Monthly Archives: December 2010

Best Ever Buttermilk Cinnamon Biscuit Rolls Recipe

Following the high impact, breakneck pace of Advent and Christmas Eve/Day, I’ve been taking this week off to rest and spend time with my family. Every morning, Jacob and I have been the first ones up, and while he happily digs into his cereal, I’ve also been in the kitchen making one of my all-time favorite breakfast recipes for everyone else.

So in the spirit of Christmas, I’d like to share a recipe with you that comes with two promises: 1) These biscuits kick Cinnabon to the curb; and 2) If yours truly can make them, anyone else can make them, too. So… get ready… read the recipe… imagine their hot, fresh, sweet, moist, oh-so-filling home-style goodness… convince yourself that you, too can make and enjoy these… gather the ingredients… and have fun!

Best Ever Cinnamon Biscuit Rolls

Ingredients

2 C   flour, sifted

1 T   baking powder

1/4 t   baking soda

1 t   salt

1/4 C   vegetable oil

3/4 C   buttermilk

1 stick (1/2 C) butter, softened

3/4 C   sugar

1 t cinnamon

1/4-1/2 t  ground cardamom (the optional, but much recommended secret ingredient)

1 C  milk (optional, but again, highly recommended)

Directions

1)Preheat oven to 400-degrees.

2) In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the sifted flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add and mix in the vegetable oil. Add the buttermilk and blend in very well.

3) On a large, floured cutting board, knead the batter into a well-formed, smooth dough. Note: for me, this is the hardest part– getting the batter into a smooth dough ball. Just have extra flour handy, be patient, and expect that sticky, lumpy mess to eventually be kneaded into a nice, uniformly smooth, non-sticky dough ball.

4) Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough ball into a 15″x8″ rectangle.

5) Spread the butter evenly onto the dough rectangle.

6) In a small mixing bowl, combine the sugar, cinnamon, and cardamom (optional, but again the highly recommended secret ingredient!).

7) Sprinkle the sugar mixture evenly onto the buttered dough rectangle.

8) Starting at the top of the 15″ side, carefully and evenly roll the dough (with everything you’ve put on it) jelly-roll style. Don’t try to roll it too tightly, but tightly enough to have a few swirls in your finished biscuit rolls. Pinch to seal the remaining edge onto the rest of the roll. When you’re done, you should have a 15″-long roll.

9) Using a sharp knife, cut the roll into 1 1/2″ segments and arrange them evenly into a pie tin greased with cooking spray. (If any of the sugar-cinnamon-cardamom falls out while cutting and arranging, just sprinkle it on top of the rolls once they’re in the pan.)

10) Bake for 20-22 minutes until done. (No matter the oven I’ve used, it’s always required at least 22 minutes for me.) The biscuits should have a light, golden brown finish.

11) (Optional, but again, highly recommended) Pour milk on top of the biscuits as soon as they’re out of the oven. They’ll quickly absorb the milk and you’ll get a hot, moist biscuit roll.

Enjoy! I guarantee you, your family, and friends will love them. From my family to each of you, Merry Christmas and a have a blessed, Happy New Year, too.

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How Atheists Have Helped Me Become a More Authentic Christian

Needless to say, in the world of “religion” there is no greater philosophical oil-water or perhaps gasoline-fire combination than atheists and believers. Sadly, there are indeed often violent conflicts between one faith tradition and another (to which my atheist friends would rightly question, “And you say religious belief is a force for good?” Good point.) But, if all we believers in God would get our heads together and wake up, we’d see that in fact we all do have something incredibly great in common: God! I think God would pass as a greatest common denominator on any scale, don’t you think?

But I digress… just slightly.

In my little world of experience, atheists and in particular Christians tend to stand at strong odds with one another. Their conversation goes something like this:

Christian: I believe in God.

Atheist: There is no such thing.

Christian: How can you possibly believe there is no God? Have you no heart? Have you no eyes to see all the evidences of God in nature and in everyday life?

Atheist: How can you possibly say there is a god? There’s no ontological proof for the existence of a deity. I see nothing but chaos and disorder within nature and in the world, certainly nothing that suggests a supreme omnipotence. Use your brain! Use reason! Then you’d see there’s nothing supernatural out there at all.

Christian: Oh yeah? Well, you’re a hard-hearted sinner who has simply blinded yourself to the truth. If you’d only open your heart and mind, you’d see there is a God.

Atheist: Oh yeah? Well you’re a delusional simpleton for believing in all these fairy-tale stories and myths that the best of science, history and reason has already debunked.

Christian: (with an angry glint and gnashed teeth) Sinner! Reprobate! One day you’ll find out in the fires of hell that there is a God, but it will be too late!!

Atheist: (with long sigh, and a gentle pat on the Christian’s head) There now, you just keep on taking that la-la land opiate if if makes you feel better. Some people still believe in Santa, you know?

Feel free to add your own variations on the theme, but I think you catch my drift. In all their differences, there tends to be at least one thing that Christians and atheists typically have in common: they both view the other with intellectual and moral condescension flavored by a strong degree of incredulity that cannot understand the mere existence of the other.

I have to say that I’ve had my negative encounters with atheists that have led me down this same path. There was even a period of time in which I declined to discuss faith or philosophy with atheists because of their belief that my dearest, deepest held convictions are based in some kind of God-delusion. That angered me to no end. Admittedly, at times I still get irritated by this, but as you can see by this post’s title, much has changed in my attitude.

What greatly helped me have been encounters I’ve had this past year with a few atheists who have been refreshingly open and humble and who also exercised an uncanny level of patience with me and the dumb things I tend to say from time to time. Dare I say– especially to them!– that they have been gifts from God? Why not! As the old doxology says, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” (emphasis mine).

In my ongoing conversations with these new found atheist friends, I have seen something I was not able to appreciate before: often the things that propel atheists away from religion and religious institutions are the attitudes, values, inconsistencies, hypocrisy, and often the hateful things said and done towards other people in the name of a loving God. For example:

  • How can we say we love and embrace all people while excluding and belittling other people groups, especially our gay and lesbian neighbors?
  • How can we claim to be intellectuals when many Christians thumb a nose at science, textual and historical criticism?
  • How can we claim to be good stewards of the earth when our lifestyles and voting tendencies further our planet’s corruption?
  • How can we claim to be humble and loving when we’re quick to become closed and condescending towards those who disagree with us?
  • How can we claim there is a God when our lives more closely resemble a functional atheism?

All of these are excellent questions which call fellow Christians and myself to serious account. In other words, most of the strong objections that non-believers have to our current manifestation of Christianity are things, which if taken seriously, would make all of us, myself included, more authentic disciples of Jesus.

Now my atheist friends have had enough courtesy and everyday respect to avoid opening up both barrels on me with these questions. (That’s a far cry from many a Christian who lick their chops over any opportunity to blast a non-believer into holy submission.) But the gist of their faith-roadblocks have steadily come up in our conversations, well enough to get my attention and challenge me to become a more authentic Christian.

And I saw something else that I might have ordinarily missed. My atheist friends are truly beautiful people who strive hard to be moral, good, and giving. (I would say this is the grace and goodness of God working in and through them. They might reply, “Whatever!”)

But nevertheless, rarely have I found gifts from God as precious and surprising that I would end up thanking God for the gift of atheists in my life, for the way they challenge me to reason more clearly, to think and rethink some unquestioned assumptions, for the purely intrinsic ways they have encouraged, supported, and befriended me, and for showing me yet another way God’s graceful presence does indeed inhabit the most unlikely people and places, acknowledged or not.

One concluding question: Do I desire for my atheist friends to become fellow disciples of Jesus with me? Absolutely I do! I want anyone to share the greatest, life-giving blessing of Jesus I have ever known. But let’s be clear: inviting an atheist (or anyone else, for that matter) to become a fellow believer and disciple is never ever motivated by adding another name and number to the convert list or claiming a prize scalp to put under my belt. I don’t work for a Christian Borg.

I will, however, always try to open up my life as far as I can in hopes of having something there of Christ worth giving, sharing and having by another human being, no matter what they believe or don’t believe. At the very least (and most!), I will attempt to love and serve like Jesus. And yes, I can always count on my atheist friends to tell me how I’m progressing… Lord, bless them and keep them always for that!

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Is There No Room for Grief in Christmas?

Let’s face it: for many of us, Christmas is (or has been) one downright lousy time of year that can’t be over soon enough. If you resonate with that, chances are you have experienced significant grief during the holiday season and were not given any meaningful way of acknowledging and expressing your grief during this “most wonderful time of the year.”

It’s difficult enough to meaningfully grieve in a culture that is too disconnected to recognize sorrow and loss, choosing instead to dilute our most precious feelings into a flaccid “fine” and “okay.” But couple that with a time of year all about peace, joy, faith, family, and abundance, it can leave us in a state of bewildered detachment. It’s terribly lonely. We feel cheated and wronged.

The problem is that all too often, Christmas leaves grieving people no place to grieve. There seems to be nowhere to latch our grief. Mistletoe, presents under the tree, mirth, gaiety, and sing-songy Christmas tunes don’t apply to a broken heart.

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In Memory of Diane Michelle Thompson

Yet last night, I shared in a special Christmas worship service that was designed for people grieving through the holidays. It was called a Blue Christmas service. Maybe you’ve heard of them. It’s a quiet, reflective time of prayer, sharing, and singing meaningful songs of faith that are not loud and rapturous but tender and soothing. I shared a very short reflection. And at the end, everyone was invited to light a candle in memory or honor of a lost or hurting loved one, or even for themselves. They were given an opportunity, if they wished, to share why they lit their candle and to know that we were there to listen and grieve with them, sharing our own grief, too. I could see the weight of unacknowledged grief coming off of our shoulders and peoples’ tears flowing steadily and unhindered. You could sense the release and freedom in that time of worship.

Personally, I got to do something I had never done before. I got to light a candle in memory of my first fiancée Diane Michelle Thompson, who died at the age of 22, just four months shy of our wedding. She died years ago and I’ve since then happily married and have children, but for the first time I could publicly acknowledge her death as a moment of worship during Christmas and allow yet another layer of grief pass. I also remembered the Christmases I spent after my last marriage ended and I found myself alone, without my daughter Grace there with me. That too, I could share and remember as a moment of worship during Christmas.

But how is this possible? Where is the joy? How does one worship and praise God during Christmas when in the midst of grief?

In the lowest points during my worst Christmas seasons, I would dig more deeply into Scripture to see if there was something of the Christmas story that could speak to my grief. Sure enough, there is. Last night I shared my discovery with my fellow worshippers:

How did the Son of God choose to make his entrance into the world? Was it in a stately palace among throngs of royal admirers? No. Was it in the Holy of Holies within the great temple in Jerusalem to be adored by the priests? No. And while we’re at it, forget the cuddly, cute images of manger scenes.

Mary and Joseph were poor peasants who were forced, probably at the final minute, to have Jesus born in the last possible place to duck in. There was no more room left at Bethlehem’s inn. So I imagine they hurried into the first thing they could find. It was a smelly, dirty stable stall. Mary delivered Jesus, and then spotted a feeding trough to lay him,  wrapped with whatever rags they could find to swaddle him. They were alone. They had nothing. They were unwanted. There was no joyful procession of choirs and orchestras. It was a quiet, unnoticed beginning for the Word made flesh. It was a painful way for the Son of God to begin his life.

Jesus’ life began and ended much the same way. Over thirty years later, Jesus would once again find himself alone, rejected, and unwanted– God’s ultimate gift to humankind thrown in the dumpster heap of Golgotha, despised by the whole world. It’s no wonder one of the ancient prophesies describing Messiah said,

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:3, KJV)

In my times of deepest grief, especially during the Christmas season, this is the Jesus I hold onto. He is the Jesus who is no stranger to grief. He is the Jesus who understands and embraces my pain as his own. He is the Jesus of whom the angels sing their songs of glory and praise.

From this particular shared embrace between Jesus and myself comes joy– not tinsel joy!– but honest to goodness joy that comes from the love and embrace of Jesus Christ, Jesus of the manger stall and the cross. I find hope again. And that, my friends, is a joy to the world which I can truly sing about today and always, whether I’m mired in grief or dancing in the dawn of new Christmas morning.

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Disillusioned with Church (Such as It Is)

It seems like more and more I talk to one person after another who is disillusioned with the church. You might think that the people I talk to are those who have already walked away from it. Most of them are, yes. But alarmingly, there is a growing chorus of frustration from those in the church now, but who may not be for much longer. Meanwhile, here I am as a pastor, seemingly a purveyor of all that is church, listening to and watching the frustration. I wonder how I contribute to it.  And I ponder even more deeply still, How do I raise this sinking Titanic that is the North American mainline church? Is there any hope?

First, let me say that I share the same frustrations with the Church that so many people have. Let me give you a taste:

  • I agree that the Church tends to be way out of touch with the real needs, thoughts, and aspirations of many everyday people.
  • I too, find the Church to be many times insincere and inauthentic about our motives and our shortcomings.
  • I hate how judgmental and narrow-minded church folks can be.
  • I’ve been deeply hurt by the stories of people who have come into churches I have served and walked away feeling unwelcome and even looked down upon.
  • I get frustrated when Christians (including myself) fail to do what we preach and fall terribly short from Jesus’ standard of love, grace, and integrity.
  • I cringe at the parochial and often hateful attitudes of churches and Christians towards any beliefs, standards, or ways of doing things that don’t fit into their little boxes.
  • I am deeply embarrassed by fellow clergy who use their sacred office of trust to exploit and abuse people and the churches they serve.
  • I’m ashamed at how often churches seem to only care about their own viability instead of truly caring about the life and healing of the world around them.
  • It exacerbates me that many churches would rather decline and die than embrace new, effective means of being a wellspring of life for the needs and well-being of their neighbors.
  • I keep wondering how churches can truly be Holy Spirit-filled, alive, Christ-centered, exciting groups of people with lots of love and grace to give away, versus the typical, hum-drum, dry, bone dead institutions stuck in a rut of traditionalism and fruitless routine.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. And I’m sure that somewhere in this list, I’ve probably scraped against some of your hang-ups and frustrations about the church, such as it is these days. It’s not a pretty picture.

Now let me also say that in the mire and mediocrity of many local churches, some beautiful things happen all the time that never get picked up in the news or in everyday conversations. Every week, I witness lives that are touched and changed by Jesus Christ through the everyday ministry of his people. I see churches reach out and serve their neighbors in quiet, non-presumptive ways. At the cutting edge of many social justice struggles, you’ll find people of faith leading the charge. I remain deeply humbled by the generosity, sacrifices, and selflessness of the people I serve in order to see our church love, reach out to, and include new people into our church family.

So, there is always so much, even within many small, seemingly insignificant churches that would inspire us all. I’ve seen it. And I never cease to be amazed by it.

But even then, there are major, systemic issues that the church in North America needs to address. These issues infect and threaten every congregation, and if we continue in our apathy towards these issues, we risk losing entire generations of people, if we haven’t already. They risk missing out on good news of Jesus Christ. And we in the church risk the blessing of loving and being loved by these generations of people.

It would take lots of different blog posts to detail the systemic issues that give reason for our mass disillusionment with church (such as it is.) And there are some excellent books which detail the issues. I encourage you to read them.

So, I’d like to propose a remedy that might help congregations and denominations of Christian churches to “get it right” again, to be the Church which Christ intended us to be. I’m not saying here that even if we were perfect that there wouldn’t be people who would still reject Jesus Christ and his Church. There always have been, and there will be until the end of this world (such as it is).

But, we can do some things that would keep people who genuinely believe, want to believe, or used to believe from being further damaged or disillusioned by the church. So, here is the remedy:

1) Individual Christians, congregations, and denominational systems must be willing to listen to and acknowledge the grievances people have with the current state of the church. We must stop thinking that they are wrongheaded reprobates and validate their hurt-filled, disappointing experiences.

2) We must take full responsibilities for our shortcomings and faults, lament them, and mourn for the countless lives who have been hurt, disillusioned, and damaged by the church.

3) We must take purposeful, fearless steps towards being a more authentic, sincere church. This can happen in one of three ways:

  • We do the hard, painful work of reforming local congregations through strong pastoral leadership working alongside faithful lay people.
  • We start new congregations whose DNA purposefully resembles a Christlike way of worshiping, living, and serving.
  • We provide hospice care for dying congregations who refuse to reform.

None of these options are easy, but one of them is necessary for every established congregation. Every established congregation must either reform, launch new faith communities, or die a dignified death. That may sound harsh, but it reflects my strong, growing conviction that no church can carry on in business-as-usual mode. To do that jeopardizes everyone.

In the mean time, I have some encouragement for those of us who get disillusioned with the church but aren’t giving up on it. First, the Church, the true Church, will never die. Local congregations may come and go, but Christ’s Church will survive and thrive. Secondly, the Holy Spirit is giving God’s faithful people vision, strength, and love to keep forming and reforming the Church, even if we find ourselves in far-from-perfect local churches. So don’t give up or walk away. You may reform what is there, help begin something new, or provide hospice care for a dying church. In any case, Christ can work through you to be his Church.

For those of you who have already walked away, know that a growing chorus of us hear you loud and clear and dislike what you see as much as you do. I would love the honor of having you provide your insight, wisdom and any help you might offer to create authentic communities that reflect who Jesus is.

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We Have a Winner!

I just closed the poll asking you to vote for your favorite thorny topic for me to write about, and here are the results:

So as you can see, I’ll be wrestling through disillusionment with church (as we’ve known it.) Actually for me, the wrestling will not be over how or why we get disillusioned with church. That’s the easy part. As someone who has spent only half of his life in the church and knows lots of people who have been turned off by church, I can complain about the sorry state of the church with the best of them. The real challenge will be prescribing a practical remedy.

Stay tuned, and as always, thank you for being a part of the ongoing conversation!

P.S. The other topics in the poll will not be neglected. But because I’m not too much of a masochist, I’ll be spacing out my trips through the thorns, unless, of course, the Holy Spirit would nudge me otherwise!

Stay tuned….

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Help Me Choose My Next Thorny Topic!

Vote Your Topic!

Vote Your Topic of Choice!

Okay, my friends, this is your chance to choose an upcoming topic for me to wrestle through and for you to read and discuss with me! I’ve never done this before– and I may never do it again!– but some of my greatest successes and greatest lessons learned have been through taking risks.

So, I got to looking at some saved but unpublished drafts of blog posts that have yet to see the light of day. That led to an internal debate on which post I should finish, hold my breath, and publish. And that led to another thought: hey, why don’t I make a poll and let you decide?

Take a moment to read the following topics and to vote for your favorite. After a few days, I’ll see which topic has the highest votes, and [gulp!] take it on. That will in turn lead to hopefully another lively conversation, or, perhaps some of you writing me off for good. But hey, you always have my promise that I will remain sincere and honest about my convictions (for whatever that’s worth to you!)

On your marks… get set… cast your vote!

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Our Desperate Need for Christmas

Have you ever noticed that Christmas tends to be more about wants and desires than desperate needs? We want the promises of Christmas– joy, peace, goodwill, love. But I’m becoming more convinced that the promise of Emmanuel, God with us in Jesus Christ, has more to do with meeting dire needs of ours than our dreams of tinsel and sugar plums. It certainly has nothing to do with all the fuss we normally associate with Christmas.

To show you what I mean, I want to share a Christmas Scripture you’ll never see in a story book or rarely ever hear in a Christmas service. We find it at the tail end of the story of the Magi. If you remember, King Herod (Caesar’s puppet king of Israel) had asked the Magi to report back to him once they had found Jesus in Jerusalem so that “he, too could go and worship him.” Yeah, right. Ever the scheming, violent, and paranoid despot, Herod was looking to personally wipe out any threat to his kingship. But the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and to quietly slip out the back door of Judea. Brace yourself for what happens next…

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:  “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.” Matthew 2:16-18

Merry Christmas, right? Now you can see why churches tend to steer clear of this kind of story during “the most wonderful time of the year.” But I’ve come to embrace this Scripture because it shows us exactly why we need Christmas, why we need God’s gift to the world of his only begotten Son.

There is incredible evil in the world and in even in our own lives, too, if we’re honest. Meanwhile we yearn for something or someone to save us– a new leader, a new idea, a new revolution, something that will deliver us from the ever-present danger of ourselves. In the message of Christmas is the answer for our desperate needs: God himself born into the poverty of a manger, born into a world of corruption and despotism, to be the Savior and Lord we so badly need.

Believe what you will about the claims I hold that Jesus is our Savior and Lord. I’m not going to get into religious arguments about that. But I am going to do what those first shepherds did by sharing the Good News with joy, and allowing you to believe it as the greatest, truest story or not. But I know the difference this Jesus born in a manger has made in my own world and life of Herod-like evil! That’s enough to convince me that what those ancient gospel writers wrote and shared with the world is more true and alive than anything else I know.

To close, I want to share a quote from Richard B. Wilke’s Advent study, Christmas: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

My Savior came into Herod’s world– our world, my world– to change evil into goodness, hatred into love, violence into peace, sin into salvation… Let’s keep Herod in Christmas to avoid sentimentality, to remember that a world saturated with sin desperately needs a Savior who can transform the human heart. (pg. 13)

Now that’s a Merry Christmas worth having on any day!

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