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So the poet Rumi, the novelist Mary Shelley, the comedian Bill Maher, and the Apostle Paul all walk into a book . . .

It’s a book for, about, and by members of the Christian church, and it finds some helpful instruction in things each of these people (among others) have said or written.

The book is called Frankenchurch, and I cowrote it with my father Larry Tindall and our friend Matt Bissonette. It’s a unique conversation grown from a reading of Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein and comparisons we three see with the story of the church.

You can buy the book or download samples for iBooks and Kindle; and the book is available in print version at Blurb.

Here’s a little sample quote from the book:

Many new-to-church people are excited about life, like the newly-made Victim [the name we gave to Frankenstein’s nameless monster], and eager to create a strong and healthy church, like the young and brilliant Victor [Frankenstein himself].

And many jaded church people, including former church leaders, cannot stand the sight of the church they had a hand in creating, the church that also had a hand in creating them.

All of us church folks are both Victor and Victim.

It’s been nearly five years since we began working on this book, when I was still living in Owatonna. Matt conceived the idea, and invited my dad and me to help him with the actual writing and publishing of it. The first drafts were drawn up in my parents’ backyard garden and around their kitchen table as we three met to talk through the bones of the book itself.

I have fond memories of reading Frankenstein on my front porch swing and writing much of the content of Frankenchurch in the early morning hours before the rest of my family woke.

My dad, ever the pastor-teacher and life coach, poured his mentoring care of others into the discussion questions and revisions and additions to the text of the book; and his business acumen into learning and entering the world of self-publishing.

It’s been a true team effort, and we’re excited to finally send our monster creation out into the world!

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My man and I have been through a lot together. Including a hands-off, touch-less pre-marital relationship.

Sixteen years later, we’re still living with the consequences of our choices.

Oh yes. I know, that sort of talk usually refers to the choice of “too much, too soon,” and I don’t disagree that we live in a hyper-sexualized culture. But for some of us, more needs to be said about the dangers of overly-prohibitive romances.

Nathan and I fell in love over our guitars. My first memory of him is a long-haired, earring-bedecked, goatee-trimmed Minnesota boy lazily strumming a guitar, sitting at the church missions fair behind his booth about his recent travels in Romania. I was hooked. He doesn’t remember much about the first time he met me, but he says he fell hard for me when I pulled out my guitar and sang a song I had recently written.

The summer of ’96 was one long conversation, deep into the night, punctuated with music and, I assume, eating and sleeping too.

But not touching. We had both been in previous relationships with a strong core of making out, and, doing our best to protect ourselves and one another from the dangers of sexual sin, about which we had heard plenty throughout our years in church youth groups, we agreed to a hands-off policy.

No, really. Hands-off. In premarital counseling with our pastor, when the subject of sex came up and he somehow discovered that we didn’t even hold hands, he looked concerned. He said something about light switches and wedding nights, akin to the idea of 0-60 in 10 seconds flat, and that maybe this wasn’t the healthiest way to go about building a marriage.

Considering his advice, we agreed to hold hands before our wedding.

The big day came, and soon enough, that first kiss. Of which I remember hardly anything. Shy and public are good descriptors. Hundreds of people observed this model couple’s first kiss, and I’m sad to say that we heard from more than one family afterwards, how our kissing decision was held up as a standard for their own children.

Listen, kids. Life is a struggle. We try things and fail, then try again, and sometimes we succeed. But always we grow, if we are willing to. That includes the decision my love and I made about touching each other. We have grown. But because we chose not to touch before our wedding, even while building profoundly deep emotional and cerebral bonds, we’ve had a little trouble connecting our sex life with the rest of our relationship.

The first few months, we were the stereotypical 1950’s newlyweds, exploring and enjoying sex like hungry adolescents. But if sex has been forbidden for most of your life, especially if you are a girl and are told you are responsible for protecting boys from temptation, then you can’t just jump right into it one day and feel that everything is good now. A subtle sense of self-loathing built up in me, which I began to vent by verbally abusing my husband, along with petty arguments, dramatic cry-fests over small disagreements, all of which seemed to come from a basic feeling that I was not lovable.

I wonder if a woman who has been told that sex makes her dirty, premarital sex makes her “damaged goods,” feels some sense of that consequence even after she has supposedly done everything right, secured the marriage license and kept all the rules.

And maybe it isn’t any easier for those couples who did kiss or – gasp – go further before their wedding, but felt compelled to hide this part of their relationship from that same church-induced sense of shame.

(And I am only beginning to listen to – and still far from truly understanding – the pain and shame heaped on anyone identifying beyond assumed heterosexual norms who grew up in church youth groups like mine.)

“It is not good for the [hu]man to be alone.” That’s fundamentally what sex is about – companionship, partnership, intimacy. As we parent our children, as we encourage the young ones – and really, everyone – in our midst, we must give one another space and grace to fail and grow in our reaching out for companionship, partnership, intimacy.

Go on. Kiss him. I’m talking to you, woman married twenty years who still habitually fends off the “temptation” to touch your husband.

A rough draft of this post has been in my drafts folder for nearly two months. Thanks to TC Larson for posting on this topic today and inspiring me to do the same.

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What if God really is a construct of the human mind, collective human consciousness, generations of human culture? Does that mean we’re not still on to something? Our stories about transcendence, our yearnings for immortality, for perfect love and world peace – are they really only wishful thinking, or could they be baby talk in a real language we hear but cannot comprehend or speak yet?

I suspect we the human race have never gotten it right in our attempts to fully describe it – and it’s possible we’ve not hit on anything remotely close yet to the reality of that being/force/substance/unimagineable I Am/none of these things.

Are we truly naive and destructive for reaching, seeking, asking, theorizing? Of course not, not for those things. But for insisting, grasping, lying (willfully), closing eyes to the observable truth, claiming superiority, excluding, and faking – therein lies religious humans’ ignorance and destructiveness.

I can’t think like I used to – or pray like I used to – can’t sing or talk or go to church or get into a Bible study – not like I used to – but I can’t let it go either. Is it embedded in my psyche because it’s what my ancestors did? Partly, I’m sure. I can never know what it would be like to encounter my faith tradition with the wisdom and discretion of an adult. I can’t completely separate personal nostalgia from the stories of my faith, can’t divorce the little-girl wonder and comforting taste of church potlucks, soft embracing arms of Sunday School teachers, smell of glue and construction paper, sound of rich organ strains, from the doctrine of the Trinity, the gospel of Jesus.

I also can’t completely filter out the shaming looks and words, the hateful tones used of people different from us, the arrogant proof-texting and the general dullness and deadness – the constricting sameness, the denial of humanity in its richness, brokenness and wildness – that hummed around me like the radio station always tuned in and played low.

No, all of that is there, mingled with the body and blood of Christ, between the lines of the King James Version Bible memory verses filed away in my brain.

But it breathes like a living thing in me. It does not lie there mutely like a sterile model under museum glass, oblivious to my scrutiny.

I respect my fellow humans who see no sign of God. Their ideas have given me courage to explore my own – to go down deeper, unafraid (well, less afraid) of people’s opinions of my excavations. I have been changed, and am being changed – I am plunged more into myself, more into humanity, more into life and truth and this shattered, shining world.

The God of my past looks increasingly like a puppet, stitched together from Bible stories, religious aspirations, moral intuition; and animated by power-hungry men. But somewhere in there, I feel so sure, is a beating heart.

Lately I’m letting go of the fairy tale god who came prefabricated for me, all outlined in the Christian school curriculum, and pursuing the living God who cannot be contained in anyone’s mind, or so the stories go. Maybe this God is only a myth in the not-real sense of myth, or maybe this God is deeper and weightier than anything I’ve experienced, which is why this God for now resides in myth.

I journey on, a pilgrim in search of God – and I think it will be a lifelong quest, which only underscores the worthiness of the One I seek.

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copyright 2/26/2010 by Julia Tindall Bloom

i thought
i knew
i learned
i doubt
i guess
i hope
i live

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Good grief. Here I go again. Thanks to those who are reading and journeying with me through the dark and doubt. I don’t particularly enjoy these posts, but nevertheless feel compelled to put them out there – probably because I believe I’m giving voice to something felt by more believers than just me. Take comfort – you are not alone – and you can be angry and bewildered with God and still be faithful (in fact, if you are angry and bewildered with God, being honest about it is the only way to be faithful!) Maybe we can call these latest entries in my blog the “angry Psalms” section.

God says, in Ezekiel the book of the Bible, through Ezekiel God’s prophet to Israel, “I’ll slaughter these people – I’ll obliterate that nation – then they [Israel] will know that I am God” (my paraphrase of much of the book).

In church these days, it’s fashionable to say, “God is good all the time.” I can’t say it without wincing anymore. That doesn’t sound like the God of Ezekiel. I am quite aware of what the beaver said about Aslan, the Christ-figure of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” I even admit that when Aslan slashed Aravis’ back in The Horse and His Boy, to help her feel the pain she had carelessly inflicted on someone else, it seemed right to me. Maybe it even seemed good.

But how could God’s total annihilation of a nation be good? What is “good,” if it includes threats like those in Ezekiel? What is “good,” if we are to believe that the prophet Samuel was truly speaking for God when he said to Israel’s King Saul – “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ ” (I Samuel 15 – a mercilessly decreed holocaust that was actually carried out)? How is it good that God commanded the slaughter of babies? Or is it possible that God is not good all the time? I hope not, but an honest reading of Bible passages like these begs this question.

Whatever his reasons, God’s destructive ways towards people never seemed to stick in convincing Israel “that I am God.” Some might say that the most concentrated destructive act of God – in slaughtering the innocent Christ, in being slaughtered as the innocent Christ, has resounded as the most convincing of God’s ways of communicating “that I am God.”

In the crucifixion, they may say, God threw out the angriest, deadliest arrows imaginable, fully worked-up righteous wrath, lashing out completely; and then traveled at the speed of light out through the universe, circling back, and absorbed every shot. The anger and the agony met in their most intense moments, in the person of Christ, in the center of God, and the big bang of that moment set in motion a whole new creation, one that is spreading like the indestructible mustard plant all through the old world order, transforming it from inside – even destroying evil systems and pulling down evil power structures – and maybe that is good, but it is surely not safe.

Some might say that. I said that not long ago, and it sounds profound and poetic. But underneath it all it just sounds like more destruction. I’m weary of violence being the only problem-solver, unwilling to accept that God’s ultimate fix for a sick world was self-destruction.

These days, my faith has lost its resting place. From without, from within, it’s being pulled forward down a path of uncertainty, of wondering and wandering. How does one live faithfully when faith itself comes unglued?

Or maybe faith was never meant to be glued, nailed down, safe and snug in a resting place. Maybe that’s why Jesus’ call to his disciples was “follow me.” Movement. Road trip. Flux. Big bang setting everything in motion. Doubting believer faithfully tussling with the living God.

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My husband Nathan, our two children, and I are in the midst of a 19-day road trip, spending this week on Lake Michigan and heading on to Pennsylvania next week. We stopped at a motel after our first day of driving, and Nathan had a memorable interaction about which he spent the next morning writing on the laptop in the car.

I have been encouraging him to start a blog, but he said I could post this piece he wrote on my blog. So here it is. If you want to hear more from him, send him an e-mail (nathan@cabinoflove.com) and add your voice to mine in begging for a Nathan Bloom blog!

Here it is:

Last night, I was traveling with my family en route to our vacation destination in Michigan. We were driving through Iowa, the sun had set, and the kids were asleep, so Julia and I decided to put on some “easy miles” before stopping for the night.

Just after 11pm, we opted to call it a night and pulled into a Days Inn. As I walked into the hotel lobby, I noticed an elderly couple laboriously exiting a minivan. The receptionist was busy checking in another guest, and the three of us stood wearily in the lobby, waiting silently. The woman stood rigidly by the corner of the front desk, while the man wandered back into the empty lounge. As I waited, the thought occurred to me that it would be a courteous gesture to defer my ‘next-in-line’ status to this couple. Though my wife and children were waiting in the car, I made up my mind that when my turn came, I would let it pass to my elders.

The sleepy atmosphere was suddenly rent by a shockingly loud episode of flatulence coming from the lounge. My resolve wavered a little. After finishing checking in the guests ahead of us, the receptionist called out: “who’s next?” The woman at the corner of the desk glanced back. “Go ahead,” I offered. She immediately placed her enormous purse on the desk and commenced the check-in process.

The short, stoop-shouldered man ambled back from the lounge, and looked up at me. “Whererya from” he queried

“Minnesota”, I replied.

“Whereabouts?”

“Owatonna”

“Oh yeah. . . up on 169” he said.

“No, it’s on I35”

“Oh yeah” he returned vaguely. “I’m from Algona”

“Where are you headed?” I re-orientated the conversation.

“Chicago”, he sturdily responded. “We are going to a booksellers convention.” “A Christian bookseller’s convention,” he quickly clarified.

The woman quickly turned away from the desk and corrected somewhat severely: “It is a Craft Fair this time.” She included some more apparently important details which I didn’t comprehend, and I didn’t ask, not wanting to prolong the correction. She turned back to the receptionist.

“We belong to the Evangelical Free church,” the man volunteered unexpectedly, “What church do you belong to?”

I faltered, unprepared to answer: “The church I attend is not affiliated. . .uh, non-denominational, I guess. . . The church I grew up in was Baptist General Conference, though,” I added, trying to give him something meaningful within his presumed construct.

“Ah Yes,” he replied. “The fighting baptists.” I smiled, understanding his reference to the particularly schismatic history of baptist churches in the USA. “There was a big split in one of the baptist churches in Algona,” he added.

“Yeah,” I responded with detached amusement, “Jesus said: ‘One command I give you- Love one another’, but it seems like that is always the first thing to go out the window!”

The woman suddenly turned back around, and with the austere gaze of a fundamentalist Sunday School teacher, demanded: “But what was his other commandment?”

I fumbled, trying not to be intimidated, mentally re-scanning my words, and Jesus’ words, desperately trying to remember what the second of the one commandment was.

With trepidation, I held my ground: “He said one command.”

“Ye must be born again” She said sharply. “That is the greatest commandment. You can love all you want, but it won’t do you any good!” She continued her stern gaze, and I held my tongue.

She turned back, finished her check-in, and the two left to go to their rooms (I now understand why they had gotten two.)

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juliatakaminecroppedI wrote this a couple weeks ago and almost didn’t post it – because I realized I am SO out of touch with trends in worship music that I may be criticizing a relic of the past rather than the present situation. I changed the channel for my sources of church music roughly seven years ago. Here’s the post – what do you think (besides the fact that it’s awfully long!)? How have things changed or stayed the same in recent years?

May I confess something? Lean in while I glance around and try to be discreet. Okay . . . I do not enjoy worship music. I also don’t listen to Christian radio or have much familiarity with the latest and greatest contemporary Christian music, or praise songs, or whatever the hip terminology is these days.

I could say much about what I find to be the often uninteresting, generally poor quality of the music itself, while freely admitting the same could be said about much of the music I write. Interesting music doesn’t just grow on trees (or radio airwaves, Christian or otherwise). I’m sure there is well-done music on Christian radio stations, but frankly I’ve grown tired of listening through so much else just to hear something worthwhile now and then.

The God described in the lyrics for much of this music isn’t someone I feel inspired to worship. Date or marry, maybe – he sure sounds like a fantastic boyfriend in the sky (strong and sensitive and always there for me!) – but I feel cheap and plastic when I attempt to worship the Creator of the Universe by singing songs that could just as easily work by replacing “Jesus” with “baby.”

Don’t get me wrong – I do not wish to categorically denounce modern church music. I grew up in churches singing only hymns accompanied by piano and organ and a man (always a man) up front waving his arms like a conductor. Until I learned to read and got to hold the hymnal, I wondered what a “pyonder” was, because no one I knew said anything remotely like “when the roll is called up yonder” anywhere besides in church.

Occasionally we sang well-written hymns, like “What Wondrous Love” (that haunting melody and ageless lyrics from Walker’s Southern Harmony), “This is My Father’s World,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and anything by Isaac Watts. But page through any hymnal and you’ll discover reams of oldies-and-not-so-goodies.

Many of the old hymns that nobody feels like singing anymore were popular in their day. Some of them were set to corny music that was only trendy for a few years, and that’s why we don’t sing them anymore. While music can be changed if the words warrant singing again, many of these songs employed images that were powerful for the writer’s contemporaries but can’t connect across the ages. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “Hold the Fort, for I am Coming” are two examples of hymns using war imagery in a time when wars and soldiers were highly idealized, before Vietnam produced a cultural shift in perspective about war (i suppose September 11th produced a pendulum-swing cultural shift, but that’s another conversation).

Maybe today’s preoccupation with God as the ultimate boyfriend is a reflection of our oversexed, Disney-princess-ized culture. Many of the songs we sing these days are written from an individual perspective (“I” the believer in Christ, not “we” the body of Christ), and describe that individual as a weak and helpless person who needs nothing else but God, strong and loving, who will rescue her from evil, hold her gently, love her forever, and one day take her home to his castle in the air (Heaven).

These aren’t necessarily wrong ideas, though I would argue against the “going away to Heaven” idea vs. Heaven coming to earth and healing it (see N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope), but pounding away on this one metaphor again and again, we lose perspective. Our God – and we humans – and the relationship between us – are more complex than that. There’s simply a lot more we could say when we sing about God, including some of my personal favorites: justice, the kingdom of God, and resurrection.

Some of the ultimate-boyfriend love songs are well-written, and I actually like and use them. I just don’t like singing more than one or two of them at a time.

There are fantastic songs, old and new, that can help us step out of our romance-novel mold. Some of my favorite newer ones are “He Reigns” by Steve Taylor, “Faithful” by David Ruis, and “Lutheran Hymn” by Michael Roe (the latter two are not popular but worth finding). And I’ll bet there are many more.

Because I am familiar with so many hymns, and because they’re public domain, and also because they connect us with our roots and the larger century-spanning community of faith, I have begun incorporating more of my favorites into the worship services I lead. It’s harder to keep up with, and access on a limited budget, newer songs.

So I’ll end my confession with a petition: does anyone have suggestions for places to look, or songs you enjoy that break out of the love-song mold? And what other comments do you have? I’m all ears now that I’ve used so many words!

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