What Do You Say After 9 Months of Silence?

This Sunday, we'll look at one event leading up to the birth of Jesus, namely, the birth of John the Baptist. When an angel told Zechariah that he and his wife would have a son in their old age, Zechariah didn't believe it. He was made mute until John was born (Luke 1.5-25). As I studied these stories, I got to thinking, "What do you say after being unable to talk for nine months?"  We have the answer to that question in Luke 1.67-79. It's a great model for turning away from unbelief.

Tough Questions at Chico Grace Brethren

Our nation seems more divided than ever on moral and spiritual issues. The different tribes watch comfortable cable channels, subscribe to congenial blogs, or lob incendiary posts at other tribes on social media. Each group is trying to control the script—evangelicals included.

There are fewer places where the tribes even live side by side. A New Yorker might read What’s the Matter with Kansas? while flying over the actual state at 30,000 feet. Here in northern California, it easier for an evangelical to see a video of a scientist on YouTube than to talk with one face-to-face.

But Chico and the ridge have all the tribes. We are not isolated from people who think differently. They’re next door. So, at Chico Grace Brethren, we decided to start a dialogue.

Over the summer we said to friends and neighbors, “If you could ask a pastor to speak on any question, what would it be?” We found that the conversations lowered barriers. We also thought the questions we received were terrific. I choose six of them to address in a short series that starts this Sunday.

The series is called, “Tough Questions,” and the title fits.

Some of the questions are confrontational. “Why would I want organized religion?” Or, “How can Jesus be the only way?” Others come from profound pain. “Why does God allow evil against children?” Two questions are simple requests for information: “What happened when Jesus was young?” “Where is heaven?”

This is a way we can throw away the script and have a real exchange of ideas. I also take written questions about the sermon and answer them during the service. We’ve found that this kind of dialogue keeps the atmosphere respectful and the temperature low. We won’t necessarily be able to agree, but we will find some new ways to talk about timeless issues. We hope you will join us, either at 10:15 a.m. on Sundays, or on the web at chicogracebrethren.com.

Hope in the Pharisee's Spiral

by Matthew Raley In 2012, I got a lengthy email from a well-known pastor endorsing Newt Gingrich for the Republican nomination. Gingrich was peaking at that moment and the pastor argued that evangelicals should consolidate behind him. This was the man to deliver victories in the culture wars.

The email was lengthy because the pastor had to navigate rocky moral straights. He said he had wrestled with Gingrich’s adultery and third marriage. How could he endorse a man who had done such things? Several paragraphs of reasoning boiled down to two points. Jesus forgives us all. And Gingrich held the right positions on abortion and gay marriage.

I tapped the little trashcan icon.

That email illustrates an evangelical sexual crisis. We have proclaimed Judeo-Christian morality as the standard for our society, but we are not holding to that standard ourselves. In this crisis, many believers have lost hope for cleansing from their sexual sins. We are caught in what I call the Pharisee’s spiral.

The Pharisees of Jesus’s time reduced spirituality to rules. Keeping the rules made them good. If they broke a rule, there were additional ones that would save them from guilt. For instance, a Pharisee might break an oath that he swore on the temple. But he was still good: since he didn’t swear on the gold of the temple, he was not bound by his oath (Matthew 23:16-17).

The Pharisee’s spiral is the swing between guilt and rationalization. I broke one rule, but I’m safe because I kept another rule. A Pharisee always reads the fine print. That’s where he finds the good news.

The pastor exhibited this spiral when he endorsed Gingrich. Why was Gingrich acceptable now when his moral twin, Bill Clinton, was anathema in the 1990s? They were both adulterers. When Clinton was running for president, evangelicals said that his adulteries were disqualifying. Gingrich lost the House speakership because his own sin was revealed.

Spend time in the Pharisee’s spiral and there’s a neat solution. Both men broke the rule. Both can be forgiven by Jesus. But one has the wrong stance in the culture war, and the other has the right stance. Gingrich is saved by the fine print.

If Gingrich were the only case in which Christian leaders public looped their way through this sort of explanation, the spiritual impact on the average evangelical might not be so devastating. But there have been many leaders like Gingrich. What I hear from believers struggling with their sexual sins is exactly the sort of hurt one expects from people repeatedly cycled through the spiral.

They tell how they got pregnant before they were married. (Broken rule.) Are they safe because they got married and stayed married? (Fine print.) They tell of homosexual experiences. (Broken rule.) Are they safe because they still feel guilty? (Fine print.) They have used pornography. (Broken rule.) Can they be intimate with their spouses without that sin hanging over them? Is there any fine print for that, or are they permanently broken?

Churches are packed with people who need sexual healing, many of whom think sexual purity is a matter of fine print. What they need is genuine good news. Jesus Christ paid not only for forgiveness, but also for a process of cleansing. He paid with his life. And the cleansing he purchased reaches our sexuality, restoring God’s design for human flourishing.

As our society turns the body into a commodity through human trafficking, objectifies women through pornography, eroticizes childhood, and imposes the cost of our sexual decisions on our offspring, we evangelicals cannot satisfy ourselves with declaring absolute standards. We have to declare an absolute Savior. And we can’t declare Him unless we’ve experienced his power.

At Chico Grace Brethren, we’re going to start breaking the Pharisee’s spiral in our own hearts. On March 9th we’ll begin a study of how to stop being “puffed up” in the midst of sexual sin. Our text will be 1 Corinthians 5-6. I will be talking to Christians about the process of cleansing Christ purchased for us. But I invite anyone to listen in on this conversation. More information at chicogracebrethren.com.

A Performance of My Piece, "Twelve-Bar"

by Matthew Raley Last January, violinist Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo premiered a trio I wrote for violin, flute, and cello as part of her senior recital at Sac State. She was joined by Kim Davis (flute) and Courtney Castaneda (cello). I am so grateful for their hard work on the piece, and for their fine playing. Click the link below for a recording.

Audio: Twelve-Bar for Flute, Violin, and Piano

"Twelve-Bar," draws from two American sources of music. As the title indicates, the piece uses the twelve-bar blues form as an ostinato. All melodic and rhythmic motives come from the folk hymn, "What a Friend We Have In Jesus." These motives appear in fragments and short quotations of the tune throughout the piece, with the complete tune played by the flute at the end. I hope you enjoy it!

A Performance of "Along the Field"

By Matthew Raley

Each year, I have the privilege of performing with many excellent student musicians at Chico State. Michael Beale, a fine tenor who graduated last spring, is one of them. We performed the song cycle Along the Field by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) at Michael's senior recital a year ago. The cycle contains eight poems by A. E. Housman.

Vaughan Williams is famous for his lush string writing and folk melodies. While Along the Field shows the folk influence, it is unusual for Vaughan Williams and for art song literature in general. The piece calls for voice and violin only. Its harmonies are spare to the point of austerity.

Here are mp3 tracks of the last three songs from our performance. I hope you enjoy them!

Good-Bye

Fancy's Knell

With Rue My Heart Is Laden

New Chapter for the Raleys

by Matthew Raley It has been several weeks since I've made any significant posts, for which I apologize. I have been preoccupied with some personal changes. I am excited that the Lord is leading me to take a church one-third the size of my current ministry.

I will be leaving the Orland Evangelical Free Church (OEFC) in one month and will become pastor of Grace Brethren Church (GBC) in Chico. (For readers not from California, Chico is 20 miles west of Orland.)

Chico is my hometown, and my parents and grandparents still live there. Bridget and I look forward to our boys Dylan (10) and Malcolm (5) being closer to Pops and Grandma. I'm also eager to be closer to my musical work, which centers on Chico State.

I have a personal connection to GBC, too. My grandpa Vere was an elder there in the final years of his life. I was encouraged to see him productive and busy with ministry among people he loved. This is a spirited group with a sense of calling and a strong desire to serve.

Our personal satisfactions, however, do not mask the challenge we face. The people at GBC have experienced many difficulties and are asking for a new direction. I will be the sole pastor, financial resources are low, and I hear many around town are skeptical.

Here's the story.

OEFC has grown significantly over the years. Part of the growth has come from other towns, Corning and Chico in particular. A sizable number of people have felt a strong enough kinship with the OEFC's focus on expository preaching and its philosophy of ministry to keep driving to Orland each Sunday. But our Chico and Corning attenders have always felt a strong desire to minister actively in their own towns. We have all felt that our worship together would be temporary.

So, two years ago, OEFC began exploring how to help our Corning attenders start a church there. They have done just that, holding the first service of Christ Community Church on February 13th at a school in Richfield under the leadership of Jeff Tollison.

When the opportunity with GBC came to my attention, I felt it might be a chance to do something similar in Chico. Perhaps OEFC might send the Chico attenders to join and refresh GBC. When the leadership GBC welcomed the idea, I knew I had to do something dangerous. I told the OEFC elder board of my strong desire to lead this effort myself.

That was a difficult thing to say in some ways. I knew my revelation would hit them hard, and I did not want to hurt the men I've served with closely for so many years. But, in another way, telling them about my desire was easy. I know these men. In spite of their sadness, I was certain they would see a new opportunity to help believers from another town.

And that's exactly how they responded. One of them said what the rest were thinking: "The Kingdom has to get bigger."

Together, we agreed to take another dangerous step: Tell the OEFC congregation about my desire. Again, this was difficult emotionally. I have served the Lord at OEFC for 12 years. I didn't want to hurt my congregation. But, again, telling them what was stirring in my heart-and-mind was the obvious step to take. I have always trusted them to receive hard things graciously. They are my colleagues.

Three weeks ago, the elders and I announced at OEFC the possibility that I would move to GBC. That evening, I told the congregation the story, took their questions, and asked them to pray for the Lord's leading the following Sunday when I candidated. There were many tears.

But since that meeting, person after person has spoken or written to Bridget and me, many after deep wrestling. They have variations of the same thought: we're sad, but we see the Lord leading you. One said, "I'm sad, but I'm full of hope." Another said, "We are planting you over there!"

These blessings are powerful to me because I know they come at a price.

GBC extended a call to me on February 20th, and I accepted. The two churches, OEFC and GBC, will worship together in a special service of dedication on April 3rd in Orland, colleagues now in something new.

Anniversary of Hard Blessings

by Matthew Raley Five years ago this morning I awoke to a new reality. I had slept at my parents' home, with my then 5-year-old son Dylan in a trundle bed below, and my infant son Malcolm across the hall. My 35-year-old wife Bridget was in ICU unable to see, walk, or even sit up. She was on morphine to control pain that had left her hyperventilating the night before.

I learned that afternoon what we had suspected the previous day: Bridget had had a stroke. It had occurred in her brain-stem, which technicians had not bothered to scan at first. I was told that someone who has a stroke there usually isn't alive to need a scan.

So, five years ago today, I was wondering what sort of a life God had blessed us with. Maybe the dreams Bridget and I had treasured for life and ministry would not be realized. Maybe the scale of life would shrink radically.

My immediate concern was for Dylan. He had seen his mom collapse while getting him ready for school, and had watched her crawl to the telephone. I couldn't give him any assurance that she would get better.

Lacking any other approach, I simply told Dylan what her condition was and asked him what specific thing we should ask the Lord to do first. Dylan asked for her sight. The next morning, Bridget could see. Then Dylan asked for her relief from pain. The next day, she was given relief and the morphine dosage was lowered, soon to be eliminated entirely. Then Dylan prayed that she could walk.

The next day, she got up with the aid of walker and took new steps. I was there. It was one of the toughest moments for me, because it was clear progress in a brutal reality. So much had to improve for her to take those steps at all. But Bridget's command of her legs had been broken. She was holding herself with her arms to walk like a ninety-year-old.

I can't say whether any of these answers to prayer were miracles, or just God's normal providence through bodies he designed to heal, and the skill with which he has endowed human beings. I can say that all of these blessings were hard.

Over the next weeks, we were confronted with enormous bills that inadequate insurance had dropped in our laps, all of which were paid by the Enloe Foundation. During Bridget's hospitalization and physical therapy, many people came forward to help care for Malcolm while I was at work. We received meals, help cleaning the house, and ongoing aid while Bridget regained her balance and strength at home.

All of this blessing came little by little, one day after another. Now, after years of difficulty, Bridget is free from medications, though not totally free from stroke-related pain. She has all of her abilities, but not all of her old energy. Dylan has a tremendous faith, which he is building on from these experiences. Both boys have their mother.

I call these things to mind today because the difficulties of ministry are crushing. Though we are crushed, we are not destroyed. Though the blessings are hard, our hope is greater. And this hope in Jesus Christ does not leave me disappointed.

Diversity Culture Conference Tomorrow

by Matthew Raley I'll be speaking about my book, The Diversity Culture, tomorrow, September 11th in Cottonwood. The conference takes place from 9 AM to 1 PM at 1st Baptist Church, 3320 Brush Street. You can reach the church for more information at (530) 347-3691. Here is a map to the church.

I am very grateful to Pastor John Roland for organizing this conference. I look forward to seeing you there!

A Stunning Campus

by Matthew Raley The school where I'm teaching in Penang is on a ridge overlooking the ocean, with the mountains of peninsular Malaysia in the distance.

When I say it's on a ridge, I don't mean on top. I should say it's built into the ridge. The campus is almost vertical. The dean gave me a tour last week, which involved endless stairs from terrace to terrace -- all of which had to be blasted out of the rock.

The students park at the bottom and hike up to the classrooms, a climb that keeps them hearty. Driving up puts a strain on all the engines. One of my students, Chloe, picks me up in the mornings, the outside of her car windows dripping condensation because of the air-conditioning, and flies along the coast road. When she reaches the campus driveway, her fellow student Heng switches the air-conditioner off, and Chloe guns it to reach the top without have to stop.

Another of my students, Teri, took me home yesterday. To reach her car, I followed her down a seemingly ancient trail of steps, worn and fantastically steep.

But the nice part is, when I step out of my classroom, I see this:

First Teaching Experiences in Penang

by Matthew Raley On Sunday, I preached in an international church in Penang, the beginning of an intense week of speaking.

The church meets in a hotel ballroom, and is a diverse group, reflecting the variety of people who live here. I met a professor from Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, a Malaysian Chinese who had been a student in the U.S., a South African couple, and several Canadians and Indians. There was also an American student who had grown up in Penang, but is now attending Simpson University, just an hour north of my home.

It was especially encouraging to see the open communication in this body of believers. There was a time of testimony in response to my sermon that set the tone for many conversations afterward. People hung around to talk for quite a while -- always a good sign for a church.

This morning, I spoke for about five hours at Malaysian Baptist Theological Seminary, with some short breaks. I did the first four sessions of my class on story-telling and biblical literature, and also preached in chapel.

My students are superb. They are Chinese, Korean, and Indian, with one American -- all ages, men and women. I am impressed by their understanding of the art of teaching, of the English language, and above all of the Bible. Right away they were asking pointed, informed, and perceptive questions. I haven't had such a good time teaching in a long, long while.

My sermon in chapel was my first experience speaking through a translator (Chinese). It took me a while to get the rhythm of it, but by the middle I felt that Miss Koh Tan Peng and I were working smoothly. The place was packed with people from all over the world, and Bridget and I were given a warm welcome.

Three things were of great help to me today: water, air-conditioning, and immediate unity with this body of believers.

Remarks to Supporters of North Valley Christian Schools

by Matthew Raley Here is the text of a speech I gave last Thursday, May 20th, at a luncheon for supporters of NVCS.

One of the first words a child learns is mine. As parents, we try to loosen a child’s grip on his stuff, mainly to stop the squabbling. We try to teach him another word, share.

But we Americans have an insight into that word mine. The first draft of the Declaration of Independence said that every person is endowed with “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.” The more famous version that George III read, “pursuit of happiness,” only tells us more about what the founders thought of citizenship. A citizen is happiest—and does the most good—when he governs the property he owns.

James Madison wrote of our constitution that Americans have “an honorable determination . . . to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”[1]

The founders believed that we could govern ourselves, which means America’s success of failure depends on whether her people understand the words mine and share.

What does self-government look like? Self-government happens when a person takes care both of his own property and what his community shares—not because he is told to do it, but because he knows he must.

Jane Jacobs gave us a good example in her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. One day an alarming scene unfolded on the sidewalk across the street from Jacobs’ building in New York. A man was trying to get an 8-year-old girl to go along with him, and the girl was resisting. Jacobs wrote:

As I watched from our second-floor window, making up my mind how to intervene . . . , I saw it was not going to be necessary. From the butcher shop . . . had emerged the woman who, with her husband, runs the shop; she was standing within earshot of the man, her arms folded and a look of determination on her face. Joe Cornacchia, who . . . keeps the delicatessen, emerged about the same moment and stood solidly to the other side. Several heads poked out of the tenement windows above, one was withdrawn quickly and its owner reappeared a moment later in the doorway behind the man. Two men from the bar next to the butcher shop came to the doorway and waited. On my side of the street, I saw that the locksmith, the fruit man and the laundry proprietor had all come out of their shops and that the scene was also being surveyed from a number of windows besides ours. That man did not know it, but he was surrounded. Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was.

Jacobs added, “I am sorry—sorry purely for dramatic purposes—to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man’s daughter.”[2]

The people in that neighborhood knew the word mine.

Self-government happens when people invest in their own place, with their own money, time, and ingenuity. When they invest, they care. When they care, they budget, maintain, and guard.

But the people in Jane Jacobs’ neighborhood also knew the word share. Self-government is not done by loners. It’s the action of a community. All the owners on her street knew that they shared the sidewalk, that what happened on the sidewalk affected them, and that they were responsible for keeping it safe.

As a pastor, let me tell you what bothers me about our country today.

Many of us are vigilant over what is our own. We’re eager enough to assert the word mine against Washington, D. C. or Sacramento. But we are not vigilant enough over the property we share. Our communities are not governing themselves.

Consider the reality of our shared life as Christians. The two issues I’m going to talk about have brought heartache to everyone in this room. I’m discussing them not to stigmatize people, but to help us face problems we all share, and to tell you that there are powerful solutions.

The Barna Group has repeatedly found that evangelicals divorce at high rates. In its most recent study of this problem in 2008, 33% of the American adult population has had at least one divorce, and the same is true of 26% of evangelical adults. While the evangelical divorce rate is lower than the national average, it still shows that more than a quarter of people who profess to follow Christ have broken homes.

This statistic is more than a public relations black eye. When we consider what our divorce rate means in practical terms, our cultural weakness becomes alarming.

Divorced people with children are automatically under the thumb of the family legal system. They no longer control their schedules, their practice of parenting, or even, in extreme cases, their most basic interactions with their children. They are vulnerable to inspection by county officials, to restraining orders, and a stream of court dates.

About essential parts of their lives, they can no longer say mine.

Nor is divorce the end of our entanglements with the state.

Illegitimate births are common among evangelicals, as any pastor can attest. I haven’t been able to find specific studies of evangelicals in this regard, but I do not lack stories. The trials of Sarah Palin’s family are common among us, and Palin’s handling of her daughter’s pregnancy won her strong identification from evangelicals for this very reason.

But a child born out of wedlock is likely to end up under the indirect supervision of social workers, with a young parent, grandparents, and pastors often struggling to safeguard a Christian parenting ethic from official intrusion.

A hidden impact of divorce and illegitimacy in churches falls on grandparents—those crucial links in the transmission of values from one generation to the next.

Evangelicals in their fifties and sixties, who would normally be entering a time of greater freedom in life, are frequently raising their grandchildren. So the resources grandparents would otherwise put into their churches, they devote to their families in crisis. Further, they struggle to demonstrate godliness to grandchildren growing up amid the moral chaos of a wayward adult and the psychologized ethics of social workers.

All this can leave people in the prime of life heartsick.

For all practical purposes, then, a large proportion of evangelical families and their children are under the management of the state. The state’s system may be necessary: there are dangers to children during a divorce. The state’s workers often do the best they can to bring some order to children’s lives, and we should be grateful that there are Christians among them shining some light. But we have to face facts. Evangelical parents in this system are not as free to pass on their beliefs, even when they’re competent to do so.

Here’s the reality of our shared life.

If you have 400 people in your church, figure that 100 of them are (or have been) in the family court system. Their finances are almost entirely devoted to maintaining two households where there used to be one. And unless they have an unusually high personal income, they are not keeping up. Their emotional strength is spent trying to survive the strife and the loneliness. They have little time or energy to devote to their walk with the Lord.

100 people. Even when the economy is good. And the ripple effect spreads the weakness.

We have to be frank about our failure to govern ourselves and what that failure means. It means that the loss of American identity is not happening in Washington; it’s happening here in the tri-counties. The loss of the dignity of self-government is not Sacramento’s problem. It’s ours.

My parents have already decided who they’re voting for in 2012. The bumper sticker on their car says, “Reagan for President.”

In the stadium where he accepted the nomination for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan said, “At the heart of our message should be five simple familiar words. No big economic theories. No sermons on political philosophy. Just five short words: family, work, neighborhood, freedom, peace.”

He delivered on that vision of self-government, and his legacy has come to us. What have we done with it?

I can speak for our church, and I believe I can speak for everyone in this room. We are determined to govern what is our own, and also what we share.

We are not going to allow children to be dragged off into a godless system. We are not going to let children be labeled victims by a system that offers no hope. We’re not going to let adults suffer the trials of divorce or illegitimacy alone. What happens to the least of these, happens to us.

People in our region are coming out of their doorways to challenge what happens on our sidewalks. They are building the tools to reassert self-government, and our church is contributing three.

One tool our community needs is churches that know their business. We have decided that church time is Gospel time. It is not time for politics, or hot-button issues, or slick entertainment. Furthermore, church time is not therapy time, where we focus on our “issues.” The time we spend together in the name of Jesus Christ is devoted to him, to preaching his Word, and to exalting the transforming power of his grace.

Do this at your church. Recover the Church’s true business. It’s the Gospel.

Second, our community needs a tool for discipleship. The core of our ministry is called SoulCare. It puts believers from many churches alongside each other to be equipped with the Gospel. There is nothing revolutionary about it; it’s just hours of face-time in the Word of God. We see this ministry as a tool for self-government through the Gospel, the body of Christ doing its work.

More and more believers from many churches are being trained to equip others in the Gospel, and to counsel families in crisis. We don’t win them all. Sometimes we are a resource for those trying to be godly in the midst of family break-up. But over the last 4 years, 26 marriages have been rebuilt by God’s grace, many of them pulled back from the brink of divorce. That’s 26 families that are not governed by social workers, but that govern themselves in the power of Christ.

At your church, find ways to recover the power of Christ’s body. Release that power.

Third, as a church we are investing heavily in North Valley Christian Schools. For single parents and for grandparents who want their children to know who they are in Christ, to know that they come from the grace of God in Christ, and to know that they are headed toward the Kingdom of Christ, this school is a critical resource.

At NVCS, both children and parents find connection, a shared life, with other believers. Material, emotional, and spiritual needs are met by the body of Christ on a daily basis, simply because people like you have come out to govern our sidewalk.

Our church has entered into an agreement to share facilities with NVCS because we want every dollar in our ministries to have maximum impact. We support the schools with dollars, with leaders, with hours. We’re doing it because we must go beyond taking care of our own, to take care of what the larger community of believers shares.

Thank you for coming out of your doorway and reasserting the dignity of self-government. Let’s be the region that finds once again the meaning of the word ours.


[1] The Federalist, No. 39.

[2] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), pp 38-39.

Presentations Available for The Diversity Culture

I can do four presentations about my book that are suitable for many groups and settings. My biographical info and picture are on the About Matt page, and you can click here if you're interested in having me speak to your group. A Fresh Look at the Samaritan Woman

Meet the woman at the well as she really was. Peel away layers of misconceptions, generalizations, and assumptions about her. Discover why a woman hardened by abuse and competing religious agendas engaged with a Jewish rabbi named Jesus (John 4:1-42). A sermon or a workshop presentation in one session (45 min).

From St. Helena to Sychar

Tour Main Street in a place taken over by a new regime. See the impact of the diversity culture as it changes the town’s demographics, spiritual priorities, and moral compass. The changes in St. Helena, California are similar to those in Sychar (John 4:1-42), where Jesus met the Samaritan woman. Be refreshed by encountering the Savior who is bigger than any cultural regime. A single-session workshop presentation or a sermon (45 min). Works best with interaction.

Four Ways Jesus Spoke to Hostility

Discover the practical ways Jesus met the Samaritan woman’s antagonism (John 4:1-26). With each step, you’ll go beyond pat answers and cross the barriers people put up against the gospel every day. You’ll also see how Jesus’ methods will deepen your own spiritual life. A single-session workshop presentation or a sermon (45 min). Works best with interaction.

Can the Bible Speak to People Appropriately?

Some believers think the Bible can’t minister to people today unless we fix it, force it to behave. Others think Christians are duty-bound to be culturally offensive, lest they compromise the Bible. Is it possible that we don’t know the Bible well enough? Discover how Jesus used Scripture to open up a healing dialogue with a hostile listener. A sermon with detailed exposition and theological material, also suitable as a lecture (55 min).

I can also do a retreat or conference:

The Diversity Culture: Creating Conversations of Faith

Session 1: Barriers

A hard look at the cultural divide between evangelicals and the diversity culture, covering media narratives, identity formation, postmodern attitudes, and negative experiences.

Session 2: Truths

A theology from the Gospel of John for healing our relationships in the diversity culture. This theology is grounded in the doctrines of the Bible, the community of believers, and the resurrection of Christ as applied by John.

Session 3: Strategies

A close examination of how Jesus interacted so successfully with the Samaritan woman (John 4).

A series of retreat or conference presentations (1 hour each) that survey the content of the book. Though challenging, the sessions include many stories from personal experience, as well as media references that will engage listeners. The presentations can be tailored to any church audience, but would be especially helpful for training leaders.

Excerpt From My New Book, The Diversity Culture

by Matthew Raley 9780825435799On March 20th in Dallas, TX, I will give a workshop on my new book, The Diversity Culture: Creating Conversations of Faith with Buddhist Baristas, Agnostic Students, Aging Hippies, Political Activitsts, and Everyone In Between.

This book is about the new openness to anything and everything in America, and about how you can be like Jesus in the midst of it. Here is an excerpt.

My workshop will be part of the Christian Book Expo, for which you can register at the top of my sidebar. If any of my Texas readers can be there, I'd love to meet you.

Answering Questions About My Novel

Last week, someone showed me a review of my novel Fallen on Amazon. The reviewer, Keith Hammond, made my day with some very generous praise, and then raised an issue that I've encountered often:

My only complaint is that the story seemed too personal and allegorical to be completely fictional. I would have preferred the book to have an addendum where the author directly talks about the issues or situations that caused him to write such a compelling book.

The first person to make this kind of comment to me was one my editors at Kregel, who, during our line-by-line slog through the manuscript, said that the dialog was "a little too good." He wondered what experiences I had plundered. After the novel was released, my secretary gave it to a relative, who finished it and made the hair-raising assertion, "Obviously, Raley's had an affair." Then there are the youth at my church, who have dissected the story with frightening precision, tracing eccentricities and obsessions from my habits into my narrative.

If only they were so devoted to their schoolwork.

So I guess I'd better tell all.

From start to finish, Fallen is invented. I didn't model any character on a person I've known, nor have I ever had to endure what Jim, the narrator, goes through. I've found that fictionalizing real-life scenarios and personalities almost always yields a flat story because there is too much authorial judgment on the characters and too little sympathy. A novelist needs to keep his cool.

Yet, for me, Fallen is a personal book. Mr. Hammond and others are right. The book is personal in this sense: almost every vile act I portrayed in the story was invented from what I have seen in my own soul.

When I drew characters for the story, for example, I tried to load them with contradictions. Jim loves his wife and daughter, but also treats them with selfish disregard. He wants to be gracious, but gives favor with calculation. Pastor Dave is an emotionally driven man, yet he disguises his motives by intellectualizing. Also, Dave wants to see himself as compassionate towards others, yet his core motivation is self-pity.

Each of these contradictions -- and many others in my characters, male and female -- has its origin in some struggle of my own for integrity. I simply implanted my hypocrisies within the quite different personalities of my characters. I hate confessing this procedure, because it makes the story feel like public nudity. But that's what I did.

The same is true of the relational struggles that the book portrays. I put my follies into all of the marriages and working partnerships. I invented the male characters' misconceptions of women, from their flippant infatuations to their ordeals in marriage, out of similar misconceptions of my own. While the power struggles among church leaders in the book grew out of the invented scenarios, my own anger in sympathy with each character showed me how the struggles would deepen.

The crimes in Fallen, then, were not written as veiled reports but as shame-faced extrapolations.

There are two important differences between my approach and the method of fictionalizing personal experiences.

First, as a matter of technique, memoirs-as-novels start with scenarios and create characters to fit, which yields a false story. A human being is not a robot. Fictional human beings cannot be robots and be true. So I started with characters and then shaped the scenarios. Every day I wrote, the characters surprised me.

Second, I would only write a memoir-as-novel to vent bitterness. I may be unusual in this tendency, and other authors might have other motivations. But, as a matter of repentance, I don't write to vent. I used to. Creating a little world in which all of my judgments are validated can be satisfying. But writing such things does not edify anyone. I found the method of spreading my darkness among many characters to be sanctifying. Instead of judging the sins of others, I was able to examine my own.

This is a method that I feel bound to follow. The subject matter of Fallen does not need more angry scribblers. But, I hope, a repentant one might do some good.