Art, Trauma, and Scripture

Cosmic justice is a deeply Biblical idea: God will right all wrongs in this life or the next. But sometimes cosmic justice in the Bible drifts all the way into vindictive fantasies like we see in Psalm 137. It’s one of, if not the single most disturbing passage in the Bible. In it, the Hebrew author recounts their grief and the brutal pain endured at the hands of the Babylonians. The author wishes for the aggressors to experience for themselves the same level of pain that they’ve caused, thus concluding the psalm: “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” 

There are a lot of gruesome passages in the Bible, but infanticide is just about as bad as it gets. 

The most obvious question the text raises is, “Is God really happy about the murder of babies?” Of course not. Reason and the life of Jesus are sufficient evidence otherwise. Instead, it’s a Hebrew fantasy by someone in intense pain who wants the guilty to suffer with them. We all have similar thoughts that differ only by degree.   

Carrie Underwood, after a painful breakup, recorded a song named Before He Cheats singing: 

“I dug my key into the side 

of his pretty little souped-up four wheel drive, 

carved my name into his leather seats, 

I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights

Slashed a hole in all four tires

Maybe next time, he’ll think before he cheats” 

Obviously Carrie Underwood didn’t actually do that in real life or she would be in jail unable to perform the song.  Underwood acted out her anger in song instead of acting on it in real life. That’s a nonviolent response even when the song is about violence. Revenge ballads are popular enough to be their own sub-genre of country music.

Clearly that’s what’s going on in Psalm 137 also. They sing about something horrific instead of doing something horrific.

Douglas Adams, the author of A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, was bullied in primary school by a girl who grew up to be a poet of all things. When Adams wrote his novel, he describes a scene where an alien reads poetry so bad that the audience goes insane. The narrator tells the reader that this alien poetry is the third worst poetry in the universe, but that the worst poetry in the universe is written by Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge in Essex- Adams childhood bully. 

In an interview much later, Adams confessed that in reality, Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings’ poetry isn’t that bad at all. The interviewer followed up by asking if Adams regretted writing her into the book in that way. “Oh no. It was and remains immensely satisfying.” Adams claims some of his power back from his childhood bully by writing her into his fantasy fiction in a silly way.

Using art and and song and fiction to tell our stories in empowering ways and to name our anger and the depth of our wounds is a powerful, nonviolent way to begin to heal and find our voice after tragedy and trauma. Psalm 137 is great evidence that this is happening in the Bible too. 

What Is Lent & Why Fast?

What Is Lent?

Lent is the 40 day period that begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. It’s a time of searching and assessing oneself in order to repent, draw closer to God, and live more honest lives. 

The 40 days of Lent mimic Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness immediately after his baptism, and in them, we do many of the same things Jesus did- fast, pray, and wrestle with temptation. Some people choose something to fast from in order to remind themselves of their dependence on God and to expose idols. Rather than subtract, many others choose to add something like Bible reading or prayer in traditional or nontraditional ways.  And anyone who sets a new intention or seeks to break a habit knows that the temptation not to follow through is inevitable. 

If we choose to observe a fast during Lent, we are encouraged to make the guidelines serve our spiritual needs rather than forcing ourselves to conform to an ancient tradition. However, ancient traditions rarely endure the test of time if they don’t also have some real life benefits that make them meaningful year after year. It’s possible that by fasting in the midst of a society that is constantly and carelessly pushing us to over-consume, we find the space needed to see God and faith from an altogether new vantage point. We may begin to look at ourselves or our world differently too. 

Why Fast?

I tried fasting from coffee two consecutive years, but never made it past the 2nd or 3rd week. Does that mean the fast was a failure? Absolutely not. I learned that it was next to impossible for me to be productive without obscene amounts of caffeine. That insight led me to the right questions: What is it about myself and the world I live in that makes dependence on a mild drug a daily need for productivity? And why was productivity the criteria I used to assess the meaningfulness of my life in the first place? 

At the time, I was working way too much on things that were of only trivial value. I would come home, spend time with Alyssa, and then after she went to bed, I worked for another couple of hours. My fast didn’t fail; it showed me exactly what values were driving my life. 

A friend once chose to fast from sugar during Lent. After failing to make it through the full 40 days, she told me it was the best fast she’d ever done precisely because she failed. Initially she felt remorse and worthlessness. Then she remembered other fasts she failed without ever feeling the same level of despondence. She realized that the real reason she felt so depressed was because she failed to lose weight. Why did she think losing weight would make her a better Christian and a better person? Why did she need to hide her real intentions behind spiritual motives? She didn’t succeed in her fast, but she did succeed in finding her true motives, and that’s what a Lenten fast is all about. 

The Lenten fast isn’t about winning. We don’t award merit badges for being a Super Christian. The point isn’t to live as an ascetic for 40 days. A fast introduces a controlled disruption into our lives. 

Forty days is short enough that we can choose a fast or a practice significant enough to disorder/reorder our habits. When doing endurance drills, an old coach used to tell me that I could stand on my head and eat sand for a minute if I had to, so I should be glad he wasn’t demanding more. Forty days is too long to stand on our heads and eat sand, but it’s short enough that we can be ambitious in our goals. Better to fail and learn a difficult truth than to succeed and remain blind to one. 

Forty days is also just long enough to sit in the discomfort of a difficult task and gain real insight. It’s long enough to experience the fog of a brain being purged of sugar, but it’s also long enough to find the mental clarity on the other side. Forty grouchy, caffeine-free mornings are more than enough to begin seeing capitalism’s contributions to American church culture, and how I came to perpetuate them.

An appropriate fast disrupts our normal patterns enough to expose our rough edges and allow us to see ourselves more honestly. If we’re lucky, we’ll discover the very same things we work so hard to hide from ourselves. Because of this nature, Lent is best practiced in community with others who show us grace and compassion. Experiencing grace encourages rigorous honesty while judgement leads to deception.

We need trusted allies who can tell us that it’s okay when we fail, because our value doesn’t come from our success. We need gentle guides who can help us translate our experiences into explanations more compassionate and true than the ones we give ourselves: We didn’t fail a sugar fast because we are weak. We failed because we’re chemically dependent, and it takes both herculean strength and collegiate level research and planning to eliminate sugar from a modern American diet. Besides, our value doesn’t come from our appearance, but from our personhood.

Beginning and quitting a fast early isn’t the worst thing that can happen in Lent. Becoming more self-righteous or self-debasing is. 

The Lenten journey is and should be a trying one, and it’s one we shouldn’t take alone. Still, it’s better to go alone than with someone who doesn’t understand the journey. There’s no place for judgement on this road, because we’re headed to the cross where it will both expose and save us, if we’ll let it. So whether we choose to schedule a disruption into our lives this season or simply pay attention to our inner life in a special way, Lent is impossible to get wrong if we’re committed to being honest with ourselves and God. 

Jakob Topper

Senior Pastor

Christmas: O Holy Nightmare

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, c. 1805. William Blake

   A great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. Because she was with child, she wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the heaven: it was a huge dragon, flaming red, with seven heads and ten horns; on his heads were seven diadems. His tail swept a third of the stars from heaven and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, ready to devour her child when it should be born.She gave birth to a son–a boy destined to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and to his throne. The woman herself fled into the desert, where a special place had been prepared for her by God; there she was taken care of for twelve hundred and sixty days.Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. Although the dragon and his angels fought back, they were overpowered and lost their place in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent known as the devil or Satan, the seducer of the whole world, was driven out; he was hurled down to earth and his minions with him….When the dragon saw that he had been cast down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the boy. But the woman was given wings of a gigantic eagle so that she could fly off to her place in the desert, where, far from the serpent, she could be taken care of for a time, and times, and half a time.The serpent, however, spewed a torrent of water out of his mouth to search out the woman and sweep her away. The earth then came to the woman’s rescue by opening its mouth and swallowing the flood which the dragon spewed out of his mouth.Enraged at her escape, the dragon went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep God’s commandments and give witness to Jesus. He took up his position by the shore of the sea. (Revelation 12:1-9, 13-17)

O Holy Nightmare: Incarnation and Apocalypse

Some 30 years ago, Fritz Eichenberg, the artist associated with the Catholic Worker, published in those pages a wonderful and disturbing depiction of the Nativity. In the center foreground lies the babe on hay and in swaddling clothes. Nestled round are an adoring donkey and a cow. Through the crossbeams above, a star points down from the heavens. Hallmark, you would think, would snatch up the print for a comforting and conventional Christmas card.

But wait. A closer look through the archway reveals a village nearly off the edge of the frame. However, this is not the cozy skyline set on a Judean hillside as one might expect, but a bombed-out city in flames. One has the feeling that it’s all coming this way, closing in on the child asleep, holy and innocent. Look again. Tucked beneath the hay is a soldier’s helmet. He is born in a year of war, and violence is near.

This is a biblically accurate portrait. We suffer much from Christmas card theologies who freeze the nativity as a static tableau where all is calm all is bright. 

The incarnation of God is a still point at the center of a furiously turning world, very nearly the eye of a hurricane with all the powers of history and darkness marshalled and moving, threats and intrigues, journeys and exiles, and raging political violence. In our conventional manger scenes, these are pushed off the edge of the frame, out of sight and mind.

The 12th chapter of Revelation is not commonly read at Christmas time. The sign of the woman crying out and giving birth to the child with a dragon spitting threats and pursuing is not to be found among the lectionary readings. Sometimes, I think it should be.

In this reading God has risked everything to enter into creation and history incognito. And by this renunciation of absolute power, by this way of humility, the cosmic and worldly powers are overturned much as Paul writes: “God disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15). 

But in this Revelation allegory of the incarnation, the powers can smell it, God is present and powerless by all of their definitions of power. They sense it and go wild with rage and anticipation. Because of God’s chosen powerlessness, they go for a time unchecked and unleashed. You can feel it sometimes, can’t you?

Detail of a stained glass window in the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire, England.

Hence, the woman and the dragon. Some see Woman with a capital “W.” In some sense she stands for and with all of humanity. The same could be said of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Here is revealed the momentous character of her decision. In this view we see no meek and mild mother swept along by events. She has made a very simple choice, taking a stand on the hope of God against all deadly odds.

In the book of Revelation, the woman wears a crown of twelve stars. Can these be any less than the tribes of Israel? In scripture, twelve is the number of the community. Here is Mary, here is Israel, here is all of us crying out for deliverance and struggling to birth life in the world. The Lord hears her cry, but so does the dragon. It waits, ready to devour.

The seven heads and the ten horns are a clue to the dragons identity. Not merely a grotesque and terrifying
image, they are symbols like the stars in the woman’s crown. The horn is a standard symbol of power. The head is the sign of direction, of authority and commandment. Their multiplication is over time and space and tends toward being pretentious of absolute power.

In the seven and the ten, commentators generally see seven hills and 10 emperors as an explicit reference to Rome. The analogies to Imperial Rome are expanded in the famous 13th chapter which follows. But, we are well-advised that this historically specific allusion should not limit the dragon’s meaning. 

Jeremiah saw the image of the devouring dragon in Babylon (Jeremiah 51:34), and Ezekiel saw the dragon slither down the Nile as the Egyptian pharaoh (Ezekiel 29:3, 32:2).

The dragon appears to be the power behind the powers, the authority within the authorities, the moral reality with a slew of names: destroyer, divider, seducer, confuser, accuser–death.

The woman looks it in the eye. And at the heavenly heart of things, it is already defeated, though not without a bitter fight. 

The dragon takes up a stance that is a twisted parody of Advent. It watches. It is alert and awake, crouched and ready, preparing in its own fashion for the child’s arrival.

The powers, it is time to note, are likewise on aggressive watch in the gospel nativities. 

In Luke’s narrative, it is Caesar who stands watch when his word goes forth all calls for a census. 

This is the business of empire. Caesar’s purposes come down to the very basis of Roman power: taxation, military induction, and population control. Rome wants to know the whereabouts and number of able-bodied folks in provinces likely to revolt. Caesar sits uneasily, crouched and alert, ready to devour the slightest threat to Pax Romana. 

In Matthew the dragon’s watch is kept by the puppet-king, Herod. He is the representative of Rome, and stands for all the worldly powers. When Herod gets wind of the child’s advent, he is immediately troubled and “all Jerusalem with him.” 

Herod consolidated his power by military ruthlessness and a series of assassinations against opposition figures and potential claimants to the throne. He had informers and secret police everywhere. In his suspicions of disloyalty, he killed three of his sons, one of his wives, and any number of close advisers.

His response to the prospect of the Messiah’s birth is more of the same tired method: to hatch yet another scheme, conceive another assassination plot.

A question on which Matthew’s birth narrative turns is this: Will the Wise Men, even unwittingly, be drawn into Herod’s scheme? Will they return with names and addresses? Will they understand the murderous complicity into which they are being drawn?

The wisdom of the Wise Men is that they worship the true king not seated on a throne but laid in a manger. Deep in their psyches from whence dreams come, they discern Herod’s lie. They dream, perhaps, of a dragon, crouched to devour. 

They are foreigners and guests. They travel with permission, their visas stamped with Herod’s mark. To go against a king who is not above murder is to risk his fury. Nonetheless, they disobey the dragon. By their act of disobedience the child is protected.

In Revelation the child is snatched from the jaws of death abruptly. The woman is lifted from harm’s way by an eagle. I wonder if that saving presence of God is really another way of speaking about acts like those of the wise men, acts of discernment, conscience, and faithfulness by which the Word of God makes its way in the world: Providence seems weave through history on small choices that end up bearing large consequences.

Herod is furious. He has a new idea: murder again. He strikes at the body of Christ by striking at the body of humanity. The point of the passage is not that Jesus is exempted from suffering. He is barely born, and already he is a refugee and exile. The point of the passage is the opposite: He will share their fate. At Jesus’ birth Herod’s power is unleashed and exposed nakedly for what it is. Herod follows and worships the dragon–death. In the end the Lord will walk into the jaws of that power.

At every turn it appears an absurd mismatch: a woman and a dragon, a babe and the kings of this world, a messiah of utter folly and the power of death. But that is precisely the method that God has chosen in the incarnation. God risks everything on the power of powerlessness.

The topic of Christmas is whether we have the eyes to see and the heart to follow.

It is said in Revelation 12 that the woman and the dragon appear as a great sign. The Greek word is semeion. It’s the same word the old prophet uses when he announces to Mary, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against” (Luke 2:34). And it’s the same word the angel announces to the shepherds, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).

John’s preface holds that when the Word became flesh, many didn’t recognize it. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, but it didn’t know him. He came to his own, and they didn’t acknowledge or receive him. But some did. Christmas has to do with seeing the signs, with recognition, with discerning God’s presence in the world.

(Excerpt adapted from Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s Seasons of Faith and Conscience: Explorations in Liturgical Direct Action )


Texts of Terror: Monster Theory in Our Sacred Stories

Each year I consider doing a sermon series in October based on Phyllis Trible’s book Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives.

Each year I imagine reading these stories in a room with Kindergartners,  and I decide to stick with the lectionary texts. There are plenty of Biblical texts that are Not Safe For Church and far from family friendly. There are horror stories in the Bible fit to rival the worst of Stephen King or Shirley Jackson. 

In one such story in the Book of Judges, a concubine leaves her Levite husband and moves back in with her father in a neighboring county. I can’t imagine the bravery it must take to leave your husband in that culture. The Levite decides to go get her and bring her home, so he works out a deal with his father-in-law. He never even speaks with his concubine during the story. It reads more like a business transaction than marriage counseling. On the way home, despite being warned against it and encouraged to stop elsewhere, the Levite decides to spend the night in a city in the tribe of Benjamin known for treating outsiders poorly.

After nightfall, the men of the city blockade the home where the Levite and his concubine are staying. Rape is about power, and they want to subjugate what makes them feel most powerful, so they demand the Levite be sent outside to them. Eventually the Levite pushes his concubine outside as a scapegoat in his place to pacify the Benjamite men.

The next morning the Levite wakes up and finds the concubine laying at the front door. How could he sleep at all that night? Clearly this woman is less than human to him.

Finding her at the edge of death and on the door step, the text doesn’t tell us that he throws himself at her and weeps with her. Instead, he steps over her and commands her to get up. It’s no surprise that she dies somewhere between that moment and their arrival back at home. Neither the text nor the Levite know exactly when.

Back at home, the Levite dissects the woman’s body so that he can send a piece to each of the 12 tribes of Israel to show them how poorly he was treated by the Benjamites, and because he wants to raise an army to avenge the inhospitality.

The Levite’s wish is granted, and the tribes unite to march against Benjamin. Tens of thousands of people are slaughtered in the battles to come. After Benjamin is crushed, the tribes swear not to give their daughters to any Benjamite. At the same time, not wanting the tribe of Benjamin to go extinct, the other eleven tribes arrange for the Benjamites to kidnap 400 women from Jabesh Gilead.

The story ends with the same horror in which it began- the inhuman treatment of women. The concubine was more valuable to the Levite as a martyr than a marriage partner. The women of Jabesh Gilead were persona non grata until they were kidnapped and enslaved by the men of the tribe of Benjamin. 

The cycle of violence, abuse and misogyny is perpetuated by men who can’t see past their own interests. Kyndall Rae Rothaus preached a sermon on this text in 2020 that addresses these themes with prophetic imagination, compassion and courage, and you can listen to here. I’m focusing on a piece of this story that’s grown more terrifying over the years which is just how easily the other eleven tribes of Israel get pulled into the violence.

It mirrors some of the mechanisms behind today’s manufactured outrage on social media. Should Lizzo play James Madison’s flute? Should an OU coach get fired because he read the explicit, racial lyrics of his student’s rap song in front of the class? Should The Little Mermaid be played by a Black actor? If I haven’t tweeted my support for Black Ariel, am I really an antiracist? 

Here in Norman, a teacher was fired from her job for sharing the QR code to the Brooklyn Public Library since the BPL was giving students across America free library cards and access to digital books that might be banned in their locale.

In response, many liberal do-gooders railed against the public school administrators and the Oklahoma legislature for firing the teacher. Conservative power brokers from the state house called for her teaching certificate to be revoked and for her prosecution for breaking a new Oklahoma law prohibiting what can be taught in classrooms. National news stations rushed in to comment on the story. Sides were drawn and offensive maneuvers were initiated. Another battle in the never ending culture war was being waged in Norman, Oklahoma, and across the nation. 

Then, the facts started coming out. The teacher wasn’t fired. The administration never took any punitive measures. Her teaching license wasn’t revoked. No laws were broken. 

Many of us were suckered into another culture battle, and for what? 

There’s much to be said about the climate our teachers are forced to work in. It’s unreasonable and untenable. There’s a great many ways we could lobby and vote to equip them with the resources and the space to educate our children. I’m embarrassed to live in a state that is stripping public schools of the resources that make this country great. But that’s not what this story is about. 

This is one illustration among dozens that could be used in which something spreads across social media inciting outrage and demanding a response. Can you imagine how the eleven tribes of Israel felt when they received a piece of the Levites concubine and were told his version of the story? Outrage and righteous anger kindled. A response must be made. Tens of thousands dead. 

At what point did the real version of the Levite’s story start being told? The one where he never cared about the concubine anyway. Never saw her as a person, and is only ever concerned about himself. 

This real story was told eventually since it’s memorialized in our sacred stories. That’s one of the remarkable things about the Bible. When history is written from the side of the victors, Israel preserves criticisms of its own behavior right there in the middle of their sacred stories. Beginning with Moses, almost all of the Old Testament prophets criticize and condemn Israel. And Israel preserves the criticisms as sacred texts in their Bible! It’s unfathomable. 

The Levite and the concubine is one such story, I believe. Among many things, it serves as a horrifying reminder of how good impulses like righteous indignation and a hunger for justice can get twisted into serving ignoble purposes. The Benjamite rape of a concubine leads to tens of thousands dead. And in the most bizarre twist of fate, those who are supposed to have the high ground- the other eleven tribes of Israel- end the story by sanctioning the kidnapping and rape of over 400 other women.

The Levite and the Benjamites don’t see the concubine as a human being. None of the men ruling any of the twelves tribes see the 400 women of Jabesh Gilead as human beings. The cycle of violence doesn’t just perpetuate; it grows exponentially. 

It’s been said that the line separating good from evil runs right through the middle of every person, and horror stories serve as reminders that we are capable of becoming the very monsters that we condemn. 

I believe that’s why Jesus teaches us to love our enemies. It’s the only way to keep ourselves out of the cycle of violence, vengeance and hatred poisoning God’s good creation. Love of our family, our country, and even our ideals aren’t strong enough to prevent us from anger and violence. What wouldn’t we do to protect our families, our country, and our ideals? 

Loving our enemies is the only power strong enough to stop the violence and vitriol from spinning further out of control. Peace is the way, not the destination, and Love is the only power that can resist evil without becoming evil.

Jakob Topper

Senior Pastor

We Are Being Reborn (+more rad graphs)

On December 16, 2004, a NorthHaven Church Task Force met at the Presbyterian church to present the findings of their visioning study. Long before NorthHaven owned any property, designed a building, or moved into its own space, it took steps to discern who she wanted to become. 

The task force began by acknowledging a few things about who the church was before describing who it wanted to be. The church was made up of moderate and progressive Baptists who wanted something different in their church life. They started NorthHaven for that particular purpose. Most of the members at that time came from a church split and were still going through the healing process. Most were lower and middle class persons who would be classified as intellectuals. 

The presentation also acknowledged that NorthHaven was a regional church not confined to any one geographical area. It drew members from Lexington, Midwest City, OKC, Moore, Ada, and even Ardmore. Today, we still draw members from many of those places as well as Blanchard and other, new locations. 

Then, in Part II of the task force presentation, it sought to answer the question: “Who do we want to be?” 

  1. We want to be different, and we know if we are going to achieve this, then we are going to have to be very intentional. 
  2. We want to be a church that is more ministry minded, not a church based on programs. 
  3. We want to be a church that ministers outside the walls of its building. 
  4. We want to be qualitative not quantitative. 
  5. We want to be challenged intellectually, seeking a good balance of head and heart. 
  6. We want to reach out to the community. 

To support these goals, the church voted to give 15% of every dollar to missions outside the walls of the church and in the community. It also hired an educated, full-time pastor even before having a building. 

NorthHaven was never a large church, and from our earliest days, we made a conscious choice to prize quality over quantity. We’ve always been a quirky church who was self-aware and content with the strange place that we inhabit in the religious landscape of Oklahoma- even taking steps to protect that uniqueness. 

Today, 17 years after NorthHaven’s task force gave its report, we have the opportunity to look back and see both how far we’ve come and where we were pulled off course. 

We remain a moderate and progressive Baptist church at no small cost and despite forces trying to pull us in other directions. Members who joined because we affirm women, left because they didn’t like how we talk about racism or Christian Nationalism. Yet through it all, we’ve maintained and reaffirmed our identity, even explicitly extending the hand of fellowship to our LGBTQ family members. 

Today, imagining 15% of our budget going to missions seems like a dream. Since you brought me on staff in 2018, we’ve given only 4% and 5% to missions annually. Those of you on committees know how rarely our conversations are able to focus on anything outside the building and in the community. 

Church consultants say that a church needs to reassess and reaffirm its mission and vision every 5 years or so. 

Have we become who we aimed to be? Do those goals still apply to us? Where have we fallen short, where have we outgrown them, and where can we improve in the next 5 years? 

Consultants also observe that around the 20 year mark is where churches tend to either veer off course or come into adulthood, so to speak. That’s where we are today. Standing at a crossroads and once again asking ourselves, “who do we want to become?” 

Do we still hold the values that we asserted 17 years ago? 

On top of everything else, we are in a season of decline and depression as a church- just like nearly every other religious congregation in America. These last two years have been hard. And harder on us than many others. But this is actually really good news in the grand scheme of things. It gives us the opportunity and the crisis necessary to reimagine who we are as a congregation and recommit to our core values. 

Here’s a graph I really like about the life cycle of  congregations:

In the life of a church, the point of decline is also the very same point where rebirth is possible. (Is it an accident that we’re talking about Nicodemus being born again in worship this week!?) It’s a profoundly spiritual and Christian truth. Death leads to resurrection and new life. It is in dying that the Christian lives. So it is with churches. 

We are in a moment of death and rebirth.

Here’s the graph showing our current giving data that Ginger Elliot Teague created for church conference in January:

We have a disturbing disparity in our giving data. That little blue line on the faaarrr right of the graph is 90+ years old. Add to it the fact that an even larger contributor died in 2020. 

Here’s another graph Ginger put together of our budget from 2018, when both of those givers were still actively contributing, alongside our 2021 budget. 

As you can see, our missions giving was already 10% lower by 2018 than our 2004 commitment of 15%. And that 2018 budget included over $100,000 more than our 2021 budget. Since 2018 we’ve decreased staff by more than $60,000 and slashed church ministries and programs by nearly $20,000. We increased missions giving from $17,000 in 2018 & 2019 to $22,000 in 2020, but very quickly reduced it again in 2021. 

To give a little perspective, our median giver donated $2000 in 2021. That means half our givers donate more and half give less. In order to replace the two largest givers that I described, NorthHaven needs 105 new givers (or new families). That’s simply to return to a budget that looks more like the 2018 budget that gave 5% to missions. 

NorthHaven has never been that large, and because of the choices we’ve made, we’re unlikely to ever be that large.

17 years ago, we chose quality over quantity. We chose to be our unique selves knowing that would make us a niche church. We choose to remain moderate and progressive in Oklahoma knowing it isn’t the most popular option. 

Today, we’re faced again with the opportunity to reaffirm these commitments (both their privileges and their liabilities) or to re-envision who we are and who we want to be.

I think we are still that same church who met 17 years ago and dreamed of a different kind of community in Norman. Who we are hasn’t died. Who we are as a congregation is stronger and more alive than ever before. 

What’s passing away is the how. 

How we are able to be an “inclusive family of Christ followers” is dying away very quickly, but God is providing new ways for us to be faithful witnesses in our time and place even now. And we get to partner with God in the creation of this new thing that God is doing with NorthHaven Church. 

Our rebirth is just on the horizon, and somedays I can see it. I can see artists gathered showcasing their paintings at the art-walk. I can see homeless people at our door received bags of groceries and clean clothes. I can see politicians and religious leaders sharing a meal and dreaming about a more just city. I can see college students who hear an inclusive gospel articulated for the very first time that is both biblical and Christ-like. 

We’re right in the middle of rebirth. Right now. And anyone who has given birth or witnessed that miracle knows it is a painful process. Sometimes slow. Sometimes twinged with grief or even remorse. Always significant. Never to be taken lightly. 

Our rebirth won’t be without pain. It won’t happen quickly. We have to push. It won’t be easy. But NorthHaven, there is no one else I want to share this moment with. No one else I want beside me in times as difficult and special as these. 

What is being born in us and through us during these difficult days is going to be something truly remarkable. I believe.  

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

Why I Didn’t Do a Stewardship Series This Year

2021 was the first year since you called me to NorthHaven Church as your pastor that we didn’t have a stewardship sermon series in the Fall. In the year when our financial challenges are the most severe, you may want to know why.

There’s a story in the Gospel of Luke (21:1-4) we call The Widow’s Mite. Jesus and his disciples are in the temple watching rich people dump bucket loads of coins into the collection pots. Then, a widow comes forward and puts her last two coins into the collection. Jesus tells his disciples, “this poor widow put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Often, this story is told as a way to inspire people to give sacrificially. It’s true, Jesus honors the woman, and it’s also true that we are commanded to give sacrificially. It’s not a suggestion. That’s an interpretation not to overlook. What is frequently overlooked is the context in which this story is told. Luke gives us some heavy handed clues on another compelling way to interpret it.

Immediately before the widow’s story, Jesus warns about the teachers of the law in the temple and synagogues whose religion is for show since they devour widow’s houses. The temple in that day was not only the religious center of the Jewish world but also the economic center. Women were forbidden property ownership except on very rare occasions. If a man died without a son to inherit his property, then instead of passing to the wife, the property went to the temple. The temple got rich this way, and the teachers of the law provided the theological justification for this ungodly practice. 

After Jesus warns of this temple system and its leaders who rob widows, the very next story is about our poor widow giving away her last two coins. It’s an illustration of exactly what Jesus just warned about! This widow is being manipulated out of her last penny by an unjust religious system.

In case Luke’s interpretation isn’t clear enough, he follows the widow’s story with another telling story. While still in the temple, the disciples comment on how lavish and luxurious the temple building is. Jesus responds by proclaiming condemnation on the temple- the system and the building itself. He goes so far as to say that no two bricks will be left on top of one another. Utter destruction. It comes to pass in 70 A.D.

The interpretation Luke suggests is perfectly clear: religious systems that take from those who don’t have it to give are robbers, opposed by God, and they have no future. 

I didn’t do a stewardship campaign this year because I take seriously this warning in the widow’s story. 

If you read the State of Our Church Address, then you see how NorthHaven is financially overextended and the steps we’re taking to correct it. Our primary problem isn’t a giving problem. For the most part, NorthHaven is filled with faithful givers. What we have is a spending problem, and I have a righteous fear of God that we will be judged for how we talk about money during this time.

When organizations struggle, it’s a temptation for anxious leaders to become manipulative about money. To badger and pressure or coerce people into giving more and more and more. NorthHaven’s leadership is committed to a different path. 

We’re committed to open and honest conversations about money and about our financial situation, because we know that we will be held accountable. 

Are we still an organization worth giving toward sacrificially? 

More than ever before. 

The way our leadership is handling these conversations and the transparency with which they operate convinces me that NorthHaven Church is more in line with my values than even I knew.

What our church stands for and the work we do matters. You know that or you wouldn’t be getting this letter. Our mission to create an inclusive community is more prophetic now than any other time in my life. And despite all the challenges, I’m more optimistic about our ability to be that prophetic witness than I’ve ever been. NorthHaven’s brightest days are ahead of us. I believe. 

That’s why my household is increasing our planned giving for the 2022 year. It won’t be by much, but it will be sustainable. I hope you will join me by using this as an opportunity to make a tangible recommitment to the mission of our church. 

If you can’t- if what you’re already giving is all you can give, then please do not increase giving even a dime. Remember the widow. While others gave out of their wealth, she gave out of her poverty. In the eyes of the kingdom, she gave more than anyone else. 

Jakob Topper 

Senior Pastor

State of the Church Address 12.31.2021

Nearly two decades ago a group of moderate and progressive Baptist dreamers gathered to pray about the future of the Church in Norman, Oklahoma. They dared to let themselves envision a church without divided loyalties, who didn’t have to cow-toe around the Southern Baptists, but could live fully into who God was calling them to be. 

In the years to come, that dream materialized. NorthHaven Church was birthed as a Cooperative Baptist church not fighting to preserve a misremembered past but living into God’s future. A future where all of God’s children are welcomed and included with love and mercy for one another without any caveats or asterisks. 

Nearly 20 years later, we’re still working to materialize that dream each day. This year, our executive committee voted to clarify that when our mission statement says “NorthHaven is an inclusive community” we really mean it. Male or female, gay or straight, all are children of God, and by God’s grace, all are equally deserving of all the rights and responsibilities of the NorthHaven Church family.

For the third year in a row, we’ve set a new record high for how much money we’ve raised and given away in benevolence funds to those lacking basic necessities. 

Today, we have the healthiest church staff I’ve ever been apart of in my 15 years on church staffs. All of us are united in mission and purpose and are working toward the same goals. 

Pamela and Kaitlyn just celebrated their second anniversary leading our children. We’ve lost too many members over the last two years, but we’ve lost very few families with children in comparison. It’s been our least affected area and is even growing! I’m convinced that the great work Pamela and Kaitlyn are doing is a huge factor contributing to the spiritual health of our church as a whole, not to mention the spiritual formation of our children. 

The inclusive love and kindness that NorthHaven preaches, Kayleigh and Jillian modeled in our youth department this year. They’ve created a community that is open to all and celebrates all of our gifts and quirks.

It is with great joy that we welcomed Patti Drennan on staff this Fall. Patti has so many talents and treasures that we are only just beginning to learn how to utilize her best. With Patti, the future of worship is only limited by our ability to dream it. 

Sheri continues to be the glue holding all things together and ensuring that the ship is always sea ready. I’ve taken to introducing her as the Chief Operating Officer, and it’s true. Sheri does the lion’s share of building management and administrative work on top of keeping our books and finances in line- freeing me up to do what I do best. 

NorthHaven’s staff is an embarrassment of riches, and I am convinced that our staff is our most valuable asset. It’s not often first time pastors as young as I am are surrounded by staffs as powerful and purposeful as mine is. I am a lucky pastor, and I know it. Whatever God’s future for NHC is, I believe these people are key.

Despite all the challenges of 2019, 2020, and 2021, God continues to create something beautiful at NorthHaven. That we are still here and even thriving in all the ways that count the most is a testimony to God’s grace and NHC’s faithfulness. 

One day we will stand before God and give an account for our work here at NorthHaven during this time, and I believe with full assurance of faith, that in all the ways that matter the most to the kingdom of heaven, we will be found faithful. 

When I do a baby dedication I always pray that God would give the child a good life, not an easy one. That prayer is being answered at NHC. We are doing good, good work, but it has not been easy, and it may not get easier for awhile still.

In early 2020 we buried our dear friend and founding member, Bob Stephenson, who was the benefactor who bought the land and paid for the vast majority of the buildings NHC now inhabits. His annual contributions made it possible for NorthHaven to accomplish things in its first 15 years that no teenage church should have any right to accomplish. There’s no end to our gratitude for Bob, and we miss his wisdom and insight now more than ever. 

When Bob died, the financial profile of our church changed. Bob didn’t believe in giving to endowments, because he’d been burned in the past. He believed in buildings because he said a building appreciates and can always be turned into a liquid asset if needed. Instead of leaving us an endowment after he died, he built us buildings while he was alive and left us with an incredible resource to steward. 

A convergence of factors like Bob’s passing, the pandemic, and others have made meeting our budget goals difficult. We cut our budget by 25% from 2020 to 2021, but have bottomed out on what we can cut without losing staff or removing what little is left of our missions and ministries. 

The Center for Healthy Churches published a rough outline for what a healthy church budget might look like: 

Personnel        50-60%
Facilities          15-25%
Programs         10-15%
Missions         10-20%
Debt                0-5%


NorthHaven’s 2022 Budget looks like this: 

Personnel 51%

Facilities 38%

Programs 3%

Missions 4%

Debt 4%

Not only is our budget unbalanced, but at our December Church Conference, we passed a budget for 2022 that spends $44,000 more than we expect in contributions. We have money in the bank to cover this shortfall next year, but obviously this is no way to run a church long term. 

To exacerbate our financial challenges, our largest giver right now gives $90,000 per year and is over 90 years old. Conceivably, we could be looking at a $134,000 per year deficit in the future if we don’t making large changes. The reality is disquieting, but after all that we’ve been through in the last few years and since NorthHaven’s founding, I believe that God still has a purpose for NorthHaven to live into. God is not finished with us yet. 

That’s why we’ve assembled a building use task force to explore three goals: 

  1. Short-range goal of using our  building to generate income in the amount of $44,000 per year. 
  2. Mid-range goal of using our building to generate income in the amount of $134,000 per year. 
  3. Explore other option in regards to our assets and liabilities. 

More directly, the third goal means that if we cannot find a sustainable way to raise our annual income $44k in the short term and $134k soon after, then what other options are left to us?

Coincidentally, in early December another church here in town approached us and expressed their interest in purchasing our building. They sold their building to the state as a part of the highway expansion and need somewhere else to go. Our executive committee made no commitment whatsoever, but they did decide to get an appraisal on our property so that we will at least know what kind of finances are on the table. 

The last time a valuation of our property was done, it was valued at $8.5 million. Hypothetically, if we sold the building and put that 8.5 million in an endowment that draws 5% interest each year, then we would make $425,000 per year. That’s about $100,000 more per year than our an entire 2022 budget without even considering tithes from members on top of that. 

That doesn’t address any of the challenges of moving or where we would go, but with $425,000 per year, every year, NorthHaven’s existence could be ensured into the distant future. What dreams might God have for us if we had that kind of money to promote God’s inclusive love in Oklahoma? What might our leadership and staff be able to accomplish when we can focus our energies outward instead of inward? 

My goal in saying this isn’t to convince anyone we should sell our building. Maybe we should or maybe we shouldn’t. I’m not quite sure yet. My goal is to articulate that we have a bright future ahead of us no matter what the future holds. NorthHaven isn’t done dreaming. God isn’t finished with us yet. 

I believe the promise God spoke to the Hebrew people in exile is the same one God is speaking to NorthHaven today in our own exilic moment: 

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Whatever may come, I give thanks that we’re meeting these challenges together, church. No one wants to walk through fire, but if we have to do it, then we do it together. 

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

Worth It 11.30.2021


Fear rolled over me as I spun my head around and searched the back seat of my car for the source of mortal terror. 

In the back seat, Hadley screamed like a snake crawled into the car seat with her, but there was no snake. No spider. No boogeyman of any kind, as far as I could tell. 

“Hadley, what is wrong?!” 

“That was my faaavooorite song,” she bawled. 

Before parking the car in front of our house, Hadley sat in the back seat singing along to the cd Pamela and Kaitlin made of the upcoming Christmas play songs (12/10). When I killed the car engine, the song died too, and Hadley bellowed her discontent with all the gusto of a threenager, “NOOOO!!!” 

30 minutes later, she sat on my lap in the driver’s seat singing, “Glory to God in the Highest” at the top of her lungs on our second play through of the entire cd…

Five school children (5-10) singing in class, close-up

Each time a new song came on and I reached to turn the car off, she recited the first line of our now familiar call and response litany: “Just one more, Dada. This one is my favorite.”

Then, I read my line for the 15th time, “okay, just one more song.”

Listening to her sing in a voice she inherited from her father, it occurred to me that Hadley will never know a time that she isn’t loved by God. She won’t have so much of the baggage that my childhood Christianity gave me in its attempt to scare me toward God and away from hell.  

Each week Hadley comes to church and learns that God loves her. She isn’t told that she’s inadequate and broken or that there’s something fundamentally wrong with her that justifies her spending eternity in hell unless she’s a good little girl who can pray enough or behave well enough. 

Hadley and all the rest of our children are told that there’s nothing at all that they can do to make God love them any more or any less. They are already loved beyond measure just as they are. 

Hadley sings out of pure delight, not fear. She’s telling the truth; the next song is her favorite.  It’s the song she’s about to sing that is the most important song in the world. 

Sometimes I take what NorthHaven Church is offering to our children and youth for granted. Because it’s how I believe things should be and because it’s the world Hadley is growing up in, I forget that it is far from common. 

NorthHaven’s message as an inclusive community of Christ followers is uncommon in our world, and our kind of church is an endangered species. Conservation efforts are essential, because our children are worth it. Our children deserve a place to live and love and grow without the threat of God’s violence looming over them. 

That’s why on this Giving Tuesday, I’m asking you to join me in giving a special gift to NorthHaven Church above and beyond our regular tithe. Give to protect and preserve the sacred message that our children are inheriting from us. 

There are a lot of really great organizations asking for your charitable gifts today. I know they’re deserving, and I believe in my bones that NorthHaven is worth it too. Ensuring that the Gospel is preached- God loves all, is in all, and overcomes all- is worth investing in. It’s worth it not only because our children are worth it, but because this world needs it now more than ever. 

We’re a small church, and our reach isn’t what I wish it were, but God willing, I believe we’re raising little missionaries filled with light and life and love, who will grow up and carry the inclusive Gospel of Jesus Christ out into the world. What we’re doing right now matters, and it depends on our generosity to keep the good work going and the Good News proclaimed. We can’t afford to do anything less.

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

Mission Moment 11.16.2021

Last week I posted on Facebook asking y’all to bring coats for adults in need and to donate money so that we can buy new, modest coats for kids in need. A mother from OKC saw the post and drove down with her 6 kids. Her husband died a few years ago and she was struggling to get by. She’d depended on charity from lots of organizations to get by, but until she saw my post, she’d sworn to never again go to another church for help. 

She told me a story about getting coats from a church once only to find mites and bed bugs in two of the coats her kids. Another time, the church wouldn’t help her family until they came to a worship service, so she agreed. Don’t dress too nice, the minister said. So her family went to the service and the minister stood the whole family up on stage so that the church could ogle their charity case and pate themselves on the back for being such good Christians. This mother said she watched her children choke back tears on that stage, and she swore never again would she go to another church for help. The cost was too high. 

But when she saw that we give new coats to kids, she thought she’d give it one more try. So she drove down with her kids, and we went shopping. We picked out nice, new coats for all of her kids and even her, and when they left, she cried. And I cried. 

Justice rolled out of our eyes and righteousness flowed down our cheeks. 

Each coat we put on cold shoulders, each diaper we put on Afghan refugee bottoms, each clean sock on a tired foot, each tear shed in solidarity with the hurting- all drops of water falling in a dessert land. 

Excerpt from the sermon AMOS: Justice Rolls Down preached by Jakob Topper on 11/14/2021 and shared anonymously with consent. 

Mission Moment/Vulnerability and Grace 10.18.2021

One question I (Jakob) started asking people when they come to NorthHaven for benevolence needs is where they go to church. For a long time I neglected to ask, because I didn’t want to come across judgy. I changed my mind though.

I respect the reasons people do not go to church. I even admire some of them, but I still believe everyone’s lives benefit from a loving, healthy spiritual community. 

If a person tells me they do not go to church, I tell them the same thing I just wrote y’all. I try not to be preachy, but I do believe that in life’s biggest challenges- the challenges that bring people to our door in need- a spiritual community can help us get through them. So I’ve started saying so. 

If a person answers that they do go to church, then I ask if they approached their own church for help. Sometimes they say yes but their own church wouldn’t help them. If the church who knows them the most said no, then that’s a conversation I want to have before handing out money. It doesn’t disqualify anyone, but it is cause to dig deeper. 

A few weeks ago, a woman started crying when I asked her if she’d gone to her own church for help. She hadn’t. Why not? I asked. She was too embarrassed, she said. She didn’t want her church to know that she was one of “those people.” 

The conversation was heartbreaking and made me question the way their church thought about poor people in general if this woman was so afraid to be identified as one. I grieved because she couldn’t be honest with her own church family about one of her greatest struggles- one that was in no way her fault.

I hope that she is wrong about her church. I hope that if she trusts her church with her real self and her real struggles, then she will be surprised by their understanding and grace. Maybe even their generosity. But sadly, she was probably right. I believed her and did everything we could to help her.

For a lot of people church isn’t the place to be vulnerable or poor in body or spirit. But if not here, then where? Where else can we find others committed to living an honest human experience with integrity? Where else can we find fellow travelers on this difficult road who believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that God is the mystery and the beauty at the center of it all?

That’s why I loved Lynndi Cox’s prayer so much this Sunday (10/17) in worship. Worship is a place to sing to God with a joyful heart, of course, but lament and grief have just as much right to that space as anything else. It all belongs in the sanctuary of God and at the foot of the cross. 

Honest church community is work. It requires a lot from us that only God can give us, but as Lynndi articulates so well, it’s worth it to keep pressing in.

Here’s her prayer:

“Lord, last time I was up here praying out loud in our church, sometime in late 2019 or early 2020, I asked you to help us to reflect on the ways in which we relied on and trusted in the broken systems, routines, and structures of this world and to help us to trust more in you. Whoops! So, here we are, still very much in the midst of a global pandemic, with the broken systems fully exposed. Our lives have been dramatically adjusted. Many of us are sitting with a lot of anger, frustration, and anxiety. Our friendships, family relationships, and patience have been tested by the events of the last few years. I can’t speak for everyone, but for some sitting here today (or at home), the experience has been isolating. It has been hard to cling to faith and hope. It has been hard to keep showing up, to keep reaching out to others and to you. So, today, I ask you to help us to find the strength to keep showing up. To keep trying. To keep connecting. To keep listening for your voice calling us in the night. Then, when we hear you, give us the courage to respond and act according to your will. 

Thank you for the gift that is NorthHaven. May we continue to be a community that loves, encourages, and supports each other as we try to follow Christ’s example.