Category Archives: Apologetics

Why I Write My Sermons In A Bar

ishot-2

One of my “insider” interests is learning how other pastors handle sermon prep. What I have discovered is no two pastors are ever exactly the same except that all have a process, every step in the process is intentional and the whole thing begins with with an initial Monday morning panic, “Can I make a message out of this by Sunday?”

My process isn’t terribly novel. In general terms, I prefer to preach either expositionally (through books of the Bible) or theologically (some people call this “topical” and yet my focus is more on the theology of a theme than merely good advice giving). Where I may differ from many of my fellow preachers is that my prep is sliced into two distinct environments. It begins in the lab of my study and ends in the field that is a bar.

In The Lab That Is A Study

I recently read an article that said pastors should not have offices, but studies. I like that. So I have a study. My study is like a lab; a controlled environment with everything I need for the task of research. I begin in the lab by copy-and-pasting a double-spaced version of my biblical text for the week into a Word document. I then read the passage over and over, identifying patterns, scribbling notes, logging insights and asking random questions with each pass. I would guess I scan and scribble through the passage around 20 times, usually finding that the most valuable insights hit around the 15th pass. From there I do my exegetical work. For those unfamiliar with our hip clergy nomenclature, exegesis is when we seek to understand the meaning of a book of the Bible in its original language, culture and context. It may sound dull, but for Bible nerds this is the biblical peanut butter to our theological jelly. Once that is complete, I pile my desk with books and read till I feel I need to unbuckle my mental belt like its a post Thanksgiving Day dinner.

As the above process unfolds I regularly shake out the cramping in my right hand. I’m feverishly jot down informational aggregate on my narrow rule TOPS white legal pad, using my Pentel 0.7mm mechanical pencil and rotating through my pile of Ticonderoga Emphasis highlighters (shameless product placements) to mark varied themes with various colors (yellow is technical, green is illustrative, pink is pithy, orange is for us today, blue is transitional and purple is key points). Finally, I figure out the key breaks in the passage that will act as transitions through the sermon and I put each of those sections into a PowerPoint build. By the end of my time “in the lab”, I have logged around 20-30 hours and piled up anywhere between 10-20 pages of notes. With my lab research done I grab my ESV Bible, research notes, TOPS pad, Pentel pencil and head to a bar.

In The Field That Is A Bar

Labs are pristine, antiseptic and protected. That gives us the ability to research in ways that are ideal, controlled and precise. Field research is messy, inconvenient and unpredictable, yet true to life. A local bar (a cantina technically) is my field research. It is the last stage in my process and the location where I put the majority of my sermons together.

As I walk in, the familiar Latino bartender greets me with our customary ritual, “Amigo! Mac and Jack?” Mac and Jack’s is hands down the best African Amber on the planet and is brewed just over the hill. I give him my usual thumbs-up and find a place to sit down. My table is the far back corner. It gives me the best view of the room.

On this day there are two middle-aged women at the far booth. Each has a margarita the size of a kiddy pool. They are loud, animated and angry – at a man. The one on the left is mad at her man. The one on the right is mad at the same man, but only as a show of solidarity for the friend across from her. Hell hath no furry like two angry women with a gallon of margarita between them.

I smirk and think, “I’m glad I’m not that guy.” And I write.

Further to my right, two men sit at the bar. One is retired, has a cane, wears a veteran hat and is eager to initiate a conversation with anyone who sits within three seats. A couple seats down is a young guy, blue collar, no wedding ring and looks like he came straight from moving a mountain of dirt with his bare hands and then used his face as the wash cloth. He’s sipping Fireball, watching the soccer game and riding that fine line with the vet of being just polite enough to keep conversation at arms length without being disrespectful.

I’m like the younger guy. I’m sad for the older guy. And I write.

Closer to my immediate left are two young women in their 20’s. I can hear how the one feels betrayed because she just found out her boyfriend has a porn issue. Her friend seeks to console her, assuring her of how the boyfriend in question doesn’t deserve her. Suddenly one of the the two loud margarita ladies unexpectedly shouts, “Men Suck!” and the consoling 20 something responds, “Amen!” (Yes, you would be surprised how much “Amen” comes up in a bar). The laughter and camaraderie cuts away the anger and betrayal for a few brief seconds before reality returns, and with reality the conversations.

I grieve. I pray. And I write.

Behind me around the corner is the restaurant area. Just within earshot I can hear a family. The newborn baby is crying and big brother (who may be all of 4-5 years old) is repeating, “I’m bored! I’m bored!” Dad must be lost on his phone because of the terse female voice that comes next, “Are you going to deal with your son?”

I remember. And I write.

After a few minutes a third man appears at the bar. I’ve seen him a few times before. White collar, wedding ring, never really talks. He sits at the bar for one drink in a small glass and leaves. It seems to be his soft space between stressful worlds.

I look. I ponder. I pray. And I write.

It is in this immersive environment where I begin to construct my final thoughts; pushing what I have studied through an ether vastly different than the atmosphere of my study. As I do my mind bends toward various questions as the message unfolds:

How would people in a bar understand this?

Would people in a bar know what to do with this?

Do people in a bar even care about this?

What biases might the two younger women have about the importance of this?

What words or ideas would the unmarried dirt covered guy be unfamiliar with?

What questions would the married business guy and his one drink have about this?

What confusion might be stirred up for the worn out parents with their two young kids?

What objections would the loud margarita ladies have about this?

What conclusions would the retired veteran have about this?

What humor, illustrations, word pictures or pop culture references can I use that most of the people in a bar would instantly understand?

What religious clichés are so loaded that they might sabotage what I believe people need to understand regarding this?

How can I do all of this and still ensure that Jesus, above all else, is honored and pleased with what I say?

Now obviously I don’t systematically walk through these questions after every point. They are more the natural consequence of the environment as I compile the sermon. Completing my message in a bar forces an awareness of and sensitivity to people in real life. It unlocks the questions in a way far more authentic than anything I might duplicate by just imagining people in the isolation of my study. And I do this, not in the hopes of understanding the “lost”, but so as to understand people; not the least of which being the “saved” ones. The bar is a transparent microcosm of the same realities, challenges and conversations “saved” people face. A bar is filled with the same kind of demographic diversity that a church seeks to create. And ultimately a bar is popular for the same reason a church; because people are looking for a safe place in which some seek to hide, others want to connect and still others invest to belong.

Mind you a bar isn’t a perfect place, but neither are people. Praise God that His Bible, His Gospel and His Grace always is.

 

An Open Letter To My Pro-Choice Friends As To Why I Have No Choice But To Be Pro-Life.

MB PostsOver the last few months there has been no lack of social commentary regarding life, choice and reproductive rights. A good portion of that commentary, escalated by the release of several Planned Parenthood videos, has billowed from political hopefuls, seeking to secure the praise of their party’s base. Because of this, I find their words are not as concerned with a clear explanation of position, but rather are intended to besmirch their opponents. It’s the “red meat to the lions” endeavor that seeks to spread the impression that those who hold an opposing view are nothing more than pro-misogynist Terrorists, if on the right or pro-infanticide Feminazis, if on the left.

My intention here is not to supplement to that kind of bombast. Nor is it to orbit around all the political leveraging on this topic. Rather, what I am seeking to accomplish is why I am pro-life and how being so does not stem from some twisted desire to be anti-rights, anti-choice or anti-women. Now in writing this, I have no illusion that your mind will be changed if you are pro-choice. I do hope that with the absence of prickly sound bites and over-the-top name calling, people who do not hold my view can at least understand why people who are pro-life hold the view they do.

1st The Science Points To Human Life

I’m an evangelical pastor that has a serious appreciation of modern science. I see it as an ally to what I believe, not an adversary. With this, I believe the scientific evidence proves that biologically we are dealing with human life at the event of conception. Now we can debate if this equals personhood (I’ll get to that later), however there is no debate that the genetic materials involved at conception are by all quantifiable accounts human. For when two human gametes couple to form a human zygote, it is human life that is underway.

Perhaps some of the strongest evidence that a fetus is more than just a ubiquitous housing of tissue comes from the Planned Parenthood videos themselves. What is clear, is that the harvesting of organs and other parts are specifically human organs and human tissues. In other words, the monetary value of the harvested portions derive their value from being human, not merely being tissue and organs. To my knowledge there is not a high demand for fetal otter tissue or fetal hippo organs. It is the humanness of these fetal components that fetch their dollar value. Thus pro-choice science inadvertently agrees with pro-life science that what we are dealing with is a scale of humans. They may be tiny, undeveloped, dependent humans called fetuses (unless they were intentionally planned and then we use the familial term baby), but they are still human and they are still living by every technical measurement. The difference we seem to have is rooted in my second point.

2nd The Economy Of Human Fetuses and Eagle Eggs

I support sensible conservation. I also support making endangered species a protected class. On the flip side I have no compulsion to rescue every spider that creeps into my house. My reasoning is based on the environmental economy of supply and demand. There is an ample supply of spiders and so I think nothing of pushing one under foot, where as the Bald Eagle is rare and so I fully endorse criminalizing any activity when eagles or their eggs are harmed.

Now seeing that the human race has hit the 7 billion mark it seems we see ourselves as spiders more than eagles on the fetus front. We think we can afford to have a different view of our unborn race because our race is in ample supply. If however, our species were down to 100,000, our fetal value and hence protection would sky rocket in the economy of life. Debates about rights and choice would evaporate in light of pro-pregnancy rallies. As a species we would take dramatic steps to protect every fetus like it was an eagle egg. In the face of extinction all sides would agree that fetuses are worthy of protection. But at 7 billion we feel we can comfortably afford the position of pro-choice (some even advocating for it in light of concerns regarding overpopulation).

From this it seems that the pro-choice side views human fetal value as partly connected to population size, as displayed toward policies regarding endangered animals. When supply is low the value increases, but when supply is high the value drops. Conversely the pro-life side sees human fetal value as intrinsic and not conditioned by population density or other environmental considerations. Thus the total number of humans never dictates how valuable a single human is. It is similar as to why we have protective rights for minorities; we seek to protect the intrinsic value of an individual irrespective of an overall population or its biases.

Building on this I would take things a step further and say that all human value is intrinsic, not only irrespective of population size, but also regardless of one’s participatory status in a given population. Thus I move to my third point.

3rd How Human Is Human Enough To Have Rights?

Science proves a fetus is a human fetus. And I believe all humans would be prepared to grant protected status to a fetus if we were endangered (just as we do with endangered species and their unborn), but we don’t because humans are not endangered. Supply and demand is not the only way we measure value. Perhaps another way to look at it is to use the familiar phrase Human Rights. The question I have here is, “Who should be considered protected under Human Rights ideals?” The follow-up question is, “When do Human Rights trump governmental policy?” Is size the issue? Is dependency the cutoff? Is capability the measuring rod? Is gender or race a consideration? If someone is severely handicapped do they have less human value and consequently diminished human rights? When a country adopts a policy that takes dehumanizing action against a segment of their population, do we see that as a Human Rights epidemic? When cultures see women as less then men do we believe it is a moral responsibility to provoke social change and see things right sided toward equality? I think you get my point. When it comes to the handicapped, the incapable, the incoherent, the disenfranchised and those who are on the receiving end of whatever social bias exists, we believe those are Human Rights issues because they assault human personhood.

When I look at this in light of abortion I bring it back to the things mentioned above. Someone is not less human merely due to size, level of dependency or his or her inability to contribute. If a country shows bias against such people we see that as a Human Rights problem regardless of the laws a country establishes over the body of it’s own people. And most certainly someone is not less human, less a person, simply based on whether they were desired or perceived of as equal. Overall both pro-life and pro-choice advocates believe that human status is not based in the perceptions of others, but in the uniqueness of humanity itself. This takes me to my forth point.

4th Every Time Some Humans Concluded Other Humans Were Less Human They Were Wrong.

The ancient cultures perceived women and children as being less human. They were wrong. The slave traders and owners of historic America viewed African salves as 3/5 human. They were wrong. The Nazi’s viewed homosexuals, the handicap, Gypsies and Jews as less human. They were wrong. It seems that as a race we are good at dividing up our species into valued segments by which the less valued are expendable or exploitable. And yet every time this happens we can see in hindsight how wrong we were. Thus, since I believe science proves a fetus is a human, that humans have inherent value (a value we would all agree on if the population was at risk) and that such value is not derived from size, dependency, status, gender and desirability; as a result I believe the philosophy behind abortion is on the wrong side of history. Every time populations have rendered a value judgment of “less than human humans” future generations condemn it. This leads me to my fifth point.

5th I Don’t Choose To Be Pro-Life, Rather I Have No Ethical Choice.

Now before you misinterpret the title of this point let me clear the air. I’m not saying that people who are pro-choice are not moral. If you will entertain me for a second let me consolidate my case and from that show what I mean. If I believe science shows a human fetus is in fact human, that all humans have intrinsic value, that such value isn’t derivative from population, size, dependency or desirability but merely from being human, that to diminish such value in any corner of our species is a human rights violation and by extension a breech of individuality and personhood, and that every time this has happened before we were wrong; then I really have no choice to make here. I am bound by a pro-life position in the same way I am bound by human rights at large. To see things the way I do and then turn a blind eye would be no different than any other blind eye I might turn in the face of human bias.

Now if my premises regarding human status were different perhaps I could see my way out of a moral pro-life requirement. But the above points leave me with no option. These various facts constitute the essence of humanity. And just as I believe all classes of humans must be protected under an umbrella of human rights (minority humans, female humans, little humans, handicap humans, incarcerated humans, etc.), so too fetal humans. The location of a fetus no more changes the status of its humanity than Nazi laws and the Dachau camp could alter the intrinsic humanity of a Jewish girl. In my estimation Human Rights always trump the laws of location. This takes me to my sixth and final point.

6th Ladies, I Don’t Want To Control Your Reproductive Rights

I have a wife and two daughters. They are independent, competent and driven. I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to hold them back or make them less. With that said I also have no intention to mandate for them how they choose to handle their reproductive issues in life. However there is a big difference between having the right to “when” and “how” you reproduce and the event in which reproduction has occurred. Reproduction is just that, the genetic contribution of two humans who make a third human. How two humans want to keep their genetic material from coupling is up to them, but once they have produced a scientifically defined human (intentionally or unintentionally) the rights of that human are also conceived in that moment. Rights where population, location, size, dependency and desirability should not be factors employed to discriminate against the intrinsic value of what it means to be acknowledged as human.

Conclusion

As I shared from the beginning my intention is not so much to change minds (though I won’t complain if that happens), but to help my pro-choice friends better understand why this issue is passionate for us on the pro-life side of the fence. I don’t think most people who are pro-life should be likened to misogynistic terrorist who use “Family Values” as a code phrase for suppressing reproductive rights. Rather I see pro-life ideals far more like Amnesty International or other Human Rights advocates. Now in the end you may believe that our definition of what makes one a human is too constrained, but in the spirit of consistency regarding human rights and worth I would advocate we error on the side of caution when it comes to all things human.

P.S. You’ll also notice that while I am a Christian, I didn’t quote the Bible in this article. I have biblical reason as well that reinforce my pro-life beliefs, but I wanted to share my thoughts from a neutral framework where mutual understanding and tolerance is a bit more likely. Aside from this I am also convinced that the pro-life position should not be seen as a viewpoint only for those of a religious orientation, but rather can– and I believe should– a position for all who defend Human Rights around the world.

I Don’t Mock Zeus Because He’s Fake

MB PostsRecently I was reading through some Atheist material in preparation for an upcoming sermon series when I came across a familiar counter theistic argument. The basic concept is that Christians are actually Atheists in regard to all other gods except their “one true God.” Therefore the only difference between a Christian and an Atheist is that the Atheist goes one god further. Now I do admit the argument is not only cleaver, but a bit compelling too.

As an Evangelical I am a stanch Atheist in regard to all other gods. Oden is lore, Zeus is fiction and while Osiris looks like “Beast” from Teen Titans (which is awesome) he lacks standing support. But here is what is also true; I have no angst, spite or distain for those gods. I feel zero need to discuss how petty, juvenile, cruel or ridiculous they may be. In fact my “Pissed-O-Meter” doesn’t even tack .1 when I think about the topic of other gods.

Now maybe that is because I’m reflecting on gods that are long bereft of worship. So I decided to dig a bit deeper into my own emotional grid. But when I did so realized that my “P-O-M” doesn’t even budge when I think about the gods of current religions such as Islam or Hinduism. Isn’t that weird? It should be weird based on the “Christians are actually Atheists – save one” argument. Here is what I mean.

I concur that I am a full naturalistic skeptic in regard to Allah and Shiva, but I’ve also never been compelled to assault their character, actions or personhood. I can’t even imagine wasting time, emotion or energy to do so. I have certainly spent time dealing with comparative religious systems in light of Christianity, but I have never put the gods of those systems in my crosshairs because I know I’m shooting at thin air. I don’t waste time mocking the Flying Spaghetti Monster for the  same reason. To have any critical or negative opinion of a deity that I consider to be a mythology is about as rational as mocking the Leprechauns I don’t believe inhabit my toilet bowl. What makes this even weirder is that while billions of people are affected by and follow the gods that I don’t believe in, my Atheism regarding their gods is so sincere I don’t feel the need to burn a single calorie to assault the character of their deities. I will challenge their religious philosophies, but I never attack their gods. Additionally I’ve never been a part of any Christian group where people sat around and badmouthed other dieties. They may talk about Islam’s doctrines, but no one I know sits around and talks about how silly or sadistic Allah is. That would be a bit weird right?

Then I thought about it more. I’ve also never met any full Atheist who has displayed the need to consistently dismantle the reputation of any other god – except the God of Christianity. On this god I find a disproportionate obsession with assaulting the character of what is adamantly defined as an inane and outdated myth. A famous instance of this comes from Richard Dawkins when he writes:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

I give Dawkins points for flair, but I also sit somewhat dumbfounded and think, “Why waste this much ink to mock a fable?” It would seem a sincere Atheist would be radically passionless toward any mythological deity precisely because of the “fact” that it’s a fiction. I think about how more than a few Atheists glibly equate God with Santa Clause, but none that I know of take the added time to bust St. Nick’s snow globes for breaking an entry or jipping naughty kids out of Christmas. Yet in my experience I commonly find Atheists are colored with a deep passion against the “myth” of the Christian God. It’s a case of real hate for the fake god. And then I realized, perhaps the hate is real because deep down inside they hope – might I even say, “pray” – He is real so He can feel their disdain.

As for me, I will continue to go on in my unimpassioned Christian Atheism. I will not Photoshop Zeus out of the Trevi Fountain to mock his mythological status. I will not imprint a Flying Spaghetti Monster between the elephants of the Banteay Srei Carving of Shiva to belittle Hindu gods. And I will not rant about the cruelty of the Sith Lord Darth Sidious when he had Anakin kill his loyal Count Dooku. All for the same reason, only realities are worthy of my passions.

Passion for your house (Oh Lord) has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.     Psalm 69:9