, and all could be forgiven, but Mary clinging to her true-love-waits card in the third trimester is a bit much.

When a Draconian government edict requires them to be home for the holidays, pregnant and all, they huddle into Joseph’s sputtering college car and shuttle across the country. They roll into town too late, the hospitals crowded, the doctors out of town, the inns overbooked.

It doesn’t matter anyway, since this severely pregnant woman gets scorn, not sympathy. It’s obvious she’s not the chaste virgin she claims to be, and with Joseph by her side he’s either too forgiving or guilty as well. This is their mess, let them clean it up.

With no one to take them in, not even insurance to secure a hospital bed, they wander through the streets. The homeless shelter must have been full, and the church locked for the night. In the end Mary and Joseph curled up in an alley, next to a dumpster and a garbage can, to bring the Savior into the world.

The young mother is scared, she screams and cries out into the darkness. There’s no epidural in an alley. A rat looks on. Joseph does all he can to midwife the child. He’s seeing a part of his wife he was not yet supposed to see, and is clinging to the hope that she’s not crazy, that he’s not crazy, that this baby is actually more than everyone says.

The baby is finally born and Mary crumbles in a heap. Joseph cuts the umbilical cord cut with his pocketknife and wraps the child in old newspapers. This is our Messiah. A back-alley baby, just as well aborted or left in the dumpster.

But this isn’t the end of our sordid tale. Late in the night transients come and look on, the kind of riffraff that ask for change in parking lots with elaborate stories about needing bus fare to North Dakota. Mary can smell the alcohol on their breath, but they don’t ask for a hand out. They ask to hold the baby. They pat Joseph on the back and head out into the night, singing together in their semi-drunken stupor.

Next comes a crowd of foreigners, immigrants who barely speak English. They look like 9/11 hijackers, and rather than useful gifts like blankets, diapers, or even a onesie, they bring odd knickknacks from their homeland, the kind of present you’d bring to a state dinner, not a baby shower. In broken English one of them says grand things about the baby, something about a majestic king and a new era. The new mom and dad look at the Star Tribune covering their child and their delivery room alley, and they can’t help but wonder who’s crazy now.

Morning comes and the bewildered trailer park family moves on, to raise their child under the watchful eye of people who call him a bastard, a child of sin, and look down with derision.

That is the birth we celebrate with fat Santas and gifts and cookies, frosted electric red and green. That is why we string tacky lights, hang greens, and wish one another a Merry Christmas. All because of an illegitimate child born in the streets.

Years and years after that hapless family pulled together, miles away from the bloodstained alley where it all began and the leers of gossipy neighbors, that bastard child flipped tables at the church potluck, and had dinner with homosexuals and HIV-victims. He gathered a gang of truck drivers and gas station clerks, even an IRS agent and a prostitute, touting them around while he insulted the bishop and walked across the Mississippi.

That back-alley baby stepped on one too many toes. They falsified some evidence, found a loophole, and ramrodded him through the courts. A jury of his peers approved of his guilt, and in the end they send 1,000 volts coursing through his body. It was finished.

So raise your hands, and let’s sing a song of the dumpster baby, adored by hookers and terrorists. Let’s frost a rat-shaped cookie and hang some trash on the front door, to commemorate that back-alley birth. This is your Savior, the Christ-child, and the story of an implausible Christmas that gives new meaning to the phrase God with us.

Our Best FIF Ever

Yesterday I finally got around to posting my self-indulgant, retrospective Five Iron Frenzy article. In honor of that article, and in a previous tradition, I present my choices for a Five Iron greatest hits collection: The Best FIF Ever.

As usual, I had a hard time making up my mind, so I went with 2-disc set. The first set is the very best. The second set I’m calling B-sides, but it’s really all the other songs I like a whole bunch.

FIF. (photo by Kevin D. Hendricks

The Best FIF Ever
1) FIF Tribute (Fourth from the Last by The W’s)
2) One Girl Army (Proof That the Youth Are Revolting)
3) Cool Enough For You (Upbeats and Beatdowns)
4) Cannonball (The End is Near)
5) Me Oh My (All the Hype That Money Can Buy)
6) Handbook for the Sellout (Our Newest Album Ever)
7) Beautiful America (Upbeats and Beatdowns)
8) See the Flames Begin to Crawl (The End is Near)
9) A New Hope (All the Hype That Money Can Buy)
10) Banner Year (Our Newest Album Ever)
11) It Was Beautiful (The End is Near)
12) A Flowery Song (Upbeats and Beatdowns)
13) World Without End (All the Hype That Money Can Buy)
14) Anthem (Proof That the Youth Are Revolting)
15) Old West (Upbeats and Beatdowns)
16) Litmus (Our Newest Album Ever)
17) Farsighted (Electric Boogaloo)
18) Giants (All the Hype That Money Can Buy)
19) Something Like Laughter (The End is Near)
20) Blue Comb ’78 (Our Newest Album Ever)
21) Dandelions (Quantity Is Job 1)
22) Every New Day (Our Newest Album Ever)


The Best FIF Ever B-Sides
1) These Are Not My Pants the Rock Opera (Latin Pants) (Quantity Is Job 1)
2) My Evil Plan to Save the World (Quantity Is Job 1)
3) Combat Chuck (Upbeats and Beatdowns)
4) At Least I’m Not Like All Those Other Old Guys (The End is Near)
5) Most Likely To Succeed (Our Newest Album Ever)
6) Pre-Ex-Girlfriend (Electric Boogaloo)
7) Where is Micah? (Our Newest Album Ever)
8) Marty (Cheeses of Nazareth)
9) All That is Good (Quantity Is Job 1)
10) The Greatest Story Ever Told (All the Hype That Money Can Buy)
11) Farewell to Arms (The End is Near)
12) 451 (All the Hype That Money Can Buy)
13) Get Your Riot Gear (Quantity Is Job 1)
14) Where the Zero Meets the Fifteen (Upbeats and Beatdowns)
15) The Untimely Death of Brad (Quantity Is Job 1)
16) Mayonnaise Taco Monday (Cheeses of Nazareth)
17) Suckerpunch (Our Newest Album Ever)
18) You Gotta Get Up (Happy Christmas)
19) Oh, Canada (Our Newest Album Ever)
20) Arnold & Willis & Mr. Drummond (Upbeats and Beatdowns)
21) Far, Far Away (Electric Boogaloo)
22) Amalgamate (Upbeats and Beatdowns)
23) On Distant Shores (The End is Near)

In the Name of Love

In the Name of Love

The CCM U2 Tribute album, In the Name of Love, showed up in the mail the other day. Well, half the album anyway. It’s a press copy of the album, but it only has 7 of 12 tracks (potentially 13; the Grits version of “With or Without You” isn’t listed in the liner notes).

It’s an intriguing project, basically an easy way to raise money for the AIDS crisis in Africa, but also a way to introduce the CCM scene to the music of U2. Many CCM fans are well aware of U2, but there’s a lot of hardcore CCMers that rarely listen to anything mainstream (I was one of them once), and for those folks this album will be a rare treat. Of course if you’ve ever heard U2 before, these songs won’t sound nearly as good.

I predict this album will be popular within the CCM world simply because of the nature of the Christian bubble. If you have never heard Bono belt out “Where the Streets Have No Name,” you’ll be perfectly happy with Chris Tomlin’s eerily similar version. Likewise Sanctus Real does a decent “Beautiful Day” knock-off, minus Bono’s soaring vocals and a little more grit in the Edge’s guitar riffs.

Jars of Clay and Sixpence None the Richer stray the most from the originals, probably because these artists are most familiar with U2 and know the danger of trying to sound like the best band in the world. Jars does a bluesy version of “All I Want Is You,” which seems to deflate the song of momentum. Sixpence tackles the forboding “Love is Blindness,” but it misses the melancholy of the Achtung Baby original. Both bands attempted an experimental angle, but it didn’t fly.

The real standout track (of the seven I can preview) is Audio Adrenaline’s version of “Gloria.” I know, I know, saying Audio A can do justice to a U2 song is tantamount to sacrilige. But they manage to modernize the thoroughly 80s song and without gutting its soul. There’s plenty of 80s rock left, and the tune just jams. Not too shabby. Of course it helps that the original was recorded 20 years ago.

I’m eager to hear the remaining tracks, including Toby Mac’s butchering of “Mysterious Ways” and what Delirious can possibly do with “Pride (In the Name of Love)” that won’t sound exactly like the original.