Sunday, March 26, 2023

why nude art can be good for children

Nude Christ by Melanie Cooper Pennington

Recently, the principal of Tallahassee Classical School in Florida resigned in response to complaints submitted to the school board by at least one parent after a sixth-grade class was shown a picture of Michelangelo’s David sculpture as part of their curriculum. Apparently, the parent said the sculpture was “pornographic.”

Setting aside the fact that one would expect students at a classical academy to learn about classic art such as this, I am dumbstruck by the fact that so many Christians would applaud the school board’s discipline.

As an ordained minister who has studied childhood spiritual development by working with children and partnering with church-going families over several years, I would like to explain why I think it is GOOD for children to see (and have the chance to reflect upon) nude forms in art. My rationale is rooted in a variety of theological distinctives inherent in the Christian tradition.

First, Christian teaching holds that the human body is intrinsically good. This idea is rooted in the creation account itself and reaffirmed in Scriptures like Psalm 139:14, which declares that human beings are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Significantly, shame about the human body only enters the picture when the first human beings begin to doubt the goodness of God and the goodness of God’s creation. Prior to questioning such goodness, it is telling that (according to Genesis 2:25) the first human beings were “naked, and they felt no shame.” It is only after they gave in to the doubts sown by the serpent (who represents evil in the story) that they made coverings for themselves. (see Gen. 3:7)

Far from corrupting children, when we help children celebrate the human form appropriately, we are, in effect, cooperating with God in celebrating what God intended for our good.

Let us keep in mind that children do, indeed, reflect upon the mystery of the human body from a very early age. And it is better to help children wonder about the body in the open than to push it into the darkness where fear and shame tend to take over. Of course, the key is to do this appropriately.

You may well ask, then: what is appropriate and what is inappropriate?

Certainly, portrayals that are intended to objectify, degrade, victimize, and oppress human beings are to be rejected. Since the idea of “being made in God’s image” involves the act of exercising real autonomy over one’s own body, I hasten to add that any portrayals which violate the agency of the subject in question constitute one of the gravest evils (if not the greatest evil) in our society today. Here I refer to the preponderance of child pornography. This is a great evil, to be sure, because it preys upon the vulnerability of those who have little or no power to stand up for themselves when their agency has been violated.

This is precisely where the Christian story speaks so powerfully to this question, for Christianity teaches that God became one of us (a human being) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Theologically speaking, this is referred to as “the incarnation.” Briefly, the incarnation says that God took on human flesh to redeem what God intended for good in the very beginning and to reassert the goodness of it all. For the Christian, the embodiment of the Divine in the incarnation proves to be the decisive moment that dignifies humanity, even as Christ takes upon himself the shame and humiliations we inflict upon ourselves.

In this light, it is noteworthy that the two key events in the Christ story (birth and death) are events in which God’s only Son identifies with us in our stripped form, completely naked, willing to be exposed and vulnerable before the religious powerbrokers (who had developed the habit of objectifying God) and the political overlords (who could degrade and victimize whomever they wished to oppress).

Indeed, it is striking to me that most portrayals of the birth and death of Christ take pains to cover up his nakedness. This is tragic because it is through the very self-exposure of God that we may behold the depth of God’s love for us by identifying with us in our own vulnerable exposures. Far from evil, it is through the nakedness of God in these key salvific moments that we return to the light of grace.

Let us remember that the Gospels affirm this portrait as the writers recorded the fact that the very last piece of Jesus' clothing was a loincloth which the soldiers removed from his body in a degrading game of chance. And it was this very ugliness and humiliation that the apostle Paul celebrated as a kind of subversive victory. Jesus went right to our deepest, darkest places of shame and ushered us into the light of affirming love by the very act of exposure.

For these reasons, I encourage parents and educators to be thoughtful about helping children reflect upon the human body through various art forms, including visual depictions of nudity. Far from being an anti-Christian phenomenon, I suggest such thoughtful engagement can help us more fully embody an intrinsically Christian ethic and mediate an encounter with the Divine through a celebration of all that is good and beautiful in the human form itself.


why nude art can be good for children
reflections by troy cady
*Photo: Nude Christ by Melanie Cooper Pennington

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Church > Church Services

Church > Church Services
pastoral reflections on a Sunday morning in January
by troy cady
The other day I was talking with a neighbor about the word “church.” As we sat at my desk together, I opened up my web browser and Googled the word “church.” I said, “Now, let’s look at the visual images that are associated with this word.”
And as we looked, I pointed out that almost all of them were a picture of a building and most of those did not even have any people in the picture whatsoever…just a building. A small percentage of the pictures portrayed people in a building…at a church service. And we noted that every single picture that came up in the first round of search results fit into one of these two types of images.
For the past 40 years, I estimate that I have spent 75 percent of my Sundays either going to church services or playing a role in the leadership of such.
In light of this, what I want to say on this Sunday morning may come as a surprise to you: I have come to the conclusion that church services often (but not always) get in the way of God’s people being the church. I know that will likely ruffle the feathers of many churchgoers who are reading this but bear with me as I try to explain my rationale.
In 2002, my family and I moved to Madrid to start a church. To do this, we developed a “launch plan” (that’s what we called it). It was an 18-month business plan that articulated how we would grow the church from 8 people in March 2002 to 150 people in September 2003. (And, yes: the document we developed to share the vision of this was a business plan, I’m embarrassed to say.)
In any case, September 2003 was identified as the “launch date.” This was the time we would say, “Hooray, we did it! We started a church!” It was the day we would hold our first church service, open to the public.
After just 9 months into this launch plan, we held some private “test services” before going public. Believe it or not, we were three months ahead of schedule when we began these test services…that’s how much the church had grown in that short time. Because of this, we had considered moving up the public “launch date” from September to Easter that year (which happened to be on April 20).
At any rate, the test services were an opportunity to gain momentum and build the core of the congregation so that, when the launch day hit, a sense of common vision and shared values would have been nurtured already by a large enough group of people.
To build up to these test services, however, we simply met in small groups (which we called “community groups”) to build relationships, worship together, grow spiritually, and reach out to others. In other words, all of our energy the first 9 months of “launching” this church went into helping our community group ministry flourish.
After 9 months of seeing our community groups flourish, we noticed a distinct shift as soon as we started testing out weekly services. From planning to execution, the services themselves took most of our mental and emotional energy, leaving little energy to invest in our community groups. So, it didn’t take long for the community groups to languish…but the real problem came when the weekly services did not flourish as we had expected, either.
So we began to ask ourselves, “What’s going on here? Why does it seem like the church has just picked up a heavy weight right as we are trying to gear up for takeoff?”
That’s when we realized that everything that really mattered about what we had in mind when it came to “being the church” had already been happening in our community groups. And thinking we needed to add something more to be a “legitimate” church ultimately seemed to devalue the rich and authentic experiences we had been having already through the community group network we had nurtured. It was as if we were saying, “We can’t really be a church if we don’t meet each weekend for a church service…can we?”
So, we asked ourselves, “What if we remove the ‘church service’ ingredient from the ‘church’ recipe and see what happens? If we didn’t have ‘church services’ to worry about, how would we go about embodying what it means to be God’s family?”
And that is what we did. We experimented. You could call it a little ecclesiastical improvisation. We decided that we would gather in a large group format just once a month while still emphasizing the weekly gathering of folks in the community group format. And what we discovered about what it means to be Jesus’ followers has changed my life and the lives of so many others since.
We found ways to worship that were diverse and fun, personalized and holistic. We learned what it means to truly be a family with one another, to take care of each other and really connect. Because our encounters with Scripture were rooted in interactive ways of engaging, our understanding of God and faith deepened significantly. We learned from one another and each person had regular opportunities to exercise their gifts from week to week. What’s more, our way of reaching out and sharing Jesus’ love with others was humanizing and playful.
Thus, we discovered first-hand that we were better able to embody the essence of what it means to be the church…without hosting weekly “church services.”
I wish I could say I stayed the course with this little improvisation since then. However, I didn’t. When my family and I moved back to the States in 2010, we ended up participating again in “church” as we typically think of it: an event-based place. This was not without good reason, to be sure…and, in many ways, the church we were part of was a blessing and a joy. My work with children was enriching and several people in the congregation served with heart-felt devotion and open-minded creativity. I thank God for those people.
But as time wore on, I began to see once again how “church services” often hindered us from experiencing what God desires for us to experience as a church family.
During this time, I recall looking across the congregation on many, many Sundays wondering what the point of it all was. As we sang together, it seemed like we were just going through the motions, mouthing the words, pleased mildly by the melodies. Our hearts were not in it. I remember feeling sad for the worship leaders who diligently prepared music for us to lift our hearts to the Lord and who often implored the congregation to really put their all into it…but the response was just, “Meh.”
And the same was true of the congregation’s response to the pastor’s preaching, despite the thoughtful and creative ways she went about proclaiming the gospel from week to week. To this day, I can easily say that Pastor Mandy is one of the best leaders I have ever had the honor of serving with. So, it makes my blood boil knowing the kind of criticism she faced week-in and week-out from so many people. Time and time again, her calls for deep, good change in the church just met with resistance.
The grace that could have redeemed all this was the tight-knit community that characterized the church. But, for too many people, that sense of community did not extend to them. I recall on several occasions talking with various long-time members when another person who had been attending for at least a couple of years would come up in the conversation—and the long-time member had no idea who I was talking about. And it wasn’t as though either of these people were only sporadic attenders; both of them were very regular. I wondered to myself, “How is it that two people who have been attending a small church like ours regularly for three years have never even said hi to each other? How is it that two people could literally sit 5 seats away from each other (in their "usual" spot on Sunday morning) week after week for years and not know each other's names?” It's sad: sometimes church services are the loneliest places to be in this world. Why is this, I have to wonder?
I am convinced it is because the “church-as-churchservice” paradigm makes it very easy for this to happen. The mindset is: “I saw the few people who are important to me, I’ve sung my songs, I’ve heard my nice sermon, I’ve had my cracker and grape juice, it was nice, I feel good now and…I’ll see you next week.” After more than 30 years of ministry in church settings, I am convinced that this is more normal for most churchgoers than many churchgoers care to admit.
And so, I have to ask myself, “What’s the point? If that is all that ‘church’ really is…why bother?” Is there no sense of reaching out, serving the common good, enfolding the marginalized in love? Where is the passion and creativity? Simply put, it is a failure of imagination.
On this front, I would like to say, however, that this church did get one thing right: each Saturday they hosted a food pantry to feed the hungry. And it is significant that one of the key leaders of the food pantry testifies to this day that Saturdays at the food pantry felt more like “church” to him than any other thing we did as a church. It is also very telling to me that most of the people who volunteered at the pantry over the years were NOT from the church, but rather from the neighborhood. Why would this be?
I suggest it is because the folks who served at the food pantry were really being the church. There was a sense of joy and life and family. Though no songs were sung on Saturday mornings, the atmosphere could be truly described as worshipful. And deep conversations often occurred that enriched our understanding of God and faith and life. And it was not uncommon to see one person praying with their arm around another person who was weeping, going through a hard time, in need of a friend. In short, we were being formed in Christlikeness. It is sobering to note on this front that most people who volunteered at the food pantry over the years…never stepped foot in the church building on a Sunday morning.
And I would say for good reason: they were already experiencing the essence of what it means to be the church without ever attending a church service.
So, what I first realized 20 years ago has come full circle to me. I am convinced that church services often (but not always, mind you) hinder many Christ-followers from really experiencing what it means to be the church.
And, so…the last four weeks, I have been practicing and inviting others to practice with me various ways of coming together as God’s family. We’ve feasted together and built relationships with lots of time to have informal conversation over a meal where each person brings something to contribute. We have told stories and listened to stories. We’ve enjoyed children in our midst. We’ve wondered about the presence of God in the stories we’ve heard and in the midst of our everyday life experiences. And we’ve served others together: yesterday, some of us spent a good portion of the day helping at a shelter for people experiencing homelessness.
One person who participated said afterwards, “That was so much fun, I almost feel guilty!” There was life in it, a sense of God’s goodness, a sense of loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Later, I was driving home with my “adopted aunt” Judy (as I like to call her). We carpooled together and when we got back to my place, we sat in the car for another hour…just talking and connecting. I shared with her some family challenges I’ve been facing lately and she listened like a good friend, offering words of encouragement and reassurance. It is with deep gratitude that I note our societal roles were reversed yesterday. I—an ordained minister—had the joy of being pastored by “aunt” Judy, a retired nurse.
And just the day before, I had the honor of spending three hours with a neighbor friend, reading from the Gospel of John, praying, and talking about…
…family trauma,
…how Jesus deconstructs our cherished paradigms of God, life, and others;
…the problem of violence in Scripture,
…the prejudice that seems to plague our society today, and
…the ministry of reconciliation.
And that was only SOME of what we talked about. My friend has grown accustomed to referring to these times we have together as “church.” And I think he is right: it is church—in our living rooms.
This is how more of the church should be, I feel. We should be serving together. We should really be in each other’s lives. We should dialogue and share perspectives and learn from one another. We should share food together and just enjoy playing together. We should tell stories and practice listening. We should rest together and be there for each other when we fall on hard times.
These days, then, my imagination is coming alive again and I am experiencing it as a deep, deep grace. I have hope. In my mind's eye, I can see a whole network of small faith communities like these popping up all over...communities where people from all kinds of different backgrounds can come together to live into the simple rhythms of…
…sharing, and
And I am happy to say that others are joining in this vision already, not just here where I live in Chicago but in other parts of the States, too…from Connecticut to North Carolina, Minnesota to California. We’re calling this network PlayWell Communities. We want it to feel playful, improvisational, personalized, and fluid.
We’re not calling it a church, by the way, because that word just has so much unhelpful baggage that comes with it. We’re describing it as a network of small “faith communities.” Regardless, we’re passionate about what it looks like to follow Jesus in our time and in the places we live. And we want to strip away anything that would weigh us down from living according to God’s “unforced rhythms of grace.” We want to live freely…free to imagine different ways of being formed as God's dearly beloved people.
If you’d like to know more about all this, let me know because I’d love to talk with you about it.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

the present

i want you to see kindness 
in these eyes, 
to know what it feels like 
to be heard— 
i want to be the kind of person 
who keeps silence, 
who knows how to hold tears 
 in the spirit of tenderness— 
let’s enter the silence together— 
i will be the one to remind you 

you are not alone 

i will be your friend—
i cannot take away your pain, 
the betrayals you have borne, 
the sense of abandonment—
i cannot erase the many years 
you waited for god to show up— 
i cannot answer the one prayer 
you have made countless times— 
i wish i could do all of this and more 
but i can’t 

this one thing i do know: 
i can take time to be with you, 
i can train my eyes to see you, 
i can offer a warm heart 
in a cold world— 
i can join you 
in whispering softly 
over the embers of faith— 
i will watch in wonder 
when the light quickens in you— 
i will be someone who notices 
the reflection of grace in your eyes— 
and i believe you 
will see it, too. 


the present 
by troy cady

Friday, January 20, 2023

on the 19th of January

One night you will sit down
in your favorite chair
at the end of a long drizzly day.
On the 19th of January
the afternoon’s gray will descend
quickly to evening’s black,
the warm lights in the living room
will embrace your soul,
dampened the past 22 hours
by the clouds of conflict
that seem to cover everything,
even the stars.
Still, you will pause to remember
the morning’s brief sanctuary
when you entrusted yourself
to the vulnerability of silence
and the ministry of compassionate listening.
And you will remember
the arrival of the early afternoon
when you relished a feast of prayerful reading
with the neighbor whose
friendly curiosity quickened
the child within
and renewed your love of holy writ.
And, as you pause to remember,
you will breathe again, happy,
at peace with the world,
covered in grace.


on the 19th of January
by troy cady

Friday, September 23, 2022

healing the disease of anger

Yesterday, I got to spend the morning with a friend. When we have the chance, we get together to pray, read Scripture and talk about it. I find these times to be refreshing because of their simplicity. We have no agenda beyond the practice of open and free dialogue.

My friend likes to read from the King James version of the Bible because he savors its lyricism. Yesterday, one of the portions we read was from the book of Proverbs. After reading the chapter, I asked my friend to share which proverb felt most important to him today. Because he is a father to three children, he selected the verses in the chapter that talked about parenting.

Then, I shared the proverb that felt important to me. It was this:

“Make no friendship with an angry man;
and with a furious man thou shalt not go:
lest thou learn his ways,
and get a snare to thy soul.” -Pr. 22:24-25

As we reflected on those verses, we talked about how it seems that our entire society has become tainted by incessant hostility and anger. The latter half of the proverb explains how anger has become so rampant: anger is contagious and, before you know it, you are held captive to it.

As we discussed this, I shared with my friend about a study that found that posts on social media that adopt a tone of outrage, anger and disdain tend to get more interactions than other posts. In a podcast I listened to recently called “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” host Mike Cosper notes that this is one reason the celebrity pastor Mark Driscoll so regularly unleashed angry rhetoric in his hour-long sermons. The team that managed his online presence discovered that when Driscoll used a hot-tempered style of preaching it garnered more hits on their website. So, it didn’t take long for Driscoll to adopt the "shock and awe" approach as his trademark style.

Rage is highly effective at getting attention, even though it is not very constructive. Though there is a place for righteous anger, when anger only begets more anger, it is an exercise in futility and increasing degradation.

I suppose that most people who are constantly angry feel that their anger is righteous…even when it isn’t. When our emotions are constantly whipped up in a spirit of fury, it is hard to be objective about the true state of our own heart. When confronted with our own anger, we are more prone to defend ourselves than take time to reflect, seek forgiveness for the hurt our anger has caused, and (most importantly) change course.

I do believe it is important to let yourself feel anger, but it is more important to listen to what your anger is trying to tell you. This is why I love the practice of spiritual direction so much. It provides a space for someone to safely listen to their own emotions. And what I have observed as I have sat with various folks in spiritual direction over the past two years is that underneath the anger there is a deep, deep sadness that longs to be acknowledged. Thus, addressing the sadness proves key to healing our woundedness that prompted the anger in the first place. Unless we can heal the wounds, we will never be able to satisfy our anger.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the remedy for anger is gentleness. We need quiet, gentle spaces to be present to our sadness. We need understanding and compassion. We need companionship.

The catch is: it feels counter-cultural to practice gentleness in a world beset by so much anger. It takes faith and courage to be gentle. It requires hope—a belief that the quiet spirit will ultimately be heard underneath the noise of all the shouting—a trust that gentleness will outlast all the outbursts.

This is an appeal to slow down. Take the time to listen. Have enough courage to be gentle. May we trust and hope in a different way. May we reflect on our own anger, asking what it wants to tell us…lest we keep spreading it around carelessly.


healing the disease of anger
reflections by troy cady
*Photo by Valeriia Miller via Unsplash. Creative Commons License.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

the deepest love from the weakest soul

you have asked me just to love you
with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.
But, the one thing you have asked
is the very thing I cannot do.
My heart is heavy.
My soul is disintegrating.
My mind is clouded
and my strength is gone.
Lift from me this burden of sadness.
Put me back together.
Give me a clear vision of you in my mind’s eye
and grant me the grace of rest.
I’m tired and weak.
But I believe that
you are patient and kind,
loving and gentle,
full of compassion and mercy.
Before I can love you,
I need you to love me.
You know this, Lord.
You know me well,
your helpless child.
So, until I can recover myself,
please accept this child’s belief in your love
as the deepest love from the weakest soul.


the deepest love from the weakest soul
a prayer by troy cady

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

In God we Trust?

As a pastor who served for many years in evangelical settings, I want to say some things to all the Christians who have been offering “thoughts and prayers” today in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting in the United States.

First of all, you cannot say America is a country that trusts in God while failing to work for practical solutions to the obvious gun violence problem we have in our midst. Such work is the very by-product of faith. To trust in God is to work for the common good.

Surely by now you must acknowledge that the problem is more than just personal. There is a dimension to this that is perpetuated by the very systems and structures of our society. There is action we can take, policies we can enact, and care we can offer on a structural level that will at least lessen the incidence of mass shootings like those we have witnessed in the last two weeks alone.

I say this because I notice that evangelical Christians in particular have become very good at explaining away each specific shooting in ways that conveniently allow them to just ignore the problem and do little or nothing to work for systemic change.

At the same time, evangelicals have perfected the art of mobilizing collective action around other causes they believe in such as the abolition of abortion, the prohibition of gay marriage, and the protection of a whole array of religious liberties they enjoy.

To those Christians, I say: you celebrate victories around these causes under the full conviction that you are building a more Christian society with each win. But I have to ask…on the verge of the overturning of Roe v. Wade… is a Christian society the kind of place where the unborn are protected but gun violence runs rampant? Is this really what a Christian society looks like? Should you not do something about this, if you really trust in God?

This is an invitation and a charge: Why not direct your collective energy to acts of compassion for all life, including the protection of lives that are threatened every day by irresponsible policies pertaining to firearms?

Jesus, the one you claim to be your Lord, has told you plainly that you cannot trust in both God and money. The same is true of guns. So, the question is simple: do you trust in God…or guns? You cannot trust in both.

I can’t help but feel that those who would defend their right to bear arms at any cost have failed to trust in God by their support of the political power brokers who block important policies regulating the proliferation of assault weapons in our society. Instead, I see countless Christians bowing to fear in the name of freedom and, as a result, they have given free rein to the senseless violence that has plagued our country for far too long now.

I note that so many political leaders that are backed by evangelical Christians are eager to criminalize abortion but then they turn around and vote against the appropriation of funds to address the shortage of baby formula that is causing immense hardship for countless households today. Do you value life? Then act like it!

In a similar act of hypocrisy, those same leaders claim that our gun violence problem in the United States is really just a mental health crisis…but then they turn around and gut the funding of important mental health programs that are needed to address this problem.

So, to all the Christians offering “thoughts and prayers” today, I have to ask again: just who do you trust? You cannot say you trust in God and then stand by and do nothing but make excuses for the lack of progress we have made in this area.

Remember, faith without deeds is dead. Faith acts. Faith moves. Faith calls for hard choices to be made that will contribute to healing and to our collective wellbeing. Christian: if you say you trust in God, it would be better for us all if you would just act like it and spare us all your half-hearted prayers.


In God we Trust?

reflections by Rev. Troy B. Cady