Message at Brookline Church of Christ

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of delivering the Sunday message at the Brookline Church of Christ, where my dad guest preached almost exactly 30 years ago. Here’s the link:

Steve sermon August 12

Also, here it is written out:

“Be a Fungus”

Sermon for August 12, 2012

Copyrighted by Steve Holt

A few years back I had the unusual opportunity to join a squirrely, gray-bearded, thoroughly eccentric man on a mushroom foraging excursion. Ben Maleson lives here in Boston and has become the area’s preeminent expert on mushrooms — or, as he calls them, “fleshy fungal fructifications.” Not only does he hunt for, collect, and sell the mushrooms to some of Boston’s top chefs, this guy totally geeks out mushrooms. He regularly goes to mushroom conferences. (who knew, right?) He owns more than 50 books on mushroom identification. He met his wife because of mushrooms. When I first met him, he’s even wearing a black T-shirt with a big mushroom on it. (he even believes wholeheartedly that the manna described in Exodus 16 is actually mushrooms, but that’s another sermon)

So, we’re driving along in his tiny, red hatchback, the interior of which absolutely reeks of mushrooms. We’re on our way to hopefully find some mushrooms. It’s mid-July, though, and we haven’t had much rain at all. Mushrooms need moisture to thrive. Ben starts to tell me about the three groups of mushrooms: mycorrhizal, saprophytic, and parasitic. Saprophytic mushrooms grow on dead or decaying matter. Parasitic mushrooms prefer a living host, which they eventually overtake and kill. Micorrhizal mushrooms form a symbiotic relationship with plants and trees. As Ben starts to talk about the mycorrhizal variety, he’s clearly excited excited. He tells me they receive nutrients —sugars, mostly — from the chlorofil-bearing plants around them. In return, the mushrooms give back micronutrients and other minerals. One really neat thing they do is hydrate the roots of the trees and plants around them with their excess stores of moisture. They tend to help baby trees, especially, survive until they grow tall enough to reach the light. Ben tells me enthusiastically that micorrhizal fungi are his favorite. I didn’t have a strong opinion about them before that day, but after hearing Ben’s description of them, micorrhizal mushrooms became my favorite as well.

I never thought I’d say these words, but I aspire to be a mycorrhizal fungus. I want to root myself around people and in such a way that not only my family and I are blessed, but that we bless everyone around us. That everyone has the opportunity to prosper, especially those who need a bit of help. That’s the message of Jeremiah 29. “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Put yourself in the Israelites’ position. You’re away from your homeland, in exile under a Babylonian dictator, Nebuchadnezzar. Through Jeremiah, God instructs you and your neighbors to settle in. Build houses. Plant kitchen gardens. Get married and have children. That is all scary enough for a bunch of displaced people. But God’s last direction for you takes the cake: work for the peace and prosperity of your city – a city that is not your home and in which you are, essentially, prisoners.

Your impulse, I would think, would be to duck and huddle. To eek by, just trying to survive. To focus inward, trying to remember what your homeland was like. To bide your time patiently until you could return to that beloved homeland. Certainly, there wouldn’t be a strong desire to bring children into such a scenario. But God tells you,





Engage your city.

It’s not too difficult to tie this text into the way we Christians live out our faith today. Many books have been written and sermons preached about our tendency to make getting to Heaven the principle objective of the Christian walk. Longing for a heavenly home, we build walls between ourselves and our neighbors. “So Heavenly minded that we’re of no Earthly good.” We immerse ourselves in Christian activities with people who look eerily similar to us. Many of these people had childhoods that look eerily similar to ours. We often tend to live with our bags packed, so to speak, hesitant to plug in any meaningful way into the world around us, to allow ourselves to become entwined in seeking the peace and prosperity of our city.

Let me narrow in a bit more. I think this is all the harder here in Boston. If you’re like me and didn’t grow up here, our tendency is to focus on how different it is from what we know. It’s an expensive city, and we have to work hard just to afford to stay. Many of us may stay for a job or for school but never really put down any real roots here. We gladly utilize much of what the city has to offer us, but giving back in any meaningful way – working toward the peace and prosperity of Boston – is a challenge. And then, often times, people move away. Since we moved here six years ago, Chrissy and I have gotten quite used to seeing those with whom we’ve become friends move away from Boston back to more familiar territory.

I’m not saying people should stay here forever. Lots of people have great reasons for needing to go elsewhere. Even fungi produce reproductive spores that are carried by the wind to other places. But imagine with me, if you will, a scenario in which more of us who follow Jesus in this city formed a symbiotic relationship with the people and institutions around us, feeding and nourishing our city and in turn welcoming all the good it has to offer? Regardless of how long we think we’ll be here, what if more of us built … planted … married and multiplied … and sought peace and prosperity where we live? How might that change our city, and us?

This looks different for everyone. For Chrissy and I, this looks like joining the board of a youth music nonprofit in East Boston, where we live; joining hands with neighbors to keep a casino out of our city; dreaming with fellow Jesus followers of ways we can bless, with no strings attached, our community; making an effort to get to know the others who live on our block – even the weird and grumpy ones; literally planting several gardens from which we give food away to neighbors; leading the parent council at the public school where our son goes; supporting our neighbors’ concerts, art shows, small businesses, and charitable causes; and trying to be available when someone stops us on the sidewalk to tell us all about how their back pain has returned, they got their fifth parking ticket this year, and the mayor stinks. That’s our list. Yours would probably be pretty different.

One thing we’ve found is that this kind of life is much easier when lived alongside others with a similar commitment. Maybe that’s why you often see a cluster of mushrooms living together at the base of a tree instead of just one. I’ve always loved the description in Acts 2 of the faith community that formed after Pentecost:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

“Enjoying the favor of all the people.” I think that’s my favorite part. This was not a country club where Christians could huddle together and await the Second Coming. The first Christians, as were the Israelites in Babylon, were also actively engaging their city. They kept their heads up and their eyes open as they walked, which let them see both the goodness and the pain of their surroundings. They were able to directly respond to the pain with generosity and respond to the goodness with joyful praise. And here’s the crazy part: their city took notice and held them in high regard. This is almost unbelievable to those of us who hear more about Christians warring against the culture rather than engaging and loving it.

The beautiful image we see in Acts 2 wouldn’t have been possible were it not for God’s people implanting themselves in a place and staying for a while. Rootedness, stability, and a sense of place and purpose are good news to a culture that is weary from turnover, constant movement, and change. When we root ourselves, we are able to sit still long enough to recognize the ways in which we can live symbiotically with the people and institutions around us. The thing is, when we seek the prosperity and peace of the city, we prosper as well. Not just economically, although that is often true. We also prosper in joy. Some religious people believe the opposite is true: that joy and contentment is found primarily at church, church camps, and church retreats and with church people. This can be true. But we’ve actually found that we experience just as much of God’s presence when we’re out in the neighborhood and fully engaged.

The fingerprints of God are everywhere around us – sometimes in the most unlikely places. Like mushrooms.

My benediction for all of us today is this: go in peace. And be a mycorrhizal fungus. Our city will thank us.


In case you missed it…

This appeared a little over a month ago over at the God’s Politics blog. Enjoy. (and check out Tracy’s CD!)

Worship Songs for a New Generation: ‘Hold On to Love’

by Steve Holt 05-17-2011

1100517-holdontoloveMuch ink has been spilled about the so-called “love songs to Jesus” many of us sing week after week at church. Many writers have critiqued popular worship music’s theological shallowness (or worse, incorrectness) and detachment from human experiences like doubt, pain, and suffering. Not to mention the almost complete lack of mission-or justice-related themes in most of the songs we sing at church.

Several years ago, Brian McLaren waded into this issue by penning an open letter to worship leaders, which appeared in a number of Christian magazines, as well as on the Web. In it, McLaren — who himself is a musician — issued a request for “the songwriters among us to explore and then lead us into some new lyrical/spiritual territory.” He maintains that too many of our songs are “embarrassingly personalistic, about Jesus and me.” He goes on to suggest that worship music, if conducted thoughtfully, could actually lead spiritual communities into a more holistic theology that embraces spiritual realities beyond the individual self.

This is the spirit in which The Restoration Project (Tracy Wispelwey) is releasing its sixth album — “Hold on to Love.” Wispelwey, who, with McLaren, co-produced “Songs for a Revolution of Hope” in 2007, has produced an eclectic, powerful, and inspiring collection of songs that remain remarkably accessible. Eclectic in that every song is different: from the unmistakably upbeat, African stylings on “Amahoro,” to the funky (Tracy calls it “electroacoustic”), R&B track “People Come Together,” to the decidedly more somber and lamentful track, “Nazina.” I don’t disagree with Brian McLaren’s assessment of the general sound conveyed on “Hold on to Love”: “the musical love-child of Sarah McLachlan and Sigur Ros.” Indeed, both Sigur Ros’ slow, ambient build and McLachlan’s hauntingly sweet vocals are easily traceable on the album’s first track, “To See You.”

The collection is powerful in its message of peace and solidarity with the world’s poor and suffering. The Restoration Project lives up to its name as both announcing and participating in God’s reparative work in the world and drawing in the voices and stories of numerous communities and individuals Wispelwey has met in her journeys. Often preferring to play her music to prisoners and refugees over the coffee house crowd, Wispelwey has weaved into her latest project the sounds of a number of the thousand or so communities she’s visited in the last decade. Recorded in five U.S. states and South Africa, the international collaboration reveals itself throughout the instrumentation and deep into Wispelwey’s song lyrics. Two of the tracks are sung fully or partially in Spanish. “People Come Together” is a triumphant, bluesy collaboration with a Portland R&B ensemble. A South African choir contributed vocals to the joyful “Amahoro,” an East African greeting similar to “shalom.” And the haunting “Nazina” speaks of a Burundian person who is named “nothing” (Nazina), referring to the country’s often forgotten Batwa people. The album showcases the instrumental sounds of the sitar, saw, kalimba, marimba, bell and chimes, and piano, in addition to plenty of acoustic guitar and synthetic beats. In this way, “Hold on to Love” is like a satisfying tour of the world, minus the vaccination shots and food poisoning.

But in this reviewer’s opinion, it’s lyrically where Wispelwey’s album soars. Simple, easily memorable words — many of them based in the Beatitudes — embody in substance everything McLaren and others have called for in recent years. It’s no surprise, given that Wispelwey is currently completing a masters of divinity at Harvard, a degree she began pursuing to serve as a foundation for her life and ministry. But her biblical studies have only given theological meaning to what she’s observed firsthand in her world travels: immigrant struggles along the U.S.-Mexico border, extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, political strife in Central and South America, and incarcerated persons in prisons and detainment facilities. As much as anything, it is this identification with the suffering, the poor, the war-torn, the broken that drive and defines “Hold on to Love.” “Call to Nonviolence” ends with a theologically robust refrain that one imagines could go on and on and on (and maybe it should):

We will draw our hands
From things that destroy
Systems that oppress
From our selfishness.

Wispelwey’s themes of solidarity with the weak continue with some beautiful imagery in track 13, “Do Not Be Afraid”:

Do not be afraid
To stand with the weak
You are strong in peace
A flower piercing concrete

Finally, “Hold on to Love” is accessible. The versatility and simplicity of the album make these songs ideal for singing in both everyday activities and in Christian gatherings (a digital songbook, complete with words and music, accompanies both the digital and physical album). The theological truths here — though often countercultural even in religious circles — are lifted directly from the Bible’s red letters and infused with the stories of many of Wispelwey’s friends from around the world.

Whether you are a part of a spiritual community seeking to expand your worship music catalog or simply a lover of music that inspires, this album will be a blessing and embolden you to join Tracy in “finding transformational love where things suck the most.”

What you need to know about the coming floral revolt.


They’re everywhere. In our gardens, in pots on our porches, in vases (pronounced “vah-zes”), and even in our noses*. Some of us eat flowers everyday. They’re pretty, they’re funky, and one day in the not-too-distant future, they’ll raise a citizen army and stage a revolt against those humans who didn’t appreciate their contributions to society. Folks, the stakes have never been higher.

If we don’t act now, our kids will inherit a floral armageddon of biblical proportions. You don’t want that, do you? Some flowers have thorns!

Here’s something you can do right now to stave off the impending attack: buy flowers. Put them everywhere. Tell your friends who are getting married or expecting to die. At your next event, fill the room so full of flowers that attendees can’t even enter the room. (or make a “flower maze” and spank those who make it through**) Buy flowers indiscriminately and throw them haphazardly in the streets, from the rooftops and bridges, and into the ocean.

If you live in Texas, there’s really only one source for floral amazingness: Lindy Floral.

She’s based in Austin. She’s fully accredited by SPIFA (Society for the Prevention of the Impending Floral Armageddon). And she’s my sister-in-law***.

Check out her website, inquire about her services for your next event, and do your part to delay or diminish the inevitable. Knowledge is power, people. And now you know.

Do it.

That’s all.

*not sure where that came from.
*** she’s not blood related to the Holts, so she’s actually talented.

the other blog

Some of you may be interested in the other blog we’re using these days. For reasons of confidentiality, I can’t go into detail about it here (since our full names are used here), but it’s become the most heartfelt and personal writing I’ve ever done. For that reason, I’m not closing down this blog, but posts will likely stay rather … sparse.

Here’s the link to the new blog. Enjoy!

Download the Rocketboys’ new EP — FREE!

The Rocketboys + Death On Two Wheels Summer Tour 2010 | July 30 - August 8

Independence Day

Intriguing question from Greg Boyd this 4th of July:

How can a holiday that celebrates one group of mostly professing Christians violently overthrowing another group of mostly professing Christians be venerated by people who are called to love their enemies and to be peacemakers, even if they happen to find themselves on the side that won? (read the whole essay here)

Think Different

Christian virtue and the “wider world”

Something that’s been on my mind for a while now is the subject of Christian witness — virtue, character — and its relationship (reaction to, impact on) “secular” society.  Do people of faith really have anything significant to add to efforts for peace and justice when so many of the non-faithful are already out there in the trenches? I say we do. In fact, I maintain that the struggle for human rights and justice are based in issues of faith — the world is not as it should be, humans have dignity and beauty, we should seek to bolster the well-being of others, love, etc.  I’m not entirely convinced that humans would come to these conclusions were it not for faith and religion.

This is (partly) the argument N.T. Wright makes in his new book, After You Believe. The following passage gets us down the path a ways in the discussion of Christian witness in “secular” societies:

Those who are called to reflect God’s image through their own work must give attention to the task of working out, in a highly contested contemporary world, what that restorative justice ought to look like and how we might help bring it about. This will mean engaging with political debates and processes of various sorts, campaigning on key issues, and highlighting oppression and injustice wherever they occur. The Western world has supposed, for two hundred years and more, that splitting off questions of social justice from questions of God and faith would give us a more just society. The revolutions, totalitarianisms, and all-out wars of that period have proved us wrong. But to put God and human justice back together again will require a sustained effort, not only by individuals but by the church as a whole, developing the corporate virtues of justice-work that will become habits of the church’s heart and will appeal to the conscience of the wider world. (Wright, p. 231)

Put another way, to eliminate religious speech and expression from the public square (as we’re seeing in many European countries) is to cut off the branch on which human rights rest. Christian witness has a place at the table in conversations about justice and the betterment of society. A crucial place.

The role of doubt

Just posted over at Sojo. I like this one. Chime in with your thoughts.

God is Big Enough to Take Our Doubt and Anger

by Steve Holt 04-23-2010

“To believe is human, to doubt divine.”

Those words are central to the self-described “incendiary theology” Peter Rollins preaches. Amid a Christian culture known all too often for its belief in absolutes and pervasive positivity, Rollins completed a pre-Easter tour in April to give these communities the permission to doubt and lament. The 10-city “Insurrection Tour” didn’t take place in churches, but pubs.

That’s because a message touting doubt, questions, and skepticism is often not welcome in our sanctuaries. Pubs and bars, however, serve as venues for discussing life’s toughest issues nearly every night of the week.

Folks in the pews, Rollins asserts, doubt all the time. They have terrible days, feel oppressed and cheated, and wonder if there’s anything to this Jesus-y stuff. And then they come to church and hear motivational pep-talks and putridly positive prayers and music.

Not only that, Rollins maintains that churchgoers expect their churches to do their believing for them. Though it isn’t their reality, we eek our good feelings of faith off of our pastors and liturgies. But what if our pastors themselves stop believing? Well, last month, Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University released a study entitled “Preachers Who are not Believers.” One full-time minister the researchers interviewed, “Adam,” self-describes as an “atheist-agnostic.” Here’s how he says he handles his job on Sundays:

Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don’t believe what I’m saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that’s what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that’s what I’m doing.

He went on to describe why he sticks it out saying and doing things he doesn’t believe:

I’m where I am because I need the job still. If I had an alternative, a comfortable paying job, something I was interested in doing, and a move that wouldn’t destroy my family, that’s where I’d go.

How did we get to this point? Simple. We don’t allow each other to voice our questions and doubts. Church isn’t a place for questions, but absolutes. It’s certainly no place for shades of gray — black and white are our colors. We certainly don’t get this from the narrative of scripture, where we find a motley cast of characters who are quite comfortable expressing doubt and anger — even to God. Rollins paraphrased Kierkegaard, who, in his commentary on Job, advised the troubled man to yell at God because God can take it.

But the Insurrection Tour gave me hope for what is possible when faith communities not just allow doubt to enter, but embrace it. I was touched by the hauntingly beautiful poetry and music of Pádraig Ô Tuaman that reflected the pain and lament of the human soul. Johnny McEwan’s moving beats and graphics complemented Rollins’ provocative words and rounded out a night of spiritual exploration unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The church desperately needs poets and artists whose creations not only reflect the joy and beauty of life, but the pain.

What I and Christians everywhere need is the permission to be human, living and struggling daily with the range of human emotions. Sunday morning services — with their “love songs to Jesus,” as Rollins terms them — would have us believe that Christians are “in-right, outright, upright, downright happy all the time.” This is so far from the truth, it’s not even funny.

What if, little by little, we started to believe that God is big enough to take our doubt and anger? What if we changed our culture of false pretenses? What if we began to not only share our struggles along with our joys, but were present to lend an ear to a struggling friend, without judgment? What if our hymnody, sermons, and prayers began to reflect more fully the range of human emotions, including doubt, fear, and anger?

We will become healthier and more effective ambassadors of love when our gatherings — from the kitchen table to the Lord’s Table — become places where we can struggle with the existence and character of God. Because while a conclusion is the place we arrive when we’ve stopped thinking, struggling — even with faith — assumes movement. And in the kingdom of God, movement is rarely a bad thing.

Museum of Russian Icons

Checked out the Museum of Russian Icons with a friend today, and I highly recommend it!  Aside from the moving and beautiful art, the architecture and layout of the museum was incredible.  Religious or not, you won’t regret taking a day to explore the place.  It’s in Clinton, MA.