Category: Personal


Lk 2:15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

“And he was called Jesus”- It doesn’t seem like a very dramatic conclusion to the nativity story. After all the angels and long journeys and wise men and shepherds, you might even say it seems downright anticlimactic.

Naming a child, after all, is for us at best a kind of release. For example, many children are named after a recently deceased relative; it can provide some closure as families work through grieving while honoring the relative. Or, like was the case for my son Kylen, a child might not have a name for hours, days, or even longer after being born and it is a release just to be able to finally settle on something that fits. But throughout the Bible, names and naming have a far greater significance than this.

We find a major clue in the word for the action itself: to call. Just as in English, the word call means both “to name someone or something” and “to beckon, request, or require something from someone.” When people are named in the Bible, “very often, the emphasis is… less on the fact that names are such and such, than on the fact that the bearers of the name actually are what the name  says about them” [kaleo, BDAG]. When your parents named you, they may have tried to find something with a positive meaning that they hoped you would live up to; but when God names you, when he calls you, the naming itself is effective in accomplishing it.

Counselors, colleges, even reemployment programs all like to talk about callings, taking the other meaning, as those things we do outside our homes to earn money to provide for family and maybe serve society. That is true in one sense; I am called as a student, a researcher, a writer, a teacher, a father, and husband. And god undoubtedly calls us to all those places. But our new name in baptism, the one we so often ignore is Christian- little Christ-. God calls us into that identity through baptism, not just in the hope that we will become Christians but in the same way he spoke “light” in the beginning and there was light.

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I realized today (actually it’s more of an emergent process than that, but today put the words on it) that within the next 10 months or so, I need to make an important decision which, although I can adjust as I go, will in all likelihood substantially bias my work for a good chunk of my life: Am I am big R or little r sociologist of religion?

Anyone who knows me can attest to my hesitancy and unwillingness to make this kind of decision; that’s why I have 4 degrees and am only now starting my PhD program and heading for two more. So what do I mean by big and little R?

A little r sociologist of religion concerns him or herself with the gradual accumulation of knowledge, the successive testing of aspects of theory using whatever data and methods are available to them. Most work in the field is of this sort, and much of it is very high quality and useful. The type of articles and books I review on my companion blog sociofaithful fall into this and can be very valuable both to people interested in the functioning of society and churches and to people with a practical interest in ministry. It is easy to collaborate with others, contribute to the growth of the discipline, and publish frequent and (hopefully) meaningful articles using this approach.

A big R sociologist of Religion, on the other hand, is as much a philosopher as a consumer of data. They are more concerned with the development of theory explaining broader phenomena and working across cultures than with the functioning of a specific cultural manifestation of religion, except insofar as it reflects larger concepts in the theory of religion. If dataheads are the pastors of the sociological academy, theorists are more like systematic theologians, trying to synthesize as much as possible to understand in broad strokes both (current and historical) reality and the sea changes that take place from time to time.

Neither approach disregards the other. Big R sociology without data is just speculation and pontification. Little r sociology without theory is devoid of content and falls closer to journalism (i.e. reporting) than knowledge creation. I love both. I can’t get enough good data to satisfy me, because it is the only way to see what’s really going on. But I can’t help but ask bigger questions than survey data analysis can answer. In the end, I will end up as either a theoretically aware quantitative dude or a statistically knowledgeable theory guy, but the two are still worlds apart.

And even though I am nearly 5 years away from the terminus of my program, the decisions start now, because there is not time to study numbers, ideas, languages, and the history of the discipline all to a level of mastery. If I spend my time studying social thought, I have less time to understand the inner workings of the statistics that are the bread and butter of sociological scholarship today. If I care enough about Japan to refresh and improve my skills in the language, what other opportunities am I missing out on? And while there is much of my life yet, Robert Frost touched reality closely in his famous poem of choosing a path:

[I] Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

Even more than that, I will be adjusting to the habit of producing certain kinds of knowledge whose processes are very different. Certainly at Penn State the natural choice would seem to be the little r; our faculty is among the best in the world at thoughtful, relevant, incremental knowledge production. But who am I? Because I am both, but the two identities are held in tension and not allowing one to grow beyond the other would stymie my ability to participate in ongoing conversations and be useful in creating new ones.

And it goes beyond personal identity to personal vocation and theology. Clearly, I have the ability to produce multiple things. My M.A. thesis is an abstract theological proposal; my undergraduate thesis is evaluative number crunching. But I have to ask, what is the role I have been given in the scheme of God’s unfolding design of creation: a (hopefully masterful) craftsman or an intellectual? In what way am I embodying my Jesus, my God in my world? In the end, the decision returns to the missional question, not in a utilitarian way that seeks to maximize some underlying value that can be quantified and tested against others, but in a contextual way that seeks to answer “What am I doing here now?” I appreciate your shared prayers and I would love to offer mine to yours also. Vocation is one of the deepest, most personal, most meaningful and contextual (and thus frustrating and exhilarating to figure out) aspects of a life of faith. Peace to you in your own call.

The New Medical tower at Providence Hospital in Everett

Providence Medical Center in Everett (north of Seattle) recently opened an impressive new medical tower, and has been running radio spots touting its impressive emergency room and other services on my favorite news-radio station, KOMO. While I can’t locate the spots online to play for you, the gist is that they spend the first 30 seconds raving about how wonderfully accessible/high-tech/etc the tower is and then… “But without our award-winning staff it’s just a really expensive nifty fancy amazing building” or something to that effect.

While I laud both the effort to offer the highest quality of medical care and the effort to give credit to the caregivers themselves, the ad struck as less than completely true from a sociological perspective. Top specialists and surgeons provide certain skills that are invaluable in the most challenging cases, when diagnosis and treatment can be more challenging than keeping track of the policy violations or wrong decisions in an episode of House. But for the vast majority of patients, it is the culture and sociology of the organization that distinguishes a hospital more than who specifically is doing the treating.

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Jesus Washing Peter's FeetI usually elect to offer my comments on other people’s blogs either at the blog or in Facebook/Twitter streams. In this case, I need to reblog the entire post.

Here’s why: this describes one of my core goals as a sociologist of religion- to be academically responsible and provide useful understand to real practitioners. I could not have said it better except for making it specific to my own field (the author is in HIV research, not religious research).

This is servant leadership, and it is diaconally oriented in its nature- bridging two worlds and providing the “stuff” necessary to assist others without demanding to be recognized at center stage. I meant to write this; now I can just pass it on to you instead. So please, read the whole entry and comment, here or at orgtheory. I think you will find it a worthwhile investment. Thank you, and Peace.

I am delighted to serve as a guest blogger on orgtheory.net. I have been meaning to get into the blogging game for quite some time.  I am an avid reader of various blogs, and I always wondered about people who had the pluck to release their thoughts to the internet world, without the benefit of editors, peer reviewers, and the scads of people that we rehearse our arguments in front of during academic conferences. So here I am, taking up the chall … Read More

via orgtheory.net

Solomon, meet Paul

Apostle Paul-MonrealeKing Solomon

In my current Bible reading plan, I am reading through the Old Testament, New Testament, and Psalms each daily for a year (or a little more, after some missed days). Today, I happened to come to the (ostensibly very different) conclusions of two books.

Here are some quotes from the NET text in the key verses:

Gal 6:15 “the only thing that matters is new creation”

Ecc 12:13 “Fear God and keep his commandments, because this is the whole duty of man.”

The way I see it, one of two (slightly wild) things is going on here. I don’t have a final answer, but you can probably judge by the rest of the post which one I’m leaning toward. Continue reading

Union Gospel Mission Seattle

First, listen to the song On a Corner in Memphis by Todd Agnew and let yourself take the words in a couple of times. I’m working on about time 83.

Now think back to the last time you saw a panhandler on the off-ramp, and consider how you reacted. Did you give her money? I’m guessing most of you did not. And one key reason is that you don’t want to be an enabler of drugs, alcohol, or whatever else that person’s pet sin might be, right?

Besides, somewhere along the way, someone probably said something like “You know, if you gave someone a fish, they’ll eat for a day, but if you teach them how to fish they can eat forever.” Maybe you even listened to the Arrested Development song and are willing to admit it.

In this case, both approaches might be wrong. I want to propose a third way, one that eschews condescension toward our neighbor in favor of love, real understanding, and empowerment. Continue reading

I am amazed at the depth and breadth of ministry discussion that happens among Christian leaders online. A recent discussion was initiated by a friend with the status “How does your church define active membership?”* If you’re in a hurry to see what I mean, click this link to the see the entire transcript of the 64 responses on Google Docs. A little discussion of my thoughts on the opening question and some of the other conundrums follows in the rest of this post.

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I was a little surprised yesterday when I received a Facebook message titled “Thank You!!!” from a “shirt-string friend”, someone I knew only through her membership in a local Bible literacy initiative I had been webmaster for.

I was more than a little humbled when I opened it and read that because of a paper I posted online, her life had changed and she was now training to become a pastor.

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So I was listening to Metallica on my way home tonight. They are one of my favorite rock bands because:

  1. So much of their music was about something that mattered
  2. They’re bloody good at what they do and
  3. You can actually understand what they’re saying most of the time

This third characteristic caused me to stop (not literally, I was driving) and do a mental double take. I thought they were suddenly channeling Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Let me explain.

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Random ministry insight of the day: If God blogged, we would be the entries. Period.

Not static pages (like the “About” page), not the theme: we would be the blog and the blog would be us. We are not only God’s hands and feet, but God’s very image and self in creation, and his mission through that self is to bless all of creation.

Wow! The only question is, how do you read?


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